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A Cowboy's Tale

If I Were a Cowboy

By Dennis HumphreysPublished 11 months ago 21 min read

by: D.R.Humphreys (the DreamWriter)

Lingerin' smoke from the previous night's campfire settled in the hollow where we spent the night.

A chill was in the air and a dampness to the ground, makin' it harder to emerge from under our blankets until the fire was stoked by the cook. Biscuit would make sure the cowhands had plenty of coffee, and breakfast was started. We'd all be hungry.

We left San Antonio two weeks ago with 3200 head of cattle, requirin' ten cowboys to drive them, and a lot more patience. Cattle are stupid animals. You don't trust 'em or turn your backs on 'em. When you do that's when they git you in trouble. We took thirty five horses with us, each cowhand needin' three horses to get the job done. The drive would take about two and a half months makin', the 700 mile trip to Abilene, Kansas, where we'd sell the steers for shippin' east at a price ten times better than Texas prices.

This wasn't a trip for any fancy pants. The weather tested you, the cattle tested you, the bugs tested you and the Indians tested you. The U.S. Government was negotiating treaties with forty some tribes throughout the area. They wanted them on reservations, and planned to train them as an 'enticement' to become good farmers. Not all were agreeable and continued fightin'. Ulysses Grant, when it came to the Indians, was nicknamed Useless Grant. I guess he was a bible thumper, believin' the Indians would openly embrace that verse in the bible attributed to Isaiah, “...beat your swords into plowshares and your spears into prunin' hooks, and learn to war no more...” or, some semblance of that message. Personally, livin' out here with the freedom they had, I would fight too. Bein' told to live on some piece of land no one really wanted, tellin' you what to do and how to do it, was more than I could muster. It's kind of like eatin' a pound of jerky without any water... it gets harder to chew and worse to swallow. It just doesn't sit right in the stomach.

It was the Kiowa actin' up in 1870, when we left Texas. Santana and Big Tree were doin' the aggravatin', and we was headed straight through their lands in Oklahoma. We needed to be prepared for an attack at any time. Sometimes, if you were respectful to the Indians you might get safe passage by tradin' a few long horns. But most white men weren't respectful and you didn't know what may have passed ahead of you recently.

Frank Blossom was my employer. He was a good man with a typical ranch of around 26,000 acres. Land was plentiful but not the grass. You needed about eight acres per head to ranch. To some folks back east, that seemed outlandish. Then they didn't know what was needed to keep their bellies full. A few years ago a half breed by the name of Jesse Chisholm and his friend Black Beaver conceived the trail and figured it was the best way to drive cattle north to Abilene. They could be sent then by rail for better prices in the east. A little political hanky-panky by Joe McCoy a few years back, talked the Union Pacific into layin' track connectin' the major line to Abilene. That's where we was headed... to the Kansas Pacific Railroad. There was stock pens there that could handle fifty thousand head of cattle. Hopefully, we'd sell them at a good profit to the cattle buyers there.

The last time in Abilene, I lost most of the one hundred and ten dollars I made on the drive there. Cities like Abilene have ways to free a cowboy from his money. Between the drinkin', the whorin', and the gamblin' a cowpoke doesn't sport a chance.

Mornings were my favorite time of the day. The sound of the cattle, in the dim light and the smell of fresh brewed coffee, was a cowboy's lullaby and perfume. First thing, I rolled my bedroll and wrapped it in the canvass sheet we all carried. Usually, they were waterproofed with latex. Wrappin' your bedroll inside and tyin' it with rope was necessary to keep it usable. First thing you did was to carry it to the bed wagon with everyone else's bed rolls for transport.

“Good morning, Tucker,” Frank Blossom called to me as he passed. The man was always in a good mood...neither did he tire, no matter how hard a day he had. He was a good example to his hands, who in turn exhibited the same traits.

