Dyba Company...More stories
Posted by mom (+73) 8 years ago
I apologize, I know this is long. I had enough feedback from this board on the previous stories, that You mihgt enjoy this. The last part of it will be written this weekend.
The Last Lambing Camp
By Nancy
The winter of 66-67 had been uneventful, unremarkable even. The high divide between the Missouri and the Yellowstone rivers caught some storms and held them long enough to harvest the moisture, and then again, the capricious and ever-present wind tugged some of the clouds through to other regions to enrich and rebuild the prairie for the coming summer.
Not so for the spring of that year. By late spring, May 10 to be exact, the big forty-seven section pasture of the Dyba Company had greened up and the ranges that had served as home for millennium of buffalo, deer and antelope was again home for another generation of newborn creatures. The lambing season was just underway and Valentine and his wagon were the staging center for the 1967 lambing. Spring had been hard on everyone. Valentine was no longer a young. At 67, he was moving a lot slower, and even breathing was becoming a difficult task. Yet the sheep on the hillsides and prairie were still his responsibility. The family had dropped all the other parts of their lives, college and sports and young family busy-ness and concentrated on getting the spring work running the ranch acomplished. Calving had been underway for a while, and spring planting was finished. Even the hired men were feeling the long days and hard work. Ranching was and is a labor intensive job, and people who wanted and could work that kind of a life were becoming harder and harder to find.
May tenth dawned ugly. There was just nothing beautiful about the clouds hunkering over the hills and prairies. There was nothing beautiful about the huge balls of tiger gumbo that clung to the feet of the horses like they had grown there. There was nothing beautiful about the blue clay that spun off the tires of the ranch pickups and jammed up under the wheel wells to dry like concrete. The sturdy lambs and calves that dropped on the warming green grass at the end of April were a miracle to watch as they trailed after their mothers in search of the tastiest sprigs of greenery. It wasn't beautiful to watch the infant lambs and calves that dropped in the pools and puddles of the spring rain. They chilled and died and the concerned mothers could only stand there and blat and call in mournful chorus to the doomed offspring.
The adult animals all had humps in their backs from the cold, and there were none of the cheerful sounds of spring birds to be heard. By the end of the day it had rained three inches in this semi-arid region that never seemed to receive more than fourteen or eighteen inches of precipitation in an entire year. The temperature dropped sometime the evening of the tenth, and the rain turned to snow. By sundown of the next day there were over two feet of snow on the surface of the lambing grounds.
Although difficult and hard on all the newborns, spring storms are just a way of life in Eastern Montana. Summer doesn't begin until wind and blowing snow herald in a rebirth of all life on the prairies. A late storm characterized by heavy wet snow in large quantities can occur anytime from the end of April through Memorial Day. When it blows in and melts off, the seasonal cycle of rebirth and renewal ushers in the green prairies and rich pastures of summer.
The difference with this last spring storm of 1967 was in the amount. Those low clinging clouds were loaded with water and seemed determined to leave every last drop of it in that forty seven section pasture on the Thompson creek. Valentine was on the bedding ground near the Chokecherry Hills with the big drop bandS(the part of the herd that had dropped their lambs or were very close to doing so).
Two of the crew rode horses the four or five miles from the home place to Valentine's wagon. Two more members of the crew had loaded a "kutadyka" trailer and hitched it to the back of a D-4 caterpillar and walked it to the bedding grounds. The ranch pickups didn't have a chance in rutted and rain-soaked trails that wove back and forth across the range. The gumbo clays that clung to the feet of the cows and horses, wrapped around the tires, filled the wheel-wells and stopped all movement. The layers that built up couldn't be dislodged with sticks or shovels. They absorbed grass and sticks and made a mat that was impenetrable as well as being immovable. The tough paint ponies were native to the pasture, having been born and raised in the gumbo country. The sticky mud was nothing new to them and Socks and Sputnik knew what grass hummocks to navigate to minimize their discomfort. These two were lambing camp veterans who had moved and supported many a hand and herder across the prairies . They were wise in the ways of the sheep hook, the sheep and the lambers who were caring for the young. They were "mudders", short and stocky with powerful shoulders and hams. They could read a runaway ewe who was trying to escape. They would sneak up on her and then with a short burst of speed put the rider with the long handled sheep hook under his arm, in the perfect position to snare her hind foot. The adept hand could handle the eight foot hook, the reins, the horse and the runaway with no problem. The greenhorn on one of these veterans soon learned just how far out he could reach out before he was overextended. The paint ponies didn't care. They knew what they were doing even if the human on their back didn't.
