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A Vaquero of the Brush Country

A Vaquero of the Brush Country
The Life and Times of John D. Young
Illustrated by Justin C. Gruelle; preface by Lawrence Clark Powell

This true story of the Texas brush range and the first cowboys, as thrilling as any tale of fiction, has become a classic in Western literature.

Series: Texas Classics

January 1998
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
318 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | 3 b&w illus. |

This true story of the Texas brush range and the first cowboys, as thrilling as any tale of fiction, has become a classic in Western literature. It is the story of the land where cattle by tens of thousands were killed on the prairie and where the "Skinning War" was fought. It is the story of the Chisholm Trail up to Abilene and the Platte and of establishing a ranch on the free grass of the Texas Panhandle, of roping elk in Colorado, of trailing Billy the Kid in New Mexico, of the grim lands of the Pecos. And it is the story of John Young, old-time vaquero who was trail driver, hog chaser, sheriff, ranger, hunter of Mexican bandits, horse thief killer, prairie fire fighter, ranch manager, and other things—a man who was also something of a dreamer, a man of imagination.


  • Preface
  • A Necessary Explanation
  • I. The Making of a Vaquero
  • II. The Mossy Horns
  • III. For Their Hides and Tallow
  • IV. The Razorbacks
  • V. The Bloody Border
  • VI. If Not Law--Then Order
  • VII. Up the Chisholm Trail
  • VIII. Bringing in the Strays
  • IX. Dodging Comanches and Hunting Water
  • X. Establishing a Ranch on the Plains
  • XI. From Hell to Breakfast
  • XII. Billy the Kid Interpreted
  • XIII. Many Trails
  • XIV. When the Brush Popped
  • XV. Brush Country
  • XVI. The Big Steal and the Break-Up
  • XVII. The Brasaderos
  • XVIII. Mustangs
  • XIX. The Bandana and Other Belongings
  • XX. The Man with the Iron Hand
  • XXI. Trans-Pecos
  • Appendices
  • Index

J. Frank Dobie was a folklorist and author of many books about Texas life and culture.


In Southwest Texas, where sixty years ago and more I was "running cattle," cowboys were—and still are—generally referred to as "vaqueros" (often pronounced bakeros), "hands," or "cowhands." The word "cowboy" was sometimes used, but not nearly so commonly as now. Vaquero—from vaca (cow)—was originally applied only to Spanish or Mexican cowboys. But from an early day, Texans, especially those near the border, have used the word without reference to race. Thus in one corrida, or outfit, may be found "Mexican vaqueros," "white vaqueros," and "nigger vaqueros."


As for "cowpuncher" and "puncher," I do not recall having heard the terms in the old days, and the use of them, however common in the Northwest, is still limited, among men of the older generation at least, on the ranges of South and West Texas. I remember distinctly the first time I heard the word "cowpuncher" used. It was in the spring of 1879 and I was loading a train of cattle for the Cimarron Cattle Company at Las Animas, Colorado, for Kansas City. We had a man to go in charge of the cattle, but in those days the railroads gave a pass for every car or two of stock. Several boys around Las Animas who had run away from home to taste the Wild West wanted to go back East. They applied to me for passes, which I secured for them as far as Kansas City. When I handed the passes over I gave one of the boys a prodpole with instructions to help our regular man punch up the cattle if they got down in the cars. The boys were a rollicky bunch and they called themselves "cowpunchers," which they literally were, though I doubt if any one of them knew the difference between a jingle-bob and an off-strap. Originally, then, the word "cowpuncher" applied only to the chaperon of a shipment of cattle. The cowpuncher might be the best all around cowman in the country or he might be a sailor who had never saddled a horse. The prodpole was the symbol of his office. Clearly, "cowpuncher" is a misnomer for the cowboy. I have never liked the word. I have done my share of punching cattle on the cars, but even there I was a vaquero.


My father and mother came to Texas from Mississippi in 1849, did their courtship on the way, and were married soon after their arrival at Lockhart in Caldwell County. Father, who was a good carpenter, cut logs and built a house in a grove of live oak trees on Plum Creek just below Lockhart. There in 1856 I was born and christened John Duncan Young, being named after my maternal grandfather. Sixty-seven years later Emerson Hough in his novel on trail driving, North of 36, made Lockhart famous, and the heroine of that novel, Taisie Lockhart, lived in just such a house as I was born in.


