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Living the cowboy life

Three short stories straight from the ranch


Living the cowboy life

John R. Erickson, author of 70 Hank the Cowdog books and other ranch-based stories, knows his subject matter. He was a working cowboy and ranch manager in Texas and Oklahoma. Here are three short, never-before-published stories about cowboy life. —Marvin Olasky

Sketch of a Cowboy

The word “cowboy” didn’t exist in the English language until the trail driving period of the 1870s and 1880s. Before that time, mounted men who handled livestock were known as “drovers” or “herders.” When the word first appeared, probably in the railroad-terminal towns in Kansas and Nebraska, it was written as “cow-boy.” Later, for unknown reasons, the hyphen disappeared.

From the beginning, the cowboy was linked to cattle, horses, and a set of skills. He was a laborer, a workingman, and his medium of work was the livestock business. Because he didn’t own land, he attached himself to people who did—ranchers.

In our time, television, movies, rodeo, and country-western music have tapped into the mythology of the cowboy, and our culture has spawned a host of identities that have attached themselves to the original. You might get the impression that a cowboy is someone who wears a certain type of hat and boots, but the closer you get to ranch country, the more you heed the line from a country song: “Don’t call him a cowboy until you’ve seen him ride.”

So who is he?

When he was young, something about the profession captured his imagination. It might have come from a relative, a local character, a song, or a poem, something he saw in a movie or read in a book. His move into the profession was not a sudden decision. It was the subject of daydreams long before it became a reality.

While most of the kids his age were inclined toward a life that was safe and easy, he was having fantasies about adventure: big country, wild country, a place where roads shrank to narrow trails and ended. He was fascinated by horses, not cars, and had no fear of silence.

He didn’t want to be safe or comfortable. He was drawn to broncs and wild cattle, extremes of heat and cold, hard work and solitude. He gave no thought to the distant future, to retirement or financial security. He chose to live in the golden present, day by day, season by season, roundup by roundup.

He loved to hear the jingle of his spurs and the swish of his chaps, and often stole glances at his reflection in a pickup window.

Money didn’t stir his blood. If it could buy a decent pickup, a good saddle, a nice pair of spurs, a new headstall, an honest horse, and a pair of boots, then money was good. Beyond that, it was a nuisance. It bought things he didn’t need and brought problems he didn’t want.

His fuel was pride: pride in horsemanship, his tools, his costume; pride in the soft feel of a well-oiled set of reins; pride in his work, a simple code of conduct, his physical power and his ability to endure hardship.

Sometimes he showed his pride in a swagger. He loved to hear the jingle of his spurs and the swish of his chaps, and often stole glances at his reflection in a pickup window. But he also craved the approval of older men, those with rough hands and sweat-stained hats, whose names were whispered at roundups. When they mounted a horse and took down a rope, the eyes of every man went to them. A nod or a lingering gaze from one of them was worth more than a paycheck.

They had lived well and right. They had stories to tell and chose their words with care. They had studied the art of delivering a yarn with droll wit and a sly turn of the phrase, and they crafted masterpieces of understatement.

In town, those old men were just shuffling mortals in ordinary clothes. Horseback in big country, they were kings.

Cowboys and Doctors

I’ve never known a cowboy or rancher who wanted to go to the doctor. Part of the reason is that they pry into your personal life and ask embarrassing questions, such as, “What happened?”

Glenn Green gave one of the all-time best answers to that question when he went to the chiropractor. He had a stiff neck, and sure enough, the doctor asked what happened. Green said, “Horse stepped on my hat.”

“Your hat?”

“Yeah, my head was in it.”

I thought that was priceless, but I’m sure the doc found it strange. Medical people lead sheltered lives. They spend most of their time in spotless white-walled clinics and hospitals. In their world, everything is clean, everything works. Their patients do what they’re told, and most of them don’t bite or kick.

It’s hard for your average doctor to understand the things that happen to those of us who work with horses and livestock every day.

Example. The main joint of my right big toe was giving me fits. After I’d complained about it for two years, Kris got me an appointment with a foot doctor in Amarillo. He poked and pulled and twisted my toe, and scowled at the X-rays

“You’ve got arthritis in the joint. Have you ever kicked anything hard with your right foot?”

“Yes, but she kicked me first.” His expression became very serious. “Not my wife. It was a mare. I pulled the saddle cinch too tight and she kicked me with a back foot, so I let her have it.”

“Did it help?” That was one of the dumbest questions I’d ever heard. What does a toe doctor know about life?

Their patients do what they’re told, and most of them don’t bite or kick.

