Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
One fine day, after exhausting my meager means and concluding that my hopes of being struck by financial lightning were as ungrounded as Ben Frankin’s kite, I found myself yielding to exigency.
“Exigency”, as far as I can tell, is from a Latin word meaning “out of money again”. So for exigent reasons, I hired out to work as a cowboy on a cattle ranch up near the California-Oregon border. Caught a ride with the boss out to the spread, put my gear in the bunkhouse, and went to work. I was eighteen.
Figure 1. This is not the cowboy you are looking for.
Now cowboy movies, and folks like Gene Autry, and dime-store novels, and bad TV shows, have convinced recent generations of Americans that cowboying is some kind of romantic deal. They imagine babes on horseback in checked shirts with bandannas around their necks, and lots of riding and roping cows and shooting rustlers. Which only proves that recent generations of Americans have mostly not been cowboys. Cowboying does have those things sometimes, but most of the time you’re not on a horse following the chuck wagon, or singing songs around a campfire. Most of a cowboy’s time on a cattle ranch is not on a horse at all. Instead, it is spent fixing fences and ditches and roads and buildings and the like. You start at the top of a long irrigation ditch with a shovel, work your way to the bottom clearing out a month’s worth of silt and twigs and grass and leaves, in an on-again, off-again rain. Or maybe you start at the bottom corner of the pasture and walk the four-mile fence line around the section with a fencing tool and a bag of staples and a sandwich in your pocket, deep in the brush in the crushing summer heat, where no breeze penetrates. Half the time wet, the other half dusty, and the remainder just resting up for tomorrow. Before dawn until after dark, live in the bunkhouse with a bunch of guys that smell like … well … just about like you might expect cowboys to smell who view bathing as a somewhat unproven modern notion … no, cowboying is not real heavy on the romantic …
The old man who lived in the bunkhouse with us half dozen younger cowhands was romantic, though. Born around 1880, he wasn’t sure of the date. When he was a kid, his parents had moved from Sacramento to work on that ranch on the border. They had come by Conestoga covered wagon, 240 miles (400 km) to the new ranch. When he was a kid, the final war of all the tragic, senseless wars between the Early Asian Immigrants and the Later Melanin-Deficient Immigrants was going on not far away from the ranch, the “Modoc Wars”, at Captain Jack’s Stronghold, a crushing defeat for a noble man and his mostly overlooked people … but I digress, what I’m trying to say is that he was one of the last of that faraway time of the real cowboys and Indians …
The old man been a cowboy all his life on that ranch. When the new owners had bought the ranch five years before, part of the deal was the old man was put out to pasture in the bunkhouse. It was his domain until he died, he ate in the ranch house with everyone else.
Us young bucks all idolized the man, of course. I’d brought my guitar with me, it went where I went in those days. We’d sit in the evenings and sip whiskey and exaggerate our deeds. I didn’t have any to exaggerate, but the older men did. One night I was singing some old cowboy songs. The old man liked those. I started to sing “The Old Chisholm Trail”, about the trail first used by Jesse Chisholm right after the Civil War to drive herds of cattle from Texas to the railhead in Kansas. I bravely stepped in …
“I started up the trail October twenty-third
Started up the trail with the “2-U” herd
Come a ky-yi-yippie-yippie-i-yippie-a
Come a ky-yi-yippie-yippie-a”
That went well. Then I started the next verse, which also passed without comment. I hit my stride on the third verse, I’d gotten as far as:
“I woke one morning on the Old Chisholm Trail
A rope in my hand and a cow by the tail
Come a ky-yi …
when the old man interrupted me. “Is that the way you city boys sing it?” he demanded. “You call that a Gah-dam cowboy song? Here’s how we sang it in my time, gimme that git-tar”, he said. He grabbed the guitar and started singing:
“I woke one morning on the Old Chisholm Trail
My —— in my hand and a cow by the tail,
Come a ky-yi yippee …
Without a pause, he went on from there for verse after verse, the most presentable of which was
“Got a letter from home said my girl was dyin’
I started back to Texas just a sh*ttin’ and a flyin’,
Come a ky-yi-yippie- …
As the old man sang, each new verse detailed another page of the cowboy’s improbable voyage along the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Kansas, which was a sequence of increasingly unlikely and anatomically doubtful accounts of said cowboy’s sexual congress with a host of shady characters including a horse, a rattlesnake in a pile of sticks, and an old woman who gave him nothin’ but hell. And a social disease. If my memory serves me correctly, it concluded with several verses about his ending up in what would now be termed a “long-term relationship” with a cow, and what the cow did when she caught him “puttin’ on airs” with a buffalo who “was no better than she should be”, but by then we were laughing too hard for me to remember much of anything. He sang away like the Arkansas Fiddler, watching us fall about laughing and sporting an idiot’s grin, the man didn’t have a tooth in his jaw or a care in his head, and when we’d all got our breath back, he handed me the guitar and said “Now, that’s a Gah-dam cowboy song, sonny boy, don’t gimme none of that watered-down stuff” and wandered off to bed.
