From Bruce Patterson
3/11/09 Ukiah, North California
Old enough to be my grandpa, Ole Claude was one of those rarest of breeds: a cowboy with ambition and an education. Ole Claude also had a serious sense of humor and he loved telling riddles. Like, he’d ask, it’s Friday night, the saloon has shut down and three cowboys are making their way back home to the ranch. They are sitting three across in the cab of a pickup truck that’s rolling dust down a long dirt road. Now, which one of them fellahs is the real cowboy?
And after you’d scratched your head and gazed at him in slack-jawed befuddlement, he’d answer that it’s obviously the fellah riding in the middle. That one ain’t gotta drive the pickup truck and he ain’t gotta get out and open the gate.
Claude having himself a college education meant he knew there was more to life than just cows, horses and dogs. There were sheep, for example. Contrary to what folks thought, Claude didn’t mind explaining, sheep weren’t all that much stupider than cattle. Like with any other sort of social critters , the degree of an individual sheep’s intelligence relied upon the size of the herd he was running with. The larger the herd, the rule was, the stupider the individual critter.
For instance, Claude would point out, if you get up one horse and one dog and you take after one wooly maverick buck that has gotten himself used to running free in these hills, you’d best be ready to expend some effort. For if the buck’s half-wily you can count on him heading for ground too steep for a horse and too brushy for a dog.
“You take after a lone old wooly up here in these hills,” Ole Claude would volunteer, “you’d best remember to pack a lunch.”
Whereas if it was one hundred head of sheep you were after, why sometimes just the sight of your ambling horse was enough to get the whole bunch of them all turned and heading the right way.
I suppose if I’d have asked Ole Claude if the same rule applied to us humans, we being social critters and all, he’d have frowned as if he’d never thought of it that way. He might pretend to ponder the question long and hard before answering in a gentlemanly tone something like, come to think of it, he reckoned he’d have to allow how that just could be some kind of possibility if you looked at it in the right way. Then he’d grin at you with a crooked little glint in his eye.
I used to love listening to Ole Claude telling stories. During the nineteen seventies and early eighties up in Yorkville, just after quitting time most days, Ole Claude would shuffle into the Oaks Cafe. Back then Yorkville was still mostly working ranches and when the day was done lots of us ranchers and hired hands, both newcomers like myself and old-timers like Claude, would polish our elbows on the bar. Some, like Marvin, would keep his black Stetson cocked low over his eyes and silently nurse cups of coffee. Others would sip beers and still others, mostly us young bucks, would knock them back.
When Claude was in his seventies, he’d sit in the Oaks Cafe long enough to sip on a beer or two. But after he turned eighty and his body started quitting on him and his shaking hands told him the end was coming near, he’d just sit and sip a cup of coffee or a bottle of what he called “Sody-pop.”
During the nineteen twenties and thirties Claude did some rodeoing. He was too tall to make much of a bronc’ buster or bull rider, but those long, skinny arms of his helped make him into a fair-to-middlin roper. I remember once Claude told me about how, unlike in the Hollywood movies where all of the cowboys were Anglo Saxons, in real life blacks, Mexicans and Indians did a lot of the heave-ho out on the spreads and on the rodeo circuit.
Like all professional sports in those days, rodeo was racially segregated. If a fellow’s complexion looked right, they’d let him compete, but if he looked to be something less than passable white, they’d turn him away. Rodeo was a white man’s sport and the others were allowed along to muck the stalls and to tend to the livestock, to do the set up and the take down, perform as clowns, wranglers, animal doctors, blacksmiths and the like. But none of them were allowed to compete in the arena for those big pots of prize money.
So naturally, things being that way, lots of real good cowboys were kept out of the competition. Claude remembered this one black fellah who was probably the best damned bronc’ buster there ever was. He was a liddlepbiddy squirt who was so skinny that he used the rims of his point-toed, tooled, high-topped cowboy boots to hang his socks over. But boy he could sure ride horses. The black dude developed a clown act where he’d come out the chute aboard a bucking bronco sitting it backward. No lie and that’s God’s honest truth. Seeing him coming out the chute riding backward was the damnest sight and once word got around that the rodeo had themselves a black dude fool crazy enough to ride a bronc’ like that, why the stands filled with gawkers and rubber-neckers and pretty quick this fellah’s getting rich on his appearance fees.
