The Cowboy Legend
Soon after the Civil War it became possible for Texas cattlemen to drive herds to midwestern railheads connecting with the Northeast, where they fetched many times the Texas price. The vast open ranges between the Southwest and Canada were still largely unsettled, and herds moving through at the rate of 10-20 miles a day could actually get fat en route to such destinations as Abilene, Cheyenne, and Sedalia. The drovers' life was a rough, lonely one, beset with extremes of climate and weather, hostile Indians, and whites who sought to bar drives through their claims.
A typical drive consisted of 2,500 longhorns herded by a dozen men. The cowboys came from all over, but the majority were southerners of English and Scotch-Irish extraction. Thus the romantic tales of the cowboy that became fixed in the popular imagination (thanks in great measure to the efforts of dime novelists such as Ned Buntline) had a close resemblance to Old World stories like those of the Scottish border wars of the 1500's in which blood and thunder, gunsmoke, night raids, and chases on horseback are also highlighted. (The rustler changing brands on cattle and the raider who had his horses shod backward to baffle pursuers are classic 16th-century Scottish as well as western; so is the ending in which the wounded hero leaves his girl to make a fresh start but dies alone in the process.) The actual era of the long drive was over by 1895, but the cowboy legend looms large in today's world, pervading popular music, entertainment, dress, and speech. Millions of people all over the world like to see something of themselves in the brave, independent loners who rode the open trail.
The cowboy's year began with the spring roundup of the herd and the branding of newborn cattle, and it continued on until payday in fall at the end of the cattle drive to some middle-western railhead. During those months the cowboy's lot was one of physical hardship, loneliness, 20-hour workdays, and danger, leavened only by the pleasure he took in his surroundings, his cow pony, and male companionship around a campfire. Ahead lay a long cold winter, a time to "blow in" his meager wages, repair his gear, and wander south to hire on again.
There once was a big, overgrown cowpoke named Tall Cotton, whose specialty was going to sleep during duty hours, leaving the rest of the crew to do his share of the work. The boys finally decided that something had to be done about the matter.
Then came the day that they found Cotton curled up in a haystack, boots off, sound asleep. The opportunity was golden. They rounded up a huge tarantula, killed it, and laid it close to Cotton's leg. Then they tied a pin on the end of a stick and jabbed the sleeping waddy a couple of times. Cotton came awake like a wild Comanche doing the snake dance and, at the same time, one of the boys rushed up and smashed the tarantula.
Cotton took one look at the dead tarantula and turned white. He began to get sick, even though the other waddies did their best to console him with stories of the horrible deaths they had seen as a result of tarantula bites. Finally one of the crew, who laid claim to having read Ten Thousand Things Worth Knowing and Dr. Chase's Recipe Book, offered to try to save Cotton, although he admitted it seemed hopeless.
First the cowboy poured a pint of bear's oil down Cotton. When that started some of the poison coming up, they followed with a glass of soda, a cup of vinegar, and finally a quart of water in which a plug of tobacco had been soaking. For a while it seemed almost certain that Cotton was going to die from that tarantula bite; but the medicine was potent, and eventually he was saved. After that the crew had very little trouble with him lying down on the job, especially in haystacks.
One time an old windbelly from the Pothook outfit challenged our champion talker to a talkin' match. Our best talker agreed, and the time was set for just after payday so the boys'd have plenty of bettin' money. When the match came off, our champion, havin' some talent for poetry, started off with such giggle talk as, "The hoss he neigh, can you tell what he say? The cow she moo, the bull does too, the dog he bark, till the moon goes dark, the coyote yip; like he's got the flutter-lip." He goes on like this till he runs plumb through the animal kingdom.
At the same time the Pothook man, not to be outpoetried, ranted such stuff as, "The lightnin' flash, the thunder crash, the rain she pour, the wind she roar," till you thought you was in Noah's flood. Our man was as full of verbal lather as a soap peddler, but this here Pothook man had more wind than a bull in green corn time. They shouted this foolishness plumb through the night, the boys doin' their best to cheer their favorite on to glory. It was daybreak when the Pothook man finally talked 'imself to sleep. Our champion was leaning over him still whisperin' the merits of his favorite brand of canned peaches, but he didn't have 'nough vocal power left to bend a smoke ring.
Old Tom O'Conner had deeds to scores of sections of land and he owned 10,000 cattle on the prairies and in the brush, but he was too frail to ride anymore. One day he told his ranch boss, Pat Lambert, to take all hands and bring in the biggest herd they could gather. The crew rode hard and about an hour before sundown they drove a vast herd of mixed cattle to the holding grounds near the O'Conner ranchhouse. Bulls were challenging, cows were bellowing, calves were bleating. Heifers, yearlings, old moss-horned steers, were milling about, their blended voices rising above the dust from their hooves. Pat Lambert went into the room where Tom O'Conner lay on his bed. "We made a big drag, Mr. Tom," he said. "What do you want me to do with them, Mr. Tom?" "Nothing. Just hold them there. I'm dying, Pat, and I want to go out with natural music in my ears.
