Goodnight on Ranging and Making of a Scout

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

Palo Pinto County, Texas
Blazing the Goodnight Trail | Goodnight/Loving Pasture | Goodnight on Ranging and Making of a Scout | Real Lonesome Dove
Picture of a Young Charles Goodnight
Charles Goodnight

Ranchers and their cowboys made good Rangers. Their work well prepared them for this task. Charles Goodnight pointed out that, first of all, tending Texas cattle was tough, dangerous work. The local breed was much heavier than Mexican Longhorns and their horns, though shorter, were set forward, making them much more dangerous. An angry cow could hunt down and kill a man.

Early drives preceded the chuckwagon so each man had to carry his own food. Goodnight observed that at least the cowboys in those days didn't spend most of their talk complaining about the cook. Good horseflesh was vital to trail a herd eighteen or more hours a day. Speed, nerve and good horsemanship was necessary when emergencies, particularly stampedes, erupted. Though a sidearm was seldom called for and cost about half a years pay, every top hand carried one and prided themselves on their marksmanship.

Trailing skills learned from the Indians allowed the most perceptive cowboys to serve as scouts. Acute attention to the smallest details of the landscape and wildlife enabled the scout to accurately anticipate water, game and danger. Goodnight contended exceptional senses were necessary though cattle smelled water long before humanly possible and telescopes were in use. He claimed only the best ear could distinguish animal sounds imitated by Comanche signalers. His words were made more poignant by John Graves' description of night-time at the Welty cabin from his classic, Goodbye to a River.

...the feel of the murderous wild men in the moonlit dark all around the house, and not knowing if a screech owl's quaver was a screech owl or a wolf's yell was a wolf. Always moonlight, that was when they came. ...It must have been hard to forget, the feel of those nights.

Charles Goodnight Picture
Charles Goodnight

The Making of a Scout

The following is a thorough description of the supplies and skills required for the successful Ranger scout from the book, Charles Goodnight, Cowman and Plainsman, by J. Evetts Haley.

    Many frontiersmen have left accounts of Indian warfare, of bloody battles with outlaws and thieves, and of desperate chances in wild and strange lands. The names of some are household words today. Perhaps none expressed the lore of the scout and guide-the technique of plainscraft-better than Charlie Goodnight, for he has given voice to those essential qualities that made Bridger, Carson, Wootton, and others live in tradition and in history.

    In order to understand the lore which Goodnight himself so thoroughly embodied, it is necessary to understand the land and the life that fostered it. West of the ragged edge of the Upper Cross Timbers lies the open country. Two hundred miles or more beyond this ragged line is one more ragged still, formed by the escarpments delimiting the eastern edge of the Staked Plains. Draining from the canons along their eastern edges are the headwaters of many of the rivers of Texas, from the three Conchos on the south, to the Colorado, the Brazos, the Wichita, and the Red, on the north. At the outbreak of the Civil War they drained an unknown country.

    Only in a few places had the frontier line of Texas emerged into the open lands. Between 1858 and 1861 the outposts ebbed back for many miles, until they rested again in the shelter of the timbered zone. As Goodnight recalled, the extreme western settler in Young County, at the outbreak of the war, lived four miles west of Fort Belknap, and there was 'nothing west from there to the Rocky Mountains.'

    From somewhere in that vast and unexplored prairie country came marauding Indian bands, as transient as the whirlwinds that sucked its red dusts into the skies-almost as elusive in the trails they left behind. Open mile after open mile, this country stretched beyond the Cross Timbers, a gently rolling short-grass land. In many places near the Llano Estacado it broke into vicious stretches of choppy country, red clay badlands, where water-when there was any-was bitter as gall to the palate and devastating to the stomach, where game was scarce and fuel was rare, and where, unless the scout was the best of guides, men flung fresh horses upon a trail to come out-God only knew where -afoot.

