Cowboy by Bill Jaynes watercolor

“Out on the dusty plains a cowboy looks inward to his deepest dreams” by Bill Jaynes

I had cowboy dreams as a boy (do urban children dream of cowboys?  Are cowboys part of their childhood vernacular?)  Casey Tibbs was a hero (I got his autograph on a photo at a rodeo in 196_ at some dusty arena outside of Wall, South Dakota, see below.)  I had cowboy paraphernalia (pop gun and caps, cowboy hat and boots, there may’ve been a plastic horse head on a broom handle as well) and I learned to ride on a Shetland pony when I was eight and made my way up to a quarter horse (or if I was lucky, an Arabian) a couple of years later.  These cowboy dreams faded though, sooner than later, and i haven’t been on a horse in decades, more’s the pity.

Casey Tibbs autograph photo

Rodeo star, Casey Tibbs, circa 1960

One summer, I was 14 or 15, my mother found a job for me on a trail ride outside of Rapid City.  It was heaven.  It was hell.  All of the hands bunked in a rusty trailer on the other side of the horse barn—yeah, you lived there, no going home at the end of the day. I was the youngest, the rest of them (3? 4? 7? I don’t remember) in their late teens or early 20s and being the newbie the teasing was relentless (the hell part).  But when we were on a ride with “city folk” or “dudes” (way before “du-u-u-de” was used as a greeting) and were back up in the hills (somewhere between Rapid City and Sturgis), all of that teasing slipped away, a snakeskin left in the grass.

4th of July 1948 Gillette Wyoming

Evelyn Russell (author’s mother) in the July 4th parade in Gillette, Wyoming, 1948

Because I was new I got all the shit jobs, literally.  No need to elaborate, but suffice it to say I was on the back side of a shovel more than I was on a horse.  My riding skills were assessed and I was considered proficient enough to bring up the rear of the trail rides, making sure there were no stragglers.  If you’ve ever been to the Black Hills, you’ll know what I mean when I say that their beauty is manifold; being there touches all of your senses, it is no wonder the Native Americans consider it a spiritual haven. Because of this I often found myself straggling more than the paying customers, poleaxed by the smell of pine and earth and horse; the sight of ravine and boulder and a sky dotted with clouds (the heaven part).

Heaven was fleeting and hard to hold onto, like the tail of a cloud in your hand.  The teasing and hazing was without cease, nighttime was the worst and I would find myself on the house phone with my mother in the early hours of the morning before chores begging her to come and get me, which she finally did.  We never spoke of it again.


The Russell Ranch, Sundance, Wyoming, with author’s great-uncle, Maynard, “Scrub”, High on far right, June 1948.

There was a bachelor uncle, my mother’s uncle, Maynard “Uncle Scrub” High, who was a real cowboy.  He and my grandmother’s family homesteaded outside of Moorcroft, Wyoming in the late 19-teens and he spent his whole life working on one ranch after another—except for a break for WWII when he enlisted into the Navy and fought in the Pacific.  He was bald and ruddy complected, with a cowboy tan from the eyebrows down to the collar of his shirt with brown sausage-fingered hands; he could tie a rope into, what seemed like a million different, intricate knots with those amazingly fat fingers.  He was rarely seen without his cowboy hat on.

we didn’t see him very often, but I remember, toward the end of his life, when he was living in the V.A. home outside of Custer, South Dakota, my uncle and I went to visit him and sat in rocking chairs on the broad, covered front porch of the home looking out on the hills and plains, and I can still hear their manly rumblings, guttural and indistinct, flies buzzing and the grass dry and scratchy.  And I remember that he always seemed content with his place in the world and that there was never any talk among the other adults of his single, singular life.



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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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