“Mornin', Mr. Blossom. Figure we'll do better 'n nine miles today?” I asked, knowin' full well nine or ten miles was about the best you could do drivin' cattle... unless they stampeded, which was the last thing you wanted. The trip wore meat off their bones, but a stampede wore off a lot more profit. It could wear them down enough to become easy prey to the wolves or coyotes. That's why it was important for the last couple of men on the drive, to make sure the critters kept up, especially any young ones.

It hadn't rained in weeks. That was a good thing, having to cross rivers along our way. The Arkansas and Red Rivers were problems in the rainy season. Pushin' the drive across could be challengin', but the resultin' dust from the lack of rain, and from the herd could be seen for miles. It was the devil ridin' behind a herd of 3200 head. That's when you made good use of your bandanna, tyin' it around your face to cover your mouth and your nose. There were a few other things you needed out here. Your horse was the most important, which is why stealin' a man's horse was a hangin' offense. Leavin' a man horseless out here, could be a death sentence. A good hat kept the sun off your neck, and the rain from gettin' under your shirt. A man's bandanna kept him from chokin' on dust or smoke, and it could be used as a sweat band. Soaked in cool water and tied around your neck, eased a hot day. Then there was your bedroll. You needed that, a good knife and a dependable revolver. A man could continue mentionin' more things, like a good pair of boots, but then the list could go on from what you needed to what you wanted. Clean underwear was nice to have, especially on Saturday nights goin' into town and tryin' to impress the ladies.

Dust clouds from herds attracted varmints, the kind you don't want, like Indians and rustlers... the thinkin' kind, that can put you in the ground faster than a bite from a rattlesnake. It paid to be halfway good with a gun, whether it was a revolver or a rifle, each had its place.

“Tucker, give me your bedroll. I'll take it over with mine to the wagon,” offered Chuck Ramsey, a good friend, who I had been workin' with me for three years at the Blossom Ranch. However, I knew Chuck from earlier. This was Chuck's first drive up north.

“Thanks Chuck,” I answered, handin' him the roll.

Chuck was laid back. It was good to be, so you didn't stir up trouble with some hot head somewhere... bad to be if trouble was already afoot. Sometimes it was hard figurin' what to do exactly. He was tall and lanky, the type that usually carried a nickname, like Slim. Most people out here had nicknames. Chuck rode an equally, lanky Bay, who was less than good natured, lookin' for any excuse to nip your ass, if he could reach you. A few of the hands threatened to shoot his horse, but they thought too much of Chuck to really consider it.

Breakfast was a good day's start, kiddin' with the hands and talkin' crazy stuff. Biscuit always made plenty and most of us carried soda biscuits with some jerky to nibble during the day until dinner. Biscuit was a good meal maker and had served in the army as a cook. There was always beans served with salt pork with some dried fruit. Goin' through a town you might get eggs for awhile but a lot of times, unless you bought them fresh from someone with chickens, they might come in from the east already bad. Biscuit had the habit of foragin' for wild greens. His mother was an Arapaho who taught him the art of harvestin' from the wild. You'd never believe Biscuit was half Indian lookin' at his light skin, white hair and blue eyes. He was as good with a knife cookin', as he was throwin' one. I saw him on one recent occasion throw a knife and cut a rattler's head off from thirty feet.

Chuck and I were swing riders, along with two others. We rode a third of the way back to keep the herd together, especially when turnin'. There were two point men since it was a large herd, whom we backed, if it was needed. Mr. Blossom hired a couple of young, inexperienced cowboys to drag ride, just for this drive. But that's where you got experience. It was the nastiest of 'cowboyin', being in the rear, pushin' them while breathin' all the dust. Once you had a couple of drives under your belt you weren't green anymore. Then you'd move up to being a flank rider, ridin' two-thirds of the way back, keepin' the beef from fannin' out.

Seven years ago I was a drag rider my first two years of cowboyin'. I think it took me another two years to spit up all the dust and get the mud snot out of my nose. Still it was part of bein' a cowboy, a life I wouldn't trade for the cleanest, hi-payin' city job you had to offer.

