A Montana Tradition-That’s a Fact
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
What follows is a remarkable account born from the swampy riparian loins of southwest Montana, something of the old days when men were men and dog/rabbit hybrids were, well, kind of ugly.
Another context, though, envelopes this tradition of telling an outlandish story (a Big Windy), one realized more recently, historically speaking-that being the artful ability of certain Montanans to weave dubious tales with a straight face, to blow the big windy north, south, east, and west, as it were, so shamelessly and in such a way that we realize only late in the game that the one doing the blowing does so with self-serving calculation, presenting himself as bonafide while disguising the attention-seeking jester within. This trait reveals itself not only through the venerable Ralph Simson, whose wind blown tale follows this preamble, but through other notable Montanans across time and up to the present-rascals, buckaroos, and charlatans. The governor comes to mind, but I digress.
In the words of Mr. Simpson:
I had the oddest pet when I was batching near Joliet, Montana, ‘long Rock Creek. He was half jackrabbit and half something else.
When I was single I thought I’d raise a few milk cows and some wheat along the flats near Rock Creek below Joliet. I had a nice log cabin of my own, a barn, and stables. My shepherd dog got kicked in the head by a colt and died so I had made up my mind if I should go to town again I would get another dog.
I was hunting wild turkeys in the swamp land near the river when I heard a lot of squealing. I thought perhaps a snake had caught a bird. Nearing the point of disturbance, I came into a clearing under some big trees. There lay a young rabbit, with the biggest head, a-kickin’ his big bony hind feet and squealing like he was hurt.
I picked him up and petted him and he still let out some hideous squeals. He was part jackrabbit, that was certain, but what other breed he had in him I could never tell. I petted him for awhile and he quieted down and then I took him home. Well, sir, I kept him and raised him and he became about as big as a dog. That’s a’fact.
He had all the dogs and cats in the vicinity buffaloed. Whenever any stray dog came near him and barking and growling, he’d never move an inch. Just sit there. As soon as the dog came close enough he’d reach out with a hind foot and bop mister dog on the nose. He had educated hind feet. I say that because he could do remarkable things with them. He could talk to any rabbit in the swamp by rapping out certain rabbit conversation by thumping the ground with his big hind feet. He’d call all his girl friends up this way and arrange a date. That’s a fact because in the spring there was much ground beating going on and then he’d disappear for days. The next winter when we were sitting around the fires and not doing anything, I hit upon the idea of teaching Dummie the Morse code. I called him Dummie from the first day I found him. He turned out, however, to be a lot smarter then at first appeared. I had two apple boxes empty and laying around the cabin. I hit upon the idea of rapping out the Morse code on one box while he sat on the other and learned it.
Well, sir, before winter was up he could send or receive any message. He was that good. Dummie was of great value on the hunt. He could leisurely come into a flock of wild turkeys, or grouse, or ducks, then slip over to the nearest hollow log and send me the latitude and longitude. It really spoiled the sport of the thing. It was too easy.
Woodpeckers were Dummie’s downfall. I told him and told him that woodpeckers never sent coded messages. He was never sure. Always, he thought they were talking to him. I tried and tried to explain that woodpeckers did rapping to drill holes into the wood to bury worms. He never thoroughly understood it, I guess. Anyway one day we were hot on the trail of some fat wild turkeys. Dummie telegraphed to me from the nearest hollow log. “Latitude 30, Longitude 24. Three big gobblers. That is all.” A red-headed woodpecker intercepted the message and rapped back before I could get to the nearest stump. “Go to hell. That is all.” I always thought that woodpecker was a lot smarter than he pretended. Well, sir, Dummie was a bunny of tender feelings and that did it. He thought I sent the message… He disappeared from the premises entirely. I’ve looked and hunted high and low but I’ve never found out what became of him to this day.
At the time of this interview, Ralph Simpson of Billings, was 65 years old, an old-time rancher whose ranch was once located on Cold Creek of Shane Ridge between what is now Columbus and Joliet.
Reprinted with permission from An Ornery Bunch, Tales and Anecdotes Collected by the WPA Montana Writer’s Project, available through local bookstores.