Kong of the longhorns: a gentle steer named Old Blue became a legendary leader in the days of the great cattle drives.
One midwinter night in 1878, a fierce storm rolled into the camp of the JA Ranch cowboys. The cowboys were trailing a herd of longhorn cattle 250 miles from the Texas Panhandle to the railroad station in Dodge City, Kansas.
The drovers struggled for hours in pelting sleet and snow to keep the bawling herd together. If the steers drifted, the cowboys would lose them.
The cowboys also faced trouble with the mighty Arkansas River that raged between them and the railroad pens on the other side.
At dawn, the JA boss yelled, "Untie Old Blue's clapper and take the river."
Old Blue, a 1,400-pound steer, took charge. He strode to the riverbank, then plunged into the icy water, battling the strong current. Without pausing, a thousand steers followed.
On the opposite bank, Blue took off running and soon delivered the thundering herd into the holding pens. The cowboys hustled the cattle into railroad cars, then watched as the train pulled out for northern markets.
Beside the men stood Blue, too valuable to ride the train north. "Old Blue would come back to the ranch with the cow horses," a JA cowhand remembered.
Old Blue is probably the most famous lead steer of the old western cattle drives. In 1876, he had led 1,600 head of cattle down a narrow buffalo trail into the Texas Panhandle's Palo Duro Canyon for his owner, frontiersman Charles Goodnight. In the canyon, Goodnight established the JA Ranch, the Panhandle's first.
After the trip into the canyon, Goodnight came up with an idea to put a bell on his lead steer. With the shiny bell swinging from a leather collar, Old Blue was "the proudest animal that ever switched his tail at flies," according to one historian.
Blue became known all over the region. On a trip up the Palo Duro-Dodge City Trail, Blue's long stride kept a herd moving--sometimes so fast that the cowboys had to slow his pace so the other cattle could keep up. Another historian said that Blue always set such a true course that he "must have known the North Star."
Texas Longhorns are skittish creatures, prone to running away when frightened. Even a jackrabbit jumping out of the bushes can alarm them. But nothing frightened Blue. He just plodded on. His huge horns swinging back and forth seemed to calm the herd.
Blue would not graze or bed down with the other steers or mill around with them. If the men and horses busied themselves elsewhere, Blue kept to himself. When he delivered a herd inside a pen, Blue stepped aside, then slipped out before the gate swung shut. Even during night stampedes, Blue would not stand for any hip bumping or horn locking. When the running started, he stood apart and bawled.
Because of his gentleness and intelligence, Blue was spoiled by the cowboys. While the other cattle grazed on prairie grass, Blue stayed in camp and ate scraps of meat, corn, biscuits, and dried fruit.
After eight years of leading more than 10,000 head of JA cattle to Dodge City, Blue retired from trail work. He spent his last years admired and pampered, roaming around the ranch. A former JA boss remembered that "when the wagon was out in the spring and summer, he usually would follow it, taking choice feed the boys would hand him."
When Blue died at age twenty, the cowboys removed his horns and hung them at ranch headquarters. Today, the horns hang on a wall at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas, not far from the ranch where Old Blue, King of the Longhorns, reigned.