“Tucker... Chuck,” Snapper called out... one of the point men. “Keep a close eye on me and Jitters, in case we have Indian troubles. Big Tree's been spotted a day up ahead. If we have to run, keep it tight, so the critters follow us. Mr. Blossom just got a message from a rider up the line.”

“I sure hadn't seen a rider," I mentioned. It was early as we mounted our horses, a few minutes earlier than normal. We took off with the rest of the riders to take our places. Half the cattle were already standin' and millin' around. The rest pretty much stood when they saw us, knowin' the routine already.

Herds of Longhorn pushed north to the beef markets in Nebraska and Kansas. It was advantageous to drive them along water routes, so many drives followed the Big Blue and the Little Blue rivers. Once they arrived at the northern rail heads, they were sold and shipped by rail. For some, there were large profits. For others it was a gamble. Some never recovered from the experience.

There was an over abundant supply of cattle in Texas. While the Civil War spurred the taste for beef and changed the way Americans ate, Texas was isolated by the war. The incredible supply of cattle and its isolation, caused the price of beef in Texas to plummet. Sellin' the beef in the east by incurrin' the cost of getting it there, made for better profits. However, the nearest railroad was far from Texas, in Nebraska and Kansas.

Late in the afternoon, Frank Blossom rode up to me about tracking a few steer that run off from the herd.

“Tucker!” Blossom yelled, ridin' towards me. “Get Chuck and track three steers that just took off headin' west . I'm goin' to let Stoner, take your place for a little while. You two are good trackers and I expect you'll bring them back. I'll cover for Chuck.”

“Chuck! Chuck! I screamed, loudly over a few steers that were acting up noisily. “Mr. Blossom wants us to look for a few strays. Let's go.”

We headed south, on the west side of the drive to pick up their trail. It didn't take long to find it. Steers are obstinate and stupid, a dangerous combination. Why three steers would just take off on their own, leaving a few thousand of their kind behind was anyone's guess. Hopefully they hadn't wandered too far. A short while later, two steer went one way while another ran off quickly in the other direction. The one must have been spooked by somethin', for the other two just went on their normal pace.

“Tell you what Chuck... why don't you chase the one that took off on a run. I'll git the other two and bring them back this way,” I suggested.

“Sure. I'm fine with that. Fire two shots if you find your two, and I'll do the same,” Chuck told me.

“Fire three if there's trouble and I'll come runnin'. I'll do the same. Fire one shot every fifteen minutes after that, so one or the other of us can be located,” I recommended.

I watched Chuck as he took off and he did the same with me a few minutes, just to get an idea of where each of us rode. I guess it couldn't have been more than ten minutes before I found my two bovine, drinking from a small spring comin' out of a hillside from a shelf of rocks. As I approached them, I heard several shots from Chuck. Since it was more than the three shots we agreed to, and in close succession, I figured something was wrong, but I stayed still on my horse and waited. In a minute, three more shots from Chuck's gun sounded. The sound wasn't far, and it was on the other side of the ridge where the stand of rocks stood. I left on a dead run to intersect the line of direction I watched Chuck ride earlier. From there I rode around the tip of the ridge where he would have gone. I quickly found his hoof prints and the cow's, and began ridin' hard when I heard another single shot. Chuck was close. Up ahead I saw more rocks where I figured he was. Chuck's trail and that of the cow was easy to follow, even at my run. It went to the left of the rocks, so I followed it. Then I saw a cow lyin' on the ground, motionless. I rode closer before dismountin', lookin' around. Failin' to see Chuck anywhere, I began yellin' his name as I climbed off my Appaloosa. I still didn't see or hear him, so I yelled agin. As soon as I yelled this time, he yelled back, soundin' like he was on the other side of the cow.

“I'm here Tucker,” he responded, not soundin' quite right. I jumped up on some rocks to see better and realized what happened.

