Chapter 2 – Wyoming Echoes
Memoir of J. Laird Warner. See other chapters here.
Besides our dog and a couple of cats, we children acquired other pets. Perhaps because we had several milk cows and could feed them, the cowboys brought us “pets” they’d found out in the hills. Most of the cattle ranches had no milk cows at all. One little white-tail fawn couldn’t stand domestication, probably the wrong formula, and did not last long. But a young buck antelope became a wonderful pet albeit a great nuisance for he couldn’t be kept out of the kitchen tent and scarcely out of the house when it was completed. We named him Ringold and this name suited his color and markings. The next spring someone caught an elk calf up on the mountains and brought her to us. We called her “Beauty” and that she was – an imperious one. At six months and able to graze she ran with our milk cows up and down the Nowood bottoms. At a year’s age she took a notion to go to school with us. Our trail led out over the ridges that rimmed the Ten Sleep Valley and down the steep “Watermelon Hill”, to the log school-house just east of the Mike Lynch place. We went to school on foot and Beauty stalked beside us.
Some of the kids from up the Ten Sleep Valley came on horseback. One of these, Pappy Austin’s adopted daughter, Lulu, was afraid of “Beaut”, and the elk heifer knew it. Cow elk have no horns but they can strike viciously with their front feet. When the day’s session was over Lulu would come warily out of the school house. If Beaut wasn’t too near by she’d dash to the hitchrack, mount her horse and gallop away. Even Adene and I were not safe unless Berch or Della or some older person was with us. Beaut ran us into the tent one day and struck me thru the tent flaps while I was trying to tie it shut.
Beauty and my dog, Tip, used to play by the hour chasing one another around the river’s cut banks and up and down the narrow trails that led down to the water when the river was low. We had little land fenced in as yet and, of course, no ordinary fence would hold an elk. There was also some danger that someone might shoot her out on the range. So when Milo Burke built an artificial lake and animal park at the Flat Iron Ranch, Dad traded Beauty to him and, as I remember, she was the start of the elk herd Mr. Burke kept for many years. This park, with ten or twelve foot fence around it, was at the mouth of Ten Sleep Canyon and the Bighorn Mountains to the east were Beauty’s natural habitat; but for weeks she paced back and forth along the west side of the enclosure looking towards her home on the Nowood. They told me she wore a trail two feet deep along that fence before she gave up.
My dog Tip (it seems I always owned the dog in the family) appeared to have a sort of clairvoyant faculty when members of the family, particularly my father, were away. Dad might be gone to Billings or to Sheridan for from 20 to 30 days. None of us knew within a week’s time just when he’d be home. But a day or so before his arrival Tippie would go out to a little knoll fifty yards from the tent and lie there, looking down the road with an expectant attitude, for hours at a time.
In those days on the Nowood we only had two saddle horses and I especially remember Old Block, so named because he was branded with the Bay State “Quarter Circle Block” horse brand, and Belva, the little roan mare we’d brought from Nebraska. One summer day I rode Belva over the hills on the school trail and on up the Ten Sleep Valley to visit George and Fanny Sutherland at “The Palace”, as they affectionately and somewhat humorously called their neat little sawed-log house, on their homestead just above the Bay State Ranch. As I rode down through the Bay State pasture on the way home I met Berch going the other way. I was riding bare-back and had no quirt so Belva was taking her time. I complained to Berch about it so he loaned me his spurs. Out over the hills we made it fine but when Belva saw we were really headed for home she wanted to get there! I wasn’t in such a hurry. But with my short legs I couldn’t help gigging her in the ribs with the spurs every bounce I made on her broad back. As she plunged down from the upper flats and into the river bottom she broke into a dead run. I had visions of the mare running under one of the leaning box elder trees around the corrals and knocking me galley-west before I could stop her. As we swept by a clump of big sagebrush I piled off into it. I don’t remember that I was particularly hurt or scratched up by the fall.
