Hearing sounds of horsebackers, I looked out of a back window one cold, blowy day to see the Old Cowman and the Chuck-Line Rider hitch their horses to the big mesquite in the yard and stamp across to the ramada where they took off their chaps and spurs. A moment later the Uncle greeted them at the door of the main cabin, and when they made straight to squat down by the open fire to warm their hands, he said, hospitably: "Will you fellers have off your coats?"
He threw another chunk of wood on the fire and was already raking out coals to heat the coffee and beans when he asked: "Have you all been to dinner?"
"We-ell," drawled the Rider, "Ain't airy one of us et no big sight today."
My ears perked up to catch the salty speech of the three old range men as they sat by the glowing fire happily warming themselves and joshing about the recent roundup-the Rider and the Cowman had taken part in it-of a dude neighbor they called Old Big Foot because he wore low-quartered shoes. Listening to their zesty vernacular as I went about warming the biscuits and setting the table, I knew it was the Past speaking. And I knew that soon, as history goes, all the current old-timers would be gone and I'd hear it no more. Nowadays, even cowboys attend school, respect dictionaries and grammars, and have their language standardized by mass communication media. I listened to the idioms and vocabularies of the old cronies with a regard almost tender because I knew their days were numbered, and that they spoke a vanishing tongue-each in his own way-for none of them could lay claim even to elementary schooling.
The Rider was a self-satisfied old fellow who had never in his life felt the need of formal instruction, particularly in self-expression--which he practiced continually. He loved to talk, and he never stopped as long as he could see that anybody was listening. He had to see his auditors, for he was so deaf it was hopeless to try to communicate with him unless you stood directly in front of him at close quarters and demanded his attention.
The Old Cowman had made it through the fourth reader before he ceased being classified as a child, and from that day forward, he never read another book. In fact he did not read anything except a few headlines and the livestock reports. At the age of nine, big for his years, he joined the wranglers in charge of a remuda. From there his rank progressed to rider, jinete (bronc buster), cowboy, and-finally out for himself-cowman.
The Uncle's book learning ended abruptly in the lower grades back in the eighties when a teacher slapped him. Seven years later he slapped her back. In that day Texans, whatever their speech, proudly held their bodies inviolate. They had elephant memories for insults and injuries; their wide shoulders were seldom chipless. In that day and on into the present century's first decades, no man in the state of Texas called another a liar or s.o.b. unless ready for mortal combat.
The hand of Time moving down the ages has tempered the passions of outlaws and frontiersmen. Public education has smoothed the tongues of rugged individuals with a gloss of common usage-including the general use of profanity by men, women, and children. There is a sameness about American speech today. Sometimes out here in the back country there are exceptions. Curley had worked on ranches here and there during most of his adolescence. He hadn't done well in school so his father farmed him out to cattlemen. He came to the GF Bar several times between jobs. In the presence of a schoolteacher he made an effort with his English which greatly amused the nephews.
At breakfast he told them that he had just met me by co-accident at the gas station. The night before, as we drove home, when we got to the top of McKinsey Hill-the long curving descent into the canyon-a little calf jumped into the road ahead and galloped along the narrow cut in front of the car, making it hard to drive. I put on the dim lights, blew the horn, beat on the outside of the door, and crept along for awhile with the parking lights only. Nothing worked. The mischievous little rascal wouldn't get out of the way.
"What an aggravation!" I said.
"Yes, ma'am," said Curley, "it's plumb disencouraging."
He told us that he didn't want a job in the mine because his oldest brother had worked in mines and got sili-kitis. He didn't care much for his last boss, but he was a jokable feller, you could say that.
In the old days, adventuring men and women of the great wild West practically handcarved their speech just as they hewed their furniture and whittled their accessories. In limited cultural environment there was little need for erudite vocabularies. Today, even in the Far West, people are alert and striving to be up to date in everything, including oral expression. Nobody disapproves of that. It is a good thing for American youth to learn correct English; in fact, it is essential. Nevertheless, and with due respect and apologies, there is a nostalgic attraction about "that old talk" of our predecessors.
In listing surviving provincialism of the western "horse" areas, the word found most frequently-with no literal meaning in the dictionary sense-is old, pronounced ole. The Uncle had to feed his ole dogs, saddle his ole pony, "ile" his ole gun, find his ole hat.
"That ole snip-nosed sorrel" had nothing to do with the horse's age.
"That ole brockly-faced steer" might be only a two-year-old.
The boss was always The Ole Man, even if only nineteen years old. Here it was that I posed a problem. I have been the boss of this outfit almost since the beginning, but obviously of the wrong sex. "Ole Woman" is downgrading. So in my case, the men on the place, when wanting to be formal, have resorted to Spanish-calling me La Patrona or La Maestra. Ordinarily they have addressed me by the name I've always been called: Sister. (Ole Sister?)
