The Story of a Poker Steer


He was born in a chaparral thicket, south of the Nueces River in Texas. It was a warm night in April, with a waning moon hanging like a hunter's horn high overhead, when the subject of this sketch drew his first breath. Ushered into a strange world in the fulfillment of natural laws, he lay trembling on a bed of young grass, listening to the low mooings of his mother as she stood over him in the joy and pride of the first born. But other voices of the night reached his ears; a whippoorwill and his mate were making much ado over the selection of their nesting-place on the border of the thicket. The tantalizing cry of a coyote on the nearest hill caused his mother to turn from him, lifting her head in alarm, and uneasily scenting the night air.

On thus being deserted, and complying with an inborn instinct of fear, he made his first attempt to rise and follow, and although unsuccessful it caused his mother to return and by her gentle nosings and lickings to calm him. Then in an effort to rise he struggled to his knees, only to collapse like a limp rag. But after several such attempts he finally stood on his feet, unsteady on his legs, and tottering like one drunken. Then his mother nursed him, and as the new milk warmed his stomach he gained sufficient assurance of his footing to wiggle his tail and to butt the feverish caked udder with his velvety muzzle. After satisfying his appetite he was loath to lie down and rest, but must try his legs in toddling around to investigate this strange world into which he had been ushered. He smelled of the rich green leaves of the mesquite, which hung in festoons about his birth chamber, and trampled underfoot the grass which carpeted the bower.

After several hours' sleep he was awakened by a strange twittering above him. The moon and stars, which were shining so brightly at the moment of his birth, had grown pale. His mother was the first to rise, but heedless of her entreaties he lay still, bewildered by the increasing light. Animals, however, have their own ways of teaching their little ones, and on the dam's first pretense of deserting him he found his voice, and uttering a plaintive cry, struggled to his feet, which caused his mother to return and comfort him.

Later she enticed him out of the thicket to enjoy his first sun bath. The warmth seemed to relieve the stiffness in his joints, and after each nursing during the day he attempted several awkward capers in his fright at a shadow or the rustle of a leaf. Near the middle of the afternoon, his mother being feverish, it was necessary that she should go to the river and slake her thirst. So she enticed him to a place where the grass in former years had grown rank, and as soon as he lay down she cautioned him to be quiet during her enforced absence, and though he was a very young calf he remembered and trusted in her. It was several miles to the river, and she was gone two whole hours, but not once did he disobey. A passing ranchero reined in and rode within three feet of him, but he did not open an eye or even twitch an ear to scare away a fly.

The horseman halted only long enough to notice the flesh-marks. The calf was a dark red except for a white stripe which covered the right side of his face, including his ear and lower jaw, and continued in a narrow band beginning on his withers and broadening as it extended backward until it covered his hips. Aside from his good color the ranchman was pleased with his sex, for a steer those days was better than gold. So the cowman rode away with a pleased expression on his face, but there is a profit and loss account in all things.

When the calf's mother returned she rewarded her offspring for his obedience, and after grazing until dark, she led him into the chaparral thicket and lay down for the night. Thus the first day of his life and a few succeeding ones passed with unvarying monotony. But when he was about a week old his mother allowed him to accompany her to the river, where he met other calves and their dams. She was but a three-year-old, and he was her first baby; so, as they threaded their way through the cattle on the river-bank the little line-back calf was the object of much attention. The other cows were jealous of him, but one old grandmother came up and smelled of him benignantly, as if to say, "Suky, this is a nice baby boy you have here."

Then the young cow, embarrassed by so much attention, crossed the shallow river and went up among some hills where she had once ranged and where the vining mesquite grass grew luxuriantly. There they spent several months, and the calf grew like a weed, and life was one long summer day. He could have lived there always and been content, for he had many pleasures. Other cows, also, brought their calves up to the same place, and he had numerous playmates in his gambols on the hillsides. Among the other calves was a speckled heifer, whose dam was a great crony of his own mother. These two cows were almost inseparable during the entire summer, and it was as natural as the falling of a mesquite bean that he should form a warm attachment for his speckled playmate.

