Tales from a Texas Ranch from a City Boy with a Cowboy Hat
It was another one of those oven-hot mornings in West Texas.
When I got up from my bed in Vic and Ina Collett’s frame ranch house, rubbing the sleepiness from my eyes (I may have been 10ish or so), I wandered through the small living room in my Roy Rogers pajamas to the screened front porch to look at the thermometer – something I’d seen Vic do many times before when I had arisen earlier than I had this morning.
It was still dark. I didn’t know what time it was, but it was probably around 4:30, maybe 5 am – start time for West Texas ranch work.
I looked at the thermometer there, nailed to one of the posts inside the screened porch. It read 80 degrees. And although a breeze gusted a little outside, pushing the mesquite branches in the tree outside, I thought to myself, “uh oh. Not going to be a good day”.
“Ed!” hollered Vic from the kitchen where he held a cup of coffee while Ina, his wife, scurried about making a quick breakfast.
“Git your boots on!”
Well, Vic was god to me then, (and remains so today), so I dashed to my bedroom with no less alacrity than a scalded cat and was dressed in a flash, with boots and cowboy hat.
I was back in the kitchen with Vic and Ina in less than 5 minutes as Ina put a bowl of oatmeal, steaming hot, on the kitchen table for the both of us.
“Want some coffee?” offered Vic as he scraped the vinyl covered chair away from the table and sat down, as did I, across the table from Vic.
“No, but thank you,” I said. (My mother had taught me to be polite)
“Okay,” said Vic. “Eat up, we gotta be moving out in five minutes…the other cowboys will be here in ten minutes.”
“Do you have any milk?” I asked glancing sideways at Ina underneath the brim of my straw cowboy hat.
“I may have…” said Ina. “But only if’n you take that hat off in my house!”
“Uh oh,” I said to myself. “This isn’t going to be a good day. “
I knew better. My mother had trained me that once a man wearing a hat crosses the threshold of a dwelling, of any kind, is to remove his hat.
“Sorry,” I said, removing my hat.
Could swear Vic and Ina winked at one another.
Ina delivered a small glass of raw milk to my table setting.
I poured a small portion of it over my oatmeal, added a bit of sugar from the sugar jar and was done with the oatmeal in a wink, chasing it all down with the remainder of the raw milk, slapping the milk glass onto the table with a thud.
“Let’s go!” I said.
Both Vic and Ina burst out laughing.
Still chuckling a little, Vic said, “Git your hat…Vaminos!” And he strode out the screen door porch into the darkness beyond toward the little, ramshackle barn and corral.
As I grabbed my hat and raced after him, I looked over my shoulder at Ina, who stood there in the kitchen doorway in her calico dress and apron (she always seemed to be wearing that apron) with her arms crossed across her chest. She winked at me and grinned a big toothy grin and swept away a loose strand of her graying black hair that the wind had caught.
I made it down the two wooden steps outside the screened porch, trying to catch up with Vic and to the barn and corral about a hundred yards away, in the dark, and promptly tripped over a limestone rock and fell headlong, into the dusty dirt. Uh oh, this isn’t going be a good day.
Gathering myself up, I looked toward Vic, several yards ahead of me. He had stopped his stride to look back at me.
“Git up, boy,” he said. “Don’t have time for anymore yer philanderin’!”
He turned away and continued striding toward the little barn where several cowboys had already gathered in the now gray-but-still-dark morningness. I could hear the stomps of the horses and the muffled sound of their nosy snorts as the wind gusted a little (it was a hot wind) and blew dust all around.
Later, I came to know that the horses knew there was work to be done and were a tad edgy.
I raced after Vic and nearly ran into his backside as he stopped, raised a hand and said, “Mornin’ Jake, Roy.”
“Mornin’ boss,” they said almost in unison.
“Where’re the others?” asked Vic.
”Comin’ down the road now,” said one of the men, jerking his thumb over his shoulder.
Sure enough, two other riders approached from the east where the sun was rising, just below the horizon, trotting comfortably towards us.
