A Midnight Ride on a Californian Ranch by A.
It was in San Benito County, California, or, to be more explicit, in the
Hernandez Valley, the nearest station to which is King City, "up
country" from Los Angeles. My friend, Tom Bain, owned a cattle-ranche up
there, right in the valley which lies between the hills forming the
coastal range of California.
It is high up, this beautiful valley. I arrived at King City over-night,
and my old school pal, who had asked me to pay him a visit, met me at
the Central Saloon early next morning—so early, that we had breakfasted
and were off in a pair-horse buckboard by seven o'clock. And then we had
a fourteen hours' drive, climbing, ever climbing, with a dip here and
there as we negotiated the irregularities of the high country, the air
becoming cooler and crisper every hour, and so clear that you could see
for miles over the plains beneath.
It is rather wonderful, this clearness of the atmosphere in Western
America. In Arizona, I believe, the phenomenon is even more noticeable,
at times. The trees stand out distinctly and almost individually on
hills miles and miles away, and a camera speedily proves how really free
is the atmosphere of all visionary obstruction. A photograph of a horse,
a bullock, or of any such object out on the hills, will secure a
reproduction of a background quite extraordinary in the extent and
clearness of the picture.
And it is a sweet, pure air to breathe—life-giving, and capable of
making the heart glad for the very joy of things. Driving over these
hills, although it took us from seven in the morning until nine o'clock
at night to complete the journey, was anything but tiring to the human
physique. Around and beyond, Nature spread herself in a delightful
panorama of scenic beauty—
"And every living thing did joy in life,
And every thing of beauty did seem living."
There were two or three other fellows on the ranche with my friend Bain.
Fine, big fellows they were, too; loose-limbed and strong featured.
Scarcely one of them was over five-and-twenty, yet you would have vowed
that such development in face, feature, and limb could not have been
attained before the age of thirty-five years. Silent, unassuming
fellows, too, not welcoming me with a smile even, nor with the slightest
demonstration of friendliness beyond a grip of the hand that made me
begin to feel glad that I had brought my "Elliman's" with me.
It is a peculiarity—at least, we think it a peculiarity—of the Western
man, that he rarely smiles. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that he
never smiles unless there is something very positive to smile at. He
seems to have such large ideas concerning all things, and to suggest by
his manner, especially when you are out on the plains with him, that he
cares more for his cattle, and for his horse particularly, than he does
for you. Yet no man is more ready with a helping hand—and a hand that
is capable of doing most things a man's hand can do—than he; none more
full of sympathy and sincere kindliness.
But he is an undemonstrative being, this man of the West, and you take a
long time to find out whether he likes you or not. If you are a
"tenderfoot" you can't do better than hold your tongue about the wonders
of Europe and its cities, about your own various exploits here and
there. You will learn a lot by not talking, and if you don't mind
soiling your hands a little, and keeping an eye lifted to discover the
way in which things are done, you will get on very well on a Western
There was another ranche not far away, owned by an old settler, who had
his wife and daughter with him. These were the only women within our
immediate ken. She was a real child of the West, this old settler's
daughter, and as sweet and dainty as she was capable; about twenty years
of age, I should think, and looked after as much by every man on my
friend's ranche as she was by her own father. In fact, my friend Bain
seemed to take more than a fatherly interest in her. She called him
Tom, and he called her Edna, though in this particular respect Tom was
not privileged more than any of the other fellows. But her eyes were
always bright when Tom was near, and—but there, it was none of my
business. Only, as I said before, I kept one eye lifted for most things.
Very soon I began really to enjoy the life very much, for its own sake.
There were many things lacking in the matter of house accommodation and
comfort, compared with my English home; but it was jolly, real jolly. I
never felt so well and strong in all my life as when I was galloping
over those hills, on occasion of a general inspection of the ranche. And
it was a lark, I tell you, rounding up the cattle.
Of course, all the fellows on the ranche could ride like—well, they
could ride anything. I got out of the road when there was any of the
expert business on, such as "cutting out," and "corralling." But I began
gradually to feel my way in accomplishing their many tricks of
horsemanship, and I was able, in course of time, to take a small part in
the work of the corral.
