As I Look Back

The following is an excerpt, probably what was meant to be the first chapter, from “As I Look Back.” It was going to be a book or series of books by David Johnston. He was a genuine Old West artist, writer, ranch hand, cowboy, rail-rider, lamber and sheep-shearer. I met him in Boulder, Colorado in 1980 when I was cold call knocking on doors for a living for Greenpeace, the Save the Whales non-profit group. I was begging for my living, as I received thirty percent of whatever they gave me at their doors.

David was 92 years old and looked all of 60, literally. I’m not saying that to be kind. He was a handsome, lonely, white man widower who drew and painted beautiful old cowboy artwork and kept his dead wife’s lovely bedroom, perfect in every way, “the same as on the day she died.” That’s what he said when he showed it to me. He had a long hard life ahead of him to wait for. I had to get out of there and keep going, but he kept me there telling me things about himself. So I lost the job at Greenpeace for coming into his house and listening to him. We were not supposed to spend more than ten minutes with any of our prospects, and I spent over an hour listening to his stories.

I left his house with some of his writing in my hand. How I ended up with it is I asked him if I could take some home and copy off of it for me. He said yes, but please return it when I was done. I copied down the below excerpt several days later, and in looking for his address, discovered I had lost it. I was never able to return the below excerpt to him.

I checked with the Boulder County Historical Museum, where he was going to file his entire series of books, or at least such was what he had told me, and they said they had never heard of David Johnston or his books. Sad to say I may be responsible for that. He had said as he left that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to write it all down again.

Some days I feel like I took advantage of a lonely old widower who had clearly taken advantage of me first. Some days – I know there’s no such thing as vengeance. I simply had not taken down his address properly and thus lost it easily later.

About the below: I straightened up its English a little, so don’t tell me how to fix it. It’s pretty much staying the way it is, in a limbo all its own, until I decide what to do with it. If you must critique it, tell me what you think its good and bad points are. Don’t tell me how to change it – as I won’t ever really be doing that.

It’s David’s work. And as I couldn’t find a David Johnston in Boulder, Colorado anymore when I checked, some 20 years later, I think I have to assume the worst.


AS I LOOK BACK I remember very well what a hot, sultry day in August it was as my mother, my brother Gordon and I headed westward through the farmlands of the north central states. Our destination was Douglas, in the wide open spaces of Wyoming. Douglas was a small cow and sheep town with a population of around 1,100.

What a relief it was to step down from that hot, yellow coach and fill our lungs with that good Wyoming air. There, west from the depot, was the North Platte river wending its way eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. To the southwest loomed Laramie Peak. What I noticed most of all was the vast area of open range. The houses, the barns, the hay stacks and fences; where were they?

We were met at the station by Miss Brown and Miss Adams, both nurses from the hospital. It was but a short time previously that Miss Brown and Miss Galbraith had purchased what is now spoken of as the Old Douglas Hospital. To help with their new venture they asked mother, Mrs. Johnston, to come from Ontario, Canada to manage the hospital. That was why we all came to Douglas to make the United States our future home.

Soon after we arrived we learned that the fourth annual Wyoming State Fair was about to begin. Exhibits from the various counties were arriving. Although Wyoming was not considered much of a farming state, many fine entries from Torrington, Big Horn Basin, Star Valley and various other smaller areas were coming.

In 1905 the Wyoming Legislature had passed a bill to make the fair an annual event. Bills would be voted on annually to supply the funds since at that time, the fair had improved greatly.

By the first day of the fair rooming houses, restaurants, livery barns and saloons were crowded. We had but one hotel, the Platte Valley, which had to be moved to allow the Burlington trains to come through. The sidewalks were busy too, where old friends were meeting old friends not seen since the last fair or longer. Along the sidewalk on Second Street was a string of saddle horses in front of Abe Daniel’s, John McDermott’s, Pringle’s saloon and Fatty Hardenbrook’s barber shop. Fatty’s place of business was well-known by the range boys who wanted to clean up after a long dusty ride, before a date with a sweet little country girl. I think of Fatty’s shop as very similar to the modern-day chain store. A boy could take a bath, wash his head, get a hair cut and shave all at the same place.

