The Sheep Herder Calls It a Day


PICTURE to yourself the old Conestoga wagon or prairie schooner, shorten it somewhat, widen it to extend out over the wheels, pull the canvas taut and smooth so that there is no ribbed appearance, put a small window in the back and a door in the front — and there you have the herder’s happy home. There is a short length of stovepipe sticking up through the canvas on one side near the front. You will notice that the door is not placed squarely in the middle, but toward the opposite side from the stovepipe. The door itself is unusual. It is built in two halves, one above, one below; and each half swings independently on its own hinges. In the upper half are three small windowpanes in a vertical line. How much light they admit depends upon how recently they have been installed, because of course the herder is a herder and not a window washer by profession.

The usual explanation for the divided door is that it permits the wagon to be ventilated without cooling off the stove. But I think that is only part of it. It is really the most convenient thing imaginable. You may want to keep the dog in or out without keeping the door shut, so you close the lower half. Also, if you open the full door, the effect is somewhat like opening one entire side of a house. But by keeping the bottom half closed you prevent floor drafts, while the top half, being fastened with a chain, may be kept open at any angle desired, thus affording a perfect means of ventilation. The window at the rear is hinged at the top and may be raised or lowered by a rope passing over a pulley and fastened inside within easy reach. Thus the window also may be held open at any point desired, making the sheep wagon one of the most easily and perfectly ventilated abodes of man.

You get into the wagon by the simple process of stepping on the wagon tongue, grasping the sides of the door, and hoisting yourself in. Some herders use a box or a pair of steps. As you stand in the doorway you have the stove on one hand, with the dish cupboard behind it, and on the other side a bench running from the door to the bed. The latter, built crosswise of the wagon, takes up the last four or five feet of space. Opposite the long bench is a shorter one running from the bed to the dish cupboard. These benches are directly over the wheels. If you examine them closely, you will see a trapdoor in the centre of each, and these lead into the grub boxes. As may be seen from the outside, the grub boxes are suspended in the space between the rear and front wheels, thus carrying out that economy of space which is the keynote of the sheep wagon.

To return to the inside: hinged to the bed and jutting forward between the two benches is the table. Its forward edge is supported either by a gate leg beneath or by a chain dropped from the framework of the top. In either case the table may be let down and out of the way when not in use. Sometimes it is arranged to slide in and out beneath the bed. There is also quite a space beneath the bed, where the dogs may be out from underfoot and where bulky articles may be kept.

The bed itself is a built-in bunk with sides a foot or more high. Sometimes it has a set of springs resting on its hard board bottom, but more often only a mattress. Sometimes the herder furnishes the bedding, sometimes the boss. Customs vary in different regions. Just above the bed is a small window, mentioned before, through which the herder may look out over his sheep at night without getting up. Over the bed is a shelf or two, where the herder keeps his clothes, books, and papers.

Such, in brief, is ‘the wagon,’ and for the purposes for which it was designed it would seem hard to improve on it. The keynote of it, as said before, is economy of space. The door and window both open out. The top is high enough so that a tall man may stand upright. For one man there is plenty of room; two crowd it; three are unbearable. But it was intended and designed for one.

We hear so much of the number of steps a woman has to take in pursuit of her work. Someone has even computed the number of miles she is compelled to walk daily — that is, around the house and excluding trips to the movies and the barber. Think of this household marathon and then think of being able to stand in one spot to get an entire meal, to take two steps to sit down and eat it, and then to rise in place and wash the dishes. If the efficiency experts once get a good look at a sheep wagon, they will shortly have all the women under canvas. The herder has no upstairs work to do. He sweeps his wagon whenever it needs it, usually twice a day, and he does the scrubbing and dusting every time the Republicans sweep the solid South.

It is a wonder that there are so few women sharing their husbands’ lives in a wagon. Think of a woman’s being able to get her housework for the day done in fifteen or twenty minutes. That is all the time the herder spends on it. And yet I am not sure it would work out that way. I have known many a woman homesteader to spend the whole day keeping house in a tenby-twelve shack, and be busy all the time. What she did or could find to do for that length of time must take its place with the great number of other feminine mysteries. I have heard women say that it is harder to keep house in a small place than a large one. On the other hand we have all heard of ‘the burden of a large house.’ That is a woman every time. She gets you going and coming.

Of course there are some problems connected with housekeeping even in a wagon. For instance, I am in the habit of putting the coffeepot down into the stove to encourage early boiling. Naturally the pot collects a thick coat of soot. The boss claims that a mixture of soap and elbow grease would cause this soot to disappear. I claim that it would n’t. The question has not yet been settled. Then there is another problem arising from the fact that the water pail stands directly beneath the mirror, which causes complications. However, there must be some way out of the difficulty, and doubtless in time I shall discover it.

