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High Eagle The Many Lives Of Colonel Tim Mccoy
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
Well, I wanted to be a cowboy. I’d been interested in the West. I’d seen the cowboys who had come east with wild horses and broke them out, and I’d get right down in the middle of them when I was just a kid. I was able to rope and ride. Of course, every kid rode because they used to ship these wild horses back from the Western country and break them to sell to guys on drays, carts, and what not. Every kid would be down there among the cowboys. Well, just to see them wasn’t enough for me, and it wasn’t long before I had my hand on a rope, working along with them. Because of those cowboys I turned west. I wanted to be like them.
You jus t came out and started working as a ranch hand?
I came out there and went to work as a ranch hand, that’s right.
And just learned the skills?
Don’t you see, that’s the thing. Now, most people think that a cowboy, you just start right off and you’re a top cowboy. Well, you’ve got to serve your apprenticeship; you know, you’ve got to pay your dues first. You start at the bottom. I’ll never forget Ross Santee, the Western artist. I was back East visiting with Frazier Hunt, the author, and we got to talking about the West, so I happened to say to Ross, “Well there was this particular time I was wrangling horses on the roundup … ,” and Ross said, “What did you say?” I said, “I was wrangling horses.” And he got up and he said, “May I shake you by the hand? You’re the first son-of-a-bitch who ever came out of the West that wasn’t a top hand all his life.”
Can you describe the nature of the American cowboy during the early years of this century? What was he like?
Well, he was just another fellow who made his living riding a horse. That’s about the only way to describe him. He worked livestock and rode the range.
It was an unusual way of life. It was a hard way of life, wasn ‘t it?
But it was so exciting. There was always something to do. You didn’t know whether you were going to get your neck broke in the next minute or what was going to happen to you. But when you’re young nothing is tough or hard for you. You roll out your bedroll on the ground—it might rain on you, it might snow on you, but young fellas can take it, you see. When I think of it now, I think it’s appalling. The idea of putting in at roundup time about sixteen or eighteen hours a day in the saddle. Who wants to ride down three horses?
In those days, there was still a West to come to. When did the West cease to be a magnet for adventurous young men?
Well, it was fading when I first came to it.
What were the signs of the fading?
So many small ranches being taken up. Homesteaders cut up the big open range a lot, and when a fellow took up a homestead he had to make certain improvements on it, so one of the first and easiest things to do was put a barbedwire fence around it. Well, that interfered with your cattle running for so many miles. When I first came out, in certain parts of the country that I worked in out there, heavens, we could trail our beef cattle for a hundred miles to the railroad at shipping time in the fall. Toward the end, though, it go so it was a little difficult to find a way to follow the creeks down and get to the railroad without having to run over all these little old ranchers that had their barbed wire up around you. So I would say that that was the beginning of the breaking up of the Old West.
Nowadays men seem wracked by a sense of alienation. Did the cowboys have any of this in your day? I mean, what did you worry about as ayoung cowboy?
I’m trying to comprehend what you mean by alienation. You were never quite alone. You rode very seldom alone. You were generally in pairs, or on roundups there would be twelve, fifteen, twenty of you. But even so, you had the whole country … you had the mountains, streams … there was always enough to occupy you. I’ll say this when you ask that question. There was one thing that a cowboy never heard about and that was a psychiatrist.
He had no need for a psychiatrist?
He was not disturbed mentally at all. Of course, most of them didn’t have any mentality, I guess, or they wouldn’t have been cowboys. I can remember riding along all by myself. You have a chance to let your imagination run wild with you and your imagination takes you right out of the saddle—talk about the knight in shining armor, you’re that fellow. It might be as you’re riding a great distance that you could sort of imagine that the next bend around the next spur of the mountain over there you’re going to run into some gal who is just out visiting from the East, visiting on some ranch, and you’re going to run into her and she’s going to be charming and isn’t that going to be fun!
And you just kept on riding—right into World War I, then Hollywood, and then the Wild West show. You know, Colonel, the old. Wild West shows and circuses abounded with colonels and majors, and captains, but in your case the title is authentic. You earned it in World War I?