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On the Road with Rocklands Cattle, by Jack Sammon
Photo: Boss Drover Johnny Stewart
It was back in Nineteen Seventy Five, I was camped at the Gregory Hotel in the Gulf Country of North Queensland, when a drover by the name of Johnny Stewart came into the bar, he was going on a droving trip and was looking for some ringers (cowboys) to go with him. Well I was not doing much at the time; I had just pulled out from working on a station nearby and thought a change of scenery would do me the world of good so I signed on with him, not realising what I was letting myself in for at the time. Johnny had contracted to drive a mob (herd) of two thousand three hundred cows and calves from Rocklands Station to Tanbar Station situated in the Channel Country of South Queensland, a trip of around nine hundred miles.
Of course Johnny was too wise to let us know this when he employed us, it was hard enough those days to find men willing to go droving at the best of times, it was not the distance that worried us but to take cows and calves on the road was another story. When droving steers or dry cattle they can travel around ten miles a day but cows and calves have to be nursed along from six to eight and as the cows are calving along the way the calves have to be carried in a calf cart or killed. Cow and calf droving is a heart breaking job that ringers won't take on if they can possibly help it.
We left Rocklands on the twenty third of May following the Georgina River with five men with the cattle a horse tailer (wrangler) and the cook, if you could call him that, driving the truck pulling the calf cart. Now boss drovers in those days were not renowned for their generosity in supplying food and Johnny had a reputation of being one of the meanest. If one wants to lose weight just do a trip with Johnny Stewart I am sure Jenny Craig could learn a thing or two off him. We lived on salt beef, damper, and hot black tea.
For the first week we had to double or triple our watch at night, with two or more riders doing half the night, each riding around the cows to settle them down and break them in to the routine of being held on camp at night -- so sleep was another luxury we all missed out on at that time. To make matters worse, while shoeing a horse it struck me on the head splitting it open and not having any first aid equipment in the camp I had to use a handful of flour to stop the bleeding and wrap an old shirt around my head. I can tell you by then I was beginning to regret that I had ever met Johnny Stewart.
As the weeks dragged on the cows settled down to the dull routine of the road finding their positions in the order of the drive, the strongest walking out in the lead, having to be held back and the wing spreading out at the sides in search of grass while the tail were struggling along behind with their calves trying to keep up. We sure wore some horses out trying to keep them all together, and at night we had to keep our wits about us as cows that had lost their calves that day would try and sneak away to get back to where they saw them last.
One day on dinner camp (noon break) a cow hid her calf in some bushes which we did not notice until we got to night camp five miles further on. That night the cow gave us a lot of trouble trying to get back to her calf so we had to tie her down until morning. I was then given the job of taking her back to find her calf and bringing her back to the mob that was moving on the next stage. Well that old cow may have been in a hurry to get away the night before but once I started her back she was not in a rush to go anywhere, she just mooched along taking her time, so it took most of the morning to get back to where she had hidden her calf. Once we found the calf she definitely was not interested in getting back to the mob in a hurry; it took us until ten that night to catch them up, just in time for me to go on watch. I know that I called that cow and all her progeny a lot of uncomplimentary names that night.
While crossing those vast plains near Boulia, a drover called Bill Cousins caught up to us with a mob of steers that he was taking to Brightlands station. Being steers they were able to walk much faster than we could and as they passed us I remember looking over at them wishing I was with them instead of being stuck behind the slow old cows we had. In my mind I imagined how a sailor must feel as he sat on the deck of an old tramp steamer and watched a big luxury ocean liner sailing majestically past him.
After being on the road for over two months we got to a station called Davenport that was owned by the same company as Rocklands, the owners decided to hold half of the mob there, as the cows with calves were getting too weak to travel much more, leaving us to carry on to Tanbar, a further three hundred miles on down the road with the stronger cattle. As we only had twelve hundred head there was no need to have as many men with the cattle so the cook pulled out and I took on the cooking job.
Life was much easer from then on and we only had one bit of excitement when the truck broke down and we had to carry on with packhorses. It was my job to pack the horses and not knowing which horse was trained to carry the water canteens, I put them on the wrong horse. Water canteens are five gallon containers that are carried on each side of a pack saddle and if they are placed on a horse that is not broken into carrying them and the water sloshes in the canteen, it is likely to frighten the horse causing it to bolt and buck with the pack. Well when I threw the canteens on that old horse and strapped the swags on to and let him go, he just headed for the horizon at a great rate of knots, scattering the pack saddle swags and canteen all over the scenery. After Johnny Stewart explained to me in no uncertain manner which horse to pack in the future, we got packed up and on our way.