An observant visitor in a wagon would notice that each of the shelves of the dish cupboard has a three-inch strip of wood hinged to its front edge, the strip being equipped with hooks so that the shelf may be converted into an open box at will. He might also notice that the dishes, both cups and plates, are of tin. These little details point significantly to the herder’s secret sorrow, to the fly in the amber of his peaceful existence — that is, moving day. An old proverb says that three removes are as bad as a fire. That being so, how would you like, once every month, to pile all your belongings on the bed, have an unsympathetic earthquake attached to the front of the house, and have the aforesaid house dragged over several miles of rough country? Yet this is just what happens to the herder. At the end of the journey he may find that the mirror has again been cracked across, or that the kerosene can has been upset on the bed, inducing dreams of oil-stock swindles, or that the syrup pail has tipped over and has spread its contents in a thin veneer over all adjacent objects. All these accidents can and do happen, but a merciful providence usually sees to it that they do not all happen at once. The condition of things at the end of the journey depends largely on the skill and carefulness of the camp tender, whose business it is to move the wagon. But a person will always take better care of his own stuff than another will, and some of the camp tenders are stronger in the back than they are north of the ears. The herder can sometimes do his own packing, if he knows with certainty the day on which he is to be moved, but he can never do the driving, as he has to tend to the sheep.

It would surprise the average person to know how comfortable a sheep wagon is, summer and winter. Almost everyone knows that the average tent is unbearable on a hot day. He might think that the sheep wagon, being a tent on wheels, would be the same way. But such is not the case. The canvas top is usually of several thicknesses, which renders it impervious to the sun’s rays; with the door open in front and the window open in the rear, whatever breeze there is comes through; and unless the stove is going t he wagon is cool compared with the outside. In like manner in winter the many layers of canvas above and the double matched-board floor beneath keep in a surprising amount of heat. Likewise the fact that there is such a comparatively small air space to heat makes it possible to keep the wagon at a very comfortable temperature. Many herders are out in their wagons all winter, and this in a country which sees forty below every year and in which zero weather frequently extends over long periods.

And yet, with all its attractions, the wagon seems to make a very limited appeal to women. It is the very great exception, even where the herder is married, that his wife lives with him in the wagon. To be sure, there is really room for only one, but then man and wife are supposed to be one, so that should n’t make any difficulty. Of course there would be no room for temperament. But whether the reason is prudence on the part of the man or disdain on the part of the woman, the fact is that a wagon with a woman in it is as rare as a tearoom without one, and it seems likely that the wagon will continue to be in the future, as it has been in the past, the refuge of the married man and the hiding place of the bachelor.


‘A sheepman ain’t got no friends’ is the customary complaint of the flock owner. To this the classic retort is ‘A sheepman don’t want no friends.’ In other words, the farther away a sheepman’s neighbors are, the more grass he has for his stock. Besides, it is often easier to be on good terms with someone at a distance whose interests do not in any way conflict with yours than it is with your neighbor, whose lands may join yours for miles. If distance alone is enough to make friends, we all ought to be friendly in this part of the country, where the population is less than two to the square mile and where, in spite of the one crop that never fails, there are fewer people than there were ten years ago. The ranch on which I work, one of average size, comprises about nineteen square miles, which would seem to give plenty of elbowroom. Size, however, is only relative. Several years ago the boss was talking with the representative of a sheep company out in Montana. This man said that they had been dried out the previous year and had run short of range, and so had had to lease six additional townships. A township is thirty-six square miles.

A herder’s neighbors fall into two distinct classes. First, there are those whose land borders his employer’s range. It is the herder’s business to see that the sheep do not cross the line separating the ranges, and the diligence with which he does this is in direct proportion to the irascibility of the said neighbors. The herder is brought into direct contact with each of these neighbors in turn during the course of a year, and these contacts are of varying pleasantness. The following, however, may almost be considered axiomatic: if the herder can convince the neighbors that he is trying to do the right thing, they, being human themselves, will overlook his occasional lapses from his one hundred per cent ambitions. Besides this, they know that no herder can get the grass on his side up to the line without some of the sheep getting across; and if the neighbors themselves have stock running loose, as most of them do, they more than get that grass back again. Loose stock of any kind has very hazy ideas about boundary lines, but quite a clear conception of where the best feed is.

