The Passing of Bill Jackson

by Will C. Barnes

"I tell you fellows, 'tain't no fun to swim a bunch of steers when the water is as cold as it is now." The speaker was a short, thick-set cowboy, whose fiery red hair had gained for him the sobriquet of "Colorado," the Mexican name for red, which was frequently shortened to "Colly" among the "punchers."

Colorado, who was carefully rolling a cigarette, glanced around the circle of listeners, as if challenging some one to contradict him. The balance of the boys evidently agreed with him, for no one said a word except the "Kid," and he, after taking his pipe from his lips and carefully knocking out the ashes on the heel of his boot, said:

"'Jever have any 'sperience at it, Colly?"

Colorado by this time had finished rolling his cigarette and was waiting for the cook's pot-hook, which he had thrust into the campfire, to get red-hot, to light it. Having done this and taken a few preliminary puffs, he answered:

"Yes, I hev, and a mighty tough one it was, too."

"Tell us about it, Colorado," said the cook. "Whar was it, an' how did it happen?"

"Yes, Colly, le's hear the story," chimed in the Kid.

It was just the time for a story. We had come down to the railroad with a bunch of steers, and found the Little Colorado River, which ran between us and the railroad, swollen to a mighty torrent by the rains in the mountains.

We had waited four days for it to go down, but it seemed rather to rise a little each day. As the feed was poor and we had lots of work to do, the boss was in a hurry to get them shipped and off his hands, and so had just announced, that at daylight the next morning he meant to try to swim the herd across. It was late in October and the weather was snappy cold. Overcoats and heavy clothes were an absolute necessity in the night on guard around the herd, and the idea of going into that cold water was not a pleasant one. But the cow-puncher is much like the sailor, in that he never stops to think of getting wet, or cold, or going into any danger as long as the boss himself will lead the way; so we were all prepared to get a soaking the next day.

It was that pleasant time in the evening between sunset and dark. The herd was bedded down near camp, and the first guard were making their rounds, with never a steer to turn back. The balance of us were lying about the campfire, smoking and talking "hoss," a subject which is never worn threadbare in a cow-camp. Colorado, who had been idly marking out brands in the sand in front of him with the end of his fingers, said:

"Well, boys, 'taint much of a story, but ef you want to hear it, I'll tell you how it was. Dick, gimme a bite of your navy," and having stowed away a huge chunk of Dick's "navy," Colly settled back on the ground and began:

"I was workin' fer the Diamond outfit up in Utah, 'bout three years ago, an' the old man he come off down here into Arizona an' bought a bunch of steers to take up thar. He done written his wagon-boss to come down with an outfit big enough to handle two thousand head, an' we struck the Little Colorado River 'bout the mouth of the Caņon Diablo wash, where we was to receive the herd 'long in June. We didn' have no partickler hap'nin's comin' down, and we got the herd turned over all right, an' built a 'squeeze chute' an' branded 'em all before we started back; so as, if any got lost, the outfit could claim 'em on the brand: an' about the last of June we pushed 'em off the bed-ground one mornin', before daylight, an' pulled our freight for the home ranch.

"The cattle were all good to handle, an' didn't give us no trouble to hold nights, barrin' one or two little stampedes, an' we drifted on down toward Lee's Ferry without any mishaps, 'ceptin' one night it were a-rainin' like all possessed, an' I wakes up a feller named Peck to go on guard. Peck got up an' put on his slicker, walked over to where his pony was tied, an' mounted. We was camped on the banks of a wash called Cottonwood Creek, an' along there the wash had cut down into the 'dobe flat, some ten or fifteen feet deep. Peck he's 'bout half asleep, an' gets off wrong for the herd, an' rides straight up to the edge of the creek, thinkin' all the time he's a-goin' out on the prairie to the herd. His pony sort of balked on him an' give a snort, but Peck bein' a cross-grained sort of cuss, an' only half awake, just bathed him with his quirt, an' jabbed his spurs into him. The pony give a jump an' landed in the middle of the creek, with six or eight feet of muddy water runnin' in it. Lord, didn't Peck wake up suddenlike, an' squall for help? We all turned out in a hurry, but he swam across, an' the opposite side bein' sort of slopin'like, the pony scrambled out. Then Peck was afeered to cross back in the dark, an' stayed over thar all night, a-shiverin' an' a-shakin' an' a-cursin' like a crazy man. When we got up for breakfast that mornin' at four o'clock it was clear, an' cold, an' dark. The cook he goes down to the creek an' hollers to Peck sort of sarcastic-like, 'Come to breakfast, Peck!' an' Peck he gets mad an' swears at the cocinero pretty plenty, an' said ef he didn't go back he'd turn loose on him with his six-shooter, an' the cook, bein' pretty rollicky hisself, he goes back to the wagon an' pulls his Winchester an' starts fer the creek agin, but Jackson stops him an' turns him back. When it comes daylight Peck went down the creek a mile and finds a place to cross whar it wa'n't so deep, an' so gits back to camp jist as we was pullin' out.

