Cowpuncher Came To Mean Cowboy
Not only did the cowboy need to be a good rider and roper, but he was expected to be proficient in many other duties incident to the raising of cattle. His assignment may have been as fence rider (inspect and repair fences), bog rider (yank out bogged-down cattle in swampy terrain), line rider (patrol a boundary line) or wrangler (handle horses). On occasion, blacksmithing, doctoring cattle, fighting fire, combating rustlers and poisoning wolves came within his sphere.
Usually he was known as a cowhand, or simply "hand," although he may have been referred to as a "saddle stiff," "cowpoke," "waddy," "leather pounder," "ranahan" or "saddle- warmer." In the brush country he was a "brush popper," "brush whacker" or "limb skinner." In the Northwest, "buckeroo"; on the southern border, "vaquero." More universally he was called a "cowpuncher."
Originally, a "cowpuncher" was one actively engaged in the shipment of cattle. To urge beef up the loading chute into a railway car he used a "prod," a pole about six feet long, with an iron spike at one end. Thus the designation "cowpuncher." Eventually the term came to mean cowboys in general and was shortened to plain "puncher."
Prior to the manufacture of barbed wire in 1874, there was no practical way of fencing the vast treeless plains. The cost of hauling wood from the East was prohibitive. So the job of keeping cattle within the bounds of the ranch belonged to the line rider. Cowmen maintained line camps along the borders of their range where one or two cowboys who could stand loneliness and their own cooking were quartered. Their job was to keep the boss's cattle on his graze and foreign cattle off it. In addition, they drove stock away from patches of loco weed and out of alkaline surface tanks, both of which poisoned them. In winter cowboys often had to chop watering holes through the ice. Weak animals that fell and could not get up had to be lifted by their tails—tailed up—until their feet were under them again. During storms cattle had to be driven into rough country where the hills and gulches protected them from icy blasts.
Outriders rode anywhere, although their duties were much the same as those of the line rider. The outrider watched the condition of the grass and water, as well as checking on the physical condition of the cattle. If cattle were overgrazing certain sections, he hazed them to new grass.
The cowboy had to be prepared to handle any emergency. If he found a cow which had lost her calf, he would rope her, tie her down and milk her, to keep her udder from spoiling. Sometimes he came across one that had been bitten by a rattler, or another whose nose was full of porcupine quills. A twitching hide and a peculiar odor told him that a cow was suffering from screw worms, which he would doctor.
Always he watched for tracks of livestock, scavengers or strange riders. Each told him a story as plainly as if it had been printed in a book. He might follow a wolf to its den and set out poison, or rope and pull out a cow mired in a bog hole. Perhaps he found an overgrown calf still nursing an emaciated mother. He blabbed the calf—clipped on its nose a thin board six by eight inches in size which prevented suckling but allowed grazing—in order that the mother would gain strength and survive the winter.
After barbed wire was strung across the range the line rider became a fence rider. Armed with combination pliers, wire cutter and hammer, plus a coil of wire, he started his patrol at daylight, riding ten or fifteen miles along the fence, watching for breaks. Lightning could destroy whole panels, and heavy rain could wash out a corner "dead man" or deepen a gully, permitting cattle to walk away. Bulls fighting from opposite sides of the fence would snap wires. Careless men left gates open. A fence rider was always busy.
Perhaps the most unpopular job was riding bog. In the spring, when cattle were weak from poor winter feed, swarms of heel flies tortured them. The cattle sought relief in bog holes, where they could stand in deep mud. Often, in their weakened condition, they bogged down and were trapped. For this reason, "bog riders" patrolled the miry sections to pull cattle to dry ground. The bog rider needed a stout horse, a strong rope and unlimited perseverance. Usually two worked together, for the task was too strenuous for one man. One roped the bogged cow. The other waded into the gumbo with a short-handled shovel and began to dig the cow's feet out. As he worked he had to keep his own feet moving in order to avoid bogging down himself. While he dug, his partner yanked on the rope until, eventually, the cow was extracted, usually too exhausted to move. When she showed signs of life, she was tailed up and, invariably, after gaining sufficient strength, showed her gratitude by charging the men who saved her.
Many rivers had quicksand bottoms, and western quicksand had peculiar properties. The tiny grains were flat and stuck together tenaciously. A man or beast could usually walk across quicksand, provided he kept going. But if he paused, he sank and found himself encased in sand as solid as concrete. Pulling upward increased the tension. The more a victim fought for freedom, the deeper he sank. A cow invariably struggled and sank to her belly. To rescue her, the cowboy often pulled off his pants and boots in order that the treacherous sand might not clutch and hold him, too. Bare-legged, he approached the cow and began "tromping" the sand which held her front legs. This forced the water between the tiny flat particles, which could only be separated by lateral flushing. As the sand softened, he pulled the cow's legs out, one at a time. Working fast, he next tried to loosen her hind legs before the front ones became bogged again. With the front legs free and the hind legs loosened, he slipped a rope around the cow's horns and tied it to the horn of his saddle. Then the cow horse went into action and hauled the victim out.
