The Story of the Cowpuncher

                                             The Story of the Cowpuncher


                                                            CM Russell 

Speakin’ of cowpunchers,” says Rawhide Rawlins, “I’m glad to see in the last few years that them that know the business have been writin’ about ‘em. It begin to look like they’d be wiped out without a history. Up to a few years ago there’s mighty little known about cows and cow  people. It was sure amusin’ to read some of them old stories about cowpunchin’. You’d think puncher growed horns and was haired over. 

“It put me in mind of the eastern girl that asks her mother: “Ma,” says she, “do cowboys eat grass? “No, dear,” she says the old lady, “they’re part human,” an’ I don’t know but the old gal had’em, sized up right. If they are human, they’re a separate species. I’m talkin’ about the old-time ones, before the country’s strung with wire and nesters had grabbed all the water, an’ a cowpuncher's  home was big. It wasn’t where he took his hat off, but where he spread his blankets. He ranged from Mexico to the Big Bow River of the north, an’ from where the trees get scarce in the east to the old Pacific. He don’t need no iron hoss, but covers his country on one that eats grass an’ wears hair. All the tools he needed was saddle, bridle, quirt, hackamore, n’rawhide riatta or searass rope; that covered his hoss.

“The puncher himself was rigged, startin’ at the top, with a good hat—not one of the floppy kind you see in pictures, with the rim turned up in front. The top-cover he wears holds its shape and was made to protect his face from the weather; maybe to hold it on he wore a buckskin string under the chin or back of the head. Round his neck a big silk handkerchief, tied loose, an’ in the drag of a trail herd it was drawn over the face to the eyes, hold-up fashion, to protect the nose an’ throat from dust. In old times, a leather blab or mask was used the same.  Coat, vest, an’ shirt suits his own taste.  Maybe he’d wear California pants, light buck skin in color, with large brown plaid, sometimes foxed, or what you’d call reinforced with buck or antelope skin. Over these came his his chaparejos or leggin’s. His feet were covered with good high—heeled boots, finished off with spurs of Spanish pattern. His weapon’s usually a forty—five Colt’s six—gun, which is parked in a belt, swingin’ a little below his right hip. Sometimes a Winchester in a scabbard, slung to his saddle under his stirrup-leather, either right or left side, but generally left, stock forward, lock down, as his rope hangs at his saddle-fork on the right.

By all I can find out from old, gray-headed punchers, the cow business started in California, an’ the Spaniards were the first to burn marks on their cattle an’ hosses, an use the rope. Then men from the states drifted west to Texas, pickin’ up the brandin’ iron an’ lass-rope, and the business spread north, east, and’ west, till the spotted long-horns walked in every trail marked out by their brown cousins, the buffalo. 

“Texas an’ California, bein’ the startin’ places, made two species of cowpunchers; those west of the Rockies rangin’ north, usin’ centerfire of single-cinch saddles, with high fork and cantle; packed a sixty or sixty-five foot rawhide rope, n’swung a big loop.These cow people were generally strong on pretty, usin’ plenty of hoss jewelry, silver-mounted spurs, bits, and conchas; instead of a quirt, used a romal, or quirt braided to the end of the reins. Their saddles were full stamped, with from twenty-four to twenty-eight inch eagle-bill tapaderos.  Their chaparejos were made of fur or hair, either bear, angora goat, or hair sealskin. These fellows were sure fancy and called themselves buccaroos, coming from the Spanish word, vaquero. 

The cowpuncher east of the Rockies originated in Texas and ranged north to the Big Bow. He wasn’t so much for the pretty; his saddle was low horn, rimfire, or double-cinch; sometimes ‘macheer.’  Their rope was seldom over forty feet, for being a good deal in a brush country, they were forced to swing a small loop. These men generally tied, instead of taking their dallie-welts, or wrappingg their rope around the saddle horn, Their chaparejos were made of heavy bull hide, to protect the leg from brush an’ thorns, with hog-snout tapaderos. 

“Cowpunchers were mighty particular about their rig, an’  in all the camps you’d find a fashion leader. From a cowpuncher’s idea, these fellers was sure good to look at, an’ I tell you right now, there ain’t no prettier sight for my eyes than of of those good-lookin’, long-backed cowpunchers, sittin’ up on a high-forked, full-stamped California saddle with a live hoss between his legs. 

