Poking the glowing campfire coals with an arm lengths stick, the old man in the group of twelve saddle sore greenhorns started telling his tale.
“Yup,” he said, “I was no older than you all when I was hired onto my first trail drive. Ummm, let’s see now, that was probably back in ’67 or ‘68. Well, no matter, it was sometime during the Southern reconstruction period as I recall. Here in Texas, lots of abandoned cattle were lyin’ about with no owners ‘cause we couldn’t get ‘em to our southern market back then. The Union Army had all our rail heads secured ‘an since they couldn’t be sold off, folks in Texas just walked away an’ let ‘em run wild.”
“ After the war ended though, smart folks began rounding ‘em up again and head’n ‘em off up North where the post war beef prices were high. Some of these original cattle trails were over a thousand miles long back then. This was before the dreaded onset of Texas cattle fever. Joe McCoy got the Union Pacific to continue the railroad deep into rural Kansas where Texas folks could drive their tick infested cattle without fear of irate farmers puttin’ lead into ‘em for doin’ so. Old Joe’s idea worked and the Texans rerouted the trails into Abilene rather than Kansas City. It saved the trail drive and every Texas boy of five and older dreamed of joining up with an outfit as a cowboy an’ I was no different. After much belly aching, my brother Tom and I had finally been given the nod by our Parents to join up with our Uncle Leroy on a cattle drive forming south out of Laredo. The deal was, we was to give up half our earnings to our Ma and Pa in return for lettin’ us go. Funds were tight an’ an extra forty dollars a month they would get was a Godsend to the household. My family hailed from north Texas here up in Washburn about a half days ride east of Amarillo so we had to head south first. Tom and I bein’ but fifteen an’ seventeen, me bein’ the younger, had us a hell of a hard weeks ride all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s where we finally met up with Uncle Leroy’s Diamond D group on the south shore of Salt Lagoon in Nueces County. Neither Tom nor I had ever ridden more than twenty miles in one day back home so tripling that distance each day shore put some big blisters on our hides! But, we didn’t care, we was going to be honest to gosh real Texas cowboys! Uncle Leroy was the trail boss on the Diamond D’s drive to Abilene in Kansas and we naively thought he’d catch us a break, him being a blood relative an’ all. Twern’t the case though, we quick like found out we had to haul our own weight.”
As the night closed in and all the boys were hunkered down around the night’s campfire, twelve sets of the young greenhorn’s eyes were glued onto the face of the old man. Each knew they were staring at the face of living history. This was an honest to goodness, pistol toting wrangler that was made so famous in the dime novels and recent moving sound pictures. Each young man knew they were the bridge between the past and the future.
With one foot still found in a saddles stirrup (as yet the most common way means of getting to town), the other was found planted excitedly in a new 1938 Buick Special having power brakes while experiencing a joy ride on a bustling cities asphalt roadway.
This group of young men had been signed up by their parents at a working dude ranch halfway between Tucumcari and Amarillo near the New Mexico and Texas border for the summer. For three months they would be removed from the future and placed back into past as they learned to rope and ride and experience the joys and sorrows of a boy’s summer camp.
All of them except for the old man, had been born shortly after the Great European war we now call WWI. Little would they know that they would soon have their rural Western innocence stolen by another brewing conflict in a war that will be known afterward as ‘The war to end all wars’ or WWII. But that can wait for now, the boys this night sat wide eyed listening to the adventures of a real old west cowboy that no moving picture could ever capture on film.
The stark contrast between young and old gave fertilizer to a tale nearly forgotten except by those old Texans still alive; that of the famous brindle cow of Amarillo.
“Indeed”, the old man told them, “ lookin’ back, that trail drive was a turning point in my life. By the time I quit the trails years later, I had changed from a wide eyed boy thinkin’ he knew it all into a man who had discovered not only himself but got a backbone stiffened with Texas pride too. Oh don’t get me wrong, Folks always have a certain pride of where they come. High points like Old Sam Houston, the Alamo and even the likes of Charlie Goodnight make a fella’ puff up in tellin’ others about ‘em. But for me an a group of cowpokes on the trail, our pride of Texas come from one of the most ornery, bullsnippity, evil eyed and stubborn Texas creatures we ever run into, a Texas Longhorn brindle cow! Now mind you, this weren’t no ordinary run a the mill Texas Longhorn brindle cow. NO Sir! This thing breathed fire!”