Chuck was layin' in a small enclosed area, surrounded by rock. Layin' there among several dead rattlesnakes. accounted for the gunfire I heard.

The cow likely ran into a couple of them and was bitten, already weak and laboring for breath. There must have been a den close by, where there could be a few snakes or a hundred, walled up to stay cool in the heat of the day. A female in the mix could bring on a lot of males. Snakes are pretty aggressive under those circumstances, towards intruders and the cow likely stumbled onto them, and got 'em pissed. Then Chuck comes along, and gits in the middle of 'em... maybe gets thrown by his horse. It appeared he was bitten several times.

“Careful Tucker, I didn't get all of them,” he warned me from where he laid.

I pulled my .44... a new Smith & Wesson Model 3 I just bought back in San Antonio. It was accurate but I wasn't. I didn't practice enough to be accurate. I wasn't a gunfighter or outlaw. I only saw a gun as protection in the wild from dangerous animals. It was a single action, whose trigger I filed down some, so I could fan the hammer, shooting rounds quickly to make up for my inaccuracy. I fired a volley at the three snakes I saw moving systematically, rather than the erratic movements of the wounded. With six shots, I dispatched the last three snakes, not good, but not bad either. At least they was dead. Not knowin' how many more might be nearby, I hurried to pull Chuck further away from the rocks. His horse was nowhere in sight.

After pullin' him to a safer spot, I began pullin' his shirt away to inspect his bites, but he stopped me.

“Don't bother Tucker. I'm bit too many times. I'll be dead in a little while,” he mumbled to me. I noticed he was swellin' up and changin' color pretty fast.

“I'll git some water,” I told him, not really knowin' what to say.

“Save your water. I might be thirsty, but I ain't about to die from it,” he joked, tryin' to make light of it.

I was about to lose a good friend I had known for some years. It was the longest time I ever had one. I wished I went after the single steer and let him go after the two I followed. He'd be fine and maybe I could have taken care of the snakes. Well, that was unlikely, since I was a bad shot. I'd probably be lying in Chuck's place.

“Listen, Tucker, when you get to Bartonville, on the other side of the Red River... look up my daddy and let him know where I'm buried. We was never close... hell, I don't remember ever seein' 'im, but if he wants to visit me sometime he's down this way... I'll look out for 'im,” he muttered, as I watched him swellin' by the minute.

I buried Chuck there. It was a good place, easily described and located again if needed. I said some prayers over his grave and then took off to look for his horse. It would take me longer to catch up with the herd, but you couldn't just leave a good horse out there like that. Finally, I caught up with the drive late the next day.

Frank Blossom saw me returnin' and came out to meet me as the steer I brought back, took off to rejoin the herd. Bovines kill me. They do somethin' because the grass looks greener on the other side and once they git there they fret about gettin' back from where they came. I never did find Chuck's horse and lost his trail when I followed 'im to hard ground and bedrock.

“What happened?” Blossom asked.

“Rattlesnakes got the one steer, and Chuck fell in the middle of them,” I informed the owner, whose response was to shake his head in pity. “I figured I'd stop in Bartonville to see Chuck's dad in a few days. I'd enlighten him to the circumstances and give him a map I made where I buried 'im. It was too bad Chuck couldn't have seen his father.”

Chuck had told me about his father who was handy with a gun, when he was younger, workin' as a ranch hand. He was so handy, he got a reputation with his old cap and ball 1839 Colt revolver he carried and evolved into a gun fighter. That old gun carried a twenty-four-inch barrel, a big part of the ten plus pound weight. He ended up settlin' in Bartonville, where Chuck was born, and eventually became the sheriff there for twenty some years. That was a long time for sheriffin' since a lot of the riffraff around were always lookin' to nail someone good with a gun, especially a sheriff. It added to their notoriety.

