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Growing Up Cowboy chronicles the foibles and fortunes of its author, Ralph Reynolds (a.k.a. Luna Kid), in an engaging and heartfelt fashion. From wrangling ornery critters to finding first love, the Luna Kid confesses all and regales the ...
Growing Up Cowboy chronicles the foibles and fortunes of its author, Ralph Reynolds (a.k.a. Luna Kid), in an engaging and heartfelt fashion. From wrangling ornery critters to finding first love, the Luna Kid confesses all and regales the reader with vivid stories imparted with an abundance of wit and humility.
So saddle up and ride along as the Luna Kid introduces you to a helping of the Southwest's fascinating terrain and colorful characters. And along the way shows you the irreverent side of adolescence adventure and the human side of growing up cowboy.
Growing Up Cowboy can be found on the shelves of the National Cowboy Museum Library, and selections from the book have been reprinted by the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
He can feel tension within the arena, heightened by an expectant hush all around. His ride has been announced with a strained, almost funereal formality.
Now they are waiting, watching, hardly breathing. He is quite sure of that.
The Kid's body stiffens into a posture of carefree defiance. He looks down across the shining back of his adversary. The bull commences to tremble. He wishes it wouldn't do that because now a tremor is starting in the knee that holds the Kid braced against one side of the pen. Hell's afire! Would they please hurry before somebody notices, but not hurry too fast? This bull has never been rode, and they both are trembling. But now the arena is quiet, and he is ready. He wants to say, "Hurry up with the damned surcingle," but he knows if he tries it that his teeth will chatter and he will stammer on the "surci-" part.
Now they have the rope around the bull, and Kid reaches down his free hand. His knuckles touch the bull, and he feels the taut energy of the beast at the back of his fingers. His fist closes powerfully around the rope, and he draws it up tight against his palm. Now his fingers clamp against the loose end of the surcingle, and he knows his time has come. He swings a Levi-clad leg out across the haunches of the bull and settles slowly down to straddle it, catching his breath at the sensation of hairy primordial warmth along the length of his thighs. The arena is even quieter now. Quieter than death. They know what is to come. Will the audience be trembling, too?
"You ready?" someone asks.
"Not yet." It burst out too quickly. He must take care not to sound scared when he isn't.
He looks down at the thrust-out face below, with its dripping nostrils and rolling eyes. The bull is trembling again now. He can smell the heavy, rich, rumenized breath of the animal wafting up around his own nostrils, and he repeats, "Not yet," as he clasps and unclasps his hand on the surcingle.
They'll be ready now and waiting. No man has ever seen this rider thrown or this bull rode. They want blood, do they? He'll show 'em blood. Anger flashes down his neck and arm, tightening his hold on the surcingle. The bloodthirsty devils are gonna get what they want. The fear that had come with the night, lying there alone in the dark, and again with the morning, peering through the poles at the bull, vanishes against his fist, so tightly clenched on that surcingle. And he hollers, "Let 'im go."
The acceleration strikes against his clinging hand like a heavy weight at the rope's end. Then a jarring stop throws his head out in front of his shoulders. He rolls forward, heels skidding toward the bull's flanks, and feels the sudden sharp pain of a testicle caught between his own flanks and the spine of the bull. Lord! How it hurts. And then the bull is bucking in angry, darting, spastic moves and emitting mad and murderous bellows. For an instant he is hanging there, touching the bull only with his hand, finally throwing himself forward just in time for his crotch to wedge against a shoulder of the bull. He is losing his straddle, slipping too far to the left, feeling himself falling, his legs up and out as they go by a post. It slaps against his right shin, knocking him upright again, saving the fall.
Now he can hear the yelling and cheering, but it is too late. His grip has broken. He is falling forward, both hands on the bull's neck and then the slippery ears. Bull slobber is mixing with his own and wetting his face. He is flipping helplessly over the head and under the chest of the bull. His face is sliding across the ground, and then his head strikes something hard. He feels the bull go over his prone body, hooves slashing across his face and onto his throat, hammering hard against his groin.
He lies there, semi-stunned. There is pain like a fire in his leg. He can taste blood and manure, and one eye is packed with it. He is dizzy. His groin feels as if it has been shot away from his body. And then he hears the swelling chorus of shouts.
