In the forties and fifties, one painting could be found reproduced in many Western households. A wolf of a winter night on a snowy knoll looked down on a lonely cabin in the clearing below. That smudgy square of orange down there was the cabin's window and the white puff rising from the wolf's nose was a frozen mix of longing and independence. My father, Jack, hung such a picture on the wall of his and Myrna's bedroom.§
Swearington was well-known in that part of Montana for his large bands of sheep, a thousand a band, and he was one of very few in those parts to hire sheepherders and put them out in remote areas of the Tracks for the summer with a dog, a horse, a sleeping wagon, and a shotgun to tend the flock on unfenced government land under contract. It came a time that my father, Jack, heard Swearington had culled out four hundred to get rid of as pelters, ewes worth only the pelt on their backs to the man who would skin them. Jack was no skinner, but a stock farmer, and heretofore he had but a small flock of forty or fifty ewes, where he borrowed the service of his neighbor's rams to get a lamb crop. So up in the higher land of the Tracks, that early fall, in a sweet country Jack had visited very little since the early days with Myrna, his wife, and his brother, Lester—when Lester was still alive and playing the violin in the evenings—Jack appeared at the Swearington main ranch, driving his old forty-seven.
Nicholas Swearington, of course knew of Jack, knew him from the early times by reputation, a hard worker, not a drinker, married and with no aspirations to be a cowboy nor given to buying cowboy rigging of any kind. He knew of Jack and that he was not of the Tracks and never meant to be. Maybe the Tracks didn't want him; he lacked the restrained romantic feeling of the place. There were no telephones. Jack just showed up at the main spread not long after daylight.
Advice was gladly given man to man in the country then, so Jack began with that benign strategy on Swearington. Yes, he, Jack, was up early, and yes it was a long way up from SandyUp valley. Well, no, he did not mind night driving, and besides, he wanted a bit of advice in starting a band of sheep of his own on irrigated pasture.
Swearington's wife had put out biscuits and gravy for the boss, and there was plenty for Jack as well, and the coffee was hot in the blue and white porcelain coffee pot on the stove.
Swearington said, "Advice, Heuslerer, only works if you take it."
Jack said, "Most don't take it because they don't ask for it. But since I'm asking."
"But what's the advice? Raise 'em? Hell yes; they're more thrifty than cattle, woollies. Anybody ever spent money on pasture or hay knows that. And for loss, when you lose one, you have to lose ten more before you've come near losing the price of a cow. That gives you time to figure out what happened to the first one. If that's the advice you wanted, Jack, I'd say raise them. Raise as many as you can as fast as you can. I hear you got a big family. But down there in that valley you know you got some problems."
"Yes, we got diarrhea on wet grass, and then we got maggots. You don't have that up here if I remember."
"You got your KRS for maggots, and, hell though, you've got your dogs to think of down there," Nicholas said.
Jack said, "Yes, but I got my own dogs to hold back on that."
"You using herding dogs? I heard you had only fifty head, a hundred."
"Just my dogs on the place," Jack said. "They're out there where strays stay away mostly."
"Okay, okay. That's my advice," Swearington, said, and winked at his wife, who had large arms and a reputation for knowing more about ranching than any man. "I've got a haying crew to get going."
"One more thing," Jack said. "How old should you keep a ewe? To what age?"
Swearington said, "Yes, well that's individual, as you know. Just till you wore each one out, Heuslerer."
Jack said, "And I hear you got rid of a couple hundred or are getting rid of."
"That's right. I culled two bands Friday. I got four hundred culls going to the sale ring. You've got to sort of balance out the cost of your replacement ewes. Well." He had picked up his hat now, showing Jack the door as they both strode for it and the daylight that was getting strong in the fields.
Going out, "What are you aiming to get for those culls?" Jack said.
"Don't know. Whatever they're knocked down for in Rocky Fort. Last year I got two dollars, a dollar seventy-five, something like that."
"A lot of hauling for such a price," Jack said.
"Do you do hauling?" Swearington said.
"No," said Jack, "But I might be interested in shortening your hauling trip if you were to sell the culls to me."
"Sell them to you?" Swearington said, as though this were a new idea to both of them.
