Montana Stories

by Joe McCarter (In His Father's Voice)

I'd always figgered that I could find a better place to run cows and raise a family than Camas Prairie. Someplace where the snow didn't lay on for five or six months of the year. Before Janey and me were married, Card and me took a trip over through the Challis and Pahsimeroi country and figgered it beat the Prairie, but we just never did get to trying to locate over there.

Card and me split up what we owned, mostly the cattle, before Janey and me were married. I'd gotta hold of an eighty east of the old home place and built a little house on it and leased the hot springs quarter from Van Simons. With a little more here and there, I had enough hay to winter our 70 or 80 head of cattle.

The government opened up all the Indian Reservations to homesteading about this time. There was lots of stories goin' 'round about what good land some of 'em had, and since there wasn't much homestead land of any account left elsewhere, I made a trip up to the Flathead country in Montana the fall of 1914 to look around.

As luck would have it, what I saw was maybe the best year they'd ever had. They were just gettin' done with harvest when I was there and dry land grain was making 40 or 50 bushels, and there was stirrup high grass ever' place. The Indians had their ranch outfits on the best of the reservation, but there was a lot of open land left and some of it looked real good. I really believed I'd found the promised land.

The next spring we shipped a railroad car of household goods and some tools and machinery and a car of horses and a few cows. The word had got around that there was a family from southern Idaho moving in, so there was a fair sized delegation met us before the cars were sidetracked. They wanted to know if we were Mormons. I guess if we'd been, they'd turned us around and sent us back. I remember after things had turned a little friendlier, an old feller came up to me and said, "I'll bet you're a sagebrush jumpin' sonofabitch."

The first year's crops weren't too bad, not as good as the last year's that I'd seen, but the best we had while we was tryin' to farm. The drought was just startin', and I guess to this day they've never seen a worse drought in that part of Montana. It lasted for damn near ten years.

We had a neighbor family named MacLaine the first years we were in Montana. Mac was a former buckaroo much like myself. He always said the reason he was there on the Flathead was his dad. Since it wasn't hard to see ridin' horses as a way of makin' a livin' was fast goin' outta style, Mac's dad told 'im if he was smart he'd get himself over to the reservation and find a squaw with forty acres and settle down. Mac said he took the advice so serious that he went a little wild and wound up with a schoolmarm and a hundred and sixty.

Mac looked enough like that movie actor who played Rhett Butler to have been his older brother. Only difference was Mac had a kind of a hollow on his right temple. It was about the size of a fifty cent piece and was pretty well dented in. It was a relic of his cowpunchin' days, at least that's what somebody who'd knew Mac for years told me. It'd come from "gettin' whacked along side uh the head with a six shooter" during some celebration that had turned rougher than expected.

The Moonshiner

Mac, like most of the Montanans, liked his booze and prohibition, which come on about this time, didn't set too good with 'im.

There was horses runnin' loose all over the reservation and, while most of 'em were branded and owned by different layouts, a good many were just Indian cayuses claimed by the tribe, but seldom corralled or worked.

One spring there was a bunch runnin' close to our places that had half a dozen two and three-year-old studs with it. Mac and I had talked about doin' something for a while since neither of us wanted any of our mares bred by the likes of these renegades. So one Sunday, Mac and me and another neighbor named Woody rode out to see if we could corral the bunch and do some horse cuttin'. We'd made arrangements for use of a good set of corrals that belonged to one of the bigger cow outfits on the reservation, and we're all looking forward to some horse runnin'.

Most of the hills around us had been logged off and there was a lotta wagon roads and old skid trails among the smaller timber still standin'. We're ridin' up one of these old roads, looking for fresh horse tracks, when I begin to smell somethin' that's strange to me. I'm ridin' in the lead and I look back to see if Mac, whose just behind me, might have his nose up, but he's lookin' for tracks like I was and not payin' any attention to smell.

