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Behind the Grindstone: Johnston


By Bill Bunting

April 26, 2024

Ol’ Cheryl and I took some time off and spent some time in the country I grew up in and roamed as a kid. There is so much history left and so much lost. Sometimes I let my imagination fill in the gaps.

I was drawn to this place
Like a gambler to an ace
I’d stop every time I rode by

It was a cold winter day
When I rode out that way
With a few flakes fallin’ from the sky

As I sat on the rise
I feasted my eyes
On what was left of the ranch down below

There wasn’t much there
Not that most folks would care
And what was there was dusted now with snow

There was only weathered wood
Where the corral once stood
The poles were rotting where they lay

And the house no longer stood
A house of rock and wood
Fallen in the same state of decay

And there left alone
Was the bunkhouse of stone
Like a memory refusin’ to die
Time and nature had their way
On the stone and wood you’d say
But it’s fate it had seemed to deny

There are tales told
Of the days of old
And of this ranch and of it’s history

Never sure the facts are straight
About it’s birth and it’s fate
There still seems to be some mystery

Now it was said
Johnston gave up his spread
After the drought of eighteen ninety five

And the blizzard that fall
A true blue northern squall
Hardly a cow was left alive

He’d fought there for years
The sweat and the tears
And the blood that was shed for the land

Cause he had came to stay
And intended it that way
When Johnston came to make his stand

But they say he lost his grit
And decided to git
When the goin’ got to tough

He’d lived by his gun
Then decided to run
When the weather got a little too rough

Cause the blizzard caught him off guard
And the things seemed too hard
The things that he now had to face

I thought it must be the cost
Of the cattle he had lost
That caused him to sell and leave the place

So I rode on down
To have a look aroun’
Like I had done many a time before

As I stepped to the ground
There was hardly a sound
As I stepped through that bunkhouse door

There was nothin’ but dust
And a stove mostly rust
And what was left of an old rockin’ chair

I thought a fire would feel good
So I gathered up some wood
Thinkin’ the old stove could use some repair

The smell of hot rust
Mixed with the stirrin’ dust
The room was lit up mighty fast

And there in the chair
With silver white hair
Was a man who seemed to come from the past

He say’s “Johnston’s the name
This ranch goes by the same
At least it did years ago”

“I’d like to set the record straight
Even though it’s too late
There’s things I’d like all of you to know”

He pulled his hat down tight
And squinted in the light
Said, “Most men would have done the same”

“Though it’s no use
To try to make an excuse
I’m the one that’s to blame”

“It wasn’t the cattle lost
Nor was it the cost
That caused me to sell out and go”

“Though it sure seemed a waste
They could be replaced
I lost more than that in the snow”

“I thought I’d done my best
Now I’ve second guessed
Should I have ever come to this land”

“The loss of life
My daughters and my wife
Sure makes it hard to understand”

“They took the buckboard that day
And went on their way
Excited to be goin’ into town”

“I shouldn’t have let them go
It was startin’ to snow
And the temperature was easin’ on down”

“But they were wrapped tight
And there was plenty of light
And they didn’t have far to go”

“But the blizzard came fast
From the north came a blast
The chill dropped to twenty below”

“The blowin’ white
Turned the day into night
As I rode callin’ out their name”

“They were lost in the snow
With no where to go
I’ve only got myself now to blame”

He said, “I left this place
Cause there’s things I couldn’t face
Like my family up there on the hill”

“And if you go
And brush away the snow
Their stones are layin’ there still”

He said that’s all he had to say
As he seemed to fade away
And I thought I surely must have dreamed

But I was sure I was awake
And I couldn’t seem to shake
How real all of this had seemed

So I rode up where he said
He had buried his dead
And searched for what he said I would find

As I searched the ground
For the stones to be found
I pondered all he’d said in my mind

And up there all alone
Lay three markers of stone
The names have long since weathered away

And Johnston had left this land
Where he had made his stand
Cause Johnston had no reason left to stay

At least, that’s the view here from behind the grindstone.