Mark Toler's Suffolk sheep—so Spanish-looking with their black faces and neat, black legs to me, were known jumpers—at least the ewes. The neighbor's property, inherited from dead parents, lay next to Jack's, and Toler's operation was marginally successful. However, Jack got his idea for raising sheep from observing that the man always took good lambs to market in the fall, no matter what the condition of his grazing land. Sheep were, indeed, thrifty.
My mother, Myrna, treated Mark Toler sweetly when he stopped in for coffee with Jack, as though, poor hopeless bachelor, he needed the courtesy of a pretty woman once in a while, since he was probably past hope of ever getting married. He lived in a large white house without company except for the occasional hired hand, did not keep himself up much, and had snaggle teeth, one of which appeared to be a second-rate aluminum affair that jutted out from the rest in front when he talked. He was a ready cooperator in joint sheep shearing operations when those took place at Jack's place, bringing his own flock there, although it was a larger flock than Jack's; however, Jack's setup was more roomy and could hold sheep better, and besides, Jack always had the help of two or three of his boys to maintain control over the several flocks. On a pretty regular basis these same boys saw Toler's black faced ewes in the pasture with Jack's sheep, and were asked to take them out and head them back across the fence, over which, when pursued, these antelope-like creatures normally leaped with insolent ease.
Not long after Jack's acquisition of the Swearington culls, Mark Toler showed up at the Heuslerer's, and, not even stopping for his courtesy with Myrna at the house, went right to the sheep shed, as though he was aware that Jack was working sheep there.
Jack and my brother, Ray, had driven the new ewes to the shed and cut out twenty into a small, tight pen made of the modular wooden panels all sheep men use to form quick holding pens for ewes by wiring the panels together into a rectangle with baling wire. At this time, Ray was standing by in the enclosure of closely held greybacks where Jack had a ewe upended on her hindquarters, the jaws of her head held in his left hand, a pair of steel pliers in his right.
"Jack," Toler said, looking in, "those new sheep got foxtail in their eyes already?" When sheep got out in the foxtail grass, its bearded seed heads sometimes worked like a many-barbed fishhook under the eyelid and caused swelling, irritation, and finally infection with white-eyed blindness if the farmer could not catch the problem in time.
Jack said, "Oh, some of them. Yes some of them did get that."
Toler said, "Those pliers must be a little rough around the eyes."
"Yes," Jack said. "The pliers are for teeth. This ewe here has a few dental problems."
"Really," Mark Toler said. "You're a dentist, too Jack? Well I'll be damned," and laughed.
"Listen," Jack said. "I'm a doctor, a carpenter, a plumber, you name it."
"Aren't we all," Mark said. "Aren't we all."
"What brings you here?" Jack said.
"Wondering if I could get my drill press back," Mark said, referring to one of the many borrowings that went on in the community.
"Oh, sure, let's go up and see if Myrna has some coffee, and we'll do that," Jack said. "Now help me with that last one, Ray."
Ray jumped forward on long legs and grabbed the rear hock of a ewe, dragging her quickly to Jack, who looked immediately in her mouth.
"No, this one's done," he said. "I think it's that tall one in the corner. I left her for a marker."
Ray obligingly grabbed the tall ewe in the same grip as before and dragged her to Jack, and with silent effort they both upended the ewe onto her seat. Jack forced the mouth open.
"Phew!" He said. "Does she stink! Look at that, Mark."
"Not much left to grab the grass with in there by Gawd," Mark Toler said, looking at the few spaced-out and blackened teeth.
"And look at her condition," Jack said, squeezing her thin, rear leg at the thigh between his fingers and rubbing.
"Not ready for winter," Toler said. "Maybe you should knock her in the head and skin her instead of putting her out with the rams."
"Maybe," Jack said. "But here's the solution." His shining pliers gripped one of the thin, weak-looking incisors, his strong wrist twisted, his own jaws ground together in a grimace, and the ewe's snaggle tooth was out.
Holding the tooth up with the pliers toward Toler's face, Jack said, "You won't want to get your nose too close to that."
"How many ewes you got with problems like this?" Toler asked.
"Oh, hell, about all of them," Jack said. "I didn't know what I was getting into here."
"I don't know Jack; I don't know," Toler said. "Say, you better get those other three teeth. They're as bad as the first," nodding toward the ewe's exposed lower jaw.
