Page images

state of their morals, winds up with a reference to their hoped-for destination, and then sets the dog on them. The pastor has certain inhibitions of speech; the herder has none, unless he is tongue-tied, and few are. But after all the herder and the pastor speak much the same language, only differently arranged.

It is necessary, however, to differentiate between the sheep herder of fact and the shepherd of romance. The latter is a gay and poetic figure, the former anything but. The shepherd leads his flock with a song, the herder follows his with profanity. The shep herd reclines on a mossy bank beneath a green tree and carols a roundelay. The herder looks carefully about to make sure that he won't sit on a cactus, eases his wearied limbs to the unshaded hillside, and gives his vocal organs a well-earned rest.

[ocr errors]

But, to descend from the shepherd of romance to the shepherd of fact, there is yet a great difference between him and the sheep herder roughly speaking, about a thousand dollars a year. The shepherd, in modern life, is the man who has charge of a comparatively small band of pure-bred sheep. He tells the hired man what to give them and he tells the boss what to give him. The sheep herder is in charge of a large band of sheep, but he does n't tell anybody anything. If he has anything to say, he tells it to the sheep.

There is another marked difference between the shepherd and the sheep herder. It is best told in the words of an old Scotch herder in Montana. He said that in the old country, when he drove his band of sheep down to the lower pastures at the approach of winter, people would exclaim, 'Here comes the noble shepherd and his flock!' Out here, on the other hand, when they saw him coming they would

say, 'Here comes that low-lived herder and his bunch of woolies!'

In Biblical times the owner of flocks was a nomad. He had his herdsmen, but he moved with them from place to place as the need for fresh grass dictated, taking with him his family and all he possessed. To-day the sheep owner is as stationary as any Corn Belt farmer, but the herder is still a nomad. A band of sheep will take all the feed within a reasonable distance in about a month or six weeks. Then the sheep must be moved to fresh pastures. Since the ranch buildings are usually situated near the centre of the sheepman's range, and since the sheep swing around the edges of the range in the course of a year, the herder may be likened to a planet swinging around its central sun. All this necessitates a high degree of mobility for the herder and his belongings, and the answer to this is the sheep wagon, the most comfortable home a bachelor could desire.

But before describing this it ought to be said that not all herders have a wagon. In fact, there are many different kinds of herding. There is herding from the ranch, which means that the herder lives in the ranch buildings, takes the sheep out to graze during the day, and returns them to the corral at night. Most herders have a taste of this sometime during the year, usually during the winter. Some herders are on government reserves and have to bed their sheep in a different spot every night, and have a pack horse with which to carry their bed and provisions from place to place. In some parts of the country the herder has a team hobbled out near the wagon and does his own camp tending - that is, gets his own provisions, by the novel method of propping up the front end of his wagon, detaching the front half of the running

gears, and jogging away comfortably to where his provisions await him. But in most places a herder caught trying to take the front wheels off his wagon would quickly receive free transportation to some state institution where he would be assigned to a small but well-upholstered room and given a toy wagon to take apart to his heart's


Again, there is a great difference in the kind of country herded over. There is mountain herding and there is plains herding, and there is herding on wooded slopes. But to herders who cannot keep track of all their sheep on the open prairie it must ever remain a mystery how a herder can keep track of any of them in the woods, where he will not see the whole bunch together from one day's end to the other.

But sheep nature is doubtless sheep nature the world over, and herders all over the West have much the same problems to solve, much the same life to live, whether they herd on the mountains or on the plains, or in the depths of the forest. And, wherever he is, the herder is the foundation stone of the sheep business or the bottom rung of the social ladder. It all depends on the point of view.


It has always been hard for me to understand why the big city newspapers publish daily weather reports and forecasts, for the city dweller can have only an academic interest in the weather at best. In the morning he leaves a warm, comfortable house, walks a block or two in whatever weather happens to exist, enters a street car or 'L,' and is driven to the door of his place of business. In the evening he reverses the process, braving the weather for perhaps ten minutes

before reaching the shelter of home. It may well be that the paper publishes an account of the weather simply as news, because the city man might never notice what the weather was unless it were called to his attention in this way.

The country dweller, however, being more a child of Nature, is more attentive to her moods. The farmer's interest in the weather is proverbial; that of the farm hand is still more intense and personal; but the sheep herder's interest in it eclipses them all. For him the weather is not an academic subject, but the most practical subject there is. It governs the actions of the sheep and his own comfort. It dictates his food and his clothing. In the midsummer he may go modestly clad in shoes, shirt, and overalls. In the winter he is still more modestly clad in two pairs of trousers and a heavy sweater, to say nothing of a sheep coat. From sunrise to sunset, every day in the year, he must take the weather, whatever it may be.