Other than that episode, the rest of the trip was quite uneventful and we finally delivered at Tanbar Station on the seventh of September after almost four months on the road, travelling nearly the length of the state of Queensland, only passing one town on the way and maybe twenty or so stations (ranchers). I swore that I would never go take a droving trip again, but the next year I was back on the road again with another mob of cattle.
© 2001, Jack Sammon
Talawanta, by Jack Sammon
Photo: Jack Sammon learning to ride at Talawanta 1949
When my father got back from the Second World War he took a job as manager on Talawanta Station that was situated in the Gulf of Carpentaria of Australia, a cattle station fifteen hundred square miles in area and over one hundred miles from the nearest town. The homestead was located by a picturesque billabong (water hole) covered with water lilies, abundant with waterfowl and fish and shaded by Paper Bark and Bauhinia trees. A small group of Aboriginals camped along the banks of the billabong, they being the only people living on the station apart from my family consisting of my father, mother, brother and myself. The aboriginal men worked as stockmen for my father and the women worked around the house, doing housework, tending the garden and milked the goats.
Jack and Roger Sammon in the Branding yard at Talawanta 1950
Most of the year Father would be camped out in the mustering camp away from home for months at a time working cattle out on the run, leaving Mother to look after the station homestead with only the aboriginal women and children for company. As we did not have a telephone or radio for commutation with the outside world and not having a motor vehicle we were unable to visit our nearest neighbour who lived over twenty miles away. For a woman born and raised in a big city Mother must have felt very isolated, in the first twelve months that we lived on Talawanta she did not leave the homestead or speak to an other white woman for eleven months, but Mother always said that she was too busy to feel lonely, she had to be cook, storekeeper, bookkeeper, and adjudicator in the aborigines' many family disputes as well as being a mother and a wife. Although we lived miles from civilization I remember that every evening Mother always dressed for dinner, putting on her make up and high heel shoes before sitting at a fully laid table, even when she was alone, Mother believed in keeping up her standards.
Although the life we lived on Talawanta might seem hard and primitive by today’s standards, our life was filled with much fun and laughter and we made our own entertainment. As children growing up in the bush life was one great adventure, we swam and fished in the billabong, went out on walkabout with the aboriginal families hunting for bush tucker (food) and we were always at the cattle or horse yards when the stock camp was working near the station. When the days were over and darkness enveloped the silent bush, Mother would sit and read to us by the light of a hissing carbide lamp and we would escape in to the worlds of Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist or Long John Sliver.
Jack and Roger Sammon riding goats with Mother at Talawanta homestead 1949
One highlight of our life at Talawanta was when the mailman called, he came every two weeks from Normanton driving a old truck loaded with mail bags and stores that he delivered to the stations on his route. He also brought with him all the news from the outside world as well as the gossip. During the wet season, which lasted three or four months of the year, the mailman had to bring the mail by pack horses as the roads were too boggy and flooded for a truck to get through, once while swimming the Flinders River one of his horses was taken by a crocodile.
Jack and Roger Sammon with Aboriginal stockmen and children at Talawanta 1950
The time of most excitement and happiness was when the men from the stock camp returned to the station after being away for months. Fifty or so horses, with Father riding in the lead, stockwhip draped over his arm, ten or twelve horsemen behind and pack horses with their high swaying loads would materialize out of the surrounding bush, the sound of horse bells, hobble chains and camp gear jingling on the air mixed with the joyful cries of the aboriginal women and children as they ran to greet their men folk, and Mother standing on the veranda in her reserved manner watching the excitement all around her. At night the music of didgeridoo, aboriginal songs and laughter drifted up from their camp down by billabong joined with soft sounds of the sleeping bush. Mother always referred to the time spent on Talawanta as the best years of her life.
© 2001, Jack Sammon (August 22, 2001)
(Posted also in the collection of poems about
Cowboy Moms and Grandmoms)
Jack Sammon learning to ride at Talawanta 1949
Roger Sammon fishing at the billabong 1950
Jimmy and little Jimmy with some bush tucker 1952
Jack Sammon lives near Bathurst in Australia. His poetry and stories depict the life he lived growing up and working as a stockman and drover (cowboy) on the vast cattle stations (ranches) of Northern Australia, before the country (range) was enclosed with fences. Read his poetry here at the BAR-D and on his web site.
