I think it was a Sunday and I had some things to attend to at the rest home. When I opened the door Harold’s chair was gone. Sadly this wasn’t uncommon, many of the residents were just treading water and waiting to die. If you don’t have any experience with them, you’d be surprised how many of the old folks are essentially abandoned by their families. The check comes in the mail each month like a ticket to linger. Seeing the missing chair, you can imagine that person has gone. Harold, though was just taking the sun in the patio. He’d dragged his old mahogany chair out and placed in in a corner where he could keep track of the comings and goings and when he saw me, he waved me over and asked if I had a minute or two. I did.
It seems Harold and Sloat rode the SP to San Antone, then the Katy into the Cherokee strip. Thats where they ran out of money. He said, ” We managed to wrangle jobs on the Chapman/Barnard Ranch north a Pawhuska. One thing we could do was work cattle, ever body in Redford learnt that soon as they was big enough to git on a horse. Workin’ cattle was a dyin’ art in 1915, the big ranches were all fenced and the big cattle drives were as gone as yesterday’s news. We’d left the horses in Marfa, but carried our rigs. You weren’t much of a puncher if you didn’t have a saddle and bridle. The ranches supplied horses, each man had a string, not your girly horse type but rough stock, soon as jump on your skull as breath, so you’d better know your business. Bunkhouse we lived in was nicer’n our place in Redford so we figured we was on the jump all right. Hell, things was gettin’ better already.” Harold laughed when he said it to, “Things was lookin’ up, yessir.”
We worked for the stud duck, a tough young puncher, name of Ben Johnson, worked with him most of a year, both of us savin’ some money which weren’t too hard, seein’ there weren’t a hell of a lot to spend it on no ways. Pawhuska ain’t got much to do ‘sept git drunk and fight. I didn’t much like either,” Harold said. “We was figurin’ on movin’ on after spring roundup anyhow.
I got a picture in my mind of ol’ Ben too. He’d be sittin’ on top of his horse over by that big old cottonwood tree a takin’ the shade while he give us a lookin’ over. He liked to cross his legs over the saddle horn, relaxin’ like, while he rolls a cigaret, his white Stetson with the flat crown and “no droop” brim kinda pushed back off his forehead a bit and that yellow bandana he allies wore hangin’ down the front of his vest. Being boss-like, he didn’t usually wear leathers but tucked his trousers in the high mule ear boots with the bull-doggin heels. He was the perfect picture of a cow boss.
“Later on, old Ben, he become big boss of that ‘ol spread, a position he held for many years. He come a rough one too, a tough old cobb, I heerd he had some trouble with his kid too. Didn’ get along at all. The kid finally run off and become a wrangler for the movies. We’us good pards tho. Don’t know why he got so rough with his boy.” He said, laughing. “Course I don’t see mine neither so maybe I was no better.”
“They was some good old boys working the big ranches in them days and they was all kinds too.” Harold explained. He pointed at the television in the corner of the room with it’s covey of old birds watching the soap operas and gave me his opinion. “You watch that TV over there, and I gotta tell ya they is all wrong, wrong about ever thing. First of all, we wasn’t all white, they was mex, injun, niggers and even city boys come west from New York city.” Harold laughed, “Why, we didn’t carry no iron neither, too damned heavy and uncomfortable for a man in the saddle. Some carried ‘em in saddlebags, but what you goin’ to shoot anyhow, your foot? No big ‘ol buckles neither, matter of fact we mostly wore braces to hold up our trousers, belts cut into your belly if you rode all day and we did that. And them tight -assed levi’s they’re wearing, why a man cain’t work in those damn things, no room for your business for one thing. Cain’t use pockets in trousers either. If you is in the saddle, cain’t put nothin’ in ‘em or git nuthin’ out, wore a vest for that. Cowpoke din’t have much, din’t need much. On the trail, just a soogan, a slicker, a extry pair of socks and your makings if’n you needed them. Them cows don’t much care what you look like. Wore just what you needed an nuthin’ else. Maybe the best thing a man owned was his rig and a fine pair of boots. Used to send out for ‘em, scratch a pattern of your foot and they’d send back a pair that fit like a glove. If you saved a little you could have some fancy stichin.’ I allus had to have me some roses on there, Texan ya know. Din’ wear ‘em for work neither, jes fer goin’ ta town. People writin’ them movies is bunch of damn fools,” he said, cowboyin’, was nuthin’ but a laborer on horseback, damned hard work.”
