REMEMBERING A RUNAWAY
By Steve Moreland, November 11, 2017
Yesterday, Dan Hines from Old West Ultrasound of Martin, South Dakota came to preg check our last bunch of cows for this fall. While visiting at chute-side, I recalled an incident involving his dad, Bill Hines, many years ago.
My wife, Carol, and I were married in June of 1979. We moved to what had been my dad’s summer pasture 18 miles south of Merriman, where we started ranching on our own. There was a pretty nice hay valley on this place. It wasn’t real wide, but was about three miles long. We had just summer grazed this valley since 1967, when Dad purchased the land from the Lester Leach family, but Carol and I put up 102 four-ton stacks of hay that first summer we were married.
We lived in a rather nice 16’ x 80’ trailer house. It was a 1976 model Magnolia, having wooden siding and asphalt shingles which gave it a “regular house” sort of look. I had designed some fairly picturesque skirting for the house, which was made with 1” x 8” rough lumber up and down, with lathe battens covering the cracks between the boards. Our yard fence was made from freshly cut lodge pole pine rails. Our corrals were also made from these rails, and the windbreaks were made from 2” x 6” rough lumber slabs. We had hired Frank Thompson, a carpenter from Martin, South Dakota to help put a new foundation and new siding on the big barn that was on the premises. The barn was 62’ x 66’, and it was 30’ high at the top of the eaves on each side. We had even implicated a big Spearhead on the east side, since that was our brand. This brand itself looked like a Lazy V Bar, with the point of the lazy V facing to the left. This brand, which was white with the siding being brown, itself measured 16 feet tall and 23 feet wide. It is still on this barn, even though we haven’t lived there since 1986. Carol and I thought we had a pretty cowboy looking outfit, and we were duly proud of our Spearhead Ranch.
We had some good saddle horses, and I had acquired four young three-year-old draft geldings to use to feed hay to the 200 cows we were wintering. The work horses were good looking sorrels, well-matched, sound, energetic, and more than a little on the “woofy” side. They had run away with the previous owner before we bought them, and they had run away a couple times already with us. Knowing my new bride was a good Christian lady, I suggested we name these four horses Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. She wisely stated, “Why don’t you name them something else. There might be times we get mad at them.” I was proud of her sensibility and astuteness. We decided to call them “The Rushmore Four”—George, Tom, Teddy, and Abe. After all, it seems perfectly permissible to be disgusted with elected officials. We learned early on that one or the other of us had to be on the lines at all times, while the other one pitched the hay. Usually I would drive them first, when they were fresh and full of ginger. After they’d get settled down and resigned to the task at hand, Carol would drive and I’d pitch the hay.
Carol was also working as a nurse at the Martin hospital. As it was almost forty miles away, she would work an eight hour shift from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., then sleep a few hours at the hospital before working another eight hour shift from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. On the days she worked as a nurse, we’d get our feeding done before she left on the first day, and feed after she got home on the second day.
One evening I got a phone call from the veterinarian in Martin, Bill Hines. He said that he and a partner had just secured a lease on a ranch in Montana. Since it was quite secluded and off the beaten path, they planned to operate this ranch mostly with genuine horse power. He had heard that Carol and I were feeding that winter with a four-horse team, and wondered if he could come down and observe the next day. My first words were that there were a lot of teamsters more adept than me, and if he wanted to learn more correct procedures he should seek out some of these other way more professional teachers. He replied that he would take a chance on watching my efforts. I then told him that Carol would be gone, but if he had at least three hours to spare to help me get all my feeding done, he could come and ride along. Otherwise I probably needed to wait until Carol was there to assist. He assured me that he could spare the three hours, and would maybe bring someone else along also.
My old friend Jim Gray, who lived by the highway bridge on the Niobrara River, had given some good advice when we talked about using teams. Jim was an old-time cowboy. He was also a soldier who had been stationed at Fort Robinson during its heyday, when about 20,000 horses and mules were there. Jim was an enlisted soldier, but he had extra prestige due to his superb horsemanship skills and horse breaking ability. He said that he and other horse breakers had to wear the Yogi Bear army hats, along with military shirts and military jackets with their names above one pocket and “US Army” above the other. From the waist down, they could dress to their own cowboy preference. They could wear denim jeans, their own style of belt, boots and spurs, and chaps of their choice. They were truly cowboy soldiers.
As I had also been in the military, having served six years with the Nebraska Army National Guard, Jim knew I would understand his thinking. He said that to be a good teamster, you need to give a preparatory command before the executive command. In the army, they say, “ATTEN-shun,” “FORWARD, march,” “RIGHT-face,” “COMPANY, halt,” etc. This all made perfect sense to me. From that time on, my command for the horses to go was, “EASY BOYS, giddy-up.”
The next morning I decided to wait until Bill arrived, so he could watch the harnessing process as well as how we fed. Bill is of the quiet type, but he brought along Lyle Nelson. There were two Lyle Nelsons in that area. This Lyle’s wife, Diane, would often ask a phone caller, “Do you wish to speak to the cowboy Lyle Nelson or the farmer Lyle Nelson?” The one that Bill brought along was the farmer Lyle. Bill watched patiently as I harnessed each horse, but Lyle was talking the whole time I was trying to accomplish my mission. He kept saying, “Easy, boys,” and of course, my horses were used to that being their command to move. I had to put a screeching halt to that deal right off the bat, and told Lyle that these horses were pretty skittish, and that the less talking the better.
My standard procedure before putting away the horses after each use was to drive the horses pulling the fore-cart right up to the windbreak near the barn. The posts were spaced just right so that each horse could be tied to a post. The next time they were used, they could all be tied up until the neckyoke and tugs were hooked. I would then get on the cart, which had no seat. The rider would stand on a plank and lean against the front of the cart, chariot-style. After I was ready, with lines in hand, Carol would untie each horse and affix the halter rope to their hames. I’d then drive the four-horse abreast hitch around the corral a couple times until being assured that all was well. Carol would open the gate, and then stand on the cart with me to ride to the feed sled. It usually worked like a charm.
On the day when Bill and Lyle came to observe, I got the horses all in place and hooked to the cart. I was on the cart and instructed them to untie each horse from the posts, and to tie the halters to the hames with a couple half hitches on each one. I then had them step out of the way until I made the usual couple circles around the corral with the team. All seemed well, so I told them to open the gate and step on the cart with me. They did, but one factor was forgotten. With two good-sized men stepping on the cart with me instead of my petite little wife, the extra weight threw the cart off balance. The tongue bounced up into the air, the neckyoke hit Teddy and Abe on their noses, and the race was on. Both Bill and Lyle bailed off the back of the cart, and I alone was left to play Ben Hurr. Away we went lickety-split for about a hundred yards. I had two choices—swing to the right and head out onto the meadow, where a couple high speed half mile circles would for sure happen—or swing to the left, hopefully avoiding Bill’s brand new pickup, and hope like heck that my new four-rail yard fence would stop the wreck. My choice was to the left. Amazingly this plan worked. Outside of breaking the top rail of the yard fence, the whole disaster ended as well as it could.
I backed the team away from the fence. Bill and Lyle walked to where the feed sled was parked; we got hooked up without incident; and the morning of feeding went well. All I did was drive the Rushmore Four while Bill and Lyle pitched all the hay. They probably learned the most of how not to drive horses, but it turned into an enjoyable morning as the cattle got fed.