An Old Broke Montana Rancher Incurs the Wrath of an Elderly Basque Shepherd

Old Broke Rancher Masthead
Shepherd's wagon

In the mid-1960's, about the same time I earned my driver's license at the tender age of 14 or so, I learned a stern lesson from an old Basque man.  Unfortunately for me, I managed to make him so angry that he quite literally turned red.
The august gentleman's name was: Markel Mintxo Montoya, which translates from the Basque as something like "Martial, Masculine, From The Hills." My dad just called him Monty Montana for short.  Monty was indeed masculine, and happened to live in the hills.  As for martial, I think that was probably true as well.  At any rate, I can attest that when he got angry he was a fearsome sight to behold, even at his ripe old age; he was a lanky old goat, probably in his mid 70's by the time I met him.  He seemed to be closer to three hundred years old with his leathery face - at least that's how it appeared to a little greenhorn like me.

He was also my father's friend.  Dad had been delivering supplies to Monty Montana, for some years.  Monty was fond of telling Dad that he had descended from a royal, or at least regal, lineage: an unbroken line of countless shepherds emanating from the Iberian Peninsula's northern regions.  For the geography challenged, that's present day Spain and Portugal.
I had met the old fellow a time or two when I accompanied my dad on his missions of goodwill, where my dad pretended to resupply the old man in his high mountain camp in the Snowy Mountains of Central Montana.  It turned out his mobile sheep wagon (an early form of a camper), pulled by a cantankerous old mule named number 60, were often found by a nameless mountain lake teeming with brook trout.  

By the way, I know you're curious how he came to have a mule named Number 60, and I'd hate to have you wait in suspense, so I'll tell you. You might think it would be it was his 60th mule, but alas, you'd be incorrect.  The old shepherd was indeed ancient, but Methuselah wasn't old enough to have gone through 59 mules.  They can live up to 25-30 years, and unless you're treating them mightly poorly they'll tend to stick around for a good long time.  Nope, it turns out to have been a lot simpler.  Monty had attended a ranch production sale in New Mexico where a year's worth of mules were being sold.  The one that caught his eye was ear-tagged number 60, and Monty bought him and figured Number 60 was as good a name as any.
Anyway: my father, an avid fisherman (and I think you know that fishing, more often than not, involves drinking), was known to partake in 4 or 5 fingers of rye when the opportunity presented itself, or sometimes bourbon when the good stuff wasn't available.  But whenever Dad brought supplies to the shepherd's camp, the opportunity never failed to present itself.I suspected that the fishing and the drinking were the main reasons for the visits, the company of the old gentleman notwithstanding, and so of course I wanted to tag along.  It was customary for my dad to show up at his camp about an hour or so before dark, which meant that it made sense to stay the night rather than brave the return mountain roads in the dark.  Mom, though known to partake in a nip or two herself on a cold winter night, did not always see a five-finger portion as being "in moderation." Dad, for his part, had no qualms about moderation as long as he wasn't immoderate more than three days in a row.  He was full of wisdom that way.

Great pyrenees sheep dogs

The old shepherd had four highly-trained herd dogs whose names were Jasmine, Flossy, Sadie, and the fourth was a Great Pyrenees named Lucifer.  The ones with pleasant names were, as I could tell, all Border collie types although I have to admit all sheepdogs look alike to me.  The Great Pyrenees did look different in that he was colossal and, as his name would suggest, satanic.  It turns out that Lucifer came from the same area of the world as his master, the mountainous border between Spain and France, and he, himself was himself a descendant from a long line of doggy royalty, which may have accounted for his haughty disposition.
All of his dogs were trained to do a specific task so that they worked as a team.  It took astute observation on my part to note this, by the way.  One dog would move the flock out and away from camp to dine on the lush mountain meadows.  One would bring the flock nearer the camp for the night.  The last was a circler, and would tend to keep them bunched.
Lucifer was the protector of the flock, and I was never too sure about him.  I never pushed my luck around him, anyway.
Well, one day my dad says to me, "Son, I need you to run supplies up to Monty Montana." I knew he enjoyed doing it himself, but he was expecting supplies that day and Pop just couldn't make it.  Here was the grocery list as far as I can remember it: eggs, bacon, rice, beans, flour, coffee, tobacco, sugar, and baking powder.

