Keith L. Jensen (written in 1997)
Since having moved away from Montana, I’ve come to realize how similar my growing up was to the traditional view of the “Old West”. Not the traditional view of horses and six-shooters. Rather, the view of wide open spaces and neighbors who lived miles apart. In the evenings, I use to fall asleep to the lonely sound of coyotes yipping and howling at the moon. In the morning, it was not uncommon to see a herd of 30 to 40 antelope in the hills directly behind our house. If there ever was a state that was nicknamed appropriately, it has to be Montana, “the Big Sky Country”. As a kid, I remember a summer blue sky that reached from horizon to horizon. Talk about big! 60 miles to the east, I could see the gray-blue Little Belt Mountains; 50 miles to the west the beginnings of the Rockies were visible. I had in excess of 100 miles of blue sky over my head. It was like an immense blue canvas whose vastness was broken only by an occasional cloud—a canvas where you were free to paint with your thoughts and imaginations.
And, oh what imaginations we had! Unlike unfortunate kids who are surrounded by everything but have nothing to do, we were privileged to use our imaginations for our entertainment. Larry and I are just a little over two years apart in age. We were and are best friends. We slept in the same room and often the same bed together; we attended school together; we participated in sports together; and we always played together. A common game we played was to pretend we were a couple of cowboys riding the range. We always had to keep an eye out for wild Indians. In our early days, our guns were usually pretend ones made of perfectly shaped sticks and branches. Later, after we had passed Hunter Safety Course at 12 years of age, we usually carried our 22s or our shotguns on our outings together. Frequently, we went on walks together under the pretense of hunting for rabbits or pheasants, but we both knew deep down that we were still just a couple of old cowpokes—a couple of cowpokes who knew that if we wanted to keep our hair attached to our heads we had better always be on the lookout for Indians.
During the long lazy days of summer, it was not uncommon for Larry and I to go on long walks in the hills north of our place. I say hills, but it would probably be more appropriate to say rolling rangeland. This rolling carpet of brown range grass lead up to Crow and Ashuelot Benches. It was a dry grassland of buffalo bunch grass and occasional prickly pear cacti. There were no trees, only a few squaw bushes with their bitter berries in some of the draws. As far as water, there was one little stream that flowed off Crow Bench six miles to the north of our place. This stream was formed from runoff irrigation water that flowed off the bench. It flowed in a small meandering stream, seldom exceeding four feet in width. Prior to reaching our farm, this stream flowed into Christensens’ Pond–a three plus acre pond the Christensen brothers had built to store irrigation water and water for their stock. From Christensens’ Pond, the water could be diverted either to the east and Christensens’ land or to the west and ours and the Church’s land. From water stored in this pond, Dad irrigated about 14 acres of our farm and grew wonderful crops of hay on the rocky soil. Members of the Church also used the water to irrigate the Church’s five acres of lawns and grounds.
On a particular summer day when I was around 11 years old, and Larry was about 9 years old, we went on one of our adventure walks to the hills north of our place. I can’t remember now, but I imagine we were both carrying our stick guns at the time. From our house, we headed to the northeast corner of our farm and to Grandpa Jensen’s big, black, creosote soaked, telephone pole sized, corner post. As Randy mentions in another story in this book, it was an unspoken understanding that all legitimate adventures to the hinterlands north of our place had to start at Grandpa Jensen’s big black corner post. After paying homage to the northeast corner post, we headed north to the railroad tracks. The railroad tracks, which ran east and west, were only a couple of hundred yards north of the northern boundary of our farm. To get there you had to tip toe through a patch of prickly pear cactus and cross two barb wire fences. Along the way, you crossed the western flowing ditch of irrigation water that flowed from Christensens’ Pond to our farm. The banks of this ditch were overgrown with grass. Along its bank, you could smell the pungent aroma of spearmint plants. Larry and I walked over to them and tore off two or three leaves. Like true cowboys, we wadded them into balls and stuck our “mint” tobacco between our lower lip and gum. In no time at all, we were able to spit in wonderful green spurts.
From here we crossed the second fence and climbed up the bank to the railroad tracks. Along the railroad tracks we headed east towards Christensens’ Pond. Along the way, we’d usually scare up a jackrabbit or two. After recovering from a near heart attack caused by the jackrabbit jumping out of the grass right under our feet, we’d raise our pretend rifles, draw a bead on the rabbit, and then blast it. Many a night on the open range our hunger was satiated by jackrabbit slowly roasted over the red embers of our campfires.
Memories of imaginary jackrabbit meals on the open range left such favorable impressions on our minds that a couple of years later I actually shot a jackrabbit with my 410 shotgun one winter, skinned it, and roasted it in a fry pan on Mom’s kitchen stove. For those of you unfamiliar with jackrabbits, they are nothing like cottontails. Jackrabbits in Montana are between 18 and 24 inches long and weighs between four and six pounds. The particular jackrabbit I shot was so long that I was able to roast only part of it in the fry pan at a time.
You’re probably thinking, “Well, why didn’t the dumb kid just cut the rabbit in pieces and fry it all at once.”
Or, if you’re a sane person, you ought to be thinking, “Why in tarnation would anyone want to eat a disease invested, stringy, tough old jackrabbit.”
To your first thought, all I’ll say is that in all the western movies we’d ever seen the rabbit was always roasted whole on a skewer over an open fire. We didn’t have a skewer, and we didn’t have an open fire, but we would be darned if we weren’t going to have a whole roasted rabbit carcass.