Sometimes a herder’s difficulties are the fault of the sheepman. A new herder, beginning work on a certain ranch, asked his boss where the lines were. ‘Oh,’ said the sheepman, making large and expansive gestures, ‘herd anywhere you like. It’s all my range.’ The trustful herder set out with the sheep, but every time he crossed a boundary line someone popped up, and if he was n’t the owner, then the land belonged to his brother or his aunt or his grandmother, and he had been especially commissioned to keep any and all sheep off it. That night the new herder tendered his resignation, to take effect at once.

Sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. A certain sheepman, hiring a herder with a reputation for quarrelsomeness, warned him before he wont out to the wagon to begin work: ‘You can get into all the fights you want to, and you can get out of them yourself.'

The other class of neighbors with whom the herder has to do is comprised of people passing through the country on their various errands, or riders from other ranches looking for stock, or friends of the herder from a distance. The herder’s relations with this class are uniformly pleasant. They break the monotony of the herding day and, in a land without telephone or telegraph, they bring the latest news, and the herder is often able to reciprocate with news from other sources. In fact, my boss used to say that the herder out on the prairie heard more news than he did at the ranch. Scarcely a day passes that the herder does not see someone. The longest period I ever passed without seeing a human being was six days. At the end of that time I was ready to marry or swear eternal brotherhood to the next person I met, according to sex. The absence of human companionship likewise has a tendency to make the tongue wag when the opportunity does come, for conversation with the sheep, however lively and vigorous it may be, is too one-sided to be interesting.

Yet, strange as it may seem, the herder sometimes has too much company and finds himself in the position of being the unpaid proprietor of a short-order stand. Friends from a distance are always welcome, as their motives are above suspicion. But when a near neighbor makes a practice of dropping in just at mealtime a faint, suspicion is apt to arise in the mind of the herder that his visitor is not so much attracted by the charm of the host’s conversation as repelled by the thought of having to cook his own dinner at home.

But it stands the herder in good stead not to antagonize his neighbors, whether near or far, because he never knows when they may be in a position to do him a most substantial favor. Once in a while a few sheep may slip away without the herder’s knowledge, and a neighbor who will bring them back to the herder, or tell him where they are, confers a benefit worth many meals to the herder, and incidentally to the boss, who pays for the food.

The transient rider going through the country and stopping at the wagon in the absence of the herder presents another problem. I have heard other herders say, and I take the same position myself, that if a man passing through is really in need of a meal he is welcome to go into the wagon, cook himself a meal, wash his dishes, and go on, leaving the wagon in as good order as he found it. But that is just what the transient is unwilling to do. He will take liberties in a sheep wagon that he would never dream of taking in a private house, unless he had a friend along to pick the buckshot out of him. He will eat up whatever food is cooked, especially any delicacies, drain the coffeepot, and be on his way rejoicing before the herder returns.

In earlier times herders were often left alone for long periods; in fact, one herder said that if his boss visited him oftener than once in three weeks he would begin to think his work was n’t satisfactory. But it is doubtful whether such conditions exist to-day.

There is one peculiar result of the herder’s isolation. Suppose the boss comes out to the wagon and says something the herder does n’t like. The boss goes home and promptly forgets it in the numerous contacts he has with others, but the herder does not forget. He mulls it over in his mind, because he has no other immediate contacts to obliterate the memory of this unpleasant one. So he broods over it, and often it curdles the milk of his otherwise sunny disposition. But this is not the fault of the herder; it is merely the result of the conditions of his job.

There is an ever-recurrent story that the laws in certain states compel a sheepman to keep two men with the bunch all the time, one to herd the sheep and the other to keep the herder from going crazy. What would happen if the ovine influence should upset the mental equilibrium of both of them at the same time is a matter for conjecture. Speaking merely for myself, the sight of someone watching me from day to day for signs of incipient madness would be the surest and quickest way to call to life the germs of that disease which is supposed to lie latent in the herder’s calling. And if, in addition, I had to do all the work, while the other fellow confined his labors to his optic nerve, there would inevitably steal into my consciousness the thought that insanity is a valid as well as popular excuse for several of the major crimes.

There is also the fable of another law compelling a sheepman to visit his wagon every so often. This is probably as apocryphal as the other. If this law were amended so as to compel the sheepman to visit his wagon on certain days and on no others, it would receive the strong and hearty support of most herders. As it is, the boss is likely to drop in unannounced almost any time, and this is frequently a cause of embarrassment and deep mortification to the herder, all of which could be avoided by the simple passage of this law.

