This weekend I drove up to Watford for the Rodeo finals. And I drove up in the rain. Parts of McKenzie County were pretty dry this year, but every time I went up for a rodeo, I took rain with me. I should be charging more.
But a fall rain brings back a lot of memories. And as I crossed the Little Missouri, I got to thinking about a rain years ago …
It had to be one of the nicest rains in recent memory. Like Grandpa always said, “It always rains right after a dry spell!” It looked like most of the state received an inch or better.
It was the fall round-up on Fort Berthold. If you’re driving along Highway 22 southeast of Mandaree, look off to the east. You’ll see a lone clay butte that stands as a sentinel north of the badlands. The butte is called Eagles Nest. Off to the southeast of Eagles Nest is a ridge of hills that separates Squaw Creek from Moccasin Creek. These are the Kennedy Hills. On the north slope of the Kennedy Hills is an old camp, with a good spring, called the Smith Camp.
One fall we were gathering cattle on Squaw Creek. This was before too many had horse trailers. We had met over on the highway before daylight. The One Bars came with a truckload of people and horses. We had a couple of saddle horses in back of a pickup. The morning gather began below the Spotted Horn store and the herd was held by the rock crossing on Squaw Creek. The One Bars were paired off and moved up to the old corral at the Smith Camp about noon. At about eight that morning, it had started raining pretty good. A few guys had slickers, but most were just wearing wet clothes.
Uncle Hugh was cooking dinner and had cleared out a little space in an old log cabin to eat in. The cabin leaked a little, but was drier than outside and that hot black coffee, beans, and hamburger was warming cold riders up pretty good. The horses were tied to the old broken down corral and our saddles were soaking up a lot of nice rain. We pretty much knew that round-up up was over for the day. It was raining so hard you could hardly hear each other talk in that old cabin. But the stories were flowing like the water from that good spring. The fire was warm, the conversation good, and we were looking forward to trotting back the three or four miles to our outfits on the highway. Maybe we would be home in time to run into town for a game of pinochle, or visit with our best girl. It was great to be young!
Grandpa Jack was the round-up boss. He was riding a black, strip-faced horse called Joey. Grandpa and Joey always rode at a trot. Not a fast trot, but just kind of jog-along. They would leave in the morning at this trot. They would start cutting the herd about a mile from the holding ground at a trot. They would end the day at a trot. I don’t know if I ever saw Grandpa Jack and Joey at a lope, or a walk. Just that ground-eating trot.
Now, Grandpa wasn’t made of sugar. He didn’t mind getting a little wet. But I think one thing he did mind was a young cowboy planning a trip to town during round-up. He knew that if we got to town, round-up was going to be delayed a couple hours in the morning, or maybe a couple days for some of us.
That rain was coming down in sheets. You couldn’t see more than a hundred yards. The horses had swung their butts to the wind and had their heads down by the ground with rain running off our saddles.
Grandpa Jack threw down his last swallow of hot coffee and headed for his horse. We all were pushing and shoving and heading for our horses, hating to leave the warmth of that cabin, but glad to be wrapping the day up several hours early.
Grandpa was the first one in the saddle and we all stared in disbelief as Joey began trotting to the east! East I tell you! The trucks were west. You couldn’t see a hundred yards in that pouring rain. But Grandpa Jack headed east into that wind with his rain running off the brim of his hat and down his neck.
“You young guys ride up on the flat and come down the draw by Yellow Wolf’s. Check by that dam below the ridge. There are always cattle there. We’ll hold herd across from Pollack’s corral. We should be done by dark!”
We all trotted off grumbling a little. But not loud enough for Jack to hear! That would have been foolish.
When we got done that night, I was just as wet as if I had been swimming with my clothes on. My boots were full of water and I was soaked to the skin. And I will tell you what; going to town was the last thing on my mind as I trotted back to the truck in the dark that night.