Saddling Up Anyway: The Dangerous Lives of Old-time Cowboys
by Patrick Dearen, Taylor Trade, Lanham, Md., 2006, $22.95.
Now and again a book will come along that merits a turn in the saddle for a second look. Saddling Up Anyway, a collection of harrowing true stories from cowboys who rode the Western range from the 1870s through 1930s, is one such volume.
Spur Award finalist Patrick Dearen personally interviewed 76 old-time punchers and pored over more than 150 archival interviews and journals to put together this gritty look at the bruising, bone-snapping life of the everyday cowhand. Rather than rope off each man’s account, Dearen gives his cowboys free rein to swap wit and wisdom on a range of hazards— from rattlesnakes and river crossings to cattle-killing hail and horses mean and sorry. He thoughtfully includes a glossary for greenhorns, as the old-timers throw around such colorful expressions as “clabberhead” (senseless horse) and “waddy” (sort of a cowboy temp).
“Death was never far from a cowboy,” Dearen states flatly. “He may have submerged the possibility in the youthful bluster of supposed invincibility, but every time a cowhand dug his boot into the stirrup, the ride could carry him to trail’s very end.”
Death was sometimes preferable. A puncher could find himself stove-up from a bewildering array of missteps, risky moves or plain bad luck, and these boys spare none of the gory details. Gid Reding recalls watching a fellow Pecos rider pitch face-first into the hardpan after his horse hit a prairie dog hole at full gallop: “When I got to him, he sat up and his lower lip was down under his chin. It was the danged-est lookin’ thing, that ol’ chin stickin’ out there. I had to put my knee against his chest and pull it back.” Even a careless moment might cost a hand dearly. One rainy day, Shorty Northcutt was roping sheep on the Spade Ranch in Texas. “My rope was real limber. When I changed hands, it drawed up on two fingers and jerked them off….I had to learn to rope all over again.”
Amid the recorded spills, snakebites and lightning strikes are touches of the gallows humor for which cowboys are famous. Sugg Ranch rider Brook Campbell recounts the day an angry bull, lassoed by its tail, clipped the roper’s cinch with its horns and charged off, dragging his saddle behind it. “One of the boys made a grab at the saddle, wrapped it around a tree, and that jerked the old bull’s tail off.” Sugg cowhands dubbed the unfortunate the “Bobtail Bull.” Colorado cowpoke Sandy Smith rashly bet a bunkmate $25 he could rope and control a grizzly. Weeks later the hands startled a bear, and Smith was able to rope it— then the grizzly turned on him. “Well, I just pulled my .44 and put two shots into the bear’s head.” When the others rode up, Smith nodded to its carcass. “Boys,” he said, “there’s the bear all roped and under my control.” Smith won his wager.
Campfire tale? Could be. Cowboys are known for stretching the truth. Regardless, there’s plenty of real danger on these pages to hold one’s attention and earn our respect.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.