Cattle Drive
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When I hired on to Bill Ducharm in the heat of the Texas sun
I was unawares of his darker side or his swiftness with a gun
But I had made a solemn promise to ride with him through hell
And to deliver the herd to the ends of the earth or the mouth of the Musselshell
(from) Banks of the Musselshell Tom Russell

Basic Information

A cattle drive is, in a very real sense, exactly what it says on the tin - the driving of a herd of cattle (or, indeed, any livestock) over a significant distance - usually from a ranching operation to a large town or city where they are bound for the slaughterhouses, although the actual drive may only go as far as a railhead or port facility where the livestock are loaded for mass transit. The term is also usually reserved for otherwise sedentary societies - if you are a herding nomad, every day is a cattle drive. Probably the most famous cattle drives belong The Western genre, but the same phenomenon can be found from the beginning of civilization, down to the advent of refrigerated transport (which allows the cattle to be slaughtered locally and the meat moved cold to its destination - generally faster and more efficient all around).

The drive starts with a round-up, where the ranging cattle are collected from around the ranch and those destined for slaughter cut out from those that will be kept. The handlers - most famously cowboys - then begin to drive the cattle cross country towards their destination. This cannot be done too quickly - cattle, infamously, are not fast moving animals, and trying to drive them too far or too fast will do them harm, they must also be allowed to feed and drink during their journey or they will loose weight and make less at sale (although some loss of condition is inevitable) - they must also be protected from terrain hazards, kept from wandering off, and protected from predators both animal and human. The passage of such a large herd may also cause significant damage to watering holes, river crossings and the ground in general, not to mention the crops of any sedentary farmers along the way. If panicked by anything - and cattle are prone to panic - they may stampede, which can lead to deaths amongst the herd even on easy ground, and can lead to significant diversions and lost time. Whilst the cowboys look after the herd, they will also require support in their own right - usually at least in terms of food for the journey - which brings on the chuck wagon and its driver/operator the camp cook. Some cultures may feed the cowboys by cutting out less promising members of the herd, but others do not - certainly carrying out slaughtering work too close to the herd is a risky business, both in terms of the possibility of attracting predators, and the risk of the cattle smelling blood and bolting.

At the end of the drive, whoever is in charge gets the pleasure of selling the cattle on to a buyer, with all the haggling over number and condition of head that can be expected - many of the cowboys may then be paid off: besides those who were only hired for the trail, the end of the drive is essentially the turning point of the agricultural year and a logical time for a contract to expire.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Of course with the drive done, the boss gets to head home with the money and whatever hands he has left - some people might think this a good time for an ambush.
    • Of course, those bandits born in the wrong century may find they hold up a trail boss, only to find the big payout they were expecting was, in fact, wired by telegram back to the ranch and the returning hands are carrying little more than pocket change.
  • The end of the drive is also, for many, a beginning as new hands may hire on to head back to the ranch … possibly even some who were just discharged and swore never to go back… but have just drunk and gambled their pay away and are now potless again.
  • The drive itself is a good adventure in its own right, whether you are driving cattle across the American west, or the North of medieval England, or down the Appian way to Rome. You could also be driving sheep across Australia … you could even be herding dinosaurs. In Glorantha (the spiritual home of RuneQuest) the Morokanth (Tapir people … why ask?) herd nonsentient humans.
  • The end of the drive is, of course, good for drama in its own right - whether commercial or personal.
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