As the first breezes of fall bring light rain to Payson, I know that they have been working longer and with more intensity on top of the Mountain (Mogollon Rim). The early fall days on top of the Mountain are cooler and the nights much colder than in Payson. The leaves of the quaking aspen are yellow now, quaking in the draws and along the ridge-tops with the subtle sound that gives the white-barked trees their name.
Fall was a busy time of year for the Rim Country ranches fifty years ago. It was time to gather the cattle, cut the sale cattle from the herd, ship them, and move the mother cows and bulls to winter range. The work done during the month of October determined how well the entire year’s work was going to pay off. It was an intense time for the Bud Jones and Gene Pyle families - ranchers and cattle people who got only one pay check a year.
Still it was a time we all looked forward to, a time to work, ride and socialize with neighbors, cowboys and friends we hadn’t seen since the last fall. For a ten-year-old boy, it was also the height of adventure. The language, the conversations, the culture was different from that in town. In early October my dad and mother, Gene and Dorothy Pyle, would load the pickup with groceries, bedrolls, and whatever else we needed to spend the next few weeks at the Buck Pasture cow camp on the Mountain. My Grandad Floyd Pyle would be there with my great uncle, C.A. “Bud” Jones, as well as Jake Randall and maybe Henry Farrell.
We had close to 400 head of cattle on over sixty sections (square miles) and we usually had about two weeks to pull the roundup before the date we had contracted to ship the sale cattle. On the first day we might find and put 200 head of cattle into the big five-section holding pasture. The next day, maybe we would find fifty head and after a week of riding, we might only be out close to 25 head, but try finding 25 head of cattle scattered over 60 square miles in dense pine forest with deep canyons, high ridges, and an untold number of draws, feeder canyons, forest glades, and canyon benches. Half a dozen cowboys spread pretty thin over that Mountain Allotment when it came down to finding those last few cows.
One year Uncle Bud belled all of his cows and they were easier to find for a couple of years. Cattle and brush were hard on bells and the leather collars that secured the bells to the cows. Most of those old cows had lost the bells or the clappers out of them by the third year.
I recall a conversation during the last days of one of those fall roundups of fifty years ago. The evening talk around a cherry-red glowing wood stove sounded something like this. Bud Jones eased himself into a more comfortable position on what had once been a seat on a bus and told about his day’s ride, “Well, I hit an ol’ skid trail n’ slid off a little haired-over point into the head o’ West Lennard. Saw some old sign n’ follered the creek down to the forks before I rimmed out. Been some cattle at the salt on Hospital Ridge, but it was too late to spend much time lookin’. Figured Gene might want to come through there with his dog tomorrow.”
Then another old cowboy, Henry Farrell answered, “I rode down Limestone and didn’t see a thing. When it comes down to findin’ the last few head o’ cows that dog is shore worth ten cowboys. He can do everything ’cept deal a hand o’ pitch. Speakin’ o’ pitch, me n’ Jinx is primed. We’re gonna be all over you boys like a wet blanket t’ night. We’re gonna bid um high n’ sleep in the street. Last night we couldn’t get no cards. Had a dog from ever town, but t’ night we’re a pair o’ wolves from Bitter Creek n’ it’s our night t’ howl!”
Henry wasn’t the best pitch partner I could have found, but he was gittin’ a little-long-in-the-tooth and wouldn’t see many more roundups. Henry had been one of the good ones and a lickin’ or two at pitch would just make me a better player anyhow. I didn’t mind.
Thinking back on the first year that Bud belled the cows, about 1954. Lowell Jett, a saddle maker who worked for Porters came by the Buck Pasture. He had an elk tag and asked my Grandad Floyd if he would help him get an elk. Grandad said he would if Lowell would give us a little camp meat and the deal was struck. Dad saddled a horse for Lowell and just before he was ready to ride off, Grandad Floyd walked up with a bell and strapped it around the horse’s neck. He told Lowell, “Ride right down the draw here and go out the gate. You will run into elk before you cover a mile. They have heard bells all summer and will pay you no mind. Just ride up and kill one that is to your likin.”
It worked like a charm and I went down with Grandad to help pack in Lowell’s elk. Lowell stayed on for a couple of days and he wasn’t much of a pitch player either. I finally got teamed up with Jake Randall and we did pretty good together.
The evening before we shipped the sale cattle, help showed up in the form of Peggy Randall, Jake’s wife and Bud’s daughter, and Stewart Jones, Peggy’s brother. Early the following morning, we rounded up the big pasture and put the herd in the over-night pasture at Snider Springs. I had my pockets loaded with apples and jerky while I listened to Grandad Floyd shoot the pills (tell each of us the part we were to play in the gather). We worked the side of the pasture west of Yeager Canyon first. Peggy and I stayed close to the fence. We rode slowly so as not to get ahead of the cattle the other riders pushed the in front of us and took our herd along the fence to the Dane Ridge Road.
We had worked the west side of the pasture and were pointing the cattle down a little draw onto the bench of Yeager when they riled up a yellow jacket’s nest in an old down log. The cattle stuck their tails straight up and headed down the bench like a bat out of a smoke house. Jake was ridin’ a two-year-old colt and got him into the yellow jackets. The best rodeos are not always in the arena.
I rode toward Jake’s dog and pony show to better assess his riding ability and felt something hit me in the back of the head like a ball bat. It was several of those yellow buzz bombers and I was busy as a one-legged man at a butt kickin,’ fightin’ my head and trying to keep a leg on each side and my mind in the middle whilst fightin’ jackets with my hat and using up all the cuss words I had learned that fall.
My dad always told me that one thing about riding a horse was that you didn’t have to rely entirely on your own intelligence. This proved to be the case as my horse, Scout, took me out of the war zone like a cat leaving a rain barrel. Dad and Grandad had the cattle held up and we got them started into Yeager Canyon. My head was throbbing and I knew it was bigger than a watermelon, but I got a drink of water in the canyon after we had crossed the cattle and splashed some on the back of my head. I ate an apple and felt somewhat better.
The following day we cut the herd and shipped the sale cattle. We had contracted for thirteen cents a pound that year and got a check for a little over $14,000. The next day it snowed all day as Dad, Grandad, and I drove the KS cattle nine miles to the top of the Rim and started them off the Myrtle Trail to our winter range. Bud had ordered trucks to haul his cattle back to his SA outfit.
The snow on top of the Rim turned to rain as we rode on to the Myrtle Ranch. Another fall roundup was in the books, but there was no letup in the work. We had an apple crop to get in, fruit to can or dry and still had to cut our winter supply of firewood. We had to get in some meat, too, and soon we would be hunting the mountain lion that plagued our cattle. I usually managed to stay out of school for about three weeks for the fall roundups and it is about a tossup as to whether I learned more during those three weeks of roundup or during a year of school.
One thing is sure. I can still go to school if I want to, but those old cowboys, that taught me most of what I care to know, have long since crossed the Great Divide.
Story written and told by late great Town of Payson historian, Jinx Pyle