Harold scratched his head, then opined, “Ya know Mike, we didn’ have much in them days, why just your saddle and bridle was about all you needed to git work. A good California saddle a handmade leather bridle, some hopples, not them grass rope kind, them hurt the horses pastern if they had to wear ‘em overlong, used platted ones when we could still find ‘em. Lots of boys used grass rope for ropin’ but I still used a mex style reata, learned to make ‘em from my grandpap. He rode down to south Texas after the war, he been with Wade Hampton’s Legion and then Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry division right to the end, surrendered with the General at Appomattax Court House. Grant let ‘em keep they horses and my grandpa rode that ol’ horse all the way down to south Texas. Didn’t cotton goin’ back to South Carolina I guess.
With a twinkle in his eye, Harold said, “Them movie fellers makes a damn sight more money though, so go figure.” He went on to say, ”Seen that Tom Mix onct, wear fancy duds like that an no tellin’ what might happen to ya in the bunkhouse. Yore bunkies might take some exception to them slicker clothes, see, we was proud in the way young men are and thought that ours was the way it should be. Give no truck to some Hollywood actor fool, pretendin’ he was like us, no sir.”
“I’d guess about a month after I went to work out there, ‘ol Ben hired on a puncher just a little older’n me name of William Perkins, Billy he said to call ‘im.”
Harold described that boy as, “To tall by half, skinny as a bean pole and all the angles on his face was sharp enuff to cut yer hand ifn you was to poke him. Why he had so much red hair it was a caution. Couldn’t keep it combed, account of it was so thick. He wore a skimmer too, kinda looked like the one Harold Lloyd wore in them old movies.
Harold laughed, said “why he never stopped talkin’ neither, I knew more about him in five minute than I knew about my own mother. He said he run off from a place called Hell’s Kitchen. Seemed to me hit was a heck of a name for a place to live and Billy said it shore was. Said it was chock full of the poorest Irish in New York, probly Ireland too. Said his ma and pa come over from a place called Bally Robert Doagh in ’81. Come on a ship called State of Alabama, stuffed in so tight could hardly breath and they fed so bad hit was worse’n pig swill; they pert near starved. Said, if you was walkin’ to school, older boys would kick the stuffin’ outta ya, steal yer coat ifn’ ya had one, or maybe just for the hell of it. Families livin’ two or three to a tenement, no water, no bathroom, no heat. When pa could work, he’d be lucky to get home with his pay, the shills be draggin’ the men into the saloons so they could take your money for drink.. Them’s comin’ off the boats would work cheaper and you’d have no job. In New York the worst of all for keepin’ ya down were your own people. Those Irish bastards who run Tammany Hall or the Jews down on the lower east side, and the “Eyeties” too. Why I went down ta Hester street once to see the Jews and they was kids sleepin’ in the alleys, no place to go. Turned out by their parents or the parents are dead.The bosses never give a damn for us, we hated ‘em, but what can you do? They was so poor in New York that they could hardly feed his brothers and sisters so he lit out when he was 14. Said he’d been readin’ them dime novels and thought cowboy’n was the life for him, so he give ‘er a try. He rode a side door Pullman to Billings and got on with a ranch in the Pryor mountains south of there where he learned his trade. He punched cows up to Montana and then tried California some while, I believe he said the Peach Tree outfit near King City. Then come east to the territories and, well, here he was.”
“Ben give him the bunk next to mine and soon enough we was pards,” Harold went on to say. “Now I never been much for talkin’ but ol Billy, why he talked enuff for half a dozen men, which you might think was bad, but remember, in those days there weren’t no radios or television and them nights out on the prairie could be mighty lonesome, so no one minded. Billy didn’t have no mean bones and he could tell a good one.”
Harold shook his head, smiled a small smile and said, “Ya know, almost nobody could read and even if you could, weren’t much to read from, mebbe an old Leslie’s newspaper or the Police Gazette but soon enuff they was gone fer toilet paper. Ever one knew all those stories by heart cause them that could read, read ‘em aloud to the others, so a man who could string out a tale was as welcome as May.”
“No matter who he rode with he kept ‘em laughin’, always happy that boy. Purt soon this ‘ol mex from down to Durango way, Zarate somp’n or other, never could keep them messican names straight, they was all named ass backwards by my reckonin,’ Double barreled names the was. Anyhow, he was allus laughin’ an took to callin’ i’m “Perky,” being so damned happy and all, and it stuck. Perky Perkins, ain’t that a hell of a thing?”
