Chapter 4


A road helps. It has fences on each side, a smooth surface, and a nice mild grade. The cows are confined. We make it out of the hills without a problem, the only incident being when Bill comes across the work pickup of a friend and former associate of his, Pat, and proceeds to change the radio station and crank it up, and turn the air conditioner on full blast—then turn the truck off so when Pat unsuspectingly turns it on, he gets the full effect.

We follow a gravel road for much of the rest of the drive, down into the Upper Ruby Valley and up along the Upper Ruby River, one of the prettiest little trout streams you'll ever see. All will be well if we don't encounter any other herds, and the fences keep their integrity, and gates are closed. For the most part, we poke along the road behind the cows, and Brian and Bill use the time to practice their roping skills on the rear legs of the trailing cattle.

Bill relates that the Indians called this valley "Land of the Stinking Waters." Seems a heavy snowstorm killed a lot of buffalo along the river once upon a time. We pass some beautiful bottomland ranches that are twenty miles from the nearest well-traveled road, such as the Bradley Ranch, the Neely spread, and Ted Turner's buffalo ranch. Ted's place is always good for some choice words. He has demonstrated to the locals a number of times that he doesn't care all that much what the local ranching community thinks. Brian and Bill don't show an innate distrust of outsiders—they're shootin' the breeze just fine with me—but they do talk about how outsiders tend to come in and want to change everything, when they don't understand how things are done in this part of the country. That and they don't show patience. They always have to be doing something fast, and they expect others to snap to when they say something.

By Montana law, you can walk a stream below the high-water mark and fish it. Used to be 99% of people would ask if they could cross ranch property and walk the river. Brian and company would always say yes on their ranch. Now, Brian says sadly, 1% of people ask. If they did, Brian would still say yes. Turner, on the other hand, apparently has a blanket rule: nobody gets access.

Some people just have a knack for offending the ranching community, and that doesn't wash with these folks. Everybody in these parts seems to know one another. Every big-rig trucker that passes us on this road honks as the cattle they're taking to range jostle in the back. The trucks and horse trailers that pass carry crews who smile and wave. In the afternoon, after we've reached the Schoolhouse corrals and have turned the cattle into them, crews will routinely stop at our trailer and catch up. They'll trade notes about their friends and families. They'll relate news about mutual acquaintances. They'll work at keeping alive a tradition of community that in my experience is much stronger here than in the city.

That often involves a bunch of guys standing in a semi-circle outside the trailer, trading notes about what they've done and what they've yet to do. When a bottle starts circulating, talk may turn to how one of them pulls particularly nasty practical jokes. Like the time a crew rigged up an outhouse with a pneumatic hose and blew powder in on the fellow as he was tending to his business. And how he got back at them early one morning by taking the stirrups off of every one of their saddles, and hiding them at the bottom of a full grain bin.

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