To your second thought, all I can say is that you are indeed sane, and yes, we actually were a bit insane. However, kids have that right. Once we had thoroughly roasted—at least in our minds we had thoroughly roasted—each end of our jackrabbit in the fry pan for 20 minutes per end, we cleaned the fry pan and the stove. We knew that loving mother though she was, mom would not take kindly to our roasting of a wild jackrabbit carcass on top of her clean kitchen stove.
Fortunately, it was winter, and we had the perfect place to hide our jackrabbit feast from her—our top dresser drawer in our shared bedroom. We just moved some of the socks and underwear to the side and plunked the partially roasted carcass down and shut the drawer. In a normal house, this would never do, but in our house, where the inside temperature of the bedrooms seldom got above freezing during the winter months, it was the perfect cold storage hiding place.
We never ate all the rabbit, but we did gnaw on it for quite a while. Both Larry and I were quite admired by Kirk and Lee Nielsen, our cousins, when we invited them up to our place during church, pulled open our top dresser drawer, and tore off four strips of stringy, tough jackrabbit. We chewed and chewed and chewed on the nasty stuff, swallowed, and felt quite manly about the whole affair.
Anyway, back to summertime and the adventure at hand. Along the railroad tracks, we walked a couple of hundred yards to the east and crossed the fence to Christensens’ Pond. Around the pond, you’d usually see a number of killdeer, a type of plover. Their plaintive cries never sounded like “killdeer, killdeer” to me. Rather, they sounded more like “cry baby, cry baby”. If they had eggs or young ones near by, the mother would feign a broken wing in order to lead us from her young. Sometimes, if we were lucky, we would find two or three brown speckled eggs in the grass. Killdeers don’t make nests. They just lay their eggs in the grass on the ground.
At the pond, we’d stop for a while to chase frogs and water snakes along the water’s edge. We’d always stop to look for some flat stones to skip across the water. After playing around the pond for awhile, we headed north into the hills along a seldom used dirt road/cattle trail. It’s hard to estimate elevations, but I’d say from our house to the top of Crow Bench was a gradual rise in elevation of about 800 feet. We passed over the first set of hills. It was usually at this point that we’d turn around and head home.
On this particular day, we were feeling adventurous and continued to press on. After walking for another couple of miles we came to territory which to us was virgin. The day was hot and the ever constant dry Montana wind was blowing. Owing to the lonely sound of the wind and the absence of any other sounds, I remember having a lonely eerie feeling. We topped a small rise and came to a flat open area. There were some pieces of old broken down farm machinery and the tumble down remains of a badly rusted barb wire fence. Actually, all that remained of this fence were two leaning cedar fence posts and a single rusted barb wire strand strung loosely between them. Before our eyes, a tragic tale unfolded.
Months earlier, I’d say at least seven or eight months earlier, two golden eagles had gracefully been riding the thermals high in the sky. With their eagle eyes, they’d spotted a lone jackrabbit hundreds of feet below. With a wild cry, they tucked their seven foot wing spans into their bodies and began their explosive dive towards their helpless prey. Moments before being torn by their sharp talons, the jackrabbit must have sensed its eminent demise and tried to make a futile dash for freedom. With terror in its heart, it dashed under the single rusty strand of barb wire—a strand of barb wire that was totally out of place in the vast emptiness of the surrounding miles of rangeland. Unable to check their wild careen from the sky, both eagles followed the rabbit as it scurried under the single harmless looking strand of wire. Their dives were nearly a hundred miles an hour. And then suddenly it all ended with a sickening crunch into the wire. The rabbit heard the screeching sound of the eagles slamming into the wire, hopped a few feet further, and with a rapidly beating heart, turned around and saw the broken bodies of its two pursuers. And the wind blew on.
We found both broken eagle carcasses about 20 feet beyond the fence. Both were dry and pretty much rotted away. Most of what remained were their feathers. The whole place reminded me of what I envisioned an Indian burial ground to be. Reverently, and with few words, Larry removed his red sweat shirt. We tied the sleeves off in knots and tied off the neck hole. Then we gathered most of the long wing and tail feathers and placed them in our sweat shirt bag. In our minds, the only proper thing to do with the feathers was to give them to one of the neighboring Blackfeet chiefs so he could make them into a war bonnet.
Our walk back home was a somber one. The hot Montana sun continued to beat upon us, and the constantly blowing dry wind acted as a natural dehydrator. There was no blowing sand, but in our minds, there just as well might have been. We had passed through the sacred ritual of gathering eagle feathers and had hiked quite a number of miles. Nearing the end of our journey, we were as parched as any desert crossing cowboys we’d ever seen in old western movies. And, then suddenly, like an oasis in the desert, Christensens’ Pond appeared. With tired steps, we trudged to its shores. The water in the pond was a murky brown. However, where it flowed through the culvert and out the head gate on the southwest end of the pond, the water appeared crystal clear. Our house was less than 300 yards from this point, but in our feverish, sunstroke minds, we’d never make it. We did the only thing any true cowpokes would have done in our situation—we dumped our rotted, flea invested, eagle feathers on the ground and let the wind have her way with them. Then to be sure that the ditch water was filtered and made safe for human consumption, we scooped Larry’s red sweat shirt into the water, held it over our heads, and let the water drip into our parched throats. I guess Heavenly Father must watch over dumb farm kids because neither of us got sick from drinking the water. Either that or our ingenious filter had actually worked.