    West of this land of gentle swells the Staked Plains reared their high and colorful abutments, those escarpments that broke away from the plateau in flashing reds and dull yellows, in sober browns and subdued purples. Out of that country of shimmering horizons, a land that has 'the vastness without the malignancy of the sea,' gashed the rugged canons of the Palo Duro, with their clays and sandstones swept into turrets, battlements, totems, and effigies by the everlasting winds of the West. There, and in the Quitaque to the south, and on to Las Lenguas, and Casas Amarillas, and the Double Mountain Fork, was rough land into which Indians might sweep from bloody forays on the Texas border. To the north were the breaks of the Salt Fork and the North Fork, and the long valley of the Canadian, and to the east the refuge of the narrow granitic mountains of the Wichita. Before this sheltered land lay the open ranges of the Tejanos to the west lay the markets of New Mexico; to the northeast the traders from the Yankee settlements. Why should the bold warriors of the Comanche and Kiowa crave peace with the South?

    Such was the country from which the Indians came, and back into these forbidding plains to hunt them down rode the frontier rangers, adapting their methods to those of the Indians; traveling without camp equipage, without forage, without shelter, and almost without water; eating when the country offered meat, but more often skimping their way out and starving their way back. Nowhere in Texas had climate and topography frowned so hardly upon the men who would master them. Nowhere were her frontiersmen compelled so completely to revolutionize their attack.

    From the Rio Grande north to the southern butts of the Plains the Frontier Regiment generally ranged a well-watered country, prolific of game, excellently sheltered, provided with fuel, and often abundant with wild fruits and nuts. Upon the northwest edge only for the man who knew the land to its very grass roots was there anything but sterility. Of necessity the scout was a seasoned outdoor man, well versed in the highly technical art of plainscraft. His place was the most important and the most difficult in a frontier campaign. The company depended upon him against surprise attacks, against becoming lost in a region devoid of landmarks, against death from thirst and hunger, and even against freezing. Upon his observation and judgment depended the safety, the mobility, the usefulness, and the life of the entire command.

    A scout was necessarily in camp very little, for as soon as one scouting party returned to camp another was sent out. Goodnight would have scouted continually if possible. 'Many of the men sat around playing cards. But I couldn't stand to sit in camp,' he said, 'and spent a great deal of time walking around in the woods.' The scout, along with the officers, was exempt from all fatigue duty, but rather than sit in camp and submit to a few simple formalities of discipline, Goodnight stood guard over the company's horses for many long hours.

    Partly from simplicity of taste, partly from extreme isolation, and partly from the impoverishment of war, the ranger's presence was mean rather than impressive. Clothing and equipment were left largely to private initiative, but here, as elsewhere, Goodnight observed, 'there were quarter-breed men, half-breed man, and full-blooded men. Those who were up to snuff were well equipped. Some were so sorrily equipped that they were never taken on scouts or campaigns, but were left around camp to stand fatigue.' In the main, however, the regiment contained fine frontiersmen; men who really loved the smell of a campfire, the whinny of a horse, the lure of a trail-'full-blooded' men who rode into battle with splendid abandon.

    Of all the varied units of fighting men since war was history, no other has been quite the same. In their belts they carried Bowie knives often sheathed in scabbards made from the tails of buffalo calves, slipped whole from the bone and dried over a whittled stick, exactly the shape of the blade. The bushy end of the tail swung below as a tassel ornament, or was used for cleaning its owner's comb. The better equipped had six-shooters, preferably of the same caliber as their rifles, to prevent confusion of ammunition in the excitement of battle, and those without rifles were armed with double-barreled shotguns. In either case they fought at close quarters, for the rifles were of short range.

    When there was scant danger of surprise, the rifle was carried on the saddle in a leather or rawhide scabbard, with the stock set forward and the barrel pointing backward. In Indian country it was carried across the fork of the saddle, swung in a short leather sling from the saddle horn. No motion was lost in case of surprise; the sling was slipped from the horn in an instant and the gun was almost in position for firing. Thus the weight of the gun was carried on the fork of the saddle, and whether at a walk or a lope was easily balanced by a touch of the hand.