Some of the people from far out were in early to engage rooms for the week’s celebration and to arrange for feed and shelter for their horses. This was the one great event of the year. Those who did not arrive on horse-back came by buckboard or wagon. Even the small boys and girls rode their horses or ponies to take part in the parades.

You could spot the old-time cowboy quite easily. A few still wore the red bandanas and the leather cuffs. But most could be identified by the big Stetson hat, cowboy boots with spurs that jingled and a pair of cute bowed legs. In the arena they used their angora or leather chaps.

About two days before fair, a cavalry drill team and a military band arrived from Fort D.A. Russell, at Cheyenne. They pitched their tents and cared for their horses at the fair grounds. The drill team and band did much toward the success of the fair.
In the old days away back when there were no chutes in which to saddle up and mount those wild critters, it required two men to saddle up in the open arena. Often, some funny things happened. I attended one day when three broncos and their riders crashed the race-track fence and finished their bucking in front of the grandstands. The men used a gunny sack over the bronco’s eyes and held him partly by the ears. The partner did the saddling-up, which was quite a job.

The local bronco busters in that day were Sam Corington, Carl Heldebrand, Jim Patterson, Gus Nylen, Dick Hornbuckle, Robbins Bays and Webb, to name a few. Pax Irvine, Peach Shaw and Bill Eastman were other contestants. Each day as the program ended, the crowd headed back uptown to eat, drink and be merry, visit the exhibits or rest for the dance later. The most popular event in country life was a good old country hoe-down in the school house or an empty hayloft. Many of those folks were good dancers and did they love to dance!

For six days and nights the show continued. The crowd was happy but beginning to show the wear and tear. Sunday most of them headed back to their homes, bunkhouses, cabins or sheep wagons.

Now that the fair was over, Douglas settled back to its old quiet self once more. Gordon and I were concerned about getting some kind of a job. We helped Mr. Chapin, surveyor, do a little chain work but that was very short-lived. Since we had nothing else in view, we decided to try Wheatland and Cheyenne. That did not produce anything either. So off we went again westward. This time we hopped freight. We found Casper very quiet. It was about the same size as Douglas and just as quiet. It was several years before the Tea Pot boom and the first refinery in Casper.

At Casper the crew going west was making up the train. We found another box car door open in a car carrying a little freight, so in we crawled. Pretty soon the brakeman made us a visit asking for money. Money was one thing we didn’t possess much of. We talked to him like a long-lost brother and finally he went about his business. We had now a new crew, a new division and a new oil-powered engine. When we stopped at Waltman, a section house, the train crew got off and headed to the section house. What now, we thought. We were getting hungry so we figured they were going in for dinner. We jumped off and got in line. For 35 cents it was a real home cooked meal; think of that!

As the train took off again we could tell the engineer was testing his new oil-burning engine. I was standing close to a large metal drum full of oil and hanging onto the rim. All of a sudden the man at the throttle opened up and away we went, hell-bent! The old box car was swaying and jumping like it might leave the rails and go loping across the prairie. And then it happened. The engineer slapped on the brakes the drum raised up and my big toe slipped under the drum. Oh, my gosh! I cussed the engineer to no avail. Guess he didn’t hear me and still he might have. He slowed down. Boy, did I have a beautiful black big toe for about two months.

From the box car we watched for anything that looked new and unusual to us. There was something; looked like buildings. Sure enough, as we got closer we made out some buildings and pens with light-colored animals in them; shearing pens and sheep. We decided to look it over so we tumbled off and found a Mexican crew, cook and wool tramper at work. For a little while we helped fill the painting and counting chute.

We soon learned that the crew was just finishing shearing the tail end of the last band of sheep to be sheared that year. There was no job there so we meandered over to a small store. As we neared the store we could see in the window afar some wild, wild women. Moneta was its name; just a store, girls and a bar.

Gordon asked the store-keeper, a man named White, if he knew of any jobs around there. “Yes,” he said. “Ed Merriam at the Buck Camp needs some help.” We left at once and checked in at Buck Camp.

