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The Cowboy House
Our Special Place
“Cowboy House” was the name we decided to give our secret place because it was less incriminating than "Hideout." Nevertheless, it was our hideout, our sleeping quarters, our place, or whatever we needed it to be. It was situated from the front of my family’s home across the gravel road down a hill among a thick growth of mostly knotty elm saplings with a few parent trees around. This was the perfect place for a getaway for rough riding, gun-toting cowboys and cowgirls like our gang. Although girls were members of our gang, we were all cowboys. We were a mean, rowdy bunch of yahoos who occasionally got kicked out of saloons, thrown from hotel windows, or chased, after robbing banks. The sheriff often ran us out of town or tracked us with his posse in raging pursuit. Of course, they always lost our trail as we raced across the hot, lizard and cactus-strewn desert to our safe haven, our old cowboy house at the foot of the red hill.
Our hideaway, a refined-crude structure, suited us well. We all worked together to fashioned it with scrap tin, salvaged boards from the wood mill, and poles that we cut and trimmed. That old shack had more cracks in it than the law allowed, but they served as our peepholes to spy out the enemies. "Open windows" might have been a better description. We built the cowboy house against a red dirt bank that doubled as a brick wall or an inner cave that was surely more imaginary than real. On a rainy day, we had many leaks, but we cowpokes didn’t care as long as we could steal a few winks and prepare to run if the town marshal or his deputies discovered our hideout. Running a risk of being hauled off to jail was not our lot, so, we slept with one eye opened and the other closed, just to be safe.
Pistols and Shotguns
Smart cowboys were ready to fight at any time; therefore, we kept our pistols and shotguns ready and close by. There was no discrimination when it came down to weapons. We used all of our available resources. We made our pistols from forked branches cut like pistols and sounded like pistols, except we had to say, “Pow!” “ka-pow!” or “ti-yaaaaawwww!” ourselves. What did we care? It got the job done. We only needed to cut the barrels longer to make shotguns. Anyone hit first knew to fall dead, if only for a little while. If a man cheated by refusing to die, he would run the risk of being called a yellow-bellied, stinking coward. We did not have enough men for anyone to remain dead like they did on TV, so getting up off the ground after a few minutes killed was an understood arrangement. At the end of a gun battle, we blew the smoking barrels and rammed them back into our scabbards that we made of old inner tubing and worn belts. Perfect! Proud of our work, we would chew on our stick cigars or tobacco-size wads of wood sorrel chinked in one side of our jaws, assume our cowboy swagger—a bowlegged gait—spit tobacco juice, and duck-strut away to other outlaw business.
Another weapon we made was the old reliable slingshot. I figured if David used one to take down Goliath, our time making a whole supply was surely not wasted. Crafting this weapon required a lot of careful skill, or it would not work. To start, we cut three-inch rectangular shapes from rubber inner tubing with smaller stringlike strips threaded through scissors-cut holes and tied at each end like an open watchband, about eight inches each. The rectangle was the pocket for the projectiles, usually rocks. When we could find old shoes, or belts, to get cuts of leather, preferably the tongues, we shaped and used them for the pockets of the slingshots. Leather pockets were neater. We tied and tightly triple-knotted each rubber strip onto the prong tops of y-shaped wooden forks that we cut from small tree branches. We always tried to get perfect forks, for they made finer slingshots, but that was not always possible for young rustlers. To produce smooth, fancier weapons, we peeled the bark when it was not stuck fast. Our products were attractive slingshots that looked almost brand new, or so we thought.
As soon as we finished, we tested the slingshots by placing a rock the size of a medium pecan in the pocket of each one, holding the handle of the fork with the left hand, and, with the right hand, pulling the rectangle with the rock as far back as needed to gain the intended distance, and then, letting it fly at the aimed target. “Pling-a-ling!” A window broke, and we bad guys quickly jumped through, disregarding the dangerous shards of glass, and stole the gold before Wells Fargo came to take it away. How lucky we were to jump straddle our waiting horses, slings in back pockets, and ride out of Dodge before that old sleepy marshal and his deputies were aroused enough to know what had happened. We were too smart for our own good, and we got away every time.
Tired, sweaty, and dusty, we tethered our horses at the hitching post in front of the cowboy house, took a quick swig of water from our canteens pouring liberally over our faces, and dashed inside to divide the gold. Outside, our horses were snorting, whinnying, and breathing heavily from the hard, long ride. Soon, they began drinking water from gray, wooden troughs and eating their oats from old, rusty molasses buckets.
Later that evening the horses, full and calm, stood resting while easing one limp leg and breathing calmly. Inside, we ate our beef jerky and canned beans, went to sleep on our bunks with slingshots in hand, and wondered what the next day would bring. The old sun, turning reddish orange, began to sink into the western horizon, but it could never promise a gang like ours another sunrise.