He painfully draws his knees under him and grabs a rail of the fence, pulling himself up to a standing position. He stoops there, blinking. At last he can see people. They are whooping and hollering. Over by the gate, the Hereford calf contentedly reaches through the slats to nibble a blade of grass. The surcingle still hangs loose around its body. A compact, dangling scrotum attests to masculinity.
The Kid licks his dry lips. Fresh manure spills onto his tongue and seeps in through his open mouth. A shadow flits across the patty-littered floor of the crude aspen-pole corral. He looks up. Three chicken hawks wheel with curiosity there above the trees, sole witnesses along with his brothers to the coming out of a rural cowboy.
Given that a home of hand-hewn logs is properly called a cabin, it can be stated without license that the Luna Kid was conceived, gestated, birthed, weaned, reared, and matriculated into the world from a log cabin astride the 34th parallel, in the unincorporated Valley of Luna, State of New Mexico, his birth having been recorded in the annals of Catron County, year of the mule, 1930.
Born to an economically distressed land and the likewise stressed household of a small-time rancher, mothered by a bright, loving and competent, but undersized and much overworked granddaughter of a polygamist, and godfathered only by the Great Depression, the Luna Kid nevertheless persevered, even finally mastering enough of the English language to record and elaborate the events herein. (This chronicle makes no presumption to literature, high or low, although its objective is perhaps an immodest one: to add a small, but definitive footnote to the voluminous legend of the cowboy. One might call it perspective.) Though having been born into an underprivileged family of seven, the Luna Kid showed, as judged by rare photos of him, few ravages of deprivation. But photos can tell half-truths, as we shall see.
The mouth appeared ever tightly closed and arrow straight, and in the early years, the hair never combed. Deceptively shy and bright-seeming eyes slanted downward toward the earlobes, as did eyes in photos of his Irish ancestors (even though those same Celts provided less than half his pedigree). That he proved to be nothing special as a student, except in a negative sense, could perhaps be laid either to an ordinary aptitude or to lack of correction for those same eyes, which turned out to be severely near-sighted and astigmatic. (He used to sneak out his mother's old spectacles to take to the movies.) In any case, when he finally did receive glasses of his own at about age twelve, they failed to raise his grades in school.
The Kid proved shy only in appearance. He read constantly and was inclined to talk a lot, often butting-in and attempting to dominate conversations. Like most people who talk too much and read a lot, he used and misused many big words, to the entertainment (and sometimes amusement) of chums and townsfolk.
As we have seen and shall see again, the Kid was not lavishly endowed with bravery or brawn. However, he proved muscular and mobile enough to become a fair athlete, except for an abysmal lack of cool in team sports. He achieved champion status in chinning and broad jump. But in football, though he tackled like a tiger, he never knew where the pigskin was. He could leap high and block shots of opposing basketball players, but his teammates never passed to him, for they quickly learned that Kid hated the notoriety and insecurity of having the ball. He'd drop the thing or toss it away to anybody, including the other team, just to be rid of it. A surreptitious, though good-natured chant at County High went: "Lunatic, Lunatic, he's our man. If he can't lose it, nobody can."
Kid might likewise have proven attractive to girls, his face being relatively "clean cut," as they said in those days, except that he seldom smiled, especially around girls, for to do so would expose front teeth deeply etched with black holes. Indeed, one tooth decayed so badly that when Kid was eighteen, Army dentists summarily pulled it, thereby avoiding the trouble and expense of filling such a cavity. (An expedient cop-out considering the military would provide neither bridges nor crowns. They apparently thought it preferable for a G.I. to be seen by the public with a hole in his mouth rather than a hole in his tooth.)
In dress, the oldest photo of the Luna Kid now extant, a class portrait from about the fourth grade, has him decked out in detested bib overalls. Shortly thereafter, however, roughly simultaneous with his coming out, he advanced into the much coveted rural cowboy garb of unsanforized Levis, an open-collar shirt, and brogans. (Kids from smaller families got to wear boots with underslung heels in place of brogans.) Until he entered the military, the Kid was seldom seen in anything else except when he graduated from high school wearing, in addition, the necktie that had adorned three older brothers at graduation. This had nothing to do with tradition or sentimentality. It was simply the only tie in the house.
