SHORTY’S SALOON by Johnny Ritch (1868-1942)

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SHORTY’S SALOON
by Johnny Ritch (1868-1942)

By the trails to the Past, on the Plains of No Care,
Stood Shorty’s saloon, but now it’s not there,
For Shorty moved camp and crossed the Divide
In the years long dim, and naught else besides
A deep brand on Memory brings back the old place—
Its drinks and its games, and many a face
Peers out from the mists of days that are fled,
When Shorty stood back of his bar, there, and said,
“What’s yours, Pard?”

No fine drinks adorned that primitive bar,
Just “licker” was served, and that seemed by far
The properest stuff in a place, you’ll agree,
Where life flowed and ebbed like the tides of a sea,
Unfettered by care, unmeasured by time,—
Where Innocence formed its first friendships with Crime,
Where Bacchus’ wild court held ribaldrous sway,
And Shorty, on shift, stood waiting to say,
“What’s yours, Pard?”

Great herds from the South swept by on the trails,
And stages sped Westward, top-heavy with mails
For camps far beyond, where gold was the lust,
And freighters and “bull trains” send whirlwinds of dust
That scattered and spread far out on the plain,
And men from the wild, —hard men that sin’s slain
Had marked like a brand—all stopped there, you see,
And Shorty’s brief welcome to each one would be,
“What’s yours, Pard?”

And up from the vast, silent stretch of the range,—
From line camps and roundups, and all of the strange,
Lone places in Cow-land, men came there to play
In that drama whose artists all lived by the way;—
Their sky-line of life blazed crimson and gold,
For hope gave them wealth and youth made them bold
And strong in life’s strife to dare any task.
And “licker” was theirs when Shorty would ask
“What’s yours, Pard?”

They danced and they drank, and they sang that old song,
“I’m just a poor cow-boy, and know I’ve done wrong,”
While the click of the chips in the games that were played,
And the sob in the music the violin made
Rang out through the smoke that clouded the room,
For Joy held the top-hand and drink drowned all gloom
The future might hold for him who made gay, —
And life filled with sunbeams, when Shorty would say
“What’s yours, Pard?”

Some tragedies mark those trails to the Past—
Some lone, unnamed graves tell briefly the last
Of the story of those who lived ere the change
From that wild, free life of the Borderless Range,—
But Memory’s kind grasp holds gently the place,
Its drinks and its games-and many a face
Peers out from the mists of days that are fled,
When Shorty stood back of his bar, there, and said,
“What’s yours, Pard?”

… by Johnny Ritch

Johnny Ritch creates a vivid scene with his words in “Shorty’s Saloon.” Known as the “Poet of the Judith,” he was a camp cook, prospector, state legislator, and Montana State Historian.

The poem appears in Ritch’s 1940 book, Horse Feathers, with illustrations by Charlie Russell. In “Charles M. Russell: The Storyteller’s Art,” Raphael James Cristy writes that Ritch “…had come to Russell’s attention as the author of a melodramatic cowboy poem that aches with nostalgia, called ‘Shorty’s Saloon.’ Russell responded with a long illustrated letter and the gift of six watercolor paintings illustrating the poem.” One of those paintings is displayed with this post.

The last time we posted this poem, Andy Hedges commented that “Glenn Ohrlin recited it on his great album, A Cowboy’s Life.”

Randy Rieman recited “Shorty’s Saloon” at the Western Folklife Center’s 2014 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and you can watch that performance here (at about 32:00).

Find more about the poem at CowboyPoetry.com.

Stanton Howe, Montana renaissance man, popular singer, songwriter, musician, entertainer, storyteller, writer, auctioneer, Model T authority, fiddle expert, host and producer of Montana Public Radio’s “Folk Show,” and photographer (our cover photo is his) shared much more information about Johnny Ritch and the poem in a reply to a previous post. Here are excerpts:

Johnny Ritch and Russell came to Montana about the same time and Ritch in the day may have been nearly as famous. He was a progressive and ambitious fellow, served some time in Helena and at the time this was published owned some theaters in Lewistown and Great Falls. His death was reported all over the state, he was apparently known from one end of Montana to the other…He was well known as a writer and was a contemporary of the great Montana poets Bob Fletcher and Wallace Coburn as well as artist Shorty Shope.

Stan shared a comment from the Governor about the death of Johnny Ritch:

News of the death of John B. Ritch will be received with deep regret in all sections of Montana, because he was known to every area where there is left a memory of the days of the cowboy and the cayuse and the open range, of which he wrote so forcefully in prose and poetry. He had held county and state positions, and in all of these he showed the competency, honesty and faithfulness which were characteristics of his whole life. John Ritch was a loyal and living citizen, and I am very sorry of his coming to the last roundup, as are thousands of his friends throughout the state.

Stan writes, “Copies of the book are available for not a lot of money. If you don’t have a copy,buy one. Study it…He was a fine writer and had a great command of rhythm and phrasing…”