Anyhow, at least that’s the version that makes the most sense out of how I ended up on another cattle drive. Other, less-favorable accounts bandied about in some quarters are far less probable, and besides, it wasn’t me. And that’s how early one morning I found myself rolling out with the boys at four am, breakfast in the ranch house with the foreman, drinking coffee from the big tin pot. Then out by four thirty to where the remuda was gathered, and we chose out the horses we’d ride. We were going to gather the scattered bunches of cattle from where they were hiding in the lower hills, and drive them to the summer range, moving them on horseback over two days, up the brush-covered foothills to the pastures at the mountain’s foot.
I didn’t have any leather chaps to protect my legs, I figured I could fake it, but in the morning when I was getting ready, the old man gave me his chaps to use. I was glad, I knew the brush would be thick. He pulled me aside, and showed me that on the inside of the chaps he’d stitched a pocket made out of blue jeans denim. It had a flap that closed with a string to keep the contents from falling out while riding. He opened it to show me a metal flask of whiskey he’d stashed in there for me. “Don’t tell the foreman”, he said with a wink, “he don’t know I drinks a little. It’s just for the cold mornings, don’t waste it.” I felt honored and proud to be the bearer of his secret, and I swore I’d keep the faith.
When us boys were all saddled and ready to go, the foreman came out and mounted up, and we headed towards the foothills where the cows would be found. As soon as we were out of sight of the ranch house and the old man, the foreman rode up beside me … “I see the old man give you them damn whiskey chaps of his”, he said … “Now, how about a drink for good luck?” and the boys all laughed. I handed the flask over, I hadn’t even opened it yet, it went once ’round the boys. When it came back, I swallowed the three remaining drops that were obviously meant to be my portion, enjoyed the burn at the back of my throat, put the empty flask back in its extremely secret pocket, and the cattle drive was underway.
Contrary to popular rumor, cattle drives are mostly dust and boredom. Young guys get the worst job, to ride what we called “drag”, trailing behind the back of the herd, chivvying the strays forwards. That means you eat the herd’s dust all day, a fine dust, you wear a bandanna to breathe through, it creeps into every crack and crevice of your body and lodges in the corners of your eyes . The only excitement was the cows who occasionally decided to make a break for it. Then one or two of us would ride full speed to get them back. We were moving constantly uphill through a fairly narrow valley, steep ravines branching off on both sides. Cattle liked to hide in there. We went down and up the sides of the hills bringing them back. For this kind of work we had the saddles rigged fore and aft, with straps around the front and around the back of the horse so the saddle couldn’t slip either direction in the steep terrain.
Given a choice, cattle will always take the worst path, and when I was working a couple of runaway steers back to the herd, they bolted up a steep ravine underneath a bunch of low-hanging brush, too low and thick for me to ride under or through. By the time I found a deer trail halfway up one hillside to follow them, they were far ahead, out of earshot. I followed them slowly, working up the ravine along the trail, halfway up the lefthand slope, with the hill on my left, and the dropoff to the ravine and the far hillside on my right. Not a place for a horse to step wrong, we moved easy.