I essayed to throw the lasso, or lariat, of course, as one of the very
first experiences in ranche life. It is one of the many interesting
things you must learn on a cattle-ranche—to use the lasso. Every man
carries his rope on his saddle, as a necessary—in fact, there, the
most necessary—part of his equipment. A ranchero would as soon think of
riding off without his lasso as an English sportsman would think of
going partridge-shooting without his gun.
It looks so easy, throwing the lasso. You begin first on foot, and try
to throw the rope over a post or something, not very far away. After
many hours, at the end of which time you know what it is to have an
arm-ache—it may be many days, even many weeks, before you are able to
do it—you succeed in lassoing your object two or three times in
succession. Ha! ha! You have conquered. You have discovered the knack at
last. And you hastily mount your horse to see if you can manage the real
You throw aside your practice rope, unwind the lasso from the horn of
the saddle, and essay a "mounted" throw. Your patient animal remains
perfectly still and quiet. He seems to know you are a tenderfoot, and to
feel quite sure what is going to happen. You whirl your lasso round your
head, and aim it at the horns of a harmless steer in the corral some
yards away. But you look in vain to see the rope curl round your
particular objective. Instead, it flops over your horse's ears, or
smacks you on the side of your own head. Oh, it was so easy on the
ground, too, when you left off!
And your horse is patient still. He even seems to be smiling quietly to
himself. After many more attempts, and with an arm that acheth much, you
succeed in affixing your rope round something, throwing from the saddle.
At last you have managed it.
Later on an opportunity occurs for the display of your prowess. You are
in the corral with a bunch of moving beasts. You single out one as your
particular victim. This time the beast is not standing still, and you
throw your lasso, carefully watching the fall as it whirls through the
air. Poor animal! Instead of roping it by the horns, you nearly jerk its
tail off! There are very many accomplishments that seem easy in the
hands of an expert and which prove most difficult to the uninitiated,
but I think the throwing of the lasso can claim more mysteries than most
When out on an inspection of the ranche, reckoning up the stock, and
seeing that all are able to secure sufficient food, it frequently
happens that some of the cattle will be missing. They get away into all
sorts of places, some almost inaccessible among the hills, and if they
are not found and brought back to the pastures within easy reach of the
corral, they become wild, and then there is mischief to pay. They sneak
down late at night or in the small hours of the morning to the corn and
wheat fields, break the fences, and trample the crops in a way that
spells disaster to many a settler.
Some of the cattle belonging to my friend's ranche had gone astray in
this way, and we were unable to locate them.
I remember we were sitting in our adobe house one evening, three or four
of us together. It was about seven o'clock, and we had been talking over
matters in connection with the decision of the "boss" to drive a bunch
of cattle down to King City, where they would be entrained for 'Frisco.
The "boss" was up at the other ranche. He had gone to ask the old
settler to give us a hand with the cattle next day at the rodeo, or
He hadn't offered to take me with him. I suppose that was Edna's fault.
Anyhow, we had been sitting there discussing things, when we heard Bain
coming in, after unsaddling his horse, in quite a noisy mood. He was
muttering hard, and I wondered what Edna had been saying to him. But it
wasn't Edna at all. He had come down from the other ranche, higher up
the valley, and had passed the cornfields, in which he had noticed
unusual movement. He had investigated, and had found that a bunch of
wild cattle had broken down the fences, and were eating and trampling
down the corn.
A hasty consultation decided that we should make a midnight raid on the
beasts, and take as many of them as we could capture down to King City
with our own bunch. We had been feeling rather sleepy, but this news
made us at once very much alive. However, we decided not to undertake
the raid until the next night. The wild cattle would be gone with the
morning light, but they would return at dark.
We went to bed, which meant simply rolling ourselves up in our blankets
on the floor. I lay awake for some time anticipating the excitement of
the next evening. It is not all play, this raiding of wild cattle. It is
a risky business, and you must have expert lassoers to lead the way, or
there will be trouble.
Next day we went up to the old settler's ranche, "Edna's house," as we
called it, up the valley, and there we secured the help of some of our
neighbour's men. We were there all the evening, waiting for the hour of
midnight at which to sally forth. Edna had expressed a desire to come
too! She was a fine horsewoman, and fearless, and she loved excitement
of this sort. Tom promised to take care of her, so she was permitted to
join our party. Lucky Tom!