It keeps gettin' stronger, and I'm about to say somethin' when a feller steps outta some brush beside the road right in front of me and asks, "Whadda you sonsabitches lookin' for?" Now he's got a thirty-thirty pointin' at me, and I'm close enough to see the hammer's back, so I ain't slow in explainin' we're only lookin' for horses, Indian horses at that, and that we're plannin' on doin' some cuttin'. Mac's rode up beside me and he joins in, and we're sure doin' some explainin'.

After we both kinda run down, the fellar says, "Ya wanna drink?" Well, by this time we probably wouldn't refused if he'd offered us an ass-kickin', so we follered 'im back up the road and up an ol' skid trail to where he'd set up his camp and still. I didn't know much about whiskey makin', but (outside of the smell) it didn't look like too bad an outfit. He's got a good tent and a lotta wooden boxes of bottles and gallon jugs. There's also a good wagon, and I can see a team of horses hobbled and grazin' not far away through the trees.

The still gets Mac's and Woody's attention right off. It's set up pretty close to the tent, and be damned if he ain't in the midst of runnin' off a batch which was causin' the smell. At least there's a kind of a boiler with a good fire built under it and a copper tube comin' out of a lot of apparatus with a trickle runnin' out into one of the gallon jugs. The fellar goes inside his tent and gathers up some tin cups and begins fillin' 'em right outta the tube. As each one's filled, he hands 'em to one of us and finally keeps one for himself.

This far into prohibition I'd had enough experience to know this was pretty raw stuff and that one cup was about all I was gonna be able to handle. Mac and Woody, on the other hand, were goin' back for seconds, and I could see right then that the chances of cuttin' any Indian colts today was gettin' pretty thin. Anyways, after gettin' the one cup down, I thanked the feller as kindly as I could and, handin' him back his cup, turned my horse and rode home. I had plenty of chores to do there anyway.

Later that afternoon I see Mac and his horse comin' down the road at a slow walk. I step on my horse and ride down our lane to meet him. Mac's old horse is doin' a good jugglin' act just keepin' 'im aboard, but then I guess he'd had some experience. Mac, for his part, had both hands on the forks of the saddle hangin' on, but was swayin' and listin' with each step. When he finally sees me, he straightens up a little and says, "Billy, by God, ya shudda been with me. I found the place. All ya gotta do is hold a tin cup under a spout and it just runs out."

"Well", I says, "where's Woody?" Mac does a little concentratin' and says, "Ah, Woody, that sonofabitch. He's back up there layin' under a tree, asleep." Well, I figger if the old horse has got 'im this far, he'll make it the other two miles or so to his house. Mac's wife, bein' a school teacher, is kinda refined, and I wouldn't be too sure just what kinda reception I'd get if I did make sure he got home. Woody's an old bachelor, and I figger he'll make it on his own.

A couple weeks later, I hear some feller is picked up on the road just outside of Poulson for moonshinin'. He's got a good team and wagon, and the wagon has a jag of straw on it. Seems what tipped the law off was instead of 'im sitting up on the straw drivin' the team, he's got the lines tied up, and he's walkin' ahead of the team with a Winchester under one arm and a jug of moonshine in the other hand. Ever' traveler he meets, he offers a drink to. The authorities find over a hundred gallons of booze and more quarts than that buried in the straw.

Mac and the Roan

Mac comes by one day just all excited. He says he'd seen a guy he used to buckaroo with who's now workin' for one of the bigger cow outfits around, and that they were lookin' for one or two fellers to help 'em drive to the railroad. Seems as though with the drought and all they're shippin' everthin' down to the yearlin's. Mac's on his way over to their headquarters right now and wants to know if I'd want to go too. The railroad he's talkin' about is the Northern Pacific down at Ravalli I'd guess. It's seventy or eighty miles or so south of here, probably three or four days with beef, and I can't really get away for that long.

I didn't say so to Mac, but I knew that goin' to the railroad was generally the biggest celebratin' time there was and those kinda days had pretty well passed me up. I'd done my share in my day, but with a wife and three daughters and one on the way gettin' to celebrate was the least of my worries. But I tell Mac I'd be glad to help 'em the first day or two out if they wanted me to. Mac comes back by the next mornin' and tells me they sure hope I'll come. So the next week me and 'im head off their way.