The fact that labor trouble is practically unknown in the relations between sheepman and herder may be due to various reasons. For one thing, herders are unorganized. The fact that one herder would have to walk several miles at night in order to organize with the next one may have something to do with that. Also, being hired for twentyfour hours a day, there is no time for them to attend meetings when their twenty-four-hour shift is over. Besides this, the extent of ground necessary for running a band of sheep is so large, and the wagons consequently so far apart, that it would take a day and a half to get together enough herders for a good poker game, let alone enough to serve as an audience for inflammatory speeches.

I have still another theory about the herders’ lack of an organization, and that is that the nature of his work tends to make him independent. He prefers to do his own thinking rather than to pay someone else to do it for him, and he would be very much opposed to supporting some other herder in idleness for this purpose.

But I think that the real reason for the absence of labor troubles is that sheep raising is still carried on along the old patriarchal lines, and the old manto-man relation still exists, as it formerly did in almost every occupation. Once in a while a sheepman may suddenly send his herder to join the ranks of the unemployed, or an occasional herder may tell his boss where to shove his sheep, but these are individual cases to be settled each on its own merits. And to counterbalance these melancholy incidents there are many eases where herders have worked for the same man as long as Jacob did for Laban, even without Jacob’s incentive. When a herder has put in ten years working for one man, as I have, it looks as if the boss must be a pretty good fellow after all. Modesty forbids the reversal of the formula.


At first sight it might seem that the herder, consorting with a notably harmless animal, living for the most part aloof from his fellow man, with no temptations other than those afforded by the mail-order catalogues, ought to lead a life singularly free from hazards of all sorts. But my belief is and my experience has been that he runs all the risks that other people do, with a few peculiar to his own profession thrown in for good measure.

A few years ago I was sitting in the wagon one sultry Sunday afternoon in midsummer writing letters. It was about half past three, and the sheep were leaving water, but had not yet gone far enough to need attention. Going to the door of the wagon to make sure they were all right, I found myself staring directly at an immense black bowl-shaped cloud, from the bottom of which a black snaky trunk sought the earth, the tip of it licking the dust from a ridge not half a mile away. I had seen such a sight once before, from the safe distance of three miles, but if I had never seen one I could not have mistaken it for any but the deadly thing that it was.

The wagon, as always in summer, stood on the top of a hill. It occurred to me that a hilltop was about the poorest place imaginable in which to entertain a visit from a tornado. To be more accurate, I should say that this occurred to me as I was actively engaged in leaving. I know that I broke several records getting down that hill, but since there was no one there with a stop watch I don’t know just which ones they were. I reached the bottom and took out across the fiat with every intention of running out of the path of that advancing column. But, as I kept track of it over my shoulder, it seemed to me that I was running directly into that path. So I turned and started back. Then I happened to remember that there was an old homestead well at the foot of the hill on which the wagon stood, one of those shallow wells into which the homesteader would pour a barrel of water on the day he proved up, and then go to town and swear himself black in the face that he had a well with water in it. Into this five-foot well I let myself, and from this favored spot watched the proceedings.

I had been subconsciously aware all this time of a great roaring in the air, but had put it down to thunder. Now I noticed that it was unvarying and continuous, like the roar of great express trains going by on either side. I saw the column still advancing, and was amazed at its comparatively slow progress, since I knew that within that whirling pillar the air was traveling at immeasurable velocity. As I watched the advancing column, I saw it break in two, one part dropping toward the earth, the other withdrawing toward the overhanging cloud; then the parts joined again; then the lower end drew up and let down quickly several times, as if it were rubber bouncing on the earth. Higher and higher were the bounces and shorter became the trunk, until finally it dissolved altogether into the gray cloud above it, and its allpervading roar became merged into the new roar of an advancing hailstorm.

Late that afternoon, when the boss and his family came out to see how everything was, I learned that the tornado had struck a house about four miles west of where the wagon stood. In the house at the time were a young mother and four little girls. By the merest chance the mother happened to glance out of the window as the advancing column invaded the yard. She had just time to throw the children on the bed and fling a thick quilt over them, when the tornado struck. The walls seemed to press in and then fell outward, the roof disappeared, and in an instant the mother found herself flying through the air. As she was carried along the wind sucked her baby out of her arms, carried it aloft, and then restored it to her; a board kept gently tapping the back of her head; all she could think of was broken bones, broken bones; then quite suddenly she was on the ground with her children around her, with broken and twisted farm machinery scattered all about them; and, on the very verge of collapse, she sent the eldest girl after one of the little ones, who, stripped of every shred of clothing, was chasing the flying column down the field, sobbing as she ran.

