It had to have been around 1946, I was sitting next to my Grandpa’s bed. He was dying but at least he was dying at home and not in some damn nursing home where old folks are dropped off now-a-days to die surrounded by strangers.
I’m writing this the spring of 1986, I found out earlier this year that I have cancer and have only a few months to live. I decided to write down some of the things in my life that most stick out.
I’ve been a widower for the past 10 years. My wife and infant daughter were killed by a drunken driver on a Christmas Eve. It’s been a lonely 10 years. I know that she wouldn’t have wanted me to be alone but being with another woman held no appeal.
I had four boys to finish raising as a single parent. The youngest was 7 when his mom and baby sister were killed but they turned out alright. With the exception of the youngest they are grown, married and gone but come home regularly.
Back to my grandpa Casey, my story has been played out a thousand times through the centuries with but a few twists; my grandpa’s story is of a different kind though.
He was born in 1863 just outside of Uvalde Texas on a small homestead. His dad was off fighting for the South during the Civil War. The man who would call him son and he would call dad was not there for his conception or his birth; always made for an interesting story the way he told it.
When his dad got home from the War his ma and him just took up where they had left off. Most folks today wouldn’t understand such things but it was just the way it was. Not everyone came home and not everyone came home to a family; honestly it sounded like they was glad that they had survived the war. It didn’t sound like his dad resented him and raised him like his own blood. From the few pictures back then he didn’t look like he fit but he was family just the same.
Around 1874 his dad was killed, he was shot dead in the dark of night and the killers were never found, nor was a motive ever established; grandpa grew up fast after that.
The story that sticks out most he told me at his bedside when he was dying.
In 1879 he headed north with a herd of cattle, their destination was ‘somewhere up North’. Some speculated Montana others felt like Wyoming was as far North as they needed to go; the owners didn’t specify the exact location of their destination so it carried an air of mystery.
Grandpa hired on at full wages and some of the older hands resented that. After about a week on the trail one of the hands let his resentment get the best of him and he picked a fight with grandpa. They bare knuckled it and left their guns alone. It took grandpa awhile to get it done and he was knocked down 3 or 4 times but kept getting up until the other guy either couldn’t get up or wouldn’t. No more was said about his wages or his position on the crew.
Along with pushing cows he was also, as the youngest rider, required to help the cook and wrangle horse. They had a full time night hawk for the horses but there was never too many hands on a cattle drive.
The had crossed the Red River and had swung a little more westerly but still heading mostly North.
The cook, and grandpa never did learn his real name everyone just called him Cookie, was a grizzled old man of about medium size. He ran his kitchen as it was loosely referred to with an iron fist. Few hands ever tried to mess with him as he was as good with his fists as he was with a Dutch oven. Those cowboys had a real appreciation for Cookies meals and knew short of running out of grub they would be eating more than beans and salt pork.
Grandpa couldn’t recall ever seeing Cookie on a horse but then there would have been no reason for him to ride one when he was driving a team.
They were some where between ‘Hell and High Water’ as grandpa described it when the stampede happened.
Texas Longhorns are wild and skittish critters. They didn’t survive the brush country of Texas being gentle and docile. They’ll fight just about anything and run at the drop of a hat. Most of the old timers can tell you stories of an entire herd getting to their feet and hit’n a dead run in a heart beat and doing it as if they were one animal instead of 1200 to 2500 head.
Grandpa was telling me this story in bits and pieces as he alternated between sleeping and moments of being awake. I had never heard it before so was completely immersed in it.
It was around 2 in the morning and fairly quiet, just an occasional changing of the night riders.There was no storm, no lightning no foreign sounds just a quiet night when the herd was on their feet and running.
The cowboys in their bedrolls needed no warning, every man was on their feet and running for their horses. Some took time to tighten cinch’s of horses that they had on the picket line ready for their turn at night hawking others grabbed what they could and swung on bareback and headed to catch the herd. Grandpa had just started his turn at night and was racing to catch the lead.
The night was dark with only the lights from the stars, he could hear and sense the running animals and then out of nowhere a blue light, kind of a crackling blue wave jumping across the horns of the cattle. He looked in awe at the sight and if he was afraid the fear left him for just a heartbeat, then it was dark again and he was caught up in the momentum of the stampede.
A prairie dog hole, a tree stump, a small wash, just about anything could trip his horse and down he’d go. If he survived the fall he’d have to dodge several hundred cattle trying to run him down; there’d be nothing left of him.
He wasn’t sure how long he had been running with the herd when he sensed a rider next to him; it was Cookie. He was bent low over the neck of his horse and to grandpas surprise he was outrunning him.
“Come on kid, we can only die once” he yelled at grandpa and flashed him a wolfish grin as he went by. Grandpa spurred and whipped his horse to try and keep up, to his surprised his horse picked up the pace and they stayed a short distance behind Cookie.
He could hear Cookie yelling and cussing at the lead steers and then he pulled his pistol and fired a few shots in the air. That having no affect he shot a couple of the lead steers and the herd started to turn, then Cookie and his horse disappeared; it was if the ground had swallowed them up.
By now grandpa was at the head of the herd and they were starting to turn and their momentum was dissipating. Some of the other riders had caught up and the herd continued to turn and lose their momentum. They found what was left of Cookie, his horse and saddle the next day.
I asked grandpa if he was scared but he was drifting off to sleep and didn’t answer. I wasn’t sure if he’d wake up again and remember to finish the story or at least answer my question. He was awake in the early morning hours and was hungry and thirsty so I got him a glass of water and some slices of a beef roast that was in the refrigerator; he picked up his story without missing a beat.
“Yeah I was scared but when Cookie went by me his devil may care attitude struck something within me and fear no longer was a factor. Even when Cookie went down I wasn’t afraid. I was caught up in the moment and whether I lived or died didn’t matter, I understood at that moment that there was something in this world that was bigger than all of us, someone else was in control”.
He passed away the next day, those were his last words.
Authors note; This story is complete fiction. I was working on a leather project one day and listening to music and it popped into my head. It unfolded without a hitch so here it is. My goal as a writer is to entertain and the depth of the characters is part of that entertaining; hope you enjoyed. Brian