Montana a Short Story
Before I dive into ‘Montana a Short Story’ I want to pose a question, not necessarily to be answered by anyone but just a question to think on. How honest and open should I be on my blog? I have every desire to protect my loved ones and never say anything to hurt them and I am not interested in trashing anyone else, but as much as possible I want to tell things as they actually happened and not exaggerate or bullshit people to death. When the truth is stranger than fiction, then it becomes a great story and not just an average one.
A lot of what I have to write about stretches the imagination not because I am in any way awesome but because of so many awesome people in my life; most if not all of them have no idea how ‘awesome’ they were and are.
Having said that I will let you decide were the truth ends and the bullshit begins.
We moved to Montana in the spring of 1979. We had left Mount Pleasant Utah earlier that winter. We stopped in Rupert Idaho and worked for my parents during the spring planting and farm work. As usual I had a few colts I was riding early in the spring but as the work piled up I had to concentrate on planting crops.
We were actively looking for a job as I knew that farming full time with my family was not an option. They were a great bunch but farming wasn’t what I had in mind.
I don’t remember where I saw the ad but it was probably in a cattleman’s magazine published in Montana. There was an opening for a foreman on a ranch in Melrose Montana and at first glance it looked great; just what we were looking for.
Joy was pregnant with our 3rd child who would be a boy, born in Butte Montana the 3rd of July, Scott. He’s the son featured with me riding the Wickahoney colts in a previous blog.
After making a phone call and visiting with the owner we drove to Melrose and interviewed and went to work sometime in May.
Two of my brothers, Bruce and Berry moved us up there in 2, ten wheeler trucks with house hold goods in one truck and horses and the remainder of house hold goods in the second truck.
The ranch house that we moved into was west of Melrose up Trapper Creek a few miles then a left turn with another right turn at about 3/4 of a mile and another 5/8th’s of a mile on a one lane road. The ranch laid on the west of the Big Hole river and ran to the top of the mountains west from there. It was a beautiful place and we figured that we were going to be there for a few years. We had an agreement to run 25 head of our own cows as part of my wages; we were excited.
The first year was about like any new job in many ways as there is so much to learn. Joy had the baby blues pretty bad but by the end of that first summer she loved the place and country as much as I did.
We drove to Dillon every Sunday to attend church and soon made friends and that helped my young bride to adjust. It was a 35 mile drive either way to Dillon or Butte, so visit’s from friends was somewhat limited. As much as possible, like all ranching families she and the kids piled in the cab of the ranch pickup with me and away we went around the ranch and through the mountains checking on fences, cattle and grass.
To be discrete I’m going to refer to the owner and his youngest son as Bert and Ernie. As you read this story you will appreciate why. Recalling some parts of it still makes my blood boil after all of these years.
It was too late in the year to buy cows so we waited until the following winter to pick up some first calf heifers. Looking back maybe pairs although expensive would have been a good way to go but I had it in mind to start with first calf heifers and cull anything that wasn’t a good mamma.
Montana is a beautiful State but the cattle industry there is far different than the Great Basin. I know of outfits in the Great Basin that feed less than a ton of hay a winter to a stock cow and that is usually at calving for protein and it helps for milk production and breeding back. Sometimes only protein blocks are tossed out to the cow’s and a few places feed nothing at all as they have range year around for their stock.
Montana was a ‘put it up all summer and throw it out all winter’ cattle country; referring to hay that it is. We’d start haying the 4th of July and finish around Labor Day; not exactly what I had in mind. In Western Montana feeding as much as 2 1/2 to 3 ton a winter wasn’t uncommon; not much if any profit in that.
I wasn’t much for quitting though and we were determined to stick it out. The ranch was suppose to pick up the feed bill on our cattle as part of my wages so expenses for them weren’t an issue. Later on once the cow’s were paid for we could start worrying about that.
At first Bert and I hit it off very well. He was a pilot so we had that in common. He wasn’t the best rancher I had known or would ever meet but he was a good business man. He’d been a banker in Illinois and decided to come out west and buy a ranch and show folks how to ranch; he admitted that he had learned a thing or two along the way.
He was in the Navy during WW2 and was driving a Higgin’s boat on Iwo Jima. You could put 25 Marines in one of those crafts and as he headed to shore, between driving the boat and firing the 50 cal at anything that was firing at him he glanced down and it looked like you could put another 25 Marines on top of what was already there. He survived Iwo Jima but was pretty sure that a lot of those Marines he unloaded didn’t; I figured he was right.
The first year I could hardly do anything wrong; I figured we could stay there as long as we wanted. By the end of calving the spring of 1980 things had shifted and it took me awhile to figure it out.
I had my head down focusing hard on my work and was pretty slow on catching on to the shift. Bert had 3 children and the youngest ‘Ernie’ had been elected Corporation president. Ernie was one of those folks who enjoyed making other folks feel stupid. I never liked him from the word go but as Bert hired me I figured we had some buffer between us; when the buffer went away shit happened.