And if that weren’t sweet enough, Ole Claude was glad to tell, to put icing on the cake the black fellah used most of his fee money to make side bets saying that he’d come out the gate and stay aboard the bronc’ for the full eight seconds just like a front-wise-riding cowboy. And since most of the professional cowboys thought the whole idea was asinine and somehow not right, or proper, or even conceivable unless you’d just clunked your head on a rock, the black fellah had no trouble finding cowboys willing to match his money. And because most always the fellah made the horn and the cowboys were forced to pay up, for awhile there the black dude was the best paid damned cowboy on the whole damned rodeo circuit.
So, talking about Claude, this one time a bunch of us were sitting in the Oaks and this brand new young buck government trapper walked through the door. A pack of coyotes was slaughtering sheep up on Snow Mountain, and the trapper been brought in to fix the problem. He sat down next to Claude and they got to talking and it came out that the trapper had just come from trapping out in northern Nevada. Claude knew a fair bit about that country himself, it turned out, him having once worked some years out along the Humboldt River downstream from that glittering diamond of a desert oasis with the sweetly sonorous name:Winnemucca . And hearing them carrying on about the Basin and Range country made Ole Stanley, who’d spent most his life out in Surprise Valley there east of the Wagner Mountains, start telling his own Great Basin stories and soon, listening to the three of them talking made you feel the open range wind and smell the sage.
You want to graze a cow out by Empire? Well you just set her aside two hundred acres and you cut her loose.
I remember Ole Claude mentioning to the trapper how, what with people being so scarce in those parts, the Ki-oats were easy pickings. Give them a full moon and, just like a bunch of drunken cowboys on payday, they’ll be out there in the wide open howling like there was no tomorrow. Or set yourself out there in the scrublands in the middle of the black night, switch on your rig’s headlights and the Ki-oats will gather around you just wondering what in tarnation you’re up to and how that might be of some benefit to them. Or go out there in the scrublands in the middle of the black night, switch on your rig’s headlights and the Ki-oats will gather around you just wondering what in tarnation you’re up to and how that might be of some benefit to them. Or go out there in that wide open country all alone, make yourself a little campfire under the rimrock, start cooking some hotdogs and soon the Ki -oats will be sitting in the shadows just beyond your flickering firelight. They’ll be sitting there licking their chops at the prospect of wolfing down your leave behinds. And if you were to ask them nice enough, why they’d come in out of the shadows and join you next to the fire and shoot the shit with you and, if you didn’t watch out, they’d drink up all of your coffee.
Now Yorkville’s Ki-oats, Claude assured the trapper, they were of a whole different sort of background and personality. For one hundred and some odd years folks in Anderson Valley had been trying to kill off the Ki-Oats any which way they could think of, plus some other ways based just on hunches. So Yorkville’s Ki-oats, Claude authoritatively declared to the new trapper with just a wee bit of pride showing through, had all got themselves college educations. A Yorkville Ki-oat, Claude swore, would as soon walk into a trapper’s trap as show mercy to a three-legged lamb, or overlook a wild turkey with his head stuck in a chicken wire fence.
Well the young trapper took a slight bit of umbrage, if umbrage it was, and I suppose you couldn’t blame him none. Him being a young government trapper meant his whole life folks had been offering him little tips on how to go about his business and how he could better earn his money. So the trapper could be excused if in this case he missed the fact that the old fart talking knew a little bit more aboutYorkville’s Ki-oats than he did.
Ole Claude, who most always wore a “too old to care” sort of expression, still didn’t mind jumping on a joke when he saw one. Sensing the trapper’s wounded pride, Ole Claude saw the chance to have some fun with it.
“You don’t go off into the brush with your truck keys in your pocket, do you?” he asked the trapper.
“No,” the trapper answered hesitantly, sensing a trap.
“And you leave your wallet in your glove compartment so you don’t lose it out there in the mountains, am I right?”
Against his will, the trapper nodded.
“Well I’ll tell you right now you can’t be doing that around here and if I was you I wouldn’t even try.”
“Because if you do then while you’re up on Snow Mountain setting your traps, them Ki-oats are gonna be down in Cloverdale joy riding in your pickup truck and thumbing through your credit cards.”
Excerpted from Walking Tractor and Other Tales of Old Anderson Valley (2006)
Photo by author: The Yorkville Schoolhouse