The D-4 caterpillar was thirty years old, relatively young for a caterpillar, but already a veteran with a coat of rust from building roads, cleaning springs, building farm reservoirs and uncountable fireguards. The trailer behind it was a small two-wheeled thing salvaged from the back half of an old pick-up whose genetic make-up had been long forgotten. Crammed into that box were thirty to forty bails of straw and several hundred sheep teepees. Stuck in a corner were a couple of large thermos of coffee and a bundle of bologna sandwiches. Flavor wasn't particularly important, filling the bellies of the hardworking crew was. Sheep teepees were essentially a portable tent for sheep. Four steel rods were connected at one end with a large ring. They could be splayed out in a cone shape that was about three feet by three feet. The canvas cover wrapped around the rods whose free ends had been shoved into the soft prairie. When scattered across the lambing ground, they resembled a miniature native village.
The instinct to suckle was so strong in a newborn lamb that it would latch onto anything that smelled like mother and had the right shape. Thus, the crew working the lambing camp had to make sure that every ewe had the tags of wool on her bag pulled or trimmed with a pocket knife. The ewe was upended and baby was introduced to the faucet. A handy dry burlap bag was used to rub the infant down to dry it off and stimulate circulation. Dry and with full bellies, mom and baby were shoved under the canvas cover. A chunk of straw was shredded in the bottom of the temporary home to provide insulation from the cold wet ground. There was no "dry", just some places slightly less wet than others.
By ten o'clock on this morning, the ground was already so saturated that the ponies with the riders on their backs were sinking up past their pasterns. The men climbed off and walked alongside the horses, hooking the new mothers by hand. They would grab the ewes and tie their feet together, and throw them over the saddles. They grabbed the lambs and tucked them under an arm, picked up the reins again and moved the pair to an area that was a little higher and a hopefully a little drier.
The strain and discomfort of sheparding a band of sheep through a lambing season did not originate with the German immigrants, nor did it originate here in Eastern Montana. The first band of sheep in Eastern Montana arrived before any cowboy escorted long-horned dinner down the Chisholm Trail from Texas. They crossed the Rocky Mountains in the fall of 1876 from Oregon. The bunch was sold to George Miles here in Miles City and became the foundation for an industry that over the years was as lucrative as the gold mines in the western part of the state. It was quieter, safer and less romantic. The sheep man will testify that his walking gold mines were much kinder to the environment too. That thought can still generate some heated arguments, and probably will on this forum.
Work in a lambing camp was hard and thankless. Ewes seldom say thank-you and it is hard to think that the monetary rewards outweighed the pain, hard work and loneliness of the long hours. A livestock man works for the love of his critters. His reward comes in seeing the strong and healthy newborns jumping and playing and trailing across the green and growing land. It is in the quiet sound of contented and well-cared for animals doing exactly what they are supposed to do. It is in the age-old playing out of the cycle of life. The three day spring storm of 1976 delivered none of those rewards. By late afternoon of May 11, the weather had already warmed enough that the snow as melting and Valentine and the weary crew began stripping the canvases and setting the little families back on the grass. When they were through they looked back across the lambing grounds and realized what an exercise in futility was. Two thousand mother ewes, with full coats of wool were living. Two thousand baby lambs newborn to two weeks old were not. There was no reward in the labors of love in May of 1967.