Old Missoula

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

KO Rodeo Ground's Oral Zumwalt - by Lee Hames - Part 4 - 'To Hell Creek, The Big Dry and Back to Sunday Creek - 5,000 Horses'

E-mail Print PDF

To Hell Creek, The Big Dry, and back to Sunday Creek

Sid Vollin had just drawn the cowboys a map in the dirt. Now it was time to move. Their crew traveled north as they began pushing the wild horses of the CBC. By the time they reached Jordan, Montana, they would have gone some 80 miles.

Vollin planned to resupply their wagons when they reached Jordan, a godforsaken spot even by today’s standards. Known for its extreme climate, this area has become a dinosaur hunter’s paradise and is near where the first T-Rex was discovered in 1902.

Hames gave a short description of the daily routine:

“Each morning the cowboys saddled up and waited for Sid to lead them away from the wagon to start the morning circle. No cowboy ever rode in front of or alongside of the wagon boss on a roundup. Sid rode alone in the lead, stopping now and then to send two men off on a circle to look for horses. As each pair was dispatched, Sid pointed out the place where the wagon would be at noon. Each afternoon was a repetition of the morning as day after day we worked our way north to the Missouri, always pushing horses to the west.”

Finally, Sid gave instructions to the bull cook to drive his Hoodlum wagon to Jordan and purchase supplies for the camp. Sid’s son Jack accompanied the bull cook and they hitched four horses to the Hoodlum wagon for the trip.

This gave Hames a new set of duties, since he no longer had a riding partner. Sid told him to help the cook.

“I helped the cook move to the noon camp and after the noon meal, we moved on to the night camp. I carried water, chopped wood and helped do the dishes to the surprise of Dutch Louie. He thought I should be rewarded for my work so he offered to make me something special for dessert. When I jokingly asked for banana cream pie, he shook his head no, because he did not have any bananas, but he said he would make the favorite chuck wagon dessert of all cowboys, known as ‘Spotted Pup.’

“Dutch Louie boiled a big pot of rice, added a couple cans of condensed milk and a pound of raisins, sprinkled some cinnamon and nutmeg on top and let it simmer for awhile. For a dessert cooked over a campfire it was really good and the cowboys loved it.”

That evening as they settled into the new camp, they noticed the bull cook and Jack had failed to return from Jordan and it caused some concern. These two were expected back by midafternoon. Sid didn’t wait long to act.

Hames’ description of what followed next reminds one Mark Twain’s or Bill Nye’s unique western humor.

“Sid looked at me and told me, ‘Catch three fresh horses for Zoomie, Red and me while we are eating our supper. We will have to go look for the wagon. You can go too, Kid, if you want, you probably won’t eat any supper anyway. Old Louie has probably been stuffing you all day.’

“The four of us saddled up and rode away from the wagon at a fast gallop. A short distance from camp we came upon the lead team grazing. We caught the team and examined them but couldn’t see anything wrong. They were still harnessed and hooked together just as they should have been for working. A little farther down the road we found the wheel team and both horses had been completely stripped of their harness but one still had his collar and bridle on. Both of these horses had numerous cuts and scrapes on them.

“Sid looked at the horses and remarked, ‘There must have been one hell of a wreck, we had better be looking for bodies.’

“Around a bend in the road, we came upon the bull cook and Sid’s son coming towards us. The pair of them were in the center of the road, on their hands and knees rolling a small wooden keg in front of them. Their clothes were torn, they had lost their hats and had cuts and scratches all over their faces. The pair looked up and spotted us sitting on our horses in the middle of the road and stopped rolling the keg. With a pair of silly grins on their faces, they said, ‘Hello.’

“Sid’s face was livid and he exploded, ‘What the hell are you doing? What happened and where is the wagon and supplies?’

“The bull cook said, ‘The team ran away and tripped the wagon over but we saved the whiskey.’

“Sid stepped off his horse, carrying his lariat rope and started whacking his son with it. ‘Get on behind the Kid and he will give you a ride to the wagon. Red, you had better give the bull cook a ride back. Zoomie and I will try to figure out what we have to do.’