Bartonville was just on the other side of the Texas, Oklahoma border on the Red River. That was where his father, Ray Jim Ramsey met a very young Helena Jo Parker, married and settled. He promised his wife there would be no more gun fightin' and took a job in the town as a freighter. He drove wagons of freight from the town three days north of Bartonville, back to town, where some of it stayed and some continued south to the next town. He always carried his gun though. You had to, if you needed to defend yourself, especially traveling like he did.

Coming back to town with a shipment, he interrupted a gunfight. The sheriff, at the time was a Glen Branson and was good with a gun, which made him a target, along with his reputation. He was in the middle of a fight with four young men lookin' to build their notoriety. Branson had already been wounded in his right forearm, leavin' him at a disadvantage, since that was his gun arm. Branson wasn't very good usin' his left hand, and while most gunfighters refused carryin' two revolvers because of the weight, they at least practiced, so they could use either hand easily as well firin' a pistol. He was cornered in the barbershop where he was getting a shave, when they attacked him leavin'. Bullets whistled back and forth across the street, which emptied quickly, as soon as the first shots sounded.

Ray Jim didn't like the odds... four of them on one wounded man. He didn't know Branson well, but right is right. He climbed off the wagon after grabbin' his gun, took careful aim, and dispatched the first shooter through his neck. The other three's attention was then drawn to him, so they began to send a volley in his direction. Ray Jim just kept walkin' a fast pace towards the three left. That's unnervin' to most gunmen, because it shows you're not scared, and you have one intent in mind, carryin' a gun like he was.

The one stood, as the other two started backin' away. As soon as he stood, Ramsey fired, topplin' him into a water trough, from behind which, he had been shootin'. Ramsey kept goin' after the two men left who decided to high tail it. You don't let such men get away or they'll come back stronger and more knowledgeable. Once they know what to expect, they become more formidable. Ray Jim continued his forward advance and shot the next man in the leg below his buttock. He went down in pain and watched Ray Jim comin', figurin' he'd get another bullet in his head, now he was disarmed. Ramsey wouldn't do that, but he did kick his revolver out of the way, and continued towards the fourth man. He didn't need the other shooter crawlin' over to get his gun and shootin' him in the back.

By now the fourth fellow lost all his nerve, a common trait among bushwhackers when they're by themselves. He ran to get to his horse, about fifty feet away. Ray Jim knew if he fired at him now, he'd most likely miss. Keepin' a steady walk, he'd gain on him when he went to jump on his horse. As he prepared to spur his horse into a run, Ray Jim fired a shot, hittin' him in the shoulder, and knockin' him off his horse's back. After hittin' the ground, he surrendered by puttin' up his hands, afraid another bullet was goin' to finish him.

The townspeople came scurryin' out of the buildings for a closer look. Chuck's dad grabbed the fourth man yellin', by his bad arm purposely, and pulled him to his feet. By the time he got back to the previous desperado he shot, he was tryin' to git to his feet, and Sheriff Branson was there.

“Thank you, Mr. Ramsey. Your intervention is highly appreciated. I was a goner until you showed. The townspeople showed appreciation by clappin'. As it turned out, two of the men were wanted, with prices on their heads. Ramsey made a welcomed amount of money and an unwelcomed reputation that day.

He knew word would get around, enticing someone to come along and challenge him. He wasn't movin' even though his wife insisted. They stayed. The town was growin' and with it, the undesirables. Ray Jim knew the time would come to defend himself, or someone incapable of defendin' themselves with some hooligan on their back.

After that day's showdown, someone nicknamed Ray Jim Ramsey... Ragin' Ramsey, a play on words, and it stuck. People addressed him as such, honoring him thus. The sheriff didn't fair too well from the gunfight though. He got an infection and the doctor wanted to take his arm. Branson refused to become a one-armed sheriff, preferring to die rather than lose an arm. In time, someone would end his life anyway, and regardless of killin' a disadvantaged sheriff, it would add to his conjectured skill. Before he passed, he suggested the town name Ragin' Ramsey his successor. The mayor approached Ramsey and offered him the job. It paid better than freightin' but it was the excitement of carrying a gun agin, and accomplishin' something. Mrs. Ramsey didn't see it that way, and was unable to talk her husband out of the job. She left with her son, goin' southward to San Antonio, Texas. That's where she raised Chuck and never remarried.

