Cowboy Life by George Philip: Happy Landing?
In the next few weeks Tri-State Livestock News will share excerpts out of “Cowboy Life,” a compilation of letters George Philips wrote to his children Geordie, Jean and Bob.
“As a young man George Philip emigrated from Scotland to escape a harsh apprenticeship. In 1899, he arrived on the doorstep of his uncle, James (“Scott,”) Philip, patriarch of one of South Dakota’s foremost ranching families. For the next four years, Philip rode as a cowboy for his uncle’s L-7 cattle outfit during the heyday of the last open range. But the cowboy era was a brief one, and in 1903 Philip turned in his string of horses and hung up his saddle to enter law school in Michigan. Scotty had given his young nephew a herd of cattle to get started but a “smart operator fleeced me out of my herd,” he admitted later and in 1903 he determined to “go to law school and learn how to write a contract so I would never fall pray’ again to a clever operator. With a law degree in hand, he returned to South Dakota to practice in the wide-open.
My Dear Geordie, Jean and Bob:
In this day and age, and probably in all ages past, people are disposed to address each other in the vernacular of the time, the place and the company. Not it is a token to express the wish for a successful termination of business in hand, whether that be a fight or a frolic, in the sky man’s words, “Happy Landing.” For the cowboy who must needs “stay with him,” there was no such thing as a happy landing. Certainly Jimmie Schneider’s landing was not a happy one. The cowboy had to stay on his horse or else.
On one spring roundup, working up Bad River with the Bad River pool wagon, run by George Jackson, all the riders were getting ready one morning, to start out on a circle to the north and to the south of Bad River. We were camped at the mouth of Plum Creek, running into Bad River from the north, between where we are now the two railroad points of Wendte and Van Metre. As we were not going to move that morning, we were not put to the business of breaking camp. There was that much that did not have to be done.
Although I knew of every man with the outfit I have no independent , clear recollection of any exept Harry Bridggs and Jimmie Schneider, Harry Briggs had been born and raised in that west river country and quite regularly rode with the roundups, gathering his own cattle and those of his neighbors along Bad River. He worked with, but not for, the big cow outfits and was a fine hand who rode his own string of good horses. Incedentally, it often made one wonder how the saddle horses acquired their individual names. Often the reason was quite simple and came from the characteristics of the horse or some brand he bore, but sometimes the mystery of the name was unexplainable. Harry’s top horse, a big, fine bay and a splendid cow horse, went under the euphonious cognomen of Synonymous. Parenthetically, let me state now that lal the yarns spoken and written about the big rides the cowboy made on his favorite mare are the veriest nonsense, for nothing but geldings were ridden or worked on the range.
Jimmie Schneider was a Sioux City boy who had done a lot of work around the Sioux City stockyards as well as on the range. Among his other qualifications, he was a good bronco rider, and that spring he was just below the mouth of the Cheyenne River. John Holland’s horses were not proverbially gentle, and there were several in Jimmie’s string which were far from it. Especially was this true of one big bay that did a hard job of bucking nearly every time he was ridden.
Having a long, hard ride in mind for that morning, Jimmie very properly selected his hard-bucking bay because the long ride always took the tuck out of the bad horse, and no rider was disposed to save him or give him leisure. You will often hear those who are deficient in measurement of time, or means of measurement (experience), tell about a horse bucking for five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, even an hour. I have seen many, many bucking horses and often times in that business a young man had his own private rodeo along with him, and right between his knees. I am sure that I never saw a horse do a concentrated job of bucking that lasted a minute, and I seriously doubt if any horse could do it. He would make those terrible jumps at the rate of about three a second, and all the power of his mind and body went into the job he was doing. If a horse made as many as thirty jumps without tapering off into crow-hopping, breaking into a run, or rearing up with seeming intent of falling over backards, the cowboy on his back knew that he had been somewhere – and so did the horse. Those thirty jumps may have seemed long to each of them (and it would be long), but the chances are that the wild performance was commenced and completed in ten seconds. Of course he might break and run for a while, and then buck a few more jumps, and keep that up for a good while. But the business of bucking was furious and it was fast.
When Jimmie got his horse saddled, and putting a saddle on some of those horses was no job for a mollycoddle, he crawled in the middle of him. That horse put on a show to which we with the ringside seats paid no admission, and which enhanced Jimmie’s income not one penny, for it was all in the day’s work. He made a good ride, as could well be expected from the good rider that he was. Having got that poisoin out of his system, the big bay stood there with the other saddle horses until al l were ready to mount and get going on the circle.
Jimmie, thinking that he knew his horse and that the contest was over, was sitting unconcernedly and carelessly on his mount, when without the least warning, that horse went into action again, and with the first terrific jump, he threw Jimmie to the end of the bridle reins. There was no happy landing in those cases, and certainly not in Jimmie’s for when he came down with spread-eagled arms and legs flat on his back, he landed squarely in a cactus patch, which reached slightly beyond the outermost limits of the man no longer on horseback.
First aid was always quick and heroic in that life, and he had scarcely landed when Harry Briggs and I were off our horses and at his side. George Jackson said, “You two fellows state there and help pull the cacti out of him.” And we did. George really did not say “cacti,” but he should have said it. Then all but the three of us left on circle.
We got Jimmie pried loose from the cactus bed and onto a rolled out roundup bed, face down. Longitudinally from the high heels of his boots to this Stetson hat, and in all his latitude, Jimmie’s clothes were fastened to him by hundreds of spines of the cactus plant. We had no conveniences, no tweezers, nor even pliers. After we got him stripped to a point without bubble or fan, and that is not an easy job when the man is like a pin cushion, especially for the poor soul being undressed by valets none too gentle, Briggs got from the jockey box of the wagon the big nippers that were used to trim the hoofs of the saddle horses and I took my knife and we went to work on our surgery.
Stoic that he was, and he was supposed to be, Jimmie groaned in agony and cursed his benefactors, who in turn cursed him. By the time the cook had dinner ready, and that was meant a much longer half day than the union scale, we had pulled with the nippers and dug with the knife every sticker out of the person of our co-rider, and we had also cleared his clothes of them. There was no analgesic balm, no soothing lotion and no mercurochrome or other disinfectant in that life, so Jimmie just put on his clothes and that afternoon was riding again, but not he hard-bucking bay. He deferred that ride a couple of days.
Many years had passed and I had lost all track of the whereabouts of Jimmie Schneider. One day as I walked along the street on the south side of Main Street in Rapid City, about in front of the Morris dry-goods store, Victor Jepsen was standing on the sidewalk facing me and talking to a man whose back was to me.
Just as I came up to them I said, “Hello, Vic.”
He said, “Hello, George. Just a minute, I want you to meet a friend of mine, Mr. Schneider.”
Each recognized the other instantly, and Jimmie, as he took my hand, said, “Good God, Vic, don’t introduce me to this fellow. He and Harry Briggs sat on my back for half a day once and pulled cactus spines out of me with hoof nippers and a knife.”
Vic looked at me and said, “Well, you have told me me about that experience, so this is the fellow.”
The remedies in those days were almost as tough as the disease.
Cowboy Life, The Letters of George Philip
Edited and with an introduction by Cathie Draine
Afterword by Richard W. Slatta
Illustrations by Mick B. Harrison
South Dakota State Historical Society Press
900 Governors Drive
Pierre, SD 57501
Copyright © 2007 by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with Permission.
Jennifer Day-Smith is the owner of Knotty Equine and founder of the art of equinitryology. She spends many of her days checking cows and yearlings on her and her husband’s ranch, and the rest of…
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