Like all ranches good help is always a problem, Trapper Creek Ranch was no exception. For a short time I had a woman hired hand. She was good help but the loneliness and isolation finally sent her packing.
We moved a young couple from Billings out to the ranch and they lasted about 3 months. I never knew anyone so unqualified to be around cows. This guy could walk right past a cow having trouble calving and not see it. I wasn’t too disappointed when they left.
The spring of 1980 I talked Bert into letting me put an ad in the paper out of Twin Falls Idaho, we ended up hiring a couple that had some ranching experience that had 2 little girls and they worked out fine. A little too fine as he replaced me when Ernie fired me later that fall. Yeah I know, what the hell right? I’ll get to that part in a minute.
Like I said I was busy working and a little slow on picking up on the shift. I’ll try to explain what I understand but it’s only my side of the story.
For over a year Bert had been talking to me about leasing the ranch. I was excited about the idea but wanted to make sure we could make it work. The American dream is to be self employed but 70% of all small business’s go broke in the first year; ranching and farming is probably worse than that. As the spring of 1980 shaped up I started getting a different vibe. Comments such as ‘are you sure you want to raise your family here’? There were other comments as well but it was a complete 180 of the previous year. I had suddenly got in someones way.
Not everything went south between me and Bert at first. At times we had some great conversations, one of which was about moving pairs in the springtime to the next pastures or chunk of range land. He was perplexed that it always ended up in a fight with cow’s and calves being whipped, beaten and shoved through a gate with half a dozen calves running back to the old pasture frightened, confused and looking for their moms.
I had had for some time the same concerns and figured there was a better way but didn’t figure I could get it done with and audience. So early one morning when we were set to move cows and calves to open range just out the fence from a spring pasture that was also a summer hay filed, I saddle a horse without benefit of telling anyone what I was doing and headed to the cows. I had seen enough bullshit with cowboys that for what I had in mind being alone was a good call.
I rode into the pasture and opened the upper gate and with that I scooped up a hand full of pairs and eased them through the gate. I was quiet about what I was doing and well mounted on a horse called Cranky and he was a good one. He was well mannered, fast and cowy, more refined than most Montana cow ponies but he was Idaho bred and my kind of horse; smart and sensitive.
When Bert showed up I was closing the gate as the last few pairs walked through. At that moment I was the best ‘cowboy’ that he had ever seen. I figured he needed to make a bigger loop. I was a good cowboy and can still earn wages at day work even at my age but I’ve been around a lot of ‘great’ cowboys. That didn’t stop him from letting his son fire me a few months later.
That was springtime and we got through the summer fairly well but I could see that ‘the wheels were starting to come off the cart’ so to speak.
That fall Joy and I took a day and went to a bull sale up country towards Missoula. Bert had just spent the last 18 months talking about how he wanted a bull from this particular ranch with specific blood lines. He hadn’t given me the green light to buy one but I had purchased a bull the year before at another sale and had the company checkbook and paid a certain amount of the bills each month; I had a lot of leeway as well as responsibility. I figured if Bert didn’t like him I would pay for him; he was a good bull and the price was right along with the fact that he was the exact bloodlines that Bert had been wanting. It was all they needed to fire me.
Looking back if it hadn’t been over that it would have been something else but what galled me was the fact that they wouldn’t admit it. Bert disappeared and let Ernie do his dirty work. When they cut me loose I asked him, Ernie, if it was over the bull because if it was I could pay for him. Oh no, they were just going a different direction with the ranch and didn’t feel like I was needed anymore. I also asked why Bert had just spent the past 15 months talking about leasing me the ranch and why that had changed. Ernie said that I had proven ‘inadequate’ in certain areas. There was a near homicide in his kitchen at that moment.
I didn’t ask him any more questions and without another word left. That was complete bullshit and we both knew it.
There we were coming on winter with no feed for our cows and no place to go; it was a sad day.
I knew that I hadn’t been told everything and as things unfolded even after we left I was plenty bitter. We moved on but some of the lies we heard about us after that was incredible. We had to leave it alone and go on. Ernie was no man of any substance, had I run across him soon after that I would have beat him senseless. I did see him sometime later walking across the Safeway parking lot in Dillon. My Colt 357 magnum was sitting on the dash of the pickup. I’m not sure if she actually did to this day or not but it felt as if Joy, sitting next to me put her hand inside my arm as if to say ‘it’s not worth it’. Ernie gave me a smug little look and I was pretty sure it would be ‘worth it’. He was known to pack a gun and I figured he would have have shit himself had I stepped out of my pickup with my revolver in my belt. Since there was ‘bad blood’ between us I didn’t figure I would get away with self defense. It was a hard moment for me. All in all though I’m glad I didn’t act on my murderous desire.
