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Longhorns driving tourism

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Leaning across his saddle under the hot June sun, Thane Zufelt lets out a whoop that carries across a city lot to a herd of Texas longhorns grazing on tall prairie grasses.

"Whoo-oo-ee-ah!"That must be cow talk for "get along little doggies." The massive beasts, with horns as long as a full-grown man, lumber toward Zufelt and the other cowboys hired to lead them on a trot through the streets of this metropolis.

The cowboys don't flinch as sharp horns pass mere inches from their leather saddles, sometimes brushing the flank of a steadfast horse.

The 15 steers tumble into the brick-lined streets of Fort Worth's stockyards district, once the heart of the region's cattle industry. Now tourist shops corral the dollars.

The daily cattle drive is the city's newest attraction, meant to evoke century-old images of life on the dusty trail.

And except for the smell of car exhaust fumes and the piped-in music of the Dixie Chicks, it's almost like the real thing.

There's even the possibility of a stampede.

"We are dealing with a variable," drawls Dennis Merrell, trail boss of the Fort Worth herd. "He's an animal that has his own mind and self-preservation instinct. Anything could happen."

Merrell said it's the job of six drovers to ensure that the longhorns stay together -- and off the sidewalks -- as they pass through the tourist district that features Spanish-style buildings and rows of storefronts. The herd will travel along the approximate route of the Chisholm Trail to grassland along the Trinity River.

But the lanky cowboy looks pure country with his down-turned mustache, sweat-stained bandana and boot-cut blue jeans.

He oversees a diverse group of drovers picked for their horsemanship and people skills.

Cathy Cannon, the only woman in the group, is also an X-ray technician. Zufelt is a former horse jockey and honorary Crow Indian.

Chester Stidham and Armando Gaza Jr. reflect the contributions of blacks and Hispanics to the cattle industry. Merrell said about 30 percent of the 18th century drovers were minorities, including former slaves and Mexican villagers.

Joe Spiller is a cowboy poet and custom spur maker, while Tom Scott has been a rancher for four decades.

Primarily, they are drawn together by a love for the Old West, a desire to have lived -- not just relived -- the cowboy trails.

"I call us the 'Hell, I'd have gones,' " Merrell says with an easy smile.

Adds Gaza, a 37-year-old former truck driver with a wide straw sombrero: "I think I was born 100 years too late."

The job does pay a little better today. In the 19th century, wranglers earned about $20 per week. The Fort Worth drovers make about $13 per hour, plus benefits. Merrell, who makes $35,000 a year, may be the first trail boss with a 401(k) retirement plan.

The city uses hotel tax revenue to operate the herd program, which costs about $300,000 a year.

The city hopes the attraction will boost an already steady stream of tourists into Fort Worth. Last year, the city had nearly 7 million visitors, with an economic impact exceeding $1 billion.

Breeders from throughout the state donated the longhorns. To prepare them for their daily outings, the drovers tried everything possible to irritate the one-ton beasts. They blared sirens, drove cars around the animals and pulled their tails.

One steer, a red-and-white bovine named Bravo, passed every test but was pulled from the team the day he gored a horse. The trail drivers are trained to predict the steers' every move. A shift in their big brown eyes, a twitch of the tail, all can signal an attempt to break formation.

"It's a lot of mental work. You have to read their faces," Ms. Cannon says.

Those faces -- and more importantly their horns -- are inextricably tied to Texas, Merrell says.

"You can take a picture of a longhorn and show it anywhere around the world and people will think Texas. I don't know of any animal that has such a geographic tie. That's our animal."

Tom Saunders, historian for the Fort Worth Herd, says the longhorns are symbolic of the survival spirit of early Texans.

Abandoned by the Spaniards in the early 1500s, the hardy longhorns endured droughts and predators for more than 300 years. In the 1860s, ranchers began driving herds to markets up north. More than 600,000 a year passed through Fort Worth, which earned the nickname "Cowtown."

When railroad tracks replaced cattle trails at the turn of the century, Fort Worth became a meat processing center and distribution point. In the 1920s, a change in consumer tastes nearly wiped out the longhorn breed, which ranchers have bred back to more than 250,000.

Saunders, whose family has ranched in Texas since the 1850s, says he has tested the authentically outfitted drovers on this history. As ambassadors of Fort Worth, they must answer most any question from a reporter or sightseer.

They also have a good bit of advice when moseying through Cowtown.

Watch your step.