Montana Viewpoint: Going through a rough patch

Jim Elliott

Whenever I am faced with a daunting task and wonder how I will get it done, I think back 35 or so years ago when I had to face what was then, and may still be, the most daunting task in my life.

I had been away on a two-week trip to visit family and had left the ranch in charge of my hired man — it was just the two of us. We were all calved out and things should go smoothly. He was to pick me up at the train station at three in the morning, but when I got off the train he wasn’t there.

Not a good sign, I thought, and called the ranch. He answered, also not a good sign, and said he’d get dressed and drive the 65 miles to the station as soon as he could. I waited.

When he got there he said, “Here are the keys and I’m cashing in my time. I’m leaving.” At that point I was just as happy to let him go, so I cut him a check, cussed him, dropped him off on the highway that headed south, and drove home.

My house is a mile from the county road, and was then reached by what some would charitably call a road, but should more accurately be described as a ditch. In April and May all roads were muddy, but mine was mudded up to the point that I had to walk it for two or three months. I parked at the end, hefted my gear and commenced walking down the road through the woods. It was full light by now, and in the gray drizzle I could see my old red Chevy pickup about a quarter mile away, off to the side. Another bad sign, I thought, which as I neared the truck, was confirmed because it was stuck up to its axles.

I recommenced walking (and cussing) and eventually came to the place where the woods opened up and I could see the ranch house and also — yes, it was not a dream — my two-ton hay truck with its nose in the air at an incredible angle and the bales that were once so neatly stacked on it tumbling off the back. The cows, of course, were giving gravity an assist by pulling bales off and happily eating some of the hay, but mostly using it for bedding.

“I would have quit, too,” I thought. But the best was yet to come. Really, so far, everything was manageable, and I could fix most of it OK with the aid of one of the tractors, one of which, I found had been hidden behind the hay truck and was badly stuck. Getting closer to the top of the ridge the house was built on I could see down into the coulee where my other tractor was resting in the mud on its belly pan. It was next my old HD6 crawler tractor; also mired, and, as I soon found, also with a stripped bull gear which kept it from going anywhere but deeper into the mud.

The next week or so is sort of a blank spot in my memory, but eventually I went down to the bar and hired a fellow—a good man, but rough as a cob until you knew him—and together we got down in the mud on our backs and our bellies with timbers and jacks and assorted tools and tackled the cat.

We needed a cutting torch, which I didn’t have, so he trundled his own tanks the full mile down my rutted, muddy driveway. Some days he didn’t show up for work, and some days he brought hot stew for me. It evened out in my estimation.

So, eventually, we got the cat out and everything was a relative piece of cake from then on. We got the rest of the equipment out and the road dried up, and the future looked brighter. I think it took about a month, just plugging away every day. As my friend Jess Nelson used to say, “Time, patience, perseverance, and a little sweet oil, (olive oil) and you can fix anything.”

I never knew what kind of party had occasioned the wreckage, and the last I heard of my former hired hand he was on a freighter off the shore of Argentina cleaning out the tiger pens for Ringling Brothers. Good luck to him.

And, yes, this is all true.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.