The men who drove the cattle hundreds of miles to market had few creature comforts en route but strong whisky and the flickering warmth of the nighttime campfire. When the herd was bedded, the men frequently gathered to swap songs and stories, and a man with a rich imagination and a gift for spinning a yarn was a welcome addition to any outfit. Sometimes the stories came out of experience, but equally as often they were "tall" in the great tradition of Pecos Bill tales.
Pecos Bill was by all accounts the most famous and remarkable man in the whole country. It was him that invented ropin', for example. He had a rope that reached from the Rio Grande to the Big Bow, and he shore did swing a mean loop. He used to amuse hisself by throwin' a little lasso up in the sky and fetchin' down the buzzards and eagles that flew over. He roped everything he ever seen: bears and wolves and panthers, elk and buffalo. The first time he seen a train he thought it was some kind of varmint, and damn me if he didn't sling a loop over it and dang near wreck the thing.
Bill had a hoss he raised from a colt on a diet of nitroglycerin and barbed wire, which made him tough and also very ornery. Lots a men tried to ride him, but only one man besides Bill ever mounted that hoss and lived. That's the reason Bill named him Widow Maker. That other fella was Bill's friend. Bill tried to talk him out of trying, but he had his heart set on it. He gits on Widow Maker, and that hoss begins to go through his gaits, doin' the end-to-end, the sunfish, and the back throw; and about that time the rider goes up in the sky. Bill watches him through a spyglass and sees him land on Pikes Peak. No doubt he would of starved to death up there, but Bill roped him by the neck and drug him down.
Another time he bet a stetson hat he could ride a cyclone. He went up on the Kansas line and simply eared that tornado down and got on it. Down he come across Oklahoma and the Panhandle a-settin' on that tornado, a-curlin' his mustache and a-spurrin' it in the withers. Seem' it couldn't throw him, it jist naturally rained out from under him, and that's the way Bill got his only spill.
Pecos Bill's ranch was the biggest in the West. He staked out New Mexico and fenced Arizona for a calf pasture. He built a big ranchhouse and had a big yard around it. It was so far from the yard gate to the front door that he used to keep a string of saddle horses at stations along the way, for the convenience of visitors. Bill was always a hospitable sort of chap, and when company come, he always tried to persuade them to stay as long as he could git 'em to.
One time his outfit was so big that he would dam up a draw to mix the biscuit dough in. They would dump in the flour and the salt and the bakin' powder and mix it up with teams. You can still see places where the dough was left in the bottom of the draw when they moved on. Alkali lakes they call 'em. That's the bakin' powder that stayed in the ground. One time when water got scarce on Bill's range, he dug the Rio Grande and ditched water from the Gulf of Mexico to fill the river.
Freighter Will Pool pulled through Stiles one afternoon, heading from San Angelo to Harris Brothers' ranch with a load of stock salt. The hospitable inhabitants of that great capital city had insisted he attend a dance there that night. So, about an hour by sun he made camp, hobbled out all except the trimmest of his workhorses, which he saddled, and hightailed it for Stiles. They dined him and danced him until 'way up toward day. He got back to camp in time to catch a few winks, but while doing so he was awakened by sharp, darting pains in his hand. A polecat was latched onto it, sucking blood.
Pool slung the polecat loose but the stinker beat both him and his little dog to a hole. "You reckon that son-of-a-blank could a had hydraphoby?" said Will to himself, not being one to call a spade a spade when he could call it something worse. Taking no chances, he saddled up, loped back to Stiles, and had old Doc Wittaker lance and cauterize the wound. Then the doctor applied his madstone, but it dropped right off. "Jist a old flat rock," said Will disparagingly.
He headed on for Cedar Canyon, but the farther he went the more he worried. There was nothing he could do now, until he got back to San Angelo. After he delivered his load of salt, he went back there just as fast as he could go. He hit the ground running for a madstone. Yes, a woman there did have one. It was a puffy-looking thing about an inch long and taken from a black-tail deer. Immediately the woman applied this madstone and it clung to the skunk bite for 14 hours. She took it off, boiled it in milk, and reapplied it. This time it stuck to the wound for three hours and dropped off. The woman wouldn't let him, or anybody else, touch the stone or handle it in any way. Will Pool went away satisfied that it saved his life.
A man, a horse and a dog never get weary of each other's company. "I owned an ol' hoss one time that was about the dumbest critter I ever did see. I'll tell yuh what that fool horse did one night when I drunk too much likker and passed out in town. He picked me up and slung me on his back and carried me 20 miles to the ranch. When he got me there, he pulled off my boots with his teeth and nosed me into my bunk. Then he went to the kitchen, fixed up a pot of coffee, and brung me a cup all fixed up with cream and sugar. Then the next day I had a hangover, and he went out all by hisself and dug postholes all day so's the boss would let me sleep. When I woke up and found out what that fool hoss had done, I cussed him for two days without stoppin' and wished 'im off on a greener [greenhorn] which was passin' by." "I'd say that was a pretty smart horse," observed a listener. "Why in the world did you get rid of him?" "Smart, heck! Who ever heard of a real cowboy usin' cream and sugar in his coffee? No wonder I had sich a turrible hangover!"
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