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   Chapter 9 No.9

Two Years in Oregon By Wallis Nash Characters: 13843

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Indian fair at Brownsville-?Ponies-?The lasso-?Breaking-in-?The purchase-?"Bucking" extraordinary-?Sheep-farming in Eastern Oregon-? Merinos-?The sheep-herder-?Muttons for company-?A good offer refused -?Exports of wool from Oregon-?Price and value of Oregon wool-?Grading wool-?Price of sheep-?Their food-?Coyotes-?The wolf-hunt-?Shearing-? Increase of flocks-?"Corraling" the sheep-?Sheep as brush-clearers.

BREAKING-IN.Some of our people wanted to buy ponies this last fall, and heard that the Indian pony fair at Brownsville, about twenty-five miles from here, was the best place. They rode off one fine October morning, and returned the next day but one, with a handsome four-year-old. The scene as they described it was exciting and interesting. I should say that the town of Brownsville is a lively little place, with seven or eight hundred inhabitants, and some fine woolen-mills. It is the nearest valley town to the mountains accessible by the wagon-road to those crossing from Eastern Oregon. Near the town was the fair-ground, a large, fenced inclosure, with from two to three hundred ponies careering about it in a state of wild excitement. Nearly all the Indians were Warm Springs, some few Nez-Percés. Both these tribes are far finer-looking and better grown than our coast Indians. They wear white men's clothes, but deerskin moccasins on their feet. Except for the absolute straightness of the black hair, these men almost exactly resemble the gypsies as seen in Europe; they are very like them too in many habits of mind and life-equally fond of red and yellow handkerchiefs for neck-wear for the men or head-gear for the women. Several of the Indians were on foot, others on horseback in the inclosure where the horses ran. On our friends telling one of the Warm Springs chiefs who was standing there of their wish to buy a horse, he questioned them as to the kind they wanted, and the price they were willing to give. Then, on giving some directions to one of the Indians on horseback, that worthy unslung his lasso from his saddle-horn and rode into the crowd of horses. The whole wild band were kept on a rapid gallop round and round. The Indian soon selected one, and flinging his lasso over its head he turned and stopped his horse abruptly, and the captive was brought to the ground with a shock enough to break every bone in his body. He was quickly secured by another rope or two by other Indians standing near, and was then carefully inspected. Not being altogether approved, he was set free again, and quickly rejoined the band. Another was caught, and another, and at last a trade was arrived at, subject to the breaking-in of the horse in question. The horse, carefully held by lasso-ropes, was quickly saddled, a hide bridle with sharp and cruel curb-bit was slipped over his head, a young Indian mounted, and all the ropes were let go. Away went the horse like an arrow from a bow; then as suddenly he stopped; then buck-jumping began, while the Indian sat firm and unmoved, seemingly immovable. This play lasted till the horse tired of it, and then off he went at a gallop again. Before he got too far away the rider managed to turn him, and he was kept going for an hour and more till he was utterly exhausted, and the white foam lay in ridges on his skin. By this time all the bucking had gone out of him, and he suffered himself to be brought quietly back to the corral, and he was handed over to the purchaser as a broken horse. A long negotiation as to price had ended in sixteen dollars being paid in silver half-dollar pieces (the Indian declined a gold ten-dollar piece), and a red cotton handkerchief which happened to peep from our friend's pocket, which clinched the bargain.

The average size of the ponies was just under fourteen hands; the shape and make were exceedingly good. There was one splendid coal-black stallion, a trifle larger than the rest, whose long mane and tail adorned him; for this the Indians declined all moderate offers, and got as high as fifty dollars, and would hardly have sold at that. There was a considerable proportion of the spotted roan, which is the traditional color for the Indian "cayuse."

THE SHEEP-HERDER.Sheep-farming in Eastern and Northern Oregon has become a very important pursuit; it is also followed largely in the southeastern portion of the State. As sheep advance cattle retire, and many a growl have I listened to from the cattle-men, and most absurd threats as to what they would do to keep back the woolly tide: even to the length of breeding coyotes or prairie-wolves for the special benefit of the mutton. The merinos, French. Spanish, and Australian, thrive better in the drier climate east of the Cascades than in this Willamette Valley. The vast expanse of open country covered thinly with grass involves the herding system. One of our fellows undertook this business near Heppner in Umatilla County. He had entire charge of a flock of 1,700 merinos. There was an old tent for him to sleep in, but he preferred to roll himself in his blankets on the open ground. No company but his dog, and no voices but the eternal "baa, baa" of the sheep, which almost drove him mad. His "boss" came out to him once in three weeks with a supply of coffee, flour, beans, and bacon; and, if meat ran short, there was abundance of live mutton handy. About once in three weeks, on the average, a stray traveler would cross his path, and have a few minutes' talk and smoke a pipe. He had not the relaxation of sport, for the sheep have driven deer and antelope from the country. Early in the morning his sheep were on the move; he had to follow them over the range; about noon they lay down on the hill-side, and he stopped to eat his scanty meal. All the afternoon they wandered on, till evening fell, by which time they were back on the sheltered hill-side, which stood for headquarters, and where the tent was pitched. Day in, day out, the same deadly round of monotonous duty, until he hated the look, the smell, the sound of a sheep, and I think has an incurable dislike to mutton which will last him all his life. Don't you think that his forty dollars a month was earned? When October came, and a few flakes of snow heralded the coming winter, the "boss" came, and warned him that he must now elect whether or not to spend the winter with the sheep, as the way out would shortly close. If he would stay, he could have a share in the flock to secure his interest, and could also take his pay in sheep, which would thus start his own individual flock. The offer was a tempting one; the path was the same that all the successful self-made sheep-men had followed; cold and privation alone had not many terrors to a hardy man; but-one look at the sheep decided him; he could not stand their society for six months longer. So he left, and returned to the valley, like a boy from school.

