Fire and Injury
In June 1919 Jessamine and Will Johnson moved into their new stone
house, created from blocks of sandstone quarried nearby. The original
ranch house was occupied by their ranch foreman, Henry, wife Rachel,
and her mother Mildred. Jessamine’s five children were amazed at all
the room in this three-story house with basement. They loved the
screened porch for sleeping on hot summer nights. The whole family
looked forward to their future at the X4 Ranch in Kirby, Montana.
The X4 house upon completion.
Drama was in store. On the morning of November 12th, Jessamine stepped
onto the porch at Henry and Rachel’s to collect milk and cream, when smoke
poured from every crack in the building. Rachel burst through the door
past Jessamine yelling “fire.” (Their furniture crates stored close to the
furnace had become hot and caught fire. Henry had also been oiling harness
in the basement the day before, and a spark from the stove perhaps
ignited the leather.)
Jessamine ran to fetch Will and Henry in the corral. They rescued a few
screens and some of Rachel’s furniture and clothing before the house was
engulfed. Then everyone concentrated on keeping other buildings from catching
fire. The ice house was close and difficult to protect. Young Torrey stood
transfixed, as Rachel screamed for Henry to rescue her new fur coat. Henry
ran back into the house and fell through the floor into the basement.
He launched himself out the basement window with the fur coat in tow!
Amazingly he was unhurt!
Jessamine was grateful that her new home was built of sandstone. She and Rachel
flung water onto the roof from the third story windows--the water cascaded boiling
hot over the eves. Jessamine singed her arms during this herculean task. Dick
Long and Mrs. Maxham, who happened to be driving by, stopped to help. Mrs.
Maxham carried snow in bed sheets to the house, further keeping the fire at bay.
Jessamine, faithful to her avocation, pulled out her camera and took photos of the
The older ranch house on fire.
On his way home from school that afternoon, young Bill recalled seeing a column
of smoke. He galloped his pony home to find the lone chimney of the original ranch
house smoldering. Rachel, Henry, and Mildred rushed to fix up the bunk house as their
Just the chimney and foundation were left.
Jessamine noted in her diary: “All our ironing was in the basement, our light plant
and the clothes mangle. Items destroyed included beds, bedding, towels, sheets,
pillowcases, chiffoniers, mirrors, kitchen cabinets, a table and chairs, a china closet,
the refrigerator, the range, and all the clothes washing machinery. The fire also burned
harness, tarps, Will’s and Henry’s tools, cooking utensils, dishes, the separator and butter
churn. Rachel and her mother Mildred have just what they had on their backs.”
Though things might have seemed quiet at home for a while, with five children underfoot,
dull moments were rare. On a sunny Tuesday in May of 1920, Jessamine and Phyllis were
preparing to ride a neighbor’s pasture for stray cattle. Torrey rushing to watch them
leave, stepped on the loose boards by the cellar door and fell under Redwing’s heels.
Redwing promptly kicked him, breaking his left thigh bone. Phyllis dropped her reins
and carried him into the house. Jessamine put sticks the full length of his leg and
bound them in place. She grabbed the baby bed mattress, placed it in the back of the
Dodge with a dozen pillows and packed Torrey into the car. Dr. Levers, their favorite,
was out of town in Buffalo when they reached the Sheridan hospital about 3 p.m. Dr.
Johnson had them wait for Dr. Levers return. At 7 o’clock Dr. Levers arrived and assisted
Dr. Johnson with setting Torrey’s leg. Torrey was placed in a frame with a weight and a
pulley attached to his leg. Jessamine spent a restless night at his bedside. “He cried
out every time the muscles drew up in his leg (from the traction of the weight and pulley),
but he bears up bravely. He seems very much interested in the nearby trains.” (Their noise
easily reached the hospital environs.)
The next morning, they placed Torrey in the ward. “Dr. Levers says I won’t need to stay with
him, however we can’t get a nurse. I will stay at Mama’s tonight, and go home tomorrow. I
will leave Phyllis (she was just 11 years old) here to look after Torrey, while staying with
Mama.” Jessamine further notes that the doctors will X-ray Torrey’s leg in a week to see if
the break will knit together, or whether the bone is mashed or broken crosswise. If that is
the case, they talked of an operation to wire the bone together.
Torrey at home with his broken leg.
In the end the doctors operated and placed a clamp on the leg bone. Torrey grew up breaking
horses and riding roundups, unbeknownst that only a thin piece of bone grew through the clamp.
It was enough to make him 4F in 1941-42 when he tried to join the services. They told him to go
home and raise beef for the army.
Many years later, married with five nearly grown children, Torrey slipped and fell on an icy hill
while leading his horse down a draw in the Dry Creek Pasture. He sat down hard and the leg broke
again. His horse and faithful dog Bruce refused to leave him. He began throwing snowballs at the
horse. His horse then ran down the draw and headed home. Bruce snuggled by him until he told him
he was a bad dog and should go home! Then he commenced to throw snowballs at poor Bruce. With
his tail between his legs, Bruce ran for home. My oldest sister Sandra was waiting on the flat in front
of the draw when she saw dad’s horse running towards her trailing reins in the snow. She ran to catch
him just as Bruce came in sight. With trembling heart she rushed up the draw to find her dad
sitting in the snow awaiting help.
Gene, Sandra’s husband, soon found her and dad, then galloped fast to the ranch for a pickup.
He grabbed a ladder for a stretcher. Just then my other sister Jolly arrived from college for
Christmas vacation with a strapping basketball player in tow. Boyfriend and Gene jumped in the
pickup and rushed up Dry Creek. After parking as far up the draw as possible, they hauled my
dad strapped to the ladder off the hillside and down to the pickup. Loaded in the pickup bed,
dad had a bumpy ride to the ranch house. It was another hour to reach the hospital in Sheridan.
After a week of little success setting the bone, the doctors in Sheridan sent Torrey to Billings
where a rod was put in his leg from hip to knee. They removed the clamp. He was up and around
after several weeks, using crutches. Eventually the leg bone knit perfectly together and the rod was
removed. He was fit as a fiddle by mid-summer. You can’t keep a good cowboy down!
Cowboy Jargon--Coulee or Draw: Coulee and draw are synonymous, both refer to shallow
ravines, gullies, or washes with or without a stream. An arroyo is a steep-sided gully formed by
the action of fast-flowing water in an arid or semi-arid region, found chiefly in the southwestern US.
In Montana and Wyoming we call such a downpour a gully washer!
A view of the 160 Pasture and fields. In the distance two draws
reach down towards the fields. Typical draws for the Wolf Mountains.