But this June-time of his life had an ending when late in the fall a number of horsemen scoured the hills and drove all the cattle down to the river. It was the first round-up he had ever been in, so he kept very close to his mother's side, and allowed nothing to separate him from her. When the outriders had thrown in all the cattle from the hills and had drifted all those in the river valley together, they moved them back on an open plain and began cutting out. There were many men at the work, and after all the cows and calves had been cut into a separate herd, the other cattle were turned loose. Then with great shoutings the cows were started up the river to a branding-pen several miles distant. Never during his life did the line-back calf forget that day. There was such a rush and hurrah among these horsemen that long before they reached the corrals the line-back's tongue lolled out, for he was now a very fat calf. Only once did he even catch sight of his speckled playmate, who was likewise trembling like a fawn.

Inside the corral he rested for a short time in the shade of the palisades. His mother, however, scented with alarm a fire which was being built in the middle of the branding-pen. Several men, who seemed to be the owners, rode through the corralled cows while the cruel irons were being heated. Then the man who directed the work ordered into their saddles a number of swarthy fellows who spoke Spanish, and the work of branding commenced.

The line-back calf kept close to his mother's side, and as long as possible avoided the ropers. But in an unguarded moment the noose of a rope encircled one of his hind feet, and he was thrown upon his side, and in this position the mounted man dragged him up to the fire. His mother followed him closely, but she was afraid of the men, and could only stand at a distance and listen to his piteous crying. The roper, when asked for the brand, replied, "Bar-circle-bar," for that was the brand his mother bore. A tall quiet man who did the branding called to a boy who attended the fire to bring him two irons; with one he stamped the circle, and with the other he made a short horizontal bar on either side of it. Then he took a bloody knife from between his teeth and cut an under-bit from the calf's right ear, inquiring of the owner as he did so, "Do you want this calf left for a bull?"

"No; yearlings will be worth fourteen dollars next spring. He's a first calf--his mother's only a three-year-old."

As he was released he edged away from the fire, forlorn looking. His mother coaxed him over into a corner of the corral, where he dropped exhausted, for with his bleeding ear, his seared side, and a hundred shooting pains in his loins, he felt as if he must surely die. His dam, however, stood over him until the day's work was ended, and kept the other cows from trampling him. When the gates were thrown open and they were given their freedom, he cared nothing for it; he wanted to die. He did not attempt to leave the corral until after darkness had settled over the scene. Then with much persuasion he arose and limped along after his mother. But before he could reach the river, which was at least half a mile away, he sank down exhausted. If he could only slake his terrible thirst he felt he might possibly survive, for the pain had eased somewhat. With every passing breeze of the night he could scent the water, and several times in his feverish fancy he imagined he could hear it as it gurgled over its pebbly bed.

Just at sunrise, ere the heat of the day fell upon him, he struggled to his feet, for he felt it was a matter of life and death with him to reach the river. At last he dragged his pain-racked body down to the rippling water and lowered his head to drink, but it seemed as if every exertion tended to reopen those seared scars, and with the one thing before him that he most desired, he moaned in misery. A little farther away was a deep pool. This he managed to crawl to, and there he remained for a long time, for the water laved his wounds, and he drank and drank. The sun now beat down on him fiercely, and he must seek some shady place for the day, but he started reluctantly to leave, and when he reached the shallows, he turned back to the comfort of the pool and drank again.

A thickety motte of chaparral which grew back from the scattering timber on the river afforded him the shelter and seclusion he wanted, for he dared not trust himself where the grown cattle congregated for the day's siesta. During all his troubles his mother had never forsaken him, and frequently offered him the scanty nourishment of her udder, but he had no appetite and could scarcely raise his eyes to look at her. But time heals all wounds, and within a week he followed his dam back into the hills where grew the succulent grama grass which he loved. There they remained for more than a month, and he met his speckled playmate again.

