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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

STAMPEDE MESA

by C. F. Eckhardt
Texas is a land of many legends. Some of them are just that-legends. Some of them have a germ of truth in them-and some of them are entirely true. At one time, when I was a young man, I had the opportunity to hear what some would call a legend from a man who experienced it.
"Stampede" - Odessa Post Office Mural
Photos courtesy Barclay Gibson
Lon Schuyler had been a cowboy for about as long as anybody could remember. He thought he was born in 1880, but he wasn't sure about that. He was sure that he went up the trail with an 'Injun-beef' drive in '92 "an' I was just a button kid then." He worked as nighthawk and wrangler and was told he could 'catch up on his sleep next winter.'

In 1902, on another 'Injun-beef' drive, this one all the way to Montana, Lon was with what was probably the last herd to hold on what's known as 'Stampede Mesa.' Not many people know about Stampede Mesa these days, but from the early 1880s until Texas cattlemen quit driving beef north, those two words would make a cold-footed rat run up and down a cowboy's spine. Stampede Mesa was-and may still be-one of the most thoroughly haunted places in Texas.

Go get a map of the state. One of the Highway Department maps will do. Look up where the eastern edge of the Panhandle hits the Red River. A little east and south of there you'll see a lake called Blanco Canyon Reservoir. On the east side of the lake you'll see a tiny peninsula-a point of land jutting out into the lake. That's Stampede Mesa.

Stampede Mesa isn't a mesa in the sense of the mesa country of New Mexico and Arizona. It was, before the incident that gave it the name, called 'the holding point on the North Blanco.' What is now called the White River was then known as the North Blanco. It was a place about a section in extent, somewhat rocky on top but with plenty of grass. On the east side ran what people who only saw it after a rain called McNeil Creek and most folks knew as McNeil Draw. On the west side ran the North Blanco. There was a dropoff into McNeil Draw of anywhere from five or six to about twenty-five feet, and a dropoff into Blanco Canyon of nearly 200 feet at the highest point.

Those dropoffs were natural fences. A trailboss could throw his herd onto the point, put a light guard across the north end of the point, and rest men, horses, and cattle for a couple of days, with plenty of grass and water, before lining out north. It was a very popular place to hold a herd.

So the story goes, sometime in the early '80s a trailboss had some trouble there. There are two versions of how the trouble started. In both, a nester had set himself up on Dockum Flat to the north of the holding point. In one, when the herd came through, his cows-not many-as cows will, joined the herd. The nester demanded the trailboss cut them out of his herd.

The boss and the cowboys were tired, and so were the cows. The nester was told the herd would be cut after the men had rested. The nester got insistent. He ended up looking down the wrong end of a sixshooter. He was told that the boss would cut the herd when he got damned good and ready, and if he pushed the issue any further there would be no need to cut the herd "'cause dead men ain't got no use fer cows."

In the other, the nester built a barbed-wire fence across the north end of the holding point. The trailboss found him at the gate, armed with a shotgun. "It'll cost ya two bits a head to pasture here."

The boss looked the nester over. "I got 'bout fifteen hunderd head here. That-air Greener'll stop maybe two of 'em. Maybe we'll bury what's left after the rest run over your worthless carcass, an' maybe we won't," the boss told him.

In either case, the nester left with his drawers in a knot. That night about midnight he put on a slicker, mounted his mule, rode south along McNeil Draw until he was about centered on the herd, and then burst out of the brush flapping the slicker, yelling, and firing into the air. The result, of course, was a stampede. The herd stampeded west, away from the apparition behind it. It stampeded straight for the 200-foot dropoff into Blanco Canyon.

At least half the herd went over, maybe more. After the cattle were finally milled, the boss began counting cowboys-and came up one short. The man had been on the west side of the herd, trying to turn it, and had gone over with the cattle. He and his cowpony were both dead.

How long it took to catch the nester nobody seems to have recorded, but catch him they did. There was a debate-turn him into a cottonwood blossom? Just drag him at the end of a rope? The trailboss made the decision. The nester was bound and tied in the saddle on his mule. The mule was blindfolded and pointed west, to the dropoff. The nester was given a half-minute or so to make his peace, and then the boss laid a sixshooter along the mule's rump and fired. The sideflash powderburned the mule, which bolted-straight for the dropoff, carrying the screaming nester with him. The cowboy was buried beneath a big cottonwood at the north end of the point. The nester was left to rot with the cows.

