The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 9, Number 1, Pages
by Ralph R. Sawdy
Ralph R. Sawdy is retired and lives in Spokane.
I was born Oct. 12, 1904 in Seattle, Washington where my father was involved in a dray business. A dray was the horse drawn equal of modern city delivery truck and was subject to call for anything to be moved. They sometimes had a regular route with pick up and delivery stations. We moved from Seattle to Prosser, Washington in the lower Yakima valley in 1907 when I was three years old. There I grew up on a farm until 1920 when we moved to Snohomish, Washington and I finished high school there before leaving home.
Being the youngest of three, I was allowed more rope than my brother or sister, which probably allowed for some spoiling. The spoiling eventually resulted in my being rather fussy. As an example I carefully examined every plate of food, every spoon, fork and knife, as I was acutely conscious of germs or imagined dirt. My mother was a very clean cook and housekeeper but she humored me by replacing anything on which I saw or imagined a spot.
Raised in a Christian protective home we learned not to drink, smoke, swear, or gamble and to avoid those who did. I believe this to be right but it left me rather unprepared for the shock of future encounters on my first job away from home.
On the street in Yakima one cold windy early March day 1924.
"Hey kid, do you really want a job?"
"Sure do. What is it?"
"I don't know anything about it, but I have been around sheep. Do you think I can handle it?"
"Sure you can. Any old woman could do it."
''I'll take the job."
This was Carl Turner who offered me a job with Frank Weir's sheep shearing outfit. He had been asked by Frank to hire a tyer as Frank was too drunk to look; Carl was not too sober himself.
This brought some questions to my mind, could I do the work and would I like it? But I thought I could always quit as I thought it was only a few miles from town. So I accepted the offer and was ready with my bed roll and extra clothes at the appointed time of four a.m. the next day.
Carl and his brother, John, were both shearers and good ones too. They stayed on the job the full season each year. Carl said John would be driving and sure enough there he was behind the steering wheel of his beat up six-year-old Chevrolet touring car. That is a five passenger open car.
Throwing my bed roll and clothes bag into the back seat I climbed aboard and we were off. You notice I said John was behind the wheel, it was Carl who said he would be driving and I often questioned it. I think herding would be a better word. He could hit every chuck hole in the road and would scare the daylights out of us as he talked and looked everywhere but where he was going. But I will say this for him, he was the luckiest driver ever. We all have no good reason to be alive but it all added to the excitement and experience and things to remember.
We headed east from Yakima through Moxee City and on and on and on; driving on a seldom traveled road for forty or so miles, then onto a lesser trail around ten or fifteen miles to the Benson ranch on the north slope of Rattlesnake mountain, now a part of the atomic reserve. I then realized we were far from town and no way to get there if I quit except walk about forty miles or more.
There in a shed we set up the shearing equipment, which consisted of Weir's Model T 1917 Ford with an attachment to use its engine to drive the overhead line shaft to operate the power shears. All the shafting and equipment were carried in the back seat of his car and set up at each shearing location. He carried enough equipment to set up for ten shearers. When it was all used the shaft and shed were fifty feet long. Each shearer owned and carried his own clippers and extra blades.
That first day we had just enough time to make the trip, set up and shear about sixty sheep. I learned to gather the fleece in a single sweep, getting all the small pieces called tag ends, into the center of the bundle and tie it two ways in one movement with a special knot that would slip tight and not release.
The cords made of twisted paper would dissolve in the cleaning vat at the woolen mill. They were precut, all the same length and worn as a sash around the belt line with the loose ends hanging down my back. was taught to grab a single strand with both hands in front then squat down on my heels pulling the cord to the floor making a loop between my feet then reaching out with both hands taking hold of each edge of the fleece, making a sweeping movement, sweeping all the tag ends into the center then drawing the fleece into the loop between my feet and tying it two ways. Then stand up and carry it to the end where the sacker was and toss it up to his platform about eight feet high. This was a lot of bending, stooping and lifting and walking in a day's work. Each fleece weighed twelve to fourteen pounds. Also my job was to do the surgery required when a sheep was accidently cut during the shearing.
The workout of a wool tyer's job combined with rough traveling, peculiar sheep smell, and newly shorn wool grease (lanolin) made me very sick my first day.
