Last Friday night I was having dinner at the Melrose Bar and Cafe and I ran into my old friend Joe. Joe was my wrangler when I used to do pack trips to the high country. We were reminiscing about some of those trips and the country we were in and I was telling him I learned most of that country while riding with Donny Kambich. Joe looked at me kind of funny and said “you know he’s gone don’t ya”. I said whatta mean gone and he said he cashed in last week, heart attack. At that moment it seemed like the whole world stopped. The place was full of people but I heard no one.
Donny was a small time rancher down near Glen. I got to know him when I was running Anglers Paradise Lodge at Brown’s Bridge. He was a drinkin man in those days and the first time we met he said we might as well go outside and get it over with to see who’s the toughest. I told him I didn’t want to take advantage of a drunk, especially a drunk bohunk. He looked at me for a moment and then busted out laughing while extending his hand in friendship. That hand shake started a friendship which lasted for many years.
Donny and his cousins, the twins had a forest service grazing permit in the Birch Creek country in the East Pioneer Mountains. They would move their cattle up to the high meadows starting in June. This is some of the finest country I have ever seen. At first they invited me along and I jumped at the chance to ride with them as a sort of guest just to see some of that high country. After an hour or so on the first trip it became apparent that this was no pleasure ride and they expected me to help move the cows if I was able. I knew they were watching me pretty close to see how bad I would screw up. What they did not know was that I was raised on a ranch and could handle my own. My first intention was not to trail stupid cows as I already had my share of that but to explore the many creeks and ponds up there for future fishing trips. After some time I got to do both.
There were places up there that were pretty much sacred to Donny. Places that he named like Meditation Meadow and Church. The latter was a place where we would ride up to this saddle between two lower peaks and once there out of the timber we would be looking over this high lake and with the towering peaks of the Pioneer Mountains in the background. The many times we rode there Donny always demanded silence and I respected that. No words were needed as we would sit with one leg hooked across the saddle horn and just take it all in.
They were many humurous times along with the work up there. When it was time to move the cows from one permit area to another it was all business and there was some pretty rough terrain. One time we were gathering up the herd in early fall to head them down to the valley. The bulls at this time can be a real pain to move as they are done with the breedin and like to just brush up and be left alone. This one particular angus bull was brushed up and was not about to go any where. Donny said the only way to get him out is for one of us to get off and git him outta there. I got off my horse, gathered up a long stick, went in the brush and started prodding and poking him. He came out allright and was he pissed. He nailed me and threw me around like a rag doll. Lucky for me one of Donny’s dogs came to my rescue and diverted his attention long enough for me to gather myself up (what was left of me) and get back on my horse. Donny had his head hanging down with that black hat covering his face but I could hear that high pitched giggle he had. It was obvious then he used me for bait to get that bull out of the brush and it worked. All I said was pay back is coming and as it turned out it didn’t take long. I was moving the cows down off Buffalo Flat and Donny was way up on the slope of Sugar Loaf (locally known as Molly’s tit) where there were just a few stragglers. All of a sudden I heard him hollering and he was waving for me to come up there. I really didn’t want to go way up that slope as I had a very tired horse but he kept waving so we headed up. When I got there he was looking down this old mine shaft about 25 feet deep and there was a calf down there and still alive. He didn’t have a rope and I did. I held the rope as he lowered himself down. Once he was at the bottom I threw the other end of the rope down to him and said “how do ya like this for payback” He looked up at me, shook his head and lowered his black hat and knew he was at my mercy. I told him I had 3 demands before I hauled his butt back up. One I wanted a pay raise (which was a joke cuz I never got paid money, just used his stock truck on my pack trips) but it was fun as I had the upper hand and was savoring the moment. Two I want an apology for using me for bait with that bull. Three, from this time forward every time we go riding I get Roany (this was probably the best cow and mountain horse I have ever ridden) Since he was holding no cards at all he had no choice but to accept my conditions. He threw the rope back up and me and Roany hauled him and the calf out of that hole. We should have just left that calf down there and shot it in the head. It was like the last of ten thousand as it must have been there for some time. It couldn’t keep up with the herd so we left it in this meadow by a little creek to get it the next day. We rode back up there the next day and looked all over but no trace. A bear or mountain lion must have got it.
On one occasion the cows had to be moved the very next day according to the ranger and Donny couldn’t go so he asked if I would go with the twins in his place. It was forecast to be a hot day so we started at the break of dawn as it’s almost impossible to move those ignorant animals when it’s hot. By about 10:30 we were done. Frank, Tom and myself were patting ourselves on the back for a job well done. It was a beautiful morning and we grabbed our lunches from the saddle bags. We were on this little meadow along side Thief Creek and all was peace and quiet. The horses were gently grazing with the reins just dragging on the ground. No need to tie them up in this serene setting. Toward the end of lunch one of us threw a half eaten apple and it hit this tree above the horses and rattled down the branches. To the horses it must have sounded like a mountain lion coming down the tree as they blew up and bolted down the valley. Reins and rigging getting ripped and it was 2 miles down the creek before we gathered them up again. When we got back to the ranch and Donny heard the story he got out his check book again and asked who was the guilty one so he could pay him off and send him on his way. Before we got back to the ranch the twins and I made a pact to never reveal who threw the apple. This was the summer when Donny was pretty busy with his check book paying off wanna be cowboy’s. Joe College for example told when asked what kind of cowboy he was, replied “the best”. By mid day on a fairly long push we just moved him and his horse in with the herd. His head has hanging, his butt was sore and he didn’t wanna be a cowboy no more. Donny couldn’t wait to get back to the ranch and get the check book out. Of course in true ranch tradition, Meemee (Donny’s mother) made sure he got supper before Donny sent him packin.
I night calved for Donny one winter and never took no pay but told him to keep it til we were done calving and that we should head to Mexico. Well when we were done calving he and I did go to Mexico and that’s another story all together. That run in with the Federales was not a good thing. We just thought they were hustling us and grabbing them by the throat and threatening them did not help either. We were gonna kick some serious ass til they managed to flash their badges at us. After a multitude of apologies they let us go. One day down there we were in this taxi and the driver and Donny struck up a converstion. The driver was asking him if he liked Mexican hombres. Donny said he sure did and he hired them all the time on his ranch in Montana. The driver then looked back at Donny and smiled and said “do you want to marry hombre”? I can’t print what Donny said at that point but he almost ripped the door off that 1953 Chrysler getting out of there. As for me I have never laughed so hard in my life. I promised I wouldn’t tell any body but that night after a little tequila I told every English speaken person I could find.
Donny didn’t really walk but just kinda sauntered his was around. For his friends there was no end to what he would do to help them out if needed.
The images of riding with him and the twins in that high country are as vivid as if they were just yesterday.
He was one to ride the trail with.
Getting back to ridin and movin cows, one day Donny and I were up Bond Creek and again it was at first light. He took the south ridge and I the north. I gathered all I could find and was heading down toward the creek when Donny started yelling at me from the south ridge. He kept yelling that I missed one and I was sure that I didn’t. I was looking directly into the morning sun and Donny yelled that it was gonna be in the saddle with me right quick. Roany was getting real nervous and was starting to crow hop. Then I saw the problem, it was a cow moose and she was on the charge. Some how I had gotten between her and her calf and she was on the fight. I let loose the reins on Roany and we lit outta there quick. Thank god I was on a good horse and we put distance between us quick. Once the moose figured I was no longer a threat to her calf she broke off the charge and her and the calf ambled off in the willows. I looked up the ridge at Donny and he was about to wet his britches laughing at the whole ordeal.