“About them nicknames, most of the boys had ‘em. Hardly anyone used more’n one anyhow. First or last or some made up one was good enuff for us. We’us all young ya know. Cowboyin ain’t no life for an ‘ol man anyhow, too tough. Why there’s hardly a man ever forked a horse, don’t have a broken bone and sure as hell, ain’t no money innit. Better know your business too. A horse can kick like the devil and bite like an allygator. Stomp your boot til your toes are a mash. People now don’t appreciate how much better a car is. Cowboyin’ tho, best damn life there is.”
“That Zarate feller give me my name too. See we had this ‘ol dog name of Bobby, yep, ‘ol Bobby Dog, he was a character too. Damndest smartest dog I ever knew. He took a special likin’ to me right off and when he see me he’d start to barking and running in circles. First one way then ‘tother. Happened ever time. Don’t know why but he did. So ol’ Zarate, he commented to calling’ me Ruff, seein’ how the dog always barked after me. Just some ol’ thing like that and you had a name.
In the summer that dog live under the bunk house. He had some hollows he dug around the ranch buildings too, where he’d lie during the heat of the day, he’d move aroun’ from one to the other with the sun and in the winter he slept inside with us. Now Bobby had one particular habit, he liked to ride horseback. Yep, horseback. He’d a come runnin’ from wherever he was hidin’ and just leap up on the hindquarters of one of the horses he liked just as proud as if he was the King of England. I had this Morgan crossed with an injun pony name of “Wonder.” Boss said they found ‘im the winter of ’11, just a colt, bought froze to death. They took him in the barn and bottle fed ‘im and darned if he didn’ make it. It was a wonder, they said, thats how he got his name, Wonder.” We’d be up before dawn and I’d go down and catch up Wonder, saddle ‘im and lead him up to the hitch rail before breakfast. When I come out, there’d be Bobby Dog a sittin’ on Wonder’s croup, ready to go to work. Ruff, Wonder and Bobby Dog, what a team we was.”
About horses, Harold said, “Them ‘ol ponies was pretty tough too. They’s a mix of all kind of horse. Some Indian, mebbe mix with other breeds sometime, mebbe not. Them plains Indians knew horses and really bred ‘em up for runnin’ the prairie. Ours could work all day and live on jus’ grass, why they never saw a speck grain in all their days. The best knew cattle too, learned to think like ‘em. Some so good you could show off a little and take the bridle off and the horse could still cut out a steer. People think a horse ain’t too smart, but they’d be dead wrong. Real smart they was.”
Harold told me, “The old days of cowboyin’ were gone of course, most of the range was fenced in by then, the big cattle drive was done in the 70’s and won’t see anything like that ever again. We only lived outdoors during roundup in the spring and fall, tho that hadn’t changed much. Still sleepin’ on the ground and eatin’ chuck; beans, beef and ifn’ we were lucky, a pickle for a treat. The cook, we always called ‘im Sally was an ol’ broke down puncher by the name of Jimmy Blue but he knew his business around the wagon. He rustled up there squares a day off the back of that ‘ol wagon and keep us fed. I’ll tell you though, them cooks your mother-in-law hires for this home can’t hold a candle to ol” Sally, why he made sourdough biscuits, we called ‘em Dough Gods, they’d rise up two three inches high, they would, and you could dip ‘im in your beef steak an sop up the gravy. Harold paused a bit, then said, Somethings you never forget or lose a taste for.”
“Now, ol’ Sally was a real joker, allus up to some kinda mischief. We had to keep on our toes in the cow camp ‘cus you never knowed what he might do. That spring we was camped along the Salt Fork of the Arkansas river and riding the scrub and washes a rootin’ our any beef we could find. After winter they was scattered far and wide across this big pastures and we’d be up ‘fore dawn and out of camp near the whole day. A man could get real tired.” Harold continued with a laugh, “Seems Sally took a pack mule down near the river to scout up some deadfalll wood for the cookin’ fires and come upon one of the boys a lying right next to the water where it was nice and cool. He were havin’ a nice little nap, sombrero down over his eyes, boots off, his feet coolin’ in the water. So Sally figures he’d give ‘em a little surprise. He looked around under them big ol’ Bur Oaks a growin’ there and found hisself a broken branch about five feet long. He picked ‘er up and carried it down to the water and put ‘er in right by the cowboys feet. He let her go and she quick like floated down stream and jus’ before she touched a foot he hollered out, loud as he could; “Allygator.” That cowboy felt that thing touch his foot and rose up of the groun’ like he had springs. Before you could Jack Robinson, he had forked his horse and was goin’ hell for leather across the prairie, no sombrero, no boots and a hollering’ like a she coyote at a full moon. Ol’ Sally fell in the river he was laughn’ so hard. Got hisself soakin’ wet, somepin he didn’t much like but he said it was worth it.”