That night when we went into the cook shack to eat, my appetite was nil and my mother was not there to get another dish for me. I passed great amounts of everything. As I watched black, greasy bacon, eggs, and fried potatoes being consumed all around I felt worse and worse. I kept hoping and finally I was thankful for cold canned tomatoes the cook had failed to do anything to. I ate two tomatoes and that was my complete first meal on my first day as a wool tyer.
No way to quit. No way to get to town. No mother.
After a restless night trying to sleep rolled in a blanket on the ground, morning of day two finally arrived. Breakfast was not much better over the previous meal, but the oatmeal mush was good and stayed with me. I thought again of quitting but still I had no way to get to town. My second thoughts were, after all it would only be about a week and the shearers were filling my ears with glowing tales of the next location. Their cook shack sounded like the Ritz or maybe heaven.
After that, either the food improved or I got hungrier. Even the ground became softer at night. Let me say - before the season ended, I could and did eat anything put on my plate that was not moving and even that might be spared for the critter's sake - not mine. Then, too, I would grab everything passed or reachable and too bad for the next guy if I wanted all of it.
It took a little over a week to finish the run at the Benson ranch. There were four shearers and Frank Weir, who owned the equipment made five. He sheared little, since this being the first run of the season he spent most of his time repairing and adjusting equipment. The other men were soft from long idleness and limbered up gradually and did not try to break any records.
For me, it was all new and each day I thought I had done all I would be able to do in a day. I could scarcely believe their tales of what was yet to come - or that this run would ever be over. At last it was over, Benson's sheep all shorn and marked with a big red "B" painted on their backs.
Then we took down the shafting, packed the gear into the back seats of two Model T Fords. We broke camp and moved on down the bumpy dusty trail north-west about twenty miles through sagebrush country to the next ranch. If I remember correctly it belonged to Drumheller.
I believe this is a good time to describe the shearing crew. All were in their forties except me at nineteen. Frank Weir was a tall and somber man - a heavy drinker in the off season but usually under control during shearing season, A very trustworthy man, loyal to his crew. He was owner of the equipment, contacted the sheep owners and arranged contracts and schedules. He sheared when not busy with business and kept equipment in running order and sharpened all the shears (clippers which dulled quickly from the sand in the wool). The clippers were like barbers clippers but much larger. They were about three inches across the nose and weighed about three or four pounds.
Ed Fisher and Jack Deter had traveled the shearing seasons together for years. They followed shearing season route through Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Also usually Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico and sometimes to Australia and New Zealand.
Ed was a rather small man, about five foot seven inches and probably one hundred sixty pounds, very neat and talked with good grammar with an English or Australian accent. A teller of tall tales. One of the things he talked about often as we sat around the camp fire in the evening was reincarnation. We never took this seriously because we all thought he was only kidding to watch our reaction. This proved to be a mistake because later it caused a fight between him and his partner, Jack.
Carl and John Turner with whom I traveled were brothers. They were orphaned very young in Missouri and after being passed between foster homes and work farms they ran away to the west and made it on their own when John was thirteen and Carl ten. They made it to Ellensburg, Washington and lived by sweeping out saloons. For pay they were allowed to eat the leftover free sandwiches the customers had left at closing time. They also were allowed to sleep in the woodshed behind the saloon. For money they carried a box to put your foot on on the street and they shined shoes for a nickel or dime. Through many trials they had become very loyal in the support of each other although very different in personality.
John was lean and about six foot: rather stingy, he saved his money for the horse races and Chinese lottery tickets. He had done some professional boxing and was a wiry, agile man. He was a confirmed bachelor. He,was a good dancer and loved the ladies but only on a temporary basis. A chain smoker of hand rolled cigarettes, all day and all night. A lover of jokes so long as they were on the other fellow.
Carl the younger of the two brothers, was a stocky built man about five foot six or seven, one hundred eighty or so with reddish brown wavy hair and a charming smile and a good sense of humor, especially about himself. He took everything as it came, never complaining and always ready to give a loan or a hand. He had one trait I have always admired. He would not allow anyone to tell him anything bad about anyone else unless the teller was a personal witness. If anyone started to tell he would say "If you did not see it don't tell me." If the teller did not see it and continued the tale Carl would say "shut up and don't tell me." After that if he continued Carl would lay his fist on their chin with all his might and he had a lot of might. The reason he gave for this was he said he had been in more jails for things he did not do as a boy. With no home and no one to defend him, he was a good scapegoat for the guilty. He had vowed to himself he would never be a party of vicious gossip. Everyone who knew him knew of this trait and respected him for it or soon learned. He cared little about money and would never turn away a hungry man, woman or child or an animal. He was an easy touch for panhandlers. He was the shotgun of the crew, that is the fastest shearer. I saw him shear two hundred forty sheep in nine hours. that is one every two minutes for nine hours.
