Mike Capron

Blue was calved down on the Nueces River, near the Texas coast, in the spring of 1870. His mother may have been wild, but judging by Blue’s nature, she was never “snaky”. He was four years old before anybody took sufficient notice of him to give him a name, which came form the color the vaqueros call moro, or “mulberry”.

At the age of three he was put in a herd of other brush cattle bound for New Mexico. Its route was over the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Above Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos, the Apache Indians swooped down one night, stampeded the cattle, and got away with six hundred. In a sharp brush the next day six or seven warriors paid for these cattle with their lives, and there was one more cowboy grave on the lone prairie. The remainder of the herd, something over 1500 head, went on ten days farther and were sold to John Chisum at the Bosque Redondo ranch. That fall the Apaches were fierce, and one morning a hand found Blue with an arrow in his rump. It was cut out and the wound healed rapidly. Blue had learned the smell of Indians.

The next spring Charlie Goodnight bought Blue in a “string” of five thousand steers from John Chisum, cut them into two herds, and trailed them on northward to the Arkansas River above Pueblo, Colorado. Blue went with the first herd.  He was a mature beef now, four years old. He had seen a lot of the world and from the day the herd trailed out he asserted his natural leadership. Every Morning he took his place at the point and there he held it. Powerful, sober, and steady, he understood the least motion of the point men, and in guiding the herd showed himself worth a dozen extra hands. The cowboys all noticed him. 

Instead of sending Blue on up to feed Indians at an agency in Wyoming, as he sent so many steers, Goodnight kept him on his Colorado range. Goodnight had one of his hands break Blue to the yoke. A man driving an ox wagon to California wanted to buy him, but he was not for sale. The Goodnight herd moved down on the Canadian River to winter.

In the summer of ’76  the restless Goodnight decided to pull up stakes in Colorado and return to Texas. So Blue led the herd that stocked the first ranch in the vast Texas Panhandle of the Staked Plains. There were 1600 head of cattle in that first herd as they filed down the bluff of the Palo Duro Canyon. Goodnight partnered with a Scotsman named Adair and within 10 years the J A brand was on 75,000 head of cattle in the million acres of land up and down the Palo Duro Canyon, and Blue had become the outstanding animal in it. 

The outlet for the Palo Duro was Dodge City two hundred and fifty miles north. It was October 26, 1878, that a herd of 1000 J A steers headed in that direction to trample down the grass over a route thenceforth known as the Palo Duro-Dodge City Trail. Old Blue was in front.

This trip was different from any other he had made. It was customary to bell the mare leading a horse herd. Away back in the sixties some young men belled an old cow to lead a thousand head of maverick yearlings they had caught on the forks of the Llano River—and after a maverick got used to that bell, he would, if cut off, make haste to get to it. But when Blue’s owner decided to bell the leader of a trail herd of steers, he was making an innovation. The leaders were often the wildest old steers of the herd and could never have been managed as Blue was.

His bell was brand new, with green stain and red label fresh upon the brass. The collar was clean and shiny and had the wholesome smell of fresh leather. When Blue got that collar around his neck and heard the ling-ling-ling of his bell, he was as proud as a ranch boy stepping out in his first pair of red-topped boots.

The steers soon learned to follow the sound of Blue’s bell. Attached to it was a little strap for tying up the clapper. Before the herd was to be bedded down for the night or halted for the grazing during the day, one of the cowboys would pitch a rope over Blue’s horns, and walk up to him and strap the clapper into silence.

After leading a thousand steers all day, Blue believed in exercising the privileges of individuality.  He considered himself always as apart form the masses. He would walk right into camp among the pots and pans and eat pieces of bread, meat, dried apples—anything the cook would give him or the boys could steal from the cook.  He became a great pet. Often he was hobbled and left to graze with the saddle horses. Sometimes he was staked out at the end of a long rope. He preferred to bed down away from his inferiors—and he had no peer.

The trail work followed a well established routine. When it was time to travel after the early morning’s grazing, Blue nosed out toward one of the point men to have his bell clapper loosened. Then he would give a toss of the head and a switch of the tail, often throwing in a low chuckling bellow to emphasize his pleasure, and stride north. Some waddie with the voice of a bugle horn would sing-song out the old Texas call, “Ho, cattle, ho, ho, ho, ho, and the big steers would soon be strung into line. Blue must have known the North Star, he coursed so unswervingly. He was always “raring to go,” and, unless checked, he was apt to walk too fast.

One evening up in the Indian Nation, just beyond Beaver Creek, Blue came near walking right into an unfenced squatters field, but the point man veered him around it. The squatter came out of his dugout to sell some of the pumpkins he had grown. The JA foreman bought a few and then ordered his men to bed down “away over yonder.”

“No, no, pled the squatter, “bed nigh here. I need cow chips for fuel.” Blue was just one among many manufacturers of “prairie coal.”

