Texas long horn trail boss Dusty Plains, sat rabbit still in the saddle sniffing the air. The herd was only sixty miles east of Austin where they had moved out of four days earlier. His brain continued to flip through long ago scent memories like a clerk searching for a certain file among the thousands stored in a cabinet. Suddenly the file was found and pulled.
“Wild fire!” He shouted, South west of here!”
Spurring the Mare, he galloped forward trying to catch up to the lumbering chuck wagon miles ahead of the herd. It was the job of the Grease belly or camp cook to forage ahead of the herd in order to have each meal hot and waiting for the riders. The cook also spotted the trail ahead for Indians, rustlers and any problem that the trail boss should be aware of.
Reigning up alongside the chuck wagon’s driver, Dusty pointed and shouted over to him. “Biscuit! Point them cattle eastward to the Brazos River! We gotta’ get’m on the other side of the river, there’s a wildfire about a day’s ride behind us!”
“Hell boss!” Biscuit shouted back. “It’s gonna be cuttin’ it close fer sure. I figure the Brazos is a good ten miles off yet and we got less than four hours of daylight left. It’ll be a late meal and a cold one at that!”
“Just get across and put up some coffee pots, we’ll survive!”
Dusty turned the mare away from the wagon and galloped back to the herd. Reaching the lead or point riders, Dusty explained the situation to them. Immediately, they began to wheel the herd eastward toward the Brazos and safety.
From there he stopped down the line of trail riders, telling each group to keep the herd in a tight line. Stopping at the flank riders, he informed them the herd was turning and told one of the riders to split off and tell the remuda riders what’s going on while he’d let the tail end or drag riders know. Dusty kept his drive functioning like a well oiled machine. Having smelled water ahead and the transient waves of smoke from behind, the cattle quickened their pace and arrived at the river ahead of schedule.
The herd was driven across the Brazos River without incident as the depth was still shallow this time of year. A month from now the river would be a killer. High water not only drowned cattle and riders but brought out the snakes, something every cowboy feared.
Standing on the bank looking westward toward a growing darkness that was not from the setting sun, Dusty thanked the Good Lord for having given him a good nose.
“We’d be a hog on a spit if you hadn’t got us turned just then boss.” The voice behind him was that of his best friend and lead point man, Bob Fisher. “If you look up north a bit, you can see some smoke now, that’s right where we woulda been spending the night. I’m puzzled boss as to how you knew where the fire was at, we couldn’t even see the smoke at that time.”
“I smelled juniper and persimmon in the smoke. Both grow mainly to the southern plains but it was the burning pecan trees that settled it for me.”
“It’s dang fortunate you got the nose if you ask me.”
Throughout the night the night riders sang songs and circled the herd to keep them calm. The continued smell of smoke made the herd jittery and trail boss Dusty Plains feared if the smoke drifting up from the southwest got any thicker the herd would bolt. If they did bolt, he hoped they’d head north in the direction the wanted to travel and not due east.
Dusty doubled up on the crooning night riders and the result was a herd staying put. The chuck wagon had left before dawn to set up ten miles further up the trail for the noon meal. With little sleep under their belts, the riders slowly got the cattle moving again.
By noon, the heard was within sight of the wagon again. Gallons of Hot coffee, Cowboy beans with bacon and sour dough biscuits rounded out the meal. The drag riders showed up last as was about normal and a bucket of water was put out for them to wash the dust from their eyes. Each drag rider looked as if a dust storm had spun itself around them. In many ways it had.
The point riders were the most experienced cowboys and therefore had the best job. It was the point rider that turned the herd to the desired direction and being in the front had little problem with dust. The flank riders behind them got some dust as they were spaced further back along the herd but it was the poor drag rider that got the worst of it. Having to trail behind the herd pushing lagers and catching strays, they were exposed to every particle of dust kicked up by the thousands of hooves in front of them. With their bandana’s over their nose and mouths to keep out as much dust as was possible, they looked more like a band of bank robbers than honest forty dollar a month cowpokes.