At the camp we met the boss, Ed Merriam, a chunky, rough sort of man. Of course he sized us up as tenderfeet, which we were, but said he could use us. My job was to feed corn in a trough night and morning and take my 120 yearling Merino bucks out to graze during the day. Gordon was helping with the band of ewes. How those young bucks loved the Wyoming sagebrush! They took to that brush like a little boy to his first all-day sucker. One morning as I gazed at the horizon I noticed a coyote limping on three legs. I figured he was dragging a trap or had been in a trap. Our job only lasted a few days when the boss turned the 120 bucks I had in with the band of ewes, so they would begin lambing early in May the next year.
My last day I moved the sheep wagon to a new bed ground. The trails, or roads as they called them, were dim wagon tracks that led to some bed ground or in search of wood or water. Much of the land was free government grazing land. In some cases the owner of the sheep lived in Shoshoni with his family and the herder took care of the sheep. The owner had to keep the herder in supplies and move the sheep wagon from one bed ground to another.

That was our last day. As we were about to leave, Ed Meriam asked us to come back in May to help lamb his ewes. We agreed to do that and left for Shoshoni to see if we could find another job.

Shoshoni was much like a village. Some of the sheep men had homes there. There were a few stores, several saloons and sporting houses like most western villages and towns had. It rated one doctor. It was pretty much a wide open place. A Mr. King who owned the main mercantile store was a relative of President Gerry Ford. For medical operations, a good many people took the train to the Douglas Hospital.

Gordon told me later that he had worked for King some. He told me he was on the street one day when he heard a gunshot in a saloon across the street in an open-front building. A Mexican had bought a drink. When he got his change he accused the bartender of short-changing him. He said if the bar man didn’t give him the rest of his money he was coming after him. The bartender reached under the bar, pulled out a six-shooter and shot the man. There was no inquest, no arrest and no anything done.

I finally heard of a government project building a dam in Wind River Canyon. Gordon decided to stay in town so I checked in at the dam. There were two crews working. A bunch of Italians were on one side of the river and on the other side about an equal number of Americans. Our job was to carry cement sacks full of sand and place them in order. It did not take me long to find out that it was too heavy of work for one, day after day.

Along in the evening after work, the boys across the river opened up with a lot of gunfire. Pretty soon the bunch on our side began to fire too. I had no idea what was going on. I had decided to try and find some work that would not injure my health. When I returned to town I discovered that quite a number of range people were there.

Finally, by piecing together such words as “election” and “dance” with the gun-firing commotion at the dam, I figured it was Election Day. The Republicans were out to celebrate the election of William Howard Taft as president.
The dance hall was over Burke’s saloon. To reach it, dancers had to climb a staircase of at least 25 steps built on the outside of the saloon. I could not locate Gordon so I found a place to eat. When I went back to the hall a number of dancers had congregated outside. It was but a few minutes until the floor manager arrived with the key. I could not dance at that time, but I wanted to witness a western dance. I could hear the fiddler tuning up his strings. He was about set to go when a real class-looking gal walked across the floor and sat down. Almost immediately the floor manager walked over and said a few words to her. She jumped up and took out of there in nothing flat. Down the long stairs she fairly flew and in about five minutes she returned with her boyfriend, Burke.

Burke carried a big six-shooter in his hand. The two men were more warlike than friendly. Burke raised his gun and wrapped the floor manager on his bald head. The blood trickled down his face. Burke and his sweet patooty wheeled around and down the stairs they went, back to the saloon. A few of the local women left, but the country folk had come to dance and they were not about to leave. As the night wore on the music grew louder and louder and the war whoop came more often. Everyone was having the time of his or her life. I decided that night I would take up dancing. I found Gordon the next morning so we decided right quick-like to board the passenger train that day and go back to Douglas. Gordon got a job at Haesler’s Pharmacy and I went back to work at the hospital.

When May rolled around, Gordon and I were ready to go back to Moneta and Merriam’s camp to help lamb. We bought yellow slickers, and with a bedroll we went westward. The trip was rather uneventful compared to the first trip. After checking in with the boss, he sent me to work under Frenchy, who did the cooking, washed the dishes, slept in the sheep wagon and kept his eagle eye on the outfit. Two Mexicans also helped on our crew. Gordon was with another crew a short distance down the Poison Creek.