One of the youngsters sitting on his haunches laughingly took the old man to task, “C’mon “Mister Carson!” He shouted, “A tale’s a tale but a fire breathing cow? We may be wet behind the ears but we ain’t prone to believing stories like that, we’re too grown up and besides, were too modern for such tales as the tooth fairy and such!”
The old man rubbed his weathered face with the palm of his hand then ran his boney tanned fingers through his Brylcreem glossed grey hair. “Now if you’ll just hold onto your pants young fella an’ let me finish what I was sayin’, I’ll explain so even a grown up ‘modern’ boy like yerself can understand.”
The others jeered the young man for interrupting the tale bringing him to repentance. “I apologize Mister Carson. Go ahead and continue with your tale.”
Well I’m so glad I got your permission to do so son” He replied as he rose off the stump he had been sitting on and bending in a deep bow, with much bravado, he placed his hat over his heart as if appearing before royalty. The other boys sitting around the campfire thought this was hilarious of the old man and broke into playful derision’s of their comrade.
After all the boys calmed a mite, the group begged for the continuation of the story knowing sack time wouldn’t be required until the old man told his tale..
The old man simply known as Carson winked friendly at the derided boy, cleared his throat and continued speaking.
As I was sayin’, this here brindle cow weren’t no ordinary bovine! She had an intelligence superior to that of many men I’ve ridden on the trail with and you speak of courage? Why she didn’t have a ‘fraidy bone in her! Now it’s getting’ on towards your bunk time so I’ll only mention a few of her more memorable feats that made her famous to us old timers before we turn in.”
Returning back to the stump he had earlier abandoned, he scooched his rear end back and forth across the top of the worn stump until satisfied he was as comfortable as any butt on a stump would ever achieve.
When my brother Tom an’ I finally met up with the Diamond D herd along the banks of the Salt lagoon, we were just in time for some well needed dinner. Our Uncle Leroy gave introductions all the way around to those assembled an’ then told the men they wasn’t to treat us any different than any other greenhorn… relations or no. He wouldn’t permit any favoritism and made it mighty clear that if we couldn’t cut it, we’d be sent packin’ fer home so fast our heads would spin.
Fortunately the days passed quickly an’ Tom an’ I rode till our blisters boasted blisters atop ‘em. We were ordered to ride drag. By days end we was caked so deep in dust no one could tell us apart. Ridin’ drag was the worst job on the drive since you rode behind nearly three thousand head each with havin’ four hooves. All them hoofs kicked up a storm a dust along with thousands of piles of wet smelly cow plop that rode up your nose as you trudged through n’em.
Well, the first bad crossing came within the first hundred miles at the Nueces River. There is a natural ford with gently sloping banks on both sides near Oakville. It is safe to cross over at there much of the time. For most of the year, the Nueces runs pretty shallow if not near dry but recent rains had her roarin’ like a Biblical flood. By then Tom an’ I had learned that no one actually called our Uncle Leroy, Leroy. Instead he was known as Doodle. Why Doodle? I never found out and see’n that the word doodle brought on negative memories of the school room, I didn’t ask. Anyway’s, Doodle calls us to pull the herd aside a quarter mile from the Nueces near Oakville an’ let the herd graze the fine grass growin’ there. I was put on the second or midnight shift watch so as soon as the chuck was ready, I ate and headed off to sleep. When I awoke, a cup of strong coffee awaited me. A new mount from our remuda of sixty five head was already saddled and cinched tight for me so within minutes of waking I was headed north to the junction of the Fria and Nueces Rivers to make sure none of our herd had wandered off too far from the camp. On my way, it was then that I noticed in the moonlight that one of our cattle had wandered off and was standing alongside the river bank.
“Before we had pulled the cattle aside from the Nueces to graze, we had let them water themselves at a small lagoon that had formed during the high water. This was a safe way to water the herd since it was no more than knee deep.”