“Is it alright if I ride ahead to Bartonville, Mr. Blossom? Chuck asked me to look in on his dad for him, and pay respects,” I asked my employer again to make sure.

“Sure,.. we can manage a few days without you. We'll be restin' there for a day. I know how close you and Chuck were. See Biscuit about getting a few supplies and an advance on your pay to help you out there,” Blossom instructed.

“Thank you, sir. I appreciate it,” I replied, and went to see Biscuit. I also drew a small map, as to where I buried my friend, while things were still fresh in my mind.

“Listen... watch your back,” Biscuit warned while handin' me a burlap sack with some supplies. “Bartonville is gettin' out-of-hand.”

I took off on a gallop north, figurin' I'd be in Bartonville in three days. Actually, I dreaded goin' alone since I was a terrible shot. I could only hit one out of three aimed shots, but then I had no one to teach me. Not bein' very good, I rarely practiced. That only reminded me of how bad I was.

It rained the second day after leavin' the drive. It was a needed rain, but it was one of those that turned everythin' into mud, so the third day went slower than planned. That would also slow the drive down quite a bit, puttin' 'em further behind.

I saw the town of Bartonville ahead and realized it took a half day longer, than expected, to arrive. Chuck met his father once after leavin' town, as a kid in San Antonio. Ramsey went to see his wife, who was dyin' of cholera, but arrived too late. He spent time with his son, then left him there for the boy's aunt to raise with her three. Bein' a sheriff, he couldn't raise the youngster... it wasn't any life for a kid.

I dreaded tellin' the sheriff about Chuck, even though they didn't really know each other.

The town was a noisy one, unexpected after all the quiet gettin' here. People ignored me ridin' into town. If it were a smaller town, a stranger ridin' in would have sparked lots of attention.

“Is the sheriff around?” I asked at the jail. A young man, a deputy sat behind a desk, pagin' through a stack of wanted posters.

“He's out eatin' lunch. He'll be back in a few minutes,” the deputy announced, inspectin' me like he was tryin' to match me to some poster he saw.

“Don't worry... I'm not in that pile. I can barely hold a gun,” I joked, but didn't get a laugh. He just stared. Then his focus changed, when the door opened behind me.

“Here's the sheriff,” he cautioned me. I turned to meet Ragin' Ramsey. He looked every bit the gunfighter... tall and wiry, with a long-waxed mustache twisted straight out to the sides. He sported a ten gallon hat, straight brimmed and a black vest, upon which his badge was pinned. I looked at him and put my hand out immediately.

“Sheriff Ramsey! I'm Tucker Gray. I was close friends to your son, Chuck,” I told him, as he gripped my hand hard.

“Was?” he asked, knittin' his brows, watchin' me with intense blue eyes.

“Yeah... I'm sorry... he died a few days back from multiple rattlesnake bites. I promised him I'd see you, since we were on our way through here,” I told him.

“Shit... parents shouldn't outlive their kids. Snake bite you say?” he asked, affected by the news.

A serious melancholy descended over him, when his deputy left. I stood watchin', feeling sorry for the man, and slipped him the map I made. Then I too left, but I planned on returnin'.

Closin' the door behind me, I flinched, as a bullet splintered the frame beside me. I drew my weapon and sighted the culprit firin'. I returned fire, fannin' my weapon as I walked towards him. Emptyin' my chamber, I put two bullets in my attacker that killed him. I hovered over his body, wonderin' what made him shoot. Exchangin' chambers and standin' there, I looked over at the sheriff in the doorway, holdin' his gun.

“You'd make a good gunfighter. You just need someone to teach you to shoot less,” Ragin' Ramsey yelled.


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