DEVILIN' OF OLD JOHN
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
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,
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.
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."
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
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"