L'il Ernie, by Rusty Calhoun
In the 1950's a lot of flatlanders were finding their way to Colorado looking for ranch work. It might have been the silver screen cowboys that influenced this migration. Ranch work in the Rockies seemed romantic as all get out -until winter came along! It seemed there were more cowboy hopefuls than there were ranch jobs available. But, there was always work for a willing hand on my family's ranch, the B-V in Clear Creek County, Colorado. One such fellow, a small and boyish looking chap who was real sensitive to being mistaken for a youth, wandered up the ranch road one Spring day looking for work. It wasn't long until he proved himself to be a good hand, and for 20 years he cowboyed for us - but only in the Spring and Summer. Here's that story.
Photo: Rusty Calhoun on her horse Diamond, taken the year L'il Ernie came to work on the ranch.
After the long drives were over most cowboys settled in and worked for the brand. They mostly had year round work that way, even though some of the jobs like haying and mending fences seemed more like sod busters work. But, they tolerated it because most of the year was spent working the herd and the horses. No ranch could survive without the savvy cowboy - he was the fella that built the cattle industry on his hard work and knowledge, but, an all 'round "ranch hand" was also highly valued for their willingness to do maintenance and chores that were shunned by most cowboys.
Such a hand was Li'l Ernie who walked in, up the ranch road, one spring morning. He was carrying his kack upside down on his shoulder with a bag of tools hanging from the pommell. As it swung back and forth to his gait, clankin' could be heard. A couple of the cowboys, sitting outside the tool
room, repairing winter weary tack, waved him in and asked if he was looking for work.
"Well, what the hell would I be doing," the feisty little guy snarled.
"Could be lookin' for the schoolyard, sonny," one of the boys taunted.
The little guy dropped his kack, bristled , formed two tight little fists, and looked up at 6 foot tall Red, then spouted: "Them's fightin' words, carrot top."
"Waaaaal", Red drawled with a big ol' grin, "them ain't exactly friendly words yer' spewin' back, fella. Why don't we just settle down, palaver a bit, and see if we can't figger out what ya need."
With the bomb diffused Ernie settled down and soon was telling the boys how he came to be at the ranch looking for work. Seems he had come west from Indiana where his people were farmers, but he had always tended the stock, and figured a dairy operation wasn't so far off from running a herd of cattle. Wasn't long before he found out the difference, and decided that going to work in the silver mines around Colorado just beat the heck out of keeping herds from ranging and bunching in 40 degree below 0 weather. But, now, it was springtime and he decided that mining would be his winter
occupation, and he'd be a ranch hand during the spring and summer. Li'l Ernie had it all planned.
Our ramrod hired him, and found that Ernie knew his way around horses, as well as how to use the tools in his kit. He was good at cold shoeing the string and repairing equipment that had been neglected by the cowboys. Seems much of what he'd done at the Big Bear Silver Mine in Georgetown was maintenance, and that lent itself well to springtime ranch work. And Ernie, who now bore the handle "Clank," because of the sound of his metal tools, settled right in and proudly proclaimed himself to be a "Miner workin' on his cowboy degree."
Up on those mountain ranches, the only thing worse than a sheepherder, to a cowboy's way of thinking, was a miner. So Clank spouting off about being a miner didn't earn him much respect in the cowboy bars on Saturday nights. He was scrappy alright, and won as many fistfights as he lost, but he just couldn't help announcing that he was a "Miner working on his cowboy degree."
Late in the fall, just as Clank was planning to go back to his winter job in the Big Bear Silver Mine, he was asked to go into town with the flatbed truck to pick up supplies and food. Clank always hated that job! He could just barely reach the pedals with his short legs and he looked so dang little in that big truck that he'd been stopped twice by the town marshall to see if he was old enough to drive.
Clank got back about dusk, and as he slid out of the truck it was obvious he'd been in one heck of a fight. His clothes were all mussed up, his nose was bloody, he was sporting one black eye and his right hand was wrapped tight in his wild rag.
The ramrod spoke right up and said, "Clank, you know we don't hold with you drinkin' and hittin' the bars when you're drivin' the ranch rig."
"I never stepped foot in a bar," Clank countered.
"Then what the heck happened to you?"
"Well, I was all loaded up to head out, but thought I might buy me some ready made cigarettes, so I went up to that big ol' dopey clerk Ralph, and asked for a pack of "Camels." First thing he says is, "you look mighty young partner, you a Minor."
"Hell yes I'm a Miner, what's it to you? I says."
"Well if you're a minor, I can't sell you no cigarettes, Ralph says with that ignorant lookin' grin on his face." That's when I decided I'd put up with that insult for the last time, so I went over the counter and beat the be-jeezus out of that dumb yayhoo!"
