F ROM P Ranch to Winnemucca is a seventeen-day drive through a desert of rim rock and greasewood and sage, which, under the most favorable of conditions, is beset with difficulty; but which, in the dry season, and with a herd of anything like four thousand, becomes an unbroken hazard. More than anything else on such a drive is feared the wild herd-spirit, the quick black temper of the cattle, that by one sign or another ever threatens to break the spell of the rider's power and sweep the maddened or terrorized herd to destruction. The handling of the herd to keep this spirit sleeping is ofttimes a thrilling experience.
Some time before my visit to P Ranch, in Harney County, southeastern Oregon, in the summer of 1912, the riders had taken out a herd of four thousand steers on what proved to be one of the most difficult drives ever made to Winnemucca, the shipping station in northern Nevada.
For the first two days on the trail the cattle were strange to each other, having been gathered from widely distant grazing-grounds,—from the Double O and the Home ranches,—and were somewhat clannish and restive under the driving. At the beginning of the third day signs of real ugliness appeared. The hot weather and a shortage of water began to tell on the temper of the herd.
The third day was long and exceedingly hot. The line started forward at dawn and all day long kept moving, with the sun cooking the bitter smell of sage into the air, and with the sixteen thousand hoofs kicking up a still bitterer smother of alkali dust that inflamed eyes and nostrils and coated the very lungs of the cattle. The fierce desert thirst was upon the herd long before it reached the creek where it was to bed for the night. The heat and the dust had made slow work of the driving, and it was already late when they reached the creek—only to find it dry.
This was bad. The men were tired. But, worse, the cattle were thirsty, and Wade, the "boss of the buckaroos," pushed the herd on toward the next rim rock, hoping to get down to the plain below to water before the end of the slow desert twilight. Anything for the night but a dry camp.
They had hardly started on when a whole flank of the herd, as if by prearrangement, suddenly breaking away and dividing about two of the riders, tore off through the brush. The horses were as tired as the men, and before the chase was over the twilight was gray in the sage and it became necessary to halt at once and make camp where they were. They would have to go without water.
The runaways were brought up and the herd closed in till it formed a circle nearly a mile around. This was as close as it could be drawn, for the cattle would not bed—lie down. They wanted water more than they wanted rest. Their eyes were red, their tongues raspy with thirst. The situation was a serious one.
But camp was made. Two of the riders were sent back along the trail to bring up the "drags," while Wade with his other men circled the uneasy cattle, closing them in, quieting them, and doing everything possible to make them bed.
But they were thirsty, and, instead of bedding, the herd began to "growl"—a distant mutter of throats, low, rumbling, ominous, as when faint thunder rolls behind the hills. Every plainsman fears the growl, for it usually is a prelude to the "milling," as it proved to be now, when the whole vast herd began to stir, slowly, singly, and without direction, till at length it moved together, round and round, a great compact circle, the multitude of clicking hoofs, of clashing horns, and chafing sides like the sound of rushing rain across a field of corn.
Nothing could be worse for the cattle. The cooler twilight was falling, but, mingling with it, rose and thickened and spread the choking dust from their feet that soon covered them and shut out all but the dark wall of the herd from sight.
Slowly, evenly swung the wall, round and round without a break. Only one who has watched a milling herd can know its suppressed excitement. To keep that excitement in check was the problem of Wade and his men. And the night had not yet begun.
When the riders had brought in the drags and the chuck-wagon had lumbered up with supper, Wade set the first watch.
Along with the wagon had come the fresh horses—and Peroxide Jim, a supple, powerful, clean-limbed buckskin, that had, I think, as fine and intelligent an animal-face as any I ever saw. And why should he not have been saved fresh for just such a need as this? Are there not superior horses to match superior men—a Peroxide Jim to complement a Wade and so combine a real centaur, noble physical power controlled by noble intelligence? At any rate, the horse understood the situation, and though there was nothing like sentiment about the boss of the P Ranch riders, his faith in Peroxide Jim was complete.
The other night horses were saddled and tied to the wheels of the wagon. It was Wade's custom to take his turn with the second watch; but, shifting his saddle to Peroxide Jim, he rode out with the four of the first watch, who, evenly spaced, were quietly circling the herd.
The night, for this part of the desert, was unusually warm; it was close, silent, and without a sky. The near thick darkness blotted out the stars. There is usually a breeze at night over these highest rim-rock plains that, no matter how hot the day, crowds the cattle together for warmth. To-night not a breath stirred the sage as Wade wound in and out among the bushes, the hot dust stinging his eyes and caking rough on his skin.
Round and round moved the weaving, shifting forms, out of the dark and into the dark, a gray spectral line like a procession of ghosts, or some slow morris of the desert's sheeted dead. But it was not a line, it was a sea of forms; not a procession, but the even surging of a maelstrom of hoofs a mile around.
Wade galloped out on the plain for a breath of air and a look at the sky. A quick cold rain would quiet them; but there was no feel of rain in the darkness, no smell of it in the air. Only the powdery taste of bitter sage.
The desert, where the herd had camped, was one of the highest of a series of tablelands, or benches, that lay as level as a floor, and rimmed by a sheer wall of rock over which it dropped to the bench of sage below. The herd had been headed for a pass, and was now halted within a mile of the rim rock on the east, where there was about three hundred feet of perpendicular fall.