Dusty once again scanned the skies and sat smelling the air. Some of the cowboys stopped and stared intently at Dusty. The riders sitting fireside waited in anticipation for the word from their trail boss. In silence, they drank their after meal coffee waiting. Finally Dusty turned to them and spoke.
“head ‘em up boys, that fires crossed the river somewhere south of us. This breeze is gonna’ bring it right up our butts! “
Again the well oiled machine had the herd moving. By now the rest of the riders and for sure the herd could smell the increase in smoke.
“ Biscuit, take the chuck wagon with all our belongings and set the wagon in the middle of the river at a wide point up ahead. It’s only a couple feet deep from here to Waco. Soak and wrap a wet blanket over each mules head. That’ll stop some of the smoke smell and that way they can’t see the fire as it passes ‘em. Whatever you do, don’t leave the river!”
Riding back to the herd, Dusty continued yelling over the rumble of the herd at the point riders, “Push ‘em harder! Let’s try and put some miles between us and the fire. We may have to zig zag across the river more than a few times to keep that blaze from roasting our hides so be ready to turn ‘em across the river if and when I say so!”
“You got it boss!” The point rider from the opposite side of Bob Fisher yelled. “We’ll follow your lead! That there smokes getting thicker by the mile!”
It was true. As fast as they drove the herd it seemed the smoke was getting thicker and thicker. Now everyone, not just those riding drag, had their bandana’s on. The cattle started their belly aching bawls and began a panicky run north.
By trailing the east bank of the Brazos, fresh water and grass for the cattle was no problem. Dusty wanted to stay as close to the river for as long as he could. If by chance the wildfire roared north ward up the east bank, they could cross the cattle over to the west side and vice versa.
He wondered how the small ranches and homesteads they had passed were fairing. Were they going to be burned out? His thoughts drifted to Fayetteville thirty miles outside Austin where his wife’s grave was. He wondered if his old ranch had escaped the blaze or whether it, like any ranch caught in a wild fire, no longer existed. “Well, at least it can’t do no harm to Doris’s resting place, that’s for sure.”
Looking southward, the riders could plainly see the red glow spreading across the horizon now. As Dusty headed over to where the horse remuda was, he signaled Tom Beavers, who was in charge of the remuda, to meet him. As he passed an older experienced flank rider, the rider asked worriedly if Dusty thought the herd should be headed north east to the high rocky ground where the brush and trees were thinned out.
“I would if it weren’t so far away but that bare high ground is still a good fifteen miles off. Some of the faster herd might make it but the cows with calves wouldn’t, they’re too slow. It’s all the drag riders can do right now to keep ‘em paced with the herd. Let’s stick to the river for now and hope the fire turns or burns itself out.”
“What about the remuda then? They’s fast”
Dusty contemplated a second then acknowledged the man that the remuda in fact could make the trip in time and rode off.
Reaching the horse remuda, Tom rode up to Dusty and pulled down his bandana and yelled. “What’s up Dusty?”
Shouting over the din of the moving bawling cattle Dusty told Tom, “I need you and Ned to get the remuda up to the high ground there to the north east where they’ll be safe. The horses can make it within a couple of hours, easily outrunning the fire. I’d hate to lose forty good horses for no good reason. Take them over that saddle on the rise and head ‘em over the other side of it. I’m thinking the fire will burn till it reaches the base of the rise then starve itself out for lack of fuel! The rest of us will try and dodge the fire as best as we can by keeping the river between it and us!”
Tom tipped his hat in acknowledgement and raced over to Ned. Within a minute they had the horse remuda racing across the grassy plain to the bare ground fifteen miles to the north east.
Dusty breathed a little easier seeing the remuda heading safely away. He wished dearly that the cattle could move as fast.