Our life was nomadic. When I was two years old—though I recall nothing of the matter—my parents and grandparents moved out into the San Saba country and settled at Richland Springs. There, with the aid of a few other settlers, they built a combination stockade and cabin that came to be called Fort Duncan. We lived in this fort, and in it also during the Indian raids our few neighbors sought protection.


Father and Grandfather were both horse men and in settling on the San Saba their purpose was to raise horses. The country they picked is generally conceded to be the best horse range in Texas. There the curly mesquite grass, which cures like hay for winter, and mesquite beans keep horses fat the year round and as strong as corn would make them. The rocks of the San Saba hills give horses good hoofs and train them to be surefooted. Water there is plentiful and as fresh and healthful as any in the world. The Comanches knew all these things long before the white men heard of the San Saba, and they fought longer and harder to hold the San Saba territory than for any other ground of the Southwest. There for generations they had caught mustangs, and they were not long in finding out that the settlers at Richland Springs kept good horses.


For two years Grandfather and Father held out against the Indians, most of the time afoot. Then Father said that he would not live where he had to walk and we all moved back to Plum Creek. Here Mother and we children remained during the Civil War. After the War, Father became a Baptist preacher, but he spent more time in riding circuit and in looking after his few cattle than in preaching or reading. He was a thrifty man, and before he died he became a well-to-do merchant.


Grandfather Duncan never forsook horses. He returned to the San Saba and established a horse ranch that he maintained as long as he lived. In my early boyhood he and Grandma used to come down into South Texas once in a while to see us, always riding the best horses in the whole country. I worshiped those horses, and Grandfather used to say to me, "When you are big I'll give you a horse every time you visit us." Considering that we sometimes lived two hundred miles apart and that it took a week to ride the distance between us, the promise was not extravagant. Before I was grown, I began making the visits, and Grandfather always kept his promise. To one of these gift horses belongs something like an adventure—but I am getting ahead of my story.


From my earliest recollections my chief toy was a rope. I wanted nothing better. I roped the horses, milk cows, calves, chickens, cats, dogs, hogs, younger children, and everything else that came within range of my loop. At the same time that I was learning to rope I was learning to ride. When I was seven years old, Father left us to enter the Confederate Army. At parting he gave me a good horse and told me that as I was the oldest boy in the family I must use the horse to keep Mother and the children supplied with milk.


That was the year of one of the big drouths in Texas. During the hard winter our gentle milk cows all "dried up" or died, for we had no feed for them. The only chance to get milk was from the longhorn cows on the range. Out on the ranges thousands of these stood around mud holes and bogged and died; but the country was all open and there were thousands left. Most of the cows were branded, but anybody was welcome to catch up and milk any cow, provided he did not "knock the calf in the head with a churn dasher"; that is to say, starve it by taking all the milk from it.


I became a vaquero. The horse Father gave me was a grulla (mouse colored) dun paint. He was something of a race horse and knew more about handling a cow than some so-called cowboys. He gave me many a fall, but I soon learned to ride with a balance and to sense every move he was going to make. This natural anticipating of a horse's movements is what makes an easy rider. When a bucking horse hits the ground, the buster must know which way he will jump next or else get a fall. Nothing but early experience can give a rider this "sixth sense."


To keep the milk pans full I first had to ride out and find a cow that looked as if she would give more milk than the young calf at her side required. The cows that were the best rustlers were often the wildest. After I picked one out, the problem was to get her and the calf into the corral. I could generally drive her all right, but nine times out of ten when we reached the corral she would be afraid of it and would refuse to go through the gate. Since a cow will follow her calf anywhere, especially if the calf is in trouble, what I usually did was to take down my "toy," rope the calf, drag it into the pen by the horn of the saddle, and tie it to the fence. If the cow did not immediately follow, I put my horse out of sight, hid myself near the open gate, and waited until she got up enough courage to nose her way inside. Then I slammed the gate to behind her.


This would usually scare her half to death and she would want to fight. I'd crawl up on Old Paint again, ride into the pen, and rope her. After a while I'd give the rope a vuelta (a turn) around a post, and by taking up the slack when the cow ran would finally get her tied up short. Then to keep her from kicking my head off I'd tie her hind legs together. By this time she would be so mad and worried that she would hardly let down a drop of milk. Nevertheless, I'd rub her and pull her teats to let her know that I was not going to hurt her. Then I'd turn her loose and leave her in the pen until morning, when she would have to be tied and her teats pulled again.


