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Whatever Happened to Jonah Morrison?
My name is Jonah Morrison. I work for Mr. Samuel Black on the Stonegate Ranch in Fort Worth, Texas. My job is to herd Texan Longhorn cattle along the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, Kansas where the meat gets shipped everywhere—east, west, and to your city markets.
On the trail, we wake up before the sun rises every day, and eat breakfast any time between 3 to 5 am. Our cook, Charlie, prepares a hearty meal that usually consists of beans and biscuits, with some black coffee to wash it down. We don’t have a noontime meal, so if we want to eat at all later in the day, we have to ration our morning’s food. At dawn we pack up camp and start moving the cattle forward.
Our group consists of fourteen men—Cook, two point-men (who lead the herd), four swing riders (who stay at the front; two per side), four flank riders (who stay in the back; two per side), two riders in drag (in very back of the herd), and the trail leader (who scouts ahead of us all to search out the best route).
I work as a swing rider. My job is to stay on the upper-left side of the herd and watch out for stragglers with my partner, Wesley Morgan. He’s not too friendly, but he works hard, and it’s all about efficiency out here.
Mister Black has strict regulations about safety nowadays. I suppose some kid was foolish enough to forget his training, went out without proper equipment, and got into trouble—or something along those lines. His name was Henry Jacoby, so people say. The story goes that he got run over by the cattle, which I don’t quite believe. At any rate, we're not allowed be out with the herd unless we've our spurs, kerchiefs, and lariats with us at all times. I've never even used my lariat (which is a rope that was designed to catch run-away cattle), but the spurs are certainly worth my while when we’re around all these anxious cows (kick them back into their place, as Mister Black always says!), and the kerchief is mighty helpful to keep dust out of your face if you've got drag duty.
There's only one animal that gives any of us trouble round here, and that's the little bull. She can't be more than a year old, that wild thing, but she's certainly got a temper on her. I call her Martha. See, there’s one thing nobody tells you about this business. We're not a family out here. Having a different color skin or worshipping a different God sets you apart from everyone else. Being out here, you're alone in the midst of a thousand, and that's scary. Of course, we’ve got each other’s backs if something goes wrong--but that’s just part of human nature. We’re civilized enough to ensure that we all stay safe. Even still, there’s no moral law that says you have to be nice to people.
After twelve or thirteen hours on the open prairie, this line of work gets mighty dull. Unfortunately, we’re always kept on our toes—so far, in my five years of herding, I’ve gone through eight thunderstorms, three tornadoes, a flood, river quicksand, snakebites, scorpions and stampedes (not always by our own cattle—wild bison live around here and occasionally we’ll plow right through their territory. It doesn’t happen much because Indians in this area have just about hunted them dry). The weather’s an awful gamble in Oklahoma and Kansas (Storm Alley, it’s called) and the windstorms are terrible. At not a moment’s notice, it’ll be hailing or thundering like mad, and there’s not a thing we can do but halt. The animals get spooked in bad weather. Unfortunately, the river’s we must cross off the trail usually involve quicksand, and there’s no real way to predict whether we’ll make it across. It’s completely guesswork and reliance on who’s gone where before you did! And like all rivers, the flooding that happens out here like nothing you’ve ever seen. Flash floods out here, like in the desert. The banks just fill right over the top, and we have to rope in the cattle to keep them from being swept away downstream.
Now, on the topic of medicine. There’s not much we can do if an animal falls sick, but if one of us does, Cook’s got all the know-how. He’s got some big duties out here, when no one else is a doctor.
The trail is pretty lifeless, once you get past the horrible catastrophes that can happen. There’s no church, no Sunday evening roast, no ball games, nothing. You forget what the world is about when you're so far away from it. We all love the little things we see in these animals. They remind us of home. Martha's just like my daughter. She's got a fire in her heart, just like my little girl. This is what you embrace. You remember the little things out here, because there's nothing else for you to hold on to.
On second thought, the boredom and endless monotony (aside from the life-threatening dangers) do set up quite a blank canvas for the cow towns to come. A cow town like Abilene is the closest to heaven on earth a man could get. Not only is there plentiful alcohol (hey, I may be a father but I’m still a man!), but also there are hotels with soft, soft beds. After such a long journey, there’s nothing a body needs more than some good sleep. I won’t lie, though. There are an awful lot of unsavory businesses in Abilene, places I never go into and I’d be embarrassed to mention them to my wife. Drugs, prostitutes: It’s all there. What can I say? Some people on the trail just weren’t born with morals.
About midday, Cook goes on ahead with his Chuck wagon to prepare supper in the night’s campgrounds. We all expect a big meal after a hard day’s work, and so far Cook’s not been one to disappoint. A typical evening’s feast is about the same as breakfast—beans, bread, and whatever animal Cook’s caught running wild outside. Fresh vegetables are a rarity, but sometimes if we’re all real good, Cook will prepare us some canned fruit—a couple weeks ago we had peaches! Sweet, syrupy, delicious peaches. I sure do love those.
Come suppertime, or rather come dusk, we all settle down around a fire and Cook gives us our meal—meat, but we never can quite tell what it is. My personal favorite is Son-of-a-Gun Stew, which we can predict easily. See, there’s always this special glint in Cook’s eye when he knows something we don’t. I think he likes torturing us. Because, in Son-of-a-Gun Stew? There’s hearts, brains, intestines, livers, all sorts of innards Cook digs out of some poor slaughtered soul he found wandering around. I’ll bet he was a butcher back in his town.
At the end of the day, we retire to our tents and crawl into our blankets, but I don’t ever fall asleep. I lie awake thinking, what will happen to us? Will I make it alive this time? There’s only so much luck a man can have with his life. And what’s going on back home? What have my wife and baby girl been up to? A lot can happen in the three months I’ll be gone, and I always think that 100 dollars won’t be enough to make me come back. I’ll never be away from my family that long, I’ll never risk myself for something that pays so little! But the debts pile up, and we can’t earn enough money on the farm, so I always go back. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t. It’s a dangerous thing, being a cowboy.