Goodnight Loving Trail
Riding away from the South, a young fellow who was keeping
his eyes open, reading handbills posted around the levee camps on the
sides of barns and telegraph poles, might have wound up out on the Texas
plains. Before the Civil War cattle ranching was very big in Texas. The
Texas cowboys learned the trade off the Mexican vaqueros.
In those times one of the biggest ranches down there was the Maverick
Ranch. His ranch was so big that he didn't see the necessity of branding
his stock, figured anybody in his territory who saw cattle would automatically
know who they belonged to. After the Civil War maverick came to be a term
for any unbranded stock.
A lot of those ranches were abandoned during the Civil War, as young fellows
went off to fight. A lot of cattle were just left to roam, and a lot of
calving went on those four years. There was all kind of maverick stock
around there. The law was written that anybody who wanted to round up
a crew and go out there could keep any stock they could get a rope on,
and brand it with their own brand. That's how a lot of the big cattle
ranches were started.
The reason for getting people out there to get that stock in was that
there wasn't any beef in the North. The railroad headed West, to Dodge,
to Hayes, to Abilene and Denver, and as it reached these cities it would
pick up a cattle trail coming from Texas: the Chisholm Trail, the old
Western Trail, the New Western Trail, and way out on the west end, the
That trail was pioneered by two Civil War veterans, Colonel Charles Goodnight
and Oliver Loving. They really had a tough job. That's very rough, ugly,
mean territory. The trail went up to Dolores, Colorado, which is a ghost
town now, to Denver, and on to Cheyenne. It was used not only for bringing
new stock to the railroad to send east, but also to bring stock to the
new ranches growing up in Montana and in the Pacific Northwest.
It was a trail worked by a dozen men: two men riding on point out in front,
two men to a side, four men riding swing to keep the herd all strung out
in a line, and two greenhorns riding on drag, the worst job. They'd have
to wear a bandanna over their faces because of all that trail dust. Then
there was a wrangler, or a boss wrangler and his crew, because a working
cowboy will go through two or three horses in a day. You never want to
ride a horse so much that he gets winded, because then he's no good for
anything any more. You work up a good lather, turn the horse in to the
wrangler, and he cuts you out a remount. And you have the boss.
The most important man on the crew is the "old woman, " the
cook. Lots of times a working cowboy wouldn't hire up with the trail drive
until he knew who the old woman was. Very often a spread was known by
its cook. A cowboy's got to make sure he has good grub.
They must have had the notion that old people were cranky, something I've
never found to be the case. But by all accounts they were irascible, doughy,
temperamental people who yelled and shouted and waved their arms a lot.
Of course they had a very hard job. These old cooks used to be working
cowboys like everybody else. They'd go into town and hoo-rah, shoot the
place up, then ride back to camp all drunked up, and get sobered up for
another day's work.
A fellow gets old, and the desert's got it's own stern sort of code: you've
got to work to eat. After you spend twenty or thirty years, twelve hours
a day in the saddle, your insides get so jumbled around you can't do it
any more. So you can only go and work on the chuck gang. When everybody
rides into town for a little fun, you get left behind. You're the one
who has to have the coffee ready to sober everybody up. You've got to
listen to everybody whine and moan and bitch. And you've got to handle
their bedrolls, since the chuck wagon is where they carried the bedrolls.
(By the way, the chuck wagon was invented by Col. Charles Goodnight for
With your snake oil and herbs and Your liniment, too,
You can do anything that a doctor can do,
Except find a cure for your own goddamn stew.
The cook-fire's out and the coffee's all gone,
The boys are up and we're raising the dawn,
You're still sitting there all lost in a song.
I know someday that I'll be just the same,
Wearing an apron instead of a name,
But no one can change it and no one's to blame.
'Cause the desert's a book wrote in lizards and sage,
It's easy to look like an old torn-out page,
All faded and cracked with the colors of age.
Copyright ©1973, 2000 Bruce Phillips