Branding was a sweaty, dusty business. The bawling of indignant mothers mingled with the frightening blatting of calves; perspiration made rivulets down dust-coated riders' faces; red-hot irons sizzled on hides; horns rattled, dust fogged, loops sang. But branding was an essential chore because the brand was the mark of ownership. Each rancher had his own brand, registered in the official "brand book." When an animal was sold, the new owner placed his band upon it. To prove the transfer was legitimate, the original owner "vented" (Spanish venta - sale) his own brand usually by burning a bar across it, thus executing a primitive bill of sale.
Brands took every conceivable form, the object being to obtain one that could not be easily worked over or altered. A brand might be any one of an endless combination of numbers, letters or monograms. Some unusual brands were: Walking R, Cut and Slash, Rocking H, Lazy Y, Forked Lightning, Drag 7, Hobbled 0, Seven-up, Man in the Moon, Crazy Three, Window Sash, Currycomb, Scab 8. One outfit simply burned a straight line the length of the cow. When framed, a brand was "boxed." The ear cut, added to the brand to facilitate identification on the range, might be a "jinglebob," "jug handle," "swallow fork," "oversplit," "crop," "half-crop," "under-bit"—to name a few. To impress the brand, a red-hot iron, fashioned in the shape desired, was used. Such a brand was known as a "set brand" or "stamp brand."
For branding on the range, the "running iron" was utilized. This was a straight poker or rod curved at one end, and was much in favor with rustlers, or cattle thieves—so much so that, in the seventies, Texas passed a law against its use. When a stranger was caught on the range with a running iron in his possession, chances were that a "necktie party" was imminent.
Today, because of the value of hides, there is usually only a single brand upon an animal. But in the old days each transfer of ownership meant additional brands until the cow's hide might be so thoroughly etched that it "looked like a brand book." Cattlemen in the gigantic area of Texas had so many identical brands it became necessary to add a "county brand"—a separate letter on the animal's neck. This showed the county in which this particular brand belonged to a certain man.
With the opening of the cattle trails from Texas to northern markets, a new branding problem arose. The animals in a trail herd, having been purchased from many owners, carried many brands. In fact, the same brand might be on cattle in two different trail herds when the owner of each had made purchases from the same ranchman. In case of a stampede or mixup between two herds of this kind it became impossible to determine the ownership of many animals. To prevent this a special "road brand," peculiar to each trail herd, was placed on the left side behind the shoulder of each one of them.
When calves were branded, two "ketch hands" usually rode into the herd to do the roping. Two "flankers" stood by the fire, ready to catch the calf. If heel-roped, it was already down, and easily stretched and held for branding. If neck-roped, it was toppled. The brander, or "iron man" yelled, "Hot iron!" The "iron tender," who heated the branding irons, came up at a trot from the fire with an iron glowing cherry-red.
While the brand was being burned on the prone calf's side, "butchers," or "knife men," cut the proper earmarks and sometimes dewlaps or wattles if the owner also used them for identification. The earmarks were especially important because a brand was sometimes hard to see on the range, but animals always turned their ears toward an approaching rider and their earmark was plainly visible. In addition to this mutilation, if the calf being branded was a male it was castrated and thus became a steer. Last came the "doctors," or "medicine men." With their pots of disinfectant, they smeared the wounds. Later on, there was also a "needle man" who quickly gave inoculations for blackleg and other diseases.
The whole process was somewhat gory, and when the calf scrambled up it usually slung its head and splattered everyone nearby with blood. Frequently the mother came charging in. Then everyone was busy—dodging. It was every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. During branding season, the "tally man" was the only one with an easy job. He was usually an older man or one not physically fit for heavier work. When a roper dragged in a calf he shouted the brand on its mother. The tally man echoed this call and recorded it in his smudged book. On this count depended the owner's estimate of the season's profit. Branding was no job for a weakling. There were perilous moments in the branding pen. The air was full of wood smoke, animal odors and dust, with never a dull moment for the sweaty, blood-splattered cowboys.
Breaking half-wild range mustangs into useful cow horses was a job usually handled by a specialist—the bronc rider, also known as "bronc peeler," "broncobuster," "bronc twister," "bronc snapper," "flash rider," "bull bat" or one of a dozen other cognomens. Big outfits had their own "busters," but the small ranch usually hired a "contract buster" who broke horses at so much a head. "Broncobusters" were in a class by themselves. Two important qualifications were necessary - nerve and self-assurance. If the buster ever became afraid of a horse, the animal knew it before he did, and came out on top.