I know one or two men, who, forced to a

ccept a situation of this sort, have used the time for the study of a language, and, after a few months with the sheep, have come out accomplished Spanish, Italian, or German scholars. But it takes some resolution to overcome the temptation to drift along, day by day, in idleness of mind and body more and more complete.

The Portland Board of Trade reports that, for the year 1879, 766,200 pounds of wool were received at that city from Eastern Oregon, and 2,080,197 pounds from the Willamette Valley, showing in value an increase of about thirty-five per cent. over the previous year. But Messrs. Falkner, Bell & Co., of San Francisco, reported that the receipts at that city of Oregon wool aggregated 7,183,825 pounds for the clip of 1879. The figures for 1876 were only 3,150,000 pounds. It should be noticed also that Oregon wool commands an excellent price in the market, even six cents higher than California, possessing greater strength and evenness, and being free from burs. The valley wool is clearer from sand and grit than that from Eastern Oregon.

But much remains to be done in this valley. Far too many of the farmers are absolutely careless about scab; and sheep, infested with this noxious parasite, are suffered to run at large and poison the neighbors' flocks. It is true that a law intended to extirpate this curse now exists; but neither is legislation as sufficient nor its enforcement so strict as in Australia, though the necessity for both is full as great. There is but little encouragement either to the valley farmer to expend labor and money in improving the quality of his flock, when he sees his neighbors' inferior fleeces command just as high a price, the wool from perhaps ten or twenty farms being "pooled" without regard to quality. The remedy is of course found in grading the wool; steps for this purpose are being talked over by many intelligent farmers, and I expect soon to see them carried out.

The exhibit at Philadelphia of Oregon wool received medals and diplomas from the Commissioners of the Centennial of 1876, with high and deserved praise. And the show at the Paris Exhibition of 1878 was also splendid; the Oregon fleeces equaling the Australian in length, strength, evenness, and beauty of fiber.

PRICE OF SHEEP.I shall have a little more to say as to the breeds of sheep when the State Fair at Salem is described, where the best specimens were supposed to be, and I believe were collected. Sheep in this valley are worth from $1.25 to $1.75 for store-sheep for the flock, and from $2 to $3 for mutton-sheep in winter. The wool of a sheep may be taken to fetch $1 on an average of seasons. The sheep eat grass all the year round; they have never seen a turnip or cole-seed. I know many farmers who have kept sheep successfully for twenty years on nothing whatever but the natural wild grasses. The great enemy of the sheep in these foot-hills, where the pasture is intermixed with brush, and borders on the thicker brush and timber of the mountains behind, is the coyote. Two or three of these little wolves will keep half a county on the alert, destroying far more than they eat. This "varmint" is somewhat larger than a Scottish sheep-dog, and of a tawny color; he has long hair like a colley, and is much more cowardly than fierce. He lives in the thick brush, whence he steals out at dusk on his murderous errand. He hunts generally alone, though one of our friends saw three together one evening this winter. His pace is a long, untiring gallop, and it takes a very good hound to run him down.

The usual plan of the hunt is for several rifles to command the outlets from a piece of woodland, and then to take into the brush a collection of five or six of the best hounds that can be got together. When the scoundrel breaks cover he may go fast, but the rifle-bullet or buckshot goes the faster, and it would not do to miss.

The sheep killed by the coyote is identified by the two little holes on either side of the throat, where the wolf has struck and held to drink the fast-flowing life-blood. The carcass is rarely torn. But the worse and more common coyote is the mongrel hound. Every now and again one of these impostors takes to murdering, and, demure and quiet as he looks by day, slouching around the barn, spends his nights killing the neighbors' sheep. There is not much chance for him if he is but once seen; his life is a very short if a merry one.

When shearing-time comes round there are plenty of applicants for the job. The price is usually five cents a head, the farmer providing food, but the shearer finding his own tools. Some of these fellows will clip a hundred sheep a day, or even more: true, you must look after them to prevent scamping, in the shape of cuts on your sheep, and wool left on in thick ridges, instead of a clean, good shear. We expect an increase of at least one hundred per cent. on the ewes at lambing-time, even though so little cared for; those farmers who are good shepherds too, improve greatly on this average. The lambs must be well looked after, unless the wild-cat, eagle, and coyote are to take their toll. Not half the sheep are kept in this valley that ought to be, and that will be, when change or succession of crops are universally practiced.

"CORRALING" THE SHEEP.The amusing part of sheep-keeping in our coast-hills is "corraling," or gathering them for the night. By day they roam freely over the hill-sides, and you would be surprised to see how they thrive in brushwood and among fern, where the new-comer could hardly detect a blade of grass. These mountain-sheep, too, are more hardy and independent than the valley flocks. But, when the lambs are about, I am sure it is wise to undertake the labor of collecting them in the "corral" for the night. Without your sheep-dog you would be lost, for you would not have a chance on the hill-sides, and over and under the occasional logs, with sheep that jump and run like antelopes. But the dog cures all that, and you can stand in the road and watch Dandy or Jack collect your flock just as well as if he were in the cairns and corries of old Scotland, whence he or his grandfather came. I like to see them march demurely in at the open gate, and then run to the log where you have scattered a handful of salt for them, every grain and taste of which is eagerly licked up. And they are excellent brush-clearers; they love the young shoots of the cherry and vine-maple, and keep them so close down that in one or two seasons at most the stub dies, and can be plowed out and burned. Therefore every settler who takes up land, or buys a partly cleared farm, will find both pleasure and profit in his sheep, and that to him they are a necessity, even more than to the valley farmer. He must expect a percentage of loss from the wild animals, but his vigilance and love of sport together will reduce that percentage to the lowest point.

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