The holding point on the North Blanco got an evil reputation. Herds held there invariably stampeded-to the west. You held on the point, you lost animals-and sometimes men. The stampedes were caused by 'things'-strange, soundless, white things-that came out of the brush on the east side. Ghosts. Ghosts of cattle-and of cowboys and their cowponies.

"Yeah, I reckon I was there," Lon said, once he'd rolled a smoke from the Lobo Negro I brought him because I could get it at Zegub's drug store on East 6th in Austin but he couldn't get it in Okalla, Briggs, or Lampasas. Where Lon got a taste for that stuff I don't know, because it's border-country and Lon apparently never worked south of the Llano.

"Spring of aught-two, it was. Me an' a pal a mine, feller named George Ramp, I think that was his last name, we signed on for a Injun-beef drive goin' plumb to Montana. Got up on the North Blanco, the boss says 'We a-gonna hold on the point.'

"Let me tell you, 'bout half the crew drew their time right then. Me an' George, though, we was fulla piss an' vinegar, an' wasn't no spook story gonna scare us. Them ol' hands, they told us we was crazy if we stayed, but we done it anyway.

"Me an' George, we drew second watch-that's from 'bout ten in the evenin' to 'bout two in the mornin'. We decided we'd ride double circle-one of us goin' round the herd one way, one goin' the other, so we'd cross twice durin' each round an' if we seen anything peculiar we could warn each other.

"It was right on toward midnight, by the way the dipper was settin'. I was on the east side. That's when them things started comin' outa the brush. Looked like cows, but not like no cows I ever saw. They was plumb white-white as milk. They didn't make no sound atall. An' then didn't look like they walked. They just sorta floated by.

"Now, I was ridin' a claybank gelding, one of the steadiest horses I ever had. Never knew that horse to shy at anything afore, but he sure didn't want nothin' to do with them things. Trouble was, we couldn't get 'way from 'em. They was everywhere. I hit at one with my hand an' it just went in. Felt like hittin' into cold smoke, 's what it felt like.

"I hollered real loud 'Look out, George, they gonna run!' an' sure 'nough, they did. George, he was on the west side, an' he taken his lariat an' commenced to hittin' the leaders on their noses, tryin' to turn 'em. Don't never let nobody tell you you can turn a herd by shootin' in front of 'em. All that does is scare 'em worse an' make 'em run faster.

"Well, the fellers that wasn't out there with me an' George, all they had to do was pull their boots on an' grab saddled horses. While we did lose 'bout two hunderd head we managed to turn 'em into a mill an' keep the rest from goin' over the side.

"That trailboss, he come up to me a-hollerin'. 'Goddammit, Lon,' he says, 'it was your holler started that run! I oughta pull you off that horse an' stomp your head in.'

"Now, George, he wasn't a cussin' sorta feller. Oh, he'd say 'Hell' or 'damn' ever' now an' then, but he wasn't a big cusser. He laid into that trailboss, an' I swear he called him ever'thing but a white man. When he got through he told that feller 'If Lon hadn't hollered when he did, I'd be down there with them cows. We was up here, you wasn't. That wasn't no low-flyin' nighthawk or a rabbit or a possum loose in the herd. We seen them things. They was ghosts-cow ghosts. An' we're a-drawin' our time right now, 'cause neither one of us is damnfool 'nough to keep workin' for a damnfool like you. An' we're gonna tell ever'body we run into, all the way back to Lampasas County, just what kinda damnfool you are, holdin' a herd on Stampede Mesa.' We done it, too, an' that feller never bossed another herd."


I've been to Stampede Mesa once, a long time ago, before they put in the Blanco Canyon dam. Below the dropoff into the canyon, on the banks of the White River, every kick into the dust brought up bones-cattle bones. The big cottonwood is gone now, and whatever markers the nine cowboys who died on Stampede Mesa had have rotted away. Over on the McNeil Draw side, in the draw, there was a tangle of ancient, badly-rusted barbed wire on some rotten posts-about seventy years after the place got its name and reputation. I went to Stampede Mesa in daylight. I don't think I'd care to go there in the dark-even now.
C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
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September 27, 2006 column

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