When two rival crews meet they may bet their whole season's earnings on a race between their two shotguns.
Carl would never play cards for fun. One time we asked him why? He said 'TIl playa few hands and show you." There were four of us in the game. About the fourth hand dealt - he did not deal - he said stop and I will tell you most of the cards each holds and he did with great accuracy. Then he had one of us fan the cards out face up and then quickly pick them up. He quickly named about five sequences of the cards, some as many as six cards long. All correct. He said he only played for money because there was very little chance in it and no fun for him. He said there is no such thing as a professional gambler. "A professional is not gambling." I have never forgotten that lesson.
I was the sixth member of the crew. Much younger, inexperienced, first real job away from home. I grew up in a protected atmosphere totally different from any of these men. I was slow in growing up and small for my age of nineteen. Weighed about one hundred twenty and had to be careful what I ate.
This was the core of the crew but sometimes for a job it would expand to ten shearers and there was also from six to twelve local people. Herders, camp riders, cooks, etc.
From all of these men and their varied backgrounds so different from mine, I learned loyalty, honesty, tenderness, compassion, trust. I saw a loneliness, beauty and a child-like nature of rough men that many have never come to witness or understand. Looking back I believe that was one of the most valuable years of my life.
It was afternoon when we left the Benson ranch and after a dusty trip, arrived at the Drumheller shearing location about five in the afternoon. Here was a gushing artesian well. It gave forth a rush of water about the same as a wide open fire hydrant. The water was warm, about ninety degrees and ran off in a stream about two feet wide. The warm water caused an early growth of vegetation like a little oasis. A great place to wash or bathe on a frosty spring morning. This was surely a great start.
We quickly unloaded and washed up and headed for the cook shack. The promise of a better life was not exaggerated. The co-owner was an ex-shearer with fond memories (like mine). He'd hired two women cooks. Everything was neat. clean and always a banquet. Normal fare was two or three kinds of pie, at least two kinds of meat, potatoes, sweet and Irish, a choice of vegetables, cake, along with coffee, tea or milk.
After we set up the equipment (everyone helps with this), we built a bonfire of sagebrush and sat around it to swap yarns before going to bed. This also proved to be a luxury. There was a low haystack; so up a ladder we went to the top where we spread our blankets under the stars, a wonderful experience, a beautiful night. But about two a.m. I was awakened by something tickling my face. It was snowing, so I pulled the covers over my head until morning when I awoke again to find my blankets covered with three inches of snow; I will never forget the wonderful feeling of 90 degree artesian water.
After a little over a week here I was becoming stronger and tougher and proud to be one of them, dirt and all. Then it was back to Yakima for a few days before the next run.
The next location was where the Yakima Bombing range is now, east of Selah past Squaw Tit mountain toward the Saddle mountains which were east of us. A wide open space it seemed to support only one sheep ranch. The perpetually windy desert area also provided a home for coyotes and jack rabbits and a band or two of elk. A few days in this miserable place then back to Yakima for a day or two. This was the last contact with home base for the season.
We were off again for a place in central Washington called Columbia Siding. We were a little caravan of three old beat up open cars loaded far beyond intended capacity. The two Model Ts ahead and John's old Chevy following. We stayed close together in case of road trouble which happened often, for in those days the best tires available were only guaranteed five thousand miles and our overloads caused frequent trouble. Also cars of that class and time with normal use required a major overhaul every four thousand miles and tinkering daily.
As we traveled toward Ellensburg, we followed a detour along the Natches River over a dirt road, when I say dirt that is what it was: a little used trail over volcanic ash that formed the hills, no gravel or grading - just dirty white dust like flour about three inches deep.
