“Them Old Cowboy Songs” a Beautiful Story of Wyoming by Annie Proulx


Pioneer woman, ca. 1800s. (Pinterest)


‘Archie and Rose McLaverty staked out a homestead where the Little Weed comes rattling down from the Sierra Madre, water named not for miniature obnoxious flora but for P. H. Weed, a gold-seeker who had starved near its source. Archie had a face as smooth as a skinned aspen, his lips barely incised on the surface, as though scratched in with a knife. All his natural decoration was in his red cheeks and his springy waves of auburn hair, which seemed charged with voltage. He lied about his age to anyone who asked—he was not twenty-one but sixteen. The first summer, they lived in a tent while Archie worked on a small cabin. It took him a month of rounding up stray cows for Bunk Peck before he could afford two glass windows. The cabin was snug, built with eight-foot squared-off logs tenoned on the ends and dropped into mortised uprights, a size Archie could handle himself, with a little help from their only neighbor, Tom Ackler, a sun-dried prospector with a summer shack up on the mountain. They chinked the cabin with heavy yellow clay. One day, Archie dragged a huge flat stone to the house for a doorstep. It was pleasant to sit in the cool of the evening with their feet on the great stone and watch the deer come down to drink and, just before darkness, see the herons flying upstream, their color matching the sky so closely they might have been eyes of wind. Archie dug into the side of the hill and built a stout meat house, sawed wood while Rose split kindling until they had four cords stacked high against the cabin, almost to the eaves, the pile immediately tenanted by a weasel.

“He’ll keep the mice down,” Rose said.

“Yeah, if the bastard don’t bite somebody,” Archie said, flexing his right forefinger. A faint brogue flavored his sentences, for he had been conceived in Ireland and born, in 1868, in Dakota Territory, of parents arrived from Bantry Bay, his father to spike ties for the Union Pacific Railroad. His mother’s death from cholera when he was seven was followed a few weeks later by that of his father, who had guzzled an entire bottle of strychnine-laced patent medicine that was guaranteed to ward off cholera and measles if taken in teaspoon quantities. Before Archie’s mother died, she had taught him dozens of old songs and the rudiments of music structure by painting a plank with black and white piano keys, sitting him before it, and encouraging him to touch the keys with the correct fingers. The family wipeout removed the Irish influence. Mrs. Sarah Peck, a warmhearted Missouri Methodist widow, raised the young orphan, to the great resentment of her son, Bunk.

A parade of saddle bums drifted through the Peck bunkhouse, and from an early age Archie listened to the songs they sang. He was a quick study for a tune, and had a memory for rhymes, verses, and intonations. When Mrs. Peck died, caught in a grass conflagration she had started while singeing slaughtered chickens, Archie was fourteen and Bunk in his early twenties. Without Mrs. Peck as a buffer, the relationship became one of hired hand and boss. There had never been any sense of kinship, fictive or otherwise, between them, and Bunk Peck fumed over the hundred dollars his mother had left Archie in her will.

Archie McLaverty had a singing voice that once heard was never forgotten. It was a straight, hard voice, the words falling out halfway between a shout and a song. Sad and flat and without ornamentation, it expressed things that were unsayable. He sang plain and square-cut, “Brandy’s brandy, any way you mix it, a Texian’s a Texian any way you fix it,” and the listeners laughed at the droll way he rolled out “fix it,” the words surely meaning castration. He could sing every song—“Go ’Long Blue Dog,” and “When the Green Grass Comes,” “Don’t Pull Off My Boots,” and “Two Quarts of Whiskey,” and at all-male roundup nights he had endless verses of “The Stinkin Cow,” “The Buckskin Shirt,” and “Cousin Harry.” He courted Rose by singing, “Never marry no good-for-nothin boy,” it being understood that the boy was himself, the “good-for-nothin” a disclaimer. Later, with winks and innuendo, he sang, “Little girl, for safety you better get branded.”

Archie, advised by an ex-homesteader working for Bunk Peck, used his inheritance from Mrs. Peck to buy eighty acres of private land. It would have cost nothing if he had filed for a homestead twice that size on public land, or eight times larger on desert land, but Archie feared the government would discover he was a minor. Since he had never expected anything from Mrs. Peck, buying the land with the surprise legacy seemed like getting it for free. Archie, thrilled to be a landowner, told Rose he had to sing the metes and bounds. He started on the southwest corner early one morning and headed east. Rose walked along with him at the beginning and even tried to sing with him but got out of breath from walking so fast and singing at the same time. Nor did she know the words to many of his songs. Archie kept going. Late in the afternoon, he was on the west line, drawing near and still singing, though his voice was raspy, “an we’ll go downtown, an we’ll buy some shirts . . .,” and slouching down the slope the last hundred feet in the evening dusk so worn of voice she could only just hear him breathily chant “never had a nickel and I don’t give a shit.”

There is no happiness like that of a young couple in a little house they have built themselves in a place of beauty and solitude. Archie had hammered together a table with sapling legs and two benches. At the evening meal, their faces lit by the yellow shine of the coal-oil lamp whose light threw wild shadows on the ceiling, their world seemed in order.

Rose was not pretty, but warmhearted and quick to laugh. She had grown up at the Jackrabbit stage station, the daughter of kettle-bellied Sundown Mealor, who dreamed of plunging steeds but because of his bottle habit drove a freight wagon. The station was on a north-south trail that connected hardscrabble ranches with the blowout railroad town of Rawlins after the Union Pacific line went through. Rose’s mother was gray with some wasting disease that kept her to her bed, sinking slowly out of life. She wept over Rose’s early marriage at barely fourteen but gave her a family treasure, a large silver spoon that had come across the Atlantic.

