Cowboy Life by George Philip: Queer fellows
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 uncles 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.
No end of queer individuals appeared on the range, and it is too bad that they should be forgotten simply because there is no on with a facile pen to record them. The incidents of Cy Hiett alone would make plenty of reading without any embellishment of the facts. Indeed, to try and improve on some of Cy’s experiences would be a good deal like trying to pain the rainbow or the sunset.
I knew him well and we were and still are good friends. When sober, as he usually was, he was a hardworking, serious-minded cowboy, intensely loyal to his job and to his employer. When drunk, as he occasionally was, he was the very emblem of irresponsibility, engaging in escapades that would put to shame the best efforts of the romancers. For some years he was Scotty’s foreman. On occasions he would fall from grace, making a holy show of himself and Scotty would fire him. By reason of a strange mental quirk by which Cy Hiett, sober, had no knowledge at all of what was done by Cy Hiett, drunk, the incident of being fired was completely obliterated from his mind with returning sobriety, and the first thing Scotty would know, Cy was back out in the country in charge of the outfit, doing more and better work than anybody, wholly oblivious of the fact that he had been fired.
There is a well-authenticated story on Cy, which happened at a time when I was not with the outfit. “The wagon,” which was the usual name applied to a cow outfit, was moving into Fort Pierre in the fall, with a beef shipment. When they reached Frozenman Creek, where a large dam had been built by the Northwestern Railway for the accommodation of shippers, at about the point where the road crossing at the town of Hayes now is, camp was made for the night. There was a post office and store called Hayes a couple of miles farther down the creek to the old deadwood trial crossing. Will Hopkins ran the store and it is of interest that he still has a store at Hayes.
The mood was on some of the boys, particularly on Cy, to indulge in alcoholics, but the only thing available was Hostetter’s bitters. Cy bought a considerable supply and promptly was tight on that insufferable beverage. As was customary with him on such occasions, he spent the night going back and forth from the bed of one cowpuncher to another, waking him up with whispered confidences of a great secret. Each one knew him, of course, and said that so and so wanted him to come over, and so he would go over to so and so’s bed, repeating the performance. There was one thing about Cy, he was always self-sustaining and wholly capable of taking care of himself, so much so that when he became intoxicated and thereby wholly useless for any work, everyone simply turned him loose to his own devices.
In the morning, the night-hawk brought in the saddle horses in the fog, which did not lift until after camp was broken. On going out to catch his horse in the rope corral, Cy caught a pony which he had not ridden for a long time because he was very likely to buck and the sober, serious-minded, hard-working Cy Hiett had not cared to ride him, although he was a good rider when sober, and a splendid rider when drunk. Catching this wild pony and dragging him out to the saddle was something of a task, and no one offered to render any assistance. Almost under any other circumstances such help would have been forthcoming. Cy finally got his saddle on the pony and a bottle of bitters protruded from each saddle pocket. As the other fellows were going on with the serious business of work in hand, Cy got on his pony, which immediately started to buck, away he went into the fog, which closed behind him, and Cy was gone. No one paid attention, nor gave a thought to what might have happened to him, knowing that his instinct would land him in the next camp.
The outfit moved on to Lance Creek Holes, and while the boys were eating dinner, preparing to go out and relieve the day herders, along came Cy, the fog having lifted in the meantime. Cy was still drunk, both bottles of bitters gone, his pony was completely played out, and across the saddle in his lap was a grey wolf he had roped sometime during the forenoon. Cy, of course, not having any recollection of having seen a wolf, far less catching and killing it, could offer no explanation of where he had been or what had happened. It is a safe comment, however, that when Cy took out after the wolf and got his rope down on the wild animal that morning, up until he had him dead on the saddle, there transpired events that would look well in a movie screen but cannot be put there. That picture was wholly lost, even from Cy’s mental vision, and the only evidence on which one could build a story at all was on the fact of the dead wolf, the exhausted pony and the drunken cowboy. It was law of the range to attempt to catch and kill grey wolf every time he appeared, regardless of what might happen to your horse, so Cy was automatically following the law of the range, the spirit of the hunt, and the instincts of a cowboy. F
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.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News