By repeating the operation night and morning I might within a week's time be getting a cupful of milk, and within two weeks' time the cow might be gentle enough to stand without being tied. My sister Sarah, two years older than I, generally helped me milk. None of those old longhorn cows gave much milk. One was just a starter; sometimes it took a dozen to supply our family. But Paint and I asked for nothing better than to hunt and break milk cows.


In addition to keeping the family in milk I had various other chores. I drew water with a windlass out of a hundred foot well and carried it a hundred yards to the house. I rode into the brush and dragged up by the horn of the saddle what firewood we used. On Friday or Friday night I shucked and shelled corn to take next morning to the grist mill seven miles away to be ground into our week's supply of meal. Once the sack fell off the horse and the hogs ate up the meal while I was gone after help. That time we had to borrow meal to last until the next Saturday, for the mill ground but once a week. Aside from milk, our principal fare was corn dodgers and salt bacon.


I remember as well as if it were yesterday the first flour bread that I ever tasted. My grandfather and grandmother came down from San Saba to visit us, riding horseback and camping along the way. They had raised some wheat, and they brought enough biscuits, ready made, to last them over the journey. Old as those biscuits were, I thought them the best thing that I had ever eaten. Sometimes to this day when I am hungry the taste of them comes back to me.


The luxury of flour and sugar on the frontiers gave rise to more than one story often told to children to enforce manners and to warn against backwoodsman ignorance. As one story went, the table of a settler was set for a wedding dinner and the guests were being awaited when a "yahoo from up the creek" stopped by on his way home from the mill to deliver some freshly ground meal. Of course hospitality demanded that he be asked to dinner, though his presence at the wedding "in-fare" was not desired. The hostess decided to say nothing of the impending sociable, but kindly suggested to the fellow that he sit down and eat at once so that he would not be delayed. He lived a long ride up the creek.


The man made free of the good things on the table and particularly free of a plate of sliced pound cake, which was of a rich, golden color like that of corn bread made from yellow meal—a color, if not a flavor, that he was used to. He deliberately spread each piece of cake with butter before eating it. Biscuits were scarce enough—but cakel The hostess saw the cake dwindling; she wanted to steer the hungry guest off on corn bread, but she judged that she had better be tactful. So she pressed him to have some biscuits.


"No, thank you, ma'am," said he. "You save them there biscuits. This here yaller bread is good enough for me."


And the thoughtful guest continued to eat until he had devoured all the "yaller bread" in sight and had stacked up a graveyard full of chicken bones on the cloth beside his plate.


We had no matches, no stoves, and did all cooking in a fireplace. Many a time I saw my father start a fire by loading his pistol with just enough wadding to hold the powder in place and then firing it off with the muzzle pointed close to a bit of cotton. One of the household observances was to cover the fire up with ashes before going to bed so that there would be a live coal to start the fire with next morning. But sometimes the observance was neglected or the ashes were too thin to keep air away from the coals or else so heavy as to smother them. Then I might have to go to a neighbor's house half a mile away to borrow a chunk of fire.


Carrying a chunk of fire so that it would not go out was something of an art and required expedition. If anybody wanted to "borrow" fire, he generally made his call brief. Hence arose the old saying, once common but now dying out, "You must have come after a chunk (or coal) of fire," in protest to a brief call.


Our lighting system was as simple as our ignition system. Daylight saving was almost universally practiced. When sickness or some other emergency required a light—nobody sat up to read—a fire might be kept going in the fireplace. Of course we generally had candles, but we were saving of them. We made them for ourselves as we made soap, liniments, and other necessities. Every family had its own candle mould. Some cotton would be spun on the spinning wheel to make a string for the wick; the wick would be hung in the center of the mould; then melted beef tallow would be poured around the string. The mould, with the tallow in it, was next set out to cool; in hot weather it was a job to get the tallow hard enough to stand alone. The first kerosene lamp I ever saw was a small tin contrivance. I paid a dollar for it, tied it and a gallon can of kerosene on my saddle, and brought them home to Mother.


About this time we learned that kerosene would "knock ticks." One day while we were branding colts we roped a yearling filly that was covered with ticks. She had not shed her winter hair, and it was particularly long. After we had thrown her, we rubbed her all over with kerosene and then slapped the hot branding iron to her. She instantly broke into a blaze and the two boys holding her down—for she was not tied—let her loose. Literally "like a streak of greased lightning," she broke into the manada of mares and colts, and right there we had the wildest run inside a pen that I have ever seen. It was a good thing that the pickets were strong.