Jack twisted out three more bad teeth in the same way as before as the ewe protested with turns of her weak neck and small bleats around her contorted tongue. Two gleaming teeth, as slim as the bad ones but with no black on them remained, isolated by bloody gaps in the front of her mouth.
Mark Toler said, "You know, Jack, you just done nothing. She can't eat and won't thrive with those two good snags. That kind of thing is what prevents them being good feeders."
"You said it, not me," Jack said, and seized the other two good teeth in turn, removing them and dropping them in the thick, matted straw of the pen.
"She won't eat for a few days," Toler said. "But once she starts grazing again, she'll gain better."
"Better than any broken mouth," Jack said and either winced or winked, the others couldn't tell which. "Hell of a lot of work, sheep by sheep, though," Jack said, putting both hands on the small of his back and straightening up as the ewe rolled away and crowded in with the others. "But they won't hold any meat on their bones without it."
And so for cheap money, Jack renewed his sheep operation, ending up with presentable gummers of no resale value, but which could turn out an eighty per cent lamb crop and bring in money by the next the fall—a big average for such old woollies.
It was 1953; the price of farm goods had remained stable since the end of the great world expansionist conflict that was W.W.II, income per unit neither higher nor lower for farmers and stockmen, and it would remain so for another fifteen years, something to do with government programs, I had heard. The price of manufactured goods on the other hand, farm machinery in particular, was bullish, on the rise all this time, as it is today, creating a huge cost-to-income spread in the rural sector, and virtually preventing anyone except the most ingenious, like Jack, from getting into the game who didn't already have machinery or significant reserves of land, stock, and cash, and, as likely as not, another job to pay for machinery. Jack did buy some brand new machinery from time to time, however. He bought a combine for cutting and harvesting small grains and a New Holland hay baler, but he made these machines pay their own way by contracting out harvesting jobs, cutting all the wheat, barley, and hay he could subscribe from neighbors as well as cutting what he grew himself.
And this year, 1953, was the year Swearington had deigned to sell Jack his worn-out ewes, almost as a joke, and when Jack had brought him down to a dollar a head, by transferring them himself. It had been early on before cold weather hit SandyUp County, so the stockman could go through them in his spare hours and, in lots of ten or twenty, extract the bad teeth, flushing them afterwards well with good pasture and oats poured out on the ground every morning behind a moving pickup truck several weeks before turning the rams in. I will never forget the ravenous speed with which these ewes, redeemed to the life of another breeding season, ran after the truck, scooping up the straw-colored kernels from the ground in competition with each other, bleating as they came. It was I who held the burlap bag in the back of the truck, paying out a moderate stream of yellow grain onto the soil of the pasture where it was most bare and table-like and the pickings most easy for gummers with still tender mouths.
As for the breeding, most of the ewes took. Jack went into winter with some nice-looking, although really quite aged ewes, about ninety-percent carrying lambs. But for young stock and old alike that winter turned out to be a brute.
My hands started at the hoof of the dead ewe, stabbed the point of my father's hunting knife through the gray hair to feel its contact with bone, then slit upward along the inner hock swiftly where the same bone was close to the surface, and then my stroke slowed, lifting the knife and slicing with the farther-up part of the blade as I peeled the almost hairless skin there back from the inner flesh of the upper leg and thigh where wool began its cover over the flesh as though sagebrush encroaching on the bare prairie. The leg was usually half frozen and the muscle beneath the skin purple, and my mouth watered involuntarily as this was exposed, for in its purple wholesomeness it seemed the maroon meat of a game bird, a pheasant or mallard, a food that when cooked I doted on particularly. A somewhat fussy requirement for a salable sheep's hide included leaving the ears on the pelt. I had been instructed that I must never cut a hole in the skin for the same reason, the reason of price. Jack was not my tutor in this; instead, Cyril Hawk, the shell-shocked neighbor, a veteran of the first great war, had shown me. Skinning out was an old-fashioned idea anyway, not much money in it anymore, but it was still part of the older way of things then in Montana to drive by the sheep ranch and see the pelts of sheep, flesh side out, weathering yellow in the weak winter sun on the corrals of a place.
Jack, I supposed, was glad I took an interest, glad to see something made of the ewes who could not survive the inevitable damp cold that crept up in the night through the urine-soaked straw of the sheep shed in winter, satisfied enough to see their pelts draped over the outdoor fence of the feed yard like clothes on a clothes line, each worth a dollar apiece. But Jack never commented on my steady addition to the store of pelts, perhaps believing that comment might spoil a good and automatic thing. I couldn't tell.
