C. F. Eckhardt
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.|
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.