December 15, 2003
From the December 1917 National Wool Grower Magazine
A Sheepman?s Remembrance
By L. C. Jewet
Twenty-five years ago, or thereabouts, a young man drifted into one of the Western states seeking work. He was a product of an Eastern farm but had some experience in handling sheep and cattle in a small way. He had attended public school and acquired a fair education. But the fields and pastures of his native state looked small and his future seemed dwarfed by the smallness of his surroundings. Anyway, he was possessed of a vigorous spirit and a firm determination to do things in a big way. About that time stories of the trainloads of sheep and cattle that were reaching the Chicago market, filled the Eastern papers and appealed with ever increasing force to the imagination of the youth of that day. Thus, this young man started westward, he knew not whither, but destined to some land where opportunity seemed to open its portals. At the start, he was possessed of only a small amount of money but, as railroad construction was active in those days, he obtained an abundance of employment which ever led him westward toward the mountains. Finally, he emerged not far from the Rockies, in the heart of sheep and cattle country of that day. The prairies were broad and well grassed and, coming from a farming country, this free grass appealed to him ? he wanted some of it. Whether he was to be a sheepman or cattleman depended upon the favor of fortune. He did not have the funds with which to engage in business for himself, but wages were high and work plentiful. In a few days, he secured employment with a sheep outfit, which meant that his future lay with sheep. Being of the metal of which good men are made, he started at the bottom and worked up along the rocky path that most of our flockmen have traveled. Finally, he emerged as foreman of an outfit that ran about 25,000 sheep. He had saved his money, acquired no bad habits, and finally married a school teacher of his community, as many another sheepman has done.
Settlers were beginning to trek into the land, and many good locations along the streams had already been taken, so that he saw that if he was to have his share he must at once make a start for himself. Finally he left his old employer with regrets but carried with him his good will and a comfortable amount of money with which to start. In a neighboring county along a stream, a location that he long had spotted, he cast his lot. With the money that he had, he equipped his homestead and bought a band of ewes. He could not afford a camp tender but a herder he must have as the man who came with the ewes was soon to leave. He drove to the nearby town in search of a man. The available supply was not to his liking but among the lot was a Frenchman just recovered from a protracted spree. This man had experience and knew herding from A to Z. He was of middle age and admitted that his only failing was a determination to get thoroughly drunk for a week, about twice a year. He liked the looks of this fellow and took him home, determined to give him a fair trial. From here on the herder will be known as ?Sam.?
Let us leave Sam with the sheep and return to the owner of the flock. Years passed and the one flock of ewes increased many fold. Hard times followed good times but by dint of thrift and close attention to business our flockman prospered. Of hard winters he had seen many ? winters when it was a gamble as to the number of sheep that he would still have when spring opened up. In those days, grain feeding was unknown and only a small amount of hay was raised on the home ranch, but each year the necessity for hay was growing more apparent. But then the sheep were distant miles and miles from the hay in winter so it was of but little value except to the small band kept at home. In spring, summer and fall, the flocks grazed in the foothills and in winter on the great desert some 70 miles away from the home ranch. This desert was a snowy place but nine years out of ten the sheep came through in good shape, usually when the tenth year came, or thereabouts, a terrific blizzard swept the land and wiped out the accumulations of many years. It was about time for one of these winters. For eight years the winters had been good. Sheepmen had lost only about the usual ten percent but they figured on this. This year the winter was late in starting. Snow came so late that it was December before the sheep got well out on the desert because of a lack of water. Finally the snow came and drifted into riffles here and there about the sagebrush, furnishing abundant water. With the snow the flocks began to drift, always to the south ? moving four or five or six miles per day ? down onto the real desert ? away from civilization. Among the other herders on the desert was Sam. He had charge of around thirty-four hundred ewes ? he and two dogs and a camp tender. Sam was sober ? just before leaving for the desert he had his spree ? he was done now until spring. Winter was passing uneventful, storms had been few, feed plentiful, the latter part of February was near. Then one morning the camp tender was moving camp. Sam and the two dogs had taken the flock out south, down a long ridge. It was cloudy in the morning; long dark clouds filled the air and sent streamers down to the horizon. They had a vicious look but it was late in February ? danger from blizzards was almost gone ? and Sam had seen worse clouds than this pass without a squall. He gave them little thought. The morning had been cold but by ten it had warmed up a bit, but the wind was blowing. Toward noon the snow began but Sam already had the flock headed for the new camp. Minute after minute the fury of the storm increased ? the wind had shifted so the returning flock had nearly to face it ? for a while they did this. Sam and both dogs worked patiently moving up a little here, a little there. An hour had passed and but little progress made. The wind drove through the bitter snow with greater fury every minute, the flock would no longer meet it. While it was but little after noon, it was growing dark, so thick was the storm. Both dogs were tired, they were covered with snow and had worked faithfully but the sheep refused to heed their bark or bite and instead of drifting toward camp, were drifting with the wind. In the direction of the drift, some four miles to the south, lay a step cut bank. Sam only hoped to keep them to the left of this so they would not pile over it to certain