As I rode along in silence, I heard a ground-squirrel give an alarm whistle, the kind of whistle that sounds almost like a scream, the whistle one of them gives give to warn the other ground-squirrels of danger, with different calls for different kinds of danger. I looked down and across to the other side of the ravine. A ground-squirrel was in full flight for its burrow, it had heard the message from the sentry, he was streaking silently for home across a bare patch on the far hillside. He was about at the same elevation I was, with the deep ravine between us, I was looking right at him on the far hillside. At first I couldn’t see why the alarm had been raised, but when I saw my horse turn his head the funny way they do when they look upwards I realized a small hawk was diving on the squirrel, the horse saw it first. Entranced, I stopped to watch, my horse didn’t complain, he was watching too.
The animals all speak a common tongue, what some call “bird language”, a metaphorical term for the transmission of information by tone and intensity, by the presence and absence of the background noises, by all of the various calls and shouts and grunts and whistles and screams that animals make, by smells in all their varieties of meaning, by silences in a hundred different forms and substance, the silence of surprise, the silence of alarm, the silence of contentment. And the ripples of the bird language roll outwards in circles, one bird squawks funny, a squirrel down the way chitters the message, the woodpecker on the far side of the hill stops to listen … bird language links all of the forest dwellers throughout the course of their lives, they swim in it, they listen to each others warnings and see who shows up, it’s how news gets around in the forest. And even the domesticated horse knew that was a warning of danger falling from above … all horses have an instinctive fear of airborne danger from big cats dropping on them out of trees, they do not like danger from the air, he got the message, he saw it first. And we both stayed silently, mesmerized.
I thought the squirrel would make it, you know how you root for the underdog, he sprinted in silence, but just before he got to the burrow, the hawk struck it, and to my great surprise he snagged that squirrel right off the ground on the fly, using that snatching stroke with the X-shaped talons, the clamping cruel talons that pull closed automatically when weight is on them so the hawk can just relax and let the prey hang and save every bit of energy to gain elevation.
When the hawk hit, that ground squirrel screamed, not the scream of warning I’d heard before, more a scream of anger, the frightened fury of any creature cornered and caught, even the worm turns, and the squirrel was turning and screaming and clawing at the hawk, but he was in the implacable, inexorable jaws of the talons. After catching him on the wing, the hawk first dropped deeper into the ravine below me to pick up speed, straining under the extra weight. In between the squirrel’s screams, I could hear each labored oar-stroke of the hawk’s wings, the wind whispering through the feathers as it pulled with all its might, first to stop losing altitude, then to hold altitude, and then finally to start to rise.
Rising, sweating hard for each additional cubit of altitude, the hawk rose above my elevation up on the hillside, and slowly toiled on higher and higher. The squirrel’s screams weakened, and then stopped. The hawk had caught a thermal, it had circled back over my head, not far above. The silence of the ground squirrel was ricocheting off of the corners of my brain, every creature heard it and knew it of old, the silence of an animal too far gone to even scream. I shook my head. The sun was hot, the flies had congregated without my noticing. A warm, earthy smell of spring, of things born while others were dying, oozed out of the brush on the slope.
I was getting ready to move when I heard another scream, but this one didn’t come from the opposite hillside, it came from high above. The horse shuffled uneasily and tilted its head, searching.
I looked up again, and from the corner of my eye I caught a big red-tailed hawk, stooping on the small hawk. Red-tails are a good-sized, big-chested bird, much larger than the small hawk. The red-tail was in a power dive, and as it neared the small hawk it screamed, that raging keening triumphant scream of the successful hunter when the kill is in sight. Every living creature within earshot felt it, that vocal harbinger of aerial death blasted through their earbones and raged up and down every spinal telegraph, even a young fool like myself didn’t need a translator for that bit of bird language … and neither did the small hawk, it snapped a quick look over its shoulder and called for all speed on the main engines …
But the extra horsepower didn’t help, the red-tail knew its business, it came fast in from high and behind, and flared its wings. The small hawk had been watching and calculating the angles, and when it saw there was no chance it did what the red tail knew it would do—it dropped the squirrel and fled.