“Who’s the boy?” asked one of the men, looking at me.
“Oh, that’s Ed,” said Vic. “His mother owns this ranch.”
The two cowboys said nothing, but looked at me appraisingly. Both were deeply sunburned. One had a moustache.
“Howdy, Ed,” said one (the one with the moustache), and extended his hand, “I’m Roy.”
I put my little hand into his big hand and squeezed tight…my father had taught me to make a firm handshake, so I did the best I could.
“This here’s Jake,” he said, gesturing toward Jake.
Jake and I shook hands. He didn’t say anything.
I looked at Roy. “Some people call me “Cotton,” I said, kind of proudly, trying my best to fit in.
(The coach of the Little League baseball team I played on in Houston had given me the moniker)
Vic just watched from a few feet away.
“How come they call you Cotton?” asked Roy, with a quick glance at Vic.
“Because of my hair!” and I swept off my straw cowboy hat with a flare.
I was blonde alright, real blonde, but my dad made me wear a crew cut, so there wasn’t all that much hair.
Roy and Jake burst out laughing, and Vic reached over to unlatch the little barn gate as the other riders approached. I couldn’t figure out what was so funny.
“Okay,” said Roy, “But since yer name is Ed, that’s what I’m callin’ ya!”
“Okay,” I said, putting my straw back on my head. The wind gusted again, almost blowing it off.
I looked at Vic. He pointed at Jake and said “Jake, go in here, get that little saddle and grab up Shorty for Ed. Show him how to saddle a horse. Jake, you also get him that old pair of chaps Juan’s boy used to wear…rig him up. Ed, you go with Jake.”
“Yes sir,” Jake and I said together.
About that moment, the other two cowboys arrived, reining up their mounts in the dark and amidst clouds of gritty dust, one of the horses snorting.
“Buenos dias, Senor Vic!” said one. They were both Mexican.
“Buenos dias, Juan… Rodrigo” said Vic, nodding to them both.
Juan was older, but not old; the other, Rodrigo, was younger, a teenager I thought.
He spoke to them both in Spanish, which I didn’t understand, but I could tell that Vic was giving them orders.
“Si, Mr. Vic,” said Juan. “See you at the gate.”
Juan and Rodrigo rode off.
“C’mon Ed,” said Jake, and we went into the dark little barn where one, small overhead light bulb barely illuminated the inside.
Jake first grabbed a flappy old leather thing, handed it to me and said, “Here, put these on.”
I stood there with that flappy old leather thing in my hands trying to figure out what it was.
Jake looked at me. “Damn, Ed! You ever did this afore?”
“No.” I was beginning to feel uncomfortable.
“Here,” he said. He took the old leather flappy thing, found a belt and buckle, spun me around by my shoulders, wrapped and buckled it around my little waist and showed me how to attach the rest of it down the back of my legs.
Then Jake grabbed a small saddle by the saddle horn and held it in one sunburned and gnarled hand and then a bridle hanging on a post.
“Snag that saddle blanket there,” pointing at a tattered red blanket, “and bring it along. We gotta hurry…time’s a’wastin.”
So, I grabbed the smelly blanket and followed Jake out a side door into the corral. I could barely see in the still-dark corral, where all the horses were.
Jake coaxed Shorty over, dropped the saddle and put the bridle on, murmuring, “Ya see what I’m doin’?”
‘Not really,” I said.
“Gimme that blanket,” he said, and when I did, he draped it over Shorty’s back, then threw the little saddle on it and cinched it up.
Got it?’ he asked.
“Not really.” I said.
“Never you mind. Let’s go!” he said, handing me Shorty’s reins and walking over to the corral gate which he pulled open and motioned me to go through.
I did, tugging on Shorty’s reins to make him follow me.
Roy and Vic were already mounted; Roy on a dun horse and Vic on a black stallion he was trying to train as he had told me the night before. Vic’s horse was all fidgety and wouldn’t stop moving around.
“Heft him up, Jake,” Vic ordered.
Jake moved over the Shorty’s left side, grabbed me and threw me into the saddle, handing me the reins as I slipped my feet into the stirrups. He then mounted his own gray spotted horse.