If this apparel seems dreary, the reader must remember that the laws of permutation apply even to simple rural cowboy duds. Thus, combinations are limited only by the quantities of individual items. The Kid generally was supplied with three pairs of Levis a year, obtained at intervals of about four months. So at any given time, he could count on having one pair, fully shrunk, slightly faded, and freshly washed, for dress-up. A second pair, well faded and preferably slightly soiled, was for school. The third pair, being faded to grey, fully soiled, frayed and patched, and comfortably stretched, was perfect for chores and work. Because cowboys don't wear out shirts, a good selection was always available, mostly community property or hand-me-downs, and mostly of flannel or light denim. But Kid's mother always saw to it that he had a clean white one of his own.
* * *
Come dress-up time, the Kid draws from the well a round washtub of water and heats it atop the kitchen stove for a bath. He polishes the brogans, pulls on the clean-smelling bluest Levis, with wrinkles there where Mother's flat iron has butted against the rivets. He puts on the white shirt, leaving the top two buttons undone, and neatly rolls both sleeves up almost to the shoulders. Then he stuffs a blue bandana into the taut, left, hind pocket of the Levis. (If the pants fit properly, there's no way you can get a hand in there.) He tugs one corner of the hankie out a ways so it hangs down just enough to cover about half his pocket. Finally, when nobody will notice, he slips past the huge old ornate cookstove in the kitchen to snatch a quick look at his reflection. A cowboy blossoms there in the shiny concave trim as youthful shoulders broaden and waist narrows—a truly heroic image.
"Pretty snupersent." Kid's mother smiles her pride and approval.
The Luna Kid is dressed up and ready to go. Anywhere.
Luna valley, even today, is the essence of cowboy land. Indeed, the birthplace of the Luna Kid lies only a stone's throw or two from the headwaters of the Blue River, birthplace of that most famous (or infamous) of all one-named Americans: Geronimo, himself a notorious cowboy as well as cow thief, etc.—that "etcetera" glossing over a lot of unsavory territory.
In our time, grazing of cattle is considered lowest among the many potential agricultural uses of land. It follows, then, that people would put to grazing only that land unsuited for other use. Carrying this thought a little further, it is easy to establish that the rough and tumble Mogollon Breaks lying on either side of the New Mexico-Arizona border is country so poor that it has to be the prime cowboy land of the earth.
Conceived in the fire and brimstone of Tertiary volcanoes, this wild, wooded cowboy country, ever mysterious, sometimes graceful to the eye and sometimes awesome, is also almost useless to man. For where it is warm enough to grow his crops, it is too dry. And where it is moist enough for crops, it is too cold. And even if we could magically change the climate of this land, to warm the heights and moisten the steppe, it is everywhere too rough and rocky except for the toughest of cowboys and the ruggedest of cows.
This land is also vastly under populated, thanks mainly, perhaps, to the aforementioned native son, Geronimo, and his ilk. Generations of pioneers were stalled from settling there, for the mountains and the valleys had long before been chosen by Apache warriors as their own. Even the Spanish kings seem to have had no enemies hated or feared enough to deserve banishment into such useless and dangerous territory. Thus, the region was never included in any of the many royal land grants that gave away much of New Mexico.
In the end, the beneficiary of all this was the United States public domain, which at the turn of the century, claimed the vast unsettled province as national forest land. This has preserved the Gila, Blue, and White Mountain wildernesses, as unspoiled and largely untapped even today. Untapped, that is, by all except the cowboy and his cows.
In modern times, as we're so often sloganized, the mountain cowboy lands of the West have been invaded by other "multiple" uses, including various kinds of recreation, especially skiing, plus mining, lumbering, and so on. As we shall see, the Luna cowboys indeed encountered, or confronted, some of these uses, but in the main their land has proven too dry for fishing, too low for skiing, too high for health spas, too lonely and primitive for general recreation, and too remote for mining.
Their land was cowboy land, and it remains so. Yet, the cowboy land of the Mogollon Breaks, its climate governed by undulating altitudes and its terrain by fits and starts and faults within the native rocks, was and remains as variable from suburb to center as is any large city of the earth.
