[from] Cowboy


by Thomas McGuane

The old fella makes me go into the house in my stocking feet. The old lady’s in a big chair next to the window. In fact, the whole room is full of big chairs, but she’s only in one of them—though, big as she is, she could fill up several. The old man says, “I found this one in the loose-horse pen at the sale yard.”

She says, “What’s he supposed to be?”

He says, “Supposed to be a cowboy.”

“What’s he doin in the loose horses?”

I says, “I was lookin for one that would ride.”

“You was in the wrong pen, son,” the old man says. “Them’s canners. They’re goin to France in cardboard boxes.”

“Soon as they get a steel bolt in the head.” The big old gal laughs in her chair.

Now I’m sore. “There’s five in there broke to death. I rode ’em with nothin but binder twine.”

“It don’t make a shit,” the old man says. “Ever one of them is goin to France.”

The old lady don’t believe me. “How’d you get in them loose horses to ride?”

“I went in there at night.”

The old lady says, “You one crazy cowboy, go in there in the dark. Them broncs kick your teeth down your throat. I suppose you tried them bareback?”

“Naw, I drug the saddle I usually ride at the Rose Bowl Parade.”

“You got a horse for that?”

“I got Trigger. We unstuffed him.”

The old lady addresses the old man. “He’s got a mouth on him. This much we know.”

“Maybe he can tell us what good he is.”

I says, “I’m a cowboy.”

“You’re a outta-work cowboy.”

“It’s a dying way of life.”

“She’s about like me—she’s wondering if this ranch’s supposed to be some kinda welfare agency for cowboys.”

I’ve had enough. “You’re the dumb honyocker drove me out here.”

I think that’ll be the end of it, but the old lady says, “Don’t get huffy. You got the job. You against conversation or something?

We get outside and the old sumbitch says, “You drawed lucky there, son. That last deal could’ve pissed her off.”

“It didn’t make me no nevermind if it did or didn’t.”

“She hadn’t been well. Used to she was sweet as pudding.”

“I’m sorry for that. We don’t have health, we don’t have nothin.”

She must have been afflicted something terrible, because she was ugly morning, noon, and night for as long as she lasted—she’d pick a fight over nothing and the old sumbitch got the worst of it. I felt sorry for him, little slack as he cut me.

Had a hundred seventy-five sweet-tempered horned Herefords and fifteen sleepy bulls. Shipped the calves all over for hybrid vigor, mostly to the South. Had some go clear to Florida. A Hereford that still had its horns was a walking miracle, and the old sumbitch had a smart little deal going. I soon learned to give him credit for such things, and the old lady barking commands offen the sofa weren’t no slouch neither. Anybody else seen their books might’ve said they could be wintering in Phoenix.

They didn’t have no bunkhouse, just a LeisureLife mobile home that had lost its wheels about thirty years ago, and they had it positioned by the door of the barn so it’d be convenient for the hired man to stagger out at all hours and fight breech births and scours and any other disorder sent us by the cow gods. We had some doozies. One heifer got pregnant and her calf was near as big as she was. Had to reach in with a saw and take it out in pieces. When we threw the head out on the ground, she turned to it and lowed like it was her baby. Everything a cow does is designed to turn it into meat as fast as possible so that somebody can eat it. It’s a terrible life.

The old sumbitch and I got along good. We got through calving and got to see them pairs and bulls run out onto the new grass. Nothing like seeing all that meat feel a little temporary joy. Then we bladed out the corrals and watched them dry under the spring sun at long last. Only mishap was when the manure spreader threw a rock and knocked me senseless and I drove the rig into an irrigation ditch. The old sumbitch never said a word but chained up and pulled us out with his Ford.

We led his cavvy out of the hills afoot with two buckets of sweet feed. Had a little of everything, including a blue roan I fancied, but he said it was a Hancock and bucked like the National Finals in Las Vegas, kicking out behind and squalling, and was just a man-killer. “Stick to the bays,” he said. “The West was won on a bay horse.”

He picked out three bays, had a keg of shoes, all ones and oughts, and I shod them best I could, three geldings with nice manners, stood good to shoe. About all you could say about the others was they had four legs each, and a couple, all white-marked from saddle galls and years of hard work, looked like no more summers after this. They’d been rode many a long mile. We chased ’em back into the hills and the three shod ones whinnied and fretted. “Back to work,” the old sumbitch says to them.

We shod three ’cause one was going to pack a ton of fencing supplies—barb wire, smooth wire, steel T-posts, old wore-out Sunflower fence stretchers that could barely grab on to the wire, and staples—and we was at it a good little while where the elk had knocked miles of it down, or the cedar finally give out and had to be replaced by steel. That was where I found out that the old sumbitch’s last good time was in Korea, where the officers at the front would yell over the radio, “Come on up here and die!” Said the enemy was coming in waves. Tells me all this while the stretcher’s pulling that wire squealing though the staples. The sumbitch was a tough old bastard. “They killed a pile of us and we killed a pile of them.” Squeak.

We hauled the mineral horseback, too, in panniers—white salt and iodine salt. He didn’t have no use for blocks, so we hauled it in sacks and poured it into the troughs he had on all these bald hilltops where the wind would blow away the flies. Most of his so-called troughs were truck tires nailed onto anything flat—plywood, old doors, and suchlike—but they worked good. A cow can put her tongue anywhere in a tire and get what she needs, and you can drag one of them flat things with your horse if you need to move it. Most places we salted had old buffalo wallers where them buffalo wallered. They done wallered their last—had to get out of the way for the cow and the man on the bay horse.


Published in the print edition of the September 19, 2005, issue of the New Yorker.

One thought on “[from] Cowboy”

  1. I have been lucky to be a welcome guest on a friend’s cattle ranch in South Eastern Montana. I have seen such work and helped out at branding time. I have taken my son and grandsons there. We are in awe of the work and men and women who do it.


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