It's only a little over a half day's ride to where their wagon's located, and it's easy to see why they were lookin' for some help. There's only six hands or so and an Indian kid doin' the horse wranglin'. They'd been both night and day herdin' the beef for the last few days while they were finishin' gatherin' cause they didn't have a fenced field with enough feed to last a day with the drought and all.

Anyways, both the fellers and their horses are lookin' pretty wore out. Mac and me take the first shift of the night herd, and we ain't too surprised that our relief don't show up 'til damn near sunup. The steers are pretty well herd broke by this time and it really wasn't much of a job.

Only one thing was wrong and that was Mac's ol' horse was favorin' a front leg pretty bad. I'd led down an extra horse for myself, but Mac only had the one, and it looked like he'd have to get a horse out of the outfit's cavy or go to the railroad afoot. Now, it ain't usually a real healthy thing to be in a position like this since its a cinch the foreman ain't gonna loan you anything out of his feller's strings, and the horses that ain't in the strings is apt to be pretty useless or, what's worse, plumb unfriendly.

Well, durin' breakfast Mac hits 'em up for somethin' to ride, and this sure tickles 'em. They've all knowed Mac for years and rode with 'im, and they have fun all through breakfast tellin' Mac to be sure he don't get ahold of ol' so-and-so, and if he gets this horse to be sure and not do this and in general havin' a good time of it at Mac's expense. Now, I know that Mac's had the reputation of bein' a good rider, but like a lotta older good riders, he knows too damn well what a horse can do to you, and I can see it's causin' 'im some uneasiness.

Well, the Indian kid corrals the cavy 'bout this time, and the foreman catches ever'body a horse includin' the other geldin' I'd brought down for myself. He waits 'til last for Mac's, and he ropes a fair lookin', well set-up roan for 'im. He tells Mac that the horse may act a little put out about bein' rode, but not to let 'im get his bluff in and after he's warmed up a little he'll do fine.

Mac gets his saddle on 'im, and there is a fair amount of air showin' under the back of the tree, but Mac gets aboard full of confidence and starts 'im off without the roan comin' unstuck. I can see Mac is relieved, but still keepin' a pretty close track on things.

Well, there's a few last things to take care of like a lame steer or two to get outta the bunch, but in a couple hours we've got 'em strung out and headin' for the railroad.

That afternoon some thunder clouds begin to roll in. I'd seen it do this for the last three years or so of this goddamn drought where you'd swear to christ it was gonna rain, but you'd get nothin' at all. But this time there's a good bit of lightning, and it sure looks like it's gonna wet us down. I'd brought a slicker, but left it in the wagon that mornin'. It ain't that far back, and I figger I'd better go get it.

Now on the way back, I just happen to ride up on Mac and his old friend who'd got 'im on this drive. His friend has got his slicker on, but Mac's is still tied on the back of his saddle. It's one of them ol' fashioned long yeller ones. Mac's worried that the roan, whose been keepin' one ear cocked back all the time anyway, is gonna object to 'im gettin' back on wearin' the slicker. Mac is tryin' to talk his friend into snubbin' the roan while Mac unties his slicker and puts it on without gettin' off.

The friend, enoyin' the hell outta all this, finally says okay and rides in close and picks up Mac's reins. Mac's bridle is a nice Spanish type bit with braided rawhide headstall and reins joined together into a romel. Well, Mac just gets one arm through the slicker when the feller looks over at me and winks and drops the reins and kicks the old roan a good one in the flank.

As they say, the ball really opened. About the same time there's a big bolt of lighting and it begins to hail like hell. It sure is one helluva sight with the hail poundin' down and that ol' roan windin' 'em into Mac. For not havin' ahold of the reins and with one arm in the slicker and the rest of it whippin' the horse over and under, Mac is puttin' up a helluva ride. Ever'body at the drag end of the herd is watchin' and cheerin' 'im on now. The roan finally quits buckin' and tries to stampede, but Mac finally gets his reins and turns 'im back.

