I’m not a horseman like Farmgirl. Nor, did I grow up on a cattle ranch. Our farm was more modest but we did raise some cattle and had a few horses around for awhile. I had enough riding ability to not fall off (mostly) and was able to maintain control (most of the time) of my horse. They’ve faded now but for a number of decades I carried some parallel scars on my right arm where a horse tried to scrap me out of the saddle against a Blackthorn tree. For those of you unfamiliar with Blackthorn trees, they grow large spines three to six inches long and covered by a fungus-like coating that will cause festering wounds if not treated within a reasonable amount of time.
Suffice to say, I had some basic riding skills.
When I started college at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, IL, I did so on a small scholarship that paid most of the $350/quarter tuition. Dad, at this time was “retired” and disabled due to Black-lung common to most coal miners at that time. Dad drew his regular Social Security payment plus a supplemental payment for his disability. As a minor child, I drew a small SS check that was sufficient, barely, to cover my room and board at an off-campus Baptist operated dorm. If I wanted to have money for anything else—like dates or an occasional movie, I had to earn the money myself.
SIU at that time operated on the quarter basis with Fall, Winter, Spring quarters along with a shorter Summer quarter. Most students attended the three regular quarters, but I attended year-around. The time was 1966 and the draft whistled around all male students. Summer was the time to bring up the grade-point-average to insure the continuation of our 2-S student deferments.
The Spring term ended in the 2nd week of June. Most of the resident students went home over Memorial Day. I didn’t that weekend. I had to work.
It was roundup time!
A few weeks earlier, a representative of the Union County Livestock Association arrived at the dorm to recruit some students to round up cattle in the Mark Twain National Forest. The area south of Carbondale was known locally as the Illinois Ozarks and was covered by forests and hills. Large portions of land was farmed but much was still unsuitable for crops and was left fallow. During the winter, cattle roamed free throughout the area and saved local farmers the need to buy and store feed for their cattle through the winter. Come the spring, it was necessary to round up the cattle, separate them and identify ownership as well as tag the new-borne calves.
We “cowboys” would be paid for each head of cattle we delivered to the pens and stockyards scattered throughout the hill country. If it all worked well, I’d earn enough money to last for a number of months. I joined a couple of friends, Lyle and Tom, and we agreed to work together, pool our numbers and split the money three ways.
Late Friday afternoon, we were picked up and taken down to the roundup headquarters. At that site, we were assigned to a “foreman” who would oversee our territories, provide our horses and tack, maps, emergency phone numbers, army surplus radios and pack rations, and a surplus army tent for the next three nights. The schedule for the following days was rise at 4:00AM, eat breakfast and go to our roundup areas by 6:00AM returning in the evening around dusk for supper. A fourteen hour day.
Our area was in central Union County and covered by wooded hills and rocks. Geologically, this area was the southern terminus of the last glacial invasion. The hills were covered with boulders and included a number of cliffs to make it all interesting. The plan was for us to ride a ridge, one on the left, one on the right and the other along the ridge top driving the cattle before us. Temporary corrals were setup every few miles where our herd was collected, tallied, and hauled off to other sites for further examination and delivery to owners. After we’d delivered the cattle, we’d move on to another area and do it all over again. I don’t remember how much we earned per head, but each of us could finish the roundup with several hundred dollars pay. A small fortune at that time.
All went well Saturday. The weather was clear, little wind and the temps reached the mid-70s by the afternoon. Sunday, after a short church service, was a repeat of the same but with growing overcast and by mid morning, the cloud layer had come down with a cool mist. We’d collected two small herds by noon and had moved to another territory some miles away along the Mississippi River. The terrain here was rocky and contained high bluffs parallel to the river.
As I recall, we’d built a small herd of some twenty head or so and had reached a breach in the bluffs. The collection point was a mile or so away on the other side of the bluffs to the east. According to the maps, the easiest path to take was through the breach and then follow the shallow valley to the collection point.
The breach was a couple of hundred yards long with a small deer trail through the rocks. Some of the rocks were boulders a dozen feet across. Some were larger. The trail was wide enough to allow two or three head to move side-by-side.
The mist was getting heavier as I remember and we decided to push the herd a bit harder since they were penned by the rising cliffs on each side of the breach. Also, we were getting wetter and the temperature was dropping. There’s nothing like being tired, hungry, wet and cold to make you feel miserable.
We were half-way through the breach when the herd stopped. No matter what we did, the herd just refused to go forward and were showing signs of balking. I remember one cow showing the whites of her eyes. Something was ahead that was about to panic the herd.
At that point, I was closest to the head of the herd so I rode forward to see what was causing the trouble. I approached a jumble of rocks that had fallen from the side of the breach cliff when I smelled it. It was a smell you never forgot—snakes. In this case, it was a rattlesnake den in the rocks.
About the same time I smelled them, I heard the rattles. My horse’s ears went back and she (I think it was a mare,) halted refusing to move further. There was buzzing in front of me, to the right of me and I thought even to the left rear of me. My horse became very skittish and I did not want to be thrown off in the middle of a rattlesnake den.
To this day, I don’t remember exactly how I backed out of the rocks. Tom said my horse just backed straight out along the trail until we reached the head of the herd.
I have a thing about snakes. I’ve been struck by Copperheads before and was saved by my high-top boots. I usually carried a .22 revolver loaded with shot cartridges. But in that den, six rounds of .22 shot wouldn’t have made any difference.
We got the herd turned around and by-passed the breach in the bluff. It took us another 2-3 hours to reach the collection point but none of us objected. I don’t think it would have been possible to get the herd through the breach. The den was off to one side away from the trail but the smell would have spooked the cattle. It wasn’t worth the effort to save a couple of hours.
That was my last roundup. I had a better job working for the University the next year, dating my wife and my Mother would die that following Spring. I glad that I took the opportunity when it was offered, because I can say that for a short time, three days, I was a real cowboy.