LittleField Notes: Tales From the Bozeman Trail Part 3
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
Why do you ride for your money?
Why do you rope for short pay?
You ain’t getting nowhere, and you’re losing your share,
you must have gone crazy out there.
But they’ve never seen the Northern lights
Never seen a hawk on the wing
Never seen the spring hit the Great Divide
Ain’t never heard old camp cookie sing.
— From “Night Rider’s Lament” by Michael Burton
It is the sound that I remember — a kind of tone poem orchestrated and textured with the timbre of leather and iron and oak: wagon tires on stony two track; ceaseless jingle of trace chains; the particular leathery creak of horse collars in time with heavy rhythmic equine footfall; oak of running gear and wagon box creaking and straining with every jolt; light zephyrs blowing ceaselessly across the plateau, ruffling the canvas cover of my prairie schooner.
That this wagon should have been dubbed a schooner seems a fitting comparison indeed. These two, ships and wagons, travel with a certain beautiful, easy grace across vast and timeless landscapes conveying people and goods over great distances in a perfect marriage of form and function. The sailing schooner harnesses the wind while the prairie schooner harnesses the power of the draft animal — horse, mule or ox. A schooner at sea can be seen for miles, when it is yet nothing more than a white speck on a vast blue canvas. Same too for the prairie schooner, though it inhabits a green or brown canvas with a telltale dust cloud wafting in its wake. With a sure and steady march over distance and time, as each moves closer, details are slowly revealed: how many masts, what sails are flying, which are furled, what tack she is on. Traveling away, her details blur, blend and diminish into obscurity, until once again all that can be seen is the white speck of canvas until finally, the vast landscape swallows her up entirely.
I worked on a number of different dude outfits when I was in my late teens and early 20s and invariably the first task of the day was to wrangle the horses. This involved bringing them in from the field after a night of grazing to be harnessed and saddled for the day’s travels. A wrangle horse or two was left in camp so we could ride out and bring in the heard first thing in the morning. On the Bozeman Trail we usually camped in very large pastures, something along the order of 640 acres, sometimes necessitating quite a ride to find the herd. Some of the finest moments of my life were spent in those early morning hours, riding out in the summer dawn, while the guests slept soundly. The only other person up at that hour would be cookie already deep in the business of breakfast. I would stumble bleary-eyed, over to the fire, hoist the enormous steaming enamel coffee pot and pour myself a cup of thick black boiled coffee. I would stand there for a few moments, usually silent, smelling the melange of coffee and wood smoke, as half light gave way to prairie dawn. Bad coffee never tasted so good.
After setting out grain at the picket line, I would ride out to wrangle the horses, often bareback. If they were close, the task could be accomplished in five minutes. It would take quite a bit more time if the horses were tucked up in some far off coulee, just on the other side of a neighboring ridge, or sheltered surreptitiously in an aspen thicket. Once I found them, I would circle around to their backside, give a good whoop and a holler, and off they would go, me bringing up the rear, fancying myself a Comanche warrior, at ease on the back of my swiftly flying pony. I was gifted in those days with the fearlessness of youth, and I rode with wild abandon over the dawning countryside. The remuda rumbled and rolled like thunder as they flew into camp, only to put on the brakes and stand peacefully at the picket line, each in front of their tub of grain waiting to be haltered. By now the other hands would be up, ready to set about the formidable task of haltering, harnessing, and saddling before going to breakfast.
Life on the trail was, in essence quite simple. After breakfast about half of the guests would climb in the covered wagons and half would mount a horse for the morning‘s journey. After the wagon train was underway, the cook and campjack would take the stock truck and pick-up ahead to the next camp and begin setting up tents and making preparations for supper. In the mean time, the wagon train would roll along until we came to a nice spot to stop for lunch, maybe a picturesque ridgetop, or by a pleasant stream – where we could rest on its grassy willow banks. Here we would unhitch the teams, remove their bridals and tie them to the wagon wheels. We would eat our sandwiches and little bag of chips out of a brown paper sack and visit with guests from all over the world. After an hour or so we would water the horses, hitch up, and head out.
In the afternoon the guests would customarily change places. Those who spent the morning in the saddle would ride in the wagons for the afternoon and vice-a-versa. We would ride on through the afternoon until we arrived at our camp, usually around 4 o’clock, where some snacks and a hot pot of coffee awaited. (It is good practice in the dude business to keep folks well fed). Someone might have brought along a bottle of wine, which would be shared while the guests relived the adventures of the day: the vagaries of weather, personalities of horses, wildlife spotted, blisters and saddle sores.