The stompin' grounds of the Luna Kid were somewhat higher in elevation than the mean of this land. And due partly to the erosive forces of gathering waters, the higher ground of the Mogollon Breaks has remained less wrinkled and rough than the lower. In fact, some of the high terrain, though horribly rocky, is level as a prairie, having been laid down by runny sheets of lava that poured out over ancient wetlands. The resulting flats are strewn with agate, bordered by cliffs, and drained by many shallow draws and a few deep canyons.
Even the intrepid Zane Grey, who finally nested on the Mogollon Rim, never wrote of the border Breaks, having been mesmerized by those nice and lovely crimson canyons on to the west of there. The region was one time lightly touched, though, by a pen less popular but more majestic than Grey's.
Early in the century, Aldo Leopold rode out over the same high rustic flats and seams that the Kid was born to, scouting timber for a young Forest Service. Years later, in his monumental Sand County Almanac, the naturalist remembered his experience rather incidentally but with unerring sensual flair. He described the land of the Kid as: "A confusion of wooded mesas. Each hollow seemed its own small world, soaked in sun, fragrant with juniper, and cozy with the chatter of pinion jays, but top out on a ridge and you at once became a speck in an immensity ..."
Money was always a scarce commodity in the log cabin called home, but the Luna Kid was born to no poverty.
It is important for the reader to realize that, as with most occupations, ordinary activities of a rural cowboy include some tasks that are not glamorous or even attractive and a few that are quite grubby. The reader will therefore be in a correct frame of mind for the confessions that follow.
Nowadays in the corn belt of Iowa or Illinois, one occasionally hears or reads in local farm magazines of suspected ritualistic slashings of farm animals. The poor creatures have become apparent victims of unspeakable atrocities, committed by unknown cultists, nihilistic pranksters, or even visitors from outer space. Such orgies in animal-hate, if that's what they are (some say it's merely the work of roving dogs), may seem frightful to fat-stock farmers and pet lovers. But they appear relatively tame, in a way even merciful, when compared with the mutilations at one time observed, and sometimes perpetrated with gusto, by the Luna Kid.
The time has come to speak of branding calves. But before we proceed, it seems useful to lay to rest any notions regarding the innocence of the victim. Please bear in mind that before the rural cowboy approaches a bound and helpless calf with his diabolical instruments, the cowboy has likely been dragged, butted, bitten, slobbered on, crapped on, and perversely and roundly kicked in several tender areas. In fact, in his advanced years, Daddy, a legendary rider of wild broncs, suffered such a calf-kick to the inside of his right knee that a broken ligament hobbled him for life.
Let us shed no tears, then, for the writhing little beast who becomes the brandee and much more in this strenuous and rather messy encounter. After all, the poor animal suffers it and displays no great resentment afterwards. Maybe this indicates an innate stupidity on his part, or perhaps it's just that he has plenty of reason to feel grateful that it's over and happy that he's still alive.
* * *
The Luna Kid would enjoy the roundup at branding time. It's warm and damp now in the rainy season, and the air is brightly clean, washed of its dust. The pines smell good. The grass, weeds, bushes, and flowers, bursting and swollen with sudden frantic growth, seem brighter in color and twice their usual size. Cattle are scattered this time of year so the Kid gets to go off alone.
It's grand to be on horseback and alone in the bright morning. He kicks Bludog into a trot across Trout Creek and up the trail to the broad ridge between Snyder Place and Steele Flat. Daddy said the Kid would find Redgut and her calf by the state-line fence. He is to drive her back toward the Steele Flat, picking up any other cows along the way. There may be some lone yearlin's up there. If so, leave 'em be. Watch specially for that brindle cow they'd bought from Uncle Dorf last fall. She might have lost her calf. The muley cow with the tore ear was likely up on the ridge, too. She had an early calf, and it better sure get branded now, or it'd be a chore to wrestle down later.
The Kid trots on alone. He picks up the brindle cow first and pushes her along, but she doesn't want to go. She slows to a walk and bawls. A calf answers and pops out of the brush, a dandy little whiteface bull, lively and hungry. He stops the brindle to suck, impatiently butting her teats, demanding. The Kid yells, "Git on. Git on." He rides up close and whacks the calf with the knot on the end of his rope. Bludog grabs with his teeth for the tailhead of the cow. She bursts away in a trot, the calf running backward, still trying to suck. Kid yells again, and Bludog is already in a high trot.
Excerpted from GROWING UP COWBOY by Ralph Reynolds Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Reynolds. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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