A fine site

Head ’em up, move ’em out – Chapter 1

on April 7, 2013
English: Old Western Replica of a Chuck Wagon ...

English: Old Western Replica of a Chuck Wagon Built in The Ozarks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We  spend much more time than we should, watching the Western Channel on television.  We have found that most of the western movies are clean, meaning little or no foul language or explicit sexual scenes, so it is our choice of movie channels.  Some of the movies bear watching more than one time.  An example would be Open Range with Kevin Costner; and another one would be the John Wayne classic, True Grit.  Having been brought up in New Mexico, and becoming an avid fan of Louis L’Amour western books at an early age, it is no wonder that I am intrigued by the Old West.  Add to that the fact that as children, my sister and I spent summers with our  grandparents in Texas, listening to them talk “old days” and their adventures in a bygone time.  Grandpa even talked about riding with Pancho Villa.  How I wish I had listened more closely.  I regret that their stories, which remain only vaguely in my memory, died with them.   There is, however, a book written about  my grandfather on my daddy’s side of the family.  One can tell by the title of the book  (Mean As Hell) that he was rather notorious.  The author of the book is Dee Harkey and is available through Amazon if you are interested.   My grandfather’s name was Barney Kemp Riggs.

So here goes.  Where this journey will take us, I am not sure.  That’s the exciting part of writing or painting a picture or doing anything creative.  It takes on a life of its own as you go along and winds along paths you never imagined, and finally there’s a finished project.  The completion is not the best part though–it’s all about the journey.

I’ll start with the cook on a cattle drive.  If you watch “Rawhide” every day like we do, you’d know that Wishbone is the name of the grouchy cook on “Rawhide”.  A cowboy on a trail drive earned between $15 to $20 a month, the Trail Boss would make $35 per month, and the cook on a chuck wagon earned twice as much as the ranch hands.  He certainly earned every dollar.  He had to get up at 3 a.m. with a kerosene lantern perched atop the chuck box, in order to cook breakfast for the crew.  The Boss would let him know where he wanted him to have the wagon for dinner (for the cowboy, dinner is the noon meal and supper is the evening meal), and the cook would pack up everything, hitch up the 2 or 4 horse team, drive to the next camp area and prepare dinner and supper for the men.  Sometimes he had to change camp twice a day; at other times, they camped several days in one place.  It all depended on how many calves had to be branded and how long the work would take.  Of course, the Cook got to bed later than the crew, because he had to clean up the dishes.  If you watch Rawhide, you know that “Mushy” helped Wishbone with kitchen duties.  But not all Cooks had helpers.  Usually the horse wrangler or some of the cowboys helped the cook get wood and water.

The outfit that had the best cook, usually got the top hands.  The cook was often grouchy (with his hours, who wouldn’t be?) and sometimes he’d quit in the middle of work.  When that happened, the cowboy who could make the best biscuits was drafted to cook.  Since wood wasn’t plentiful on the Plains, sometimes the cook had to carry it along, either on the hoodlum wagon which carried the cowboys’ bedrolls, or in a cowhide, called a “possum belly” which was tied to the underside of the chuck wagon.  Cow chips were also used as fuel for the fire.    “Prairie Coal” otherwise known as cow patties or ‘brown rounds’ became one of the most readily available fuel sources. If there was only a small crew (8 or less), the bedrolls were carried on the chuck wagon itself.

The cook built his cook fire about ten feet from the work table of the chuck box.  The space between the work table and the cook fire was the cook’s private domain, and woe to the unknowing greenhorn who invaded it without being invited to do so.  Coffee was always available, but again, courtesy demanded the cook’s invitation before a hand could help himself.  At mealtime, the hands rode up to the wagon from the downwind side (why do you think this might have been the case?), hobbled their horses at least 30 yards away (only the boss might bring his horse closer-and then only from downwind), washed up at the basin near the wagon and waited for the cook’s “Come an’ get it!” call.  The eatin’ irons (plates, cups, forks and spoons) were taken from drawers in the chuck box.  Cowboys carried their own pocket knives.   The men sat on the ground to eat and when finished, they put their dirty dishes in a washtub, referred to as the “roundup pan”.  Drinking water was strapped to the side of the wagon.

The traveling pantry or Cowboy kitchen carried all the food staples needed for the long drive: flour, brown sugar, cornmeal, coffee (in the bean), beans, lard, salt fatback, sometimes dried fruit when it was available, salt and pepper.   A firkin or quarter-size covered barrel of sourdough started for making biscuits was included, as was a full-size water barrel which held 2 days water supply for the 10-15 cowboys.  The coffee pot was on duty 24 hours a day.  The chuck wagon had to be very carefully stocked since re-supply places were few and far between.  Beef was fresh and plentiful on the hoof and they wasted nothing.  The chuck wagon also contained a coffee grinder, a meat grinder,  lantern, medicine, a Bible, a wind-up alarm clock, and whiskey.

The cook or ‘cookie’ as he was known by all was certainly king of this mobile domain.  He not only cooked, but served the crew as barber, banker, doctor, settler of disputes, letter writer, father figure and confessor while serving as the vital morale booster to the group.  The cook was usually an older man, and good ones were hard to find and even harder to keep.  If you complained about the food, the job was yours.    There was very little variation on the menu: beef, bacon (depending on the availability) , sour dough biscuits,  white gravy,  beans and sow belly,  and always coffee.  If the cook were of a mind, and dried fruit was available, he might bake a pie.  The story is told that sometimes he would use the brand of the outfit as a steam vent in the top crust.

Then came the part that I would enjoy–the storytellers gathering around the evening campfire.  There might be a mouth organist (harmonica player) who added their part to the evenings.  Then the crew would retire to their bedrolls for a night’s rest (unless they were on night watch).  Imagine a night sky where there are no lights of any kind to interfere with the twinkling canvas overhead.  I think there’s a lot to be said for the cowboy way.

Next chapter will be about the pioneering women, and all the reasons I am glad I live now, and not back then.  Meanwhile, head ’em up, move ’em out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: