My uncle Hank was one of the last of the true cowboys. When I was a boy, Hank was the chief cattle wrangler at the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch, near Cimarron, New Mexico. He and his wife, (my mother’s twin sister), Bertha, and their two kids, Bill and Ellen, lived in an adobe house on the ranch. Not far away, the ranch hands lived in a “dormitory” next to the stables, the corral, and some other ranch-related outbuildings.
I was fortunate to visit there a couple of times. Hank and Bill (my age) put me on my first horse when I was around 10 years old. Bill and I rode like the wind…until bouncing in the saddle became too painful. One hot, sunny afternoon, Bill, Ellen, my sister, Louise, and I were playing outside near a pile of rocks when we heard an ominous rattling sound. Bill ran to get his dad, who came out of the house carrying a genuine pearl-handled six shooter. After pulling a few rocks out of the pile with a hoe, Hank uncovered a large rattlesnake, coiled up and ready to strike. BLAM! BLAM! Not much snake was left.
One of our visits coincided with the spring roundup, when the cowhands drove the cattle down from the grazing lands and gathered them into the corral so the year’s new calves could be branded. It was hot, dusty work, keeping the branding irons glowing red in an open fire, roping and wrestling the calves to the ground, and holding them down while one of the hands pressed a hot iron into the calf’s flank. The hands had done this before and were efficient at their tasks, but it wasn’t pretty to watch, hear, or smell.
I remember the side trips to Taos, when Taos was just a pueblo and the beautiful people were all Native Americans. I remember drinking mountain spring water from a stream running the length of a fallen, partially hollowed log. I remember the “Tooth of Time,” a huge chunk of granite surmounting the top of one of the mountains. I remember Eagles Nest, a tiny village on a high pass on a narrow road leading from Cimarron to Taos. I remember Uncle Hank catching half a dozen trout in a small stream where we camped overnight and serving them for breakfast. I remember Hank striking a match with his thumbnail to light his ever-present Lucky Strike. I remember how comfortably Hank fit into his world.
When you’ve been a cowboy much of your adult life, you are not well suited for other employment. Changes in the management at Philmont left Hank outside the fence, without a horse to ride or a calf to rope. Hank moved his family to Las Vegas, New Mexico, and joined the police department, but he wasn’t cut out for that line of work. He just kind of drifted from one ill-fitting job to another for a few years, until Bill was discharged from the Navy. Since Bill operated heavy equipment in Antarctica as a Seabee, Bill and Hank bought a dump truck, a trailer, and a backhoe and went into the digging business, based just North of Denver.
About a month before Hank and Bertha were to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, Hank had to be confined to a facility specializing in caring for individuals with advanced dementia. No one really knows what goes on in the minds of people suffering from dementia, but it is clear that their early memories are the last to be erased. I would like to believe that, at the end, Hank was riding his horse, chasing an errant cow and her calf, until his sun finally set.