    To facilitate speedy loading, the rangers adapted a shot pouch that swung from the left shoulder to the waistline, convenient to the right hand. Inside were buckskin scraps for bullet-patches, bullets, and a box of caps, and swinging by buckskin strings below was the powder-horn-a white horn dressed so thin that the ranger, by holding it up to the sun, could see if his powder was running low. The peg, or stopper, was usually of bois d'arc or hickory, for stoppers of soft wood might swell in rainy weather and disarm an entire command.

    Attached by another string was the charger, a powder measure of horn or a small joint of cane trimmed to hold the right amount. In battle it was not used, for it was quicker to guess at a charge in the palm of the hand. In reloading at leisure the ranger might charge his gun by placing a bullet in his palm and pouring just enough powder to cover it up. Cloth bullet-patches were sometimes used, but on account of the greater resiliency of tallowed buckskin, bullets were seated tighter with it, more power was utilized from the charge, and hence longer range from the gun. In preparation for a scout, each man molded fifty bullets, and on account of their ease in loading, round bullets were used exclusively. Such was the equipment of the border ranger.

    Out from camp regularly rode a scouting party of perhaps twenty-five men, and as they had no extra horses they took particular care of those they rode. Beneath the headstall of each bridle, encircling the nose of the horse, was a bosal-as we say on the border-the loop of a hair rope, the thirty-five feet of which were coiled at the left of the saddle fork, tied with a slip knot by one of the saddle strings.

    Loaded with frying-pans, a little flour, bacon, and salt, two pack-mules faithfully followed behind. A pair of blankets for every two men was on the pack or behind the cantle of a saddle. Tied to each saddle was a big tin cup and usually a buffalo-horn spoon. The scout rode half a mile ahead, and conveyed his messages back to the squad by a system of signals-motions of the hat or movements of his horse.

    Perhaps, as the scout reached the crest of a wave of the land, upon a creek before him was a party of Indian braves, unaware that whites were near. He dropped back from the ridge and turned his horse into the signal of a charge. Gun slings were raised from the saddle horns, slip knots jerked undone, and the coils of the stake ropes drawn under the rangers' belts. In an instant they were ready for action.

    They swept over the ridge in a wild dash and bore down upon the astonished bucks with unearthly cowboy yells. The Indians scrambled for their horses and scattered like a bevy of Mexican quail, while the rangers scattered in pursuit, some using rifles, some holding fire, and some closing up to six-shooter range.

    All guns were never fired at once, else in time of reloading the Indians would rush and cut the rangers down with arrows at close range. Goodnight, superbly mounted and riding in the lead with the old-timers, felt there was greater danger of being shot by raw and excited recruits from behind than by the Indians in front. If the Indians were not rushed down, tactics changed, for a horseman with a rifle fights at a disadvantage with a cool man on the ground. The captain might order his men to foot, and some swung off at a run, reins flying loose, stake ropes jerked free in their left hands.

    If held by the reins most horses shy from a gun. Hence, as his feet hit the ground, the ranger flipped the free end of the rope around his hips, drew it into a slip knot, and gave his attention to the Indians. If his horse ran on the end of the rope the nose-hitch ordinarily kept him from dragging the rider, who in case of emergency could pull at the loose end of the slip knot and set the mount free. If his company retreated, the ranger gathered up the rope as he ran to his horse, swung into the saddle and tucked the coils back under his belt as he rode.

    After Goodnight's first shot, the butt of his gun swung to the ground, the barrel in the crook of his arm. His right hand grabbed the powder-horn, he jerked the stopper out with his teeth, and poured a charge into the palm of his left hand. As he poured it into his gun, he slipped out the rod with his right, then caught up the leather loader with his left, pressed a ready-patched bullet into the barrel, and rammed it home with the hickory rod. As he lifted his gun with his left hand, his right pulled a cap from his belt and slipped it in place, and he was ready to shoot again.

