My last blog closed by referring to “a cowboy friend of mine from Wyoming.” That friend was Harry Altergott, who I came to know while doing an oral history project as a student at the University of Wyoming.
Harry was an original, a cowman to the core. He was the kind of person you don’t forget once you’ve met him. It has been over 30 years since that initial meeting. I spent a few afternoons and evenings visiting with him and his companion, Betty, in their little cabin east of Wheatland, Wyoming on the Last Stand Ranch.
I met Harry about five years after he had moved to Wheatland in 1990 from his home country of Weld County, Colorado. He drove an old pick up truck and didn’t wear a seat belt. He said that the belt dug into his skin and irritated old injuries, probably from his life as a cowman. Harry shared a story once of how he found himself walking out on the prairie carrying a gun, aiming to end it all. Thankfully, he didn’t. He told me that a person can be in such pain that they may not even realize what they are doing. He said he was thankful to have found a better way out of that pain.
Harry told me stories about raising cattle on the high plains of Colorado and his 10 years as a cattle buyer. He said that he could still spot a good one and shook his head at the then current fad of buying cattle via video. He said a lot of people got a bad deal that way. He told me about panthers he had seen at night around the Last Stand Ranch. He said he tried to go “wherever God leads me,” while admitting to struggling with crude language he had picked up in his bunkhouse days. Harry said he tried to follow the straight and narrow way, although he and Betty were not married when I met him. I suspect that their relationship was also more of a friendship/partnership than anything else. I’m sure, too, that he was somewhat jaded after recently being divorced from his wife of 44 years.
Despite the tough exterior, hardened no doubt by many years working outside on the range, Harry had a softer side. He once told me that he and Betty had given an old truck to a young man in Wheatland who was going through some hard times. “Whenever he passes us by, he waves,” Harry said, “and you can see a tear in his eye.”
One of my favorite stories came from Betty. Harry and Betty kept life simple at the ranch. While they had electricity and running water, they only had an outhouse for necessities. One time Betty went to use the outhouse in the middle of the night and soon came running back into the cabin hollering to Harry about snakes. It seems that he had forgotten to tell her that he had carpeted the seat to make it a little warmer in the winter.
Harry moved into Wheatland a year or so after I met him, due to health reasons. He and Betty finally hitched up in 1997, two years before he died.
I guess that ranch really was his last stand.
To read more about Harry’s life story, here is his obituary: http://www.niobraracountylibrary.org/obituaries/index.php?id=201.