The sheep wagon was set in the gumbo flat amidst greasewood brush. On the east side of the creek was a cut bank twelve to fifteen feet high, showing that flooding had taken place at some earlier date. Our ewes were bedded down on the creek bottom not far from the wagon. At night we hung out a lantern and put flags around the ewes and new lambs. This seemed to help protect them against the coyotes, but not against the bobcats. Each morning we would find dead lambs with their bellies torn open. In the morning the ewes with new lambs would be held back as the dropping bunch went out to graze.
In the cut banks were several old coyote dens that had been taken over by rattlers. I rode by such a den and heard the snakes having a big party, judging by the noise. I had an old gray saddle horse I moved my bedroll on. It was a good-sized bed. In fact, it was about all I could do to get it up on his back. At night, I always hobbled my horse so he could graze. I was on my way to catch him one morning with a halter in hand and thinking what a swell morning, when I was stopped dead in my tracks. A big dirt-covered rattler lay coiled in the cow trail.

I felt he was saying, “That’s far enough, mister.” On the end of my halter was a knot I used to battle with him. I think we had so much rain that the snakes stayed in their dens more. I always roped my bedroll tight each morning. They say just put a lariat around your bed and they will not cross the rope, but I did not trust them. I did not want any rattlers sleeping with me. Along the creek was a lot of sand that had been washed in. I was loping along the cut bank and going down a slight grade when the horse couldn’t pull his front feet out. He tumbled on his head and threw me about fifteen feet. Neither one of us were hurt. I looked up to see where he was and he was looking at me with the funniest expression on his face. I never heard of a horse smiling, but I do believe that old boy smiled. I think it was quicksand he stepped in and I also believe that old gray horse thought it was funny.

When it rained, that gumbo flat was something; really a mess. The mud on your shoes rubbed the inside of your slicker. Walk around in that slicker awhile and the mud was up to your waist. And believe me, we were a mess.
One of the Mexicans had a pair of high-laced boots I thought would be good where there were so many rattlesnakes, so I bought the boots. I wore them just two days when I discovered I had an infection in my heel and a red streak running up my leg. I told Frenchy I had to go get some medical help. I took off and ran into Gordon down the creek. He said he about killed himself looking for his bed one night in the dark. He fell off the bank twelve to fifteen feet to the gumbo below. I don’t think he had much to eat. I asked him how he fared for grub and he said, “When I get hungry I go in and get a can of tomatoes.” I moved on to the Buck Camp where Merriam cleaned my foot good and put on some carbolic salve. The next morning I rode back to the camp and didn’t have any more trouble. By that time, we were nearing the end of lambing.

The dropping bunch became less and less as each day passed. More and more of the older bunches were being thrown together. Finally we ran out of ewes to lamb so the boss kept his local crew and paid us off. We were both happy when it was over. It could have been worse if we’d had a flash flood during that time with the sheep and wagon bedded in that creek bottom. It was quite a battle with the weather, the coyotes, the bobcats, the rattlesnakes and the gumbo. But we made it through, and had a lesson in lambing.

We hear there was a shearing crew still working at Lost Cabin, a wide place in the road like Moneta. Gordon wanted to go to Shoshoni, so we split up again. I took my bedroll and caught a ride to Lost Cabin where I got a job.
It rained that night so the sheep were too wet to shear the following day. Every night the shearers gambled, but that day they gambled all day and far into the next night. I happened to be sitting there in the saloon, dreaming, when the Mexican bartender asked me if I wanted a job.

I said, “Sure.”

“Well, my wife wants someone to run the washing machine for her,” he replied. I was getting bored sitting around the saloon watching the Mexican crew gambling. I located his wife and went to work. It was one of those push-and-pull deals. The Mexican lady was very friendly as we chatted a while. When I returned to the saloon I heard of a man being wanted at Nowood, a few miles east. I didn’t wait for the wool to dry off. I caught a ride to Nowood, a ranch on the west slope of the Big Horn mountains. The owner of the ranch was Mr. Crowley, who lived in Lander. In charge of their ranch were his two nephews. One was the foreman while the other looked after the little store. He was bookkeeper, storekeeper and past-master.