It was the last place an experienced plainsman would have chosen for a camp; and every time Wade circled the herd and came in between the cattle and the rim, he felt its nearness. The darkness helped to bring it near. The height of his horse brought it near—he seemed to look down from his saddle over it, into its dark depths. The herd in its milling was surely warping slowly in the direction of the precipice. But this was all fancy—the trick of the dark and of nerves, if a plainsman has nerves.
At twelve o'clock the first guard came in and woke the second watch. Wade had been in his saddle since dawn, but this was his regular watch. More than that, his trained ear had timed the milling hoofs. The movement of the herd had quickened.
If now he could keep them going and could prevent their taking any sudden fright! They must not stop until they stopped from utter weariness. Safety lay in their continued motion. So Wade, with the fresh riders, flanked them closely, paced them, and urged them quietly on. They must be kept milling, and they must be kept from fright.
In the taut silence of the starless desert night, with the tension of the cattle at the snapping-point, any quick, unwonted sight or sound would stampede the herd—the sneezing of a horse, the flare of a match, enough to send the whole four thousand headlong—blind, frenzied, tramping—till spent and scattered over the plain.
And so, as he rode, Wade began to sing. The rider ahead of him took up the air and passed it on, until, above the stepping stir of the hoofs, rose the faint voices of the men, and all the herd was bound about by the slow, plaintive measure of some old song. It was not to soothe their savage breasts that the riders sang to the cattle, but to prevent the shock of any loud or sudden noise.
So they sang and rode, and the night wore on to one o'clock, when Wade, coming up on the rim-rock side, felt a cool breeze fan his face, and caught a breath of fresh, moist wind with the taste of water in it.
He checked his horse instantly, listening as the wind swept past him over the cattle. But they must already have smelled it, for they had ceased their milling. The whole herd stood motionless, the indistinct forms nearest him showing, in the dark, their bald faces lifted to drink the sweet wet breath that came over the rim. Then they started again, but faster, and with a rumbling from their hoarse throats that tightened Wade's grip on his reins.
The sound seemed to come out of the earth, a low, rumbling mumble, as deep as the night and as wide as the plain, a thick, inarticulate bellow that stood every rider stiff in his stirrups.
The breeze caught the dust and carried it back from the gray-coated, ghostly shapes, and Wade saw that they were still moving in a circle. If only he could keep them going! He touched his horse to ride on with them, when across the black sky flashed a vivid streak of lightning.
There was a snort from the steers, a quick clap of horns and hoofs from within the herd, a tremor of the plain, a roar, a surging mass—and Wade was riding the flank of a wild stampede. Before him, behind him, beside him, pressing hard upon his horse, galloped the frenzied steers, and beyond them a multitude, borne on, and bearing him on, by the heave of the galloping herd.
Wade was riding for his life. He knew it. His horse knew it. He was riding to turn the herd, too,—back from the rim,—as the horse also knew. The cattle were after water—water-mad—and would go over the precipice to get it, carrying horse and rider with them.
Wade was the only rider between the herd and the rim. It was black as death. He could see nothing in the sage, could scarcely discern the pounding, panting shadows at his side; but he knew by the swish of the brush and the plunging of the horse that the ground was growing stonier, that they were nearing the rocks.
To outrun the cattle seemed his only chance. If he could come up with the leaders he might yet head them off upon the plain and save the herd. There were cattle still ahead of him,—how many, what part of the herd, he could not tell. But the horse knew. The reins hung on his straight neck, while Wade, yelling and firing into the air, gave him the race to win, to lose.
Suddenly they veered and went high in the air, as a steer plunged headlong into a draw almost beneath his feet. They cleared the narrow ravine, landed on bare rock, and reeled on.
They were riding the rim. Close on their left bore down the flank of the herd, and on their right, under their very feet, was the precipice, so close that they felt its blackness—its three hundred feet of fall.
A piercing, half-human bawl of terror told where a steer had been crowded over. Would the next leap crowd them over too? Then Wade found himself racing neck and neck with a big white steer, which the horse, with marvelous instinct, seemed to pick from a bunch, and to cling to, forcing him gradually ahead, till, cutting him free from the bunch entirely, he bore him off into the sage.
Neck and neck with a big white steer.
The group coming on behind followed the leader, and after them swung others. The tide was turning. Within a short time the whole herd had veered, and, bearing off from the cliffs, was pounding over the open plains.
Whose race was it? It was Peroxide Jim's, according to Wade, for not by word or by touch of hand or knee had he been directed in the run. From the flash of the lightning the horse had taken the bit, had covered an indescribably perilous path at top speed, had outrun the herd and turned it from the edge of the rim rock, without a false step or a shaken nerve.
Bred on the desert, broken in at the round-up, trained to think steer as the rider thinks it, the horse knew, as swiftly, as clearly as his rider, the work before him. But that he kept himself from fright, that none of the wild herd-madness passed into him, is a thing for great wonder. He was as thirsty as any of the herd; he knew his own peril, I believe, as none of the herd had ever known anything, and yet such coolness, courage, wisdom, and power!
Was it training? Superior intelligence? More intimate association with the man on his back, and so a farther remove from the wild thing that domestication does not seem to touch? Or was it all by suggestion, the superior intelligence above him riding, not only the flesh, but the spirit?
Not all suggestion, I believe. Perhaps a herd of horses could not be stampeded so easily as these P Ranch cattle. In this race, however, nothing of the wild herd-spirit touched the horse. Had the cattle been horses, would Peroxide Jim have been able to keep himself outside the stampede and above the spirit of the herd?