The stationmaster was Robert F. Dorgan, affable and jowly, yearning to be appointed to a position of importance and seeing the station as a brief stop not only for freight wagons but for himself. His second wife, Flora, stepmother to his daughter Queeda, went to Denver every winter with Queeda, and so they became authorities on fashion and style. They were as close as a natural mother and daughter. In Denver, Mrs. Dorgan sought out important people who could help her husband climb to success. Many political men spent the winter in Denver, and one of them, Rufus Clatter, with connections to Washington, hinted that there was a chance for Dorgan to be appointed as the territory’s surveyor.

“I’m sure he knows a good deal about surveying,” he said with a wink.

“Considerable,” she said, thinking that Dorgan could find some stripling surveyor to do the work for a few dollars.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Clatter said, pressing heavily against her thigh, but tensed to step away if she took offense. She allowed him a few seconds, smiled, and turned away.

Back at the station in the spring, where her rings and metallic dress trim cast a golden aura, she bossed the local society and gossip, saying that Archie McLaverty had ruined Rose, precipitating their youthful marriage, but what could you expect from a girl with a drunkard father, an uncontrolled girl who’d had the run of the station, sassing rough drivers and exchanging low repartee with bumpkin cowhands, among them Archie McLaverty, a lowlife who sang vulgar songs? She whisked her hands together as though ridding them of filth.

The other inhabitant of the station was an old bachelor (the country was rich in bachelors), Harp Daft, the telegraph key operator. His face and neck formed a visor of scars, moles, wens, boils, and acne. One leg was shorter than the other, and his voice twanged with catarrh. His window faced the Dorgan house, and a black circle that Rose knew to be a telescope sometimes showed in it.

Rose both admired and despised Queeda Dorgan. She greedily took in every detail of the beautiful dresses, the fire-opal brooch, satin shoes, and saucy hats so exquisitely out of place at the dusty station, but she knew that Miss Dainty had to wash out her bloody menstrual rags like every woman, although she tried to hide them by hanging them on the line at night or inside pillow slips. Beneath the silk skirts, she, too, had to put up with sopping pads torn from old sheets, the crusted edges chafing her thighs and pulling at her pubic hairs. At those times of the month, the animal smell seeped through Queeda’s perfumed defenses.

Rose saw Mrs. Dorgan as an iron-boned, two-faced enemy, her public sweetness offset by private coarseness. She had seen the woman spit on the ground like a drover, had seen her scratch her crotch on the corner of the table when she thought no one was looking. Believing that she was a superior creature, Mrs. Dorgan never spoke to the Mealors, nor to the despicable bachelor pawing his telegraph key, or, as he said, seeking out constellations.

Every morning in the little cabin, Rose braided her straight brown hair, dabbed it with drops of lilac water from the blue bottle Archie had presented her on the day of their wedding, and wound it around her head in a coronet, the way Queeda Dorgan bound up her hair. She did not want to become like a homestead woman, with skunky armpits and greasy hair yanked into a bun. She hoped that their children would get Archie’s auburn waves and his red-cheeked, handsome face. She trimmed his hair with a pair of embroidery scissors dropped in the dust by some lady stagecoach passenger at the station years before. But it was hard, keeping clean. Queeda Dorgan had little to do at the station except primp and flounce, but Rose, in her cabin, lifted heavy kettles, split kindling, baked bread, scrubbed pots, and hacked the stone-filled ground for a garden, and hauled water when Archie was not there. They were lucky their first winter that the river did not freeze. Her personal wash and the dishes and the floor took four daily buckets of water lugged up from the Little Weed, each trip disturbing the ducks who favored the nearby setback for their business meetings. She tried to keep Archie clean as well. He rode in from days of chasing Peck’s cows or running wild horses on the desert with a stubbled face, mosquito-bitten neck and grimed hands, cut, cracked nails, and stinking feet. She pulled off his boots and washed his feet in the dishpan, patting them dry with a clean feed-sack towel.

“If you had stockins, it wouldn’t be so bad,” she said. “If I could get me some knittin needles and yarn I could make stockins.”

“Mrs. Peck made some. Once. Took about a hour before they was holed. No point to it, and they clamber around in your boots. Hell with stockins.”

Supper was venison hash or a platter of fried sage hen she had shot, but not beans, which Archie said had been and still were the main provender at Peck’s. Occasionally their neighbor Tom Ackler rode down for supper, sometimes with his yellow cat, Gold Dust, riding behind him on the saddle. While Tom talked, Gold Dust set to work to claw the weasel out of the woodpile. Rose liked the black-eyed, balding prospector and asked him about the gold earring in his left ear.

“Used a sail the world, girlie. That’s my port ear and that ring tells them as knows that I been east round Cape Horn. And if you been east, you been west first. Been all over the world.” He had a rich collection of stories of storms, violent williwaws, and southerly busters, of waterspouts and whales leaping like trout, icebergs and doldrums and enmeshing seaweed, of wild times in distant ports.

“How come you to leave the sailor-boy life?” Rose asked.

“No way to get rich, girlie. And this fella wanted a snug harbor after the pitchin deck.”

Archie asked about maritime songs, and the next visit Tom Ackler brought his concertina with him, and for hours sea chanteys and sailors’ verses filled the cabin, Archie asking for a repeat of some and often chiming in after a single hearing.

They say old man your horse will die.
And they say so, and they hope so.
O poor old man your horse will die.
O poor old man.

Rose was an eager lover when Archie called, “Put your ass up like a whip-poor-will,” and an expert at shifting his occasional glum moods into pleased laughter. She seemed unaware that she lived in a time when love killed women….’

– Annie Proulx, “Them Old Cowboys Songs”, The New Yorker, 2008

Read the rest of Annie Proulx’s “Them Old Cowboys Songs” free, here, at The New Yorker:




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