One day a great flight of birds flew southward, and amidst the cawing of crows and the croaking of ravens the cattle which ranged beyond came down out of the hills in long columns, heading southward. The line-back calf felt a change himself in the pleasant day's atmosphere. His mother and the dam of the speckled calf laid their heads together, and after scenting the air for several minutes, they curved their tails--a thing he had never seen sedate cows do before--and stampeded off to the south. Of course the line-back calf and his playmate went along, outrunning their mothers. They traveled far into the night until they reached a chaparral thicket, south of the river, much larger than the one in which he was born. It was well they sought its shelter, for two hours before daybreak a norther swept across the range, which chilled them to the bone. When day dawned a mist was falling which incrusted every twig and leaf in crystal armor.

There were many such northers during the first winter. The one mysterious thing which bothered him was, how it was that his mother could always foretell when one was coming. But he was glad she could, for she always sought out some cosy place; and now he noticed that his coat had thickened until it was as heavy as the fur on a bear, and he began to feel a contempt for the cold. But springtime came very early in that southern clime, and as he nibbled the first tender blades of grass, he felt an itching in his wintry coat and rubbed off great tufts of hair against the chaparral bushes. Then one night his mother, without a word of farewell, forsook him, and it was several months before he saw her again. But he had the speckled heifer yet for a companion, when suddenly her dam disappeared in the same inexplicable manner as had his own.

He was a yearling now, and with his playmate he ranged up and down the valley of the Nueces for miles. But in June came a heavy rain, almost a deluge, and nearly all the cattle left the valley for the hills, for now there was water everywhere. The two yearlings were the last to go, but one morning while feeding the line-back got a ripe grass burr in his mouth. Then he took warning, for he despised grass burrs, and that evening the two cronies crossed the river and went up into the hills where they had ranged as calves the summer before Within a week, at a lake which both well remembered, they met their mothers face to face. The steer was on the point of upbraiding his maternal relative for deserting him, when a cream-colored heifer calf came up and nourished itself at the cow's udder. That was too much for him. He understood now why she had left him, and he felt that he was no longer her baby. Piqued with mortification he went to a near-by knoll where the ground was broken, and with his feet pawed up great clouds of dust which settled on his back until the white spot was almost obscured. The next morning he and the speckled heifer went up higher into the hills where the bigger steer cattle ranged. He had not been there the year before, and he had a great curiosity to see what the upper country was like.

In the extreme range of the hills back from the river, the two spent the entire summer, or until the first norther drove them down to the valley. The second winter was much milder than the first one, snow and ice being unknown. So when spring came again they were both very fat, and together they planned--as soon as the June rains came--to go on a little pasear over north on the Frio River. They had met others of their kind from the Frio when out on those hills the summer before, and had found them decently behaved cattle.

But though the outing was feasible and well planned, it was not to be. For after both had shed their winter coats, the speckled heifer was as pretty a two-year-old as ever roamed the Nueces valley or drank out of its river, and the line-back steer had many rivals. Almost daily he fought other steers of his own age and weight, who were paying altogether too marked attention to his crony. Although he never outwardly upbraided her for it, her coquetry was a matter of no small concern with him. At last one day in April she forced matters to an open rupture between them. A dark red, arch-necked, curly-headed animal came bellowing defiance across their feeding-grounds. Without a moment's hesitation the line-back had accepted the challenge and had locked horns with this Adonis. Though he fought valiantly the battle is ever with the strong, and inch by inch he was forced backward. When he realized that he must yield, he turned to flee, and his rival with one horn caught him behind the fore shoulder, cutting a cruel gash nearly a foot in length. Reaching a point of safety he halted, and as he witnessed his adversary basking in the coquettish, amorous advances of her who had been his constant companion since babyhood, his wrath was uncontrollable. Kneeling, he cut the ground with his horns, throwing up clouds of dust, and then and there he renounced kith and kin, the speckled heifer and the Nueces valley forever. He firmly resolved to start at once for the Frio country. He was a proud two-year-old and had always held his head high. Could his spirit suffer the humiliation of meeting his old companions after such defeat? No! Hurling his bitterest curses on the amorous pair, he turned his face to the northward.

