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In 1891, at the age of fifteen, Jack Abernathy jammed his
hand in the mouth of a large West Texas "loafer" wolf.
Instead of losing his fingers, he found his life's work. His fist
landed at the very back of the animal's jaw. The wolf tried
to bite him, but with his jowls blocked open by the hand,
he could exert only a stifled chomp. Unhurt but unable
to let go, Abernathy endured the stalemate until a cowboy
colleague found him. They extricated the hand, wired the
wolf's muzzle shut, and carried the animal home. Thus was
born "Catch 'em Alive Jack," the alter ego that would carry
Abernathy from Texas to the White House.
Born in Bosque County, Texas, in 1876, Abernathy
plowed through a series of western personas during his
lifetime. He hired on as a cowboy for the A-K-X Ranch at the
age of nine, and by fifteen he was an accomplished "bronc
buster," riding the first saddle on "308 wild horses" for the ja
outfit (p. 42). A pianist and fiddler, he entertained the saloon
rowdies in Sweetwater, Texas. A hunter, he killed bears
and chased wolves with greyhounds. He rushed for land
in Oklahoma and fought whiskey runners in Arkansas. He
wore the badges ofunder-sheriff, posse member, deputy
marshal, U.S. marshal, and Secret Service agent. He was a
homesteader, a rancher, and a wildcat oil driller. He rode a
loyal steed called Sam Bass and owned a heroic dog named
Catch. Wearing a six shooter, associating with characters
like "Blue" Johnson, "Post Oak" Jim, and "Grasshopper"
Roberts, and uttering phrases like "I am a goner for keeps"
and "Hands up, Keller!," Jack Abernathy could lay claim
to an exquisite dime novel identity: he was a singing, gun-toting
cowboy/lawman who busted broncs, settled wildernesses,
and drilled gushers. Yet, while manly and romantic
western jobs filled his resume, he chose grasping the lower
jaws of predatory canines as his first talent and principal
contribution to human history. It was a peculiar choice,
and unearthing the reasons for Abernathy's odd presentation
of himself is one of the joys of reading his wild,
entertaining, and factually challenged autobiography.
Abernathy captured over a thousand wolves in his lifetime.
He sold the animals to "parks, zoos, traveling shows,
and firms which used them for breeding stock" (p. 60). He
also used the animals in his own shows, catching coyotes,
"loafers," and large wolves in one place and transporting
them to parks and prairies where he would stick his hand
in their mouths again in front of an audience. On Christmas
Day 1904, Abernathy "entertained" crowds at Lyon's
Park in Texas. The owner of the park, Cecil Lyon, was a
prominent Republican, and he told President Theodore
Roosevelt about Abernathy. The next spring, Roosevelt, a
collection of ranchers, Rough Riders, bankers, and an assortment
of cooks, waiters, and manservants gathered at
Big Pasture, Oklahoma, for a hunt with the "bare-handed
Abernathy caught the president's imagination along
with several wolves. After watching him jump from Sam
Bass and secure a coyote "in the usual way," Roosevelt declared,
"This beats anything I have ever seen in my life,
and I have seen a good deal!" (p. 115). Abernathy's skill
as a hunter, his knowledge of animals, his physical vigor,
and his plain manners matched Roosevelt's vision of manliness.
The wolfer embodied the president's West, a rough
place that tested men. After the 1905 hunt, Abernathy performed
for Roosevelt for the next fourteen years, traveling
to Washington dc and New York to dine, box, and regale
the president with colorful western stories.
Excerpted from "Catch 'em Alive Jack"
by John R. Abernathy
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
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