After supper someone would build a fire and I would break out my guitar and fiddle and whip up some good old fashioned campfire entertainment. I was partial to the old-timey, traditional cowboy music, songs like: “The Streets of Laredo,” “ Goodbye Old Paint,” “ The Old Chisholm Trail” and so many others. Of course I had to keep a bit of Johnny Cash, Willy Nelson and John Denver in my back pocket to satisfy the most common requests. I would fiddle up a bit of the “Irish Washerwoman,” “Turkey in the Straw” and the like, but the moment the fiddle came out of the case, inevitably a chorus of cries would ring out for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” I would give them a little morsel of it, just enough to satisfy, and then move on to something that worked better in the context of one man, one fiddle. Sometimes I could even persuade a few folks to shake off their inhibitions and do a bit of dancing out in the prairie dust under the Milky Way.
On the whole, taking a wagon train trip was a tremendous experience for these city slickers, most of whom had no idea of the hardships the overland settlers experienced. Even though by the standards of the 1860’s, our operation was pretty posh, for our guests this was truly roughing it. Their bottoms were sore, their throats dry, the high elevation robbed their sea-level lungs of breath. They felt acutely each bump and jolt of our authentic springless farm wagons. Most folks however, took it in stride, and immensely enjoyed the challenge and adventure of it all. That’s why they had come to Montana in the first place, to experience a bit of unvarnished reality. We made it as comfortable as possible, but there is no getting around the fact that traveling 12 to 15 miles a day across open dry country by horsepower alone requires a certain determination and grit no matter the era. Mostly things went along quite well, but there were yet a few mishaps that summer that are worth the retelling.
In Wyoming, where I’m from, we called it chew. In Montana they called it snus. Also known as snuff, dip, smokeless tobacco, it is the perennial vice of baseball players and cowboys. I had never tried it until one Sunday, in between trips, someone had the good idea to hitch four-up and drive a ways up an old two-track none of us had been on before. There had been a lot of talk about how to rough-lock a wagon on a steep downhill, and shouldn’t we give it a try, and while we’re at it, why not hitch up four horses just for fun. So off we went, just the crew this time, the old timers (as I thought of them) and me.
I was young and open to new experiences in those days, and I sure was going to get my fill that day. I had never driven four-up, had no idea how to rough-lock a wagon, and I’d never stuffed a wad of snus between my cheek and gum. I took a turn at the lines with the horses stepping smartly out while listening to my older companions swap horse tales. They reminisced about memorable teams now long dead, runaways and wrecks, and what kind of team is best on a mower (fast walkers). I was starting to get a feel for managing four lines in hand, when someone passed me a pouch of long grain chewing tobacco. I was feeling like one of the good old boys at this point, so I unhesitatingly took a big dip, tucked it in my lip and went right to chewing and spitting. Boy was I enjoying myself! We went up a steep hill through a thicket of woods to the top of a ridge where we stopped to have a little lunch before heading back. Once more under way, the snus pouch made its way around again and I wasn’t shy about helping myself to another healthy dip.
We stopped the wagon at the top of the big hill where ensued a lively discussion about how best to set up the rough-lock. The general idea is to attach a chain from somewhere on the frame or brake mechanism to a back wheel, locking it solid for the steep descent. Once the setup was agreed to, and the chain carefully installed, we headed cautiously down the hill with the one back wheel skidding the whole way. To everyone’s delight, the rough-lock worked beautifully. The wheel team barely knew there was a wagon behind. We got back to camp in the early afternoon, and on the whole we considered it a fine adventure. It wasn’t too long however, before I began to feel poorly and felt the rather immediate need to head for my tent to lay down. My condition degraded rapidly and before long I was feeling that death might be a good alternative to the wretched state I was in. In my enthusiasm for being one of the boys, I had dipped generously from the snus pouch. For a body that had never experienced a flood of nicotine, I found myself in the throes of misery. My malady being completely self-inflicted, I bore my suffering alone and without complaint. At that moment, on what felt like my deathbed, I knew one thing with absolute certainty, and I vowed to all that is divine, that if I lived, I would never again take another dip. That was my first and last day as an authentic snus dipping Montana cowboy. As a consequence my Wranglers never have sported the signature cowboy Copenhagen circle on the back pocket. Even after all these years, when someone pops open a can or pouch and that distinctive smell comes wafting up, I can’t help but feel that I may just have to go lay down for a while.