On reaching the Nueces, feverish in anger, he drank sparingly, kneeling against the soft river's bank, cutting it with his horns, and matting his forehead with red mud. It was a momentous day in his life. He distinctly remembered the physical pain he had suffered once in a branding-pen, but that was nothing compared to this. Surely his years had been few and full of trouble. He hardly knew which way to turn. Finally he concluded to lie down on a knoll and rest until nightfall, when he would start on his journey to the Frio. Just how he was to reach that country troubled him. He was a cautious fellow; he knew he must have water on the way, and the rains had not yet fallen.

Near the middle of the afternoon an incident occurred which changed the whole course of his after-life. From his position on the knoll he witnessed the approach of four horsemen who apparently were bent on driving all the cattle in that vicinity out of their way. To get a better view he arose, for it was evident they had no intention of disturbing him. When they had drifted away all the cattle for a mile on both sides of the river, one of the horsemen rode back and signaled to some one in the distance. Then the line-back steer saw something new, for coming over the brow of the hill was a great column of cattle. He had never witnessed such a procession of his kind before. When the leaders had reached the river, the rear was just coming over the brow of the hill, for the column was fully a mile in length. The line-back steer classed them as strangers, probably bound for the Frio, for that was the remotest country in his knowledge. As he slowly approached the herd, which was then crowding into the river, he noticed that they were nearly all two-year-olds like himself. Why not accompany them? His resolution to leave the Nueces valley was still uppermost in his mind. But when he attempted to join in, a dark-skinned man on a horse chased him away, cursing him in Spanish as he ran. Then he thought they must be exclusive, and wondered where they came from.

But when the line-back steer once resolved to do anything, the determination became a consuming desire. He threw the very intensity of his existence into his resolution of the morning. He would leave the Nueces valley with those cattle--or alone, it mattered not. So after they had watered and grazed out from the river, he followed at a respectful distance. Once again he tried to enter the herd, but an outrider cut him off. The man was well mounted, and running his horse up to him he took up his tail, wrapped the brush around the pommel of his saddle, and by a dexterous turn of his horse threw him until he spun like a top. The horseman laughed. The ground was sandy, and while the throwing frightened him, never for an instant did it shake his determination.

So after darkness had fallen and the men had bedded their cattle for the night, he slipped through the guard on night-herd and lay down among the others. He complimented himself on his craftiness, but never dreamed that this was a trail herd, bound for some other country three hundred miles beyond his native Texas. The company was congenial; it numbered thirty-five hundred two-year-old steers like himself, and strangely no one ever noticed him until long after they had crossed the Frio. Then a swing man one day called his foreman's attention to a stray, line-backed, bar-circle-bar steer in the herd. The foreman only gave him a passing glance, saying, "Let him alone; we may get a jug of whiskey for him if some trail cutter don't claim him before we cross Red River."

Now Red River was the northern boundary of his native State, and though he was unconscious of his destination, he was delighted with his new life and its constant change of scene. He also rejoiced that every hour carried him farther and farther from the Nueces valley, where he had suffered so much physical pain and humiliation. So for several months he traveled northward with the herd. He swam rivers and grazed in contentment across flowery prairies, mesas and broken country. Yet it mattered nothing to him where he was going, for his every need was satisfied. These men with the herd were friendly to him, for they anticipated his wants by choosing the best grazing, so arranging matters that he reached water daily, and selecting a dry bed ground for him at night. And when strange copper-colored men with feathers in their hair rode along beside the herd he felt no fear.