“Didya teach him how to saddle a horse?” Vic asked Jake.
“Not really.” he responded.
The sun wasn’t up yet but the east sky was full of light. And it was already hot, in spite of the gusting wind.
“Let’s go!” ordered Vic. And off we went, single file. Vic in the lead, Roy after him, me and Jake behind.
We trotted around Vic and Ina’s house and Ina stood in the doorway, a silhouette in front of the kitchen light behind her. She waved. I waved back.
I was in hog heaven. Bouncing up and down in the saddle as we trotted, trying to hold on with my knees like Vic had told me to do, with real cowboys in front and behind me.
I had visions of my TV cowboy heroes dancing through my mind.
Little did I know.
We’d been riding about 20 minutes, I didn’t know where to. I could hear Vic and Roy chatting with one another but couldn’t hear what they were saying.
I didn’t care. I was on an adventure.
Vic turned in his saddle and motioned to me. “C’mere, Ed,” he said loud enough for me to hear.
I nudged Shorty’s sides with my boot heels like Vic had taught me to do a couple of years ago. I didn’t yet have spurs like the others had.
Shorty responded and I pulled up alongside Vic, on his left side. He held his reins tightly in his left hand, keeping a tight rein on his horse, not like Roy or Jake, who held their reins loosely. Vic’s right arm dangled near his right hip.
Vic’s horse didn’t like Shorty’s sudden appearance nearby and lurched a little only to be met with a serious whack on the neck from Vic’s right hand and a strong word or two. Shorty jumped a little, which surprised me, but I still had control.
“How ya doin’?” asked Vic, as the first rays of the sun behind us started to paint the buttes and mesas around us.
“Fine!” I said. I think I was grinning.
“Good,” he said. “Remember my tellin’ you last night we were gonna gather today?”
“Yes sir,” I said. “Cattle!”
“Now Ed, we’re gittin’ close to the gate there for the Little Mountain Pasture,” he said looking over his shoulder at Roy who was close behind us and could hear what he was saying.
“I want you to stay close to me or Roy once we start moving them cows over to the catch pen. Don’t want ya going off alone, ya hear?” He was looking at me sternly.
“Yes sir!” I said.
“Remember, stay close to either me or Roy”
Yes sir!” I repeated.
Moments later we arrived at the gate, where Juan and Rodrigo waited.
It was open so the four of us rode right on through, followed by Rodrigo.
The five of us pulled up together while Vic gave orders and Juan, still on his horse, coaxing him this way and that, closed and shackled the gate.
I was amazed. How can you do that while on a horse’s back? I would have had to get off and do the same on foot.
The cows, several of which I could see in the brush as the sun rose, mooed and bellowed, apparently sensing something was out of the ordinary, for them.
“Let’s go!” said Vic. “Ed, you come with me.”
So, walking our horses, I followed Vic down the fence line to the right; Roy and Jake followed the fence line to the left; Juan and Rodrigo separated about 30 yards apart and rode down the middle.
Basically, we were all moving southward to drive the cattle to the catch pen a little less than a mile away near the center of the pasture where there was a windmill.
“We’ll drive ‘em from a west flank,” Vic explained, “while Roy and Jake will do the same from the east flank. Juan and Rodrigo will keep ‘em from comin’ back up the middle.”
Well, without going into any more detail, by about 9 o’clock, we had about 30 or 40 head of cattle clustered in the catch pen. Jake was manning the gate, opening it now and then to receive a straggler or two that Roy, Juan, Rodrigo, Vic and I found and drove to the pen.
Vic had been curt with his commands, telling me to take Shorty over there a few yards or over here a few yards as we worked a recalcitrant cow and calf toward the pen.
I was a tad confused but was getting the picture of what needed to be done. And Shorty had obviously done it before.
I was feeling a mighty proud of myself. I hadn’t fallen off the horse (although a couple of times I thought I might have); I was following Vic’s orders perfectly; and I was working like a real cowboy – cowboy hat, cowboy boots, chaps, atop a horse, in the middle of a pasture with the wind blowing and the sun rising – couldn’t get any better!
