A Texas trio

Essay | Ruminations on cowboy life, cattle death, and dog brains
by John R. Erickson
Posted 7/21/18, 02:57 pm

Since I turn down articles and disappoint authors every day by deciding their books haven’t made the cut for reviewing, my job helps me develop more enemies than friends. It’s delightful for an editor when a friend is also a terrific writer, so it’s a pleasure once every month to share with you the writing of John R. Erickson, who for 35 years has delighted children and adults with his Hank the Cowdog series. Here are three short essays about cowboy life, cattle death, and dog brains. —Marvin Olasky

Another Cowboy Day

My alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. I pulled on my jeans and shirt and tiptoed through the dark house. Near the front door I found my high-topped riding boots, chaps, spurs, leather gloves, felt hat, and a light jacket.

I wondered if I would need warmer clothes. This was October, the month when northers came whistling out of the Rockies, and winter and summer collided in a swirl of wind and leaves. But I had listened to the weather report the previous evening. Hot and windy, it had said. The norther wasn’t due until Friday.

I pulled on my jacket and slipped outside. The Milky Way stretched out above me like a sheet of gauze. Off to the west, a bright Comanche moon bathed the canyon rims in silver light and glistened on beads of dew on the hood of my pickup.

I drove down to the barn. My mare lifted her head and whinnied a greeting. I turned on the light and started some coffee, fed the mare some grain and alfalfa, and sipped coffee while she ate.

I saddled the mare and led her to the stock trailer. She was new and I had never loaded her in the dark. I hoped she would load. I had unpleasant memories of trying to load balky horses on dark roundup mornings, but she was kind to me. She stepped into the trailer.

I strapped on my chaps and spurs and climbed into the pickup. My destination was the C Bar C ranch, 20 miles west, up the Canadian River.

The dirt road was lined on both sides by tall weeds with white tops, wild buckwheat. In the headlight glare, it appeared that I was driving across a tablecloth, acres and acres of frothy lace sowed at random by the wind, a galaxy of geometry and design that knew nothing of human labor or our theories of art.

The road was slow and winding as I drove across the Tandy and the Killebrew ranches, following the river to the west. Off to my left lay the broad hay meadows in the river bottom, the river itself an invisible thread of water marked only by a line of autumn-touched cottonwoods.

Beyond the Killebrew headquarters, I rumbled across a cattle guard and entered the C Bar C range. It sprawled across 90 square miles of rugged country, some 15 miles from east to west, from the river on the south to the flat prairie country above canyons on the north.

In the headlight glare, it appeared that I was driving across a tablecloth, acres and acres of frothy lace sowed at random by the wind, a galaxy of geometry and design that knew nothing of human labor or our theories of art.

Lights were burning in a small house the old-timers used to call Red Camp. It was 6:05. I was five minutes late. Dave Nicholson appeared in my headlight beams, propped against the fender of his pickup and holding a cup of coffee. He was dressed for the day’s work in his shotgun chaps, spurs, a vest, and the old black felt hat that was as much a part of his being as his nose or mustache.

If you ever saw Dave at a wedding or funeral without that hat, you wouldn’t recognize him. He would seem an imposter, someone who had Dave’s name and smoky eyes, but not Dave Nicholson from Red Camp.

We shook hands. His hand had the texture of sharkskin. “Morning. Why don’t you load your mare in my trailer and we’ll leave your rig here.”

We loaded my mare and drove toward the Pat’s Creek camp, 5 miles to the west, and talked about the weather, the grass, our families, and the cattle market. This was 1995 and the market was terrible.

It was still dark when we reached the Pat’s Creek camp, and we could see the glow of Billy DeArmond’s cigarette in front of the saddle shed. We stopped beside the corrals and Billy walked into the headlight beams, leading his horse. He was a tall handsome man with clear blue eyes, an easy smile, and a gray felt hat that was as much a part of his essence as Dave’s was of his.

Billy loaded his horse in the trailer and climbed into the cab. We pulled away from the big cottonwood trees on Pat’s Creek and headed north, up a narrow winding road that took us into cedar-dotted canyons, up the caprock, and out onto the flats.