    After a fight the old-timers gathered the plunder of value while the raw recruits picked up the relics. If other Indians were near-and the scout had to know-the rangers went into camp before dark, staked their horses upon grass, cooked and ate their suppers, and made all preparations for spending the night. After dark they quietly moved to a spot the scout had selected a few miles away, where they both hobbled and side-lined their horses, making stampede impossible, posted a guard, and went to sleep.

    Thus were the rangers equipped and thus did they operate. But the work of the scout and guide was not only the work of the regular ranger but a great deal more.

    Perhaps the guide's simplest qualification, and yet one of the rarest among civilized men, was a faculty of direction. Few men, even scientifically trained and frontier grown, have this faculty. 'And yet," Goodnight mused, 'the fellows who cannot keep a course are always quarreling with you-afraid you are going to get them lost.

    'It was the scout's business to guide the company under all conditions. Thus, above all things, the scout and plainsman had to have a sense-an instinct-for direction. He had to have the faculty of never needing a compass. With the point of destination fixed in his mind, a thorough plainsman could go to it as directly in darkness as in daylight, on a calm, cloudy day as well as in bright sunshine with the wind blowing steadily from one quarter. Few men have this instinct. Yet in the few it is to be trusted as absolutely as the homing instinct of a wild goose. A man with such an instinct relies on what is in this mind more than he does on stars or winds or the sun or landscape features. I never had a compass in my life. I was never lost. In all my frontier experience, I knew but one man who had keener senses than I had. He was a Tonkawa Indian and his eyesight would carry farther than mine.

    'As matches were unknown, we used various methods of obtaining our fire, the most common of which was punk and steel. But in the prairie country, where there was no punk, we had to avail ourselves of other ways, the most common of which was to burn red corncobs to ashes, put them in a tin plate, and make them into a thin mush with water. Into this mush we put colored calico-white might do but colored was much preferred-and old cloth was the best. We saturated the rags thoroughly and carried a supply with us. When dry they would catch fire readily from flint and steel.

    'Another method was to twist a wad of cotton into a joint of cane until it stuck out at the other end-a four-inch joint was enough-after which we set the cotton on fire. As it burned, we untwisted the wad at the other end, and the cotton crawled back into the cane and went out. When we wanted to catch fire, we twisted the cotton again until the charred end stuck through, and then used the flint and steel as usual. From the smoldering cotton we lighted a kindling rag and started our fire from it.

    'If we had none of these materials, we would char a soft cottonwood root, which would catch like punk, from which we would light our kindling rag, cedar bark, rotten wood or grass.'

    Like other outdoor men, the rangers were sometimes soaked from head to foot, and a fire became a matter of serious concern. As a last resort the scout rubbed a dampened calico rag through powder, held in the palm of his hand, until it was saturated with half-melted explosive. Then he placed a percussion cap upon one spoke of a rowel of his Mexican spurs, wrapped the powder-laden rag below it, and 'busted the cap' with the back of his Bowie knife. The rag caught the sparks and flashed into a blaze as the powder burned.

    In an arid wilderness the problem of water was the most serious problem of all. The logs of the Western trails, the stories around mountain campfires, and the journals of pioneer folk, all attest the anxiety, the suffering, the failure, and the tragedy exacted by a land of little water.

    'I think that I learned pretty thoroughly the requirements of scout and plainsman,' observed Goodnight. 'The first requirement is that by merely looking at the country the scout should be able to judge accurately in what direction water lies and the approximate distance to it. He should be familiar with every grass and shrub that indicates water. He should be able to tell by watching the animals, if animals there be, whether they are going to or coming from water.'