The ways of a bucking horse were devious. No two animals bucked alike. A "high roller" leaped high into the air when bucking; a "weaver" had a peculiar weaving motion and his feet never struck the ground at the same time; the "pioneer bucker" bucked in circles and figure eights; the "sunfisher" twisted his body in midair until a rider expected him to fall on his side; the "spinner" went up and whirled backward; the "blind bucker" charged at and through anything; the "pile driver" humped his back and came down with all four legs as stiff as ramrods.
Just as no two horses bucked alike, no two busters broke horses alike. Most of the horse- breakers took great pride in their work, and it was an honor to be pointed out as the rider of a rough string. These riders did their best to make good cow horses and not spoil them, for no rancher wanted spoiled horses. A good buster used patience and took his time. The "twister" who took jobs at so much a head used rough methods and hurried the breaking process. For this reason, ranchers who wanted good cow horses put busters on the regular payroll.
Every cow outfit of any size had its own rough string. This was made up of broncs, young horses, old outlaws and spoiled horses that the average cowhand could not or would not ride. The professional broncobusters who hired out to such outfits were mainly young men. They had to be, because when they reached their thirties they could no longer take the punishment.
Usually the best breaking age for a range horse was between three and a half and four years old. Some ranchers liked to break their mounts at three, when the ponies had barely got their growth and were shedding the last of their colt teeth. These horses would then be turned out to rest, harden and mature. When five years old they would be caught again and put at hard work for the rest of their lives. "There was never a horse that couldn't be rode, there was never a rider who couldn't be throw'd," so one of the essential things a bronc rider had to learn was how to fall. He learned to kick free of the stirrups, to go limp and hit the ground rolling. He always knew he was leaving a jump or two before he actually went.
A buster was not ashamed of being thrown by a good bucker, but he always did his best to stay on, because horses that consistently threw their riders were apt to become outlaws. No matter what a buster's build, long or short, light or heavy, he had to be made of rawhide.
A horse's intelligence and gentleness developed in proportion to the extent of his contact with an understanding man. In the old days, when horses were caught, saddled, ridden and turned loose again without other handling, it was to be expected that many of a horse's good qualities had no opportunity to develop. Rough treatment by a brutal buster made bad horses. To know horses—how to care for them, keep them in good shape and, at the same time, get the most work out of them—was the real test of a good broncobuster, not his ability to wear a big hat and spurs, and "scratch the hell out of anything that wore hair."
In the old west, roundups were held twice a year—in the spring and in the fall. The range was open to anybody who had cattle, and the owners cooperated in these two big annual events. The spring roundup was held for the purpose of branding calves. At the fall roundup—in reality, the ranchers' harvest—beef were gathered for shipment. This was the time when cattle were turned into the cash necessary for continuing the business. Calves born since the spring roundup were also branded on this "fall ride."
One of the bigger outfits usually provided wagons and supplies for these two annual events. Every ranchman attended personally or sent a cowboy. Each man brought his own bedroll and a string of some ten horses. These remounts were put in charge of a wrangler who accompanied the wagons. An experienced cowman—usually a foreman for one of the big outfits—was selected to be "roundup captain" or "wagon boss." Once chosen, his word was law, and the owners of other ranches as well as all the cowboys took orders from him without question. At the end of the roundup all expenses—wages for cook and wranglers and cost of groceries—were prorated among the cattle owners, each paying according to the number of his cattle on the range which had been worked.
To determine the exact number of cattle a man owned was always difficult. A ranch- man's account books showed how many he had turned out on the range, but as these animals soon became half-wild, his loss by theft or death had to be estimated. A roundup might gather a thousand cattle in a day. These cattle carried many brands, but they were all mixed together, so that it was impossible to know how many belonged to each ranchman. The cattle could not be separated for a count, since there were no pens or pastures in which they could be held. The best estimate of the number of cows a man owned was made in the spring when a "tally man" kept count of each calf. Presumably a man owned io to 15 per cent more cows than calves, but this was only a guess. Yet in spite of the uncertainty of this method of counting, herds were often sold "by book count" as there was no other way of estimating the number.
Barbed-wire fences, which enabled owners to keep their cattle in separate pastures, ended the need for roundups. The system, in its picturesque and exciting form, originated in Texas, but because the land there was owned by the state instead of the federal government and soon went under fence in private hands, the old-fashioned roundup disappeared from that state before it did on the public domain of the Northwest.
While the roundup system lasted, stockmen often organized associations which specified the dates when roundups would be held. In some instances the association even went so far as to decide who could ride with the roundup and who could not. Men suspected of being dishonest were ruled out. This amounted to putting them out of business, because a cattle owner unable to gather his beef and brand his calves could not last long. Small ranchmen often complained that they were barred from the roundup not on account of dishonesty but because the big outfits did not want the little herds to be eating all the grass. Disagreements of this kind were often the basis of range wars. Eventually the small men - the nesters, as homesteaders were called - cut up the open range with so many fences that an open roundup became impossible.
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