Until someone clones a cow that’s immune to disease, born with a brand and ear tag, and knows when it’s time to move herself from summer to winter pasture, the daily labor of beef growers will remain essentially the same as it was when the founders of my family began ranching in western Montana in the 1870s.

My great-grandfather, Thomas Moran—landless, illiterate, and persecuted for being a Catholic—escaped County Waterford, Ireland, when he was 19 and fled to the U.S., where he found work as a farmhand near Boston. After he was rejected for service in the Civil War by a recruiter who claimed the Irish weren’t even good enough for cannon fodder, he sailed off for San Francisco. He ended up milking 50 cows a day, falling asleep with his swollen hands soaking in pails of water. After hearing about a big gold strike in the Montana Territory, Moran headed north with another fortune hunter, taking turns riding one horse.

In what would become the Treasure State, he prospected in the Highwood Mountains and all along Last Chance Gulch. In January of 1866, he joined 1,500 gold-crazed fools chasing a rumor of another mother lode, a rush across the territory that was cut short by a horrific blizzard. Temperatures plunged to 40-below and froze some prospectors solid. Moran’s hide was saved by Italian Jesuits at St. Peter’s Mission, a squalid collection of cottonwood shacks on the Missouri River.

That spring, after the Blackfeet began killing settlers and shooting their cattle, Moran helped the fathers move St. Peter’s to a boxed valley ringed by massive stone buttes carved by the elements into antic shapes; Haystack, Birdtail, Lionhead, Fishback and others still dominate the skyline. But the day after the new Mission was dedicated, the “Black Robes” ran away again, still fearing for their scalps. They left Moran behind as caretaker. He kept his hair because a friend, who also elected to settle at the Mission, had married the daughter of Heavy Shield, a Blackfeet chief.

When the Jesuits returned eight years later, Moran poured his relentless energies into acquiring the three things he’d been denied by the tyrannies of the English Crown. First, he built a small church from roughhewn timbers. The he convinced the fathers to teach him how to read. Finally, he began buying land with a joyful vengeance, leading some to wonder if he’d struck gold after all, or maybe discovered loot hidden by stagecoach robbers working the nearby Mullan Road.

His 1,700-acre spread was tiny by Montana standards but more productive than places 10 times its size, because the pastures were cobwebbed with finger creeks and steeped in thousands of years of bison manure. He married and did a sweet business selling grain, hay, and beef to the stage stations and to the U.S. Army garrisoned at Fort Shaw. He was the first farmer in the area to buy a Wood’s binder, a house-sized implement pulled by horses that threshed grain and bound it into sheaves. In an era when few frontier people had any schooling, he sent his three daughters and my mother’s father to Gonzaga University.

My wife Kitty’s ancestor, Holly Herrin, founded his Montana fiefdom on cattle his clan stole from the ranch they were managing for a corporation back East. When his father decided they ought to branch out, the old man divided this pilfered wealth equally among himself and his two sons. The younger, Kitty’s great-grandfather Holly Herrin, took 320 acres, 53 cows, and 12 horses and set forth to make some real dough. He expanded into the butcher business and ran meat wagons to the mining camps. He bought and sold progressively larger places until he’d patched together one of the biggest spreads in Montana, the Oxbow Ranch. You could walk all day through those terraces along the Missouri, and when it was time to curl up by the campfire, you’d still be on Herrin’s land. Instead of fighting the sheep men moving into the territory in the 1880s, Herrin joined them and built his flock to more than 13,000 woolies. He was equally famous in the area for being the only man to lift a 500-pound keg of nails at Fourth of July festivities in the village of Wolf Creek.

Alas, all empires fall, either with a crash or, in the case of our great-grandfathers, with a sigh. Thomas Moran’s descendants had no taste for country life and moved to Great Falls when the ranch began to fail. There are now scores of us, more people than any single cattle operation could support. All that remains of St. Peter’s is the church, standing forlorn in an Angus pasture; the shell of an opera house built for the music-loving friars (it’s now used by cows as a windbreak); and the charred ruins of the great stone boarding schools operated by the Jesuits and Ursuline nuns to “civilize” the Blackfeet and Métis. Moran’s headstone leans in the cemetery on a hill above the church.

Holly Herrin’s second wife cheated on him with the man who would later mastermind a bank seizure of the Oxbox Ranch. Only 1,000 acres in the Helena Valley survived, the Herrin Hereford Ranch, where Kitty grew up riding horses and bossing around cows. But that property was doomed as well. Her parents divorced, and the ranch fell into financial ruin, and finally to the courts. Kitty, her mother, and her four sisters were eventually evicted.

Only two things were passed down to us from our great-grandfathers: a photograph of Thomas Moran in overalls—intense, bearded, and haunted-looking in the manner of homeless men who live in shipping crates—and a windup Ingraham clock from Holly Herrin, which stopped at midnight a few years back. Kitty and I scraped to buy ten acres near Missoula, and though we sometimes feel wistful for all the land that other families still own, at least we have a home for our Quarter Horses, that genius invention of ranchers.

But there’s a certain justice in the reversal of fortune our families endured. After all, the ground that gave them their wealth had been stolen from the Native Americans, a larceny my great-grandfather was reminded of while out riding one day. He came across the scene of an old battle between the Blackfeet and their rivals from across the Continental Divide, the Flatheads. Outnumbered, the Blackfeet had retreated behind a crude palisade of timbers and rocks they’d thrown up. But their defense failed and they were slaughtered to a man. Years later, Moran took home a macabre souvenir, an act of grave robbery that gave Skull Butte its name.

Of course, the settlers didn’t take all the land. Our friend Jerry Hamel is a descendent of the men in the ferocious Flathead hunting party. One fall during roundup on his ranch along the Jocko River he invited us to bring our horses and help him look for strays. I figured the stubborn thing we came across hiding in a tangle of scrub must have been a cow. My mare’s eyes were wild and her pulse racing as we walked our horses down to surround all but the thicket’s lowest side. Kitty took the left flank, Hamel the right.

You’d think three mounted people would be force enough to convince an ordinary heifer to flee. Especially because she would have seen that the other strays we’d extracted along this ridge were leaving her behind, plodding toward a holding pen in a meadow below us at the intersection of two fence lines. But after we hollered and whistled and flapped our coils of rope, nothing happened. A magpie yelled back, then flew away in a huff.

With a click I urged my mare forward, expecting the same enthusiasm for the work she’d shown all day. Instead, she scotched. Then scotched again. After another of these lateral moves at the line of scrimmage, I stopped pushing. Whatever was lurking inside those junipers and chokecherries, it wasn’t a cow.

Maybe because his big chestnut gelding felt more comfortable on his home turf than our horses did, Hamel was finally able to convince him to step into the thicket. Kitty and I guarded the flanks and waited, our minds wandering.

An autumn breeze hissed through the crowns of the ponderosas. North across the National Bison Range and the Flathead Indian Reservation, a higher wind shredded a few bright clouds against the rocky tops of the Mission Mountains, a row of dinosaur teeth already gleaming with early snow.

The mountain lion that exploded from the thicket was gone so fast its huge yellow eyes and flickering tail seemed like a mirage. We looked at one another, dumbstruck.

We would talk about this later. But right now, there was still work to do.

“Kitty and I scraped to buy ten acres near Missoula, and though we sometimes feel wistful for all the land that other families still own, at least we have a home for our Quarter Horses, that genius invention of ranchers.”

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