I have been in a couple stompedes through the years ,,,,,,,anyway that is what we called them. But I did very little night herding and I think the true definition of a “Stampede” happened long before I ever got to do any night herding. I think it took a special kind of old time bovine to create a real stampede. Cattle have changed a lot since the “Trail Driving Days”. We have some good cattle still around that can make a living in rough country and protect their babies even if it is wolves and Grizzly Bears, but they are fewer and not the same as the ancestors of the old range raised Longhorns, whose ancestors came out of the bull rings of Spain. I think J.Frank Dobie tells about a true stampede in his book “Longhorns”.
It was a June night of the year 1884, on the Cimarron. The air was hot, stifling, absolutely still. It had been thus all day. Now the sky became overcast, and dull sheer-lightning began to blink along the horizon to the west. Two men rode around twenty-five hundred big steers, as wild and sinewy as ever came out of the chaparral down by the Rio Grande. About two hundred yards away was camp, Though the fire of cow chips had died and not a spark revealed the nine sleeping forms out from the chuck wagon, their pallets spread in patternless formation. Near each sleeping man stood a horse — his night horse, the clearest-footed and surest—sighted of his mount—saddled and tied. Somewhere out in the darkness the horse-wrangler kept drowsy guard over the remuda.
The cattle and the night were so quiet that the two herders stopped now and then on their rounds to listen. They could not help expecting something. The air grew warmer and more stifling, as the lightning flashes approached and dim thunder began to rumble up. The men could still skyline the cattle. Presently a dun steer that had been in the lead of the herd form the beginning and had been named “Old Buck” awoke, lifted his head slowly, rose to his knees, and looked around. Evidently he did not trust the looks of things, but, being long experienced in life, he wasn’t startled, and he said nothing. He got on his feet, rising his nose to smell, and gazed towards the approaching storm. The two men on guard sang as gently as they could the songs they had sung over and over to soothe the cattle down and prevent any sudden sound form breaking in and frightening them.
But Old Buck had no idea of going back to bed. He seemed to be expecting something—something as sudden as a telegram can be. Another steer got up, stood still, expectant; then others and others arose until the whole herd was on its feet, motionless. The songs were louder now, unrelenting, pleading.
The night grew blacker, the lightning brighter, the humidity of the air more intense. And then almost at once, on every tip of the five thousand horns of the waiting steers appeared a ball of dull phosphorescent light—the fox fir, St. Elmo’s fire, will-o’-the-whisp of the folklore of the world. In the intervals of utter blackness the two guards on the lone prairie could see nothing but those eerie balls illuminating the tips of mighty antlers. But they were notes of “The Texas Lullaby” which is not made of words and can’t conveyed by musical notation. It is made of syllables and tones conveyable only by voices trained in darkness and deep thickets. The notes came long, low and trembly. The wailers of the “The Texas Lullaby” did not yell or shoot, for that would have been to scare the as yet still cattle.
The ghostly balls of fire on horns must have looked as strange to the steers as to the men. The steers began to move at a walk, their motion becoming circular, the riders around them preventing any decided movement away from the bed ground. At first the walk was slow; soon it became faster. And then out of blackness came a great flash of zigzag lighting forking down over the seething mass os animals, so close that darting tongues of flame seemed almost to lick their backs. At the same time a mighty clap, a roar, a crash of thunder shook heaven and earth, reverberating and doubling.
Its answer was the thunder of ten thousand pounding hoofs that popped and clicked, while horn clicked against horn. The stampede started with the swiftness of the lightning’s leap.
The cowboys arrived from camp just in time to join the pursuit. The gigantic thunderbolt had knocked out the sluice gates of the sky. The water poured down in sheets and barrels. It rained blue snakes, pitchforks and bob-tailed heifer yearlings all at once. One minute It was darker than the dead end of a cooked tunnel a mile deep under a mountain. Then the prairie was a sea of blue and yellow light dazzling to all eyes.
No matter. Hang with the cattle. Trust your horse. Follow those balls of fire tossing in the void of blackness, too dim to illumine even the horn tips they play upon, sometimes darting across to dance with each other, again fading out altogether. Now, truly, they may be the will-o’-the -wisp that lures followers to the Black Death. When the lightning won’t light, run by ear. When lightning blinds and the thunder drowns all other sound, keep on riding hell for leather. To get around them and circle the leaders, you must run wilder and madder than the horror-lashed cattle themselves.
It would probably have been better had the two night-herders not been recruited. The object was to swing the leaders around into the tail end of the herd, thus turning it into a mill. A single man, who knew how, could do this better than a bedlam of riders. Then gradually the whole mass would be wound int a self-stopping ball, the momentum dying down like that of a spent top.
One of the two night-herders with this stampede on the Cimarron was Robert T. Hill, who in later years became a mining and oil geologist renowned over the United States and Mexico.
“Before long”, he says, “I found myself and another rider chasing a small bunch of cattle, close upon their heels. Never before nor since has thunder sounded to me so loud as on that run or have lightning crashes come so rapidly and so near.
“At a crash that was the climax, my horse stopped dead in his tracks, almost throwing me over the saddle horn. The lightning showed that he was planted hardly a foot from the edge of a steep-cliffed chasm. A little off to one side, the horse of John Gifford, the other rider, was sinking on his knees, John himself slumping limp in his saddle. Just beyond him lay Old Buck, the mighty lead steer, killed by the bolt of lightning that had knocked John Gifford unconscious. The rest of our bunch of cattle were down under the cliff, some of them dead, some squirming.”
When morning came, clear and calm, not a man was in sight of the cook, all of whose provisions had been drenched and who could not begin to start a fire with the soaking-wet cow chips. The twenty-five hundred steers that had been trailed and guarded a thousand miles from southern Texas towards the market of Dodge City were scattered to the four winds. Before noon, though, men by ones and twos began driving in bunches from different directions. Hours later the last man was in. Meantime the wrangler was supplying fresh mounts and the boss, going at a long lope, was leading all hands, except two or three on herd, to comb the country. The men could eat later on, and a trail hand was supposed to get his sleep in the winter.