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
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
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.
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.
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,
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
"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."
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.