When Leo arrived at Frankie's ranch, all the cowboys were gone. Leo was the only human on that seventeen square mile outfit in Lipscomb County. Naturally he began looking around for the raw materials for a prank.
Within minutes he had found what he needed: a box turtle and a paper sack. He placed the turtle inside the sack and tied the top with a piece of baling wire, slipped into Frankie's house and hid the sack behind the couch.
The other cowboys returned at noon. After lunch several men were lying around in the living room, catching a nap. The man on the couch heard a scratching noise. "Frankie, I think you've got a mouse inside this wall."
He tried to go back to his nap but the sound continued, louder this time. "Frankie, I think you've a rat inside this wall."
Again he tried to sleep, but by this time the scratching had gotten so loud that he abandoned the couch and moved to another room. "Hey Frankie, you've got beavers in here, and they're fixing to chew the house down."
Who but a cowboy would think of putting a turtle in a paper sack and hiding it behind a friend's couch? Who but a cowboy would describe a dry year by saying, "There ain't enough moisture on this whole ranch to rust a nail"?
Or to say, "Civilization hasn't done much but make you wash your teeth" (Will Rogers), or "Always wear a tie the color of the main course" (Baxter Black)?
Sandy Hagar, a pal of mine from Beaver County, Oklahoma, once told me, "Most people smell with their nose and run with their feet. I was made backwards. My nose runs and my feet smell."
Another fellow owned a dog that was utterly worthless. When a tornado struck the man's house and destroyed all his possessions, he said, "The storm got it all, but at least we were able to save the dog."
Understatement is often the dynamo that fuels cowboy humor. The worse the wreck and the louder the crash, the smaller the response. Several years back, a Texas Panhandle cowboy left town with several beers in his tank and started back to the ranch late at night. He missed a curve, smashed into a bridge, and destroyed his pickup.
Cut and bleeding, he dragged himself to the nearest house and got his neighbors out of bed. "Holy smokes, Charlie, what happened?"
"Oh, my pickup quit on me."
One day in 1979 I was riding with Jake Parker when he put his rope on an 1800 pound bull and dragged him into a stock trailer. It was a difficult, dangerous job but he made it look easy. I commented on that. Jake shrugged. "He's just some old cow's calf."
Another fellow went to see the chiropractor, said his neck was bothering him. The doctor asked what happened. "Horse stepped on my hat." He waited a moment. "My head was in it."
The very best cowboy wordsmiths can distill language down to a few choice words, and do it on the spot. "He ain't worth eight eggs" was a gem I heard on a roundup crew one morning before daylight.
Glenn Green and I once witnessed a group of cowboys who were whipping and spurring to get control of a wild stampede. Glenn's comment: "Looks like they're exercising the heifers."
In 1972 I owned a horse named Dollarbill who had an annoying habit. On a hot day, after he had been worked hard and turned into a water lot, he would roll in the dirt with the saddle on. I wanted to break him of that habit, so I asked the advice of an expert, Jim Streeter, who had spent years cowboying on the Canadian River.
"Jim, what do you do about a horse that rolls with the saddle on?"
"Take it off."
With the growing popularity of cowboy poetry, we have a new crop of storytellers who are mining the rich ore of western humor. The best‑known of the cowboy poets is Baxter Black of Colorado, who has taken all the elements of cowboy humor and molded them into verses that completely wreck the theory that poetry is dead in modern America.
In a poem called "Talk About Tough!" he tells about a cowboy who got bucked off his horse and landed astraddle a barbed wire fence:
And rode his ol' pony on in.
Which brings us to a final word about cowboy humor. Some of it wouldn't pass for truth in a court of law.