Part of my severance package ‘so to speak’ was that we stayed in the house until the end of December and they paid me through until then but we had to be out the 1st day of January.
Joy and I in pursuit of finding a job made a cannonball run to Quincy California to look at a job but it was a complete hoax and horribly misrepresented. We drove up to the Clark Fork near the Flathead Indian Reservation but it didn’t pan out either.
We were out of the house by the first of the year and lived in a couple of places that winter. By the spring of 1981 we were living in twin Bridges working for Lowell Hildreth on the old Spinner ranch. It was on the Ruby River just up stream from town and had a 400 cow permit on the Robb Creek Grazing Association south of Alder Montana. It was and has been one of my all time favorite places.
Like all places in Western Montana we put up hay all summer and threw it out all winter but it was an easy place to run place. I worked hard but Joy and the kids could come out to the ranch any day all day if they wanted to. She was pregnant with our 4th child which would be a girl born to us December of that year.
Speaking of my wife and companion of many years I need to back up and tell a story about her. I don’t think she will clobber me for this but you never know.
Everyone knows that ranch wives have got to be tough in so many different ways and they are the women that bear our children and patch us up and nurse back to health after we have been busted up by a bull or a bad horse but this is a personal story about my ‘ranching wife’.
The fall that Ernie cut me loose from Trapper Creek we were set to work cows on a Monday. We had a large crew coming in and Joy was fixing dinner that day for all. She had a miscarriage in the early morning hours and I was unsure what to do; cancel and reschedule everything or what? As the sun rose that morning she said she would be fine to fix dinner then she’d head to Butte; I could get things done then come and find her.
I asked the wife of the young couple that we had hired earlier that spring to give her a hand and she did but she seamed somewhat reluctant to. I didn’t sense why at the time but I think maybe she had spent the summer undermining my position with the owners wife. Whether she had or not I will never know for certain but the way things played out it certainly looked as if she had.
I drove to Butte that evening and found all well with my bride. If she was ever mad at me about it I would never know but it’s been hard to forgive myself that I handled it that way.
The summer of 1981 while we were at Twin Bridges, Joy, visible pregnant helped me build a jack fence; yeah she’s not only gorgeous she’s tough.
I calved cows out 2 winters in a row on the Ruby and loved it. The Robb Creek Grazing Association was awesome as well. We could have stayed there for a while but it wasn’t in the cards for us to.
Lowell leased part of the old Briggs ranch at Kidd and we moved down there the spring of 1982. You won’t find Kidd on the map but it’s just north of Dell on hwy 15.
While we were on the Ruby I kept riding a few colts and shoeing horses for extra money. Every winter as I calved cows out and paired them up I would move them to a separate pasture. My own colts I would start in the fall as long 2 year olds and then use them as much as possible the following winter as 3 year olds. Finding the right kind of riding for them in the mountains was a challenge and it was easy to burn one out or ‘ride the heart out of them’ if one wasn’t careful.
There is a world of difference in starting 2 and 3 year olds verses 4 and 5 year olds. I’ve done both and it depends a lot on the kind of riding you have available to bring them along. Mountain cowboys and Great Basin cowboys generally ride 5 year olds or older; the days can be too tough on young horses. If you know your country and can choose the right rides for your 3 and 4 year olds that’s a good call, Quitting a young horse before they quit you is essential for their growth. It hasn’t been often if ever that I have rode a horse that I was unconcerned about their well being because even if it wasn’t ‘my kind of horse’ it was still a tool and if I didn’t take care of him or her I might be a foot.
When Lowell moved us to the Briggs ranch it was with the agreement that we could build our herd to 50 head of cows. He was a great guy to work for and one of the easiest going boss’s that I have ever had. I saw no reason that it wouldn’t work out fine and even though I was spending more time than ever putting up hay we were determined to stick it out.
The house we moved into was the best we had lived in since moving to Montana and with 4 little ones to feed we were happy to be there.
Lowell had a son who was married and a step son that wasn’t married that he kept employed. I know you’re going to say ‘you didn’t see that coming right’? I kinda did but moving 25 plus cow’s with a horse or two and a young and growing family takes some logistical planning. He let me go the fall of 1982. I wasn’t overly shocked, I mean after all what else could happen right.
We loaded up and left New Years Eve of 1982 and that was it; we were done with Montana.
That’s ‘Montana a Short Story’ but there is a lot more to the ‘Story’, most all of it fun and adventurous.
As I am learning to be a better blogger and story teller I am also learning how to be more ‘professional’.
I don’t ride the ‘bad ones’ anymore and I’ve even missed a day or two of riding lately from not being able to ‘throw a leg over one’ let alone get out of bed. Or is it ‘get out of bed let alone throw a leg over one?
Either way I hope you will stay tuned because there is so much more to the story. Bronc rides, rattle snakes, chasing elk and bringing the cows home with my 4 year old daughter as my ‘top hand’ as well as finishing some flying ratings.