The First Cowboy

by Bob Worcester   

When I was 14 my parents moved the family out to Montana from the mid-west and I quickly became immersed in the stories of the old west. I learned about Charlie Russell the great western painter whose paintings of the frontier hung in almost every saloon in Montana. He had also collected stories from around the campfires of the old west and wrote them down in a book for posterity. It was said that when Charlie Russell died and went to heaven, the good Lord met him at the Pearly Gates and asked if Charlie would take over the painting of sunsets since his looked better than the real thing.

I told my kids once that I had been a cowboy in Montana before they were born which they later learned was me stretching the truth somewhat, something that Charlie thought was part of any good campfire story. Charlie had great respect for indigenous cultures and saw both cowboys and the First Peoples as victims displaced from their traditional way of life by barbed wire, railroads, eastern city slickers and government bureaucrats. One of my favorite stories that Charlie told was about” The First Cowboy” which I have tweaked a bit, as old storytellers tend to do.

Long long ago in a place way west of here over the water people lived mostly in caves and were not much to look at. Since the end of the last ice age they mostly spent their days sunning themselves, scratching, and eating bugs and berries. Every now and then they would hunt down a chipmunk or catch a frog and have a real feast!

One day a caveman we will call Fred (because he looked sort of like a Flintstone) was laying in wait for a grasshopper and watching the action in the valley below out of the corner of his eye. It was a dangerous time. There were big cats with fangs as long as your arm, woolly elephants with tusks the size of trees, wolves that could eat a buffalo for breakfast, and bears with claws that could take down a tree in one swipe. Needless to say, Fred stayed pretty close to home and his wife never worried about what he might be up to.

On this day he noticed that one creature in the valley had no horns, claws or fangs and ate mostly grass, yet still avoided most of the carnage. They were quick and graceful. Birds would sometimes land on their backs and ride around picking ticks out of the long hair on their necks. It reminded Fred of when he used to ride around on his mama’s shoulders. His recently enlarged brain suddenly got this thing called an IDEA! He figured if he played his cards right he could finagle a ride on one of them critters that the old folks called ‘horses’.

The next day he climbed a tree next to trail that the horses used to get to a watering hole. When the herd came by he picked one that didn’t look too big or frisky and dropped down on its back. The horse wasn’t too pleased and the next thing Fred knew was that horse was airborne. It bucked Fred off in one try and kicked him into a thistle patch. That critter may not have had horns or claws but it was mighty handy with all four hooves.

Fred slunk home bruised and a little worse for wear but not completely discouraged. The next day he hid on top of a big rock by the trail and when the herd came by he picked out the same horse, stepped aboard and grabbed a handful of hair from the mane. This time the horse accelerated up to top speed, planted its feet suddenly and turned sharply to one side. Fred continued on in a straight line and landed in the watering hole which, to his mind, was a pretty big improvement on the thistle patch. The horse looked at Fred in puzzlement – this human had no big teeth or claws and didn’t seem particularly intent on a meal – so the horse just shook his head and wandered off.

On the third day Fred found a big stump by the trail and waited. By luck that same horse came by again so Fred leaped on, grabbed two fistfuls of hair from the mane this time and hung on with all his might as the horse reared up and ran about a kilometer in under 2 minutes. Fred didn’t weigh much and didn’t come loose so the horse slowed to a canter. Fred remembered pulling on his mom’s ears to steer her but that didn’t seem practical with a horse so he tried pulling on the neck hair. The horse soon got the point and before long they had trotted back to the cave.

Fred’s wife Rosy was not all that impressed and said that animal was NOT coming into her clean cave, but his two kids were ecstatic. They pulled up some grass for the horse and fed it a handful of berries and an apple which it liked a lot. Fred climbed down and the horse wandered off but was back the next morning to see if there might be more of those delicious berries or an apple. He also liked being petted and groomed by the kids and so didn’t mind taking Fred for rides in the valley. Fred found that on horseback he could keep up with the larger animals and even managed to catch a wild pig which the family feasted on for a month. Later Fred learned how to wrangle some wild cows and use a lariat. Soon there was meat, milk and hides for everyone.

Unfortunately Fred had some ornery neighbours who used to give him a hard time, but when Fred rode over to talk to them about leaving trash by the watering hole and cutting down his apple trees for firewood, they finally showed him some respect as a guy riding up on horseback looks pretty imposing. Later the whole village learned to ride horses and how to pack up and move to better locations when grass for the horses was gone.

Everyone was living high on the hog but one day those ornery neighbours got the idea that if you waved big sticks or stone clubs around while on horseback you could cause quite a ruckus, which they seemed to do for fun. After awhile the village elders told them to leave if they couldn’t behave themselves so they gathered up their belongings and headed west to a place called Europe where they caused a lot more problems. Fred and his family considered heading the other direction to a place called Beringia but rising sea levels made it difficult to get the horses across the Bering Sea so they stayed put. When Fred died they buried him with his horse and cuttings from his favorite apple tree.

His kids and grandkids told the story of his exploits around campfires which were retold for generations. A guy named Genghis Khan got jealous and claimed it was his story and threatened to BBQ anyone who said it wasn’t so. Charlie Russell heard the story from an old cowboy named Rawhide Rawlins whose Viking ancestors heard the story from some ornery Mongols they captured on a raid into Russia. They claimed that their ancestors used to live next door to Fred.

I read recently that some archeologist had dug up some graves in Mongolia that contained horse and human remains together and one that also contained apple blossoms. I’m not saying that things happened exactly the way I told them but this story may not be that far from the truth. Horses DID finally make it across the water to the new world many years later but THAT is a whole other story!



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