The Story of the Cowboy

"Adios Comrades" Charlie Russell

As It Was Told to Me By An Old Time Rider of the Range

I’m glad to see in the last few years that them that know the business have been writin’ about cowpunchers, remarked the old-time cowpuncher. It began 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 cow punchin’. You’d think a puncher growed horns ‘n 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,” says the old lady, “they’re part human,” ‘n 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 old-time ones, before the county’s strung with wire ‘n nesters had grabbed all the water, ‘n 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, ‘n 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 ‘n wore hair. All the tools he needed was saddle, bridle, quirt, hackamore ‘n rawhide riatta or seagrass rope: that covered his hoss.

A Cowboy’s Outfit

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 topcover he wears holds it shape ‘n 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 loos ‘n in the drag of a trail herd it was drawn over the face to the eyes, hold-up fashion, to protect the nose ‘n throat from dust. In old times, a leather blab or mask was used the same. Coat, vest ‘n shirt suitin’ his own taste. Maybe he’d wear California pants, light buckskin in color, with large, brown plaid, sometimes foxed, or what you’d call reinforced with buck or antelope skin. Over these came his chaparajos or leggin’s His feet were covered with good high-heeled boots, finished off with steel spurs of Spanish pattern. His weapon, generally a forty-five Colt’s six-gun, which is packed 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, ‘n the Spaniards were the first to burn marks on their cattle ‘n hosses, ‘n use the rope. Then men from the States drifted west to Texas, pickin’ up the branding’ iron ‘n lass-rope, ‘n the business spread north, east ‘n west, till the spotted longhorns walked in every trail marked out by their brown cousins – the buffalo.

Texas ‘n California, bein’ the startin’ place, made two species of cowpunchers: those west of the rockies rangin’ north, using centerfire or single-cinch saddles, with high fork ‘n 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 ‘n conchas: instead of a quirt, used a romal, or quirt braided to the ends of the reins. Their saddles were full stamped, with from twenty-four to twenty-eight eagle-bill tapaderos. Their ehaparejos were made of fur or hair, either bear, angora goat or lair sealskin. These fellows were sure fancy, ‘n called themselves buccaroos, coming from the Spanish word, “Vacquero.”

Came From Texas

The cowpuncher east of the Rockies originated in Texas and ranged north to the Big Bow. He wasn’t so much for 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 talking their dallie-welts, or wrapping their rope around the saddle horn. Their chaparajos were made of heavy bullhide, to protect the leg from brush ‘n thorns, with hog-snout tapaderos.

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

Of course a good many of these 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 scarce 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 out of life in cloudy weather. His hat was the best; his boots was made to order, with extra long heels. He rode a centerfire, full-stamped saddle, with twenty-eight in tapaderos; bearskin ancaroes, or saddle pockets; his chaparajos were of the same skin. He packed a sixty-five foot rawhide. His spurs ‘n 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’s, silverplated ‘n chased with gold. Her handle is pearl, with a bull’s head carved on it.

A Fancy Cow Dog

When the sun hits Mason with all the silver on, he blazes up like some piece of jewelry. You could see him for miles when he’s ridin’ high country. Barrin’ Mexican, he’s the fanciest cow dog I ever see, ‘n don’t ever think he don’t savvy the cow. He knows what she says to her calf. Of course there wasn’t many of his stripe. All punchers like good rigs, but plainer; ‘n as most punchers ‘re fond of gambling’ n’ spend their spare time at stud poker or monte, so 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 ‘n had different ways. No matter where you met him, or how he’s rigged, if you’d watch him close, he’d do something that would tip his hand. I had a little experience back in ’83 that’ll show what I’m getting at.

I was winterin’ in Cheyenne. One night a stranger stakes me to buck the bank. I got off lucky ‘n 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 packed. All this wealth makes Cheyenne look small, ‘n I begin longin’ for bigger camps, so I drift for Chicago. The minute I hit the berg, I shed my cow garments ‘n get into white man’s harness. A hard hat, boiled shirt, laced shoes – all the gearin’ known to civilized man. ‘N when I pull on all this rig, I sure look human, that is, I think so. But them shorthorns know me, ‘n by the way they trim that roll, it looks like somebody’s pinned a card on my back with the words, “EASY” in big letters. I ain’t been there a week till my roll don’t need no string around it, ‘n I start thinkin’ about home.

From the October 13, 1916 issue of The Augusta Times. via the Sun Times Digital Archives.