The provincial ideas of his youth underwent a complete change within the first month of trail life. When he swam Red River with the leaders of the herd, he not only bade farewell to his native soil, but burned all bridges behind him. To the line-back steer, existence on the Nueces had been very simple. But now his views were broadening. Was not he a unit of millions of his kind, all forging forward like brigades of a king's army to possess themselves of some unconquered country? These men with whom he was associated were the vikings of the Plain. The Red Man was conquered, and, daily, the skulls of the buffalo, his predecessors, stared vacantly into his face.

By the middle of summer they reached their destination, for the cattle were contracted to a cowman in the Cherokee Strip, Indian Territory. The day of delivery had arrived. The herd was driven into a pasture where they met another outfit of horsemen similar to their own. The cattle were strung out and counted. The men agreed on the numbers. But watchful eyes scanned every brand as they passed in review, and the men in the receiving outfit called the attention of their employer to the fact that there were several strays in the herd not in the road brand. One of these strays was a line-back, bar-circle-bar, two-year-old steer. There were also others; when fifteen of them had been cut out and the buyer asked the trail foreman if he was willing to include them in the bill of sale, the latter smilingly replied: "Not on your life, Captain. You can't keep them out of a herd. Down in my country we call strays like them poker steers."

And so there were turned loose in the Coldwater Pool, one of the large pastures in the Strip, fifteen strays. That night, in a dug-out on that range, the home outfit of cowboys played poker until nearly morning. There were seven men in the camp entitled to share in this flotsam on their range, the extra steer falling to the foreman. Mentally they had a list of the brands, and before the game opened the strays were divided among the participants. An animal was represented by ten beans. At the beginning the boys played cautiously, counting every card at its true worth in a hazard of chance. But as the game wore on and the more fortunate ones saw their chips increase, the weaker ones were gradually forced out. At midnight but five players remained in the game. By three in the morning the foreman lost his last bean, and ordered the men into their blankets, saying they must be in their saddles by dawn, riding the fences, scattering and locating the new cattle. As the men yawningly arose to obey, Dick Larkin defiantly said to the winners, "I've just got ten beans left, and I'll cut high card with any man to see who takes mine or I take one of his poker steers."

"My father was killed in the battle of the Wilderness," replied Tex, "and I'm as game a breed as you are. I'll match your beans and pit you my bar-circle-bar steer."

"My sire was born in Ireland and is living yet," retorted Bold Richard. "Cut the cards, young fellow."

"The proposition is yours--cut first yourself."

The other players languidly returned to the table. Larkin cut a five spot of clubs and was in the act of tearing it in two, when Tex turned the tray of spades. Thus, on the turn of a low card, the line-back steer passed into the questionable possession of Dick Larkin. The Cherokee Strip wrought magic in a Texas steer. One or two winters in its rigorous climate transformed the gaunt long-horn into a marketable beef. The line-back steer met the rigors of the first winter and by June was as glossy as a gentleman's silk tile. But at that spring round-up there was a special inspector from Texas, and no sooner did his eye fall upon the bar-circle-bar steer than he opened his book and showed the brand and his authority to claim him. When Dick Larkin asked to see his credentials, the inspector not only produced them, but gave the owner's name and the county in which the brand was a matter of record. There was no going back on that, and the Texas man took the line-back steer. But the round-up stayed all night in the Pool pasture, and Larkin made it his business to get on second guard in night-herding the cut. He had previously assisted in bedding down the cattle for the night, and made it a point to see that the poker three-year-old lay down on the outer edge of the bed ground. The next morning the line-back steer was on his chosen range in the south end of the pasture. How he escaped was never known; there are ways and ways in a cow country.

At daybreak the round-up moved into the next pasture, the wagons, cut and saddle horses following. The special inspector was kept so busy for the next week that he never had time to look over the winter drift and strays, which now numbered nearly two thousand cattle. When the work ended the inspector missed the line-back steer. He said nothing, however, but exercised caution enough to take what cattle he had gathered up into Kansas for pasturage.

