THE WAYFARING STRANGER
By Steve Moreland, November 21, 2017
It was early afternoon of a day late in May in about 1976, give or take a year. My dad, Bob Moreland, and I were on our way home after helping brand calves at Bill Arnot’s ranch which was located ten miles west of Merriman, Nebraska. We were in a pickup pulling a stock trailer with our two horses riding along. We were about a mile west of Merriman heading east. A man on a black horse was riding in the barrow pit traveling westward. He was leading a small pack mule, with a Great Dane dog walking along beside.
Dad was at the wheel, and as we drove by the rider he asked, “Shall we see where that guy is going?” The idea sounded good to me, as I was always intrigued with horses and pack animals. Dad found a spot to turn around the pickup and trailer, and we stopped to visit with the rider.
The man on the black mare was a pleasant chap. He was wearing a striped denim railroader’s cap, and introduced himself as Dennis Beaumont from Litchfield, Nebraska. He proclaimed to be just riding west with no particular destination in mind. He thought if things went well he might end up in the Jackson Hole or Yellowstone area, but meantime was just enjoying seeing the country from the back of a horse. We had a nice little visit with Dennis and wished him well before Dad and I again headed for our ranch east of Merriman.
The next morning dawned as another glorious spring day. Dad and I arose early to get our horses ready to go to another branding, this time at the Garould Fairhead ranch located five miles north of Merriman. Working the calves went well with a nice-sized crew of about 25 cowboys, cowgirls, and kids. We were nearly done with the largest herd of cow/calf pairs east of the highway, when I glanced up from the branding activity to see a rider on a black horse followed by a dog coming across the hills from the west. Sure enough, it was Dennis Beaumont in his railroader’s cap, riding bareback on his black mare. He jumped off, tied his horse to the fence, and came over to where he had spotted me. We said our “howdies,” and then he launched into a tale of woe.
Dennis had decided to camp the previous night under a railroad trestle, allowing his horse and mule to graze in the right-of-way. (I wondered “why” way back then, and am still today wondering “why.”) A train had rumbled through during the night. The little pony mule Gus happened to be up in the middle of the tracks, was wearing hobbles, and just happened to get run into and killed. Dennis was quite heart-broken and bummed out. When morning came, he left his saddle and camping gear stashed under the railroad trestle, and rode into Merriman to find solutions. He had remembered the names of Dad and me, so called Dad’s phone number. Mom answered, and told Dennis where we were. He had ridden his black mare “Beauty” out to the branding to see if we had any ideas.
For the moment, Dennis loaded his horse into our trailer. The branding crew gathered equipment, and we traversed a couple miles west of Highway 61 to work a group of smaller calves, which were the latest to be born that spring. After completing this task, it was dinner time. As all branding meals go, it seemed to be almost a competition amongst ranch wives to see who could furnish the most delightful banquet. Gladys Fairhead came through with flying colors, and we ate a feast fit for kings.
My plan for the rest of the day was to go fix fence on our summer range, which was the old Lester Leach ranch 18 miles south of Merriman. I told this to Dennis, and he opted to ride along and help. My dad took our two ranch horses home with him, and also Dennis’ black mare. The Great Dane canine chose to go with Dennis and me. Our first stop was to go west of town to pick up Dennis’ saddle and other gear. As we rode along, my passenger pointed out the gate to go through. He got back into the pickup and we hadn’t traveled far, when he pointed to a brown blob along the railroad track. Quite overcome with emotion, he pointed and said, “There lies Gus.” There wasn’t much left of poor old Gus. With Dennis taking it rather hard, I assumed there had been a longtime camaraderie between him and Gus. I asked how long he had owned the little mule. He answered, “I just bought Gus three days ago, from Dan Franke in Valentine.”
We had a productive afternoon going over boundary fence. I still remember Dennis helping to pound in a lot of “steeples,” which was his term for the staples of life of a fence fixer. The dog enjoyed frolicking through the forage and flowers.
Dennis and I arrived back at my parents’ Green Valley Hereford Ranch after dark, but in time for a nice supper prepared by my mother. He spent the night in our guest bedroom, and the next morning I ran in our remuda of horses. I had some trading stock, and might just happen to have something that would work as a pack horse for him.
I had a young three-year-old roan Spanish Barb gelding that I had acquired from Ilo Belsky of Eli. He was green broke and gentle, and I priced him to Dennis for $125. His packsaddle was not too functional, so I traded him a better one and also a set of more usable panniers. While working for a hunting outfitter in Wyoming, I had learned a good box hitch to tie down a pack. This was showed to Dennis, and he was soon ready to head down the road to the west. He looked quite carefree and content, mounted on his black mare, leading a roan packhorse, all under the escort of a Great Dane. Even though he was wearing a striped denim railroader’s cap instead of a cowboy hat as would have been my preference, I was still more than a little bit envious of his freedom and the adventure that he was embarking upon.