Sunday, October 13, 2019

Cowgirl Sass & Savvy (revisited)

When 'cowboy' was a noble tradition

Julie Carter

They could strike a match on the backside of their jeans and light a cigarette they just rolled while holding the reins in one hand and the cigarette paper in the other.

They laughed easily, worked relentlessly and found peace in doing an honest day's work.

It was an era when the cowboy was defined by the work that he did. You found him on dusty plains trailing thousands of cattle to the stockyards at the railhead. He worked for a $100 a month, worked until the work was done or until he drifted on to move another herd.

Many were men but just as many were boys. It was the 1930s and it was more the norm than not for a boy of 12 or 13 to be working a man's job for a man's wages. His momma would watch him ride away as he left to meet up with a cattle drive, not knowing if she'd ever see him again.

Most never went more than 6-8 years to school. Ranches were vast, covering hundreds of square miles. Getting to the school was a problem and finding work was not.

They ate their meals cooked from the supplies in a chuck box that followed along, not always in a wagon but sometimes in a jeep or pickup.

They rolled up in cowboy tarp bedrolls at night and were glad for the chance to be still for a few hours. A fire crackled and cast off sparks into a black night. A coyote howled in the distance and the cattle rustled just enough to ensure their intention of bedding down.

That cowboy didn't see movies or read books to find out what he was supposed to be like.

He broke his own horses and shod the same.

He wore his boots and his hat because they had a functional purpose. Usually there was a crooked crease in the hat and a careless look to him overall.

These same boys became young men, picked up rifles and shipped off to war. They were in foreign countries and on remote islands where they fought an enemy they'd never seen and knew little about. They were shot at and they shot back. Some were wounded, some never came home.

But, those that did, found their way back to the wide open country. They strapped on their spurs, saddled up a bronc and went back to the business of punching cows.

They took brides and rewarded them with ranch-camp living that offered no more than a shack and a cook stove but came complete with kerosene lighting and no plumbing.

In most parts of ranch country, not much changed until the railroads gave way to highways and trucking forced a complete shift in the rail industry and with it, the way cattle were shipped to markets.

They were the last generation of full-time horseback cowboys, working cattle in much the same way their grandfathers before them had. Horses were hardened and tough and the men the same.

As renowned Western author Elmer Kelton so eloquently put it, "What the real cowboy is, and has always been, is a common man in an uncommon profession, giving more than he receives, living by a code of conduct his detractors will never understand."

I pray we hang on to the best of what those men were.

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