Harold was laughin’ himself, recallin’ scene, said, “From then on the ol’ boy was “Gator. I don’t to this day recall his real name, he was just Gator from then on.”
Harold went on, “ Part of the cowboy way in them days was your business, where you come from, what you did was private. You could call yourself any name you want. Most cowpokes went by the first name. Didn’t here many last. Nicknames all over the place like Gator, Perky, Sally and such, names you don’t hear much no more. Had a boy named Poinsett, one of my bunnies was name Monroe Teeple, can’t say why but we called ‘em Dunk.’Nother boy name of Shade ‘cause he was a darn good poker player. See, we knew the game was jus’ temporary and sometime we’d all move on. Pretty hard goin’ ifn you wanted to cowboy for life.
Harold explained, “Fall round-up of 1914 we rode with punchers from the Miller brothers who owned the 101 ranch over near Ponca City. Those Millers were interesting men. They ran the ranch, had a travelin’ wild west show and oil wells to boot.”
Well, we was out ‘bout a month, we had to rustle up beeves spread all over those ranches, somewhere near 195,000. acres, thats put neer 300 square miles.” See, all the outfits in a section of prairie joined up together, might could be fifty or a hunnert men in the big cow camp. Buncha chuck wagons, cooks and boys tendin’ the pony herds. It were a real operation, gettin’ all that work done.
“So, while we was on roundup we got to knowed some new fellers from the 101. This old indian boy name a Got Dog Pollard from over to the Osage was one. He was as tough as a old skinned down bone, tall and so thin, when he turn sideway, couldn’t see ‘em at all. Had that back hair, shiny like a crows wing. Never showed much of a expression like Injun’s will do, spent most of his time just watchin’ like he got a secret he won’t tell. Mebbe hid did. Indians ways are way different then the white mans.
“Now my ma was injun and so was his, Pawnee says he, and he’d growned up out thar on the Cherokee Strip where it’s either too damn hot or too damn cold. Could read and write real good tho, ya see he went to that Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School in Pennsylvania. Got Dog said the motto of the school was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” and they surely tried that.
Harold told me, “It was all about the couldn’ts and shouldn’ts The students were forbidden to speak their native languages, ever. They must always wear the uniform, nothing to be worn that was of a personal nature. They took his moccasins and forced ‘im to wear tight shoes and tight clothes. Said he allies felt like he was in a sack. Cut his hair down to the skin too. They tried to make us into white men, they even give ‘im a white man name, Tried to call me Gerald but he allus whispered his real name to himself so he wouldn’t forget.”
Harold told me that they brought little kids from the reservations in handcuffs. He said, “They just took ‘em away from they families, didn’t care what they thought. The idea was to stamp the Injun right outta them. They had a cemetery there where they buried the little ones who died of white man’s disease. Buried you in a white man hole too. Their little spirits got to wander forever now. Can’t never be at peace.
He told me Got Dog said, “White Man didn’t see us. Didn’t want to. We was quiet, we watched, we spoke quietly, we never tried to stand out, we wanted to be one with the earth.” Harold went on, “White man walked with noise, not quiet. He spoke like thunder speaks. He wanted to tear the Indian out of use, but he was wrong. We were strong. We disappeared where he couldn’t see us, he saw only what he wanted to see. You see, the white man is arrogant, he wants every thing for himself. If you won’t give it to him he just takes it.”
Damned if he couldn’t do things on that prairie ya could hardly believe. He could see a beeve where no one else could and he showed me how hit was done. Ya see, ya never look right directly at a thing cause you cain’t see it, you look off to the side where your side vision will pick it up. He showed me how to suck a little rock to keep the thirst away and which berries and plants ya could eat to keep yor belly from growling’ up at ya.” He smiled at the memory and went on, “Got Dog was a helluva cowboy, I never seed a man could ride like that and I could fork a horse pretty good mysef. He said the Pawnee was so tough ‘cause they was allus fighting’ the Commanche and the Cheyenne to keep their territory. Said his band was the Skidi, which meant wolf. He kinda looked like one too, long nosed and them eyes never looked straight back at ya the way a wolf dog does. He walked real quiet too, hardly disturbed the air around ‘im. Turned out his pa was with the Rough Riders in Cuba, same as mine, planted the first flag on top of Kettle Hill. I guess his pa talked more’n mine about that fight ‘cause he said them black sojers of the 10th cavalry did the toughest fightin’ over on San Juan Heights but Colonel Roosevelt got all the credits. Ain’t it always the same, black, red , brown does the work and white and rich gets the goods. I could see the Got Dog was just like me, poor, not well edjicated, no prospects ,but, just the same, tougher than nails.”
