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Copyright 2013 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.

 

Winter was Tough on Cowboys

  in the Open Range Era…


Excerpted from Charlie Russell—The Cowboy Years

By Jane Lambert, Stevensville, MT

 

December 2013 issue  

 

Winter was Tough on Cowoboys by Jane Lambert

Charlie Russell in the early days.

 

Living on sourdough bread and coffee…

     Con Price has a long recollection of spending the early winter (1890) with Charlie and three others. He wrote:

     “They throwed together a log cabin on Warm Spring Creek, in the Judith Basin country… It had a dirt roof, dirt floor. Our cooking utensils were a frying pan and a coffee pot, and very little grub, as we were all broke when the winter came on.

     “No stove, we cooked on a kind of fireplace we built. No table, a few tin plates, empty corn cans for cups. We lived on sourdough bread and coffee, and once in awhile we’d find a maverick. We had one horse among all of us, and we would take turns saddling that horse, and go out and look for some meat.

     “There were thousands of cattle everywhere, and I don’t think we looked too close to see if an animal had a brand or not. We called it a maverick, no questions asked. The cowmen weren’t too severe about a cowboy eating a piece of their meat once in awhile, as long as they didn’t make a business of selling it.  

 

     “We had no chairs— we sawed the butt end off a few old trees, and used them to sit on. When Grub Pile was ready, each one grabbed his tin plate, loaded her up, sat on his tree stump, and ate. When I look back now, I believe a bunch of coyotes lived more civilized than we did.”

     Civilized or not, they were a really mixed bunch. George, a teamster, with a broken leg caused by an overturned freight wagon, was on crutches and in a lot of pain. Charlie “doctored” him, using a combination of whiskey and physical therapy; the whiskey was the better part of that treatment.

     One guy’s hobby was boxing, and he hung his war bag from the ceiling as a bunching bag, raising so much dust he nearly choked the prostrate George. The last guy, Lin, had a penchant for singing when they were going to bed. Con wrote:

     “He couldn’t sing at all — no tune to his voice, and he had an impediment in his speech, so you couldn’t hardly tell what he was singing. He knew the longest songs I ever heard. One night when he was singing, he kind of stopped. George said, ‘Thank you, Lin. Now let’s get to sleep.’

     “Lin said, ‘Hell, I ain’t half through with this song yet!”

     George moaned, “Oh, my God!”

     It’s no wonder that this partnership didn’t make it through the whole winter. By February, Charlie had quit the outfit and traveled to Lewistown.  

 

 

The Red Onion

     Charlie had missed the fall gather in riding the 125 miles to Great Falls , so he was broke and winter was coming on. He found a shack on the south side of town and threw in with a mixed bunch: cowboys Con Price, Al Malison, Henry Snider, and Henry Stough; a roundup cook; a gambler, George Speck; and an out-of-work prize fighter, Red.

     Charlie described their abode, which was christened “The Red Onion” as follows:

     “It was one of those old-fashioned tar paper wickiups with buttons on it, and ‘twas quite a long walk from Central Avenue . We didn’t have no beds; the dirt floor was our bunk. We had dry good boxes for chairs; there was a small stove, a few pans, and some kettles.

     “I remember the water turned on outdoors — there wasn’t no connections inside. Whenever we wanted water, we had “Iron-Jawed” Henry Stough turn on the valve with his teeth. We couldn’t git a drink of water unless he was around.

     “You see, the truth is, we didn’t have no permit from the waterworks, and we figured a monthly bill’d be a nuisance, as long as Hank could turn the trick. We called Hank our “water key.”

     Gambler George Speck was also a valuable member of the team, as described by Charlie in the following colorful manner:

     “He had more’n ordinary savvy ‘bout the games they was runnin’ over on Central Avenue , and was more’n welcome. When he’d make a cleanin’, he’d show up with grub and refreshments for the gang us.”  