The storm's turned to rain now and, like most of the storms durin' that drought, is over in a few minutes. Mac takes it all with pretty good nature. After all they're headed to the railroad, and he's now kind of a hero. There's a lotta fellers wouldn't of lasted two jumps on that ol' roan, even with an even start. I stay with the outfit that night and head back home the next mornin'.

Horse Theft

Another time ol' Mac comes by the house and says, "Bill, do you know where your brown mare is?" I'd brought several horses up from Idaho, one bein' ol' Brownie, one of the best I ever owned. I says I sure do, and pointed her out to Mac. She was with four or five of my other horses grazin' in a pasture close to the house. Mac then tells me that he'd happened by the rodeo that the Indians put on about ever' Sunday in Big Arm, and that he was sure he'd seen some kid get bucked off of my brown mare. This couldn't of been, but Mac ain't the kind that would make a mistake about a horse.

Brownie raised a colt about ever' year and usually, whether a filly or a colt, they turned out brown and lookin' a lot like their ma. I had several head of younger horses and some others I wasn't usin' in pasture I'd rented from another neighbor three or four miles up the road. There was a four-year-old mare, one of Brownie's colts I called Dot, in that bunch. Dot was a dead ringer for her ma, so I tell Mac thanks for tellin' me and ask 'im if he'd like to go to the rodeo with me next Sunday.

This weekly rodeo was pretty good entertainment and I'd watched it several times. The young Indians around were all good horsemen, and there was no shortage of wild cayuses for them to ride. They'd built some makeshift chutes and fenced in an arena and, while there wasn't any stands, they still had a pretty good crowd ever' Sunday durin' the summer.

Mac and I ride over the next Sunday and get there just as they're gettin' started. The buckin' stock is all in a corral behind the chutes, and we ride up and look over the corral fence and, sure enough, there's my brown mare Dot. The kids had named her that because she had a real small white spot on her forehead and not another white hair on her. I'd broke her the last spring and just had her goin' pretty good and got busy with other things and turned her back out with the other colts.

Like usual there was a good-sized crowd of Indians and very few others at the doin's, and it ain't hard to figger that an uprisin' could get started pretty easy. Though it's against the law, specially for Indians, there was always some booze around and the kind available these days ain't likely to sweeten up dispositions any.

Really, I ain't too worried about gettin' the mare back because she's carryin' my little triangle brand on her left stifle if it gets down to the law, but since I'm there and she's handy, I figger I just as well take her home.

I first explain my plan to Mac and then go over to the Chief, who I know a little and who puts on the rodeo, and tell 'im hello. He seems friendly enough, although with Indians it's always hard to tell. So I ask, "Can I ride?" He sizes me up a while and finally says, "Sure, Bill you ride."

I says, "I wanna ride that brown mare," and point to Dot. After a while he says, "Bareback?" and I shake my head and say, "No, saddle." He takes a while on this one because most of the young Indians ride bareback, but he finally nods his head.

He speaks in his lingo to some of the people runnin' the chutes, and I see 'im cut Dot into the ketch pen and get her in line to go down through the chutes. I go get my riggin' off of the horse Mac is holdin' for me, and when they get Dot in a chute carry it over and saddle her. I'd brought along a colt bridle with a snaffle bit and while they're all watchin' me close, it's hard to tell what they're thinkin' as I slip on the bridle. A bridle ain't used much around rodeo broncs.

But, as my turn comes up, I get aboard and when I nod to the gateman, he turns me out. I let the mare have her head, and she gives three or four pretty good jumps. I guess I should have said earlier that even in the big time rodeos at this time they didn't use the flank straps they use today. There was plenty of broncs those days that didn't need no encouragement to buck.

Anyway, I pull her head up after a half dozen or so jumps, and I can see Mac has rode around, leadin' my other horse, and got a gate open on the far side of the arena, and I head for that. I hit it with the mare doin' a long lope and Mac falls in beside me, and we don't look back or break stride for a couple of miles.

I run into the Chief not too long after that and he says, "Bill, how come you steal my mare?" Then he does a rare thing for an Indian and smiles. I give 'im a grin back, and that's all that was ever said.

