Old Slim Jon was a hell of a cowboy. We used to ride out early in the morning, checking for new calves, way before sunup, while the smell of sagebrush was still moist. We could get a lot more information on horseback. We never used that four-wheel drive motor scooter the new ranch manager brought in from Reno. Besides, it took longer on horseback. Kinda like job security.
We used to push 800 pair from Minden up into Markleeville. It took about three days. Slim Jon rode lead with a long leather bull whip. You could hear it poppin’ all the way to the back of the herd. That’s where he kept me. Eatin’ dust and smellin’ guacamole. He said I could watch better from drag.
There was a bar out in Minden we could ride back to the first day, after we settled the herd in. They served family-style Basque dinners right in the bar. Last fall, me and Slim had a big dinner in there and a couple of drinks. He was sitting at the edge of a bar stool propped against the wall at the end of the bar. He had to sit that way ‘cause his long old legs were so bowed. He was near 70 by then. Still had all his hair, too. Long handlebars of it ran toward his chin. He kept the rest of it cut short. Said he didn’t want to have to keep buying new hats.
Anyway, last fall, Old Slim Jon said he might not be at the spring roundup. He didn’t say why, and I didn’t press him. He hooked his boot heels over the rungs at the bottom of that bar stool. Those big Mexican rowels jingled against each other. He smiled a big cornflower-blue-eyed smile and bought me a whiskey.
He told me the reason he kept me riding drag was for my own good. Besides, he said he knew how I felt about snakes. He said the snakes didn’t like all the commotion and were well out of the way before I came through. He told me what lead cows to watch out for and which ones I could trust. He said those old cows had handed down the lead for a hundred years. They knew the trail better than he did.
He pulled that big red neckerchief off his shoulders, tipped his hat back and wiped his forehead, then walked out the back door and stepped into his saddle.
The ranch manager brought me Slim’s bull whip on Easter Sunday. Said he found it in a box with my name on it. I never stop remembering what Old Slim Jon taught me.
I showed the new kid how to pop the whip today. He asked me why he got stuck riding drag . I just grinned and told him it was for his own good.