|The herd was growing very restless as lightning stabbed the darkening clouds to the west. The rumble of distant thunder broke the silence.
Abel Clay was foreman for the Lazy J ranch near the Mexican border in south Texas. He’d been cowboy and foreman for several ranches during the past four years since he’d left the army at the end of the war. He’d led three other drives north. His experience told him this could be a dangerous afternoon. Pulling back on the reins, he took a deep breath and scanned the western sky.
The fluffy white tops of the clouds were climbing skyward. They looked like cotton but the base was an ugly black layer which hovered above the ground. He thought he detected some rotation in the cloudy mass but figured it was just his nervous imagination at work.
He and his eighteen vaqueros had crossed the Brazos earlier in the day driving two thousand head of longhorn cattle to the rail head in Dodge City. The money he’d make from this drive would finally give him the grub stake he needed to start his own ranch. There were thousands of head of stray longhorns running the prairie in south Texas. They’d bred uninhibited during the war and there was nobody to catch and brand them. Herds of horses had multiplied in the Wild Horse
Desert. They were free for the taking if a man was willing to put in the labor. It would be brutal work to build a ranch but it was his dream and he intended to make it come true.
Some of the men were on their first drive. All were experienced cowboys and ranch hands but moving a herd this size for such a distance was a new endeavor for most of them. The oppressive late afternoon heat was searing and uncomfortable. The humidity made it difficult to breathe.
A hot wind whispered through the prairie grass. The men leaned into the strong wind and pulled their hats down to secure them from the gusts. Hints of the oncoming storm were in the air. The smell of rain was refreshing but the atmosphere had an eerie feel, an ominous, dangerous foreboding kept the men and cows on edge. Nerves were electric.
An occasional drop of rain turned into a steady drizzle. The massive clouds were moving quickly as thunder crashed and lightning touched the ground in the distance.
Small groups of cattle stirred and moved like waves on a turbulent sea. The ocean of longhorns moved first in one direction then another in their nervous attempts to escape the fear which was building in them. Sounds of the cattle snorting and the occasional click of two of the enormous horns colliding indicated the chaos which was growing.
The ground was turning to a mushy brown gravy which made the footing of
the horses and cattle more difficult.
Abel’s big mount had been in storms before but this one felt different and his riding skills were tested each time thunder roared or a muddy misstep caused more stress for the animal. A sudden gust made Abel lean forward on the big gray whose ears twitched as he snorted. Leather creaked as Abel turned to yell at one of the cowboys.
“Try to keep them calm, Carlos,” he said, trying to scream above the noise of the wind and driving rain. “We need to try to get them over toward that box canyon.” He pointed to the east. The canyon was about a half mile wide at the mouth and narrowed at the apex with high walls which would prevent the cows from passing without extreme effort. The muddy slopes would make it a desirable corral if they were running out of control.
Carlos nodded and signaled some of the others to move to the edges of the herd. Everyone sensed the impending danger and worked to head off the inevitable.
The rain grew harder. A steady stream poured from the brim of Abel’s hat. Small hail began to tap the ground around him. His horse shifted and snorted again.
The sky was a strange dark green color against the ominous clouds which were flying across the horizon like Abel had never seen. The hair on the back of his neck was tingling like it did before a fight. His muscles tightened. Every inch of his six foot frame was tense and ready for action.
Hail pounded Abel’s hat and the horse twitched whenever one of the small pieces of ice struck it. The slicker Abel wore didn’t provide much protection but at least it kept his clothes dry.
Wind driven rain pelted the herd. It was a downpour now. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck the ground about a mile away, then another. The crash of thunder followed almost immediately sending the herd into a panic. The longhorns broke into a run across the muddy prairie.
Abel slapped the gray to a gallop and worked to guide the massive rumbling herd toward the canyon. He wasn’t sure they could steer the rowdy, scared cows but if they didn’t try he knew he’d lose many head not to mention a day or two trying to round up frightened strays. His thoughts raced as he tried to calculate all these factors while working to control his horse and his own fear.
Rain slammed hard against his face. He saw a shadowy rider through the downpour swinging a yellow slicker above his head trying to work the cows and hold them in a group.
The noise was intense. Pounding hoofs, thunder and yelling cowboys trying to manage the frightened herd could barely be heard above the intensity of the driving rain and wind.
Abel heard a sizzling sound as another bolt of lightning slammed the earth behind him. The explosion of the thunder hurt his ears and his horse hesitated for a
second then ran harder away from the sound.
Sheets of rain slanted at a forty-five degree angle pelted the earth. The wind made the rain sting Abel’s face. The greenish-gray sky darkened more. It was as if night had fallen. Abel could hear the vaqueros screaming and whistling as they worked to steer the panicked cows.
Their efforts were having the desired effect and the herd began to turn into the canyon. As they reached the wall at the east end, the herd slowed and finally stopped. They were still restless as the storm continued to pound them with the relentless downpour but the uncontrolled panic seemed to be over. They had run themselves to exhaustion and the walls of the canyon seemed to calm the noise of the wind and rain.
As the vaqueros skirted the herd and the storm slowly dissipated, Abel surveyed the area where the animals had run wild. He saw two longhorns down. They’d been trampled by the other stampeding cows. In the distance he saw what he dreaded most. A horse lay on its side trying desperately to get up on a badly broken leg. Beside it, a Mexican boy lay motionless. He was the youngest of the cowboys and had celebrated his nineteenth birthday the day before they’d left.
Abel rode over and dismounted. The boy’s clothing and body were torn by the sharp hoofs and his head had been crushed.
The others gathered around and stood in silence clutching hats against their chests. They knew this kind of thing was a risk they’d all taken but seeing it become
a reality was a shock to all of them.
Nobody spoke for a long moment. Abel looked down at the young man and suddenly thought about bodies of all the young men he’d seen on the battlefields during the war. It was never easy to bury a friend but it had to be done.
“Juan,” he said, sadness showing in his eyes. “You and Carlos dig a grave over there under that live oak. We’ll lay him to rest there.”
The two Mexicans nodded and walked toward the chuck wagon to get the shovel.
Abel said some words over the grave. Two of the men made a cross out of a couple of sturdy mesquite limbs and stuck it in the soft, muddy earth.
The storm was over as quickly as it had started. It had turned very cool and the sky was a brilliant blue as the dark clouds disappeared to the east.
Some of the cattle were lying in groups on high ground. The stampede had taken its toll. The night would be calm and the animals rested. Their fear was gone now and it was time to recover from what had seemed like hours but had actually only been a few minutes of furious activity.
The men sat around a campfire silently drinking coffee. The cook had butchered one of the fallen cows and there would be beef along with the beans tonight. Steaks sizzled on the fire for the evening meal.
It was only the second day out and they had faced a dangerous storm and a deadly stampede. They wondered what else lay ahead of them on this long drive.