Thursday, September 27, 2007


Some of the songs were lullabies learned as a child, some were hymns learned at church and some were made up. A good night horse was important to the night guard. Its eyes need to be sharper than those of a day horse. It needed to be calm, not inclined to shy at shadows or sudden noise. It needed to be able to gallop at night without putting a foot into a prairie-dog hole. And, it needed to be able to handle cattle boldly in case of a stampede. This was critical for on the trail nighttime was stampede time.

Nights of lightning and rain seemed to tighten the cattle’s nerves to the point of stampede. Then the cannon shot of prairie thunder would set them off. But even on clear, tranquil nights ordinary things, such as a coyote’s yelp, a horse’s whinny, or the flare of a match as a cowboy lit a cigarette could start a stampede. On one drive a shred from a cowboy’s pouch of tobacco lodged in a steer’s eye setting off a raging charge that resulted in the death of two riders and the loss of 400 cows. Occasionally the herd would take off for no apparent reason at all. A herd that had broken once or twice was always likely to go again and again. Joseph McCoy wrote that in a number of herds a half a dozen troublemakers might take a “chronic fright from which they never recover. They would rather run then eat, anytime. The stampeders may be seen close together at all times, as if consulting how to raise Cain and get off with a burst of speed. It is actually economy to shoot down a squad of the vicious stampeders.”

Oddly, when cattle stampeded they uttered no sound at all. A trail hand sleeping off-watch would suddenly be aware of a deep rumbling, a trembling of the sod beneath him. The longhorns ran with surprising speed. Their hooves pounding the ground and their horns clashing as they thundered along. Two or three cowboys, usually the best riders, would spur hard to get out in front of the stampede. Then depending solely on “the sureness of the horse’s feet to keep from changing hells,” they reined back to try to slow the charge. Other hands would ride at one side of the point pressing in to turn the herd. Sometimes they flailed their slickers in the faces of the leaders, or fired their six-shooters near their ears to get them to turn. The leaders might dodge and go down, trampled to death. After three of four terrifying miles the cattle usually began to circle, then mill. For the hands this was the most dangerous time with the cows jammed together so close that a trapped horseman might be jostled from his horse. At the end of one stampede near the Blue River in Nebraska, the horrified cowboys came upon the remains of a comrade who had fallen to the ground. Nothing was left but a gun butt.

Usually the only harm done on a stampede though was to the animals and the cattleman’s profits. In a four-mile run on a hot night a beef could lose up to 50 pounds and the spooky herd would arrive at the railhead looking mighty stringy and unpalatable to the buyers. Worse yet were the number of cattle lost. In the thunder of a stampede cattle bruised, crushed and gored one another. In the worst stampede in history, in July 1876, a big herd plunged into a gully near the Brazos River in Texas, the leaders crushed by those behind. When it was over 2,000 steers were either dead or missing.

Edited by Fighting Eagle

Source: The Old West by Time Life Books

1 comment:

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