As the little clock on the settler's mantelpiece struck twelve, we
saddled our horses and set off for the corn-brake. I was keen on seeing
how these fellows were going to capture the wild cattle, but I was too
inexperienced to take a very active part at the time.
The corn-patch was right in the hollow of the valley, on a flat on the
eastern bank of the dry bed of the river. We rode down together—never a
word being spoken on the way—to where a group of oak-trees raised their
stately heads, and there we held our final council of war. Bain, anxious
to give a tenderfoot a chance of seeing as much of the proceedings as
possible, directed me to get off my horse and climb the bank, from which
I should obtain a view of the field and of the cattle as they were
feeding. I was very quiet, for the beasts have ears rather sharper than
anything. Tom had given me his directions in a whisper.
So I climbed the bank and looked over the cornfield, and there in the
centre I could see a small black mass of moving things, about three
hundred yards away. I went quietly back to the river-bed, and found that
most of the fellows had dismounted and were "cinching" up their saddles.
A moment later I was told off with a vaquero (cowboy) to ride up the bed
of a creek that ran at right-angles to the river and parallel with the
cornfield. We were to try to "head" the cattle, and so prevent them from
breaking out of the field, up the hillside, and getting away into the
mountains again, where we should have had to leave them.
The creek-bed was low, and afforded us good cover for three parts of the
way. Then it shallowed, and we soon were able to see, from our horses,
the cattle in the corn. We thought we had been very quiet indeed, but we
noticed a hurried movement among the beasts, and with a cry "They're
off!" my companion dug his spurs into his horse and was off like the
wind himself. And I after him.
We dashed into the corn, and raced like mad to head the stampeding
beasts. It was the strangest sensation in the world, galloping in the
moonlight through the waving corn, which was up to our horses'
shoulders. It made me quite giddy for a second or two, but I galloped
madly on after my companion, who, with his shrill cowboy yells, helped
the roaring cattle to wake the midnight silences of the valley. I
joined in the yelling, too, and, so soon as our voices were heard, there
was a chorus in reply from where we had left the rest of our party.
"We shall never head them," I cried.
"Perhaps not, but we'll try," answered the vaquero, as we tore onward. I
thought we had not the slightest hope of heading them. Up the hillside
we tore to keep them on the flat ground, and at every leap over a rough
incline I thought my horse would break his neck and mine too. But as
surefooted as goats are those horses of the hills. At length, for some
reason or other, the cattle wheeled and went back down towards the
river, and we, of course, followed.
Suddenly, two of them broke away to the right, and I after them. I
thought I might be of some little use, even if I were not an expert
lassoer. But those two wild cattle knew too much for me. They tore
across a gully, dashed up the other side and away at full gallop into
the hills. I let them go. If I had pursued them farther most probably I
should not be writing this now. As it was, it was a marvel I had not
broken my neck. Only my splendid horse had saved me.
So I rode back to the oak-trees, and there—there was not a sign of
life. All was as silent and still as if nothing had ever disturbed
Nature's quiet. I remember how beautiful was the night. A half-moon
shone out in a clear sky, like a semicircle of pure, bright silver, the
tops of the mountains were silhouetted against the sky as if they were
cut out of cardboard, and all was so calm just then. You don't get such
lovely nights elsewhere. The moon has not the sterling brightness; the
air not the clearness nor the stillness that it has there.
Where were my companions? I did not know. My panting horse was glad to
get breathing-space, so I sat there in the saddle, waiting. I pulled my
coat around my shoulders, for the air was chilly. It was then about 2
A sharp sound disturbed my reverie—the sound of a horse's hoofs
galloping over the rocky river-bed. The rattle was so clear, so
distinct, in that atmosphere and at that hour, that I could hear it long
before my eyes could detect anything, even in that bright moonlight.
Then, in a few moments, there approached a horse at full gallop, with
his head low down and neck extended—at first apparently riderless, but
as he came nearer I was startled to discover a black shape, hanging over
the off-side, and, as the frightened steed tore past me, I saw it was a
It was Edna. Who else could it be? Her left foot, still in the stirrup,
had come right over the saddle with her as she fell, and she was
clinging desperately with her hands to the horse's long mane, but so low
down that, at the pace, it seemed to be impossible for her to recover.
