THE LAST OF THE 5000

      In the two years after Charley Russell arrived in the Judith Basin area of the Montana territory, the country filled with ranchers and their stock. The area was covered with a mixture of hardy, nutritional grasses.  Speculators abounded. At this time Russell was working as a nighthawk for a Horace Brewster; and as such, his duties included the safekeeping of several hundred mounts without the benefit of fences or help from sleeping comrades.

       In the winter of  '86 and '87, the first cold front hit in November.  More storms followed in December. A foot and a half of snow fell between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  What little hay they had, most ranchers fed to their horses.  In the meantime, the cattle drifted from the frozen high ranges to the bottom land and the sheltered coulees.  There was no food there but willows.  The first chinook arrived in January, with just enough warming to melt the snow on top.  Then it turned cold. On February 3 and 4 one of the worst blizzards in memory set in.  The snow crusted. The chinook had succeeded in sealing the ground with a layer of ice, which the cattle hooves could not penetrate. Before he died, Russell dictated to a stenographer this account of what happened.

       "The winter of '86 and'87 all men will remember. It was the hardest winter the open range ever saw. An awful lot of cattle died. The cattle would go in the brush and hump up and die there. They wasn't rustlers. A horse will paw and get grass, but a cow won't. Then the wolves fattened on the cattle.... Now I was living at the OH Ranch that winter. There were several men there, and among them was Jesse Phelps, the owner of the OH. One night, Jesse Phelps had got a letter from Louie Kaufman, one of the biggest cattlemen in the country, who lived in Helena, and Louie wanted to know how the cattle was doing, and Jesse says to me, 'I must write a letter to Louie and tell him how tough it is.'   I was sitting at the table with him and I said, 'I'll make a sketch to go with it.'   So I made one, a small water color about the size of a postal card, and I said to Jesse, 'Put that in your letter.'  He looked at it and said, 'Hell, he don't need a letter, this will be enough.'"

       On the bottom of a box, Russell completed one of his most memorable paintings.  In gray and brown and black colors, he painted a single steer with a Bar R branded on its hip.  It was standing in deep snow; with horns crooked and eyes hollow.  It's backbones and every rib were showing.  Wolves lurked in the background; and the steer's tail had been chewed to a nub. The forlorn steer stands lonely and alone.  Russell titled it "WAITING FOR A CHINOOK (THE LAST OF THE 5000)"

       Louie Kaufman gave the painting to a saddle-maker friend of Russell's, Ben Roberts.  Roberts displayed it on the wall of his shop where it collected grime for the next twenty-five years. Eventually, Roberts got the idea of reproducing it; and he printed postcards by the thousands.


 

THE LONELY ONE
   (Montana, 1886-1887

There used to be 5000 head.
Now there was only one instead...
a single steer...the lonely one...
the only one that wasn't dead.

Another day had just begun.
The steer's was dim and almost done.
A wolf pack gathered, lurking near-
but he was weak... too weak to run.

The wolf pack stalked the lonely steer...
almost gone, and filled with fear...
too weak to move...no place to go...
a victim of that fiendish year.

So gaunt and thin, with bones that show...
no food and forty plus below...
no letup in the bitter storm...
just slogging through more ice and snow.

Sleepy now and growing warm...
beyond the reach of further harm.
His torment done, the lonely one
walked toward the warm, warm sun.

                        Bette Wolf Duncan
                            copyright2000  



WAITING FOR THE CHINOOK
Redone by Charlie Russell in the early 1900s
Watercolor re-creation, due to demand for his first popular work in 1886

 




Drifting Before The Snow by Frederick Remington(1904)

5000 MINUS ONE

Sibilant and sonorous,
the gentle chinook breeze
hummed along and whistled
as it rustled through the trees…..
southeastward down the Rockies-
a tellin’ tales of spring;
southeastward, down the Rockies-
a smellin’ so like spring.
The pity is, the chinook breeze
swept down the slopes too late;
too late to warm and save from harm
a world that couldn’t wait.

The range turns cruel and vicious
when entombed beneath the snow;
when a savage blizzard’s ragin’
and it’s forty-plus below;
and the stock can’t find a shelter
’cuz there’s just no place t’ go;-
and the killer winds are slashin’
and it’s forty –plus below.
5000 waited for it…
the Chinook that didn’t come….
and all 5000 perished-
5000 minus one.

The blizzard flung its mortar out
and sepulchered in white
a weary world succumbing to
the blizzard’s savage bite.
It clamped its teeth into the herds
of white-man’s buffalo,
strugglin’ hard to hoof up grass
through ice-encrusted snow.
No food… no shelter…blizzard gales
a’ whippin’ cross the land….
the torment was beyond the scope
that man or beast could stand.

5000 waited for it-
a chinook- a ray of sun;
and all 5000 perished….
5000 minus one.
It’s temper bared, the blizzard sank
its fangs into their hides;
with not an ounce of pity shown
for suffering stock that died.
The warm Chinook too late exhaled
its thawing, spring-like breath….
too late for herds, all ice-interred,
that kept a date with death.

              Bette Wolf Duncan
               copyright©2001