John Blankenship had a team of three-year-old Belgian mares called Jeanie and Judy that he brought out on the trail with him that summer. They were only just green-broke and he wanted to put some miles on them to work off some spunk, and where better to put on miles than out on the trail. They were fine looking mares with a sweet and gentle disposition. Because of their youth and inexperience, we put them to work pulling the chuckwagon rather than take the unnecessary risk of having a wreck with a wagon full of paying guests.
It was a beautiful sunny morning, and we were packing up camp preparing to head out for the day. John planned to get an early start with the mares on the chuckwagon so he could arrive at the next camp ahead of the guests and crew. I was over at the picket line saddling horses and was only vaguely aware of John as he buckled the lines on his young team and drove them over to the wagon where he hitched up his youngsters and prepared to head out. I continued about my business, not paying any particular heed to what was happening around me. Presently, I heard the sounds of harness jingling and wheels rolling as his wagon crossed behind me headed for the county road. He drove past one of the other wagons just as a guest was inside packing up. There was a loud bang as something heavy fell to the floor of the wagon. It is impossible to know the inside of a horses mind, but at the sudden, unexpected sound, those mares must have thought the whole camp was either going to go up in flames or about to disappear into a hole to the center of the earth.
In any case, those two horses were not interested in sticking around to see what would happen next. They went from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye. I came running at full speed as did the rest of the crew. It didn’t take long before we realized that there was very little we could do, though we still ran helter skelter, making like to follow, stop or somehow confound those horses from doing harm to themselves and others. But there is next to nothing that a person on foot can do to stop a team of runaway horses. Those girls were fairly flying, blue chuckwagon bouncing along behind. John had his feet braced out solidly in front of him on the wagon box pulling on the lines with all his might, his cries of “whoa!” lost in the tumult of the sound and fury of the runaway.
Those mares just kept running and running and running. Fortunately it was a large prairie pasture and they had plenty of sea room. It was horrifying to watch, standing there utterly helpless, pacing back and forth, wishing desperately that there was something I could do. At any moment I expected the worst: a horse to step into a gopher hole and go down; the wagon to hit a rock and flip on its side; to see the mares slash themselves to ribbons crashing through the barbwire fence at the far end of the field; to take a sudden sharp turn and see the wagon roll, crushing John and dragging the horses down. This was clearly not John’s first experience with a pair of runaways and he showed his mettle as he courageously and skillfully managed to keep the horses running in wide circles until eventually they simply ran out of steam and dropped back into a trot, and pretty soon after, came at a lively walk right back into camp where they stopped and stood, wide-eyed and winded. They were as relieved as we all were to finally come to a standstill. John gave them a good blow, while we relived the events and acknowledged our good fortune that we were not staring at a busted up wagon or injured horses or bystanders. Somebody handed John a flask of something strong, from which he took a deep draw. He shook his head slowly back and forth and took a big slow breath. Exhaling profoundly, he exclaimed “What a ride!” He then resettled his hat, took up the lines and said “Alright girls, git up.” We all watched a little nervously as the team and wagon walked peaceably off over a low hill, trailing wisps of dust behind.
For a few days I had been driving Dick and Dan, a large, good-natured Belgian team that had recently come off an Amish farm in the Midwest. Must have been I was too short, or they were too tall, but either way, I had to stand on a bucket to put their bridles on. One morning while harnessing, I noticed they were developing sore necks just under where the collar sits. I doctored the sore area where we had roached their manes, switched to collars with pads and hitched up. After a couple of more days on the trail the horses’ necks were not improving, and I thought maybe getting worse. I advised Jim that they likely needed a few days off, but he instructed me to hitch them anyway, they would be just fine. Despite my misgivings, I knew my place in the world and did as I was told.
Those two horses went along just fine that morning pulling their payload of dudes up and down the gently rolling hills, the early summer grass so green it almost hurt to look at it. The day was fine with a light breeze to cut the heat of the high July sun. We paused to watch a red-tailed hawk diving after field mice. Once under way again, a mangy coyote eyed us warily, slinking and skulking along the top of a grassy ridge off to our left, keeping pace with us. We forded a small stream where we stopped and enjoyed our lunch on its willowy banks, taking our leisure, some visiting quietly, others strolling downstream or up, others like me, enjoying a post lunch siesta, flat on my back in the soft, cool grass, felt hat over my eyes, dosing.
