Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Two boys in a strange land ...

Without a doubt, one of the best published reminiscences of nineteenth-century cowboy life in Montana is We Pointed Them North, by E.C. Abbott. Published shortly before Abbott's death in 1939, the book is a wonderful collection of evocative anecdotes and memories. A few of the stories are quite funny -- such as the tale of Abbott's encounter with a Miles City prostitute, that earned him the permanent nickname "Teddy Blue." Other stories are poignant, none more so than this heartbreaking 1883 memory of a young cowboy's death:
I was in Miles City a second time that fall, and that time one of the boys with the outfit got sick, and I nursed him in a hotel room until he died in my arms. He was not a real cowboy. He had been a bookkeeper for the president of the company in St. Paul, and he came out to Montana for his health. He had t.b., bad. He had been at the ranch a few months when he got so sick the old man brought him in town and left him there, and he said to the rest of us: "One of you ought to stay with him." He looked right at me, and I said I would stay.

He only lived a week, but that week in that hotel room was the worst I ever went through. He kept having hemorrhages, blood all over everything, and I took newspapers and spread them on the bedclothes and on the floor. He did not want me to leave him for a minute. We were just two boys in a strange land, but the people at the hotel were as kind as could be. . . .

After I had been there with the kid a week, Mr. Fuller came down one night to see him and he told me: "You'd better go to bed." I hadn't been to bed all that time, only slept in a chair once in awhile, because he wouldn't sleep unless he could lay his head on my arm. So I went and laid down in another room. About midnight Mr. Fuller came for me and said: "You'd better come in now. He's asking for you." I guess he knew he was going. So I went back where he was, and he wanted to know if I would lay down beside him and let him rest his head on my shoulder. In a few minutes he mumbled something about Ethel, his sister I think, and then he was gone.

It put me right up in the air. I went down to the bar to get a drink. There was a captain there that I knew, from Fort Keogh. He was dressed in civilian clothes, with a hard hat on, and he took his hat off and his coat off and gave them to me and said: "You go for a walk and get some fresh air." So I went out, but I went to a honky-tonk the first damn thing -- trying to get it off my mind.

They shipped him out the next day to Boston.


  1. "They Pointed Them North" was one of the first books my Dad read to us, along with "Trails Plowed Under" by Charlie Russell. When I re-read it, as an adult, I was so surprised at some of the stories, because I didn't remember how tough they were. We even had a horse named Teddy Blue, a blue roan; my Dad's favorite mount for 10 years.

    It's hard to imagine anyone coming to Montana for their health, isn't it? In my experience, living here can be a little hazardous to one's health...
    I know it was common, for tuberculosis patients to come north to dry weather, but in the dead of the Montana winter, I always wonder about what they thought of the "cure".

  2. Yep, that's one of the things I most like about that book ... the way it's so matter-of-fact, telling the stories the way he remembered them, without sugar-coating or trying to be politically correct. You get the sense that you're reading about the way Montana really was -- a tough world. (And to an extent, the way it still is ...)

    It's pretty cool that your father read those books to you ... I think it's so important in life to develop a sense of "place" for oneself, and that was a perfect way to help do it.

    And I know a lot of people went west for their health back then ... though I agree with you: if I'd been that kid, I would have high-tailed it for Arizona! But we don't know his whole story, of course; all I know is that those paragraphs continue to break my heart.