"Also, please do not forget the sack in the front seat of the pickup, that's for him also," Pop said.  So I, just casually-like, checked it out, and was not at all surprised to find a bottle of Wild Turkey Rye, a bottle of Jim Beam, and a copy of Playboy magazine.
So off I go to the mountains, navigating the treacherously narrow road, (although calling it a trail was more accurate) to Monty's summer forest service allotment.  By cosmic coincidence, I arrive at about the same time as my dad often did, meaning it only made sense to spend the night.  I pitched my own tent.  And after a friendly chat at the campfire and a few modest swigs from one of his bottles, I settled in for the night and hoped that Lucifer wouldn't eat me in my sleep.

When I woke in the morning, at the first sign of light, there was no sign of Monty.  He and his flock of dogs and sheep seemed to have vanished.  So I thought that I would surprise the old man and make him a pot of coffee, and some bacon and eggs.  

Old coffee pot

I found the provisions easily enough and started my preparations, but when I went to the fire pit, I noticed to my dismay that the inside of the coffee pot was mired in what appeared to be a century's worth of filth.  The big cast iron pot was disgusting, and that was putting it mildly.  I thought I would take it down to the lake and scour it with the gravel and sand, where the crick ran into the lake.  It took a concerted effort, worthy of a boy scout, mind you, to get it cleaned up again, and I thought myself a very good boy to go through the bother.  Perhaps, I thought, the old man's fingers had become so enfeebled with arthritis that he was no longer capable himself, and I considered it my good deed for the day to have done so.
So I was minding my own business a while later, attending to the bacon and eggs on the Coleman stove he kept in his old wagon when I hear a fearsome banshee shriek.  I thought that something was killing Monty.  I was sure from the volume and intensity of the scream that a bear was mauling the poor old soul.  Or that Lucifer himself (the dog, not the fallen angel) had thrown off the shackles of subservience and was tearing his one-time master limb from limb.

So I was in total shock from the hullabaloo as I ran down to the fire pit and discovered that all the commotion was about the coffee pot.  

"Que te jodan!  Bobo!  You washed the coffee pot!  It took forty years to get the coffee pot to the condition it was in and you washed it!"
It would take another forty years to get it back to the same condition, and the old fart did not expect to live so long.  I had ruined his life.  He was devastated.  I had unknowingly committed one of the original sins of sheep herding; I had cleaned another man's coffee pot.

After 20 minutes of ranting and raving during which Monty Montana sucked down a few gulps from one of his bottles, he returned to earth, utterly devastated.  

I explained that I was sorry, but to my un-trained eye it looked like he might contract any number of diseases from his rancid coffee pot and that I was only trying to keep him from ingesting whatever the contents of the pot had been.

He calmed down enough to explain that the coffee had a metallic taste for the previous 20 plus years on account of the pot not being seasoned.  He had just been adding more grounds, and even threw his egg shells into the pot, for decades.  It had only just lost its odious flavor, he said.

That was my first encounter with the practice of never washing a coffee pot. Several times since, mind you, I have received a stern warning, and even threats of physical harm and abuse.  Once in logging camp I told the story to the foreman of the "Feller Bunching Crew," and he nodding his head in a knowing way before meeting the end of the tale with a sad shake of his head.  There's no way, he seemed to say, that I could be that dumb.  The lead man of the "Skidding Crew" spoke up and said, "young pup you should'a knowed better'n that.  Why the old shepherd should'a handed you your green ass right there on the spot." 

It even turns out that my old Boy Scout Master, probably the most fastidious man I ever met, said, "boy, you never, never, wash another man's coffee pot, or God forbid his coffee cup.

I mean, how was I to know?  I was a mere tenderfoot.  But to make it clear, I have never washed another one since.  Or at least not one that wasn't mine; I still kind of prefer a clean one myself.  And it will never happen again, I promise you.  

If you're wondering, Monty Montana never forgave me, although I think he eventually, begrudgingly, forgave Dad for being related to me.

Sheep in a field

Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy.  Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV.  Hell, scratch that.  Enough to buy the whole RV.  He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations.  Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.

Leave a Comment Here

Jimmy Alexander (not verified) , Thu, 01/07/2021 - 18:08
Great story!
Jackie Pepin (not verified) , Fri, 04/26/2024 - 11:24
My dad (who died when I was just 25) was a sheep herder as a young buck, and he continued to make the most terrifyingly strong coffee … required that it boiled over at least twice before fit for drinking … in his beloved, awful-looking old coffee pot, for the rest of his 56 years. My thoughts: “Never had anything smelled so good, and tasted oh so rank, but that was before I learned what ELSE, my darling daddy drank.” Thank you for this memory.
Nellie (not verified) , Fri, 04/26/2024 - 18:45
Loved your story Gary.
Your comment will not appear until we have reviewed and approved it.