    The scout and plainsman should know the significance of the vegetation as well as the animal life of the country he ranges. By both, but mainly by observing the plant life, he usually estimates his elevation, and certainly his approximate latitude and longitude.

    'You can blindfold me, take me anywhere in the Western country,' Goodnight once said, 'then uncover my eyes so that I can look at the vegetation, and I can tell about where I am. The mesquite, for instance, has different forms for varying altitudes, latitudes, and areas of aridity. It does not grow far north of old Tascosa in the Texas Panhandle.

    'When I was scouting on the Plains, I was always mighty glad to see a mesquite bush. In a dry climate-the climate natural to the mesquite-its seed seem to spring up only from the droppings of an animal. The only animal on the Plains that ate mesquite beans was the mustang. After the mesquite seed was soaked for a while in the bowels of a horse and was dropped, it germinated quickly. Now mustangs rarely grazed out from water more than three miles, that is, when they had the country to themselves. Therefore, when I saw a mesquite bush I used to know that water was within three miles. All I had to do after seeing the bush was to locate the direction of the water.

    'The scout had to be familiar with the birds of the region,' continued the plainsman, 'to know those that watered each day, like the dove, and those that lived long without watering, like the Mexican quail. On the Plains, of an evening, he could take the course of the doves as they went off into the breaks to water. But the easiest of all birds to judge from was that known on the Plains as the dirt dauber or swallow. He flew low, and if his mouth was empty he was going to water. He went straight too. If his mouth had mud in it, he was coming straight from water. The scout also had to be able to watch the animals, and from them learn where water was. Mustangs watered daily, at least in the summertime, while antelopes sometimes went for months without water at all. If mustangs were strung out and walking steadily along, they were going to water. If they were scattered, frequently stopping to take a bite of grass, they were coming from water.

    'West of the Cross Timbers water became very scarce, and near the Plains extremely bad. Most of it was undrinkable, and the water we could drink had a bad effect on us. At times we suffered exceedingly from thirst, which suffering is the worst torture of all. At night we tossed in a semi-conscious slumber in which we unfortunately dreamed of every spring we ever knew-and such draughts as we would take from them-which invariably awakened us, leaving us, if possible, in even more distress. In my early childhood we had a fine spring near the house under some large oaks. A hollow tree had been provided for a gum, as was common in those days, and was nicely covered with green moss. Many times I have dreamed of seeing that spring and drinking out of it-it would seem so very real!

    'Suffering from thirst had a strange and peculiar effect. Every ounce of moisture seemed to be sapped out of the flesh, leaving men and animals haggard and thin, so that one could not recognize them if they had been deprived long.

    'Interior recruits had little knowledge of how to take care of themselves in such emergencies. In case of dire thirst, placing a small pebble in the mouth will help, a bullet is better, a piece of cooper, if obtainable, is still better, and prickly pear is the best of all. Of course there were no pears on the Plains, but in the prairie country there were many. If, after cutting off the stickers and peeling, you place a piece of the pear in your mouth, it will keep your mouth moist indefinitely. If your drinking water happens to be muddy, peel and place a thin slice of pear in it. All sediment will adhere to it and it will sink to the bottom, leaving the water clear and wholesome.

    'After water came the problem of food. The country in which we served was mostly a barren wilderness, and outside of buffaloes had virtually no game. Any frontiersman knows that in a wilderness there are practically no rabbits, as the wolves devour most of them. Consequently, when we were outside the buffalo range there was nothing for us but the prairie dogs, and the only fault we could find with them was that they were too small and very hard to get. I believe that fully half of them, even after their heads were shot off, would fall back in their holes and kick themselves below the first bend, where they couldn't be reached.

    'Meat was our main fare. We rarely had bread, but when we did we baked it over the coals on sticks; a forked stick was our skillet. We always tried to keep a little flour on hand to thicken soup, using it for this more than anything else. Prairie dogs were fat and made good soup, but it was not satisfying as one became hungry again in two or three hours. We would boil a prairie dog or two, the more dogs in the kettle the better, and with a little flour make quite a pot of soup. A command could be carried farther with a little flour soup and meat than with anything else.

