photo: Connecticut State Library, State Archives, PG 460, Colt Patent Fire
Arms Manufacturing Company, Box 2, Folder 7, Item 4
THE LOST RANGE
by Henry Herbert Knibbs (1874-1945)
Only a few of us understood his ways
and his outfit queer,
His saddle horse and his pack-horse,
as lean as a winter steer,
As he rode alone on the mesa,
intent on his endless quest,
Old Tom Bright of the Pecos,
a ghost of the vanished West.
His gaze was fixed on the spaces;
he never had much to say
As he jogged from the Rio Grande
to the pueblo of Santa Fè;
He favored the open country
with its reaches clean and wide,
And called it his “sagebrush garden—
the only place left to ride.”
He scorned new methods and manners,
and stock that was under fence,
He had seen the last of the open range,
yet he kept up the old pretense;
Though age made his blue eyes water,
his humor was always dry:
“Me, I’m huntin’ the Lost Range,
down yonder, against the sky.”
That’s what he’d say when we hailed him
as we met him along the trail,
Out from the old pueblo,
packing some rancher’s mail,
In the heat of the upland summer,
in the chill of the thin-spread snow…
Any of us would have staked him,
but Tom would n’t have it so.
He made you think of an eagle
caged up for the folks to see,
Dreaming of crags and sunshine
and glories that used to be:
Some folks said he was loco—
too lazy to work for pay,
But we old-timers knew better,
for Tom was n’t built that way.
He’d work till he got a grub-stake;
then drift, and he’d make his fire,
And camp on the open mesa,
as far as he could from wire:
Tarp and sogun and skillet,
saddle and rope and gun…
And that is the way they found him,
asleep in the noonday sun.
They were running a line for fences,
surveying to subdivide,
And open the land for the homesteads—”
The only place left to ride.”
But Tom he had beat them to it,
he had crossed to The Other Side.
The coroner picked his jury—
and a livery-horse apiece,
Not forgetting some shovel—
and we rode to the Buckman lease,
Rolled Tom up in his slicker,
and each of us said, “So-long.”
Then somebody touched my elbow
and asked for an old-time song.
Tom was n’t strong for parsons—
so we did n’t observe the rules,
But four us sang, “Little Dogies,”
all cryin’—we gray-haired fools:
Wishing that Tom could hear it
and know that we were standing by,
Wishing him luck on the Lost Range,
down yonder, against the sky.
…by Henry Herbert Knibbs, from “Saddle Songs and Other Verse,” 1922
It’s often noted that Henry Herbert Knibbs—known for poems such as “Where the Ponies Come to Drink” and “Boomer Johnson”—was not a cowboy. But Knibbs was not inexperienced with Western life.
Lee Shippey wrote about him in a 1931 article in the Los Angeles Times. He notes that Knibbs was born in the Canadian east, went to Harvard, and had a novel published while he was still a student there. He writes, “…when a man can come out of the East, handicapped by such an un-Western sounding name as Henry Herbert Knibbs, and become a man whose songs and stories are loved by the cow men and prospectors and adventurers of all the Western States, he must have something.”
He continues, “While still a young Canadian he tramped the great Canadian forests and all he asked was a canoe, a pack and a gun and he could supply himself with food and shelter. Later he came down into Maine and had a unwritten contract to supply several lumber camps with fresh meat. He was so successful in that business that a special game warden was assigned the task of catching him in some unlawful act.” He goes on to tell that the warden could never catch Knibbs doing anything wrong, and that Knibbs would sometimes lead him on wild chases. Then one day Knibbs found the warden in medical distress and nursed him back to health. The warden didn’t want to pursue Knibbs after that, and persuaded his superiors to call off the hunt. In fact Knibbs was offered a warden position, but he declined, as he had decided to head for California.
Knibbs headed West, and after some newspaper work, “He built himself a little covered wagon—a spring wagon with a canvas top on it—and set out to see California. For the better part of a year he jogged about, visiting many places where still motor cars cannot go, for good horses and a light wagon could take him to many places where there were no roads.”
It is noted that at the time of the column he had published a number of novels and that five of his stories were made into motion pictures. Shippey writes, “But it is probably that his poems will outlive his prose. For there are many western authors but few poets whose work really appeals to the men of plains and ranges, to cow men and prospectors and those who know life in that vanishing domain which is western in spirit as well as geographically.”
This photo is from the Connecticut State Archives, available through Creative Commons. The caption describes it, “An autographed promotional photo of Henry H. Knibbs in the desert with 2 pack mules and a walking stick in cowboy garb…”
Find more about Knibbs at CowboyPoetry.com.