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Copyright 2011 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

Charlie's Cowponies

By Jane Lambert, Stevensville , MT

Excerpted from her new book,

“Charlie Russell–The Cowboy Years”

 

October 2011 issue

  

      Charlie Russell had a love affair with the West and spent his life documenting her beauty both in the written word and in pictures; what is perhaps not so well known is his love for his horses. They played an important role in his life as a necessary mode of transportation and as partners in the adventure. This section catalogs those horses and the part they played in Charlie’s life.

 

Montana Monte

      In 1880, at age 16, Charles M. Russell bought a rather plain looking, bay pinto horse from a Piegan chief named Bad Wound, as he had been shot in the face. Charlie named the horse “Montana Monte.” After many years together, Russell said of his horse:

I don’t think he owes me anything. We were kids together, and I have ridden him and packed him thousands of miles. We have always been together. People know me, know him. We don’t exactly talk, but we sure savvy one another…

 

 

Charles M. Russell and Monte. Circa 1883, when Russell was 19 years old. Towner & Runsten photograph, Mandan , Dakota Territory . Donated to Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, Helena , Montana , by Ben Roberts, Helena , Montana .

 

      Monte’s tale begins in a Crow camp on the Greybull River in Wyoming . He was foaled about 1875, from a well respected old pinto mare. She had given her owner many buffalo runners and carried a medicine bag woven into her mane. By the time the colt was five, the young pinto was himself an accomplished buffalo runner and constantly on the move with his Crow owner, following the great nomadic herds.

      About 1880, hunting took them into Blackfoot country, which was very dangerous as the Blackfoot were enemies, well armed, and skillful at taking horses. For protection, the Crows had circled their lodges and picketed their horses in the center. However, as they slept, 10 Piegan warriors (a branch of Blackfoot) slipped into camp and loosened as many horses as they could. They mounted up and, waving their robes, spooked the Crow horses out of camp. Dogs were barking, people were screaming, and the half-asleep warriors were firing into the darkness, as their horses stampeded out into the night. Monte’s unfortunate rider caught a Crow bullet and bled profusely over his mane and back before falling off and being lost in the darkness.

      The Piegans and their stampeding horses kept a steady pace until dawn’s first light, when it was noticed they were missing a party member. When Chief Bad Wound’s loop dropped over the pinto’s head, he noticed the dried blood and knew what had happened to the missing warrior, Calf Robe. Bad Wound removed the rope, pulled out his rifle, and shot the horse as he was returning to the herd. The little pinto dropped like a rock and lay still. Bad Wound said, “It was not good to let a friend walk to the sand hills. The trail is long, and I have given him a strong horse.”

      After mounting fresh horses, they rode on to a deep, grassy meadow where they rested until evening. When they were again ready to move, Bad Wound scanned the passing herd with his one good eye, sucked in his breath, and exclaimed, “Ghost Horse!” There, bloody but alive, was the same pinto horse—he had only been stunned by the bullet. There was much feasting and celebrating when the Indians joined their camp on the Teton River . Everyone celebrated but Calf Robe’s family. Bad Wound came to the slain rider’s father with three horses, saying:

Old Man, I would give you the horse your son rode, but he is a Ghost Horse. I tried to give him to your son, but he would not die… He is a good horse, but I will never ride him. My heart is afraid, and I have said that it is not good to give a friend what you fear yourself.

 

            The next spring, young “Kid” Russell and Jake Hoover showed up at the Indian encampment to buy some horses. After some negotiating and an exchange of $45, the “Ghost Horse” had a new owner—Charlie Russell. The horse was described as a typical Indian cayuse[1], weighing about 850 pounds, 

with slim legs, short coupling, and a deep chest. He obviously had a lot of strength and stamina for his size.

      The next few weeks, no doubt, proved a steep learning and training curve for both parties, as the newly christened Montana Monte was used to Indian equipment and methods. Gradually, he was introduced to a bit and headstall instead of a half hitch around his jaw. He also had to learn to carry a double-rigged saddle and be mounted from the left side. Once they came to an understanding, though, a lifetime bond was secured.…

 

Grey Eagle

      …One hot, dry fall in 1891, Russell threw his saddle on Grey Eagle, packed Monte, and headed out from Chinook for Great Falls —about a 50-mile trip. A cowboy companion, Hank Stough, accompanied him. On the second day out, they got to the last water for the next 6 hours. All that was there were some putrid mud holes, and the horses would not drink. Leaving the creek bottom required a hard scramble up a series of steep cut banks. The big surprise, when they got to the top, was a dozen wolves lolling in the waist-high grass! Both horses went on the alert, shook their heads, and snorted their alarm, but didn’t panic. Charlie’s heart went to his throat with the thought of a stampede back over the steep bank behind him. Trust and training paid off, and at Russell’s urging, they powered through the wolves and hightailed it across the flats.

 

Charles M. Russell, Self Portrait with Grey Eagle. Courtesy R.W. Norton Art Gallery , Shrevepoint , Louisiana .

 

      Later, when asked what the wolves did, Charlie said, “Just showed their teeth and grinned… they didn’t try and follow us. They might in winter, but probably they weren’t hungry.”

      Charlie and Hank pushed their horses hard and fast to the next water, which they found after dark. Charlie noticed the horses seemed awfully choosy about drinking, considering the day they’d had. He himself got down on all fours, and then he noticed the water didn’t smell too good, and that, in lapping it up, he was getting soft particles on his tongue. He sieved the water through his neckerchief to drink, but it was the next morning before he discovered the soft stuff in his mouth were maggots—floated over from the dead cow at the end of the pond.…

 

     The stories of both Montana Monte and Grey Eagle can be read in their entirety in “Charlie Russell–The Cowboy Years.” The meticulously-researched book features stories of Russell’s cronies, horses, old photos, and art from the eleven years he spent on the range. To purchase a copy for $24 (includes shipping), contact the author at: 677 Pine Hollow Rd. , Stevensville , MT 59870 ; 406-777-5988.

Copyright 2011 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

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