Associates, favored or despised, always had ole preceding their names. Ole Johnny was just a kid. Ole Mike was a popular bronc rider. Ole Hawkins was a disliked neighbor. Ole Hoover was ex-President of the United States.
I remember sitting around the fire eating late dinner at a roundup, when a dude was seen approaching, jogging along on a head-slinging pony. All stared, sizing up the situation, and someone muttered: "Here comes Ole Ignorance."
Ole Big Mouth was a garrulous homesteader generally shunned-because he was so windy. OLe Pussyfoot was a newcomer who strained openly to stand in with the boss. Ole Broadie was a middle-aged woman who took up a homestead on the open range grazed by cattle from three different outfits.
One of the Valley cowboys got married, and his thoughtless town bride followed him about to all the accessible camps on the work. One morning when "passeling" out mounts for each man's string, the roundup foreman said: "Give that little ole jugheaded Diamond-A bay to Ole Honey."
Ole Bumblefoot was a fellow prone to accidents and mistakes. Ole Bolliver may never have known how he got his range moniker, but everybody else knew. They were bringing a herd to a working corral in a lonely flat up on the divide when up rode a town guy-he "follered" the plumber's trade-who had recently filed on a section of grazing land in the vicinity. Greenhorn that he was, he sat his horse near an open gate and watched the wild cattle whirl and mill and give the cowpunchers a bad time. Exasperated, the Old Cowman, who had never set eyes on him before, rode over and hollered: "Bolliver, will you get your car-kass out of that gate so we can pen these cattle!" From then on, even after he won his spurs with the cowboys, he was always Bolliver.
Probably the word man rates second place in cowboyese. One use is as an expletive. "Man-oh-man! Ain't this a scorcher!" "Man alive! I like to a-froze to death last night."
Commonly it was--and is yet--used to express in third person, an idea referring to the first person singular. "A man cain't do only so much." "If a man could count on it a-rainin'." "Looks like a man got to sell his ole pore cows." "A man jest nachally orter light in an' buffalo them plow-chasin' homesteaders as fast as they show up."
Food, to the old range boys, was chuck, grub, or vittles. The Uncle made excellent biscuits which he called "bread." The wrapped loaves I brought from town were "light bread." He made a good stew he called "mulligan." And a rice - and - raisins - and - lots - of - sugar dessert which was "moonshine." He boiled sugar and water to make "lick." Bought syrup, no matter what kind, was "lasses." When I asked him if he liked something I had made or bought that he had not eaten before, he'd say: "I reckin it's tol'able good."
Two life-supporting staples contributed to the West by Mexico have survived almost unchanged for more than two centuries: frijoles (dried pink or pinto beans), and jerky-a corruption of the South American charque (sun dried meat).
There's something frustrating about cowpunching and horse breaking that riles a man's ire. If he couldn't cuss he'd blow up. Many are the range expressions describing aggravation or fury. Range riders say:
"The old man's on the prod."
"Cookie is ringie this mornin'."
"The old lady got wrathy about the mud on her floor."
"The boss has been swelled up for a week."
There were some ranchers-son and brother of a cowman whose womenfolks lived in town-who often complained that the old man worked them like slaves and didn't know the difference between day and night when it came to getting a job done. The brother was supposed to work for hire, and that put a crimp in his resentment, when he felt he'd been mistreated. The son worked for the ranch's sake and for duty's sake and for the hope of one day having something of his own. As the years passed and he grew into manhood, the boss became ever more decrepit. He became so stove-up he could no longer work horseback. His gaunt frame looked like a walking defunct. Still, he ran the outfit, mostly "by jawbone," haranguing the men nights when they rode in, and mornings before they rode out. To the brother's satisfaction, the son began to talk back. One evening the grumbling old man said, "Hard work never hurt nobody."
"How do you know?" asked the defiant son.
"I know by my own self," declared the boss hotly. "I worked hard all my life."
"And jist look at you," retorted the son. "Y'ought to go out and advertise. Show y'self as an example, and there wouldn't nary son-of-a-bitch ever work again!"
The brother was one of the most colorful characters the West produced---at least in this century. One day he told me his philosophy. "Sister," he said earnestly, "I ain't honest, but I'm honorable. I don't steal from women."
If you are a schoolteacher, you almost have to nip in the bud all deviations from the accepted norm in the speech of the young entrusted to your influence. And if you were an English major, shame on you for treasonable fondness for what must be classed incorrect, uncouth, archaic. Forgive me, highly esteemed English professors who labored to instruct me in the elegancies and modernities of the world's most varied language. I do enjoy "that ole talk." I'll be sorry when the scattered few who speak it unaffectedly are with us no more.
Copyright © 1967. The Arizona Board of Regents.