Bad Days at 'Big Dry'


I TURNED THE HORSES OUT again tonight.

The saddle horses come into the corral early every morning for feed.

I pour a bucket of ''cake'' - pellets of compressed alfalfa and grain -into their troughs and close the gate behind them. They're locked up in case I need to ride. Or want to.

I used to look for reasons to ride, especially on a cool Montana evening when I had a young horse that needed the work. Nothing felt as good as the smooth leather of a latigo sliding through my fingers, or the slight jingle of my spurs as I led my horses to the pickup and trailer.

But I turned the horses out because now I don't care to ride.

There is nothing out there. There are no green coulees to ride through, no little badland creeks trickling with water the color and thickness of creamed coffee. There are only the haunted looks of sad-eyed cows and the constant reminder that decisions - difficult, painful decisions - need to be made. Before, I could ride around my cattle, watching the calves grow fat and shiny, seeing the contentedness of mother cows grazing green creek bottoms. I kept an eye open for an eagle on the wing or the mossy horns of a mule deer buck in velvet.

But this is the seventh year that drought has gripped this eastern Montana landscape - seven out of the last nine, and this one is by far the worst.

This stretch of terrain, east of Billings and west of the Dakotas, is naturally arid. The frontier photographer L. A. Huffman labeled it the ''Big Dry.'' When the homesteaders arrived in the early 1920's, several wet years lay back-to-back. This land, they thought, was surely as fertile as Ohio. They filed claims and took out loans to buy seed, teams, even steam-engined tractors. They experienced a good year or two, then the Dirty Thirties came. Like a young bride with a sinister secret, the land revealed herself as she truly was, harsh, cruel, unrelenting, a land of meager, self-sacrificing survival.

The homesteaders left in droves. They left their little tarpaper shacks. They left their big black steam-engined tractors rusting in the fields. They turned their horses out.

A few homesteaders remained, surviving either on the little scratch of desert they called their claim or by herding sheep or working in town. They are today's old-timers. They stand and talk quietly on the shaded corners of the main streets of our communities. They visit sale barns and watch as the cattle are sold.

''Yes, this is bad,'' they said during the drought of 1979 and '80, ''but it ain't as bad as '31. God, how the wind blew, and the mormon crickets - they ate everything in sight.'' During the drought of '84 and '85, when countless ranchers and farmers were foreclosed on and the Governor announced ''our state literally is on fire'' from lightning strikes, they said: ''It ain't nothin' compared to '34 and '36. Never did rain then.'' But the old-timers have shut up. There has never been a summer like the summer of 1988.

I RETURNED TO THE RANCH IN 1979. I CAME out of a dead-end position in the Air Force to help my recently widowed mother. I remember sitting in base supply in Great Falls, Mont., two meager stripes on my sleeve, noticing that no one cared about the weather. To the urban person, weather was simply a matter of convenience. Snow made it hard to get to work in the morning. Rain prevented recreation on weekends. I would love to be back on the ranch, I told myself. I would love to again be dependent on the environment.

We returned in the spring of 1979, my wife, two little children and I. Those first few years were terribly dry, but we were young, full of hope and naive.

When my mother passed away in 1982, I inherited a small herd of cattle and a 10-year lease on the family ranch. It is a small ranch, but with our shares in the larger corporate ranch owned mainly by two of my surviving uncles, an economic base is possible. The whole is a ''cowboy'' kind of outfit. We don't own any tractors, no motorcycles, no snowmobiles. We depend on battered old four-wheel-drive pickups and good horseflesh to find our way around some 40,000 acres of badlands and prairie.

In 1984, I had to sell most of my cows. There was little grass, no water. We put them on trucks and shipped them to the auction barn in town. I didn't watch them sell, but I made another mistake. After they were sold, I walked the alleys in the back lot of the sales yard and saw my cows penned, waiting for the trucks that would take them to slaughter. And they recognized me. I could see the recognition in their eyes; and I didn't dare speak because they knew my voice better than my appearance, so many winter days they had heard me calling them to the pickup, where I fed the tamer ones cake pellets from my hand. I wondered that day if maybe I was too sentimental to be a good rancher.

But we started building our herd again. We kept as many heifer calves as we could, and we did without things, such as new pickups, or fresh linoleum for the kitchen floor.

Last year was a good year. It rained. The market improved. Things were looking up. There was hope. But if I had ridden out tonight, I would have seen what is left of last year's brittle grass and I would have worried about the stale water the cows sip through the mud and moss of the reservoirs.

I remember May, and how the ranchers met in the cafes over coffee to predict when it would rain. I remember the big storm that rolled across the state on Memorial Day weekend, the heavy, black clouds, the thunder, but no rain.