“Okay,” Vic hollered. “Think we got ‘em!”
He rode over to Jake and dismounted, saying something to Jake.
So, I joined Juan and Rodrigo and Roy and we started walking our horses toward the pen where Jake rested his arms over the gate about 30 yards away and Vic was counting cattle.
I was off to the far right when a calf leapt out of the brush and, at full tilt, headed to California.
“I’ll get him!” I shouted, and turned Shorty to the right and kicked him in his sides, just like a real cowboy.
“ED! Don’t!” I thought I heard Vic exclaim…. I think I heard that, I think…..
Shorty knew what he was doing, even if I didn’t.
The brush and mesquite were sparse in that part of the pasture as I galloped after the calf. Think I heard hollering behind me.
Shorty eased off to the right I think to turn the calf around to the left and back toward the pen. I was holding the reins and the saddle horn.
Yep, Shorty was in control.
“Uh oh…this isn’t going to be a good..” I was saying to myself.
Just then, the calf made a short cut to the right, almost under Shorty’s nose.
It was one of those zig-zag moments –
When Shorty zigged and I should have zigged with him, I zagged and found myself completely airborne, way up in the air and falling, falling to the earth into which I landed with a thud, vaguely aware of Shorty still chasing the calf.
Problem was, I had thudded into a prickly pear patch the size of a small swimming pool.
I lay there for a moment feeling a little less than comfortable.
I was a little dazed but it was the prickly feeling that hurt. Every time I ooched a bit, a thousand little pricks encouraged me not to move any more.
As I surveyed my situation, in the middle on the prickly pear patch, Juan and Rodrigo galloped up and reined hard, setting their horse on their haunches amid clouds of dust.
There they sat, atop their horses, gazing down at me with the sun behind them.
They glanced at one another, then back at me, and Rodrigo began to laugh uproariously.
Juan whacked him across his chest with his arm, not gently. Rodrigo stopped laughing.
As Juan dismounted, up rode Vic, Roy and Jake, reining hard, just like Juan and Rodrigo had done.
I didn’t move but I said “Hi…”
Roy and Jake put their hands over their upper lip and looked at the ground as they both rested their forearms on the saddle horns.
If they were laughing, they kept it well concealed.
As for Vic, well, he just said, “Had enough cowboyin’ for today, Ed?”
“Probly,” I squeaked.
“Dunno…don’t think so, but I can’t move.”
As Shorty wandered back to the group, dragging his reins, one of the broken cactus pads dripped its ooze on my cheek.
Rodrigo burst out laughing again, only to be stared down by Juan who was moving toward me through the cactus.
Well, as it happened next, Vic, Juan, Roy and Jake waded into the cactus patch grabbed me by the ankles and shoulders and lifted me straight up, out of the prickly pear, shuffled me over to clear ground and set me on my feet.
I was one unhappy camper. I had more cactus spines stuck in the back on my neck, back and the back sides of my legs than you could count.
Rodrigo still sat atop his horse, grinning, and Roy and Jake covered their upper lips again and turned the other direction.
Vic said, “You gonna go chasin’ after another calf like that anytime soon?”
“Don’t think so,” I squeaked.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s get you down to the windmill and start operatin’ on you.”
That was the longest walk I ever took…to this day. Every time I moved, I got pricked here and there and all over.
So, under the shade of a large mesquite tree by the water trough in the catch pen in a West Texas pasture on a hot summer day, stripped down to my underwear and cattle mooing all around, I underwent two hours of Vic and Juan, sometimes with pliers, pulling cactus spines out of my hide.
Didn’t cry, but I could have…not so much from the pain, but from embarrassment.
Turned out not to be such a good day. A year later, I plucked the last cactus spine from a festering pimple on my right calf. It was three-quarters on an inch long.
Vic and Juan? I would know and see for several years more. The others I never saw again. Juan never spoke of the incident, but Vic would tell me he had told the story more than once.