Cowboy Life: Sherwood’s horse hide
In the next few weeks Tri-State Livestock News will share excerpts from “Cowboy Life,” a compilation of letters George Philip wrote to his children Geordie, Jean and Bob. Fort those interested in reading in reading the entire book, purchasing information is at the end of the excerpt.
“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 prey’ again to a clever operator. With a law degree in hand, he returned to South Dakota to practice in the wide-open.
Religion, that appeal to unknown Power behind all the universe, is the common need of all mankind. No on can escape at all times the need to call for help. Some may need it all the time, while those at the other extreme may need it only rarely. Some may need it to sustain themselves, while others may need it only as a disposal plant for their enemies.
One of the cleanest cut examples of a religious need that ever cam across my line of vision had to do with Pat Oakes. The party of the second part was old man Sherwood, a really unique individual. He was a Civil War veteran, but in the dying days of the nineties, they were not necessarily so very old, but Sherwood was quite elderly. He was hare lipped, very much the victim of a cleft palate with an extraordinary nasal twang. Occasionally he would go out with the boys and get a few drinks too many. On such occasions he would sing lustily, and he really did a better job singing than he did speaking. He was a very well informed man and argumentative beyond expression. To cap it all, he was a profound and died-in-the-wool atheist. He knew all the answers and could confound any and all who chose to champion the cause of a religion or the existence of a deity or a hereafter.
It was no uncommon sight to see old Sherwood of an evening, seated on a beer case against he back wall of a saloon, arguing down a group of cattle men, cowboys, gamblers, and the like, who still wanted to believe that there was something stronger and more dependable in the universe than even a good cowpony and a strong rope. But Sherwood’s thrusts were hard, and he had plenty arguments left when all the rest were silenced.
I have mentioned the saloon. Let me set you right. In the frontier town the saloon was the man’s club, where he would be sure to meet all his friends who were in town; where he could sit down and enjoy a came of cards, for fun or for money as he wished; where he could engage in discussion of the topics of the day and hear all the news of interest; and where he could quench a thirst if so inclined. In a town like Fort Pierre was in those days, on nights when there was no Masonic Lodge, there was no other place than the saloon for the men to congregate. It was not chosen by Sherwood for his forum for discussion. There just was no other place.
One winter, when Sherwood was running a meat market in addition to his hotel on Main Street, with its little candy and tobacco store, all since long vanished into that fibreless land of dreams, dreadful storms caused the death of great numbers of cattle on the range. There was nothing the big operators could do about it with their widespread, roving cattle; but the nester, the fellow with a small bunch of one or two hundred, who aimed to keep his cattle fairly close within an area, could skin out some of his dead cattle and salvage the hides.
Pat was a small cattle operator that winter, and he lost a high percentage of his cattle. To save what he could from the wreck, and having no bent for laziness nor for taking it easy, Pat went out into the winter and skinned such of his dead cattle as he could find. One day he brought in large bundle of hides, frozen solid and tightly wrapped with bailing wire. Old man Sherwood was buying hides and shipping them to Sioux City, so Pat drove his team up to Sherwood’s market with his hides. They were thrown off the wagon, put on the scales and weighed, and Sherwood gave Pat Oakes his check for the full Fort Pierre market price of cowhides. In a week or so Sherwood got his returns from Sioux City, and it is hard to imagine his indignant horror at learning that a practical joke had crept into the deal. The returns from the Sioux City firm showed so many cowhides, so much, and one horse hide, so much. Of course a horse hid sold for about twenty-five percent of what a cowhide would bring by the pound. Pat Oakes had slipped one over on Sherwood, and the old man’s abounding wrath was limited only by his belief in the principles of his atheism. He started out to look for Pat, who, in all his succeeding years, never failed to raise a laugh by telling about their meeting soon after.
Of course it was a small task to find Pat. A few steps took the old man with the remittance slip in his hand and trembling with indignation, to the baseburner coziness of Gordon and Bradshaw’s saloon. There, to be sure, was Pat discussing the news of the day and the state of the world with his companions. In unfeigned anger, the old atheist, not turned true believer, walked up to Pat and shook the incriminating paper under his nose as he said, in ringing tones, “Pat Oakes, you G___ D__ son of a __, if there is a hell; and by God there is a hell; you’ll be there, and I’ll be there and that G___ D___ horse hide will be there.”
His atheistic philosophy had played him false. Without a religious belief, he had no proper place to put Pat. So he became a religious believer and consigned Pat to what in his mind was a very proper destination. In order to be sure that Pat did not escape unwhipped of measureless justice, he similarly consigned himself to that, with the offending horse hide, he could taunt Pat through an endless eternity.
Do not take your religion too lightly, for, seriously, you never can tell when you ay need it.
Cowboy Life, The Letters of
Edited and with an introduction by Cathie Draine
Afterword by Richard W. Slatta
Illustrations by Mick B. Harrison
Plus $5 shipping
South Dakota State Historical
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