We did not come by these beasts the easy way like some rival cowpokes. They found theirs on the other side of the mountains and broke them in a few days; we actually made our horses. The process was long and hard. We had to find small, straight trees, about one inch in diameter, Even straight, narrow tree limbs worked well. We hand sawed or axed them at the bases, trimmed them of all the twigs, tied rope, old belts, or cords for reins, and began the process of tacking our horses using anything like old towels or pillow cases for saddles. Old mop head, shredded rags, or anything with frills to create the manes was good enough, too. Whatever was available, we used it to fashion our beauties. Da-daaaa! Our horses were basically finished. If an idea to further groom our horses popped into our heads, we went to work to get it done. Other cowboys had their individual ideas of collecting horse tack and designs. We would straddled our pole horses holding the pole in one hand and the reins in the other, or holding both hands around the neck. We galloped around to test them and made any needed adjustments.
Some of us cowboys were showmen and wanted show horses to complement our characters. We would add dabs of paint from discarded buckets to make pintos or palaminos, tack on bottle caps to decorate the saddles, or add anything attractive to enhance their special identities. There was always something fancy around to use. When we had refined these beasts in every way we could imagine, we named them, mounted them, and held onto the reins so we wouldn’t be thrown. We often rode with the wind and enjoyed our wild, wild western life as other neighboring cowboys stared enviously.
Bows and Arrows
A few of us had to play Indians whenever we had a cowboy and Indian fight. I never wanted to play Indian because I did not want to get shot off my horse or turn tail and run. Cowboys almost always won on TV westerns like The Lone Ranger; therefore, I wanted to always be a winner. In an effort to be fair, we all took turns. Bows and arrows had to be made, but only smart scouts could do that. So, the best craftsmen readily transformed from cowboys to Indian bowmen. To begin our work, a plan had to be devised from start to finish.
There was a tangle of rattan near the old school house next to the church about a half-mile up the road. Sometimes we ate the slimy, nasty-sweet rattan berries because we were a daring bunch of tough, hungry yahoos. We mostly wanted the rattan wood for bows, and we knew that the smaller branches bent when pressure was applied. We would cut four- or five-foot branches, bend them in bow shapes, and attach cord string, wire salvaged from crates, or narrowly cut strips of inner tube rubber. We used whatever we could find. We tied each end to the bow making sure that the bowstring was taut and fit enough to cast arrows. Then, we would find straight, strong and narrow switches from trees or bushes and carve v-shaped nicks at the larger ends so that the bowstrings could fit into them. These were our arrows. Afterwards, We would use pocketknives to sharpen the narrower end to a crude tapering point. Finally, we duplicated enough bows and arrows to make an impressive addition to our already strong arsenal at the back of the cowboy house.
Every now and then we would take a break from our busy western life and ride to the big house above the cowboy house across the gravel road on the hill where our parents lived. They made us eat real food, drink milk three times a day, bathe, and sleep in real beds. This is where we watched that round-screen TV with tripodal legs and honed our cowboy skills watching Westerns like Have Gun Will Travel, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The Lone Ranger. These were the teachers that gave us our fuel, energy, and determination to ride the blazing trails of the wild, wild West.
We, cowboys and cowgirls, fought many battles with Indians, rival cowboys, and the sheriff and his deputies, nearly losing some, but we were never beaten or captured. We robbed many banks and got away with piles of money and gold untold. The fiercest of posses and bounty hunters chased us like hungry dogs, but we were never overtaken. We knew that our cowboy house was not foolproof, and we always watched out for potential bushwhackers; but it remained a safe haven for the gang that outlasted every foe and outsmarted every pursuer—that old cowboy house that rested against the red bank at the foot of the hill below our home.
I cannot imagine any American Kid growing up in the Western Age without the benefit of being a true cowboy or cowgirl right alongside icons like The Lone Ranger, Calamity Jane, or The Virginian. There is no doubt that kids were involved in many imaginary chases, and other exciting adventures as seen in such westerns as The Tales of Wells Fargo and Jesse James. The kids had control over winning or losing, but sweet victory was always favored. Dreams could be controlled to be just what they wanted them to be, and control, they did.
Perhaps you have a favorite memory of your cowboy days gone by, Maybe you had real, imaginary, or a combination of cowboy experiences that you will always cherish. Whatever they were, you will probably enjoy reliving them for many more years to come. In the words of The Lone Ranger preparing to ride off into the West: "Hi-yo, Silver! Away!"
Be Safe: Although my siblings, neighboring cousins, and I made crude bows and arrows and sling shots, we did not consider the danger they posed. I was actually shot with an arrow in my right forearm. We did not tell our parents, but when I received another arrow in my right eye, the whole country, it seemed, immediately knew. I squalled to Heaven until Daddy came running from our potato field. We learned safety the hard way.
It is not recommended that kids make their own bows and arrows. Some stores carry the suction-tip arrows that are safer for little cowboys and cowgirls. I do not recommend that kids use rocks with slingshots. Small rubber balls are safer, but supervision should be used to prevent kids from swallowing any small objects.