We hadn't been back in Idaho but two or three months when we get a letter from some friends, and they tell us that the influenza had hit the McLaines and both Mac and his wife was dead. Somebody had rode over to their house to see if they were all right and found them. Their two boys were too sick to get help, although the boys did get better.

Workin' for Joe Marian

We only lasted three years on the land we'd took up. We couldn't raise anything the last two years because of the drought. Neither Janey or me had ever seen anything like it and were sure discouraged. We sold what little we had left, except the horses, and moved to Big Arm. I helped a feller named Knox, who ran the hardware there, do contract loggin' for better than a year. I had two good teams, and we used them to skid and haul logs for a big sawmill on the other side of the Lake. Knox had logged in Minnesota and knew how to do things.

Then one day in town, Joe Marian hit me up to come out and run his place there on the reservation. Joe was one of the best fellers I ever knew and a real cowman. He'd come to Montana with a trail herd from Texas and never went back. He'd married a breed woman there on the Flathead, and they'd took up her allotment early and had probably the best place on the reservation.

Joe was one of the managing partners of a big outfit up in Alberta, and they were goin' through some tough times up there too. Besides the drought, the U.S. had put a duty on beef comin' in from Canada that was really hurtin' 'em. He had been asked by the other partners to go up and take over and see if they could make it.

Joe Marian was as good an all-around hand as to ever sit a horse. Earlier, he'd contracted to deliver three hundred head or so of buffalo to the Canadian government. The buffalo belonged to an ol' feller named Pablo who lived there on the reservation. Seems as though the buffalo had never been as thick on the west side of the big divide as they had on the east, and they got thinned real bad in that part of the country. The local Indians had started to go east for better huntin' for some time, and Pablo would pay 'em to bring 'im back calves.

Pablo was gettin' old, and he tried his damndest to git the American government to take the buffalo, but they wouldn't. When he finally got ahold of the Canadians, they never hesitated and wound up payin' 'im three hundred dollars a head (this bein' when a good mother cow was worth about twenty-five) but them buffalo was 'bout the only ones left anyplace. The ketch bein' that he had to deliver 'em to Canada, so he hired Joe Marian who figgered it all out.

There was a good-sized island less than a hundred yards off shore in the Flathead lake fairly close to where most of the buffalo were runnin'. Joe built some good stout wings outta logs about a quarter mile long that would funnel 'em down to the shore opposite the island. At the openin', the wings were about a quarter of a mile or so wide. The buckaroos could handle and head a small bunch well enough to git 'em into the openin' and stampede 'em down into the water where they'd swim to the island. Joe said after he got all the fencin' done, he had 'em all on the island in less than three weeks.

They'd already built a good stout corral with wings and a kinda loadin' chute on the island, and they made arrangements with a ferry outfit to take 'em between the island and the shore. They had rigged up several wagons with cages that could haul two buffalo cows or one bull, and that's how they got 'em to the railroad yards. There'd been a photographer from Great Falls who'd took pictures of it all. The Marians had the pictures and you could look at them through a stereoscope, which was sure interestin'.

Anyway, Joe made me a good proposition to come out and run his layout and besides wages, he gave me a percentage of each calf crop. So we moved out to the Marian place and were there for almost five years.

One of the neighbors we had there was a big half-breed named Arthur Larrivee. When I say big, I mean big. He was six foot six inches tall and weighed three hundred and fifty pounds. He was s'posed to have been the biggest baby ever born in the state at nineteen pounds.

Now generally you think of a feller this size as being pretty slow and awkward, but this wasn't Arthur. He was as quick on his feet as a cat, the ladies all liked to dance with him. His saddle had a nineteen inch tree and would most cover some horses, but I've seen 'im cut cows all day on horses weighin' less than a thousand pounds, and he never slowed those horses a bit. He was a real horseman. I helped Arthur put on a Fourth of July rodeo in Spokane one time, but that's a long story.

One time I'd had a cow die in a bog while I was there at the Marian place. I'd found her right after she'd died, and I felt bad about it. Hides was worth two and a half, so I went back to the barn and got a team to pull her outta the mud where I could skin her.