We were in the last car as Ed was having trouble, the engine in his was acting up so we followed in case it stalled. Jack was riding on his front fender and had the hood up trying by close observation to see what the problem might be. Being a big man he was in need of more room. He looked like a big bull frog on a small lily pad in a storm. The road was rutty and rough as the dust hid the boulders underneath; he bounced around and hung on for life, but as many a cowboy he was finally bucked off and went rolling in the powdery dust. We stopped quickly and ran to his aid but he was not hurt except his pride. He got up sputtering and spitting mud. He looked like a big sugar donut with two tear-mudded places for eyes and a round muddy hole with teeth spouting mud and profanity. When we realized he was not hurt we all began to laugh, all except Jack that is. He said "I might have got killed" and was so mad that he would not say a word to any of us all day. The old silent treatment.
We continued over the hill to Ellensburg then east to the Vantage bridge across the Columbia then north to Quincy. then west about fifteen miles to Columbia Siding. In those days the only road west from Quincy to Wenatchee, Washington crossed the Columbia River there on a ferry. The road was a narrow winding trail down a long steep hill with many places having room for only one way traffic as it wound its way along the side of a deep canyon; there were no guard rails and a few turnouts to pass oncoming cars. Many places had over a hundred-foot drop off over the side and when you met someone going the other way, one would have to back up to the nearest turnout. The longest hill was about five miles. Weir led, then Ed, then us as we started down. The lead car was carrying far too big a load for safety, about six hundred pounds of iron in the back seat. Now to help you understand the events I must explain some of the peculiarities of a Model T Ford.
They were small and high, rather top heavy. They had no foot throttle but the speed was controlled by a hand lever on the steering column. They had no hand controlled gearshift nor brakes in the wheels except the emergency brakes which were hand operated and made of cast iron. They were not designed for stopping but rather to hold while stopped. If used to try to stop they were very weak and would heat and break up in a few yards.
The shift and brake controls were three pedals side by side on the floor, operated by the feet. The one to the left was the clutch and shift. When held half way down the car was out of gear, when held to the floor the car was in low gear and when let all the way up or released the car was in high gear.
By holding the left pedal half way down and holding the center pedal down hard the car was in reverse. The third pedal was the brake. The brakes were not in the wheels but in the transmission. All three controls had brake-like linings in the transmission and needed relining often. All three controls had a braking effect. You could jam it into reverse or low and it helped till the linings wore out.
We started down the longest grade. Soon Frank Weir began to drive faster and we tried to keep up. Faster and faster he went and we could not keep up but kept a constant watch over the side to see if he had gone over the edge. The road was very narrow and at places we could see where a fender had plowed into the bank on the uphill side of the road, trying to slow down that way. We knew he had lost all control except the steering wheel and kept a sharp eye to the bottom of the canyon expecting to see the wreckage there. Fortunately no one was coming up the grade. He ran out of control for about two miles and there we found him unharmed but shaken. He had pulled off the road onto a sagebrush flat. There he still sat in the car silent and ashen. I do not suppose his speed record for that hill has ever been broken. There we stopped for the night and made camp. We spent all the next day there and did a partial overhaul in the sagebrush beside the road. We had enough spare parts and tools to do the job as was the custom; to travel prepared. In those days help was usually far away.
The next day we crossed the Columbia on the ferry and not far from there at the foot of Tarpistian canyon was Coffin Bros. shearing shed. This was a miserable place where the wind blew almost every day with near hurricane force and the air was full of sand and tumbleweeds. It was impossible to keep the sand out of the food and beds. The winds delayed the shearing schedule; we could only work about half the time. Sometimes the herds could not arrive on time and sometimes visability was so bad we would have to shut down. It took ten days to do a week's work. Men were all in a bad mood.
Ed and Jack were at odds about something and would not speak to each other. This caused something to happen that is funny now but it was not then but shows how child-like grownups can be.
Because they traveled together and had much in common they had to communicate but when they would not talk to each other this was difficult. But being used to difficulties they soon worked out a system, a sample follows.
As we were all sitting around in hearing distance of each other Ed might say "Ralph ask Jack if I can borrow his jackknife." Jack wouldnot answer until I said "Jack can Ed borrow your jackknife?" Jack's answer, "Ralph ask Ed what he wants it for?" no answer until I repeat "Jack wants to know what you want it for?" Tell Jack, 'I have a sliver.'" "Ed has a sliver." "OK but tell Ed to give it right back." "Jack says O.K. but give it right back." Then Jack gives me the knife and I give it to Ed and wait while he removes the sliver so he can hand the knife to me and I can hand it back to Jack. I must wait or there is no way to get the knife back to Jack. We put up with this childishness for about three days then we all refused to be a part of it. The outs quit as quickly as they had started, everything back to normal as though nothing had ever happened. Sometimes these exchange conversations lasted as long as fifteen minutes.
