Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys…
Yeah, well, tell it to a ten-year-old, especially boys hobbled in school by too much learnin,’ or penned up in the house too long with their sisters; boys with the natural wandering soul of a cowboy, untethered, slapping the imaginary hind end of a palomino, past trot and canter to a full-on lightnin’ speed gallop.
I’m lookin’ at a few of them ruffians right now. There’s a red-headed freckly kid with eyes always pointin’ in different directions, goes by the name of “Old Buzzard Breath.” We give him the name on account of he never brushes his teeth; but he claims it’s from all the twists of tobacky he’s chawed on his whole life, even though he’s barely nine.
And there’s another scoundrel – meaner than a gut shot rattlesnake – a-called “Cactus Head,” ‘cause his hair’s always stickin’ up funny. There’s the dirty-booted “Cowpie Carl” and “Old Longhandles,” a skinny fella. Me, I’m “Sagebrush Tumbleweed”– two of the best words ever invented – but you can call me Sage for short, ‘cause I am.
We‘re a purty rough bunch of desperados – even though we call each other pilgrims and hayseeds – the rowels on our spurs jinglin’ and janglin’ wherever we amble, and we’re as liable to shoot ya as look at ya, especially “Old Buzzard Breath” who never knows where he’s aimin’ his six shooter on account of his messed up eyes. An’ we learnt how to talk right mostly from old westerns, and could whip out a word like “heckfire” whenever we felt like it.
If you was lookin’ for us, we’re about a million miles from nowhere, not quite at the end of the earth but you can see it from here, where the sky don’t quit and the desert butts up against the mountains.
We always rise early, select our mounts from the remuda and spend a long day in the saddle: bustin’ broncs, ropin’ wild mustangs, racin’ stagecoaches, huntin’ buffalo, chasin’ down bandidos or protectin’ our womenfolk. We ain’t never lily-livered; there’s plenty of giddyup in our blood. Course it’s a hard scrabble life ridin’ the range and we all been kicked at, leaned on, rubbed on, stepped on, muzzle-nuzzled, stomped, hip checked and head butted plenty. And even if we’re throwed, we get back up, walk with a swagger and slap the dust off our britches with our Stetsons.
Nights, you might find us bellied up to a bar sippin’ sasparillas or whippin’ up some beans by a campfire next to a crick, talkin’ about where we’d find us a grubsteak or settle down and stake us a claim. We lean against our saddles listenin’ to coyotes howl and watch the silver moon rise over the mesas, nursin’ a few old injuries from earnin’ our spurs.
It’s the life of a cowboy and we wouldn’t have it no other way.
Years later, when I ended up tending a herd of horses (and too many other animals), I learned I was more of a gunzel than a vaquero, despite all of my childhood practicing. One afternoon when I was down at the barn taking a nap where the sun filtered through the wood beams onto the hay, this crazy old mule careened into the corral raising a ruckus. He’d come before, and always wreaked havoc with the herd.
This mule had huge yellow teeth, saliva dripping, and a head like a log with a sketchy look in his eyes. And he always tore everything up. So I closed the gate and figured to catch and drag him back to the neighbors.
I remembered years earlier watching a young cowhand rope a strawberry roan with a loop he called a hoolihan, and he pulled that horse right out of a bunch of jostling heads. I knew I couldn’t pull that off – that dang mule was flying around the corral in crazy circles – but I figured if I could just get that rope around his head he’d have to settle down sooner or later. Of course he chose later. After a few throws of roping air, I snagged him and he started bucking and kicking his hind legs like the crazy thing he was. At first, I kind of water-skied behind him until my boot heels dug in and I flopped to my belly onto the sun-hammered dirt and he started dragging me around. He hated that rope around his neck and even more the dead weight hanging at the other end. After a few laps around the wood trough in the center of the corral, and then a few more just for kicks, he finally got the rope wrapped around a snubbing post and it wedged him tight, and me too. A friend of mine, sort of, had watched the whole thing and said it was the best drag race he’d seen in awhile.
Unlike the old westerns, I didn’t mount up and ride off into the sunset; instead, I threw my body, clothes and all, into the pond to cool down all the hot aches, and pains, listening to the thunderheads building in the distance. Welcome to the southern Rockies, where there are plenty of trails to explore and tales to be told. Me… I’m going to do a few chores, take another nap and maybe rustle up some grub – maybe some more of that green chile mule posole.
— Joe Haukebo, Publisher