"The Big Colorado were a powerful stream when we reached it, bein' all swollen by heavy rains up in the mountains an' we all kinder hated to tackle it. Before he left, the old man told the wagon-boss to ferry the outfit an' horses over in the boat, but to swim the steers.

"You know how Lee's Ferry is; the river comes out of a box caņon above, an' the sides break away a little, an' then a mile below it goes into the box agin, where the walls is three thousand feet high an' the current runs like a mill-race.

"It was shore a nasty place to swim a bunch of steers, an' Jackson, he knowed we had a big job on hand when we got there. Jackson was the best wagon-boss I ever see or worked under. He was a tall, slim chap, could outwork any two men in the outfit, wasn't afeerd of nothin', an' though he couldn't read or write, I tell you, boys, he savvyed cows a heap. What he didn't know 'bout cows wa'n't worth knowin'. He didn't let the steers water the day before, so's they'd be powerful dry an' take to the river easier.

"We fust got the wagon over on the ferry boat, which was a big concern, long enuff to drive a four-hoss team onto, an' which was rowed by four men. The cook he was mighty skerry 'bout goin' onto this here boat, 'cause he said 'bout a year afore that he'd been a-punching cows in southern Arizony, an' a feller there shipped a lot of cattle up inter Californey to put on an island in the ocean near Los Angeles. They loaded 'em onto flat scows with a high railin' round 'em, an' put 'bout fifty head on each scow an' a puncher on it to look out fer 'em. Goin' over to the island the tug what was a-towin' 'em by the horn of the saddle, so to speak, busted the string, an' thar bein' quite a wind blowin', an' big ole waves a-floppin' round, the four scows began to butt an' bump up agin' one another like a lot of muley bulls a-fightin', an' the cattle got to runnin' back an' forth an' a-bellerin' an' a-bawlin', an' them punchers, they shore thought their very last day had come. The cook he never expected to see dry land agin', an' he jist vowed if he ever got back to the prairie that he'd punch no more cows on boats.

"Well, bimeby, the tug got a new lariat onto 'em agin' an' corraled 'em all safe enuff at the wharf, but the cook 'lowed he war a dry-land terrapin an' wouldn't ever agin get into no such scrape, not ef he knowed hisself. However, he did get up 'nuff spunk to tackle the ferry, an' went over safely. After we got the wagon acrost, we went back an' started the cattle down the side caņon what leads into the crossin'.

"Jackson's idee was to git the hosses ahead of the steers an' let 'em follow. You know hosses swim anywheres, an' the cattle will allers foller 'em. So he puts three men in a little boat, two to row an' one to lead a hoss knowin' the balance would foller him right across.

"The hoss-wrangler hed the 'cavvy' all ready, an' jist as the leaders of the herd come down to the water's edge the boys in the boat pulled out, a-leadin' a hoss, an' the other hosses follered right in an' was soon a-swimmin'. Then when they was all strung out an' doin' fine, we crowded the steers into the water after 'em. They was all powerful dry an' took to the water easy 'nuff, an' afore the leaders knowed it they was a-swimmin' in fine shape. Jackson wouldn't let us holler or shoot till we got 'em all inter the water, an' then we jerked our six-shooters an' began to fog 'em an' yell like a bunch of Comanches.

"You all know thar's one thing to be afeered of in swimmin' a lot of cattle, and that's when they gets to millin'. Jackson had swum cattle across the Pecos in Texas, an' the Yellowstone in Montana, an' saveyed 'xactly what to do. But this here Colorado at Lee's Ferry is a bad place to tackle, fer you're bound to get out on the other side afore you get into the box caņon, or your name's Dennis, 'cause once a feller gits into the caņon he's got to go on clean down about a hundred miles afore he can strike a level place big enuff to crawl out on.

"Soon as the cattle got well strung out, Jackson began to undress hisself. He took off all his clothes but his pants, an' then buckled his six-shooter belt around him, an' pulled the saddle off'n his hoss.

"I says, 'Bill, you ain't a-goin' to try to swim it, are you?' an' he says, 'No, not 'less I have to; but if they gets to millin' out thar we'll lose the whole herd, an' the only way to break it up is to ride out an' shoot among 'em an' skeer 'em.' He knowed it were risky, for if anything went wrong he was shore to be carried into the caņon an' drowned. But Bill Jackson wa'n't the sort of a wagon-boss to stop at anything to save the herd, an' sure 'nuff, 'bout the time the leaders got fairly into the middle of the river, 'long comes a big cottonwood tree a-driftin' an' whirlin' down stream right into 'em. That skeert 'em an' turned 'em, an' 'fore we knowed it they was doubled back on the balance an' swimmin' round an' round, for all the world like driftwood in a big eddy in a creek. This was what Jackson was afeerd of, an' he pushed his hoss into the river an' takes his six-shooter in his hand. He was ridin' a little Pinto pony they called 'Blue Jay,' one of the best all-around cow-ponies I ever see.

