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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

THE DEVILIN' OF OLD JOHN

by C. F. Eckhardt
Old John was about the oldest man I knew who was still working as a cowboy, and I don't know how old he was when he died. I knew he was the oldest man still working as a cowboy where I was more or less 'apprenticing' to be a cowboy, because all the other cowboys called him 'Old John.'

If I ever knew Old John's last name I've forgotten it. Old John was a rarity among cowboys for another reason. He was married. Most of the old-time cowboys I knew, toward the end of the 'old-time cowboy' era in the late '50s and early '60s, were either confirmed bachelors or had been married once-or more than once--but weren't any more. Most of them had a widow they were 'sweet on,' as the expression went, but marriage wasn't in the arrangement.

I don't know what Old John's wife was like when he married her-she must have had something about her that attracted him-but by the time I met him she was, if not the Devil's daughter, certainly his favorite niece. What she did would have been called 'nagging' anywhere else, but among the cowboys it was referred to as 'devilin'.' The woman was constantly after the old man. If he worked short days she complained that he wasn't making enough money. If he worked long days she complained that he wasn't home enough. If Old John had joined me in my treasure hunting-all boys in the Texas hills, whether limestone or granite, hunted buried treasure-and we'd actually found something, she would have deviled him about taking so long to find it and it wouldn't have been enough, anyway.

Where Old John lived and worked there weren't any dial telephones. He worked out of Briggs and Okalla, up in Lampasas County, and the telephones up there had cranks on them into the '60s. They used a single slick, heavy, uninsulated wire. Remember that, because it's important.

Eventually Old John died. When a cowboy died, there was a peculiar ritual to the funeral where I was. All of the 'town folks'-and that included the ranchers and their wives and families-came in 'Sunday clothes' and sat in chairs under the undertaker's tent while the funeral was conducted. The cowboys came in their working clothes and stood outside the tent. Then when it was all over and the 'town folks' had left, and the cemetery folks came in and covered up the grave, the cowboys stepped forward. Each man took a handful of dirt and dropped it on the grave and said something in farewell to the deceased.

Al Draper put his handful of dirt on Old John's final resting place and said "Well, John, I don't reckon I can think of anything to say 'bout bein' dead that's better'n bein' 'live 'cept maybe this. Now you're dead, that woman cain't never devil you no more."

Lon Schuyler said "No, Al, you're wrong. Looky there," and he pointed to a spot just about where Old John's right shoulder would be. There was wire sticking out of the grave's fill-slick, heavy, uninsulated wire. Telephone wire. "She's done gone an' laid a telephone in the coffin with him so she can devil him while he's dead," Lon allowed.

C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
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September 20, 2006 column

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