GREENWOOD COUNTY — Slowly, over the horizon, the last cattle drive slips into sight. There are no thundering hoofbeats. The sound is almost a whisper, like a gentle stirring of the wind.
Horses neigh and cowboys occasionally whistle and "yip-yip" encouragement to the herd.
It is the last drive for the Cedar Creek Ranch. The effects of a tough and long recession are cutting deep into Flint Hills traditions.
The 300 cows owned by Mike and Jayne Mayes and their son, Josh, will be shipped next week to range land in Oklahoma, where it is cheaper to graze year-round and the winters aren't as tough.
It costs roughly $215 a cow to graze over the summer on Flint Hills grass. The Mayeses were able to strike a better deal in Oklahoma, at roughly $300 a cow to graze year-round.
"It's a business and not just a lifestyle," Jayne Mayes said when asked why the second-generation Flint Hills ranching family is shipping their cattle out of state to graze.
The 300 cattle and 15 horses and their riders spent most of Friday — seven hours by Wayne Bailey's reckoning — covering 19 miles of the Flint Hills.
"You can't get here any more direct than I did it," said Bailey, a 63-year-old, third-generation Flint Hills rancher who led the herd. "You just come into the wind and never get off it."
For eight years, friends and neighbors have helped the Mayeses drive the cattle each fall from their summer pastures at the Baileys, 17 miles east of Cassoday in Greenwood County, to the
Mayeses' winter pastures near Matfield Green in Chase County.
Wayne Bailey knows this land like few others.
The route he took crossed eight ranches, a few county roads and a bridge spanning the Kansas Turnpike, where people leaned out their windows and cheered for the cowboys.
Cattle drives used to be a tradition in the Flint Hills each fall, when the calves are old enough to be separated from their mothers. The Mayeses' calves were taken to their ranch last week by truck, Mike Mayes said.
These days, most cattle — if they are herded — are moved short distances, mostly by ATVs and pickup trucks. For any long stretches of road, semis growl down highways with cows packed like sardines in their trailers, staring wide-eyed out air pockets.
Cowboys on horseback may still herd cattle, but the Mayeses and the Baileys are the last of the Flint Hills ranchers to drive a herd long distance.
"The trucking expense is one reason we don't do it," Bailey said. "That, and the simple fact that I was born a cowboy and I think it ought to be done this way."
Along for the ride
In the sea of grass and cattle, three pink coats stand out: Annette, 17; Jesse, 14; and Ellen Jones , 11 — all members of 4-H, sisters who are growing up with the ranching lifestyle.
That pleases their mother, Wendi Jones, who drove the chuck wagon for the cattle drive.
Seeing the cattle come over the horizon, she said, was reward enough.
"My heart is so full," she said. "The animals are happy and healthy. Nobody is scared or hurt. They always talk about how the rancher is destroying this. You see these cattle out here that have lived and will continue to live a really nice life — it is just beauty."
She wants her daughters to see this way of life.
Ellen Jones is the youngest rider on the drive.
"I feel kind of special that I am going to be part of something that is probably never going to happen again," she said.
It was her first cattle drive, and she said she knows she will someday tell her children and grandchildren about it.
She has learned of the cattle that "some are slower than others and some have a mind of their own."
And, she says, that "you have to have a really good horse and sense of direction or you will get lost."
Ed Patterson works construction now, but he's also spent plenty of time with horses. He used to rodeo with Bailey — wrestling steers, mostly. He said he wouldn't have missed riding this last cattle drive.
Same goes for Clark O'Bannon of Westfalia, who rode his painted horse, Spot. The horse fought O'Bannon almost all the way, occasionally rearing and trying to unseat him.
"Spot was a lot of trouble for a ways," O'Bannon said. "But you do this for the experience. There's just not anybody around that does it anymore. I figure when they did this a hundred years ago, it was harder and a lot tougher."
Past wooded creeks and gullies, over hills and ridges, the cattle meander on — not too fast, not to slow, about 3 mph, Bailey said.
Sure, these cattle could have been trucked, Bailey said. But at what cost?
"You see these cattle coming along and it makes you proud that you can move them from one area to another," he said. "It will be less stress on them. And, it's quicker than trucking."
In the solitude, Bailey talked about how he never thought of himself as anything but a cowboy. Economics, he said, have affected his way of life.
"I never figured in a million years I would be a machinist," he said. "Mike and I have been friends through the years and I work for him in the winter as a machinist 'cause just being a cowboy is real glamorous and all, but it don't pay real good."
At the end of the day, two cows followed the lead horse through the last gate into the last pasture.
"Home's home," Bailey said as the last of the 300 cows wandered through the gate.
"It doesn't make any difference where it is. I don't know how else to say that. It's just as far from our place as it is to your place. Our street signs is just a little different."
And just like that, the sound of hooves whispering over the prairie faded away.