“We had one other hand out there that showed us a trick I never seed afore either. His name was Bill Pickett and he rode for the 101. He was an older fella, had kinda a dark and dusky complexion and wasn’t too tall. He had those squint eyes old timers get, a long nose and a big wide mouth which he shaded with a mustache. He coulda’ passed for maybe a cross between a chink and a white man, ‘cept a course he was blacker than the ace of spades. But he could cowboy all right, he was, sure enuff a top hand. He had this trick he would do when he was a chasin’ a steer, he’d ride right alongside the head and then just lean on down, grab ‘em by the horns and a start a twistin’ they neck, then he’d bite ‘em on the lip and, why lickety-split they’d be throwed and ready for the iron. Hell of a thing to see. ‘Ol Bill called it bulldogging, said that was what them old bull dogs did was bite ‘em on the lip and hold on ’til they dropped. He could do all kinda fancy tricks on his hoss account a he used to ride for the Miller Brothers Wild West show.” He was home with us because the British confiscated all the stock and wagons in 1914 on account of the war and they all had came home.
“Ben Johnson and ‘Ol Bill chivvied us boys into Ponca City one night just after round-up was over, said they’d a big surprise for us on account of we was all a buncha’ hayseeds an didn’t know nothin bout nothin. Said they was gonna see we got our ashes hauled, git a little drunk too and then we’d see a real treat. You gotta remember Mike, I was mebbe sixteen or thereabouts and where I come from they was ‘nuthin but work, no town to speak of, jest some old ‘dobe’s scattered about, hit hardly qualifyied for a name. I was sure enuff plumb green, from the top to the bottom. Sloat, Perky and Shade weren’t no better off neither. Sounded good to us so we lit out with the two stud ducks figuring’ on havin’ a hell of a good time.”
“We was all damn fools,” Harold laughed, “ but we figured we’d see somethin’ new so we put on our best duds, that big ‘ol Stetson hat we kept for occasions, shined up our boots, tucked in our trousers and polished our spurs up. Cleaned all the mud off the jingle bobs and figured we was goin’ to be the delite of all the young gals we saw. Don’t know what we thought was goin’ to happen but we was sure a hopin.’ See, most people think workin’ the range is glamorous and romantic, ridin’ the purple sage and all but it hain’t. It’s dirty, mostly boring and generally you hurt all over. Buildin’ fence, digging out the tanks, haying and brandin’ is just hard work and its six days a week, not much pay and damn little excitement. So a little trip to town was something special.”
“They rode us in, in one of Mr Millers automobiles. It was that old car they rode ol’ Geronimo on in 1905. It was a Loco mobile and it shore was a fittin’ name. It had been rode hard, carpet tore up from too many spurs, bumps and dents everywhere, only fit for cowboys on the lookout, if you know what I mean.”
He continued, “Now that old injun couldn’t drive no how and it weren’t ever his car. He was prisoner at Fort Sill and they only trotted him out when when they wanted to show him off, like he was from a zoo. They give him a white man suit with a boiled shirt and put a top hat on his coconut and took his picture with some other old chiefs. Made ‘im look like an old fool. In his day he was a rough old cobb and he’d kill a white man for the fun of it but when they were ridin’ him in that damn car, he was jus’ a tired ol’ man waitin’ to die. Die he did too. Fell of his horse in ’09 and it kilt him. Them Chirachaua Apache lived in the mountains and did most of their work on foot so I guess he never learned to ride so good. Legend won’t save ya in the end.”
He continued, “That car didn’t have no top and bounce’d worse’n a spring wagon on a bad road. First one I ever rode in too. Purple it was, black on the fenders, tarnished brass everywhere else, we was riding’ high wide and handsome for certain.”
“Didn’t matter none to us though, we was headed to the big city and we was goin’ to whoop it up.”