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Purple Sage

Confessions of a cowboy poet.

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Writer of the Purple Sage

Confessions of a cowboy poet.

By Mike Moutoux


Some have said that the West was "won." Maybe so, but I would argue that it is not some prize or a place that can be claimed with land grabs, wars or politics. The West, in fact, wins people—I know it won me over a long time ago. I surrender to its charms every day: the brooding mountains and sculpted plateaus, the windswept deserts and prairies, and all the wild things that live here. Surrendering should be easy; I'm a poet and poets aren't usually fighters. But I'm also a cowboy and that means I'm unlikely to be bowled over by something as simple as a sunset, much less surrender to it. I don't mind getting my hands dirty; I use simple words; I know which end of the horse bites and which kicks. I wear a Stetson to work. I don't surrender easy.

Three Socks, in front, wears the old Hamley saddle.

"Cowboy Poet" sounds like an oxymoron, I know, and actually it's rare for me to be both at the same time, but I've done it. When you're cowboyin' you have your hands full most of the time. It won't do to stop everything just because a muse shows up with a good idea for a poem. I never understood muses anyway—it's all Greek to me. So, I just write when I can, memorize the poems I think an audience will enjoy, and perform them in a way I hope takes their imaginations for a ride. That's how I see my job—takin' folks to a place or a feeling they may not get to any other way.

Speaking of getting away. . . The Cottonwood Ranch lies two hours northeast of Elko, Nevada. It's a working cattle ranch that survives, in part, because it also operates as a guest ranch. I was there looking for a good time and to collect some new experiences and ideas. I spent a week there about the time the aspens were turning gold up in the mountains. The highlight was a two-day horse drive through 25 miles of high desert sagebrush hemmed in to the north and west by the Jarbridge Mountains. It rained one night while I was there, and the smell of the sage the next morning was almost intoxicating.

One of the pleasures of that trip was using the ranch owner's old saddle. It was over 50 years old, made by the Hamley Saddle Co., and in use by Horace Smith since he was 16 years old. I got to thinking that there must be a lot of stories in that old saddle and I was right. I learned there were enough stories to fill a book, certainly enough for a poem:


The Hamley


The old Hamley was hidden inside the barn

Blankets kept the dust away

When we threw it up on Three Socks I knew it—

I had a million stories tucked between my legs


The language of the saddle is a quiet one

But, oh, the stories in its groans and squeaks

It doesn't say much in the barn; I guess that's natural

But cinch it on a horse and the Hamley speaks


Layered in the well-worn leather

Deep in the grain of the Wade fork wood

Were the memories of a cowboy who spent a lifetime

Workin' on a ranch called Cottonwood


Horace Smith was just 16 when he got the saddle

A gift from a grandfather and so a special one

He'd sure be proud to know how long it lasted

And how much work it helped his grandson to get done


Horace was still young when he broke Banner

The dark saddle sure looked great up on that bay

When he left to fight a war, the horse was sold to a bucking string

So Banner left the ranch but the Hamley stayed


Next there was an Anglo-Arab, Carbine

The saddle sure looked great up on that gray

That animal was beautiful, by all accounts a good cow-horse

With endurance they still talk about today


Snip was a big and well-liked thoroughbred

The Hamley sure looked great up on that brown

Spring and summer they worked cows, but every fall they hit the mountains

Takin' lots of hunters up, lots of elk and muleys down


There was Peter Pan, another Arab, and Saber, another bay

Samba, a sorrel, ridden in the Rose Bowl Day Parade

The Hamley remembers Tequila, Latigo and Lariet

And a few more rides that Horace might someday just forget

But the saddle keeps their stories just the same


They say that Horace doesn't ride much now—bad knees

Too much time in the saddle is what they say

But the stories that I heard I sure envied

And well-told in the saddle's quiet cowboy way


And me and Three Socks left our stories in the saddle

Times and places that I still visit in my sleep

Stories you can hear in the language of old leather

Memories I hope the Hamley long will keep


It felt right to me, sittin' in that saddle pushin' cows and horses by day and swappin' stories at night by a fire.


So when I landed in New Mexico, I started looking for ranch work as soon as I was settled in. It was almost an hour commute from my house to the ranch near Gila, where I got a job as a wrangler on local working/guest ranch. During the hottest parts of June and July, I fed and saddled horses, fixed fence, and occasionally took guests for a ride. You'd think I'd have been writing about those experiences often, but to tell the truth, I was too tired most days and still trying to absorb it all. I told people I was the dumbest and hardest working cowboy on the place. Both true.

