When they were bought new, they shined, and they jingled as you walked down the street. Now, all these years later, they are worn and tarnished, with some rust here and there. And they don't jingle quite like they used to. The leather straps are dry and the heel chains that broke off years ago were replaced with baling wire while out on the range and was never replaced with new chain.
The young fella that bought the spurs was named Joe. I never knew his last name. He started out at a young age as a cowboy. His family was large: he had four sisters who were older than he, and two brothers, one older than Joe and one younger. Seven kids was quite a handful, and there were times that there was not enough food to go around. When Joe was about 14 or so, as he remembers, his dad passed away. His Dad was stomped by a horse that he was trying to bust. The horse managed to bust out of the corral and ran off into the Texas hills.
Then it was just his mom and seven kids. They all pitched in to help make ends meet. Money was tight. The boys did the chores then would look for work on ranches. The girls would help around the house while their mother looked for work away from the ranch. There was not a lot of jobs to be had, so their mom took to doing laundry and two of the girls took up sewing. That brought in some money, but not enough to put food on the table and to buy feed for the animals, or seed for planting.
Joe, at the age of 14, found work on a ranch the other side of town. Just about all of his pay went to his mom for the rest of the kids. He put some aside for himself for things that he needed. Joe said that the ranch he was working on was a cattle outfit. That is how he became a cowboy.
He learned how to rope cows, and the other fellas taught him how to tie a bed roll and how to take care of his gear. Plus, they showed him how to roll a smoke. Joe always seemed to have a rolled cigarette in his mouth. He was working, had three meals a day, and a cot to sleep on. They also gave him a old saddle, bridle, and other tack.
Then they gave him his first horse. Joe laughed, as the horse they gave him was a wild mustang from the Texas hills. He was told that if he could break him, he could have him. Joe said that it took him over a month to break that woolly booger, what with all the other work he had to do on the ranch.
Joe worked on that ranch for over five years. In all those years, he kept on sending his mom money and he would go back and see his family whenever he could. In those five years, two of his older sisters had gotten hitched, as he liked to say, and had moved out of state. He also lost his younger brother, who had been shot and robbed while heading to town to pay a bill at the general store. They never did find the fella that shot him. And Joe still wondered about it.
At 19, Joe left the ranch he had been working on. He took his horse and what little bit of money he had saved and headed north. He worked several ranches in Montana then moved toward the Dakotas. He worked ranches there. And as he put it, he just "cowboyed around."
Texas, to Canada, and also spent time in California. Worked on a movie or two as a wrangler. But he said that he can't remember the name of the pictures. He says that he got to know a few stars back then, like Tex Ritter and some others that I can't remember.
He finally ended up here in Colorado on the ranch that my uncle ran in Kremmling, up by Steamboat. He was hired by my uncle's dad. He was really more the boss of the ranch than my uncle was.
The ranch is where I saw him for the first time. I was young and wanted to be a cowboy. I took to him like flies to molasses. He looked so much the cowboy. From his old black Stetson, right down to the old looking spurs on his worn-out boots. He had a wrinkled face that had never been out of the sun very long, and gnarled hands scarred from barbed wire and all kinds of weather. He looked as old as the hills and didn't stand very straight. And he had the bluest eyes that seemed to know everything and more.
He didn't take to me and my sister right off. He would see us coming up the road to the ranch, and would stand off to one side, as we would jump out of the car to start our vacation. He would see us every day playing around the ranch, running here and there.
Then, one day, I was bound and determined to saddle a horse on my own so I could go riding. Well, he caught me in the horse barn. I had a horse in a stall tied to a railing. I must have been about five or six. I had managed to get a saddle blanket on the horse and was trying and trying to lift a saddle and climb up high enough on the railings to get the saddle on the horse. 'Course, the horse kept moving, then I would drop the saddle, say a few choice words I had learned from some of the guys on the ranch, and pick up the saddle to try again.
Well, I think he heard me first. Then he saw me. He just stood there and watched. I must have tried 40 times to get that saddle on that horse! I heard him clear his throat and give me that blue-eyed look. He rolled a smoke and asked if I needed a hand. He put the saddle on the horse and showed me how to cinch it up. Then how to bridle the horse.
He then took the horse out of the barn,and held it for me. I told him that I needed the horse by the wood fence so I could get on. He just looked at me, smiled, and said a real cowboy does not use a wood fence to get on a horse. And a real cowboy does not use them words I heard in the barn. So he showed me how to sorta climb up into the saddle. He said, "Now if you get off your horse in a field or out on the prairie where there are no fences you can still get back in the saddle. And them words you were saying? You only use them when your with your pards out on the range. They shouldn't be used on the ranch, 'cept maybe when you smash a finger or a horse steps on you."
Joe was good that way. He taught me a lot of things that still hold true to this day. I still use some of the outdoor things he taught me. 'Course, I don't have a horse drawn wagon. But, when you make camp for the night and have unhitched the team, you point the tongue of the wagon in the direction you are traveling for the next day. Or, never drink or get your water downstream from your cows or horse.
Joe was a really great guy. The spurs he had all those years of cowboying, he gave to my cousin Steve. My cousin Steve gave them to me.
Just think of all the places, how many horses and cows and cow camps, storms, sunsets, and how many pairs of boots have seen those spurs. I myself have worn them on the ranch on many a horse. And, how about all the places that old Joe had been to? And all that he has done in his lifetime!
Joe seemed like an old man when I first saw him all those years ago. And he out lived all of his family. I remember when he decided that it was time to call it quits. He had decided that he wanted to go back home to Texas 'cause his cowboy days were about over.
I remember him packing what little bit of belongings he had, from the little bunk house that he had called home for so many years. And we took him into town to catch the train. And me, not to be a teenager for a few years yet, still playing at being a cowboy. I was wearing an old black cowboy hat, dusty jeans, with worn out boots caked with cow patties, and a pair of spurs that had been worn by a real cowboy.
As he was saying goodbye to everyone, I started to cry. He looked at me, his blue eyes just as bright as the first time I ever saw him, and he kneeled down in front of me. He gave me a huge hug, leaned back, rolled a smoke, lit it, and his eyes got a little misty. He looked at me and said, "Cowboys never really die, we just find that big ranch up yonder, and keep on riding the range." And with that, he got up, stepped onto the train, waved, and was gone.
Joe passed I don't know how many years ago. I'm in my 50's now. He went home to Texas and found some relatives down El Paso way. From what I was told, he was out with a relative, and they were on horseback checking on some cows. They stopped at a hilltop, under some trees. They ate some lunch, and his relative said that he had to make a call to mother nature. So Joe just sat there, holding the reins to the horses. When his relative came back, Joe was gone. He had a bit of a smile on his face and the reins in his hand.
It was the first time he didn't have spurs on his boots.