They kept the herd minus the remuda now, heading northward along the eastern bank of the Brazos River as fast as the scared cattle herd would go. Smelling fire and knowing water was nearby, the reaction of the cattle was to continually head for the safety of the water. Dusty knew that if the fire came racing up both banks at the same time without the riders to keep them in control, the cattle could panic, and leave the water. They would then try to outrun the fire on land. Cattle were simple creatures, all they wanted in life was to have good grass and water, they didn’t do a lot of hard thinking. It was up to the riders to do the thinking for them because without the riders, the herd was going to be the main course at the world’s largest Ox roast.
Within another hour flames could plainly be seen on both sides of the Brazos five miles to the south.
“Charlie! I’m gonna’ divide the herd. Grab a couple of the drag riders and separate the lead cattle and fastest cattle then head ‘em as quick as you can behind the remuda. I’ll stay here with the slower beeves. If you all whip the crap outa them they’ll pace out almost as fast as the remuda. I think you can just make it before the fire crawls up your butts! Do it, NOW!”
Charlie quickly grabbed a couple of the drag riders and started separating the faster animals in the herd. Normally the slowest were further towards the end of the line, those they just left alone. The flank riders assisted in the separation and within a few minutes a third of the herd was hoofing it’s way double timed behind the remuda. With two thirds of the herd still left behind, Dusty gathered the other riders for a quick pow wow.
“I sent the fastest of the herd on ahead behind the remuda. They should be alright! It lookin’ like we ain’t gonna’ be able to zig zag ‘em alongside the river after all. The fires racin’ up both sides about equal now. I want the rest of you to gather the remaining head and get’m maybe six to ten wide in the middle of the river. Keep ‘em away from the banks! I know it’s going to be hard and we’ll lose some, but not doing anything will cost us near two thousand head. Use your guns and lariats to keep ‘em in the river. That fires going to sound like a locomotive engine when it passes. Do whatever you think is right to keep ‘em in the river, even if you gotta shoot a few leaders trying to make a run for it.”
A chorus of agreements by the riders followed. “Alright then, let’s get them cattle into the river. I want you all ridin’ up and down alongside the banks forcing the cattle back into the water if they go to leave it, now move it!”
Moving the cattle into the river was fairly easy as their instinct told them being in the water was safe. Only two things now could make them leave the water. Panic was one, the other was snakes.
Dusty yelled over to a young Mexican vaquero riding flank. “Carlos! If you see snakes in the water, use that machete you got tied to your saddle on ‘em. Cut ‘em down so’s they don’t get to the cattle.” Then to all the other riders he yelled, “Pull iron and blast any snake you see entering the water from the bank. If you got a scatter gun in your saddle holster, pull it and use it! “
No sooner had he given the order when a cow went bawling and started hopping like a bucking bronco in the shallow water. Coming at the terrified animal were three deadly water moccasins not ten feet away. Immediately guns started spitting lead. To the cows good fortune, none made it to the panicked beast alive. “Calm that cow down!” A rider shouted and ropes were thrown onto the terrified cow from opposite sides. Once finding itself movement restricted, it surrendered itself to the power of the ropes.
Dusty rode up. “Good job boys! Keep a sharp eye along the banks, there’s sure to be more comin’ once the fire chases them out of their holes. Let’s get these cattle moved to the middle of the river, no more than ten wide.”
If the fire and snakes weren’t bad enough, a gust of wind blew Dusty’s Stetson from off his head. Carlos galloped down steam, leaned over and grabbed it. On his return, Carlos noticed Dusty standing in the stirrups looking to the south. Turning, Carlos followed Dusty’s gaze to the south.
“Dios mio!” Forgetting his English he yelled out in Spanish and pointed at the horizon, “Senior Dusty, una tormenta de polvo, el infierno!”
“What? Carlos, speak so I understand you dammitt!”
“I am sorry Senior Dusty, look, it is a dust storm straight from hell!”
Behind the angry orange flames and now mixing itself with the grey fire smoke was truly a beast from hell.
Looking heaven ward, Dusty threw both arms skyward. “Really? Wasn’t snakes an fire enough Lord?”
Taking into account all the unearthly going on’s, Dusty yelled to the others as they rode up and down in the shallow water keeping the herd in mid river. Every now and then a few shots were fired, sometimes to scare a cow back into the herd and sometimes to kill another snake. “Got another”, someone yelled, but Dusty had no time to congratulate whoever had made the shot.