Well, after Clank got out of the local hoosgow for assaulting the store clerk, who thought he was too young to be buying cigarettes, we had a good old send-off for him. Cookie even fixed his favorite meal. Afterward he locked up his kack in the tool shed for the next year of cowboying, and Red drove him over to Georgetown where he proudly told the first miner he saw that the reason he was hanging out with Red was because he was a "Miner workin' on his cowboy degree."
© 2001, Rusty Calhoun
The above photo is Rusty Calhoun's father, Doc Emerson, at 12 or 14 years old on one of their "workin' ponies horses." The picture was taken in about 1911. Rusty says "My dad cowboyed right along side our hands 'til the day he died and I took over."
Read another story from Rusty, Lost in the Snow, posted with Holiday 2001 poetry and stories here.
Rusty Calhoun lives in Chandler, Arizona. She was born and raised on a working cattle and horse ranch, and is a fifth generation member of her family to continue that tradition. She is the poet wrangler for several cowboy poetry gatherings in the west, where she presents her original poetry. Read her poetry here at the BAR-D and on her web site.
Line Camp by Janice Mitich
One winter before the snow got deep, Dad decided he'd take a chance
And work over the Montana line on the Kendrick-Marston Ranch.
He could make some extra money to bring home and supplement
Mom's salary from her job in town working for the government.
When workin' a winter line camp, it was smart to hire a team
So there'd always be a backup in case of something unforeseen.
When a ground blizzard strikes, it's easy to lose your way.
Your horse could fall upon you. His bones would mark your frozen grave.
Out neighbors' oldest son was out of school and had just turned nineteen.
Keith Wagner signed up to learn the trade 'n' keep Dad company.
Dad took a trunk of leather, stampin' tools, buckles, and lacing awls
And spent the long, cold nights making reins, halters, and headstalls.
Mom and us four kids were left alone to care for the home place.
While Mom was working late in town, Joyce and I were left to face
Takin' care of Janette and Jerry, keeping them from sibling fights,
And doin' all the evening chores before homework every night.
Joyce would go to school one day and bring me that day's school work.
It would be my turn to go the next, while she stayed home to work.
Through the long, Wyoming winter, only once did we see our father dear.
He came for a few days at Christmas but was gone before New Year's.
He gave Mom a hand-tooled headstall with a matching, carved breast collar,
And for each of us kid's stocking, a shiny, brand-new, silver dollar.
Just when you think it'll never happen, a spring Chinook finally comes.
Calvin' time has started, and a cowboy's work has just begun.
They were busy pullin' calves in the cold, crisp quiet of gray twilight,
And warmin' newborn calves by the cabin stove in the middle of the night.
With all the calves safely on the ground, thoughts turned towards spring
Dad and Keith, with a spare horse each, had several sections to gather up.
That country's pretty rough with twisted draws and rough, high breaks
Where mother cows can hide their calves. Cow savvy is what it takes.
When they finally reached the home corrals, and were drinkin' at the well,
The Boss, lookin' over their lathered horses, said, "You all sure look like
Keith took a wet bandana, wiped sweat and dust off his neck and face.
His answer was short and simple. Of sarcasm there was no trace.
"Sometimes we had one bunch of four hundred; other times, four hundred
bunches of one,
But we got the sons-of-bucks all gathered, so I guess you'd say we won."
© July 25, 1991, by Janice E. Mitich, Picture Rocks, AZ 85743
Janice Mitich followed her twin sister, Joyce, into this world in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Both girls were 8 weeks premature as their mother had slipped on the ice while walking to the outhouse at their home in Newcastle, Wyoming. At age five, they moved to Sheridan, Wyoming where the family ranched on various small spreads, and Janice developed her love for ranching and horses . "Money was so tight, us four kids never ate beef at home until we were twelve. We ate only antelope, deer, elk, and rabbit, often taken out of season. We couldn't afford to eat our own cows. Our 'hamburger meat' was scrap game run through a meat grinder." (Read the continuation of her bio here.)
About this poem, Janice writes: Keith lived with us when we lived in Sheridan, Wyoming, one winter. It was easier for him to stay with us and finish up high school. There was no school bus for the high school kids out our way. He was pretty shy, but had a very, dry sense of humor. I remember when Dad told us about this incident, I couldn't believe that he would say what he did to his boss-bein' he was a kid, and this was his first real job. But he did. Dad about fell off his horse. It was a good thing the Boss had a sense of humor. Keith passed away just a few years after my Dad. They're both probably gatherin' cows in Heaven.
Read Janice Mitich's poetry and see some family photos here at the BAR-D.
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