Every evening here on the Great Florida Cattle Drive we got an update on what to expect the next day. We split up into six different regions, and each region has a circle boss. We camped with our regions and rode or walked with our regions, and each day a different region moved forward to ride with the herd.
We expect storms and much rain tomorrow.
Tonight, though, they told us that we will ride tomorrow rain, shine, or lightning. They thought that we should not be near the big metal and canvas tent that follows us for every evening stop. Also, it wouldn’t be safe to stay in our personal tents either. They also said we would leave at 8 am, same as the day before. They wanted to beat the rain.
So after the evening’s entertainment by a cowboy poet, we went back to the tent. I looked up the hourly forecast to see what to expect. It showed a 60% chance of rain beginning at 1 am and continuing to rise until 8 am when it was 85% rain. Oh boy! We were already stressing about breaking camp in the rain.
We went to bed early, but about 1:15 a.m. the rain woke me up. Then it stopped fairly soon thereafter, so I quickly got up to go to the port-a-potties. As I was unzipping the tent, I heard a calamity outside. It was close. It sounded like a runaway stagecoach ran right past our tent. I wondered if someone had left a wagon hitched, and their stock had run away with their wagon.
I stepped out of the tent and looked and listened for any more signs of runaway horses. Then I listened hard for stampeding hoofs. When I thought the coast was clear I ran across to the port-a-potties. Horses all around us, who were still penned, were noisily fussing back and forth to each other.
While I was at the potties I could hear people yelling to each other. I heard one man yelling in the dark, “Is anyone hurt? Is everyone ok?” Then I heard talking, something about a tent; and I thought, “Lord, I hope they weren’t dragging a tent.”
There are lots of tents in the camps, and most are little pulp tents, several darkly colored. It was starting to get a little scary. I wondered if the rain had softened the ground, and some horses had gotten loose and were running together.
As I walked back to our tent, I passed a lady leading a horse in the other direction. This one had one of those little lights on him. A lot of the horses have these, and it helps us to keep from walking into one of their temporary pens in the dark.
As I watched another person leading a horse, I heard someone down at the end yelling, “Has anyone lost a horse? Check your horses!” So I figured there were at least three who ran away. I still had no idea what they were dragging behind them.
I settled back down and looked over at Chuck but he was sound asleep. All that noise, and I don’t think he even moved.
So I got back in my sleeping bag, when I noticed all this chatting. I laid there wondering what was going on. It sounded like about a dozen or more people were talking, so I got up and unzipped the front to see what was going on at 1:30 in the morning. Over at the port-a-potties were two lines of people waiting and talking. I guess the horses woke up a bunch of people that had to go.
Time to Move Them Out
Breakfast was right on time at 6 am, and it had been steady raining all night since after the horse stampede. And now it was also windy, but it was a nice breeze. Kind of refreshing.
The thought of breaking camp in this wind and rain, though, was daunting. We thought it was ludicrous to make everyone move in this rain. We talked about balking, but we knew we wouldn’t do it. We’re cattle just like those bovines we’re driving.
So instead we got a miracle. About the time we got back and starting rolling up our bedrolls and repacking, the rain stopped. We hurried to take advantage. The wind was helping, too. It was actually drying things out a little. We broke camp in record time, carried our 60 pound bags to the stock trailer, and caught a wagon for the day.
I can walk this one, because the blisters are basically gone. It is supposed to be a short day, but we don’t know how much water is in our path. Everything down here is super saturated. So we decided not to risk it and fall behind again.
We hopped a ride on a large wooden red wagon driven by Bryce from Zolfo Springs. Two very tall mules pulled the wagon.
Believe me, this was the life of Riley after the last two days. We sat high up and could see forever. At times we followed right behind the cattle. We watched them collect the strays and bring them back in. We watched the Cowmen do their jobs.
With us in the wagon were Edith and several students from the College of Agriculture at the University of Florids/IFAS. One was from Ag Education & Communication, another was studying Animal Sciences. It was fun to talk to them. Their enthusiasm was great! Of course, it helped that I spent nine years working for IFAS at UF.
The driver and I discussed what might have made up the Walker’s foundation herd of cattle for my book. This is Mary’s family. He and I both agreed that they were probably a smaller species of cattle from Britain that bred well with Florida’s scrub or Cracker cattle and which also gave good milk. We both read about this breed that were brought to the new world by the British and had done well in state’s like South Carolina where Mary and her family drove their cattle from to Florida.
I also noticed the wagon driver trying to fight the monotony of the job. Every once in a while he quickly pulled back on the reins before his mules bumped into the wagon ahead. Also, the wagon behind noticed that we had a wheel that was dragging. They yelled, “Hey, your back left wheel’s a draggin.” I was getting rich material for the book.
On this part of the drive we drove the cattle through long leaf pine and loblolly pine forests with a palmetto floor. It was especially beautiful seeing the bright green raindrops glistening on the fronds. It was even more striking with the hundreds of cattle and horses with their riders weaving through the woods, many of which were wearing their Stetsons and yellow slickers. What a sight!
By the way the photo below was by Carlton Ward. None of us captured this better than him. You can see more of his work at his website. You can link to it here.
By the way signal problems aren’t the only problem out here. I ran out of chargers. I have only one left. I don’t know how long it will last. So when the posts stop, I’m sorry. I’ll keep writing and will post the last days of the cattle drive on Saturday or Sunday when we reach a hotel room and a hot bath. (Note: I was able to get help from others, so the posts kept coming.)
We are glad we didn’t try to walk today. It is boggy and there are major ponds in the low places of the roadbeds. At one point I noticed that it came up to the bellies of the team of mules following us.
Speaking of the mules, I just love to hear them bray. It is like a long bellowing screeching exhale, followed quickly by several staccato snorts with a squealing sound as they suck air back in. The two behind us sounded off several times. I haven’t heard it in years, and it is a wonderful sound like something from my childhood.
We drove the cattle through Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. I’ve been here once before but it was back when I worked at the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission in the 1990s. Mostly this part was a pine forest with a palmetto floor. There is standing water, though, throughout the forest. Later, we moved through a campground with mostly hunters, and they came out to watch the spectacle. I guess we are quite a show.
Finally, we got to our lunch and evening camp. We are done for the day by 1 pm. It has been a beautiful day. Chuck and I loved every minute of it.
Problem is, though, it started raining almost immediately; and we had to pitch the tent in the rain. Fortunately, it doesn’t leak. Unfortunately, it poured from then until we went to bed.
Chuck and I got out the camp chairs and sipped bourbon. After a while, the rain was just a nice addition. The cracker cattle grazed in a penned area right next to the camp. There are several Longhorns there who are definitely the dominant ones.
At dinner when they served swamp cabbage, we heard from almost everyone that their tents were leaking like a sieve. Our tent is new; but we’re thinking ours will begin leaking, too, sooner if not later.
By the way, remember the runaway horses who stampeded past our tent last night? Well, we finally heard the rest of the story. It seems a horse got lose but was tied to his feed bucket. He ran and the louder that bucket made a racket following along behind him, the faster he got.
While trying to get away from his feed bucket, he ran through several of those temporary pens where other horses were housed for the evening. Those horses joined him and the bucket and the ropes and other pieces of metal from the pens was what was clanging behind them as they stampeded through the camp. They snatched up a lady’s tent as they ran through, but I think they just pulled it down as they passed. I heard she was unhurt.
Wish us luck that the rain stops, and we have no more stampeding horse incidents.
Some pictures from earlier years are below.