“Down the road a little further Sid and Zoomie found the wagon lying on its side with the box broken into pieces, the tongue gone and one wheel smashed. It didn’t look like there was any way the wagon could be repaired. The team had evidently dragged it for some distance on its side. As far as they could see down the road there was a line of strewn supplies.

“Zoomie shook his head and said, ‘What do we do now Sid? We have to have a wagon to gather up our supplies.

“Sid said, ‘Lope on back to the wagon and get the cowboys to help you pick up these groceries. I know of a deserted farm near here that used to have a threshing rig and some wagons. They may have left some wagons when they quit the country, and Zoomie, don’t lay a hand on that bull cook, he belongs to me. I need him on this roundup, but when I pay him off, I intend to thump him myself. I will be looking forward to that.’

“Just before dusk, Sid rode into camp grinning from ear to ear. ‘Boys, I hit pay dirt. That old farmer walked away leaving several sets of good harness, some collars, some wagons and a few work horses. We don’t need to take any horses from here, we will just go over, harness those horses, hook up the wagons and come back. One of the wagons has a big water tank and hand pump on it. We may get somewhere and need to haul water for our saddle horses so I am going to take it along. We can hook it behind the Hoodlum wagon, four horses will pull the outfit all right.”

Vollin’s discovery at this abandoned ranch was probably not at all unusual. Montana History is rife with stories of the abandonment of homesteads in eastern Montana. Although Hames doesn’t use the term honyocker in this narrative, this story mirrors the experiences of thousands of families that suffered terribly from drought after being lured west to Montana homesteads by the schemes of shady promoters. With shattered dreams and hopeless prospects many just walked away. See Joseph Kinsey Howard’s, Montana, High, Wide and Handsome.

Here Hames relates that Sid paid a visit to Jordan following this incident and looked into the origin of the keg of whiskey. After locating the source he also gave them a visit.

“He called on the bootlegger and asked, ‘Did you sell any whiskey to an old man and a kid that came into Jordan to buy groceries a couple of days ago? They were driving a brown four-horse team with a big covered wagon.’

“The bootlegger said, ‘I sure did, I helped the man put the keg of whiskey into the wagon myself.’

“‘Did you know they were getting supplies for a roundup crew?’

“‘Sure,’ replied the bootlegger.

“Sid asked, ‘How long have you been in Montana?’

“The bootlegger said, ‘I moved from West Virginia to Jordan, Montana, two years ago.’

“‘Well,’ said Sid, ‘The ranchers up this way have a sort of unwritten law that they abide by very carefully. If they catch anyone knowingly selling whiskey to be taken to a roundup wagon, they deal out two kinds of punishment. First offense is a horse whipping and the second offense is a hanging. No one has been hanged around here for some time but I intend to bring my crew over to call on you when the roundup is over.’ Sid returned to the grocery store from where he watched the bootlegger hurry to the stage stop to buy a ticket to West Virginia.’

“In the meantime, the cowboys had gathered the scattered supplies including the keg of whiskey. Sid promised them they could have the keg for a big party when the roundup was over.”

When the two crews next met at Hell Creek they spent some time frolicking in the Missouri and cleaning up their kits.

“It was a welcome change for all of us to relax, act like boys again and to take a cold bath. . . The cowboys took advantage of the respite to wash some clothes, shave their beards and even trim each other’s hair.”

Before long Vollin had them moving again:

“One evening Sid called the cowboys together and used a stick to draw one of his crude maps on the ground. ‘When we leave here we will go straight up Hell Creek with a crew on either side of the creek and the wagons will be traveling about 20 miles apart. There is a fairly high divide between Hell Creek and the Big Dry. When we get south of Jordan in the Big Dry we will separate the horses into two herds. All of the slicks [unbranded horses] and company horses will go south to the company corrals on Sunday Creek and Rainbow and his crew will trail the branded horses to Glendive for delivery to the government.”

After driving the horses south toward what is known as the Big Dry, the cowboys began the process of sorting them.

