Gunnison

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    All equine heroes of the road were not stage teams, and every cowboy and rancher – and usually his lady – boasted of a personal, special horse. To the good “horse sense” of these western cow-horses may be attributed many escapes from disaster. One young woman used to travel all over the Lake Fork country with her horse and buggy, or surrey, often fording streams when bridges had been washed out. One day, during high water, she was starting across a bridge at the top of the falls above Lake City. Her mare did not want to cross, but she finally went over, hastily and carefully. The horse had barely left the bridge, when it washed out and was gone, carried downstream by the spring floods.

    Many times this spring runoff took out most of the bridges, leaving only railroad trestles as a means of crossing a stream. One spring, when high water had taken out every wagon bridge from Gateview to Lake City, a pioneer ranch woman found it necessary to go to Lake City, eight miles away. She made most of her cash from peddling vegetables, butter and eggs during the summer months, and since she had a large family to provide for, she felt she could not put off the trip.

    Taking her two steadiest horses, she loaded her spring wagon with vegetables and drove off into the flood at a fording place. The water swirled up through the wagon box, carrying sacks of peas, heads of lettuce, bunches of carrots and other vegetables out of the wagon and down stream. The family dog, who had been taught to retrieve sticks from the river, darted in to drag the articles ashore. The poor animal was completely bewildered, however, when he grabbed sacks of peas, only to have the paper bags disintegrate in his mouth and release the pods to float on away from him.

    The crossing was finally made, and the widow went on to town with whatever produce she had left. When it was time to go home, the warm day had swelled the stream even more, and, after taking a look at the ford, she decided to return by the only route left open to her: over the 125-foot-high High Bridge of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. She would not let her children ride across with her, but made them get out and walk over; but she drove her team across the trestle, the wheels of the wagon going bump-bump-bump on the ties, the horses glancing skittishly from side to side as they stepped carefully over the unfamiliar span.

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    Many later-to-be-prominent ranchers got their start with a few head of scraggly cattle that had run wild from the Indian herds, and a handful of mavericks often were a basis for the enterprising cowpuncher on his road to prosperity. Unbranded stock were fair game; even the Indian agents sometimes looked the other way when a hungry prospector brought down a “slow elk” with his rifle. But to avoid wholesale appropriation by budding stockmen, the Agency finally branded all government stock with the U.S.I.D. (United States Indian Department), which the witty editor of a frontier journal promptly dubbed “You steal and I divide.”

Running cattle was a rather simple matter in those days. In the spring, the owners opened the gate and let them out; after snow came in the fall, they rounded the stock up again. Sometimes it was better to run the risk of letting them starve on the range than to buy feed for them, with beef prices a far cry from some of the prices of more recent years. Cattlemen used to let the stock run out a great deal later in the fall, too, before range grazing was restricted. The cattle got no pampering, but their meat was good, coming off a range where bunch grass sometimes stood three feet high. Snow either was, or seemed, deeper in those days, and more than once stockmen didn’t have to bother with gates in winter – just took the cattle out over the crust, right over the tops of fences.

    As the cattle industry grew and thrived, developing an independent and prosperous class of its own, another threat moved in – the “woollies.” As the hated sheep with their Mexican herders came in from Utah, a secret organization, the Cattle Growers Protective Association, was formed. The stockmen, more commonly known as the Night Riders because of their nocturnal activities, had representatives in practically every cow town on the Western Slope. Whenever some newly arrived herd of sheep appeared, the information went out immediately, and some committee from far away called on the sheep outfit. The local Night Riders could thus establish their own alibis, for they did not take part in the local raids. Shooting lead into the offending flock, and occasionally into some resisting herder, was a common method of starting the undesired guests on the homeward trail.

    Because these activities were beyond the pale of the law, most stockmen, even in reminiscing of the old days, refuse to tell tales of these raids. However, several sheep wars did occur in the Gunnison Country, the cattlemen taking the view that on a range already heavily stocked with cattle, the coming of sheep would be disastrous. They had seen some of the grazing lands in Utah turned into deserts, and when some fellow started into the Cebolla country with a bunch, bringing them in from the Paradox, seventy or eighty cowboys rounded them up and shot most of them. Of course, nobody knew anything about it when local ranchers – particularly the Cebolla boys – were questioned.

    The bunch was watched by three herders, who took off promptly at the start of the raid. And the fellow who owned the flock hurried to Iola to telephone his wife, “This is poor country for sheep. I’ll be home tomorrow.” A flock brought into Taylor Park suffered the same treatment.

*****

    In the same mining camp in late December, 1885, a mild, seedy-looking little man entered one of the saloons and asked for a ten-cent cigar. “Sorry, the cheapest we have are fifteen cents,” said the bartender. “But all I’ve got is ten cents,” wailed the little man. The bartender considered a moment, and then set out the cigars. The timid customer squeezed two or three gingerly and said, “I guess, as I’m so tuckered out tonight, maybe I’d rather have a beer, if it’s all the same to you.” The bartender patiently pulled the cap from the bottle and set it on the bar. The newcomer eyed it balefully for a little while, then opined that he sure wished he could have a “little shot of real liquor.” By then every man in the place was watching the Charlie Chaplin performance. The little man did not disappoint them. When the bartender set out the bottle, a small glass and a mug of water, the visitor reproachfully dumped the water on the floor, filled the mug with whiskey, downed it with two gulps, plunked down his dime and shuffled out.