One of my favorite experiences involved taking some salt blocks out to a herd of cattle about seven miles from the ranch headquarters. We saddled two horses for ourselves and secured a pack frame (a noisy combination of wood, leather and metal) to a third horse. Our foreman led the packhorse with an empty pack frame off on a trot to see how the horse reacted to the noise and banging. It took about three seconds to learn that the horse did not like the new experience much at all.

The horse pulled free in a panic and took off trailing the lead rope. He circled the hitching rail twice, exciting all the horses tied there, and then he ran off down the dirt ranch road clanging and banging and kicking up a trail of dust. He crashed through the low branches of the first tree he came to, breaking one of the cinch straps in the process as well as a large limb from the tree. The pack frame and the horse parted company about then; the frame seemed to have suffered the most from the collision. We picked up the remains of the frame, caught the horse and started over. Of course, we picked a different packhorse and things went smoothly this time.

The sun was setting by the time we reached the cows. It was a great time to be on horseback, but a long ride from headquarters. So my buddy, Stan, and I left the cows and headed back immediately, covering the last mile at a trot under the light of the moon. I did not go home and write a poem as you might think; I was too tired and would get up at 5:30 the next morning to go to work again. I didn't need a poem to remember the ride or Stan's quiet company, anyway. The ride deserves remembering. Stan and I have both since left the ranch, and it was our last ride together.


I live near Pinos Altos, and that's where I met my next cowboy buddy. Everyone knows him as "Cowboy Charlie." I just call him Charlie; adding "cowboy" seems unnecessary considering his weathered features, the long-sleeved white shirt he always wears, the slick-soled cowboy boots and especially that hat. That Stetson has clearly seen better days, but Charlie swears it's only nine years old. Hat-years must be like dog-years—multiply their birthdays by seven and you get something closer to the truth:


Charlie's Hat


They introduced him to me as "Cowboy Charlie"

Though his occupation was clear beyond a doubt

That conk cover he was wearin' told me a-plenty

One look told me what he was all about


The brim was shaped and curled; the felt was worn and thin

The crown was stained from years of summer sweat and grease

A frayed band of silk had faded to match the color

Of bits of hay collected in the crease


He told me later that strangers asked to buy it

Guess they couldn't find one like it in antique stores

They wanted a trophy and would pay top dollar if

They could skip the dirty work and saddle sores


He never took the cash, I didn't ask him why

For years that hat and him were never far apart

He wouldn't feel right, sellin' a piece of him like that

For a stranger to hang on a wall like it was art


Charlie's life is his art and no it ain't for sale

Folks can appreciate the art or just leave it

So when Charlie tells you, "No, the hat ain't for sale"

Keep your money to yourself and believe it


Now, Charlie is a friend of mine, I'm happy to report

So I'm sure he won't mind if I let you in

On a secret I've discovered about that ol' hat

He won't sell it— but he'll tell you where it's been


There's lot of stories in and under that John B.

Funny ones and tales of love and personal loss

His eyes shine bright when he brings out the clippings

Of him with that Appaloosa hoss


The stories stretch from New Mexico to New England

Complete with names of horses, ranches and the men

He tells a good story and I know that Charlie likes

Recallin' all the places that hat's been


Now, some folks dress for success as if they think

Their fates could be determined by the clothes they wear

Well, a cowboy's hat ain't gonna tell you where he's goin'

But one look and you'll know if he's been there.


Charlie and I have been doing a little volunteering at a horse rescue place until we figure out our next move. He hopes to buy a little place and start training horses. I hope to find at least part-time or seasonal work on a ranch and spend my free time performing at cowboy poetry festivals and around a campfire now and then. I try to reach out to everyone: the old rancher in the straw hat who won't sit down but listens from the back of the room, the kids with the too-big-for-their-heads' cowboy hats and jeans tucked into their boots, and the well-dressed couple that look like they live in town.

We all benefit from the values and traditions of hard-working, fun-loving cowboys. I try to leave an audience with an image of the cowboy as I see him: a guy who is generous and kind with a heart as big as the West itself, but a guy who can also be stubborn and tough when decency and fairness require those things. A guy who puts women on the highest pedestal—-children and puppies a close second.

Maybe that image isn't accurate today or even historically. Maybe I romanticize too much. But I like the image and try to live up to it. I'm pretty sure the effort makes me a better man.

"Cowboy." Some say the word is a verb, not just a noun. Others have said it is an attitude and not an occupation. I think the word stands for a lot of what is good and right in the circles I travel in. When I write about cowboys, I try to keep those things in mind. When I perform the poetry for an audience, I try to bring them into that circle so we can all ride off into that Western sunset together—sitting tall in the saddle and feeling pretty good about who we are.


Cowboy poet Mike Moutoux lives in Pinos Altos. Contact him at PO Box 53114, Pinos Altos, NM 88053 or email emilyandmike@gilanet.com

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