“Havin’ cattle wander off to water itself wasn’t unusual but in this case it was a cow that had no indication it wanted to water up. Instead, she stood there upon the sloping bank starin’ down into the rushing water like she was thinkin’. I made my way over to her but before I got there she just looked up at me, snorted and trotted back off to the herd. It made me wonder what had passed through her mind as she stood there.”
“When morning broke, Doodle gathered us around and explained that we’d have to wait until the water receded before attempting a crossing. During the night, a rider from the herd in front of ours had stopped and explained that they had scouted a ford nearly forty miles west on the Nueces and another one twenty five miles north of that on the Fria by the Dulla Ranch. We were advised to trail behind their herd west to the ford they planned on crossing at. This meant that in seven days we’d be on the opposite shore not hundred yards from where we now camped. Doodle threw his hat down in frustration and walked off sayin’ he had to think on matters. The rest of us hands sat pow-wow around the cook fire feelin’ pretty helpless. It was then that we heard the loud bawlin’ of a cow. It turned out to be the same Brindle cow I had observed in the moonlight alongside the Nueces. She was back at the same spot but this time she stood belly deep twenty yards from shore. We ran lickity split to the river with our ropes fearin’ she was about to drown. I guess drownin’ wasn’t on her agenda just then for she turned around and made her way back to the bank safely. She made her way back to the herd but instead of returning to graze she began buttin’ and hornin’ the herd all the while bellowin’ at the top a her lungs!”
“Well after a few jabs from them giant six foot horns, cows and steers alike paid proper attention to her. To our dismay, she began herding the lead group and headed ‘em off in the direction of the river. When she got ‘em on a run we realized she intended to bully them into the Nueces to cross where the ford should have been. We ran back to our horses but by the time we neared the river that brindle cow had brow beat the leaders so bad that they must a decided drowning was preferable to being gored by an angry female! Takin’ her queue, we rode headlong into the rushing dirty water. Doodle had walked off to such a distance that he wasn’t aware of what the herd was doing until the near end of the herd began to move. Reaching his mount, he galloped bareback to the river holding on for dear life by her withers.”
By now the boys were sitting up wide eyed and jaw dropped.
“I never saw such a thing! Why that brindle cow was swimmin’ back an’ forth proddin’ those cattle with them big horns of hers until they reached the other side of the bank. Those cattle were terrified, not so much of the river but from the promised wrath of that brindle cow. We rode and swam our horses back and forth giving assistance to the brindle but to be honest she could’a done it all by herself.
Within an hour and a half she had driven every head across with no loss of life. Of course we had to rope a few and drag ‘em to shore but all in all we felt pretty useless. When the trail boss of the herd that had been ahead of us found out that we had crossed over saving us a seven day bypass trip, he nearly cut loose his entire group of wranglers for bein’ so sissy like for not tryin’ to cross as we did. I can’t blame the men though, without that brindle cow we never would have tried it either!”
“From then on she was the herd leader. At each river crossing she did the same. By the time we made our way up to north east Texas along the Red River, she had that herd so well trained they just walked right down the rivers banks into the water and crossed on ahead of us!”
“Wait a minute,” another of the boys shouted, “That’s it? That’s the story of the famous Amarillo bridle cow? If she ended up going to market, why’s she named after Amarillo?”
“You boys don’t let an old man finish before you start askin’ questions, let me finish the tale, then if you got any nblanks that need fillin’ in, I’ll fill ‘um in! Now where was I? “
“She taught the others to cross the Red River!”
“Ah, right. She not only did that but held the herd together through thick an’ thin too. Twice during that drive we had terrible lightning storms spring up on us. One at night in Oklahoma and one in the evening in near Wichita Kansas. The one at night spread the herd along a ten mile stretch that took two days to round up. It bein’ night, the brindle cow had less control over the herd when they stampeded in fright. At first it simply looked like a night of heat lighting in the distance but the cattle stopped their snoozin’ an’ began to fidget and began to mill about. We knew we was in for more than heat lighting then. Suddenly out of nowhere a lightning bolt split the air and blinded us riding the night shift watch! So close did it strike near Moses Edwards and myself that our horses started buckin’ wide eyed in fright. Both Moses and me hit the ground hard. I was half dazed when it dawned on me that the herd was in full tilt stampede…right for the two of us! In less time than it takes to tell, we two leaped back onto them terrified buckin’ horses and rode off in front of three thousand terrified longhorn cattle! We was only saved when in a lightning flash Moses spotted an outcropping of rock . We headed for the lee side of it an’ let the herd pass us by. Next day when we began rounding up the herd, we noticed the brindle cow had not stampeded and had actually cornered a hundred or so in the brush an’ wouldn’t let ‘em past her to follow the rest. We was dismayed.”