I thought of Shakespeare's words in Midsummer Night's Dream I had read in high school, "Lord what fools we mortals be."
Many similar things happened and I have often wondered why. I think it must be because of boredom and loneliness. Because of lack of family men alone often do strange things to pass the time or get attention. Such as they may be mad at someone and will not talk to them but will play cards with them or borrow from them tobacco or money or sometimes give everyone the silent treatment, a kind of game of "guess what I'm mad about," a game of charades.
We finished there and were on the road again, heading for Oregon. We drove through Pasco and on to Pendleton, Oregon then on through LaGrande to Union, Oregon. We had one particular fear as we entered this area, there were many sage ticks and they are sometimes carriers of fever known as spotted or Rocky Mountain fever, a deadly illness from which few people afflicted survive. We stopped for an hour to visit a former shearer who had contracted it a year before. He had survived but looked like a walking skeleton and was very weak, he had not yet recovered.
The ticks are a small reddish brown insect a little smaller than most lady-bugs. They hatch in the early spring then crawl up on a bush or tree and wait for any warm blooded animal including man to pass to use for a host. They drop onto the host and crawl beneath the wool, hair or clothing; then they make a hole in the skin and burrow their entire head beneath the skin then suck blood until they are inflated to about the size of a brown bean or coffee bean. This sounds painful but it is not for some reason; it causes no feeling whatsoever but the infection afterward is very painful and if the particular tick is a carrier of fever it usually resulted in death.
Although it is frightening to see so many on the shearing floor, it is less dangerous than walking through the brush for they are already full of sheep blood and will not bite again as that cycle of their life is over.
We left Union City and traveled to the next shearing site about fifteen miles east on a sagebrush flat. This proved to be one of the most eventful places we sheared.
The owner there was of Scottish ancestry and talked with a slight burr and it was rumored that he was very tight with money. If I remember correctly his name was MacKay.
We arrived in the late evening and the weather was nice so did not pitch our tent that day but made our beds on some straw next to a board fence for it made a good windbreak. The corral was empty and so would be no problem. We were tired and soon comfortably asleep.
Just as the first rays of dawn, about three a.m, we were literally blasted out of sleep by a terrible noise like demons from hell or like a rusty hand-saw striking nails and knots. It was a crunching, groaning, wheezing, screeching wail with gasps for breath, amplified ten thousand times. It was really a serenade by two Rocky Mountain canaries disguised as mules - a pack train had arrived after we were asleep.
The mules had been put in the empty corral we had bedded next to, the two of them had cut loose at once with their heads over the fence, not three feet above our faces. I will never forget that alarm nor will I bed down by an empty corral until I am assured, it will remain so.
That day we pitched our tent about a hundred yards from the shearing shed and set up equipment. That evening the owner showed up and informed me he already had a wool tyer. I explained I had been traveling with the crew and if I could stay and keep camp I would pay board at the cook shack. He said I could stay and eat with the others but it would cost me nothing.
However, the next day I had a job again. When the owner found that the man he had hired had never tied wool before, he came to the tent and asked me to do the job. I accepted and the man he had hired before was used as the sacker. However nothing was said about pay and no arrangement was made. The other men that worked for him warned me about how tight he was and said they only made two dollars and a half a day and unless I had an agreement, he would probably pay me as a kid about one and a half dollars a day. But I never asked him or had any agreement until the run was finished a little over a week later.
On the last night we sat around the bonfire as he paid everyone and I was the last. Then he said to me "Well, kid, we did not make an agreement so what do I pay you?" They all sat waiting to say "I told you so."
My answer was, "Every place else has paid me 4¢ per fleece and my board." He replied "That is fine with me and if you are in this part of the country next shearing time you have a job waiting. I am glad you came along because your tying and grading gave me the best grade of wool ever and also saved many wool sacks."
The pay came to $9.60 a day and board and those wranglers with their poor advice and $2.50 per day were fit to be tied. I learned when you are willing to work and produce, someone is willing to pay what you are worth. There is more reason to hire you if you are willing to put out more than you expect to be paid. The employer is entitled to a fair profit.
