Have you ever been in a new place or in a big pasture that you knew nothing about; a place with no familiar landmarks? I’ve been in those places- pastures so big you couldn’t see the other side of in a day’s ride.
I was cooking for some folks about 15 years ago and was in such a scenario. Although I followed the remuda down to camp I knew nothing about this ranch or the place in which we were setting up camp. I mean, when it got dark it was dark, and I couldn’t tell you which way was up. Sorta felt like a one winged chicken hawk in a hurricane. You know the feeling… plum turned around.
Well, the alarm wasn’t confused and it still went off right on schedule at 3:45 AM. Ole “Bertha” did her job and soon breakfast was underway. Some of the hands had come in that night and I hadn’t met them until the lantern at breakfast showed their faces. One ole feller really stuck out- he was bent but not quite broken and I guessed his age at or around 75 years young. He was only known to me as “Slim.”
To best describe this feller… well let’s just say he was leather tanned in his face and many wrinkles had formed there over time. This old hand had been seasoned by time and weather, bowlegged by all the hours in the saddle and a gait that was more like a shuffle than a walk. A man of few words but the few that he did speak were like words of wisdom passed down through ages of cowboy logic and lore. A man the younger fellers all respected, you could tell by the way their demeanor was around him. It was as if they were in the presence of a celebrity.
Slim was like all the other cowboys that had been under the fly of my wagon, respectful of my kitchen and its rules which had been laid out by those who had come before. Rules of an ole cow camp were not in any handbook that I had ever seen, it was a code of conduct and respect for the other cowboy and his domain. A true hand would never come under the fly until “Cookie” said it was ready to eat. Never smoke under the fly and no cowboy would ever be rude and take the last of any helping.
When they had finished the vittles I fixed just before they set off to do battle against cow and nature, they all dropped their dishes in the wreck pan and said, “ Thank you Cookie- it was good. And if we don’t get run over this morning, we will see you at noon.” Slim, who was the last to rise from the table, a tad bit slower than the rest, dropped his plate and cup in and said, “Thanks Button for the meal, it was good and you be careful today.”
I watched him head down to the pens where they were roping out the morning mounts, a tradition that is still done on most outfits, and quite a sight in itself. He had a little different stride in his approach as if he had a sudden burst of energy and excitement about what was fixin’ to take place. One of the other cowboys hollered out, “Sir what are you riding for today, I will sure rope him out for you.” This gesture was an act of kindness… well maybe not solely. I think it was also out of respect, for a man who had done and seen his share from the saddle on the back of an ole horse.
As the days passed along, that ole feller and I finally got us a chance to visit on occasion. He was a man of few words, but those words were very powerful. He asked me one evening after supper dishes were all finished, “Say there Cookie, you still feel lost or are you about to get settled in the saddle?” I told him that all I knew for sure was where the wood pile was, and I knew that ball of fire still came up in the same place it had for all those years.
He said, “Do you need me to draw you a map of this place and point out the landmarks that make it what it is today?”
From there, he took me on a journey through time and the places he had been. He drew me a map not only of trails and crossings of ranches or roads, but he drew out a map of life; not only how to survive, but how to really live.
When life gives you a string of horses some will always be better than others, but don’t give up on the bad ones too quick. We all have to have a little extra riding at times to get settled in. It takes a lot of wet saddle blankets to make a colt what you think he is supposed to be, just as it takes time to build a trusting, long lasting relationship with a friend.
Always do your best and never ask another hand to do something you wouldn’t do yourself, sometimes a short cut across an ole rough pasture may seem easier, but a feller can miss a lot of cows always taking the shortcut.
Never judge a man by what he rides or what he looks like. In time, that will figure itself out. There are two things in life that matter most, your word and your work, take care not to tarnish either one.
The short time I spent with him still echoes in my mind at times when I’m cooking or just… living. I have come to realize that the wrinkles on his face were not just carved on like some sculpture, but they were a true map of the places he had been and the things he had seen. A map of hard times, but also of times I often wished I had rode through myself.
So if you are ever in need of a map or direction remember; sometimes they are not written on paper but on faces and hearts. The direction in which we often travel leads us down many trails and the folks we meet on these trails can have a great impact on our journey and our life thereafter. I might have been a little turned around in my direction but after a talk with Slim, I wasn’t lost anymore.