It was a bad business. It was a bad business all the way around. Less than a month into my job as a Fish and Wildlife Ranger, and I was stuck in the middle of it. Born and raised in Baltimore, my one goal in life was to explore the wilds of the West. Being paid for it was even sweeter.
The second week on the job, I was checking out whether Denis McCarthy, a longtime rancher, had moved his herd of Hereford cattle to high pasture yet. From what the people who lived in Bridger had told me, the weather in the winter of 1993-1994, had been a harrowing one. There in the midst of the Absaroka Mountains, upon which the town had a toehold, citizens were blanketed by snowstorm after snowstorm, and although it was the middle of June, there was so much snow that some of the ranchers had not yet moved their herds to higher ground that they leased from the BLM.
Ted Lascombe, my boss, said, “Go check out McCarthy’s herd of Hereford. He doesn’t always stick to the land he’s leased.” The leases were on Taylor Mountain, which rose up into the heavens south of Bridger. Running for miles back to Yellowstone, it was more of a massif than a mountain. Because the BLM charged them so little for the leases, to those not in the livestock trade it was known as cowboy welfare. McCarthy, I was told, was an obstreperous old cowboy who would not brook any involvement with the government regulations, or presence. As I came to learn, that pretty much described most of the stockmen in the region. Surrounding the park, was the Shoshone National Forest, which in turn was surrounded by ground claimed by the Bureau of Land Management. This was the land the BLM leased. McCarthy, leasing several tracts of BLM land on the northern aspect of Taylor Mountain, the upper half still encased in snow, was to move his herd that week. From Lascombe I learned that McCarthy’s spread was halfway between Bridger and Meteetsee, a hamlet more in name than substance. On the four-hundred acres that constituted his spread, McCarthy wintered his herd of Hereford cattle, along with a dozen quarter horses.
In my pale green Jeep Cherokee with the Fish and Game emblem on it, I turned off the highway onto county road FU, the road that led to the higher pastures of Taylor Mountain. I drove through the slush and mud on that sunny day, with the wind tugging at the new buds on the Aspen trees that lined the lane. After driving about half an hour, encountering no one, I had climbed high enough on Taylor to be driving through snow that had already known four-wheel drive traffic. Stopping my vehicle, I got out and slipped in the hubs of the vehicle’s front tires so that it could engage the four-wheel drive. In the snow on the county road, there were fresh tracks from McCarthy’s cattle. Not five minutes after I had engaged the four-wheel drive, I ran across a glade that was relatively dry. Like a rail car on a siding, was parked a Dodge Ram diesel pickup, the biggest of the line, and to the back of it was attached a large horse carriage, one large enough to carry at least half a dozen horses. A small lean-to was located just in front of the truck. All around the meadow were at least a hundred Hereford cattle. Again I stopped, looking for any sign of life on the premises, but there was no one. Suddenly I heard a fusillade of rifle fire, at least five or six shots. Whoever had fired their guns were at least a mile away. In those days, the Fish and Game didn’t carry firearms; somehow, I wished I had one. The sound of rifles going off might just be some cowboys honing their skills with a rifle, or, more likely, some yahoos taking game out of season.
I proceeded down the county road in the direction of the gunfire – I had no choice. To the left of me, were the gentle uphill slopes of Taylor Mountain. In front of me, the road was still covered with four or five inches of snow, water washing down the troughs made by another vehicle which had made the slow rise of the road ahead of me. It was not long before I reached a niche in the slope of the mountain, a small plateau to my right in the rising earth. There were four horses tethered to a low-lying lodgepole pine. In the middle of this large meadow, were four cowboys, each bearing a rifle. They were looking in my direction as I eyed the three dead elk they had just shot. I stopped, shut off the engine and grabbed my citation book and a camera I took with me everywhere, to capture some criminal misadventure or the splendor of the West.
There was a warm wind teasing the tops of the lodgepole pines as I walked a hundred yards over to where they were standing like stanchions. One had his knife out as if he were about to gut one of the elk. As I drew closer to them, there was a menace surrounding the scene and I pondered just how safe I was. I stopped and took a couple of pictures before I had even addressed them. One, who looked to be the youngest, said, “Just who the hell are you?”
“I’m Terry McKendrick with the Fish and Game.” I walked over to where they stood.
“Why should we give a shit who you are?” said a man who appeared to be on the lean side of fifty. Like the others, he wore a cowboy hat, Wrangler jeans, and a flannel shirt with a wool jacket that he probably picked up at the Cabella Store in Billings.
“It’s not me you’ve got to worry about. It’s the Fish and Game that you should be worried about.” I took another picture, a tableau of cowboys just out having a little fun.
“Do you know who I am?” the older man said. This man who seemed to be ramrodding everything stood at least six-two. He had mean, narrow brown eyes and a prominent chin. Though he was stout, he was heavy in a sculpted way, and I could see him as an athlete in a former life. Shorter by at least a head than him, I stood in my Fish and Game uniform and down coat with the camera strapped around my neck. His hands, now standing behind him, snickered at me.
“If I had to guess, I’d say you’re Denis McCarthy, and those are your cattle back down the road.”
“By God, I am Denis McCarthy, the owner and proprietor of the Falling Star Ranch. Do you have any idea who I know in these parts?”
“Should I?” I felt a dampness at the small of my back that had not been there before.
“Why, Alan Simms, the present Senator from the great state of Wyoming, is a good friend, and I’ve ridden quarter horses with the governor. Wyoming’s federal Congressman comes to my Christmas galas.” He beamed as he said this. He proceeded to walk over to me, and grabbed my camera, and tearing it from my neck and throwing it to the snow at my feet, raised his rifle and fired upon it. “Now, you think I give a shit who you are. You’ve got another thing coming. You’re something I’d need to scrape from my boot before I went indoors.”
“Why’d you shoot those elk? You know that it’s months to hunting season.”
“You see, you little shit, those creatures were eating the forage that I paid the BLM to feed my cattle.”
I took out my citation book. After getting all their names, I wrote them up in triplicate form. When I handed McCarthy his citation, he crumpled it up and walked back to his horse. The others followed as if they were on-stage, giving a performance. They all rode off, leaving me standing alone in the field with three dead elk, feeling as minuscule as a star in the heavens.
McCarthy had pretty well nailed it down. The judge presiding over the case fined him a thousand dollars an elk, took away his elk license for a year, and let him go with no more than a slap on the wrist. It seemed half the town supported him, as if the elk were trespassing on his lease.
Not a year had passed when Denis McCarthy was mortally wounded, shot in the chest by his own Smith and Wesson by his wife, the chairwoman of the Bridger Boot and Bottle Club, who caught him in their conjugal bed with some young cutie of the coterie. McCarthy finally paid for grazing on another’s land.
By Joseph Dylan