Late one fall a skunk got into our cellar. As usual we had a ton or more of potatoes stored there was well as other vegetables and supplies for the winter. For weeks we tried to catch the skunk outside so we could close the small ventilator window and keep him out. All was in vain. Perhaps there were two skunks though we never saw but one at a time. One passer-by (we did have neighbors though the nearest was several miles away) said that the way to handle the “varmint” was to back him into a corner, reach over and pick him up by his tail. So handled, the skunk couldn’t or wouldn’t, “shoot”. It sounded possible but no one ever volunteered to try the method of eviction. One evening we were making a concentrated family effort to solve the problem. Berch was outside ready to close the window if the skunk came out and shoot him if he could get him away from the building. Della was down at the foot of the cellar-way with a pitchfork. Adene and I were up the steps behind her. All at once the skunk ran across the floor towards us. Adene and I scrambled out of there and slammed the celler-way door shut. The door latched itself and left Della trapped with the skunk. She never hesitated but waded in with the pitchfork. In half a minute there was a dead skunk and a very live odor in the cellar. I don’t remember if we were ever able to eat that ton of potatoes or not.
One winter’s afternoon Oscar McClellan, a brother of “Bear George” McClellan from the Red Bank country, came riding in and stayed overnight with us. Berch had a “mouth-harp” (harmonica) which he had learned to play pretty well but up to that time I had taken no particular interest in it. We got Oscar to try the harp and he played it with such consummate skill, “tongueing” the notes and measures that I was fascinated. Next morning, after an early breakfast, I got hold of the harp and blew and blew on it ‘til noon. After dinner I went at it again. By four o’clock Mother was so worn out with the noise she made me climb through the “cubby-hole” into the attic where the sound did not bother her so much and she knew that Dad, cutting wood outside, could hear me through the thinly-boarded gable of the attic. I was too timid to try to play in his presence. By nightfall that day I could play any tune I had ever heard and remembered.
We lived on the Nowood until the spring of 1898. In winter the river would sometimes “freeze-dry”, freeze from the top to the bottom – then break out on the riffles and flood over the top of the ice for some distance where it froze again. This would make fine skating. The low-flow river bed meandered so we could skate a mile or so without getting very far from home. But at night we’d sometimes hear a grey wolf howling in the badlands and our teeth chattered from something besides the cold and each bend we rounded on the way home gave us a shiver of satisfaction.
Pappy Austin’s homestead consisted of a string of forties lying between the Bar X Ranch and Milo Burke’s place, the Flat Iron. Pappy’s field and that portion of the Flat Iron south of the Ten Sleep was irrigated from the same ditch which had its headgate at the mouth of the Ten Sleep Canyon. Mr. Burke had an irrigator, a hot-headed Irishman named Pat Dowdell. Sometimes, when the season was hot and dry and both wanted to use the water, Pat and Pappy had some awful arguments over who would get it. One day, when it had come to the gun-toting stage, Pat with a shotgun and Pappy with his old forty-four six-shooter, each on his side of the line fence, started blazing away at one another. Pat’s shot-gun was ineffectual at the distance and Pappy’s forty-four was nearly equally so. But a couple of slugs landed in Pat’s vicinity and he turned and ran. He tripped over a sagebrush and fell flat. Pappy ran back home, shouting: “Mammy, Mammy, I’ve shot Pat”, then went and threw his gun in the river. The next day when he learned that Pat was not hurt, he made Lulu wade into the cold, clear waters of the Ten Sleep and fish the gun out.
In the summer of ’97 Father’s only brother, Uncle Joe Warner, came out from Nebraska for a visit. Before he left Red Cloud he went out to Dad’s old place south of the Republican River, and with the owner’s permission, picked a lot of red cherries from the trees Dad had planted years before. His wife, Aunt Sybil, canned the cherries and Uncle Joe brought along a dozen or so quart jars of the delectable fruit. What a treat it as! We had only wild fruits, gooseberries and choke cherries. Wild plums were plentiful on “the other side” around Buffalo but did not grow in the Basin. A few years later we found we could grow red raspberries, strawberries, and other garden fruits and even a few hardy varieties of apples. Incidentally, although the Basin is in the north part of the state its climate is as mild or milder than any other section due to its low altitude. The lowest point in Wyoming is the low part of the Basin where the Bighorn River flows into Montana through Bighorn Canyon. That’s not much over 3000 feet elevation as I remember.