When this pioneer herd from the Palo Duro reached the Cimarron River, they found it on rampage, but Blue shouldered straight into the waters, and after him strung the thousand JA’s. After all were across, six of the cowboys swam back to the south bank. Four of them hitched their ropes to the tongue of the chuck wagon; two of them, one on either side, hitched ropes to to the stays on the bed. Thus pulling and guying the wagon, they helped the cook’s team bring it across. It was time to camp, and Old Blue had worked around the herd and was at the bank to meet them when they emerged.

At the Arkansas River, just south of Dodge City, a cold wind was blowing and the north was black. December was at hand.  “Every man saddle and tie up,” the foreman ordered. “We’ll have hell before daylight.” About midnight a storm of sleet and snow hit the herd. Every hand went to it. The steers wanted to drift, but the boys held them like a solid wall.

At daylight there was a yell:  “Untie Old Blue’s clapper and take the river.” The water was frozen out from the bank, but plunging into the icy current, the big steers “made the riffle.”  When they reached the north bank, they felt like running, and harder and faster they crowded Old Blue. Two thousand horns clacked and four thousand feet roared. The frozen ground fairly shook. But if Blue was gentle, he had the speed of a race horse. Still at the lead of his herd, he headed  straight for the twenty-foot gate that opened into the big shipping pens. With one bunch of cowboys to cut, another to count, and a third to run the cattle up the chute into the cars, they were loaded long before noon and on their way to Chicago — all but Old Blue.

He had proved himself far too valuable to be sold for steaks. He stayed with the remuda and ate hay while the cowboys warmed their stomachs at a bar and their feet on the floor of a dance hall. After a day and a night of celebration, they had spent themselves empty and were ready to leave.  So at Wright and Beverley’s store next morning the wagon was loaded with chuck and sacks of shelled corn. The grains in those sacks were colored red, white and blue, and on the road home Blue learned to eat corn; in fact, he loved it, and the colored grains seemed to add to his spirits.

The weather was freezing cold, and as the outfit headed southward, men and horses alike felt like making time. Blue was ready to travel also. He had the stride of seven-league boots and could walk up with any horse. Sometimes the thirty-miles-day clip made him trot, but he never tired or lagged. Down on Wolf Creek one night a hungry band of Kiowas rode into camp and, pointing at the big steer, demanded “wohaw” (beef), but Chief Lone Wolf and all his warriors could not have taken Blue away from those Palo Duro cowpunchers . 

After this trip up the trail as bell ox, Blue’s occupation for life was settled, but besides leading herds to Dodge City, he was put to various uses. When the chuck wagon was out in spring and summer, Blue would generally follow it, taking choice food the boys would hand him. If an outlaw steer was roped in the cedar brakes and had to be led in, he was necked to Old Blue, the pair was turned loose, and, straight as a crow flies, the bell ox would bring him to camp.

If a wild herd of cattle was to be penned, Blue was put with them to show the way in. Wild cattle upon approaching a pen often circle and try to break away; but the wild ones could not break ahead of Blue, and his course was right into the gate.  Upon entering a pen, range cattle will  rush for the opposite side, pushing, hooking, milling. Blue never got into such jams. As soon as he had brought the lead cattle inside the pen, he would step aside and impatiently wait  beside the gate until the last animal entered; then he would bolt out.

For eight years Old Blue kept at his occupation of leading herds. Some years he went up to Dodge City twice. The horns and legs of the steers he led were growing shorter and shorter and often the cowboys had to shoe the fine, big shorthorns that the JA’s were coming to raise, but never did Blue limp. His hoofs were as hard and bright as polished steel. All told, ten thousand head or more of the JA cattle followed Blue and his bell into the shipping pens of the “Cowboy Capital.” 

The older he grew, the more philosophical he became. It sometimes made a Spanish cow horse almost laugh, they say, to see him step aside in a night stampede and go to bawling. No slipping of horns, knocking down of hips and running until his tongue lolled out and his rump chafed green from entail emptying for him. “To step asides human,” and Blue was might human when a stampede started. If the boys could get the stampeders to milling, Old Blue’s bawl had a powerful effect in quieting them. At the head of the herd he never “buggered” when a jack rabbit suddenly jumped up from under a sage brush at his nose, or something liked that happened, and thus day and night he was a steady influence.

When he was twenty years old, he died. For a long time his horns remained in the office of the J A Headquarters, over the door leading into the vault. They may be seen today in the fine little museum maintained by the Panhandle—Plains Historical Society and the West Texas State Teachers College at Canyon. Like his trail-breaking owner, Old Blue of the Texas Longhorns belongs to history. 


This story was written by J. Frank Dobie from an interview he had with Charles Goodnight. It is in Mr. Dobie’s book “The Longhorns”.  

                                                  Mike Capron 

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