“Of course a good many of the fancy men were more ornamental than useful, but one of the best cow-hands I ever knew belonged to this class. Down on the Gray Bull, he went under the name of Mason, but most punchers called him Pretty Shadow. This sounds like an Injun name, but it ain’t. It comes from a habit some punchers has of ridin’ along, lookin’ at their shadows. Lookin’ glasses are scare in cow outfits, so the only chance for these pretty boys to admire themselves is on bright, sunshiny days. Mason’s one of these kind that doesn’t get much pleasure of of life in cloudy weather. His hat was the best; his boots was made to order, with extra long heels. He rode a center-fire, full-stamped saddle, with twenty-eight inch tapaderos; bearskin ancaroes, or saddle pockets; his chaparejos were of the same skin. He packed a sixty-five foot rawhide. His spurs an’ bit were silver inlaid, the last bein’ a Spanish spade. But the gaudiest part of his regalia was his gun. It’s a forty-five Colt, silver-plated an’ chased with gold, Her handle is pearl, with a bull’s head carved on. 

“When the sun hits Mason with all this silver on, he blazes up like some big piece of jewelry. You could see him for miles when he’s ridin’ high country. Barrin’ Mexicans, he’s the fanciest cow dog I ever see, an’ don’t think he don’t savvy the cow. He know what she says to her calf. Of course there wasn’t many of his stripe. All punchers liked good rigs, but plainer; an’ as most punchers ‘re fond of gamblin’ an’ spend their spare time at stud poker or monte, they can’t tell what kind of a rig they’ll be ridin’ the next day. I’ve seen many a good rig lost over a blanket. It depends how lucky the cards fall what kind of a rig a man’s ridin’. 

“I’m talkin’ about old times, when cowmen were in their glory. They lived different , talked different, an’ had different ways. No matter where you met him, or how he’s rigged, if you’d watch hi close he’d do something that would tip his hand. I had a little experience back in 83’ that’ll show what I’m gettin’ at.

“I was winterin’ in Cheyenne.  One night a stranger stakes me to buck the bank. I got off lucky an’ cash in fifteen hundred dollars. Of course I cut the money in two with my friend, but it leaves  me with the biggest roll I ever backed. All this wealth makes Cheyenne look small, and’ so I  begin longin’ for bigger camps, so I drift for Chicago. The minute I hit the burg, I shed my cow garments an’ get into white man’s harness. A hard hat, boiled shirt, laced shoes—all the gearin’ known to civilized man. When I get on all this rig, I sure look human; that is I think so. But them shorthorns know me , and by the way they trim that roll, it links like somebody’s pinned a card on my back with the word “EASY” in big letters. I ain’t been here a week till my roll don’t need no string around it, and I start thinkin’ about home. One evenin’ I throw in with the friendliest feller I ever met. It was at the bar of the hotel where I’m camped, I don’t just remember how we got acquainted, but after about fifteen drinks we start holdin' hands and seein' who could buy the most and fastest. I rememberer him tellin’ the barslave not to take my money, ‘cause I’m his friend. Afterwards, I find out the reason for this good hearted tenderness; he wants it all an’ hates to see me waste it. Finally, he starts to show me the town an’ says it won't cost me a cent. Maybe he did, but I was unconscious, an’ wasn’t in shape to remember. Next day, when I come to, my hair’s sore an’ I didn’t know the days of the week, month, or what year it was.

“The first thing I do when I open my eyes is to look at the winders. There’s no bars on ‘em, and I feel easier. I’m in a small room with two bunks. The one opposite me holds a feller that’s smokin’ a cigarette an’ sizin’ me up between whiffs while I’m dressin’. I go through myself but I’m too late. Somebody beat me to it. I’m lacin’ my shoes an’ thinkin’ hard, when this stranger speaks: “Neighbor, you’re a long from your range.” 

“You call the turn,” says I, “But how did you read my iron?”

“I didn’t see a burn on you,” says he, an’ from looks you’ll go as a slick-ear. It’s your ways, while I am layin’ here watchin’ you get into your garments. Now, humans dress up an’ punchers dress down. When you raised, the first thing you put on is your hat. Another thing that shows you up is you don’t shed your shirt when you bed down. So next comes your vest an’ coat, keepin’ your hindquarters covered till you slide into your pants, an’ now you’re lacin’ your shoes. I notice you done all of it without quittin’ the blankets, like the ground’s cold. I don’t know what state or territory you hail from, but you’ve smelt sagebrush an’ drank alkali. I heap savvy you. You’ve slept a whole lot with nothin’ but the sky over your head, an’ there’s times when that old roof leaks, but judgin’ from appearances, you wouldn’t mind a little open air right now.”

This feller’s my kind, an’ he stakes me with enough to get back to the cow country. 



Leave a comment