When the men who had gone that year on the round-up on the western division returned, there was a man from Reece's camp in the Strip, east on Black Bear, who asked permission to leave about a dozen cattle in the Pool. He was alone, and, saying he would bring another man with him during the shipping season, he went his way. But when Reece's men came back after their winter drift during the beef-gathering season, Bold Richard Larkin bantered the one who had left the cattle for a poker game, pitting the line-back three-year-old against a white poker cow then in the Pool pasture and belonging to the man from Black Bear. It was a short but spirited game. At its end the bar-circle-bar steer went home with Reece's man. There was a protective code of honor among rustlers, and Larkin gave the new owner the history of the steer. He told him that the brand was of record in McMullen County, Texas, warned him of special inspectors, and gave him other necessary information.

The men from the Coldwater Pool, who went on the eastern division of the round-up next spring, came back and reported having seen a certain line-back poker steer, but the bar-circle-bar had somehow changed, until now it was known as the pilot wheel. And, so report came back, in the three weeks' work that spring, the line-back pilot-wheel steer had changed owners no less than five times. Late that fall word came down from Fant's pasture up west on the Salt Fork to send a man or two up there, as Coldwater Pool cattle had been seen on that range. Larkin and another lad went up to a beef round-up, and almost the first steer Bold Richard laid his eyes on was an under-bit, line-back, once a bar-circle-bar but now a pilot-wheel beef. Larkin swore by all the saints he would know that steer in Hades. Then Abner Taylor called Bold Richard aside and told him that he had won the steer about a week before from an Eagle Chief man, who had also won the beef from another man east on Black Bear during the spring round-up. The explanation satisfied Larkin, who recognized the existing code among rustlers.

The next spring the line-back steer was a five-year-old. Three winters in that northern climate had put the finishing touches on him. He was a beauty. But Abner Taylor knew he dared not ship him to a market, for there he would have to run a regular gauntlet of inspectors. There was another chance open, however. Fant, Taylor's employer, had many Indian contracts. One contract in particular required three thousand northern wintered cattle for the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeast Montana. Fant had wintered the cattle with which to fill this contract on his Salt Fork range in the Cherokee Strip. When the cowman cast about for a foreman on starting the herd for Fort Peck, the fact that Abner Taylor was a Texan was sufficient recommendation with Fant. And the line-back beef and several other poker steers went along.

The wintered herd of beeves were grazed across to Fort Peck in little less than three months. On reaching the agency, the cattle were in fine condition and ready to issue to the Indian wards of our Christian nation. In the very first allotment from this herd the line-back beef was cut off with thirty others. It was fitting that he should die in his prime. As the thirty head were let out of the agency corral, a great shouting arose among the braves who were to make the kill. A murderous fire from a hundred repeaters was poured into the running cattle. Several fell to their knees, then rose and struggled on. The scene was worthy of savages. As the cattle scattered several Indians singled out the line-back poker steer. One specially well-mounted brave ran his pony along beside him and pumped the contents of his carbine into the beef's side. With the blood frothing from his nostrils, the line-back turned and catching the horse with his horn disemboweled him. The Indian had thrown himself on the side of his mount to avoid the sudden thrust, and, as the pony fell, he was pinned under him. With admirable tenacity of life the pilot-wheel steer staggered back and made several efforts to gore the dying horse and helpless rider, but with a dozen shots through his vitals, he sank down and expired. A destiny, over which he had no seeming control, willed that he should yield to the grim reaper nearly three thousand miles from his birthplace on the sunny Nueces.

Abner Taylor, witnessing the incident, rode over to a companion and inquired: "Did you notice my line-back poker steer play his last trump? From the bottom of my heart I wish he had killed the Indian instead of the pony."

The Story of a Poker Steer was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Thu, Mar 23, 2023


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