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Jess was a tough old cobb. When you worked for him, you worked his way and on his time. I suppose that’s the way it should be. Whether you’re paid or volunteer, if you make the pledge to work for the man, you work his way, not how you think he ought to work gatherin’ and brandin’. Someone wrote a long time ago, you work for the brand.

Out in Culberson County, Texas, southeast of the town of Van Horn, east of the Wild Horse valley and on the very northwest end of the Davis Mountains, a small low-lying range of limestone foothills is called the Wylie Mountains. The grey-toned hills were named after an early pioneer rancher.

The Wylies are cut up by hidden arroyos and box canyons (rincons) topped off by prickly pear and cholla cactus--that will jump at you, yuccas (palmas) and lechugilla (a yucca cousin called Spanish bayonets). Watch where you sit down ‘cause there’s pin cushion and fishhook cacti laying close to the ground. If you worked for Jess, there wasn’t much sitting down, but there was plenty of waiting in the darkness for camp coffee to boil near the horse corrals next to a hundred-year-old adobe and plank line shack.

Finally, Jess would stand up, spit, shake the kinks out, and all the cowboys split up to the four directions. They’d all done this before. It was surprising, but after about nine in the morning, the little canyons had been cleaned out, and four squadrons of cows and calves were pushed into a gather rendezvous. In two more hours, we were cutting out calves from mothers at the shipping pens and lighting up the fires of pine and mesquite to turn irons red hot.

Later I found out this was the first roundup of those 35 sections in about two years. It turned out we’d only missed about six head. Some of those calves were pretty randy and near full grown and were about as single-minded as Jess. God Rest His Soul.

J.T. rose before dawn.
Some wondered if he slept.
Line camp coffee was all he offered,
most times, at three or a bit before four.
Riding for him, was
a promise of hard days,... to be kept.
Woolly cows, calves full grown, and
bulls that were the devil's spawn,
(not a happy heifer in the bunch)
on the range two seasons,
were all he gave in return, except,...
maybe, a meal or an honest day’s pay
and through your leather,
a break or a burn.
No one asked, he never explained it,
there were no reasons.
Ol' J.T.'s probably still out there
in the Wylies,
out there in the dark,
waiting for day
by a broke down gathering pen,
waiting on young boys,
snuff cans in their pockets,
and hardened men,
wondering where those dogies were,
from two years ago,
gone without a mark.
At three or a bit before four,
he'd spit and growl, wondering if
you were ready for more.

(#246) October 20, 1998, Albuquerque, NM

Travel well,
Jeff C. Campbell

Campbell, a veteran police officer / investigator, published author of articles, books, and a series of novels. He's an independent historian focusing on the Southwest and Colorado