Verde Heritage 1972: SHEEPHERDER'S SAGA OF APACHE JOE

by Ray Weece"

"I first met Apache Joe on a little wagon road somewhere near Gallup. He was carrying his saddle over one shoulder and looked mighty tired. I gave him a lift and, being rather talkative myself, tried to strike up a conversation but he seemed rather reluctant to speak for himself."

"I gathered between grunts and monosyllables, that he had come home from a peyote party to find his saddle outside the wickiup which I gathered was equivalent to a divorce. (He married a Navajo lady!)"

"When I asked what happened to his horse --- He just grunted, 'Squaw gottem horse!' I dropped him off in Gallup and watched him as he headed into the nearest pawn shop with his saddle still over his shoulder. He wasn't much of a talker but he sure was a good listener.!"

"The years went by and I had all but forgotten Apache Joe and that mop of long black hair always adorned by an old Stetson with a buzzard's tail feather stuck jauntily in his band."

"I was in Phoenix one day broke and out of a job so decided to go back on my old profession of herding sheep; the second oldest and the most honorable profession the world has ever known. All my ancestors were sheepherders of sorts. Some called themselves preachers, but it's the same thing. They readily admit to having flocks of their own."

"It was from them that I learned about syntax. I heard one say one Sunday that he had a flock almost free from sin judging from the amount of syntax he had in the collection plate but he said that a goodly number of his flock were bass fishermen and he thought he could probably hang on until after spawning season when he was sure business would pick up."

"The upshot of it was that I took a job herding sheep on that long drive from Phoenix up to the high country around Springerville and guess who I discovered to be the camp tender? My old pal --- Apache Joe! Complete with a new buzzard tail feather for his hat and a calico pony to throw his saddle on."

"He proved himself a very efficient camp tender but still wasn't very talkative. He seemed to get his point across better by just grunting and pointing. He did have one very bad failing though. We didn't dare let him out of sight for fear he would get lost."

"We spent a lot of time just rounding up Apache Joe. We learned to be glad he had that calico pony for we could spot the pony a long way off. Joe blended into the scenery so well that we never knew he was around unless someone stepped on him and I would much rather step on a rattlesnake than Apache Joe. He still carried his scalping knife and it was sharp as a razor!"

"Everything went well on the sheep drive until we hit Sheep Bridge on the Verde River. Sheep Bridge is a 4-foot wide swinging bridge about 300 feet long and about 80 feet above the river. The reason that bridge was built so high above the river is the battleship Mississippi requires a 70-foot or so clearance and they didn't want the bridge to interfere with the traffic on the Verde River as they had heard once that the good ship had one time gone all the way up the old Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois, just to quell a riot. They thought it over and decided they didn't want to put Cottonwood and Jerome in jeopardy."

"The only reason the Basque built the bridge in the first place was because some smart engineer said it couldn't be done. They didn't believe that so they just went ahead and built it anyway!"

"We camped south of the river until all the flocks were gathered in before crossing the bridge. We figured the crossing would be easy as all we had to do was get one sheep started across and the rest would follow."

"Apache Joe was almost one of them as he always wore sheepskin chaps so we decided to let him lead the way and his scent would draw the rest onto the bridge. We made one small error though, for he insisted on leading his favorite pack burro behind the calico and when the traffic hit the bridge, it began to sway and the more sheep got on the bridge, the worse it swayed. All of a sudden the burro decided he didn't want to cross anyway and jerked his line loose from Apache Joe's saddle horn. He tried to turn around but that burro measured 5 foot from stem to stern and the bridge was only 4 foot wide which resulted in a jammed burro with sheep building up against him."

"Apache Joe continued on across the bridge unaware that he had lost his burro and disappeared over the hill to get lost again."

"Because the bridge was jammed full of sheep and no one being sure how much weight those rusty cables would hold, the Basque were plenty shook up. Soon they got their nervous systems under control and walked the backs of the sheep out to the burro."

"The burro by now was thoroughly convinced he should never have left Phoenix in the first place and didn't want to cooperate very well. But the Basque heaved with might and main mixed with Spanish invectives and finally worked him loose after which they all had to run like h--- for those sheep were surely on their way."

"We all made it across without loss of anything other than a little dignity and Apache Joe! He had kept going when the traffic jam occurred and, with his propensity for getting lost, we knew better than to even search for him!"

"It wasn't until years later that I again met Apache Joe."

"I happened to be in Prescott this summer to see if it was possible for a burnt out old sheepherder to get a government pension. They turned me down at the court house. (I don't think Bucky O'Neil would have approved of that.)"

"Then I went to see the welfare people and told them I didn't feel up to herding sheep anymore and asked if I could get on welfare but they told me they didn't think there was anything wrong that a little soap and water wouldn't fix and they thought I would fare well enough without welfare."

"Very disconsolate and down to my last 3 dollars, I crossed the street to a bar thinking there could be one of the big spenders out of Jerome around there."

"Guess what? There sat my old pal --- Apache Joe!"

"He was sitting on a corner stool with a faraway look in his eye and I knew he was dreaming of the good old days when his saddle was welcome in any wickiup on the reservation."

"I sat down and told him my troubles. I will say one thing for Apache Joe. He is a good listener. In these days when so many people have a tongue loose and both ends tied in the middle with no connection with the brain whatsoever, it is indeed a pleasure to talk to a erudite sophisticated gentleman with degrees in peyote, Kiva Décor, and squaw rehabilitation like Apache Joe."

"I talked to him about an hour sixty five before the bartender started giving me the eye and I knew I would have to go. (How was I supposed to know they had made a wax dummy out of my pal 'Good old Joe!') Anyway. He was sure a good listener!"

"If you don't believe this story --- go talk to Apache Joe the next time you are in Prescott. He'll still be sitting on the corner stool in the bar right across from the court house."

(The Verde Independent; Cottonwood; Thursday, July 20, 1972; page 11.)

The Verde River Sheep Bridge (also known as the Red Point Sheep Bridge) north of Carefree, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 21, 1978. Construction of the bridge began during 1943 and was completed during 1944. The bridge length was 691 feet overall from anchorage to anchorage and was 45 inches wide. The bridge was about 45 feet above the river. It was used until sheep drives there ended during 1987. The original suspension bridge was partly demolished, then a replica bridge was constructed by the U. S. Forest Service during 1989.

Every May since 1884, sheepherders have driven their sheep from the desert valleys to their summer pastures, crossing the Verde River on their way northward.

See: The Verde Independent; "Sheep's Crossing: Annual drive hits valley this weekend;" May 21, 2010; and "A Verde Valley Tradition; Sheep's Crossing;" July 17, 2011.

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