At the MacKay ranch I learned much about men. In those days prohibition was the federal law and most shearers were hard drinking men, so were often contacted by bootleggers and moonshiners. As we sat in a circle around the campfire one evening a local moonshiner joined the circle with his sample bottle. He was a tall mean looking man with a long reddish handlebar moustache stained with tobacco juice. The bottle passed from man to man, each took a swig, cringed and shuddered (like he was strangling), then said how good it was.
I was about midway around the circle from the moonshiner when the bottle was handed to me. Not being a drinking man, I handed to the man to my left. The moonshiner quickly stood up and said "Boy you didn't take a drink." My reply: "I don't drink."
He was evidently his own best customer and it affected his judgment. He got the bottle, saying "I am from Kentucky and where I come from it is an insult not take a drink when offered and I make good whiskey, so this time your gonta drink." He took the bottle and started for me.
I never moved but he never made it. Those partly drunk men jumped to their feet and shouted "The boy doesn't drink and we wish to God we didn't..." They picked up stones and started stoning him as he ran for his life and they shouted after him "If you come back here again we will kill you." And I believe they would.
I would like to boast that I was brave but I was really scared stiff until I believe I could not have moved. However, I learned that if you ever take a stand alone for what you believe to be right you will be surprised by who will stand with you.
By what had happened I learned that these men respected me and counted me as equal. They recognized that as I was dependent on them so also they were dependent on me for by not drinking I was always sober and when we would go into town on occasions they would leave their money in my care for fear they would get drunk and lose it at cards or be rolled and robbed and when they sobered up I would hand it back and they would peel off a bill and reward me.
I mentioned earlier that Ed fisher talked often about reincarnation but we did not take him seriously, thinking he was just being entertaining. This was the cause of a fist fight between Ed and Jack at this location and when I used the word between them that is exactly what it was.
Remember Jack was a big man and Ed a small man and as they were shearing next to each other Jack started shearing a ramhouilet sheep and this was a breed that had very fine wool and many wrinkles of loose skin around the neck and shoulders, it rather hung in folds. They were very difficult to shear and often resulted in the shears cutting the skin in many places. The shearers referred to this as cutting button holes. As Jack wrestled with one he suddenly straightened up and drawled "Say Ed, I hope when you die you turn into a rambouilet. I would sure like to cut you full of button holes."
In a fit of rage Ed threw down his clippers and charged at Jack with his fists flying. Jack was startled but reached out his arms in time catching Ed under the arm pits with his hands. he lifted him until his feet were off the floor and held him at arms length as Ed yelled and beat the air never being able to reach far enough to land a blow. Finally Ed, tired of beating the air, gradually slowed down and stopped like a spring wound toy running down. That was truly a fight between men, not one blow ever made contact. Jack let him down. They stared at each other for a few moments then both went back to work but there was silence for a while.
Never take another man's statements about his religion lightly, it may appear ridiculous to you, it may be very personal with him. It is one thing to disagree and totally another to ridicule.
The next fight was between the cook and a herder. We had just finished the evening meal in the cook shack but lingered over coffee and conversation. Of all the sheep that are hard to herd are yearlings. They are the teenagers of the flock and sometimes unpredictable. In the evening one will jump straight up about a foot. stiff legged, then another, then several, then they start to run. Then the herd joins the fun and off they all go. If you run after them, you become part of the game and they may take off across country for a mile. The usual method is to yell and beat on an old oil can or anything to make a lot of noise and they will circle and come back.
An old hand likes to educate a green horn by sending him after the sheep. They will tire him out and nearly run him to death. They have many other exasperating things they do.
That evening one of the herders was arguing about who could herd yearlings the best. Tempers were rising to a boil as each tried to outdo the other in noncomplimentary remarks about each other, punctuated by descriptive profanity.
The cook had just completed a masterpiece aimed at the herder. Then he turned his back on him and went to tend something on the stove. The herder sat silently brooding, not being able to come up with anything to top the last volley. He sat for a moment of silence then let fly with a heavy coffee mug aimed at the cook. It struck the cook on the head and caromed off.
The cook reached over the stove and grabbed a cleaver and headed for the herder who was headed for the door. Out they flew, the herder running for his life and the cook in hot pursuit, waving the cleaver and cursing. They made a couple of laps around the cookshack before we got them stopped. The cook would have killed him had he been able to catch him. These were violent men.