Like all other mortals since the time man first cooked his meat instead of bolting it raw, the herder is subject to the hazards of fire. One day last spring at the beginning of lambing, I cooked breakfast for the other lamber and myself over a wood fire. I remarked to him that I would not use any coal, because we should not be in again till noon. We left the wagon about seven o’clock, and after I was outside I stepped back in again to make sure that I had closed the front draft. The wind was blowing a gale. Two hours later I saw the other lamber going toward the wagon with his horse on the run, but I merely thought that he was going back after some tobacco. I was talking at the time with one of the neighbors and had my back to our wagon, when all of a sudden the neighbor straightened in the saddle and shouted, ‘Look! Look!' I turned around and saw the wagon one mass of flames. I was a mile from where it stood, and afoot, so I could play only the part of a spectator, but the language in which I mourned the loss of my books, my clothing, and my typewriter started a prairie fire where I was standing.

The lamber first tried to get his tarp bed out from under the table, but it was firmly wedged there with his two suitcases behind it. Not knowing what else to do, and not wishing to remain idle, he threw out in rapid succession the ink bottle, the saltcellar, and the sugar bowl. Just then his hair and his moustache caught fire, and he decided to leave. It is barely possible he left before he fully decided. The man I had been talking to had in the meantime raced his horse to the wagon, and by a mixture of brain and muscle he succeeded in tipping off the burning upper portion, and thereby saved the running gears. We found that the bottom of the stove had rusted through just beneath the stovepipe. A spark must have dropped through on to the wood piled beneath, and there it smouldered for two hours before bursting into flame.

But the greatest danger that the herder has to face, in my opinion, is from lightning. He is peculiarly exposed to it. On the treeless plains of the West a man or a ‘critter’ forms a natural target for the lightning bolt. Numbers of cattle and still greater numbers of horses are killed in this way every year. Most human beings naturally seek shelter at the approach of a storm, but the herder must remain somewhere in the vicinity of his sheep.

They say lightning never strikes twice in the same place. However that may be, it is a safe bet that it never strikes the same herder twice, if it gets a fair shot at him the first time. I knew a herder who was knocked unconscious for some time when lightning struck a bunch of sheep that he was driving into a corral. Several of the sheep were killed, and, strange to say, the others started to pile up on top of them. Another time a herder, who was taking my place while I was on vacation, had gravel thrown into his coat collar as he sat on his horse, when lightning struck a pebbly stretch of river shore just behind him. He too was rendered unconscious for some moments, and when he came to he was grasping the saddle horn to keep from falling.

My own closest call with lightning came several years ago. The wagon was perched on top of the highest hill in the neighborhood. A storm came up during the night, and as it drew nearer I sat up in bed and watched the sheep through the window in the back of the wagon. When the rain struck them they broke up into little groups, but did not go far because it was midsummer and the rain was warm. The lightning kept getting nearer and nearer, till suddenly there was a bolt and an almost simultaneous crash apparently right on top of the wagon. The thought flashed through my mind, ‘I might as well die lying down as sitting up,’ so I lay back on the bed and waited for the end of a perfect day. To my infinite relief the next crash sounded farther off. At daylight, not thirty paces from the wagon, I found four sheep dead, grouped closely, and already bloated, as is characteristic of lightning victims. Why the bolt should have struck such a comparatively low target as a sheep and should have ignored the wagon and its stovepipe, close by and on higher ground, is a question that must be answered by someone more intimately acquainted with lightning than I am.

Not all herders are so lucky, however. In our own community several years ago there was the case of Andy Swanson. He had intended to quit herding and go to California as soon as shearing was over. The last time his boss saw him alive, Andy said, ‘Well, Louie, I’m singing my last tune, and pretty soon I’ll be going around them for the last time.’ That afternoon a summer shower passed over — a mere sprinkle of rain, a few lightning flashes, and it was gone. The next day Andy’s horse came to the ranch with the saddle on, but nobody thought anything of it, as it is no uncommon thing for a herder’s horse to get away from him. But that evening was the time set for Andy to bring the sheep in to the ranch for shearing, and when he did not show up his boss went out to see what was the matter. He found sheep scattered all about, but no herder. Thoroughly alarmed, he summoned his neighbors, and all that night they hunted with lanterns and shouted, thinking Andy might have fallen off a bank and broken a leg. At ten o’clock the next morning on a high rocky ledge they found him. Andy had passed into the keeping of the Good Shepherd, who, if He disregardeth not the sparrow’s fall, had surely in His infinite mercy already enfolded the soul of this poor herder who lay face downward upon the earth. He who at eventide counts His sheep one by one into the fold will at the last not leave the lowly herder standing outside.