“The cowboys drove all of the horses into a large herd in the center of the Big Dry and sat in a circle surrounding the herd while Red, Zoomie, Sid and Rainbow sorted the horses. Each rider quietly eased a horse from the herd to look for brands and as soon as a brand or lack of brand was determined the horse was driven to the east or west for trailing to the proper destination. Other cowboys sat waiting on their horses to receive the animals cut from the herd. The main herd gradually became smaller as the other two herds grew larger and the sorting progressed. Rainbow and his crew would move the herd on the east to Glendive while Sid and our crew would take the herd on the west to the company headquarters on Sunday Creek.”

In order to get a sense of the size of the CBC one can take notice of the distances involved here. By Mt. Highway 200 E., it is 115 miles from Jordan, Montana to Glendive, and 84 miles from Jordan to Miles City, Montana - and the Vollin roundup was only part of the CBC operation.

One article on the CBC states that the rangeland involved was immense, even by Montana standards[1]:

“The grazing land used by the CBC’s stretched from Hardin to Fort Belknap, from Miles City to Wolf Point. At their peak they ran four wagons with headquarters at Sweeney Creek, Fort Belknap, Sunday Creek and Oswego. . . It could be fair to say that any horse eating grass in the eastern half of Montana was fair game for the CBC.”

Here Hames gives a description of the business end of their operation. Vollin seemed to recognize that Hames was more than a budding cowboy when he asked him to help tally the horses they had brought in.

“The CBC Company had about 5,000 acres fenced for a holding pasture near the Sunday Creek corrals and to enter this pasture from the north, the horses had to be driven down a long narrow valley and through a large pole gate. Sid rode up to me, handed me a long leather thong and said, ‘Zoomie tells me you have a head for figures so you can help me count the herd. We will count them as they pass through this big gate into the holding pasture. You get up on the ridge on this side and I will be on the ridge on the other side. You count the horses as they pass through the gate and when you get to 100, tie a knot in this thong and start over.’

“I rode to the top of the ridge and watched as the cowboys strung out the horses to come almost single file down the valley. As each horse passed through the pole gate, I counted it and tied a knot in the thong after each 100 had passed. When the last horse had passed through the gate Sid and I rode off the ridges and met at the gate.

“Sid asked, ‘How many did you get, Kid?’

“I counted the knots in the thong and said, ‘3,411 head.’

“Sid said, ‘Close enough, I got 3,409.’

“I asked, ‘How many were in the herd that Rainbow took to Glendive?’

“Sid said, ‘I would guess he had around 1,500 head. That means we must have had around 5,000 horses in that herd in the Big Dry.’

“Sid kept 12 riders on the payroll after the roundup to help drive the horses to Miles City for shipping. He paid off the other riders and told them to each ride a saddle horse to Miles City and leave it in the Company corrals in town.

“Zoomie asked Sid, ‘When are you going thump that bull cook?’

“Sid laughed, and said, ‘Hell, Zoomie, I was mad enough to kill him on the roundup but I am over that now. He worked hard and did me a good job so we had best let by-gones be by-gones. I gave him the keg of whiskey and he is going to have the crew help him drink it.’

“Sid planned to ship 400 horses per day out of Miles City to eastern canneries. Each morning six cowboys would leave the Sunday Creek corrals with 400 head and drive them to the railroad shipping pens. The following day they would ride back for another herd and with two crews working it still took over a week to get all of the horses shipped. Zoomie, Red and I were the last cowboys on the payroll and got paid off in town after the last horse was in the railroad car.

“Zoomie and Red were planning to go south to rodeo for the winter, clear down to Texas, they said. I begged them to take me along but Zoomie said, ‘No, I promised your Dad that I would send you back to school when the summer was over. Old Dutch Louie made you a box of sandwiches, some jerky and dried fruit, so you won’t have to buy any grub on your way home. Here is a train ticket to Missoula. If you want to join us at the Cremer Rodeo Outfit in the spring, I can get you a job and we can travel together next summer.”



[1] See – The 305 – Era of the CBC – Chazmatic.com

Last Updated on Monday, 17 November 2014 17:30