On Being a “Cowboy”

By David Wright

I’d like to tell a bit of a story, not a tall tale, but a little touch of reality that I ran into out west. I say that because we were out there, out in the short grass prairie where the wind blew, the tumbleweed covered the roads and dust devils ripped through the yard scattering chickens. We were thirteen years on a high bench of land off Redstone Creek west of Ft. Collins and south of Cheyenne forty miles. It was a working ranch with some hundred and fifty cow-calf pairs running on five thousand acres.

Was I a cowboy? Well, that would’ve been a stretch but I was an observer of the cowboy life and all the romance that goes with that. I did have a hat and many wrangler jeans along with a couple of Garth Brooks shirts. Even had some nice boots, when I could still get into them. Most importantly, I had cowboy lingo and listened to Baxter Black recite cowboy poetry.

In addition to all those qualifications, as a fiddle player, we’d hang around campfires singing songs like the “Night Rider’s Lament.”

“He asked me why do you ride for your money?

Why do you rope for short pay?

You ain’t getting’ nowhere.

And you’re losin’ your share.

Boy, you must have gone crazy out there.

But he’s never seen the Northern Lights,

never seen a hawk on the wing.

He’s never seen Spring hit the Great Divide.

And never heard Ol’ Camp Cookie sing”

But, this is not the end of the cowboy romance for it seems country and western music is still filled with the imagery of “rambling wild and free” living in the “wide open spaces” and saddling up the metaphorical horse to ride the range and act real strange.

The dreams of being home on the range just doesn’t leave the American mind. Driving up the Missouri Breaks, maybe slipping over the Lolo cut, or passing through the Sand Hills of Nebraska certainly leaves one dreaming of a simpler life on the high plains but as the song goes, “It sure can be lonely out there.” There are cowboys on the grasslands and we had them in the canyon mending fences and rounding up the strays – no machines in our pastures so there was time for the hands to stop by and chat on the whereabouts of the damn critters.

Being out there, amid the grassland and tall mountains, certainly left us with an impression, but I don’t know if I’d call it “wild and free.” So, it was yesterday I put on my Stetson thinking I’d do a little cowboy romancing of the years on the ‘the ranch,’ those thirteen years.

The history was there in the canyon, with old wagon roads still winding hidden up the side draws, past broken cabins littered with tools of a mostly forgotten trade, but still artifacts of lonely lives so far from others. Here and there, white bones of critters lost in some bitter storm, or broken by an unintended fall, were scattered like miniature monuments.

I was as terrified of horses as they were of me – I wasn’t to be trusted. So, our cowboying was simply an activity of toleration, maybe a somewhat vain attempt at moving a few away from the house, or trying to fix the electric fence we set up to deter the drifting, munching hoards.

Being out there in the endless sun, watched by golden eagles, surrounded by rising stone cliffs, and maybe stalked by mountain lions was, indeed, a touch of magic. Still, getting out of the car late at night – very much under the stars – and then unwittingly stepping in a massive pile of fresh, steaming cow crap, was not the lore of songs. No melodic, high lonesome tune drifted over as the feeling of the wet, slightly warm droppings slipped ever so delicately over the top of my slippery city shoes. At the same moment, and in my tired trance, and disgust, I’d forgotten to shine a light looking for “Mr. No-shoulders”, the prairie rattler. Fortunately, that night there were none. Oh yes, the stars shined like diamonds, free of city lights. Our glorious milky way passed over as the coyotes yipped close in, probably testing for the hint of chicken.

In a moment like that, the days of the wild west rang ‘true.’ We could see the buffalo, the southern Cheyenne, the cattle lowing in the meadow and hear the camp “cookies” singing.

The next day there in the driveway were three Charolaise bulls all looking like Arnold on steroids but weighing close to a solid ton. No doubt, these were the culprits who flavored my shoes – and may have watched from the comfort of the pasture next to the shed.

On this morning, it seemed they were having some sort of competition prettying themselves all up by casting great tail-generated spays of excrement all over their massive rear ends. While Ann’s family on the Wisconsin farm thought this aromatic touch smelled like money, my ‘cowboy’ was unmoved. A red-tailed hawk maneuvered over the crop of hens and the morning still glistened with a touch of dew. The pasture was a strong green and the smell of fresh flowers hinted in the air.

The day before, Dixie’s renegade cows and dull-witted steers crashed our fences. That morning, Ann noticed one slobbering bovine had its nose against the kitchen window trying to get at the geraniums. After rehurting my torn rotator cuff throwing rocks at the ill-behaved cattle, the ones that had no business being there in our prime pasture, the rangy, poorly bred cattle herd had to be chased back to the Anderson place some two miles off. I hate horses and the cowpoke friends down the road a mile, were off to the islands. The giant AOA brand stuck out like a sign saying “get lost loser cowboy.” Even the one Holstein in the unwieldy pack scoffed at me. As I walked them back to the “hole” in the fence and to Dixie’s over-used twenty thousand acres, I sang the romantic cowboy song.

“He tells me last night ‘I run onto Jenny.

She’s married and has a good life.

Ah, you sure missed the track.

When you never come back.

She’s a perfect professional’s wife.’

Chorus:

“She asked him why does he ride for his money?

Why does he rope for short pay?

You ain’t gettin’ nowhere … ”

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