In fact the weather is such an allimportant factor in a herder's life that herding through the four seasons of the year is almost like holding four different jobs in succession. Of course they shade into each other by imperceptible gradations, as day passes into night, but in their essence they differ almost as much as day and night. Some herders prefer one season, some another; but by unanimous consent the worst season of all is the verdant springtime.

Countless poets have expressed the emotions aroused in them by the sight of Nature putting on her mantle of green again. Countless herders have done the same, but here the resemblance ceases. From a herder's standpoint the green grass is the villain of the piece. Imagine a child particularly fond of candy, who has been deprived of it for six months or so, and then

picture him turned loose in a candy shop and told to help himself. You can easily figure out how much control you would have over him for the next half hour. After he had had his fill, he would be amenable to reason again. This is precisely what happens to the sheep. They have been on dry feed all winter, whether hay or grass cured on the ground, and then, with the coming of spring, they get the chance to eat tender green grass once more. No wonder they go wild. But the trouble is that the grass comes gradually, its growth still further retarded by cold spells and late frosts. The sheep, however, smell the green before it is fairly above the ground, and they run everywhere searching for a place where it is plentiful, naturally without finding it. Even when the grass is an inch or two high it seems impossible for them to get their fill of it. They crop a mouthful here, run a few steps, grab another mouthful, and run a few steps more. They always seem to think that the grass is plentiful just beyond them, and they lose no time in getting there. Ordinarily a ewe will graze first on one side of her, then on the other, and then move forward a step; but when hunger for green grass drives her on she will take four or five steps between each two bites. That carries the bunch forward at an unusual rate. The period of running lasts until green grass is so plentiful that the sheep can get their fill of it every day, the length of the period depending on how fast the grass grows and how many setbacks it has, which in turn depend wholly and exclusively on the weather.

If anyone thinks that a sheep can't run, just let him try to head one off. When 'running' in spring, the entire bunch moves faster than the herder can walk. One herder told me of an experience he said he had with a bunch of antelope. His sheep passed them on

the run, so just for an experiment he threw the antelope into the bunch as they loped past. The antelope kept up for a while, but the pace told on them and soon they were in distress. Their sides were heaving, their flanks dripped with sweat, and their tongues lolled out till they were in danger of being stepped on. Finally, the herder said, he was unable to stand the sight of their suffering any longer, so he cut them back and left them to throw themselves on the ground and recuperate. Like the rest of us, he had always believed that the antelope were the fastest things on the plains, but now, he said, he knew better. A footsore herder would listen to a story like this, and it is not necessary to vouch for its truth. But there can be little doubt that many a jack rabbit has been trampled to death through sheer inability to keep ahead of some old ewe looking for green grass.

It is not only the running, however, that makes sheep difficult to handle in the spring, but the fact that they spread out so quickly. At ordinary times, sheep have a very strong herd instinct. A small boy was asked by his teacher how many, out of five sheep in a field, would be left if one jumped over the fence. He answered correctly, 'None.' 'Why, Johnny,' remonstrated the teacher, 'one from five leaves four.' 'Well,' replied Johnny, 'you may know arithmetic, but you don't know sheep.' Of course it is only this strong herd instinct that makes it possible for two or three thousand sheep to be handled by one man. In fact, certain breeds of sheep that do not have this instinct so strongly cannot be run on the open range at all, but must be kept in woven-wire pastures. However, when the green grass is coming, even the close-herding sheep seem to throw off their inhibitions temporarily, and it seems as if every ewe,

forgetting the rest of the bunch, grazes straight out in front of her. The sheep spread out much faster than the herder can throw them together. Of course the dog can turn them, but even he has his limits and can be used only so much. It usually takes the assistance of a saddle horse in addition to keep the whole bunch in one county.


Besides the running, splitting, and spreading in spring, there are other factors that induce in the herder the belief that he has mistaken his vocation. The frost has come out of the ground, creek bottoms are soft, every low place is muddy, and some are boggy. The sheep are in the poorest physical condition of the entire year. They have stood the strain of the winter's cold, the green grass has weakened them temporarily, they are heavy with lamb, and the muddy going is the proverbial last straw. Sheep get bogged down in muddy spots and wait patiently for death or the herder. They try to cross streams in deep places, their wool takes up water like a sponge, and they are unable to climb out on the other side. The really weak sheep will run themselves ragged when headed away from the wagon, and then, when they are turned toward it, they simply drop from exhaustion. It is no uncommon thing to find the weakest ewe in the bunch at the very tip of the lead, and quite often she finds that she has lost her return ticket.