Another time, I went to an M.D. in Beaver City. The pinkie joint of my right hand was messed up. He looked it over and said, “It’s broken. What happened?”

It was hard to explain. My neighbor to the north always grazed his pastures down to the dirt, then let down the fence so that his scrawny, half-starved cows could slip into my pasture. He was always nice when I called, but he never did anything. I was the one who had to saddle a horse, drive the cattle back home, and fix the fence.

One sweltering day in June, I lost my better impulses and put his thieving cows through the gate at twenty miles an hour … all but one calf, and he kept cutting back on me. I’d been looking for an excuse to practice my roping, so out came the twine.

I needed practice more than I realized, and after missing several loops (you don’t need to know how many), I was in a real bad mood. Finally, I slopped one on, but as I was tying down the calf, he kicked me in the chest and tore my shirt. So I slugged him between the eyes.

Any normal, healthy American cowboy would have understood that response, but the doc rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Maybe you shouldn’t have done that.”

I paid him five hundred bucks for a plaster cast and that gem of wisdom. I’d already heard it fifty times from friends and family, and they didn’t charge me a dime.

A few years later, I made an unscheduled visit to the emergency room. I had a cut over my left eye that was oozing blood, and while the doc was putting in thirteen stitches, he asked what happened.

Well, a fellow gave me a yearling colt. I’d thought the man was my friend, but the colt turned out to be a hellion mustang, and there’s a reason why mustangs run wild and free. They don’t like people, and this one wouldn’t let me touch his ears. You can’t bridle a horse without touching his ears.

I’d read articles by successful horse trainers, and knew they had methods for dealing with juvenile delinquent colts. Most of them involved something called “patience.”

Articles are fine, but that’s not the way we do things around here. That colt was staying on my ranch and eating my hay, and those ears were mine. He just thought they belonged to him.

I had no idea that a colt could deliver a sucker punch so fast, but he did, above the left eye and in front of two of my children who were supposed to be getting a lesson on horse training.

When I explained all this to the doctor, he just laughed and kept sewing. He didn’t belabor the obvious or offer any words of bonehead wisdom. He seemed as sensible as a veterinarian.

I was impressed, and the next time I decide to do something stupid, I’m taking my business to him.

Thinking Like Livestock

When I was working on a ranch in the 1970s, I heard a cowboy say this about his wife: “She don’t think like livestock.”

What a funny thing to say about your wife! It was one of those sudden, simple revelations that come out of the mouth of a cowboy now and then, truth boiled down to one short declarative sentence. I laughed out loud.

In the years since, I’ve thought about it many times. People who live around animals all the time do see the world a bit differently. If you work around horses, it’s hard not to transfer your horse-knowledge to people, especially children and teenagers. Horses need kindness and encouragement, but if that’s all you give them, they will run over you. They need firm, consistent discipline. So do kids.

Horses improve themselves through work, and so do kids. The weird thing is that both groups will resist it as long as they can, as though work is punishment. It’s not punishment. It’s a way of releasing the potential that lies dormant in muscles and bones, which most of us won’t use without the nudge of spurs.

When you feed animals on a regular basis, you realize that at a basic level, what they are begins with what they eat. Whatever their potential or destiny in this world, it all begins with a grain of corn or a bite of hay. What you put into your horse’s feed bucket tonight is what he’ll give back to you at tomorrow’s roundup.

Whatever their potential or destiny in this world, it all begins with a grain of corn or a bite of hay.

That is hard to remember in this age of high technology, but we’re not so far advanced that we should forget it. We too are a product of what we eat, and any society that demeans the preparation of food probably isn’t as smart as it thinks. Handel’s Messiah might have begun with a bowl of oatmeal. Hamlet might be traced to a plate of ham and eggs. Perhaps Newton’s equations on celestial motion originated as a pot roast with potatoes and carrots.

From one perspective, cooking is toil and drudgery—cutting, slicing, peeling, and cleaning. From the animal perspective, what else might we be doing that is more important—checking Facebook?

Another thought that has come to me is that the neglect of children occurs most often at the top of the nature’s pyramid, not at the bottom. Humans with computers and cell phones sometimes think they have better things to do than to teach and care for their offspring. Animals, whom we regard as our intellectual inferiors, take superb care of their young, demonstrating a level of intelligence and courage we ought to admire.

That brings to mind another one-line gem of cowboy wisdom: “There’s nothing a human can teach a cow about motherhood.”

Thinking like livestock isn’t a bad thing to do once in a while.

John R. Erickson John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.


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