We had the privilege of living in Montana from January of 1969 to June of 1972.

For those who have never traveled east on the Lolo Pass, when you cross the border from Idaho to Montana, you will notice a change. You will breathe deeper, you can see farther and you sense you are in an unforgettable place.  It is “the land of the Shining Mountains,” the “Big Sky Country,” and it is the land of the northern cowboy.

We lived in Billings, but we rented a little cabin on Rock Creek just six miles from Red Lodge, Montana.

Our friends Jack and Barbara Yelich lived in Red Lodge with their six children and we were particularly close to their son, Joel, who was 6 years old.

My husband bought Joel a cowboy hat, belt and boots, and when Joel heard our pickup drive up his street he raced upstairs to get ready and met us at the door decked out in his cowboy duds.

My husband would say, “Joel, are you ready to go to the cabin?” 

“Yup,” he would answer.  He was a “yup” and “nope” kind of a boy — he didn’t complain and was always ready for an adventure.

Down the dirt road from our cabin lived Buster Hughes.  He was 65 years old and had been a wrangler for Yellowstone Park most of his life. 

The park service let him go when he was eligible for Social Security so he took a job as the wrangler for the Piney Dell Resort, just across Rock Creek from our cabins.

Buster wore pointy-toed cowboy boots, a tall cowboy hat, Levi jeans, flowered cowboy shirts with pearl buttons and some of yesterday’s lunch was on the front of his shirt. His tummy kept him from sitting close to the table.

Buster had a pack horse string and kept them in the pole corrals just behind our cabin.

Little Joel Yelich spent most of the summer weekends with us in our one-room cabin. Joel had watched Buster training pack horses by tying cans of rocks to the pack saddles to get the horses accustomed to carrying a load that would shift and rattle. Joel wanted to know if that was how you trained saddle horses.

Buster thought the world of Joel and dreamed up a scheme to have a little fun with the boy.

He asked Joel if he would like to try riding a wild bronc.

“Yup,” Joel answered.

Buster chose George, a 35-year-old sorrel gelding who was turning white from years of mountain use.

He snubbed George to a corral post and covered the horse’s eyes with an old burlap sack. Buster found a smaller saddle and adjusted the stirrups, then explained to Joel when he took the blindfold off and untied him, the horse was bound to start bucking.  Joel was instructed to keep a tight rein and keep those feet in the stirrups.

This serious little boy took in all the instructions then told Buster he was ready.

Buster untied the horse and pulled the blindfold off.  George just stood there. 

Buster said, “By golly Joel, you’ve done it — you have broken that horse and I think he’s plumb scared.” 

Joel broke out in a big grin, slapped the stirrups against George’s side and spent nearly every weekend the rest of the summer astride George.

He made every pack trip possible that summer and fall, including a hunting trip into Snow Creek, an elk camp set up at the 11,000-foot level. The men were lost for a time and finally made their way sometime after midnight to their camp. My husband was on that trip and told me they were all cold, wet and hungry, but Joel never complained.

Of course, that is not the only fun Buster had with Joel.

We had a phone call from Joel’s mother in early September telling us we had to do something about Joel.

Sometime during the summer, Buster told Joel that cowboys don’t take baths. School was about to start and his mother could not get her son to bathe. 

Buster had to go back on his word a little. He told Joel that cowboys did have to bathe when they went to school. That satisfied Joel and he quit putting up a fight about the bath.

Buster the wrangler has been gone for many years — but little Joel is now 47 years old and holds a Ph.D. in Animal Science, Breeding and Reproduction from Oklahoma State University.

Of course, Montana isn’t the home of all cowmen — plenty have lived right here in Eastern Oregon.

Some of my favorites were Paul Rice, Sr., Gerald Swaggart, Tripper Rice and Harold Smith of Pilot Rock, who rolled his own cigarettes from the cigarette papers and pipe tobacco he kept in his shirt pocket. You should have seen him astride his horse Sparkplug rolling a cigarette! 

There was Charlie Kopp, the cattleman from Pilot Rock.  I can still see him on horseback, working the cattle on the National Forest, dressed in a Levi jacket, Levi jeans, an old sweat-stained gray cowboy hat and a Wonder Bread sack with his lunch tied to his saddle horn.

And there are cowboys still living like Claud Smith, Leo Doherty, Ross Westberg, Riley Brown and Rawley Bigsby.

When you get a chance, listen to the song by “The Sons of the San Joaquin,” titled, From Whence Came the Cowboy.

We’ll save the story of cowgirls for another time.

Bonnie Sager of Pilot Rock has lived in Umatilla County most of her life. She works for a local health insurance company and is married to Scott. They have three daughters, Shelley, Kelly and Jodi and six grandchildren. She loves being in the mountains, cooking, walking and observing birds, wildflowers and nature in general.

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