One of the peculiar things about sheep is the extraordinary facility with which they take leave of life, and the great variety of ways in which they make their exits. You might almost accuse them of having a morbid strain.

It so happens that several methods of dying are in vogue during the

spring months, and often the heaviest loss of the year occurs at this time. When the snow first softens, the draws or swales are filled with slush, which may have the appearance of snow; but when a ewe tries to cross, she finds herself in a medium where she can neither swim nor struggle through. I have seen four sheep drowned in slush within twenty feet of each other. They also get stuck in soft creek bottoms and either drown or chill to death. A weak ewe may be unable to make it back to the wagon, and the herder will throw the sheep that way next day to pick her up, only to find her missing or killed by coyotes. With the sheep running as they do at this time, a small bunch may cut off unseen by the herder and lose some of its number by coyotes before the remainder are picked up. At any time a coyote may sneak up a draw and kill a ewe before his presence is discovered. In addition there are certain weeds that are deadly poison to sheep, and even wet grass after a rain may occasionally bloat one. Sometimes a number may be killed by licking too much alkali along the creeks. Besides this they are subject to all the diseases of the organs, as other creatures are, with a few peculiar to themselves thrown in for good measure. There are so many ways in which sheep can and do die that it is a wonder any of them are left alive.

The most peculiar method of all is that called 'dying on their backs.' When horses or dogs roll, they either roll all the way over or roll back to the position from which they started; they are unable to balance themselves on their spine, as it were. But when a sheep rolls and reaches a position with its legs pointing upward, it is often unable to complete the turn, especially if it has a heavy coat of wool, as is the case in spring. The reason for this is

that a sheep's legs, being very thin, are not able to exert any pull to one side or the other and thus aid the sheep in righting itself. A horse's legs, being long and heavy, can exert a powerful leverage on his body and turn it, but when a sheep is on its back its centre of gravity lies wholly within it, and there is no leverage it can bring to bear. Its only chance is to twist itself violently, in the hope that some movement may turn it on its side. If unsuccessful in this, the unnatural position for some reason causes gas to collect in its body and it begins to bloat. Finally the pressure of this gas on its heart and lungs becomes so terrific that these organs cease to function. If the ewe is found at any time before life is extinct and is turned over on her stomach, she will get up, stagger off, and deflate, looking meanwhile like a misshapen balloon.

There is a great variation in the time it takes a sheep to die on her back. She may be dead in fifteen minutes, then again she may be alive at the end of an hour or more; it all depends on how full her stomach was to start with. But die she will, unless discovered and turned right side up. Sheep are especially apt to roll when the sun comes out warm after a rain. The herder may turn over half a dozen sheep in a day, when conditions are such as to make them roll, and he has to be eternally on the lookout for them. The price of their lives is his vigilance.

Finally, to fill the herder's cup of woe to overflowing, the days in spring are interminably long. They approach in length the farmer's eight-hour day

eight hours before dinner and eight hours after. This has one single advantage. It gives the herder time mentally to reshape his future life, so that he will never under any circumstances herd through another spring.


At the latter end of spring comes lambing, and after that shearing. Continuing now with the herding year, we come to summer, a season differing radically from the other three as regards herding. All the rest of the year the herder leaves the wagon in the morning, carrying a lunch, and does not return to it until evening. His evening meal is apt to be the principal one of the day, and he does most of his cooking then. But in summer every day is really broken into two working days. The reason for this is that the sheep will not graze during the intense heat of a summer's midday, but will run to the nearest water and lie beside it till late in the afternoon. Consequently in summer the wagon is placed beside a stream or water hole, and the day's schedule is somewhat as follows:

The sheep leave the bed ground about five o'clock, or shortly after sunrise, and go out to graze, usually working against the wind. The herder snatches a hasty breakfast and overtakes them with the aid of his saddle horse. The band grazes until the sun gets uncomfortably hot, and then some of them start for water. They do not all go at once, but fall gradually into long lines. Usually they follow deep dusty paths already made by thirsty stock, and the long lines of sheep smoking down to water on a hot summer's day are as characteristic of a sheep country as the sheep themselves.

When the sheep reach water, they drink and then huddle together in large groups, usually with their heads beneath one another's sides. That is, as you look at the bunch you can see only their backs, their heads being down near the cool wet sand, where there is protection also from the mosquitoes and flies. A few may lie down,

« PreviousContinue »