After lunch we teamsters bridled up our teams, hitched up and headed out. We had five or six miles to cover to get to our next camp that evening. As we headed out I got to visiting with a young couple from New Jersey sitting just behind me in the wagon. They had a son maybe three or four years old and the mom asked if it would be okay if he rode up front on the wagon seat for a while. That was fine by me; I routinely welcomed guests up front. It was a good opportunity for me to get to know some of them a little better. They liked to sit there and ask lots of questions about the horses and wagons and scenery and history and how a young fellow like me could have come to drive a team on the Bozeman Trail.
The boy (I have long forgotten his name) sat to my left with a big grin on his face, chatting away, asking lots of questions, the perfect embodiment of happiness. We went along for a while with the wagons spread out by maybe a quarter mile. We had been going up and down through rolling country all day. Dick and Dan seemed to be doing very well, and I’m afraid I had actually not thought very much about the condition of their sore necks. We had just come up a rise out of a little valley and crested the top of the ridge when suddenly I stopped the wagon. I contemplated the road ahead. It was not too steep, certainly not any more so than anything else we had traversed up to that moment. I sat still looking straight ahead. My heart began to beat a little bit faster and for reasons still unknown to me, I turned, picked up the boy and returned him to his parents in the back of the wagon. I simply said, “He needs to ride in the back now.”
I took a deep breath, picked up the lines, and clicking to Dick and Dan, we started down the hill. This time when they felt the weight of the wagon, transmitted through harness, tongue, and neck yolk, the whole pressing down on the top of their already sore necks, that team had had enough, and like a shot, they began to run — straight down the hill, wagon bouncing, my feet braced for all I was worth, lines wrapped solidly around my hands, leaning back, hollering “whoa whoa whoaoaoaoa!” All to no effect. Stopping four-thousand pounds of horseflesh in full flight is like trying to hold back a flash flood roaring down a rimrock canyon, or arresting an avalanche of powder tearing down a nearly vertical mountainside.
Time stood still. I don’t know whether people screamed or stayed silent, or for exactly how far we ran, or whether the wagons ahead of us stopped to watch, or were oblivious to our flight. It felt at once like a few brief seconds and all eternity. In the end we were stopped not by any heroics of mine, but by piling headlong into the back end of the wagon in front of us. The motion, swirl and tumult stopped as quickly as it had begun, and we three, Dick and Dan and me, were left heaving and shaking. I slowly relaxed my grip on the lines, saw that the horses, their harness, and both wagons seemed mostly okay. I turned and looking behind me, saw the pale, petrified faces of my passengers. They were fine, they assured me. Just fine. My eyes fell on the face of the boy sitting between his mother and father. He was wide-eyed and serious, but not terrified. It took several moments for me to pull my gaze away from his face, his living breathing face. I felt a wave of emotion well up inside of me as the awful truth of what could have happened sunk in. Had I not stopped the wagon and told him unequivocally that he needed to get in the back… I could not have held on to him, the lines, and myself, and kept us all together on our speedy dissent. From that high perch on the wagon seat he could have been easily, so terribly easily, tossed over and under the wheels of the speeding wagon.
The events of that day haunt me still.
It is a perfect sunny late spring day, not too hot, nor yet too cold. A gentle breeze rustles the tall grass by the sandy bank where I sit. I have walked down to the river, swollen by recent rains, to write, to corral my thoughts, to harness my memories. I reflect this afternoon on the circling of life, of endings and beginnings, continuity, connections. Within the last two weeks I have said goodbye to my two youngest boys. Aidan headed out to work for the National Park Service packing mules into the Grand Canyon, and Brendan, left for the Triple J Ranch in Montana early yesterday morning, sporting a brand new Stetson, his saddle and guitar tucked into the bed of his little black Ford Ranger. At 18 years of age, and freshly graduated from high school, he was setting out for a bit of adventure, just as his dad did so many years ago. Both boys have grown into top hands, and from a purely selfish point of view, it’s hard to see them go. I will miss their company as well as their help on the farm. I realize though, that the whole point of raising kids is to give them the skills to spread their wings, leave the nest and make a life of their own. I’m happy for them, happy that having been raised on the farm, they have acquired skills which afford them the same kinds of opportunities that I had. They are leaving home for something fresh, new and exciting. And what could be better than to ride for your pay, through spectacular western country. They will meet people and have experiences that will shape the course of the rest of their lives. And who knows, maybe someday one of them will write up true tales of high adventure for publication in these very pages.