The sun was not yet above the eastern horizon but seventeen-year-old Cliff Wolfe already dreaded the coming day. He alternated the ten horses in his string and this was the day that he would ride Jackhammer—by far the most dangerous horse in the bunch.
“I hated that horse!” Seventy-some years later, the vehemence in Wolfe’s voice emphasized the story. “He bucked every trip.” He would also strike, bite and kick any chance he got.
It was mid-July 1936. Wolfe was in his second year working for the McLeod Horse Ranch on the open ranges north of Wolf Point, Montana. He and five other young men and an older wagon boss had slept in their bedrolls on the ground near Cottonwood Creek and then eaten breakfast at the roundup wagon while it was still dark. The boys were all small and slim, each weighing less than 135 pounds. In the middle of the Great Depression, they were all happy to have a job even though the work was hard and dangerous. Recounting this story at age 88, Wolfe stands straight and moves easily. He remembers almost every detail as if it happened yesterday.
Inside the rope corral, Wolfe lassoed Jackhammer with a simple backhanded toss.
In many ways, the horse was typical of the mare runners. He was tall and raw boned showing his Thoroughbred and Indian pony breeding with a little Percheron mixed in. A dirty sorrel with lots of roan hairs, he had a long, ugly head, eyes that were set too close together, and a mean disposition. The horse didn’t lead very well, but keeping a safe distance, Wolfe got him outside the corral. He handed the rope up to the wagon boss Henry Dumont on horseback but kept several coils himself. Dumont dallied up short leaving just enough space so Jackhammer couldn’t bite him. Jackhammer braced against the rope, but had little room to maneuver. Easing in close to Jackhammer’s shoulder where it would be hard for the horse to paw him, Wolfe flipped the tail of the lariat around the horse’s forelegs, pulled his feet together and tied the slack off tight with a slip knot.
His front feet nearly immobile and his head semi-secured, Jackhammer stood still enough for Wolfe to ease a hackamore over his nose and ears. Carefully, Wolfe slipped the bridle’s brow-band made of a wide piece of soft leather down over the horse’s eyes. “He had to be blindfolded every time before you could saddle him,” Wolfe said. “When he was blindfolded, I could do anything I wanted.”
He cinched the saddle in place then slipped the loop off Jackhammer’s neck. Leaving the other end of the rope around the horse’s front legs, he coiled the rest and hung it over the saddle horn. He laid the tail of his rope—that came up from the rope hobble—over the horse’s neck. Then, he grabbed the cheek of the bridle with his left hand and pulled Jackhammer’s neck around. He quickly stepped into the saddle. Pulling the loose end of the lariat, he freed the horse’s front feet. Still blindfolded, Jackhammer remained still. After he finished coiling his rope and tying it onto his saddle, Wolfe leaned forward and slipped the brow-band up off the horse’s eyes. Jackhammer bogged his head and began to buck.
“If he’d ever bucked me off, he’d a took to me,” Wolfe said. “Tried to paw me to death.” Riding with fierce determination, Wolfe hung on and spurred, partly to punish the horse for bucking and partly to encourage him move forward. After a few nasty jumps, Jackhammer fell in with the other wranglers’ horses and trailed the wagon boss out of camp in an uneasy trot.
“I tell these guys today—the first time you really ride a buckin’ horse, is a bigger thrill than kissing your first girl.”
In the first part of the Twentieth Century, the McLeod Horse Ranch ran thousands of horses on the open ranges of northeast Montana. The breeding program was geared toward numbers more than quality. Other horse ranches in the arid plains of Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, including the famous CBC that ran horses all over, had similar practices. Although they sold remount horses to the Army, riding horses to area ranches and semi-broke teams to farms in the Midwest and cotton fields of the Deep South, slaughter horses were the core of their business. They sent train loads of horses to slaughterhouses in the eastern United States and Europe.
“In those days, you seldom saw a big herd of cows—maybe fifty or sixty head,” Cliff Wolfe said. “But there were lots of sheep and there was a bunch of horses on every ridge.”
The sun was high, and the day was already getting hot when they sighted the “Royal” stud bunch, more than a half mile ahead near Chicken Buttes. Royal was the Belgian stallion who ruled that part of the range. He had more than twenty-five mares in his band. The horses grazed, spread out, across the slope of a low ridge. The mares were all colors—a few pintos, several roans, a couple of buckskins, a black and the rest bay and sorrel. One of the older mares spotted the riders about the same time that they saw the horses. She snorted and wheeled away. With her foal at her side, she galloped over the ridge. The other mares quickly followed, and she led the band further into the open plains of northeastern Montana. The stallion, Royal, directing the stragglers, brought up the rear of the escaping herd.
Too far back and with a lot of ground to make up, Wolfe and his fellows kicked their horses. Jackhammer, a true mare runner leaped forward anxious for the race. As they thundered across the broken plain, the wranglers spread out. Eventually they would take positions on all sides of the bunch. Jackhammer lurched through a wash and scrambled up the steep bank on the other side then began running full out again. Wolfe did what he could to guide the horse, but Jackhammer barely responded.
“You’d be running those horses and once in a while they’d pick up a badger hole or a prairie dog hole,” Wolfe said. “He’d be running just as damn fast as he could. You can’t imagine how fast he’d go down. See, this arm has been broke twice, collar bone. The ribs on this side are this thick.” He held his fingers about an inch apart.
