Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: Head’em Up, Move’em Out!
John Frei was my real-life cowboy hero. Tall and lean at age 70, he had the walk of one who had spent most of his life in the saddle. I met him when he came into our store to buy his vet supplies and a few weeks’ worth of Old Crow that he would hide in various corners of his barn and sip on when he thought his good wife wasn’t looking.
I was a freshman in high school the spring he asked Dad and me to help move his nine hundred head of cattle to summer pasture down in the “Pocket,” that loop of land jutting out into the Missouri River, the ‘Great Bend’ that Lewis and Clark talked about in their journals. Dad couldn’t go, so we asked cousin Dave if he wanted to help. John, his wife and four grandkids made up the rest of the outfit.
John met us at the gate, cup of coffee in hand, inviting us to have breakfast with him. Steak, eggs, pancakes, and potatoes filled our plates. I don’t remember eating much, I was too excited to think about food. Daylight was just breaking as we saddled horses in John’s corral. We drove the cattle out of the small pasture and up the road out of John’s place. We stayed busy pushing the cattle down the road, getting them lined out and settled for the trip. A few miles out we came to a cut through the creek bed that led to a narrow bridge. Cattle bunched up, spooked at the sight of the bridge, and several broke back, lunging up the creek bank, rising high above our heads. John hollered at us to keep the herd moving as he spurred his lunging horse up the bank, disappearing over the top. John’s grandkids, Dave and I, got the cattle started across the bridge just as the herd-quitting cows came spilling back over the creek bank, with John right behind them, his horse sliding down the hill on its tail. John was all cowboy.
We wore out a truck load of horses that day, covering well over twenty five miles, some of it unfenced range, with cattle strung out as far as you could see. We had a real sense of what big cattle drives must have looked like years before. We also found out you really could get so dry you couldn’t spit. John’s wife was hauling the horses, water and food in the truck and we were suffering from lack of water when all of a sudden the cattle changed course. We couldn’t hold them, and finally realized they were smelling water, so we let them go, and then found a quiet spot in the stream to water our horses and dip a few hands- full of water to at least wet our lips and slake our thirst until the truck showed up with lemonade and sandwiches. Refreshed, we changed horses for the third time and pushed the nine hundred head of cattle back onto the trail leading to their summer pasture. It was late afternoon, but we were still hours away from the pasture gate. Horses, cattle and kids were wore out from the heat and dust, while John kept the whole outfit moving slowly along, cussing cattle and hollering at kids. We finally unsaddled our horses as the sun began to set and the cattle drifted into the tall grass of their summer pasture. We climbed into the back of John’s pickup for the ride back to his ranch, sleeping much of the way.
Mrs. Frei had another big meal waiting for us, and John regaled us with stories of his youth in Oklahoma as we tried to stay awake long enough to eat. He seemed fresh as a daisy, teasing his outfit of tuckered out kids about our day’s adventure. We knew, even as tired out as we were, we had spent a perfect day in the company of a true cowboy.