"Old Blue Jay he jist seemed to savey what was wanted of him, an' swam 'long without any fuss. When Jackson gits out close to the millin' steers he begin to holler an' shoot, an' he called to the fellers in the boat to come back an' try to stop 'em. Now, you all know what a risky thing it is to go near a steer a-swimmin' in the water, for he's sure to try to climb up on you. Jackson knowed this, but he swam Blue Jay right slap-dab inter the bunch an' tried to scatter 'em an' stop 'em from millin'.

"Just how it happened we couldn't tell; but first thing we seen Jackson was right in the middle of the millin' critters, an' in a minute they had crowded pore old Blue Jay under, an' all we seen of Jackson was his hands went up an' then he was lost in the whirlin' mass of horns that was goin' round and round. A man had no chance at all to swim, 'cause their hoofs kep' him under all the time, an' they was packed so close a feller couldn't come up between 'em, anyway. The boys in the boat tried to do something, but 'twan't no use, fer he never come up, an' when they got too close one big steer throwed his head over the side of the boat an' purty nigh upset 'em, so they had to keep away to save theirselves. But they kep' up a-shootin' an' a-hollerin' 'till the leaders finally struck out for shore, an' in a few minutes the whole herd was strung out for the opposite side an' sooner than I kin tell it they was all standin' on dry land, an' not a single one missin'.

"Meantime the boys in the boat had watched everywhere for pore Jackson's body, but they never got sight of it, though they went 'most down to the mouth of the box caņon. Thar was lots of big trees an' drift a-runnin', an' we guessed his body had been caught in the branches of a tree an' carried down with it. Pore old Blue Jay come floating past 'em, an' they tried to catch him, but the current was so swift they couldn't do it. All they wanted was to get Jackson's silver-mounted bridle off'n him, 'cause 'twas easy 'nuff to see that the pony was quite dead.

"Well, the rest of us crossed in the big ferry-boat an' rounded up the steers, which was grazin' up the caņon on the other side, an' moved 'em out a couple of miles to camp. Shorty, bein' the oldest hand in the outfit, took charge, an' sent two of us back to the ferry, to try an' see ef Jackson's body could be found, but the feller what runs the ferry said 'tain't no use lookin' fer him, 'cause the swift current would carry him miles and miles down the caņon without ever lodgin' anywhere. So we went back, an' Shorty gave it up an' decided to push the herd on next day. We was a blue ole crowd that night around the campfire, I tell you. All the boys liked Jackson, an' besides, they was a-thinkin' of his wife an' two kids what was a-waitin' for him at the headquarter ranch up in Utah.

"Shorty sent a letter from the ferry settlement to the old man, a-tellin' him what had happened, an' we come along up with the cattle, arrivin' safely at the ranch without any more misfortunes."

"An' didn't they never find Jackson's body, Colly?" queried the Kid.

"Wal," said Colly, "that's a singular thing, too. When we gets back to the ranch the old man he was orful cut up about it, an' hated to think that the body wasn't found. He'd been down in the Grand Caņon the summer afore with a lot of fellers, an' he said he believed he could find it 'bout a hundred miles below the ferry, 'cause thar were a place down thar in the caņon whar the walls widened out fer some twenty miles, an' thar was quite a valley with grassy meadows an' trees. So he takes one of the boys an' a pack outfit an' goes off down thar. They had to leave everything on top of the caņon an' climb down a-foot an' pack their stuff on their backs. The walls was six thousand feet high thar, an' they had a hard time gettin' down. Course, it was jist a scratch, but I'm blest if after four or five days' hunt they didn't find it lodged in a pile of drift along the river. 'Twas easy 'enuff to tell Jackson's body, fer he'd had two fingers of his left hand shot off in a fight once; so they takes it off to a place in the valley whar it was safe from flood, an' buries it as well as they could, an' next year, he went back an' packed the remains out of the caņon an' took them clean to the ranch an' buried 'em jist as if it was his own brother. I tell you, the boys was ready to swear by old man Saunders after that."

Colorado's story was finished, and as it was about ten-thirty the second guard-men began putting on overcoats and heavy gloves preparatory to two hours and a half of watching the herd.

The stars were shining clear and bright, the bells of the horse-herd came softly over the prairie, making a tuneful chime on the frosty night air, and as I untied the rope that bound my roll of bedding and kicked it out on the ground, I could not keep from thinking of poor Jackson's death and wondering if the morrow held a like fate in store for any of us.