The boss heard the racket and came to see what was up. The cook said if that herder ever set foot in the cook shack he would kill him. The boss knew something had to be done, he was a good arbitrator and worked out a solution as the herder had to eat someplace. It was agreed he would never enter the cook shack. The cook would dish up a meal and set it on the porch where the dogs ate, then the herder could come there and get it. He was not to come closer than twenty feet before the cook reentered the shack. And that was abided by for the rest of the run.
For every problem there is a solution. Eating with the dogs may not be the most pleasant way but it beats being hungry or being divided by a cleaver.
Once an agreement was reached these violent men could be counted on to keep their word. It is not the clothes or education that make a man, but his trustworthiness when the chips are down. Keeping a promise is one of man's greatest responsibilities and his greatest asset.
Here at this location near Union City I started a new business, a side line to do in the evening. Shearing is done in the spring when the weather is changeable and often cold so to keep from catching cold the shearers dress the same, each wearing heavy cotton drawers and undershirt and white cotton sox. Over these white duck overalls but no shirt but keep a jacket near by. Because of the action of the work the underwear is soon damp with sweat so when they stop for noon dinner they change to a dry outfit then on finishing at the end of the day they change again. This takes two changes a day and a lot of washing. The men usually washed their own but did not like to so I borrowed a wash tub from the cook and some soap. I put the tub over a bonfire for hot water and nailed a coffee can onto the end of a stick and was in business. I washed drawers for twenty five cents, undershirts for the same and sox a dime a pair. One hot wash, one cold rinse, and hung on a sagebrush to dry. They all thought this a bargain and business prospered. I called it a labor of love; they loved to have me do it and I loved the money.
We finished there and moved on to a place near Durkey, Oregon. twenty miles from Baker at the Lee and Sons shearing site on the Burnt River, where there was a hot sulphur spring and a cold clear spring and lots of rattlesnakes and ticks by the million so thick on the shearing floor it was like someone had spilled fifty pounds of coffee beans.
Mr. Lee was typical of many early westerners. He had no formal education and could neither read nor write but he was a shrewd businessman, owning over twenty-two thousand head of sheep and about the same number of cattle. He was worth well over a million dollars. I doubt if he owned any dress clothes better than overalls and I remember him saying "Believe me I will not pay any barber fifty cents" (that was the going price in those days) "to cut my hair, my wife cuts it."
At this location there were ten shearers and it took them twelve days to shear the twenty-two thousand. Really only nine sheared most of the time as this large crew kept Weir busy sharpening blades most of the time. They averaged about two hundred per man a day. This is where I saw the shotgun of the crew, Carl Turner shear two hundred forty-four in nine hours, the regular work day.
There were two women cooks here and one of them said she would like some rattlesnake rattles for a nephew. The camprider whose work was to go to each herd camp every day to keep them informed of the schedule and to furnish supplies told the herders and two days later when he returned he brought her a pint jar full of rattles. Each camp tends about a thousand or so sheep.
Here also the washing was a snap, no fire needed, only a piece of wire to fasten the clothes to and toss them in the hot sulphur spring for about a minute then rinse quickly or it would eat them to shreds.
One day when work was stopped for some reason for about twenty minutes we were relaxing waiting to start up again when a big diamond back rattler crawled out from somewhere to the middle of the shearing floor right among us.
Every night when we went to bed we first shook out the blankets to make sure none had crawled in and every morning between our tent and the shed a distance of a couple hundred feet there would be the tracks where several rattlers had crawled across the dusty path.
The ticks were very thick and our next stop was to be in Idaho where it was rumored they were worse and also a rumor of spotted fever there so I decided this was the end so when we finished I took my bed roll and headed for home.
While waiting for a train at Pasco, Washington I went to a carnival near the depot to pass the time. I watched some men gambling by swinging a ball on a cord to try and knock over a bowling pin. This was known to be a crooked game but I was tempted and stepped up with my bed roll over my back and several hundred dollars in my pocket.
I looked like a pennyless bum and the man in the booth thinking I was said "get out of here kid and let the players have room."
I took his advice.
The next week in my hometown, Snohomish, I was dressed up and clean, the same man in the same carnival begged me to play, I said "I will not play as I have no money but I will tell you a story." I told him of the former incident and informed him my money was now all safe in the bank. I think I was a winner.
In those few months I did a lot of growing up and also had a quick glimpse of the vanishing early west with its violence and comedy.