By Bill Ciccotti
Thomas “Bocker” Hunt and I flew to the Badlands of Montana recently to help former Dunmore resident Jerry Conway drive 500 prime head of beef cattle from his ranch, “The Grandview,” to the Twisted Sister Cattleman’s Association corrals up in the mountains at Moose Lake.
It was a 15-day adventure never to be forgotten. Growing up, every little kid wanted to be a cowboy. But most never ended up in the saddle. Well, Bocker and I did.
From Buffalo Bill Cody to The Lone Ranger, cowboys own a distinctive righteousness in American culture. There’s something about the spectacle of cowboy wrangling dangerous animals and their courageous image that continues to capture our imagination. Rawhide and Rowdy Yates, The Magnificent 7, Butch & Sundance, and Bocker and Bill. There’s nothing like riding a fine horse in the mountains of a new country.
And there we were, herding cattle through the wild Montana wilderness. A land unspoiled by man but touched by God Himself surrounded us. We spotted several big buffalo along the way; free range American bison of pure muscle still roam Montana.
We traveled the dusty trail swinging our lariats and edging the cattle onward. It was long, hard, hot and backbreaking work. And yes, it was never easy. But none of the good stuff ever is. The cow dogs worked hard as they kept nipping at stray cattle’s feet and helped us herd the little doggies along.
We got up at sunrise, ate a plate full of beans, went to bed at sunset, and rode the saddle all day. Sometimes at night, Donny would bring his guitar out and sing cowboy songs for us while Cuffer stirred black molasses coffee. He would make it thick and drop an old horseshoe into the pot. If it floated, then the coffee was ready. It tasted like boot polish but kept you awake on night watch.
Chief John Black Night sharpened his bowie knife on a whetstone and stared longingly at Donny’s hair. “Not scalp anyone in long time,” he noted. Looking at me he smiled, “You, I not touch Bill. Most of your hair, is gone.”
Eddie Tall Bear walked by and patted my shoulder, “He just kidding.” Chase Two Knife laughed, “Yes. He’ll scalp you too Bill.”
Then they all went to sleep. Bocker was on the night watch with Mad Mike and Rollo Meehan, so I was on my own. I kept my Henry repeater next to me, just in case.
Nine days in, we spotted a magnificent Grizzly bear. Five hundred pounds of pure majestic muscle, or more. He was proud, free, and a true king of his domain. He looked over the herd but figured, 19 cowboys with Henry rifles wasn’t worth the effort.
He did stand tall on two feet and shook his slobbery head, then got back down on all fours. I got a nice picture of him as he ambled into the trees. I used a zoom lens. I wasn’t going to get close enough to pet him. What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. Except a bear. A bear will kill you. A bullet might kill him but he’s taking you with him.
One evening, we were settling in. Cuffer was ladling out some of his Mulligan stew. A little of this and not much of that. As the hands ate and rested, Cuffer told us, “I lost my ring in the stew fellas.”
Rollo took a bite and cringed, “I found it Pat. It’s a little bent up.” Pat was able to force it back on. For the rest of the drive, he never lost it again. The drive was great. Every morning I woke up glad my boots were on.
When we eventually delivered the herd, we’d only lost a few cattle along the long drive. We celebrated our good fortune on our last night together at the River House Roadhouse and blew off a little trail dust steam. We had earned it.
Ryan Andrews yelled, “Whisky for my men and beer for our horses.” Friendship and hard work were toasted among friends and fellow cowboys. For that’s what we truly were. Cowboys one and all.
I’ll say one thing for sure, those native American cowhands were fantastic horsemen and great herders. I was proud to ride along with all of them. I truly was.
But we didn’t ride long enough, far enough or deep enough into the western stars. For too soon the drive was over and Bocker and I boarded a plane. Keith flew us back to civilization and the draw of the big city with all its modern comforts.
But what is the greater beauty? TV and cellphones, or clear mountain streams and infinite stars shining brightly all night.
In the big city, you don’t see their multitude. And city lights never burn as radiantly as those mountain stars. I think Bocker and I were born too late. We missed the wild-wild west. Fast cars or fast horses. Campfires or fireplaces with widescreen TVs mounted on top. Amazon or the general store. Texting or laughing around the campfire. Which one is better? You tell me. If you feel like we do, go west young man. Don’t be afraid to follow your dream. Go for it hard and pure and never surrender.
Courage is being scared to death and still saddling up anyway. If you haven’t fallen off a horse, then you haven’t been riding long enough. Every man should know his limitations. Then push beyond them. Cowboy life is simple. Cowboys need nothing more than a hat, a steed, and the will to ride. Anybody can fall off a horse. But it takes a real man to get back on that stallion and ride after you tumble. If you get thrown from your horse, get back on, unless you landed on a cactus; then you can roll around and scream.
Sooner or later, we all wear out. But it’s better to be a has-been that a never-was. When the leather is scarred, there’s always a great story to tell. Ride fast and free amigo. And always drink upstream from the herd. If you climb in the saddle, be ready for a wild trip. And friend, ride like there’s no tomorrow, because you never know if there will be one! Here’s to the cowboys, the riders of the Houlihan. And the little kids inside us who still want to be cowboys.