death. Time passed ? the snow accumulated in drifts here and there ? the flock struggled on, a few sticking in this or that drift, but Sam and the two dogs fought to keep the main band to the left of the cut bank. Just about nightfall, one dog disappeared and was never seen again. Whether he stayed behind to guard a few sheep that had been cut off, or, whether he became exhausted and froze in some drift, was never known. The loss increased the burden for Sam and the other dog, but they fought on. It was night and the flat, storm-swept desert offered Sam no beacon light to tell his direction or the distance he had traveled, but he kept on the south of the flock, fearing the cut bank. Sam was hungry and tired ? he had eaten nothing since noon ? his dog was exhausted and now followed sluggishly in Sam?s tracks. How far had he come? Miles and miles, and still he drifted. The storm kept up. In the drifted snow, many of the leaders of the flock were trampled lifeless as the main band pushed over them, but still they moved ever with the wind. The night wore on and Sam and the dog followed the flock ? both were now listless and had ceased to think of the cut bank. Then came dawn. Sam saw the faint rays of light creep into the east and it seemed that the wind was less strong but the great drifts of snow lay everywhere. Also the landscape had changed ? the plain open of the desert had changed, small hills and ravines lay on every hand, but the storm drove the flock onward. At last a small wash was crossed and on the further bank lay a clump of trees. Here Sam decided to make his last stand, and, if he failed, to lie down for the sleep that cold makes so comfortable. Into these trees and bushes, the flock plunged and Sam and his dog met them on the other side and stopped the leaders. For the first time in eighteen hours, the flock was at rest. Soon they began browsing on the snow-covered limbs. The fury of the storm abated somewhat, at least, the trees broke the wind and snow. Soon the tired flock bedded down and Sam and the faithful dog could do likewise if they desired. After long effort, Sam got a fire started but he had trouble with his matches. One hand was so numb, the fingers would not work. But the warmth of the fire made him sleepy and he knew full well to sleep was dangerous. But he was tired and exhausted. Had he been more awake and less cold, he would have known that he was now in Dry Creek and within two hundred yards of the railroad. But the warm rays from a brush fire made both man and dog sleepy.
The boss, fearing the storm, had taken the first train for the desert. Rumors that thousands of sheep had been lost greeted him along the road. Travel was slow for the drifts covered the tracks in many places. Many trains were stalled. His train pulled into Dry Canyon and waited for a long time until the trains on the bench were dug out. While restlessly gazing from the car window, the boss saw a band of sheep browsing in the brush. He thought how lucky the sheepman was to have a band of sheep in such a sheltered spot during the storm. But the train did not start and the afternoon was wearing away. The boss was anxious to reach the next station so he might be off to the desert and his sheep. The report on the train was that they might not start for two or three hours yet and he would reach his destination too late to go to the desert that night. In an agony of distress, he put on his overshoes and fur coat to stroll over to the browsing sheep, for he knew a herder must be near who might be able to tell him something of the storm. Finally, through the deep snow he reached the first sheep and behold it carried his earmark and brand. He searched the flock and they were his sheep but he knew he did not have a band within twenty miles. He called at the top of his voice but no herder answered. He could not understand. He hunted round in the brush and was finally viciously attacked by one of his own dogs that would not allow him to approach a thicket of dense brush. Finally, after long of coaxing, the dog recognized his master. He approached the thicket and there lay Sam, asleep or dead. The fire had long since gone out, and Sam?s face was dark blue. The boss shook him repeatedly. Sam opened his eyes, saw that it was still cold and went back to sleep again. The boss knew Sam was slowly freezing to death. He hurriedly took off his fur coat and covered Sam with it, then rushed to the train for assistance. The owner forgot his sheep. Sam was carried to the baggage car and there given restoratives, consisting principally of whiskey. His dog followed. Finally, after much coaxing, the frozen man came to sufficiently to ask first about the dog and then about the sheep. But Sam?s foot was frozen very badly. When the train started it carried Sam and his dog to the nearest hospital. From there, under the care of good surgeons, he emerged two months later, minus one foot and one hand. His dog that had stayed with him through the storm, hung around the hospital until Sam, in his abbreviated form, emerged to greet him. Then Sam and dog went home ? back to the home ranch. All his bills had been paid and on arrival, he was warmly greeted by the boss and his family. Then that night the boss went to the bunk house and told Sam that as long as he lived he had a job at the home ranch at his old salary. He need herd only when he liked and do odd chores around the ranch at other times.
This arrangement went on for a long time; when one evil day death, by means of the auto route, laid its untimely hand upon the boss. Without warning or chance for preparation, he was carried into eternity. Some days after the funeral, the wife went to town to examine the will and have administrators appointed. From the safety deposit box the will was brought and lo, it had been legally amended to read ?provided that $10,000.00 of my money shall be placed at six percent interest for the benefit of Sam, ?_____,? our faithful herder, and that the interest accruing from this sum shall be paid to Sam ?_________? during the balance of his life, and etc.
When the estate was settled and the sheep sold, Sam decided to retire from active life so he and the dog transferred their abode to California. There they still live, the dog now old, rheumatic and fat, but Sam still healthy and prosperous on his income of $50 per month. He is not worried about inheritance or income taxes, but most of his time is spent eulogizing the sheep industry of the past and the merits of ?Shep,? the dog.