The dust stirred and swirled as a small zephyr lifted it. I pulled the kerchief up over my nose and nudged Sunny off to the right to haze a wide-horned steer back into the herd. It hadn't rained in a good many days and two hundred head of cattle meant eight hundred hooves churning the dry ground, filling the air with grit.
The short drive from the L Bar to Palo Pinto had gone well, and after the first day the four of us had no trouble handling the small herd. Now we had crossed the Brazos River twice and we were moving north up the long hills east of the county seat of Palo Pinto County, Texas.
I remembered the first time I'd come to this town almost a year before, seeking Colonel Charles Goodnight and hoping to sell some cattle to him. A war party of Comanches had come up out of the draws of the Brazos River and tried to cut me off from the town. I was riding Sunny for the first time and I learned that day that she was one fast horse. We outran the Indians and the men of the town opened up with their rifles to give me covering fire as I came tearing into town. When the dust settled, one of them said, "Mister, we welcome strangers in Palo Pinto, but the next time, leave your glee club behind."
Fortunately, there was no sign of hostile Indians this time, so evidently the Comanches had moved back northwest to their hideouts in the Texas Panhandle and I didn't have a "glee club" chasing me into town.
The last word I had about Colonel Goodnight was that he was still holding his herd northwest of the town on a large flat.
It was early afternoon when we pushed the cattle past the mean looking shacks of Palo Pinto and out the north end. Goodnight himself came out on horseback to lead us up to the larger herd.
"Glad you can make it, Lamar," he called over the sound of the cattle. "We're going to move the herd a few miles north tomorrow to a new holding ground, so you came just in time to give us a hand."
Smoke from the branding fires was spiraling into the still air as we reached the campground and several cowboys were waiting to take over our herd. With all of us working, it didn't take long to rope and throw the steers and we soon trail branded all two hundred with a Circle JA in the left side.
When the work was done, we went to the cow camp for supper and saw Goodnight's latest invention; he called it a chuck wagon. The wagon was built on a heavy frame with wide tires, and a canvas top was stretched on hoops like a Conestoga, but at the back of the bed a large box had been constructed with a sloping lid that let down and was propped as a table. There the cook could work, with many small drawers and shelves built into the box holding his supplies and cooking utensils, including a stack of tin plates--dining finery for the cowboys.
Under the box was a loose boot or coonie where the cook carried firewood or dried cow chips for starting cook fires in the wet. On each side of the wagon water barrels rested on built up heavy shelves, lashed tight to the box.
This unique wagon was presided over by the Goodnight's cook, Lardy Howell. We marveled at the specially built contraption, and Henry Spooner, our camp cook, looked it over very carefully with a gleam in his eye. Watching him, I figured he and Jimbo Rose would be building one as soon as he got back home and told Jimbo about it.
Since we had had only a short drive to make, and only two hundred head to drive, I had brought Red Mould, Bill Overstreet and Henry as hands, and that had worked out fine. Even though Henry had a stiff leg from a war wound, he could sit a horse okay, and he had cooked for us on the way up, hauling his supplies on a packhorse.
Once our stomachs were full of Lardy's good steaks and sourdough bullets (biscuits) we settled into our bedrolls for the night.
Morning came very early, and while it was still dark. We'd eaten breakfast and were on our way out to the herd when pale daylight began to spread across the mesquites. We slowly gathered the herd of about twenty-two hundred mixed cattle and headed them north and west, aiming to cross the Salt Fork of the Brazos River and settle them on a flat between that river and Ioni Creek, called "Iron Eye" Creek by the locals.
It was mid-May of the year 1866, and Colonel Charles Goodnight and his partner Oliver Loving figured to start the cattle drive out to the Pecos River around the first of June. I had agreed to go on the drive with Goodnight and Loving, and this move we were making was meant to position the herd and prepare to start trailing it off toward the Horsehead crossing of the Pecos.
Goodnight figured it was around 350 miles to the Pecos, and if we averaged ten miles a day, that meant over a month just to get to the river. After that, he figured to turn north and head for Fort Sumner in New Mexico Territory, another 150 miles or so. All in all, we would to be on the trail to the fort on the Apache Indian Reservation for nearly two months.
By mid-afternoon, the cattle had climbed the bluff above the river and we settled the herd on the flat. With my men beside me, I rode slowly to where Lardy was setting up camp, his chuck wagon standing where dust wouldn't blow into the fire--or worse, onto his fold down table. Goodnight had dismounted and was helping Jesus pull some dead wood up for a fire. "Colonel, if you don't mind, we'll head back to the L Bar now."
"Sure thing, Lamar. We'll be here 'til the first, and then you'll find us along the trail to Picketville in Stevens County." Picketville was where we'd meet Oliver Loving and his hands. The two cattlemen had decided to follow the old Butterfield Stage Line road from Picketville to the Pecos, and then turn north along the river toward Fort Stanton.
"Right, Colonel," I replied. "By my reckoning, this is the twenty-fifth day of May, and I should be back no later than June 7th, barring complications."
"And when is your good wife going to have her baby, Lamar?" Goodnight asked. Gloria and I had married in October 1865, and when she told me a month later that she was expecting, I couldn't have been happier. Only one thing marred that happy thought now; I wouldn't be home when the time came for delivery.
"Looks like sometime in July, Colonel, but from what she and her mother tell me, these things are never real certain, particularly with a first baby."
"Well, give her my best, Earl."
I saluted Goodnight, turned Sunny away, and we headed back down the trail for home.