And the silence shivered and fled as well, as the squirrel screamed, a new scream, not a scream of warning, nor of rage and defiance, but a scream of terror beyond endurance, the grating, piercing sound of the squirrel’s mental gears stripping as it fell toward the earth far below, getting louder and louder as it neared me. I waited for the splat.
But the great red-tail just pointed its beak straight toward the ground, and it took two or three breath-giving, sky-grabbing sweeps of its wings to drive it straight downwards, then it folded its wings and rocketed towards the earth in silence, no scream, all business this time. The screaming squirrel and the hawk met in mid-air directly in front of me out over the ravine, just above the ground as the hawk spread its wings and stuck his feet straight out in front of him, I heard his talons as they struck the squirrel in midscream, right in front of me, with an almost hollow, deadened thump.
The squirrel died instantly, its lungs crushed, never to expand again.
The resulting burst of silence crashed over the hillside around me with a palpable absence of sound, and every creature echoed and deepened the silence, the silence rolled out in circular ripple, the distant voices of the forest stilled as the wave of silence whispered past them ’til it seemed the earth was listening, the afternoon heavy, even the flies droned low, they all knew that silence. The hawk was still losing altitude, approaching the ground. The hawk was dead silent as every other creature was dead silent because it was the silence of the dead and every being knew it, I could hear the wild air whistling through the hawk’s wings as it struggled to pull out of the dive, I could hear my horse breathing, my horse watched the hawk, I watched, all the I’s in the forest watched.
The red-tail just managed to pull up, barely in time, with the body of the dead squirrel skimming over the ground, and then slowly and majestically it rose to wing its powerful path towards a distant disappearance. It shifted its grip on the dead weight of the squirrel to hold it the streamlined way, fore and aft, picked up a thermal up along the ridge line, stopped moving its wings and glided regally into the far afternoon …
I watched him go in awe. The ravine was still quiet. I heard the cows up above us. The hawk dwindled against the hills, blueing into the distance. I looked after him, long and hard, my thoughts strangely unmoored …“C’mon, boy”, I finally said out loud to my horse, “let’s go find those cows”, and my voice was a geological anachronism after the silence of the bird language.
We found the steers, my equine friend and I, and disputed their path with them until they saw the logic of returning to the herd. So it was back to the dust, riding drag again, but I didn’t care, the wild joy of youth was upon me and I had hawks in my heart, the rest of the ride to the summer pasture was full of golden afternoon sunlight, I never saw the dust at all.
With the herd together on the summer pasture, we stayed in the bunkhouse up there and did the branding and the castration and the shots and the pills. I couldn’t do that now, I couldn’t use a red-hot branding iron to scar and mark a cow. No way. I’m a reformed cowboy now, at least somewhat reformed, the Betty Ford Clinic handles it for all the celebrity cowboys, they made a special exception in my case. I did most of the 12-step program, although I cannot deny periodically backsliding to my old cowboy ways after I left the Clinic, but they told me that’s what Lohan and Sheen and the big celebrities all do, so I guess it must be OK.
So I couldn’t do it now, but back then, no one thought anything much about branding and the like. We cut off the scrotums of the young bulls and castrated them and painted the wound purple with gentian violet, with no anesthetic, nothing. If the scrotum was variegated in color, say white and brown, those were prized. We stretched those over the horns of our saddles, and they shrunk into place when they dried and looked flash. Guys in the city put chrome hubcaps on their cars … we put multicolored bull scrotums on our saddle horns. Go figure, you got to be stylin’, you know, it’s the same everywhere.