On a hot day in the middle of one of the driest summers on record, dust billowed up from the mare band ahead. As the roundup progressed, other bands of horses in the distance also began to run. In every direction, plumes of dust rose and moved away from the cowboys. As the wranglers edged close to the fleeing horses, the air became filled with dust.
“Sometimes you could hardly see your horse’s ears,” Wolfe said.
Eventually, the wagon boss worked his way out in front of the band. He was riding a gray horse and the mares would often follow a gray horse. With Wolfe and the other wranglers holding from the sides, Dumont led the band to a place where Hell Creek had carved out a deep horseshoe bend. On the far side of the dry creek were high, vertical clay banks on three sides and on the near side was an acre or two of grass in the U between the creek banks. It was the best of three possible holding places Dumont had in mind to use when they left camp that morning. With the topography hemming the loose horses in, one or two cowboys could hold them in place while the others branded the colts. In recent days, some old mares had pawed out a hole in the waterless creek bed. Even with no rain, there was a small puddle where the horses could drink. That was a bonus because after a hot run the mares needed water.
At rest, Jackhammer’s head drooped and sweat poured off him. His flanks heaved and quivered as he tried to catch his breath. Dusty-white foam clung in strips along his neck and all down his legs. Although the horses, whether loose or ridden looked nearly exhausted, the mares watched the men warily and Royal, a massive sorrel, nearly black with sweat, stood out front.
“We’d maybe run ten miles,” Wolfe said.
At least partly because of the horse he was riding, that day Wolfe wrestled colts instead of roping. Tired as the horse was, Wolfe knew not to trust Jackhammer to let him dismount without a nasty trick. He pulled the horse’s head around and slipped the brow-band blindfold down over his eyes and then, stepped off. Using the end of his lariat, he pulled the horse’s feet together and looped a pair of rawhide hobbles around his legs. Letting Jackhammer graze, Wolfe sincerely hoped that the horse wrangler would catch up with the remuda so that he could switch horses for the afternoon ride.
Dumont chose a spot back about two hundred feet from the band for the branding fire—sufficient distance not to spook the mares to breakout. He carried a two-foot length of steel that had been cut from the loop end of a wagon rod, and bent into an L, tied behind his saddle to use as a branding iron. The cowboys gathered driftwood and sage brush and lit a branding fire. As the iron began to glow, one of the cowboys rode into the herd and roped a colt by the neck. The colt spooked from the lariat, but the roper dallied quickly and turned, pulling the colt around before he could jerk himself down. The colt braced against the lariat and dragged shallow furrows into the parched dirt with his hind feet.
As the rider approached the fire, Wolfe stepped in between the horse and the colt, hooked his arm over the rope and the colt’s nose as he dragged past. At two months old, the colt weighed less than three hundred pounds. Grabbing the off-side ear with his other hand, Wolfe hugged the colt’s head to his chest and fell over backward pulling the colt down on top of him. Wolfe hung on and a third cowboy grasped the colt’s tail and braced his foot against its back. With the colt unable to move, Dumont burned the McLeod Horse Ranch’s Bar H Diamond brand onto its left shoulder.
“A lot of people think it was a grand and glorious life. It was a hot, dirty, dusty job,” Wolfe said emphasizing the words hot, dirty and dusty.
There were twenty-six colts. “It was rare to see a dry mare in those mare bands,” Wolfe said. By the time the crew had finished branding, the day wrangler had arrived, bringing the extra saddle horses. With the wagon a dozen miles away, there was no lunch break. For the afternoon everyone caught a fresh horse. Wolfe chose Pal, his favorite, a rangy pinto with a kind disposition—a reward to himself for a morning on Jackhammer.
Free, open range was a key economic fact for the big horse outfits. Up until the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, huge chunks of federally owned land in the West were virtually unregulated. In the half dozen years following the passage of the Act, this land was tallied and leased to farmers and ranchers—usually those with adjoining deeded land. Much of this land remains in federal ownership today and is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, part of the Department of the Interior.
“In them days,” Wolfe said, “You could ride from Miles City to Wolf Point and never open a gate.” That’s a distance of over 120 miles.
Beginning in the late 1930s and continuing through the ‘50s, barb wire fences came to crisscross the arid plains of eastern Montana. Also, in the late 30’s and early ‘40s the BIA put a fence around the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Within a few years after the Taylor Grazing Act, before the beginning of World War II, all the big horse outfits had gathered and shipped for the last time.
Cliff Wolfe lives in Miles City, Montana and still rides—frequently helping area ranchers gather and work cattle. His life as a cowboy, ranch manager and brand inspector has not worn him out. Still slim and tough, you get the feeling he’d still pull a blindfold over Jackhammer’s eyes and climb aboard if he had good reason.
He is also a trustee of the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center. Although the museum is still in the planning stage, Wolfe is active in gathering support and hopes to be able to preserve the memory of some the good cowboys he worked with as a youngster and throughout his career.
Somewhat surprised now that the life he lived has become something exotic, he said, “Young people have a hard time understanding what life was like. We just thought it was normal and we had no idea that it would change—no idea that it would change so fast.”
Today, cowboys are heroes. “In those days, we didn’t get much respect,” he recalled. “When we was working for those horse outfits, we was just one notch above a sheepherder. Everybody hated us. We would ride to those schoolhouse dances and a lot of those old farmers wouldn’t let us dance with their daughters.” Wolfe chuckled and said with a mimicking tone, “Don’t dance with them wild cowboys.”
This article appeared in the Classic Cowboys section of the November 2008 Western Horseman magazine under the title Cliff Wolfe.
Copyright Jim Overstreet