by Curtis Fort
A Man among Men
I’ve told about a lot of punchers in these “Scatterin’ the Drive” stories . . . fellas you could count on to cut the rope in a branding pen if you got in a jam dragging calves on a knot-head (and I like to tie on); men who rode that extra mile to make sure you came out of rough country when they knew you were riding a snake when you left camp; men who in a hot branding corral, and were just as dry as you, filled the dipper and handed it to someone else to quench their thirst before they had a drink; men that I admired, as they were top hands at everything a cowboy does! Those same men were very sad when they had to shoot a broke-legged horse, or when they could not get the new-born calf to breathe, when they, with another puncher had worked so hard to pull it during a steady spring snow storm. These men would offer to top-off a bad one for an older puncher, but in a way that the older puncher still had his pride; they would let everyone else go to the wagon for dinner, and were the last to eat because they were holding the round-up. They were buckaroos who would loan you their last dollar, or their only Sunday shirt. They might be rough on the outside, but had a heart big as a saddle blanket. These men were bosses that didn’t say, “You go do that chore,” but said,” let’s both get it done.” I’ve worked with many cowboys who were always respectful to a lady, tipped their hat, opened the door, and never used bad language in their presence . . . and still craved horse flesh and burning hair. A big snuffy cow blowing snot, even at them, or the bawling of a pitching horse, was all music to their ears.
I loved all those canyons, plains, mountains and rim rocks I got to ride in, but working that range with good men like I just described is as good as it gets. Many folks sit at a desk where the high point of their week is eighteen holes at the club. I’m not saying that life is bad, it just makes me realize how fortunate I’ve been, and I thank God for those times. I realize that many of those I speak of so highly, had a solid partner in their wives. These women understood the life of a cowboy, the long hours and love of the land. Most have lived in some dusty, cold, camps, but did the laundry, cooked the meals, and drove the kids sixteen-plus miles to catch the bus, then went back at five o’clock to pick them up. They knew the danger of a cowboy’s work and worried everyday about their cowboy husbands. Women like that can help pull a calf or feed a crew of cowboys in no time . . . and are still ladies. I have a lot of respect for them . . . my Mother, Lana Turner, Abby Hoffman, Georgia Culbertson, Laura McDonald, Robin Gierhart, Alice Cleaver, Carol Humphries, Punch Barnes, Carolyn Henard, Mariann Patterson, Carol Fort and many more.
These are men who “shot the powder,” like Billy George Drennan, at the Pitchforks, Leo Turner at the The Bells, Bill John Wooley at the Vermejo, Jim Gierhart at the Mean’s Ranch near Mule Creek, or Bobby Muncy at the Armenderis, to name a few. One of many I would like to have worked with was Yaqui Tatom, who left The Bells just before I got there. I did get to make a works with his son Tommy, who is all cowboy. I never heard a bad word about his Dad. I knew several punchers that worked under Yaqui while he ran the Bell Ranch wagon works, and all I heard was their respect for him as a boss and cowpuncher, and a notch above at handling broncs. When The Bell Ranch was still 1,000 sections, Yaqui took the rough off many three year-old broncs every July. There are many great Harvey Caplin photos of him doing just that!
Can you imagine trotting along with Charles Goodnight, Albert K. Mitchell, or men like them and listening to their experiences? They were all leaders with a way of being boss that didn’t belittle you for being just another puncher. Larry Dean at the Question Mark, Jim Patterson at the Orndorf or Gene Nix at the Corralitos were the same. They all liked to laugh, but didn’t flinch in a tough spot when a puncher needed them. They could drop a comment about getting the job done that made you feel good, but not too much praise that might give you the big-head. On the other hand, they knew how to tell you that you didn’t get the job done right in a way that you learned from it and would try the way they suggested. On the Vermejo, Corralitos and some other outfits, the boss would drop me off with two or three of my mounts to help a camp-man for a few days. That camp-man might be in his sixties, single, and was leading what seemed to me, a lonely life. But he had breakfast cooking way before daylight, while I grained our mounts we’d kept up the night before. He enjoyed the company as we prowled or gathered stock, and I learned a lot from him. I admired him when the boss was not around because he rode for the iron and took pride in his work. He was stepping on “rough” horses before I was born, so we’d sit after supper and roll smokes by a kerosene lamp or the light of a fireplace. I would quiz him about the ranges he’d ridden, and how they worked. This brings to mind Leandro Martinez at Vermejo, who spent his summers at Number 1 Camp in the high country, and his winters at Caliente Camp; and Slim Burmeister, who summered at the Ring Camp, and wintered at Brimmer Canyon. Leo Turner would say, “You need to look that boss in the eye on payday, when he hands you a check, knowing that you always gave 100 percent for the outfit.” These men I have mentioned could sure do that!
My main goal in doing these stories of riding for some outfits has always been to tell about cowboys I worked with, and who I highly respect. Carol, my closest friend and companion, has encouraged me, proof read, and spent many hours on these stories.
So, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to salute one last cowboy I learned from a long time ago, that had all the qualities I just mentioned. I’ve always thought that if I could ever be half the cowboy and man that Byron Fort was, I’d be happy. I think I would have wanted to punch cows anyway, but after working with him, I knew what I wanted to do. He was born on a homestead in a dugout, many years ago. At five years old his job was to gather cow-chips in a sack for his mom in order for her to cook in the wood-stove, and to use for heat in his folks’ homestead. He rode for the neighbor McClure’s outfit, took any job available and left home at seventeen to work for Turner Hutchinson at Crossroads for thirty dollars a month. He never said much, but when he did it had a lot of meaning. I never heard him talk badly about someone or use bad language. He helped drive herds to the railheads at Seagraves and Bledsoe Texas, and Kenna, New Mexico. He worked for Dickinson Cattle Company for forty years. He built many miles of fence for them, then handled their cattle, horses, and windmills . . . many times by himself. He raised a family and fed them beef, biscuits and gravy that was furnished by the light of his life, Ruby Faye. They raised a big garden, and Ruby Faye canned late into the night to help her family through the winter. Byron milked a cow or two every morning and night until he was ninety years old. He taught me how to “cheek” a bronc and step on quick as you kept his head pulled around. He was the reason I wanted to be a cowboy because I saw how much he loved the life. I can still see that twinkle in his eye, when he knew that all I really craved was to be like him. Byron Fort was a man to ride the River with! He went to be with Mom and Christ the on March 29, 2014 at ninety-nine years old.
I thank Caren and Margarite, along with all those at the New Mexico Stockman magazine, for putting in print these tracks I’ve laid. I thank all of you for reading them . . . hopefully you enjoyed the ride.