“They’ll point upriver once the storm hits. They’ll wanna’ put their butts into the wind. That’s good! The cows won’t see the flames now until they are alongside ‘em! If we’re lucky, when they see the flames the fire should keep ‘em scared away from the banks.”
Within minutes the hurricane force dust storm slammed into the herd. Horses reared and some of their frightened riders went down. Terrified of more water borne snakes, the thrown riders remounted in the blink of an eye.
The river began to churn with white capped waves heading upstream completely washing over the bawling cattle. Standing in the belly deep water, fighting wind and water, the cows did not see the fire as it tore up the river banks being pushed by seventy mile an hour winds.
Dusty hoped the remuda and the thousand head of cattle he had sent out earlier had made it to the rise.
If Dusty were a bird he could have looked down upon the lee side of the rise and seen the cows and remuda grazing calmly while the riders rode in a half circle oblivious to the oncoming fire and dust storm on the other side. When it did hit, the riders looked skyward seeing only the darkness of the dust storm in the sky. Where they had ended up was in a valley protected on three sides by an eroded cliff. This large natural amphitheater allowed the storm to pass harmlessly overhead. The riders sat pointing upward wondering what was happening but were unwilling to cross over the ridge to investigate. Shrugging their shoulders and hoping the best for the rest of the herd, they went back to riding their own herd.
Meanwhile, back at the river miles away, Dusty and the others were doing all they could just to stay in their saddles. The riders had all donned their dusters and pulling the collars up high, the hurt caused by the fires intense heat and the scouring sand was kept to a minimum. The cattle and horses had no such protection. With their rears facing the onslaught, it was a good thing that horses and cattle have no need to sit down.The chuck wagon soon had its canvas covering torn loose from the wooden bows stretching it over the wagon. It landed in the river and was soon lost to sight. Now exposed, Biscuit tucked himself down into the foot well of the driver’s seat and hid.
It had been a half hour since the storm had hit them. The wind driven dust had not abated in the least but Dusty noticed the fire, having consumed all the dry grass and trees along the river bank was no longer a threat. Black smoking earth replaced the tall grasses behind the fire wall.
While most fires would have driven hundreds of snakes into the safety of the water, the wind pushing this fire was causing such tall waves that the snakes were thrown bodily back onto the shore. Dusty would have marveled at this stroke of fortune, and would afterward, but for right now he sat white knuckled trying his best to keep his death grip on the saddle horn as the wind and dust did their best to unseat him.
Miles ahead upriver, the fire continued to race along the Brazos banks leaving a mile wide swath on the eastern side. To the west, the fire was much wider but would soon reach a sharp bend in the Brazos stopping the raging fire in its tracks.
Without warning, the wind began to suddenly abate. The head winds that were traveling at hurricane speed had passed now being replaced by a wind half its speed to that of a common dust storm.
Dusty lifted his head and turning it sideways into the wind, tried glimpsing downstream. What he saw was a blackened landscape that diffused itself into the mile high dust cloud. Understanding now came to him. If it were not for the savage blowing of the earlier wind, the slow moving fire would have taken hours rather than minutes to pass them by. While cursing the millions of needle pricks the blowing sand brought about on exposed skin, that very wind in a very strange way was their savior.
Still too soon to fully face into the wind, Dusty tucked his chin back onto his chest and thanked God for protecting the men and the herd.
Without the fierce wind, the river began to settle back down. Any snakes attempting to find their way into the water though were met by the still smoldering earth and retreated back into their bank side holes.
When the worst had passed, Dusty yelled for the riders to clear the river of cattle. Even with dust still swirling about, the snakes would soon venture back into the water.
With yips and howls the cowboys drove the cattle back onto the burnt landscape. Once again the thin line of cattle were making their way north.
