Monday, October 31, 2016

A Pepper Tale

Note: I told an expanded version of this story in The Western Farmer-Stockman several years ago, but it should be new to most of you.

Hubby was raised—along with four brothers, a sister, dairy cattle, sheep, and chickens—on a ranch near Fishtail, Montana. The kids showed their sheep in 4-H; Hubby and his sister, Nancy, also had horse projects.

One day, their brother, Dale, took Nancy’s mare, Cocoa, for a ride with his friend, Jim. The latter rode a young stallion which he was training for someone else. Jim really liked the stud, a smart, tough Appaloosa which had been found running with mustangs in the Missouri Breaks.

Cocoa happened to be in heat. Neither Dale nor Jim had permission from the horses’ owners, but they decided to let nature take its course. To this illegitimate union, a speckled gray filly named Pepper was born. Folks said she looked just like a Nez Perce horse. 

After Hubby’s folks retired and moved to town, Pepper came to Hubby’s place. Oddly enough, Pepper despised cows and looked for any excuse to bite them. On the other hand, she readily bonded to people, sheep, and dogs, preferring their company even to that of horses.

Although she was small, Pepper proved scrappy and sure-footed, so Hubby decided she’d be perfect for elk hunting. He hauled her in a stock rack on his 1958 Chevy pickup. To make it easier for Pepper to jump aboard, he’d back the truck up to a hillside. Pepper relished their expeditions into the Beartooth Mountains; however, after one cold, snowy hunt along Rock Creek, Pepper was so eager to go home that she leaped into the truck before Hubby could back it up to a slope.

When Hubby’s brother, Loren, took a job herding sheep for MSU’s Red Bluff Ranch, he needed a good horse. Pepper joined Loren, his dogs, and a thousand head of ewes on the Madison River. Pepper loved the work. She never strayed from Loren's side and helped him keep watch for bears.

Gallatin National Forest rules required sheep to be bedded on fresh ground every night, so Loren and company soon adjusted to nomadic life. An avid history buff, Loren rode bareback and used an Indian-made bridle. He built an authentic Crow teepee, which Pepper pulled from camp to camp with a travois. At the end of the day, Loren and Pepper loved to swim in any nearby pond or creek.

In time, Loren took a new herding job up on Grove Creek near the Beartooths, where sheep were safe from bears but not coyotes or death camas. This photo of Loren and Pepper was taken there by a photographer from the Stillwater County News.

Loren passed away about 30 years ago. No one recalls what happened to Pepper. My guess: that horse is up above, grazing next to Loren's teepee.


"You might expect rivers to run backwards as any man born free to be contented penned up." ~Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it (Chief Joseph), Nez Perce 

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