I'd got the cow pulled out and just started with the skinnin' when Arthur rides up. He had a big buckskin horse that he called "Billy Buck" and he was a good one. Probably weighed upwards of twelve hundred, but he was as quick as Arthur and they made a helluva team. He's ridin' ol' Billy this day and stops to talk a little and watchin' me skin the cow says, "Bill, didn't ya ever pull a hide off a cow with a team?" I told 'im that I'd heard it could be done, but I'd never tried it.

Now, skinnin' a cow that's dry and clean ain't necessarily a nice job. So, followin' Arthur's instructions, I skin the two hind legs out and make the long cut all the way up the belly. Usin' the chain, I hook the team to the loose hide on the rear end of the cow and pull towards the head end. Only trouble was the team would just drag the cow, and I didn't see any more hide loosen up.

Arthur says to wait a minute, and he takes his rope down and picks up the cow's two hind legs. He takes his winds and says, "Now try it."

Well, I start the team an' I see ol' Billy lean back into the rope. My team's a good one, and they'd lean in an' pull with the best, and I can see we're maybe gainin' just a little when I hear Arthur say, "Wup, wup, wup." I look around and, by god, if ol' Billy and Arthur ain't damn near doin' a hand stand with Billy's hind feet way off the ground.

Billy and Arthur either one ain't the kind to give an inch, but then for that matter the damn cow hide ain't give any either. I'm laughin' so hard I can barely stop the team and let Billy's hind quarters back down.

Arthur don't say nothin', but gits off Billy and gittin' out his jack knife begins skinnin' where I'd left off. I git on the other side and do the same thing. After skinnin' a while Arthur says, "Ya know. I believe the feller that told me he'd pulled a hide off a cow with a team was a goddamned liar.

Never Trust a Banker

Those years we spent on the Marian place were by far the best we had in Montana, but times kept on gettin' worse as more and more farmers went broke, which raised hell with the banks too. Joe was on the board of one of the bigger banks that went broke. Janey and me never had much in it, but it took what little we had.

The Canadian outfit that Joe was interested in was doin' some better and looked like it was gonna make it. They'd never suffered the drought that we had, although it had been damn dry up there too.

The ol' man had wrote me two or three times wantin' me to come back to Corral Creek. Seems none of my brothers could suit 'im, but then, hell, I'd never suited 'im either. Me or Janey neither one was very keen on goin' back to Idaho. We had a lotta good friends there in Montana, the best friends we had our whole life, but we finally decided goin' back would be the best, all things considered.

I told Joe about what we was considerin' the next time he was down from Canada. He thought a while, and then he tells me that the Canadian outfit was gettin' ready to hire a range boss. He'd been doin' it, and he was gettin' tired and it took too much time with the other stuff he had goin' on. I knowed he felt guilty as hell to have been on the board of a bank that failed, and I think he figgered if he'd been there at the time he coulda maybe changed things. He says, "If you want the job, Bill, it's yours, and we can work out some interest sharin' like we been doin' here."

The outfit up there was runnin' six wagons to cover the over 300 sections they used for range. I'd never even dreamed of a job like that, but it'd mean that Janey and the five girls we now had woulda been stuck at the headquarters without a school and over fifty miles from a post-office even. I'd be gone most of the time and, although Janey didn't talk about it, I knew how she felt and I never blamed her.

Well, we sold our interest in the cattle there on the Marian place and got ready to go back to Idaho. All together it came to a little over two thousand dollars for the cattle, which was more than we'd planned on, and we weren't feelin' too bad about things. Janey made out orders for the kid's new outfits and shoes and other things she needed from the catalogs.

Then I made the worst mistake I ever made in my life. I took the check for the cattle to the little bank where we did our checkin' and deposited it. I'd been burnt once, and I shudda knew better, and I got it again. The little sonofabitch that owned the bank knew I'd sold them cattle, and he was waitin' for it. He shut down the bank that evenin' and left town in an automobile.

When the stuff for the kids came, we sent it back and had to ask the old man to send us money to get to Idaho on. If I could of found that banker, I'd have shot the sonofabitch the same way you'd shoot a worthless dog.

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