Then once again a days ride from Wichita as evening was upon us, a line of black storm clouds painted themselves on the horizon. Fingers of lighting were arcing across the darkening sky and the herd once again started bawlin’ and began to mill. This time that ol’ brindle cow tore off to the north and placed herself dead in front of where the herd was about to stampede to. She just stood there darin’ the herd to disobey her! A big steer that had earlier in the drive been the leader, made a mad dash to stampede.
She raked that steer so hard with her giant horns that the steer bellowed an’ ran headlong bleeding into the now northward moving herd. Seeing their old leader cow tow to the brindle, and smelling the steer’s blood, they all lost their intention of stampeding. With her head raised in defiance, that brindle cow stood her ground daring a single one of ‘em to challenge her, not one did even though it was now pouring rain with lighting crashing all around us. She did what none of us riders could, prevent them from stampeding off again.”
A tow headed boy of fifteen asked, “So did she end up like the rest of the herd when you reached Abilene? Did she go to market too?”
“Well, when we neared the stock yards, Doodle had us separate the brindle cow from the rest of the herd a few miles before the arrival point. He didn’t want the brindle to see that all her efforts to control the herd were in fact going to be the demise of her herd. Ignorance is bliss so he turned her aside and told our chuck cook to tie her behind his wagon and trail her back to the Diamond D back in Texas! For four straight years that brindle cow led each herd north never knowing why but never faltering on her duties as leader. She repeated the river same crossings, prevented many stampedes and in doin’ so made her famous among all the cowhands along the cattle trails. She made the news papers more than once and was even wrote up in the Chicago Daily Tribune. Why most everyone west of Nebraska knew of her.”
The same towheaded boy asked, “So what eventually happened to her?”
“By the mid 70’s she was done leadin’ herds to market. She had walked tens of thousands of miles and swum hundreds of river crossings by then. I was getting’ on an’ wanted more out of my life than to ride herd so in ’75 I rode my last drive then accepted a position as ranch foreman at the Flying A ranch up here in Amarillo. That’s the ranch you all passed when you turned into the gateway road onto this here ranch. It’s still operating but old Pete Butterfield the present owner, is cashin’ in his chips next year an’ sellin’ the place.”
“ Anyway, as I was leavin’ Abilene with the rest of the hands, Doodle asked if I’d take the brindle cow with me to the ranch in Amarillo. He thought the greener prairie grass of Amarillo was more fittin’ for a cow that earned a care free retirement. Besides, if we had sent her to market I do believe half the folks that had read of her would have marched out an’ strung us up! By then for sure, all of us had a soft spot for the brindle and we all felt good at what he asked me to do.”
“Did she spend her days grazing then?
“Well, sort of. In those days there wasn’t nothin’ between The Flying A Ranch and the town of Amarillo. So that ‘ol brindle cow could many days been seen walkin’ the streets of Amarillo. Everyone got a charge out of see’n her wander up an’ down the road an’ some folks even left small gifts for her such as small piles of feed an’ hay out front of their places. Yup, she had the run a the place an’ the whole town was mighty endeared to her.”
“Is that the end then? Did she die peacefull like at the end of her days Mister Carson?”
“I could lie an’ say so but truth be told, she had a run in with what we called back then a horseless buggy or auto machine. We all call them automobiles now. Back them though you youngn’s would have a hard time callin it such. They still looked more like a buggy than what we know as the automobile today. Fact is, most cars looked like buggy’s ‘cause they was bein’ made by buggy makers. ”
“She got run over and killed?”