During that winter and in the mornings before school, I came outside before school to the shed and filled the grain troughs in the open corral with the oats and pellets that nourished the flock and then opened the big shed doors, so the ewes, ravenous from the cold, could rush out and clean the troughs in a hurry before dashing afterward to the hay-filled mangers and burying their faces in the dried alfalfa placed there all around the perimeter of their feedlot. As the ewes ate—Jack said to obtain the energy to make body heat and survive—I returned to the pleasant warmth of the shed and the ammonia smell of the night's urine and dragged the night's dead away and out into the freezing weather. Sometimes there were no dead, but usually, one or two of Jack's gummers failed to make it, I figured due to the cold.
With abundant strength for this task, I, not wanting to get my gloves and hands too smelly with sheep, attached a baling wire to the hocks of each stiff and dead ewe and dragged her out to the edge of the feeding pen. I then took the body by front and back feet, swung it in an arc, and hurled it over the low fence. If I was lucky, the body landed on the bone pile of dead sheep and stayed there, enlarging the pile. If I missed my shot, I climbed over the fence and tidied up. Later, time permitting, I could pull the new dead off of the bone pile and skin them in the after-school hours in the evening. The weather remained cold in fifty three, and my pile of carcasses never rotted, so I could choose my time to do what I took to be my duty by Jack.
By the month of March the bone pile was taller than I, and the weather was warming steadily but still freezing night and day in Sandy Up County. It had been a long and tough one for the sheep, and the dead count had mounted too fast for me to skin every sheep that failed to survive. So the bone pile was a mix of frozen, purple bodies and woolen ones, an entanglement, sheep's faces turned to icy stone, thrusting out from a crowd grotesquely, their eyes glazed blue with frost—some of the ewe's faces I knew from a quirk of character familiar to me in my service to her before she died.
Pronghorns came down from Canada in that cold year. Their sudden and migration-like appearance in bands, in huge herds that blocked the path of roads until they crossed over en masse, their fear of humans and machines having been overpowered by some greater fear or necessity, betokened bad food or bad weather further north, according to the old timers of the area. It came that haystacks were attacked by bands of these agile wildlife. No fence could exclude them. By hundreds they pushed through the county on their stick-like legs, standing out against the snow in their gracefully golden and boldly black-marked throats, each antelope the clone of the other except in magnificence of horns—for some carried obvious trophies on their tall bodies in the black and hooked fighting equipment that nature supplied to both males and females. Haystacks became large mushrooms on the prairie in my eyes as the wild stock undermined each pile to the limit of the reach of an adult antelope.
Before long only the dead antelope remained. I did not hear if the opinion was that the remainder moved farther south, or if they returned to their winter grounds in the north. But none could be seen now. The influx of these exotic animals would have seemed a Christmas dream except the dead carcasses remained—several bodies in the purlieu of every fenced field of every farm. Boys in some cases went to work on the carcasses that had the larger horns. As boys they felt certain that some kind of hunting memorabilia could be made of the fine antlers, although it would never do to claim any actual hunting victory for that. The animals had been so docile and so weak no one would have dreamed of hunting them. In fact the best way of hunting them would have been to walk among them as they crowded the fences in subdued herds or milled and flowed around cars or trucks stalled in the mist of the river of their bodies on the snow and gravel crusted roads and thereby do whatever you wished with the helpless creature of your choice.
Then came a thaw in SandyUp valley at a time that I became very busy also at school. The antelope had graciously disappeared but my bone pile of ewes had got out of hand, and a particular Sunday, before lambing began, I saw that flies had come with warm weather and that all my hoard of carcasses was loaded with maggots and going bad pretty fast. I told this to Jack, and Jack suggested I take the tractor and stack the bone pile onto its little utility wagon that he had remodeled from the rear-end of a half-ton pickup in times past, consistent with the customs of the time, and that I haul the mess farther from the farmstead toward the slough. I could toss the bone pile out there and burn it in its entirety if I wished.
"Burn them, Dad?"
"Throw some gas on them."
"Just take a few gallons from the tank and throw it on them. You'll see."
How did Jack know this for sure? But I trusted him.