When the work is mostly done, cowboy humor often came to the fore. For riding, everyone wore tight cowboy boots that usually needed a “bootjack” to get them off your feet, a board with a notch in it to hook your bootheel in. Sometimes the boys would give each other the “hotfoot”. Heat up a poker in the fire. Hide the bootjack. Lay the hot poker near another man’s boot when he’s not moving. By the time he feels it, the boot is really hot. He hops around on one foot, looking for the bootjack, and fairly stirring and discoloring the air with various warnings of what he will do to the man who hid the dang bootjack … everyone considers this to be high humor … cowboy humor.
Not long before the job was over, we were all sitting around on the wooden fence of an evening. A couple of the boys were roping the yearlings inside the fence, to give them shots. The corral was big, it contained a couple of trees. A yearling calf is strong. So if you can go on one side of a tree and the yearling goes on the other side and near to the tree, it winds itself round the tree until it runs out out of rope, and you can give it the shots.
One of the boys roped a calf and started for a tree to snub it. We were laughing and talking story, the whole drive was nearly done, none of us had noticed that the foreman’s young son, his only child, four years old, had gone inside the corral and was standing behind that very tree … except the foreman. He saw the danger immediately. There was no stopping the calf, the rope was assuredly going around the tree with a hundred pound calf going full speed, if it went under the boy’s chin it could kill his only son in an instant, snap his neck, choke his life out. He vaulted the fence and flung his body wildly forward. He arrived a half-instant beforehand and interposed himself between the child and the insidious rope …
And as the foreman knew it wouldn’t, the calf didn’t stop, no indeed, and before anyone could do anything, the calf had taken six or seven-teen turns around the tree and the foreman and the child between him and the tree, and had lashed him and his son very neatly to the tree in an upright posture. His son was barely scared, he was wondering what all the fuss was about. The calf looked unmoved. The foreman was turning the air blue with threats against … well … any and everything that would harm his son.
And once the shock had worn off, if that wasn’t the most sublime piece of cowboy humor any of us had ever seen. We dropped off the fence laughing and rolled on the ground. After the foreman stopped cussing, and we had cut loose the calf and unwound the rope, he started laughing too. Even his son joined in. Anyone seeing us, a bunch of grown men and a four-year-old boy laughing at the far-too-near-death-experience of a beloved child until the tears came, would doubt our sanity … but that’s just cowboy humor, and sometimes it works better than grief counseling to get you through the day.
Afterwards, we actually did sit around the fire, and after some coaxing the foreman and his wife sang “There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza”. They sang it without accompaniment of any kind. Their son was alive. The squirrel was dead. Somewhere in a range beyond human hearing, the hawk screamed again. The foreman’s wife sang the “Liza” part, and he sang the “Henry” part, she had a lovely alto voice and his was a growly baritone and even now, their voices blending in the final verse still sound strong, and full of life and laughter, they still ring true inside me, still rolling out past the soft remembered firelight of another time and echoing around my inner darkness.
Because even after almost half a century, somewhere inside I’m still eighteen and scratching a living on horseback in chaps, helping push a dusty, cranky herd of cattle to the upper range, with the brim of my cowboy hat shading a blinding bright summer view that stretches out well beyond next payday and leapfrogs my petty cares, a view from where we stood on the high summer range, overlooking the winter pastures far below, and on beyond the cities known and unknown, my young heart sailing away past the verdant, distant hills, careening towards an unknown brilliant future … and now, like the old cowboy with his idiot grin, I find myself wandering that same path still, with that same young heart and those same illusions and foolish dreams.
So I come to deliver to you this story of the diamonds and the dirt of being a cowboy, and to bring to you that far vision from over those same hills, the fabled hills where the grass actually is greener on the other side, and to bear witness to you of the distant refulgence of that unknown brilliant future glowing beyond the horizon and patiently waiting for your own raging, ranging, unchanging heart.
I bring all of that and more … and as an honest watchman and a far-from-disinterested observer, I must also bring the ever-new reminder of unavoidable plummeting death, that ravening bird who comes diving out of the sun, with pinions of flame and titanium talons, to silence all of our screams, and to release us at last from our foolish, futile fear of falling … I bring these these disremembered visions of a lost time for no reason other than for you to drift and dream on, my friends, the stories are the wings of our spirits.
… from Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …