I’ve thought long and hard about the announcement I’m about to make and with my wife standing at my side the right time has come before some unscrupulous journalist finds out about my BIG secret and broadcasts it to the world. Even in this more open, permissive and forgiving society it is still with great trepidation that I’m coming out of the closet to announce that, are you ready for this? I used to raise sheep.
There, I’ve said it. Can you sane good people find it in your hearts to ever forgive me? I know that it’s mandatory for cattlemen to despise sheepherders. They are downright allergic to them. My theory is that cowboys hated sheepmen so much because while the early vaqueros were earning $35 a month, the shepherd got $50. In the mid-1930Õs a cowboy might make $100 a month while the sheepherder got paid $150. That could be why masked gunmen in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin killed 4,000 of the wooly creatures. And in Colorado, in a procedure known as “rimrockin Äg, cowboys ran 1,000 sheep over a cliff. Dozens of sheepherders were killed for running sheep on the free public range. Can you imagine the gall?
In the Portland Morning Oregonian in 1904 a letter writer claimed that his organization “had slaughtered eight to ten thousand head of sheep during the last shooting season.” And promised to kill more in the next season if the supply of sheep held out. He called his group the Sheep Shooters of Crook County. (By the
way, how would you like to come from Crook County?)
When Charles Russell came to Montana he couldn’t find work so he worked in a sheep camp for two weeks and in the subsequent 3,500 works of art he produced he never once drew a sheep. That’s how highly he regarded them. Cowboys believed that “everything in front of sheep is eaten and everything behind is killed.”
Ranchers said the only thing dumber than sheep were the men who herded them.
So what was I doing running both sheep and cattle together?
I sold out for cold hard cash. I found that by running the two together and not letting them camp in one place my ranges were actually improved. I saw why some people referred to sheep as “mortgage lifters”. Although it did confuse my dog Aussie. She didn’t know if she was a cow dog herding sheep, or a sheep dog chasing cows.
I knew the dangers of being outed or exposed so I hardly ever wore my favorite shirt, a wool Pendleton. And I went in disguise to the county fair sheep show where one of the lambs we bred was named champion. When I was asked to be in the picture I ran. It would have ruined me. There were many close calls. One time I was leaving the Post Office and on top of the stack of my mail was a letter from the USDA begging me to take their wool subsidy. A cowboy friend saw it and I had to bribe him to keep it a secret.
Brandings were always the trickiest of times because I couldn’t invite any sheepy friends and we had to hide the flock.
One rancher saw some suspect droppings and screamed, “You raise sheep?” at the top of his lungs. “No, those are rabbit droppings.” I insisted. “Mighty big rabbits,” he said. When he saw the lambing jails I had to swallow my pride and say, “Those are for dairy calves.” Which was only slightly better than sheep.
The closest I came to being exposed was when there was an actual sheep sighting at my branding. Thinking fast I explained that they were wild sheep that we planted for hunting. But when a rancher went to his truck and retrieved a gun and took aim at my best ram I squirmed and begged, “Oh, they aren’t really worth shooting.”
Now my BIG secret is out and I feel so much better. To think I no longer have to hide the KRS, or coke bottles with big nipples on them. I feel liberated. The only drawback is we’ll have to work our calves on a calf table in the future since no real cattlemen would be caught dead at a sheepherder’s branding.