When Maynard Lehman was 16, he and two Indian boys his age decided to rescue horses from the Sioux Reservation. “Any horse not branded or not running with its mother was called a slick. It belonged to anyone who put a brand on it. That rule didn’t hold true on the reservation because slicks belonged to the agency. Every two years they held a roundup and the white guys who ran the roundup would take any horse that looked good for themselves. The Indians didn’t like the practice any more than I did, so we decided to hold our own roundup.”
Lehman paused to envision his small roan roping horse and the forty-five slicks they rounded up. Grinning, he said the three boys had first located an abandoned spread and repaired the pasture fence. Following the roundup they corralled the horses in the pasture until they learned that members of the Indian agency were on their trail.
“It was raining and dark as the inside of a boot when we got what we could out of the pasture. By daylight we were across the state line, but we only had 36 head.“ The horses were driven to the Lehman’s North Dakota ranch where they were sold, and the Indian teens returned to the reservation. There they were arrested and placed in the county jail. Lehman wasn’t sure whether they were charged with horse theft and never returned to find out.
That spring the young cowpoke drove 12 horses on a triple plow to break up alfalfa sod that gone to grass. He said, “When we started I had four gentle horses and eight broncs. The boss rode alongside to keep them in line while I sat on the plow with a handful of reins. After the second day the boss turned me loose with the outfit, so I learned to drive early on.”
That winter Lehman supplemented his meager income with coyote pelts. “The first winter we had pretty good luck. We got about 35.” The ranch owner had a pack of hounds “and we put ‘em on the front bobs with a rack on it. When we’d spot some coyotes, we’d open the rack and turn ‘em loose. Then they’d run the coyotes down. Coyotes weren’t that speedy but the dogs wouldn’t kill ‘em, so you had to have a killer among the pack, which was generally a Russian wolfhound. The dogs would knock the coyotes down and play with ‘em until the killer came along and grabbed ‘em.” The coyotes were skinned and sold to fur houses for $7-$8 apiece. “Pretty good pay in those days. If you could catch one a day, you were doing good.”
Good food depended on the ranch. “When I was working at the Venables, Herm had just married and his wife couldn’t boil water. She’d put on a pot of beans half an hour before dinner and they’d rattle on your plate. At the SY Ranch I was the cook so we ate pretty good. The ranch was 45 miles from town and I cooked for the haying crew, but we didn’t have bread or butter. We had syrup and I made sourdough biscuits all the time, but we had lots of good meat and potatoes.”
With abundant cattle the cowboys didn’t waste time hunting game animals, and there were always plenty of bacon and ham. “We had purtinear every kind of canned food and we’d butcher a critter, usually a two-year old and hang ‘em up at night, propped on a wagon tongue. Leave ‘em out overnight and wrap ‘em [the following morning] in a blanket or tarp and put ‘em in the wagon. That meat would keep for a couple of weeks. It wouldn’t spoil and the older it got, the better it was.”
Lehman rode herd accompanied by chuck wagons several times before they were fazed out of cattle roundups. “Most of the ranches were smaller by then and didn’t use one. But the JK went together with the Birchers, and some others still used them for a couple more years. He knew a man whose lower arm had been blown off during the Johnson County War. “He was the cook for the LO outfit for a time. He made sourdough biscuits that would melt in your mouth. He showed me how to make ‘em but over the years I must have forgotten, ‘cause mine don’t turn out like his.”
The best part of cowboying, he said, was the comraderie among the men. “I really enjoyed it. In fact, I never enjoyed anything I’ve ever done as well. I would have chucked any job I’ve had since to go back on the range.”
(Continued next week . . .)