When Uncle Joe was ready to go back to Red Cloud in September he wanted a couple of us children to go with him. For some reason Della and I were chosen. Of course, Adene, three years younger than I , was pretty small to leave her Mother and Berch was old enough to be a lot of help hauling timber off the mountain and other jobs, and occasionally he worked out on one of the ranches over on Ten Sleep. So Dad hooked up his freight outfit and the four of us made the trip to Sheridan, camping on the way. One day Uncle Joe caught a little horned toad. When he got to Sheridan he put the toad (lizard) into a small, perforated paste-board box and mailed it to Leon Beall (Aunt Fannie Beall’s only son) who was a medical student at Rush Medical College in Chicago. Later Leon wrote that the “monster” arrived alive and in good shape. Well, he should have, he traveled first class! That was long years before the advent of parcels post.
I remember nothing of the train trip to Nebraska. When we arrived we found we were “out west” people. People, even out on the farms, lived in board houses painted white. We were very homesick. I stayed with Uncle Joe and Aunt Sybil and went to school. Della stayed with other relatives. I believe she went to school part of the time while we were there. Grandpa (Ezra Burchard) Warner was 88 years old. He had had three wives. His first wife, Dad’s mother, died when Dad was just a small boy. Some years later he married again but lost this wife also. The third wife, the “Grandma” I knew, was kindly woman who took excellent care of Grandpa. He nearly outlived her as well.
In the spring Uncle Joe sold out and went to New York State where he bought a grape farm down below Niagara Falls. I stayed at Grandpa’s place until school was out. The Spanish American war was on. I felt quite flattered when people asked me to play “Hot time in the Old Town Tonight”, on my favorite and faithful mouth-harp.
When school was out Della and I did some visiting around before we started back to Wyoming. Out at Aunt Sue (Warner) Dickson’s, six miles north of Red Cloud, my cousin, Paul Dickson, showed me a neighbor’s field growing a wonderful new crop they called alfalfa. I wasn’t too impressed for I remembered the fine strands of alfalfa on the Flat Iron Ranch in Wyoming that had already been there for years. It seems the seed was brought in from California and sown in the irrigated districts of Wyoming and Montana along time before the legume became know and popular in Kansas and Nebraska.
Of the trip back to Wyoming I have no recollection. We must have gone on the Burlington as far as Sheridan. Probably someone met us there with a freight outfit or with a buckboard and team. I don’t think the stage and mail line from Buffalo across the mountains was as yet in operation. But the mail went through, however and whenever it could. Some years later a “true story” appeared in the old Youth’s Companion magazine telling of how Sam Stringer froze his feet while snow-shoeing across the divide in mid-winter and crawled five days and nights on his hands and knees to bring the mail to Ten Sleep. Of course, while saving the mail he was saving his own life as well.
I remember the end of our trip as we came into the Ten Sleep Valley. Four miles below Pappy Austin’s postoffice we had been used to fording the creek, to go south another mile or so to the Nowood home. Instead, just before reaching the ford, we pulled into a pasture and there on the banks of the Ten Sleep stood our Nowood house. The folks, either because they wanted to surprise us or were to busy to write, had not told us of the great ice jam that formed in the Nowood below our place as the river broke up. The whole family had taken to the hills. The flood waters did not wash the house away but it left great cakes of ice three feet thick resting on our door-step. When the jam broke, the water went down and the ice melted. As soon as things dried up, the neighbors, bless them, came in and helped Dad and Berch tear down the log buildings, haul them over to the Ten Sleep and put them up again. And there we were with a cool, clear trout stream flowing through our back yard – quite different from the Nowood with its turbid water, tiny “chubs” and an occasional catfish which we kids caught with strings for line and bent pins for hooks!