    'We always had plenty of bacon in camp,' Goodnight recalled, 'as the settlers were well supplied with hogs. At the start of a scout, some of the boys would throw away their bacon skins, but I would go around, gather them up and put them in the pack. Some of the men used to laugh at me, but before we got back I'd be broiling those skins and making good meals off of them. Invariably, those who had made fun of me at first would be the ones asking for some of them back.

    'Suffering for food is not so intense after the first forty-eight hours. I noticed that tobacco-chewers seemed to feel the hunger less than those who did not use it-it appears that tobacco has a tendency to stay the appetite.'

    Besides these qualifications-sense of direction, ability to provide fire, water, game, and shelter-there were others a scout had to have. In order to be 'a proper guide,' as Goodnight expressed it, and a true and efficient plainsman, either in the wilderness then or in a wild country now, the veteran insisted that one must have these further mental and physical qualifications:

    'The scout's eyesight must be perfect; he must be able to see as far as any Indian. He must have the faculty of being absolutely cool under all conditions; surprises should not flustrate him. His coolness and presence of mind not only protect himself but those under him. He must be able to decide instantly what to do in cases of emergency. He must be able to judge the nature of the country ahead of him as far as he can see, and take the way that has the least resistance to his command, keeping out of sight as much as possible-picking the routes that will expose him least to the enemy. He must have the faculty of reading men accurately, and he must have their full confidence-they must have faith in their guide.

    'He must have the faculty of not only seeing the tracks and other evidence of the Indians, but a good scout or plainsman must be able to tell how old the tracks are. To do so he must be an accurate judge of temperature and the effect of the sun. If he sees a broken twig, a broken blade of grass, or a bit of weed cut off by a horse's hoof, he must be able to tell how long it has been withering. It is easy to determine whether a track has been made before or after daylight. A track made during the night will be marked over with minute insect tracks. Even on desert sands this is true. By getting down and putting his eye close to the ground, the scout can observe the insect tracks.

    'A good plainsman is a good trailer. He can tell whether a horse track has been made by a loose horse, a riderless horse being led, or a horse with a man on him. Suppose I am on the hunt for a man that I know to be riding a bay horse. I find the tracks of a horse carrying a man. But is the horse a bay horse? I follow the track until I find where the rider has unsaddled his mount to let him graze. When the saddle is taken off, a horse that has been ridden any distance generally rolls on the ground. I find where the one I am trailing has rolled. I examine the dirt or the grass for hairs. I find a few. Their color tells me whether the horse is bay.

    'His hearing must be perfect; not only perfect, but trained to the precision of the operator of the telegraph. To read sounds correctly will have much to do with his ability as a scout, as much of his experience will be in exploring wild and untrodden countries.

    'The old-time plainsman, if he was a good one, could detect the most skillful imitation of any animal sound. The Indians often used those imitations to locate themselves at night. But no man's cry of bird or beast could deceive him. The wild turkey may be fooled by a quill; the doe may be deceived by a mechanical bleat; the anxious mother cow may be lured by a cowboy's counterfeit of the calf's bawling; a coon may be drawn from a tree by sounds of coon fighting imitated by some boy. But the trained ear of a plainsman cannot be so deceived. One thing to remember is that the human voice echoes more than any other; in fact, it almost alone of all voices echoes at all. The hoot of an owl will not echo in a canyon anything like an Indians's hooting. The lobo wolf's cry will echo more than any other wild animal sound. Of course on the Staked Plains, we do not have this advantage, as there is nothing to create an echo, but in the mountains and canyons and broken country the old Indian warriors I have talked with agree with me that no human can exactly imitate the sound of beast or bird. I realize that this will be doubted, but I will ask you how the operator reads the sounds of the key when they all sound alike to you.'

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