Back in the days before satellite TV, cellphones, video players, Netflix and laptops, many ranchers in the West were isolated from civilization. Most had landline telephone service if they were able to string the phone line along fences from the paved road to the headquarters, which often was miles away. And electricity often came from gas-driven generators. You got mail three days a week.
I remember when Mr. Simplot bought the Alder Creek Ranch 20 miles west of Denio, Nev., on the Oregon line, 162 miles from Winnemucca, the nearest town with a barbershop and a politician. I made the trip at least three times a year — at preg-checkin’, bull testing and branding.
I’m guessing they had anywhere from 10 to 15 people living there permanently: the boss and his family; Hazel was the cook; Jim was the mechanic; maybe a married cowboy; a couple Basque fence builders; someone who could drive the haying machinery; a hired man; and four single cowboys.
Visitors, the Bureau of Land Management and strangers were welcomed warily. It was not uncommon for one or two of the hired helpers to be running from the law. Alder Creek was a good hideout. The new young veterinarian drew lots of scrutiny. One trip, I loaded in the pickup with a tough looking cowboy. They called him Tombstone. He rattled off down the road to Knott Creek. He was not really friendly, mostly grunts. Finally, he broke the ice,
“What the heck kind of name is Baxter?”
I said, “Well, it sure beats Francis!”
After a day’s work, we would go to the bunkhouse, do the chores, then clean up and join everyone at the cookhouse for supper. Most times, with the exception of the boss’s wife and Hazel, the company was all men. Baskos, cowboys, prospectors, farmhands, fugitives, mechanics, loners and visiting veterinarians sat around the 12-foot table talking and joking up a storm.
In those days, I always stuck my guitar in the vet truck when I worked the ranches and sheep camps. I’d break it out after supper, and maybe some of the others had instruments. I remember a gold miner who helped during roundup and shipping. He played Irish tunes on his mandolin. I was never quite sure if it was in Gaelic or Portuguese, but he was a hit. Entertainment, much less live entertainment, was a scarcity out there. You didn’t have to be good, just enthusiastic.
Albert was one of the cowboys who was a pretty good musician and knew lots of Western songs. One night, he offered to teach me some new songs. I said, “Great, take it away!” He said we’d have to go back to the bunkhouse because he was too shy to sing in front of everybody. After the group broke up, he took me into a small storeroom and gave me a private concert. I learned “Oh, My You’re a Dandy for 19 Years Old,” “The Little Brown Shack” and “The Castration of the Strawberry Roan.” Classic country, I guess.
Albert and I stayed in touch. He moved around and so did I. He passed away not long ago. His nephew called with the news. I don’t mourn Albert so much as remember the two of us, a lifetime ago, when we made our day’s work just a little easier for each other.
And I still owe him one. It was he who warned me about Tombstone. How else would I have known his name was Francis?