There, we could see the lights of Perryton and Spearman, the lights of distant farms and other lights I couldn’t identify. On a clear morning in that flat country, you could see almost forever.

We stopped on the other side of a cattle guard, unloaded our horses and tightened our cinches. The sun was a faint glow in the eastern sky when we swung up into the saddles. We rode out on the morning whose air was fragrant with the musky aroma of fall weeds, and began our day’s work. I was reminded of the words of a song:

Old Dunny and me, we cut through the breeze
As morning was painting the tops of the trees.
Oh Lord, give me more! That’s all I could say,
Just another cowboy day.

Graveyard Point

In the fall of 1995, when we gathered the East Pasture for our shipping roundup, we missed 15 cows. That surprised me because I had plenty of help, all good cowboys and all well mounted.

A day or two later, I found the cows. They were in the northeast corner of the pasture in an area we called Point Creek Canyon. It was actually a system of five canyons, one main branch and four feeder canyons that occupied something like 400 acres in this 2,000-acre pasture.

It was the roughest part of the ranch, most of it inaccessible to vehicles and difficult to reach even with a sure-footed horse. We’d owned this ranch for six years and there were still places in those canyons that I had never seen.

Missing 15 cows in that country was no disgrace, but I didn’t want to do it again. When we gathered the pasture in the fall of 1996, I decided to ride out the Point Creek Canyon country myself. My presence there was no guarantee we would get a clean gather, but at least I had some knowledge of the canyon system and the trails that led in and out.

Riding with me that morning was A.D. Reed, a neighboring rancher from up on the flats and as good a cowboy as you could find. We trotted our horses to the east side of the pasture and at sunrise we reached the west rim of Point Creek Canyon. Looking down into the canyon floor some 300 feet below, we could see cattle moving through the cedars. They had already seen us or heard us, and like deer, they were leaving.

We made our way down a steep deer trail that led to the canyon floor, then rode as far north as we could go without dismounting and leading our horses through the cedars. We stopped and listened. We heard nothing. Those wild old cows had cleared out. There was one trail out of the canyon at the north end. We hoped they had gone out on top, where some of the other cowboys would pick them up.

But when we bunched the herd up on the flats, we counted them and found that we were seven cows short. A.D. offered to go back and ride Point Creek Canyon from one end to the other, but I told him not to bother. We had trucks coming at 10 and had another pasture to gather.

Over the next several weeks, I looked for the missing cows. I figured A.D. and I had missed them somewhere in that maze of canyons, and that eventually they would come out for water. They would be easy to identify. They would be the only cows in the pasture with calves at their sides.

But weeks passed and still I hadn’t found them. I went back to my tally book and doubled-checked my count, thinking that I had made a mistake in arithmetic. No, my count was right. The cows weren’t there.

I was stumped. It seemed to be a mystery without a solution.

In early November, I rode a neighbor’s pasture and checked brands on all the cows. Mine were not among them. Had they been stolen? Not a chance. In the first place, the cattle market was so bad, only a lunatic would steal cows. In the second place, even a lunatic wouldn’t try to steal cattle on this rough old ranch. If we couldn’t gather those cattle with 15 cowboys, what chance did a rustler have?

I was stumped. It seemed to be a mystery without a solution.

One afternoon near the middle of November, I was driving my pickup along the west rim of Point Creek Canyon. Up ahead, my eye caught an unusual pattern in the grass, a circle where the grass appeared to have been beaten down. I got out and walked over to it.

I noticed the leg bone of a cow, a spine, another leg, a rib cage, a skull … another skull, more leg bones, jaw bones … another skull …

There, on the sheer edge of the canyon, I had stumbled upon a cattle graveyard that yielded the skulls and jawbones of the missing cows and calves. Coyotes had beaten down the grass, and it still reeked of death and decay. Down in the canyon, I could see the remains of at least one cow.

What happened? How did they die? My guess was that a powerful thunderstorm rolled in from the north. A small herd of cows and calves had been grazing the top country when the storm hit. Lashed by wind and rain, they drifted to the southeast, until they came to the rim of the canyon.