 

     Con Price added a few more details to the picture:

     “We had some queer characters as guests. Broken gamblers, cowboys, horse thieves, cattle rustlers — in fact, everybody that his town broke seemed to find the Red Onion to get something to eat. Among them all, it was hard to get anyone to cook or wash the dishes, but at mealtimes, we had a full house.”

     The main support for everyone that winter was Charlie’s art and Speck’s winning streaks, and they got by through the winter.

 

Keeping the local chicken coops from becoming overcrowded…

     With winter coming on (1892), a group of seven decided to throw in together in Chinook for the duration. The bunch — labeled the “Hungry Seven” or the “Lousy Seven,” depending on your source — included the following: Charlie Russell, Al Malison, John Thompson, Tony Crawford, John Turnbull, Kid Lowrey, and George Barrows. Other sources say the seven were Charlie Russell, Al Malison, John Thompson, Tony Crawford, Slim Trumbel, Kid Price, and Bob Stuart.  

 

     The boys pooled their money at the start of the winter, bought staples, and set up camp. It didn’t take long for their money and their staples to disappear and hunger to set in. Charlie and Kid Price became experts at keeping the local chicken coops from becoming overcrowded. Bob Stuart told it like this:

     “Kid an’ Charlie invented all kinds of ways of ketchin’ fowl. I’ve seen ‘em bait a fish hook and throw the line in a coop, tryin’ to snare a hen. And I remember the boys tried to feed the chickens whiskey-soaked corn, so they’d fall over in a drunk stupor and not squawk so loud.

     “Kester (a town dweller) had a fine bunch of chickens, which was too much of a temptation for the boys. So one night, Charlie and the Kid makes up their minds to raid Kester’s hen house. Russ stands guard, while the Kid goes in to git the birds.

     “Russ is supposed to give the high sign if anything turns up, and it sure does. Kester comes to the back door of his house. Charlie sees him and, in his excitement, pushes the chicken house door closed an’ rushes for our cabin as fast as he kin run, leavin’ the Kid to the mercy of Kester, if he should be found.  

 

     “Kester does go out, loaded for bear, but findin’ the doors closed, goes back to the house and the Kid soon arrives at the cabin with some fine birds.

     “We proceed to git ‘em ready for eating, as we don’t wish to wait for mornin’. We don’t know what might turn up, and we sure want to be sure we know where we are. We’ve got the chickens ‘bout done, and the table’s set, when there’s a loud knock on the door. Russ grabs the hot fryin’ pan and pushes it under one of the bunks.

     “When we open the door, there stands Frank O’Neal, the sheriff.

     “You kin almost hear those fellers’ teeth chatter. Frank hears the chicken frying in the grease under the bed, and he says, “You’re having’ a feast, ain’t you? Well, go ahead. All I want is to git a couple of you fellers as witnesses on a case that’s coming up in Fort Benton .”

     Kester never really did know who got his chickens, but when he goes into the house that night, he tells his wife he sure wishes he “coulda got a shot at that feller who got away.”

     As the winter went on, the boys were getting in tough straits. Charlie’s credit at the local grocery store ran out, the chicken supply dwindled, and things really got tight. Charlie started painting pictures, and Kid Lowry was selling them as soon as the paint had set. Charlie remarked that he “had to paint awfully fast in those days, for the boys had to have lots of likker.”

     Somewhere along the line, the big cattlemen in Helena heard about the “Hungry Seven,” took pity on them, and got word to Al Malison to butcher a beef. They didn’t want any good cowpunchers starving to death before spring.  

 

 

     “Charlie Russell–The Cowboy Years,” is a meticulously-researched book which features stories of Russell’s cronies, horses, old photos, and art from the eleven years he spent on the range. The author has recently released an expanded second-edition which includes additional oral histories from people who knew Russell.

     To purchase a copy for $24 (includes shipping), contact the author at: 677 Pine Hollow Rd. , Stevensville , MT 59870 ; 406-777-5988.

 

Copyright 2013 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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