Like people, cattle sometimes have to be evicted.
Real estate management people are familiar with a legal procedure called “pay or vacate.” It involves a formal notice, a waiting period, and then eviction of tenants by whatever means necessary to return the property to the use of its lawful owners.
Ranchers have their own version of this ritual. Usually it’s a fairly orderly process of gathering and shipping cattle off the range.
But sometimes a few head are overlooked, or a couple might desert the herd as it gets close to wing fences and corrals. Cattle that have evaded a gather several times get harder and harder to handle, and almost impossible to move into a set of pens.
Such was the case on the SS Ranch in east-central Colorado.
Ranch manager Joe Mingus had asked me to go along on a cleanup operation in the fall of 1995. Regular shipping was all done, but there were a few head of bunch-quitters still at large.
When you’re handling a lot of cattle, you sometimes have to let a few go to avoid losing the whole works. Each time this happens, unfortunately, you are training those few to be outlaws.
Coincidentally, the SS Ranch and the buildings where owner Bill Dawson lives are close to the site of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, where more than 100 Cheyennes and Arapahos, mostly women and children, died at the hands of Colorado militiamen.
The day began with trailers parked along a gravel road. As I left my truck and ambled up toward the men gathered at the head of the line, I was inspired to walk a big arc around the truck hooked to Art Fox’s trailer.
He and son Cody had two tough-looking horses in the trailer, but on the back of the truck they had two tougher looking dogs: Catahoulas. I did not pet them. They did not care.
Joe and I had got acquainted through his poetry (“The Mountains of Time,” on the 1996 Cowboy Calendar). He’d visited the office, and I’d learned that unlike writers who search for inspiration by gazing out a window, Joe gets his inspiration from the windy, cold, wet side of the window.
In addition to Joe, his regular riding partner Jack Dixon, Art, and Cody, there was Joe’s friend Milt Watts, who had brought a team roping horse who needed to see some country. I had brought along a polo horse so I could get out of the way in a hurry.
The plains of eastern Colorado are pretty open, and we could see one batch of outlaw cattle from the road.
The Catahoula dogs were a key part of the plan. These are not your usual get-behind-and-nip-heels cowdogs. Catahoulas are the law-enforcement type. The rest of us were still bridling horses when Art turned the dogs loose and aimed them at the cows.
But he explained that it was better to let the dogs and cows come to an understanding before we joined in.
It looked more like a war to me.
After a suitable amount of bellerin’ and barkin’, we rode up toward the cows, spreading out. At a strategic distance, we stopped. The dogs teach the cows that there is a speed limit. We would start moving them, and if they broke into a trot or tried to scales, cass would attack them from the front, forcing them to slow and bunch up.
We had about 3 miles to go before we could start using fences to direct them into the selected pens, so it was a gradual process. But things proceeded fairly well for most of that distance.
When we got within a half-mile of the wing fences leading to the pens, though, hostilities resumed.
The boss cow forted up and drew her line in the sand. She wasn’t goin’ any closer to the pens. She had a hide full of mad and she would charge and hook anything that tried to move her.
At this point, I can only speculate that Art had gotten a little light headed as the day warmed, because it seemed that he might be confusing the cow with his female dog, Sky. Because when Joe asked him whether he thought we were going to get the entire bunch into the pens, Art, who had his horse facing the cow, replied:
“Oh, they’re going in there all right… and so are you, you bitch.” Whereupon he flung a loop that settled not on the female dog, but on the warlike cow’s horns.
Things speeded up right after that. Art turned off, Cody and Milt spurred in and stacked two more loops on the cow. Joe and Jack hustled the remainder of the cattle to the pens. Then the newly formed quartet took off at a pretty good lope toward, and eventually into, the pens. I’ll have to say that the cow was cross-firing a little, but she seemed to be learning as she went.
The cow was no quitter, though. Once they had dragged her through the gate into the first corral, there remained the problem of getting loose and getting out without perforations. She quickly realized that while she couldn’t get away from them, the reverse was just as true. Joe quit his horse and did some bullfighter maneuvers on the ground to lure her into smaller pens.
Finally, the crew had to trick her all the way into a solid-walled crowding chute to get the ropes off her.
The rest of the little bunch weren’t too hard to pen without the boss cow.
After a breathing spell, we left the pens and dropped into the creck bottom, following the westward route the troops led by Col. J.M. Chivington had used to approach the Cheyenne camp 130 years ago. There are lots of trees there now, but in 1864 there weren’t any. Joe said that old-timers in the area tell about riding along here and occasionally having a horse stumble over a caved-in grave. Eventually, we sighted the second bunch of fugitive cattle. This group of eight had an even bigger cow in charge. Again, Art counseled the rest of us to hold back while the dogs moved in and went a few rounds.
The shortest route back to the pens would have been along the creek hottom, but Joe knew from past encounters that these cattle would hold course until the creek turned heneath some bluffs, then some would break for the top and open country.
By this point the two dogs were tired out some, and the cattle still were trotty.
And so was the magazine cowboy. Usually on a deal like this, I ask the real cowboys to holler at me if I’m in the wrong place. I had failed to do that on this morning.
So when a whiteface heifer peeled off the trail and accelerated up the hill I went helling after her. And I got beside her, and I got ahead of her, then I got ahead of her some more. Then we went over the hill, just like she had intended to do.
Joe had tactfully explained to me that these cattle no longer respected horses. And I should have known that it was the dogs job to head her off. I had not waited for the dogs. I had been in a real hurry to embarrass myself. l eased back to the rest of the riders. I looked at Art and said, “Did I mess up there, getting ahead of the dogs?”
Art didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
We trailed the bunch for another mile or so, eventually bending them around on the same course the first bunch had taken. But the showdown with the boss cow came a little earlier this time. I missed some of that because I was helping to push the less warlike ones on into the pens.
Joe and Milt had roped and tied down a reluctant heifer back on the bluffs. After another 30-minute war, Art, Cody, and Milt roped and tied down another warlike cow and her calf. We came back with a trailer and loaded those three with ropes up through the walls of the trailer.
The last chore was picking up a dogie calf down along Sand Creek. He was lonesome, and Cody had him broke to lead beside a horse by the time we came back into the pens. The calf made the day’s tally seven cows and eight calves.
It was early afternoon by then, and Bill Dawson took us all to eat in the best cafe in Sheridan Lake, Colorado. Art drove us over there, and along the way he told me more about his experiences gathering wild cattle off the government land around Mesa Verde National Monument over in southwestern Colorado. Art has recently moved to the Chivington area, and he buys and sells horses, day-works, and does custom doctoring and branding (719-729-3494).
Art’s business card concludes with the phrase “problem cattle caught.” Art, Cody, and Joe are the sort who carry “catch” ropes instead of “throw” ropes. Joe carries two, and Art and Cody carry three.
We talked horses, weather, and noted that the fall days were getting shorter. Art just hates that because he works outside and runs out of daylight before he wants to. Then he has to go inside.
He’d rather be out capturing bad cattle.
“I ain’t,” Art said, “very housey.”
Author’s note: In a follow-up phone call, Joe wanted to express his thanks to the cowboys who helped “make the pastures look a lot more pastoral.”
This article was originally published in the February 1996 issue of Western Horseman.