There, they stopped, turned their backs to the wind and waited for the storm to pass. A bolt of lightning ripped through the black sky, killing them all and blowing one off into the canyon.

So ended the mystery. That spot acquired a new name: Graveyard Point. Those skulls remained there for years, telling their story of that fateful stormy night.

Brain Size in Dogs

Recently, I watched a video lecture given by a scientist who had made a study of the brain activity of dogs. He showed CAT scans of brain changes when dogs received certain commands and stimulations relating to food.

His research demonstrated that the smaller size of the dog’s brain limits the range of responses it can make to a human companion. In other words, though humans and dogs have been close friends for thousands of years, we’re quite different.

Those of us who live with dogs already knew this. It seems to me that a better research project would have explored how our lives might change if dogs had more brainpower.

My prediction is that if dogs had better brains, we might not like them as well, and they might not be so fond of us either.

In an age when technicians are anxious to tamper with things like brains, it’s more than an abstract discussion. A little surgery and a few silicon chips could change the game.

My prediction is that if dogs had better brains, we might not like them as well, and they might not be so fond of us either. Smarter dogs might start using Facebook and Twitter instead of being loyal companions. They might spend all day Sunday watching dog Frisbee on TV.

They might hook us up to wires and sensors and study CAT scans of our brains when we responded to certain words, such as “fajitas,” “chocolate,” and “income tax.” They might start asking annoying questions:

Bottom line, what’s in it for me?
If you’re so smart, why can’t you balance the federal budget?
Why do you buy the cheap brand of dog food?
What happens to civilization if everyone in New York flushes their pots at the same time?
What if I don’t want to be a nice doggie?

I predict that such a study would make a strong case that dog brains and human brains are exactly the size they ought to be, and maybe it wasn’t an accident. Maybe the ratios were set from the beginning by a Designer who knew how to build dogs and humans, and whose brain was even bigger than ours.

To some scientists, this would be intolerable. It would reek of Judeo-Christian bias and would open the gates to a flood of fairy tales. If dogs and humans were actually designed and built in a very precise manner, so that we like each other, then the words in Genesis would have a creepy overtone of truth: “And God saw that it was good.”

I suppose it’s natural that we humans take pride in the size of our brains and tend to view it as a sign of our superiority in the animal kingdom. The fact that we employ science to study our dogs and they don’t use science on us, suggests that we’re making good use of our assets.

Not only are our brains larger, but we’re also ahead of dogs in the number of genes we bring to life’s challenges: 23,000 for us and only 19,000 for dogs. One hates to brag, but those numbers are impressive.

But wait. There might be some bad news in the gene department. With our 23,000 genes, we’re ahead of dogs, but sea urchins have 26,000. They don’t do science at all. They don’t even bark.

And it gets worse: Rice has 38,000.

Good grief. We have fewer genes than a box of Rice Krispies.

John R. Erickson

John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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  • TxAgEngr
    Posted: Sun, 07/22/2018 07:17 pm

    Thanks for the story, Mr. Erickson.  Once, as a child, when I was complaining about an uncooperative cow, I was reminded that "they are just dumb beasts".  I have since realized, that if cattle had any greater mental ability, they would figure out that they were being raised to be slaughtered and eaten, and would then rise up against us and kill us in self-defense.  

  • CNY_Farmer
    Posted: Mon, 07/23/2018 05:00 pm

    Thank you for sharing about life on the ranch.

    Graveyard Point hit home. After one of our best brooding experiences to date, we lost four healthy chicks to a predator last night. The movable pens are supposed to be predator proof, but it figured out a way to dig under the side at a low spot. So the livestock guardian dog's 19,000 genes will be relocated away from the sturdier house with the mature chickens and start guarding the chicks.

    Isn't it wonderful that the Lord gave some animals enough sense to know how to stand guard.

  •  MapleBee's picture
    Posted: Sat, 08/04/2018 07:31 am

    Thank you World for these essay treasures.. Encore!  Whimsical description of flowering  buckwheat was spot on!  I could envision myself riding along as he drove across acres of white lace tablecloth.  So imaginative makes me sigh...thanks again for posting.