Then came June, traditionally our wettest - and greenest - month in a calendar year that rarely gives us more than 11 inches of moisture. But the skies paled to a hazy white. The winds blew. The temperature climbed to 102, 105, 108 and, finally, 112. Thunderstorms tried to form but had no moisture, just noise and flash. One night I took my children - ages 10 and 11 - to the top of a hill and pointed toward the Powder River country south of town. We counted the black, billowing smoke of three separate range fires burning uncontrolled. ''Remember this day,'' I told them. ''This is something you will someday tell your children about.''

I remember setting the alarm clock for 3:30 A.M. to ride out to the bogs and move cattle away from reservoirs that were becoming muddy deathtraps.

I remember trying to keep bulls with little bunches of cows, hoping against hope that they were in good enough condition to have their estrous cycle.

But much of June I do not remember. The days merely melted, one into another, then dried to dust and blew away.

In mid-July, we sold my uncle's sheep. I do not remember my uncle's ever being without sheep. He has herded sheep from Greybull, Wyo., to the Canadian line. He has walked most of eastern Montana caring for the woollies. I remember as a child thinking I was alone in the hills, just me and my horse, and then I would feel a presence. There he would be, a distant, dark specter walking the land.

He cared little for being on horseback. When we trailed cows, he would dismount and lead his horse. My father was a cowboy; he liked his horses fast and wild. But sheepherders want their horses to be slow and lazy and stay close to camp. My uncle never cared to drive, either. It has been more than 50 years since he drove a vehicle on a public highway. And he never married. He was, whether he would admit it or not, married to the sheep.

My uncle survived June. He followed the sheep every morning as they left his cluttered yard and headed up Sunday Creek in search of something to eat. By 11 o'clock, the sun would force them to seek shade. They would crowd into an abandoned airplane hangar on the edge of a crested wheat-grass field. He would come home, lie on his couch and listen to market reports on the radio.

Just before dark, he would go back out to get them. The coyotes are thick here, so the sheep have to be brought in at night. The first lamb the coyotes killed was the largest in the herd. They got him in broad daylight, during the few minutes my uncle left the herd to feed his bums - the motherless lambs that are fed on a bottle. When the coyotes got the second lamb, I think something snapped inside him. The ewes were old. It was too hot. Too dry. It was time to sell the sheep. We loaded them into trailers and took them to town.

My uncle pretends he was mad at the sheep - for making it so much work to keep them bunched, for letting themselves be killed by coyotes. I know he is just a mile up the road from my house, lying on his couch, reading newspapers or playing with the little button that controls his satellite television. But it is hard for me to imagine him without his sheep.

ONE DAY IN LATE JULY, I WENT UP TO Deadman Creek to check on my cows. I drove my pickup and parked at one of the last reservoirs that still had a little water. I found a dead turtle on the bank. I don't know why he died. Maybe it was boredom.

I felt guilty as I walked past the first little bunch of cows. They looked at me, curious, hungry. I did not like to look back; they looked worse than I had ever seen. I know each one, her personality, her ancestry. I may have assisted in bringing her into the world, and probably assisted in the birthing of her first calf. As I walked by them, they looked at me as if I had let them down. It is not for lack of land; in this pasture, each cow and calf have almost 300 acres. It is the heat, the lack of grass, the sour, muddy water.

We are conservative ranchers. We don't believe in dryland farming this fragile ground. The Government for years paid some of our neighbors to plant their pastures to wheat. Now it is paying them to plant them back to grass. We have never been paid for mistakes. We don't expect to be. I do not own this land. I am only its present steward. Perhaps it is my time to move on. Should the last reservoir go dry, I will go somewhere with my cattle. But where do I go? To the sales ring? To distant grass, paying someone else to feed and care for them?

I would like to be able to keep my cows until October. By then, the calves will be old enough to wean and sell. The market has dropped because of the drought in the Midwest - the forced sale of cattle has depressed prices for now - but I hope to get enough for the calves to meet expenses. By October, I will be able to pregnancy-test my cows. I would like to keep the ones that are pregnant. My biggest fear now is how many that will be.

I have checked with the local Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service office on the emergency feed program. It could make the difference in whether I can keep my cows. The man in the office said we're lucky it's an election year.

The national press is acting as if it has just discovered drought. As a society, we are so far removed from the land we do not know where our food comes from. It simply has always been there, in neat rows on the grocery shelves, and all we have cared about is the price.

Meanwhile, the local paper says the onslaught of prairie and timber fires are actually helping Miles City's economy. Several hundred firefighters are camped at the fairgrounds, sleeping in tents and barn stalls. How ironic! The economy here has been so bad for so long that businesses have burned down regularly. Arson has been confirmed in several cases. Now a reprieve has been granted. The economy has been temporarily saved by an invasion of tired, hungry fire-fighters.

But there is no rain in the forecast. In the last 11 months we have received only two inches of moisture. I can look at the reservoirs and count the days before they will be finished.

I went out today to feel the pulse of the land. I felt none.

There is only one more thing to do.

I am going to turn the horses out.