The stink was pretty unbearable, and I hated to confront this. I chose some washable gloves, the yellow monkey kind and an old coat and made up my mind to do it. There was more difficulty in hurling the thawed carcasses onto the old wagon than throwing them on the bone pile in the first place for now some of them wanted to come apart, and the smell was gagging when they burst. I tried to ignore the white maggots dripping from everything. But my gaze was morbidly attracted, and I couldn't avoid seeing a red line of blood, a central artery pulsing on the back of each worm when I looked keen-eyed. It seemed hard to account for some things.
I was unsure I really wanted this job. Yet who else would do it without being driven to it? Not my brothers. It had to be done, and I assembled my stinking load and drove the tractor across the field and away from the farmstead and up onto a narrow roadbed that Jack had formed on a little levee built up over the old slough bed, looking for a place to get rid of my freight. Where the sluggish water widened the iced-over pond spread out, and muskrat lodges darkened the surface of the ice here and there in bumps. It would not do to slide the dead sheep down there. On my side of the pond, the field side, was a dormant thicket of bushes, a tangle of wild roses and greasewood, and I calculated that maybe the branches of this brush would add some fuel if I dumped the bodies there. So I backed my wagon out to the edge of the raised road and yanked and shoved the carcasses down into the bushes. They could stay there for awhile out of the way. They looked as ghastly as before in their new setting, bones, hoofs, hides, and the rolling and turmoiling white worms. They could stay there. They were out of the way now, maybe fire was unnecessary.
But the next day was Sunday, and I was beset by the image that wouldn't leave, particularly, the eye sockets of skulls and the seeming insolence of the maggot city established in my dead ewes. So I started the old tractor and wheeled its wagon around to the big farm gasoline tank. I drew a full five gallons of number one engine fuel, white gas, as Jack called it, and returned to maggot city. The worms were not finished, and the stink had increased. I thought maybe it was not good to kill the maggots, for didn't they grow out as flies, and mightn't we have too few flies as a consequence?
I poured the gas out anyway, splashing it out into the center of the pile. Then I stood up above on the levee and threw a lighted kitchen match down. The little stick expired without effect before it landed, the gasoline still smelling wet and deadly, so I stood halfway down the slope for the next shot. The vaporous gasoline took with a burst and a whump of sound, knocking me backwards onto the bank. But no harm done. I wasn't burned or injured. The bone pile crackled and burned and gave off a white smoke that changed black as it rose and whipped off in the wind. I could see into the fiery carcasses and feel the heat—there were the jaws, the eye sockets, the body flesh, and, amazingly, Jack was right, flesh was taking the suggestion of the gasoline; it was burning merrily, worms and all. I drove back toward the house, as the pile of bodies continued to burn, and I noticed at some time later that day that smoke and heat continued to rise above where the roses and greasewood were, still rising after the time that would have been required for the combustible energy of the gasoline to be spent, and I knew that the fire had continued and kept on going. Maybe tallow had something to do with it.
Two weeks later, just as lambing was about to begin, huge snow fell in that part of Montana, beginning at four in the afternoon on a Thursday. The air thickened and the temperature dropped and the snow increased. Jack was dismayed, but the shed was a good enclosure. It snowed all night and the temperature dropped below any recorded past experience for cold. Fifty below, the thermometer read in the morning. The snow had stopped by then, and the air was still, but there was fully a yard of the well-packed white stuff on the ground. I was delighted. No school, and everything and everybody had to be dug out. I was allowed to walk to the corner of the main county road and the lesser local road where my older brothers at that time caught the high school bus for town, and from there I could see the yellow snowplow coming slowly and blowing a spout of snow off the road and into the fields. The air now seemed dry. I could hear the crunch of the treads of the wheels of the snowplow more than a mile away as if they were nearly upon me. My mother waved me in. I had stayed my limit in that temperature, a level of cold with which no one had much experience.
Suddenly a warm Chinook wind blew, and the freak snow was gone in twenty-four hours. SandyUp River, of course could in no way handle that kind of run-off. The drainage canals dug to drain irrigated fields and dispose of alkali salts could not contain the run-off either, and the farmers soon received notice that water was about to cover the county roads. Most kids were sent to town to stay with townspeople on the higher, river-bluff ground instead of out in the bottom land. I went with those kids and didn't see the effects of the flood until after it was over.