Dusty rode over to each rider asking if any were hurt and in need of any medical attention. Most shrugged off their minor burns and were just happy to have survived. Fisher commented that from here on in the trail should be a cake walk seeing as to how “We been through wind, water and fire all in one day!”
Looking northeastward, through the abating dust storm , Dusty could now see the ridge where the remuda and cattle were ordered to be taken to. Taking a small spyglass from his saddlebag, Dusty scanned the ridge for any sign of man or beast. None were seen.
“I don’t see anybody this side of the ridge, let’s heads the herd to the back side of it by circling around the south eastern point. They’re probably holed up on the lee side of the ridge”
Within four hours the slow moving herd rounded the southern tip of the ridge. Dusty was pleased that only a few cattle had been lost and a couple of those had been put down by the riders themselves trying to keep the other cows from following any leader ashore.
By now the dust storm was a gritty memory. No one questioned the single day long dust storm but Carlos gave the storm the name ‘Tormenta Dios miragro’ or loosely translated, ‘The torment of Gods miracle’.
The riders quietly had driven the tired cattle over the scorched earth up to the foothills of the ridge. Once rounding the southern point, green grass once again greeted the hungry cattle. Picking up their pace, the cattle soon joined their grazing relatives within the protection of the valley’s amphitheatre carved into the mountain side.
Dusty stopped and took in the sight. “Well I’ll be doggoned. They’s all safe an’ sound!”
Biscuit and the chuck wagon, being faster than the herd, had already set itself up and had two, two gallon coffee pots heating over a fire. One of the flank riders rode up dragging the wagons canvas tarp behind him. “Brought you a present Biscuit”. Then dismounting, he untied the canvas from his rope and headed over to the boiling coffee pots where everyone had gathered.
“what’s sayin’ boss?” Charlie called over to Dusty. “
Dusty untying his Stetson told him, “I tell you this much. this has been one heck of a day! Snakes, fire, dust storm… I don’t know about you boys but to my way of thinking, any one of those things coulda’ put an end to any one of us.”
To a man, a word of Amen was sounded.
Dusty continued talking, “Let’s take another day to get some grass into the herd and give our own bones a well deserved rest. I don’t know about you fella’s but my old bones is beat an’ my muscles is worn to a frazzle.”
Once again a round of ‘amens’ was heard.
Two days later found the herd heading out to the north towards Waco. Once in Waco the herd caught the Chisholm trail and headed onto Wichita Kansas. During the drive into Kansas, Dusty thought things deep and hard and made the decision that this was to be the last cattle drive he’d head up. When he talked over his decision with his friend Fisher, he was surprised that Fisher didn’t fight him on it.
“Heck boss, I was thinking along the same lines myself. The rail road’s gonna’ be the way to transport large herds of cattle pretty soon. Where’s that gonna’ leave us then? I’d rather go out while I can still make a choice to be a cowboy or not to be a cowboy. I ain’t no cow poke boss, I can’t see myself proddin’ cows onto rail cars with sticks from a loading platform. No Sir, I might just follow your lead and find somethin’ else to do for a livin’. You have any idea what you’ll be doin’ and where?”
“I’ve been thinking of a small town near Denver Colorado called Castle Rock. I saved up some for the day I decided to quit. My knees ain’t what they used to be, maybe I’ll buy myself a mercantile or dry goods store.”
“You? A dry goods store? Ha! That’ll be the day, more like a bordello if you ask me!”
“Naw, no whorehouse. I been seein’ things a bit different since that day on the Brazos. I ain’t gonna’ turn into no Preacher or anything but I’m thinkin’ I should clean up my act a bit. The good book talks about becoming a new man. Who knows, maybe I’m gonna’ try an’ teach this ol’ dog some new tricks.”
“Well boss, whatever you decide, I’m behind you on it. I might even look you up someday…see how you’re farin’ an’ all.”
Dusty reached out and he and Fisher shook hands over their friendship. “You look me up Fisher!”
“I will boss. That’s a promise.”
It would be a promise kept.
To read another story featuring Dusty and Fisher, click on the story called “Homer’s magic bullet”. JW