Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: Cattle Drive 1959
It was a long time til sunrise when Dad called up the stairs. Time to go. I hadn’t slept much that night anyway, anticipating the next day. After a hurried breakfast of cereal, I pulled on my boots, put on my jacket and hat, and waited impatiently for Dad to head to the car.
We were going to pick up my cousin Dave along with his saddle and tac and head south to John’s ranch. He was moving his 1,000 head herd to summer pasture and had asked if we wanted to help. Dad couldn’t go, but we teenagers jumped at the chance. The drive in the dark to John’s was quiet and full of anticipation.
Pulling into the yard, we saw a corral full of horses, and a tall, rawboned man in his 70s pitching hay over the fence. John was my hero, the prime example of what a real old-time cowboy looked like. We had gotten to know him when he came to the store for vaccine and vet supplies. We spent many Sundays visiting, riding and talking about horses at his place, nestled in the river breaks.
The first thing John did was invite us into the house for breakfast, insisting we needed to fill up for the long day ahead. We sat down to a breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancakes, potatoes and big glasses of milk and juice. John watched with amusement as we hurriedly ate. He knew we were excited about the coming day.
We walked to the barn where John had horses stalled, and he assigned us our horse for the morning. Mine was a young stud that was as curious about me as I was him. I threw my J.C. Penny saddle that I had borrowed from my uncle up on the colt’s back, cinched it up, wondering how he would react. He wasn’t paying any attention to it, so I started to breathe easier.
As we mounted up, John led the way up the hill to the big pasture, then sent us in different directions to gather the herd and start pushing them down the road towards summer pasture along the Missouri. Things went well, Dave and I gathered in the strays and started feeling comfortable in our jobs. We came to a bridge and were pushing cattle across when a cow bolted up the bank and scrambled over the top. It was a high bank, and Dave and I looked at each other, neither of us wanting to climb that bank. About that time, cussing and hollering, John charged by us, whipping his horse up and over the bank. A short time later the cow came scrambling down the bank, John right behind it, still cussing and hollering. He gave us a blistering lecture about falling down on the job, then resumed pushing cows across the bridge.
The rest of the morning went smoothly, trailing the fresh herd down a county road before turning south across open country towards the river. As we got to the highway, it took some pushing and hollering to get the herd started across the backtop. In the middle of it all, a semi came to the herd and started pushing through the stream of cattle. John rode up next to the cab of the semi, swung out of the saddle and standing on the running board cussed that driver up one side and down the other, until the guy stopped moving and sat while we had crossed the highway. John could get mad , but he usually was having a laugh at somebody’s expense at the same time, which happened to be the semi driver at that moment.
We stopped for lunch after crossing the highway, eating a big meal off the tailgate of a pickup. The cattle were content to graze and rest for a while. About that time a stock truck showed up, driven by one of John’s daughters. Fresh horses were unloaded and tired horses were loaded back on. John took an amused interest in my cheap saddle, teasing me about what was going to happen if I had to rope a cow or bull or even a calf off of the canvas-covered tree that the saddle was built on. I could imagine it coming apart as I was sitting on it, the cow running off with a few pieces still attached to the tree. John told stories of wrecks he had experienced while tied onto a bull or cow. Dallying wasn’t part of his makeup, so tying on hard and fast was the only way. I marveled at this 70 year old man who was still more cowboy than anyone I knew.
We started moving the cattle again, having to push them now, leaving bulls worn out from the trek to be picked up in a trailer. Our fresh horses were getting tired already, and before long we were so thirsty ourselves we couldn’t spit. Suddenly the cattle started moving, not south towards the river, but west. No amount of riding or pushing could turn them. They had smelled water. When we realized that we let them go to the stream meandering through the grassland. Cows and horses drank, and we rode back to the truck to get a drink of water. It was a long, hot afternoon. From then on, keeping the horses moving became as much of a chore as moving cattle. Late in the afternoon, a fresh load of horses showed up and we switched mounts again.
The crew ended up being three teenage boys, including Dave and me, twin girls eleven years old, John, his son and his wife. The girls joined us after school was out and were good hands, knowing what to do and when to do it. They rode identical grey ponies, were dressed identical from hat to boots, and hardly said a word the whole afternoon.
We had pushed most of the cattle into the huge pasture along the river before dark, slowly unsaddled our horses, and climbed into the back of a pickup for the ride in the dark back to John’s ranch. We instantly fell asleep, not noticing the rough roads we were traveling on.
John’s wife woke us up, told us to washup and come to supper. We struggled to the table which was loaded with steaks and potatoes, corn, beans, homemade bread, gravy, and on the kitchen counter, cherry and apple pies. We started in eating, famished from the big day we had just had. John ate and watched with amusement as we devoured all the food in front of us. We fought back sleep as we had second helpings of pie, just as Dad drove into the yard to pick us up. We thanked John for the exciting, wonderful day he had given us, a taste of what a cattle drive was like, and what it meant to do the work of a cowboy. We sept all the way home, dreamless and tired but so happy at living such a day as John had given us.
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Cost savings, easier workload, better animal and rancher health are driving a shift to calve with nature in South Dakota.