My job was to drive a team on a wheel-scraper, building a dirt dam. An old-timer who had a steady job on the ranch was my boss. His wife did the cooking for all of us. Following the wheel-scraper gave a person a real appetite. When I told the cook how good her corn fritters were she said, “You stay right in there. I’ll cook them as long as you can eat them.” A fellow who worked on the dam also shared my bedroll in the sheep wagon.

Finally the days became so warm that we decided to sleep outside. We rustled some clean hay and moved our bedrolls onto the hay all set up for a good night’s sleep. Along in the night we felt someone pulling hay from under us. We didn’t blame the horse because the grass was eaten so short. A couple of mornings later I awoke and looked up to see how the weather was. To my surprise, there above us with one leg over the top pole of the horse corral was a beautiful maiden painting the sunrise.
Our boss had a very smart dog. Each night after work he would send the dog to a big pasture to bring the two cows in. One evening I watched him. He must have gone close to a half-mile after them, and brought them in as usual.

The store keeper kept quite a few slabs off bacon and hams besides some other perishable meats, fruits and vegetables in the cellar below the store. A walk-in entrance was on the side where the food was unloaded. That morning the clerk had gone down and opened the door to air out the cellar. Later he went down to see if everything was all right when he saw a cat in the shadows. He grabbed a broom and began chasing it. As the pussy cat ran in a dark corner, he closed in on it. That was when he got it.

The cat turned out to be a pretty black-and-white skunk. He got the skunk out finally, but still had to air out the cellar. Worse than that, he buried some of his clothes and had to peel the skin off several slabs of bacon and hams. They’ll do it every time!
As we came in from work one evening we saw a very interesting sight go by. It was a twenty-horse freight team pulling two freight wagons and a coaster. The skinner drove by the ranch where he pulled off the road and prepared to camp for the night. We watched him as he unharnessed each team and hobbled them. As each team was unharnessed, he dropped everything where the horses had stood. There was a heavy chain reaching from the lead team back to the lead wagon. Each team’s doubletrees were fastened to the chain. The skinner sat on a springboard shoved under the lead wagon. A jerk line was fastened to the lead team and reached back to the driver. When we went to work the next morning, the string team had gone.
The freight team hauled wood, cotton, coke, grain, food, supplies and almost anything they could load on the wagons. I learned that most of the freighting was done before the winter set in. In those days, roads were not kept up well and bridges often were washed out.

I remember a young man whom I played ball with once. He got caught out with a freight team in a terrible blizzard. The storm was so bad, he hung the harness on a fence that was close by. He then turned the horses loose and walked. His body was found next spring.

When I got back to Shoshoni, I met Gordon, who had been on a dirt dam job, much similar to the one I was on. He told me of a rattlesnake experience he had been in. On one Sunday while the horses were resting, he and a coworker went out rabbit hunting. They were entering a canyon when they discovered they were practically surrounded by rattlesnakes. Gordon said they shot as many as they could, then made a run for it. Gordon saved a few snake skins so that after we got back to Douglas we had snake skins on our belts and hat bands.

Gordon got work at the Haesler Pharmacy and I worked at the hospital. After New Year’s of 1910, I enrolled in high school and graduated in the class of 1913.

My first year in Wyoming will never be forgotten. The trips we took, the work we did, was an education in itself. My association with the nurses, doctors and many patients will always remain in the back of my mind. Memories too good to forget.

When I caught up with Gordon he told me he had been working not far from Shoshoni when he decided to come to town and make a visit to the town’s Doctor, Doctor Jewel. Gordon had developed a back injury which needed attention. Gordon said it was not much of an office, but fit in all right with the rest of the town.

Doctor Jewel asked Gordon to have a chair and told him “I’ll be back in a minute” as he entered the next room. Imagine the sparkle in Gordon’s eyes as he saw the doctor come in packing a jug and two good-sized glasses. From then on Gordon said he learned considerable about Shoshoni and its citizens.

Doctor Jewel was quite proud of his daughter, Vicky, who had gone to Hollywood to try out for the movies and what do you know was given a part in “Gone With the Wind!”

Finally, as the drinks wore off, Doctor Jewel took care of Gordon’s ills. As Gordon left the office he thought to himself what a friendly character this Doctor Jewel was, and as an after-thought said, “I know I am going to love this Wyoming!”

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