“Naw, she went the way that only she could go. It was in the dead August heat of ’91 at high noon when suddenly the town was put under the attack of a bunch of owl hoot no goods… at least that’s what we all thought anyway. Such a noise! Pop-pop-pop-pop comin’from down the street! It sure sounded like gunfire to those poor town folk who’d heard of the horseless buggy but had never really seen or heard one! Well, women grabbed up their children in fright, horse drawn buggies an’ wagons got jerked to an fro by their livestock an’ even a few brave men ran to their doors with loaded shot guns ready to save their town!”
“Out of a noon time gust of dusty wind came what we thought was a runaway carriage…’cept it had no mule or horse pullin’ it. Down the center of the street she came, shootin’ fire out’a her rear end ’ an hissin’ steam from the front! It near gave some folks good reason to take a healthy swig of Doctor Miles Nervine nerve tonic for sure!”
“Halfway up to the center of town this beast stopped dead in its tracks. In front of it stood a cow with such large horns that the goggled driver wet himself. That ‘ol brindle sure didn’t cotton to some fiery beast makin’ a spectacle of itself an’ given the good folks in town a fright. She approached the noise making beast red eyed an’ angry as no one had ever seen before. The man that was drivin’ the thing, up an’ ran off, wet pant’s an’ all!”
Ol’ brindle pawed the earth’n road then rakede her horns across the dusty street till six inch deep grooves was dug. She then charged! With them mighty horns she began gorin’ the automobile over an’ over till the metal crumpled like lead tinsel on a Christmas tree. Her powerful hoofs beat the metal monster flat. During her tirade, a broken spoked wheel was seen rollin’ its way down the road while the other three of ‘em lay flat dead busted to pieces on the ground. It was the final goring of the crippled beast that not only ended its miserable life but that of the brindle too. It seems the automobile, a new GasMobile made back east somewhere, had a gasoline tank that was pretty vulnerable to cattle horns. Gasoline spilled from the puncture holes onto the machine an’ the brindle cow alike. Suddenly there erupted a ball of fire that singed the eyebrows an’ beards of the awestruck onlookers. Everyone fell back except the brindle, she wasn’t done killin’ the beast quite yet. Within that giant fire ball stood the brindle on top of what remained of the noisy beast. Flames licked at her shaggy fur coat as over an’ over she trampled, bellowed an’ gored the thing. The ball of fire grew bigger an’ bigger till both cow an’ machine were no longer visible to the naked eye. When finally the fire subsided enough to allow folks to regather around it, all knew the brindle had expired in her effort of saving the town from the shotgun sounding beast”
“What the eye saw then amazed the folk. Laying on top of the crumpled metal in a position of a prone conqueror was the brindle cow. She was completely BBQ’d to medium rare! More amazing though was that folks swore that girl had a smile on her face! It seems she chose the way she wanted to go.”
“For years afterward, a yearly the “Brindle Cow BBQ Festival” was held in town in her honor.”
One of the boys questioned, “I never heard of such a festival here Mister Carson, why don’t they have it anymore?”
“It was put off during the big war in Europe in the late teens. With so many of our boys sent over there an’ many not comin’ back, the idea of a joyful celebration kind-a died out. It weren’t the happiest of times then. Just me an’ a few other’s still livin’ even remember the brindle an’ the celebration BBQ festival we held.”
The tow headed boy asked, “ Mister Carson, do you think we could have us a BBQ here at camp to remember the brindle cow? I mean, if all of Amarillo has forgotten her except you and a few others, wouldn’t it be a nice way to rekindle a bit of history that gave some pride to our town?”
“Son, that’s what I was hopin’ for. ‘Cause if we don’t remember the deeds an’ happenings of our past, then we ain’t got nothin’ to hang our pride on. Texas got lot’s to be proud of son an’ I hope the day never comes when a Texan can’t recall why he should be Texas proud. Now if you leave this here camp at summers end with just that, then you’ll do well for yourself as you carve out your own bit a Texan history for yourself. ‘Nuff said? “
Authors comment: “Texas pride, while still found thriving in the rural areas of Texas is slowly waning in its urban cities. With the massive influx of folks moving from the East and elsewhere to fill the growing job market, many of these Eastern folks, rather than adopting the State and its proud heritage are instead determined to turn Texas into the State from which they came from. May the Lone Star State and its heritage never wane for Texas and its pioneers showed America what having a backbone is all about. ‘Nuff Said!”