Quicker than I can tell it, I picked up my rope, ran out into the middle of the pen, and, as she came down the side fence, threw a mangana on her fore-feet and at the same time tossed a half hitch over a post so that when she hit the end of the rope I held it without giving a foot and "busted" her flat. She was still burning, but we smotherd the fire out with dirt. She was so badly scorched that when she finally got well she had white spots all over her. The spots never went away and we always called her "Kerosene."


This incident occurred several years after the close of the Civil War, at which time Father came back to us safe and sound. When I was twelve years old we moved to Refugio Mission on Mission River. Here I went to school a few months, though Mother had already taught me to read, write, and spell. Three years later when some neighboring boys were planning to go off to a private school at Concrete in De Witt County—there were no public schools in Texas at the time—I announced that I wanted to go with them. Father replied that he was not able to send me. But I had three saddle horses and ten head of cattle, and with the money that they brought managed to go to school for ten months. At the end of the time I owed the school fifty dollars.


When I returned home, Billie Colville, a rancher, told me that if I would break seven wild potros (young horses) he had, he would let me have my pick of the seven. Just about the time I had got them all gentle and had picked out one to keep, an agent of the Concrete school came along and I turned my horse over to him to pay the fifty dollar debt. Being afoot did not bother me. I could ride other people's horses and get money for riding them.


Two or three incidents connected with the school life at Concrete linger in my mind. W. W. (Bill) Jones, who now owns more cattle, acres, and money than nearly any other cow man in South Texas, was a school fellow. One day "Professor" Covey sent Bill and me to Cuero, twelve miles away, to get a package. Now a trip to Cuero was a rare treat. We drove "Tip," a lazy mule, known to be twenty-five years old, to a buggy that had no top. Old Tip did not mind in the least the switches we cut and wore out on him. However, we happened to know that he did mind the report of a gun. When we got to Cuero, we bought a bottle of whisky, a pocket full of cigars, and as many firecrackers as we had money left to pay for.


Soon after leaving town we took a swig and lit up our cigars. Old Tip did not seem any more anxious to get back home than he had been to leave it. But the first firecracker that exploded under his tail put the energy of a whole manada of mustangs into him and from there on until we delivered him to "Professor" Covey he hit the ground only in high places. Every time he began to slow down a firecracker popped between his hind legs and away he would break as if the devil and Tom Walker were both after him. To make sure that the firecrackers exploded in a strategic spot we cut siene (rattle pod) switches, split the ends, and inserted the firecrackers in the split. We could direct the end of those switches. The sport was cruel, but I doubt if Bill Jones or I either ever enjoyed another ride more than we enjoyed that one.


Another time some of us school boys were in Cuero when the Taylor-Sutton feudists came into town armed to the hilt. There must have been a hundred men on each side. While we boys watched from behind a log, one side backed the other into some cow pens. Had a shot been fired, hell would have broken loose in Georgia sure enough. The leaders recognized this fact, a flag of truce was raised, and the crowd disbanded. Three days later they were shooting each other again, from ambush.


The Taylor-Sutton feud was the most bloody ever fought in Texas. Both families were extensive operators in cattle, employing numerous cowboys. Their quarrel, begun soon after the close of the Civil War, was over unbranded cattle. In the course of ten years scores of men became involved in it and dozens were killed. The feud ended in 1875.


One of the school boys at Concrete was George W. Saunders. As president of the Old Time Trail Drivers' Association and also as the head of an excellent live stock commission house, which does business in Fort Worth and San Antonio, George has received a good deal of publicity. I want to add an item. One time when I was at the Saunders home near Goliad, a gang of us boys were lounging on the front gallery. George was sprawled out on a narrow bench about two feet high and some one dared him to roll off. I don't think that he really intended to roll, but he made the motion and off he did roll. The fall knocked the breath out of him and we boys were shaking him when his brother Jack came up from the spring with a bucket of cold water and dashed it on him. The cold water brought George to right now, but when he found that the only paper collar he had was reduced to pulp, he wanted to fight all of us. The outstanding article in his "Sunday-go-to-meeting" apparel was ruined.


When I left Concrete my formal education was finished. I have always liked to read and have read many books, but what schooling I had was just an episode. The range was my real school. By the time I was twelve I was working with regular cow outfits, hunting and driving cattle over a wide country; by the time I quit school, at sixteen, I could hold my own with the most seasoned vaquero. I had no trouble getting all the horseback work I wanted. My first big experience was helping to put up a trail herd of mossy horns.