Without a moment's thought of how I should save her, I galloped after
her maddened steed as hard as I could go. I was on an English saddle and
without a lasso—since to me such a thing would have been of little use
on such a risky expedition as we had undertaken; but I urged my horse
onwards and galloped him at his utmost in an endeavour to head the
other, when perhaps I might be able to clutch a rein and stop the
runaway. But Edna's horse was the fleetest of any on the ranche;
moreover, her light weight was a comparative advantage, and so I gained
not a whit on the horse with his imperilled burden. It was terrible. How
long could the poor girl hang on like that? Not much longer, I was sure,
yet prayed that she might have strength.
Then, ahead of us, in the distant moonlight, I discerned other galloping
figures. A horseman was pursuing at full speed along the bank a huge
steer that bellowed as it endeavoured to secure a free run up into the
hills, there to be safe from its mortal enemy. I yelled at the top of my
voice, with all the breath I had left.
Immediately the horseman pulled his horse back on its haunches and from
the bank stared down at pursued and pursuer. In a twinkling he seemed to
realise the situation, wheeled, and galloped down the bank at an angle
calculated to make it easier for him to get within reach of Edna's
horse. Then I saw it was Tom, and he must have guessed that it was Edna
ahead of him, in a position of direst peril. How we had all become
separated I could not guess, and there was no time to wonder now.
I saw Tom gather his loop in his right hand, holding the coil in his
left, and begin to swing the loop round his head. What! was he going to
take such a risk? To lasso the horse and check it suddenly when at a mad
gallop like that? Surely the animal would come to earth with a fearful
crash, most probably on the side on which it was weighed down with its
Then I saw the rope whirl through the air, and though it could have been
but a moment, it seemed to hang there for minutes without falling. This
was the time for skill. If ever Tom should throw his lariat well, it
must be now. With unerring aim the rope was cast, and the loop settled
over the head of the runaway, though the maddened animal was galloping
with neck stretched full length and head low down.
Gradually the rope tightened round its shoulders, Tom galloping his own
horse hard behind. By the most skilful manipulation of the lariat,
Edna's horse was compelled to slacken its pace, Tom getting nearer and
nearer by degrees and taking in the slack until he was right alongside.
He soon brought the runaway to a stand-still, and directed me to release
Edna's foot from the stirrup, which I did. She sank to the ground,
completely exhausted. And little wonder. Her hands were cut and bleeding
with the tenacious grip she had kept on the horse's mane, and it was
some time before she recovered sufficient strength to move.
As soon as she was able, she told us that she had become separated from
the other riders when galloping through the cornbrake, and a wild steer
had gored her horse in the side. This had so startled the animal that he
reared, and then dashed off madly up the valley in the way I had seen
her coming. She had fallen over, and as her foot had caught in the
stirrup, she clutched her horse's long mane, and so saved herself from
being dragged along the ground, and, probably, from a horrible death.
We now were able to see that her horse had been badly ripped on the near
side, and from loss of blood and as the result of his long, mad gallop,
the poor animal was in a bad way. He was led back to the ranche and
there cared for.
It appeared that the others had galloped along on the other side of the
field until they had found that the cattle had turned. Then they waited
until they could get behind them, and, when this was managed, they
secured half a dozen of them with their lariats.
One man had let go his lasso. This sometimes happens. In cases of
emergency a man has to let go his rope, and that is why the cowboys
practise picking up things from the ground at full gallop. It is not
done there for show; there is no gallery to play to. It is a necessary
accomplishment. A man has lost his rope, the other end of it, perhaps,
being round the horns of a steer. He gallops after it, as soon as he is
clear of the bunch, and picks up the end at full speed. At the proper
time he gives the lasso a turn round the horn of the saddle, pulls up
his well-trained horse, and the steer is jerked to his feet. It is
neatly done—and it takes doing.
Next day the cattle were all in the corrals, and the wild ones were
placed in the bunch to be travelled down to King City. But the newcomers
were too unruly. They continually broke away en route, and gave so
much trouble that before our destination was reached we shot every one
I left my friend's ranche shortly after this. I had had some experience
that was worth winning, and I had gained a little knowledge of ranche
life of the West.
Lately I received a delicate little wedding-card, neatly inscribed, and
figured with a design representing a coiled lariat. And from out of the
coil there peeped the daintily written words—"Tom and Edna."