A Ben Green Cowboy Ride-Along
by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
There are two kinds of information useful to folks who work animals — anecdotal and statistical. The first may give you information that is real but limited to hearsay and personal experience that might prove vast but quirky. The second has a much broader but shallower reach, its science divorced from much of the freight of feeling. For the past quarter-century professional sports have been increasingly played and won using sharply focused analytics hoping to get at a limited but practical truth, considering which situational moves and choices lead to predictable success.
Which can make the game these days puzzling and not always fun to watch, since the motives of those in the know are often carefully concealed. These days pro sports can seem a little like a livestock auction, where the audience might not know what to look for, all the while suspecting there is a deeper game. Which is merely said by way of warmup for what is the most valuable anecdotal education, a ride-along with one of the most entertaining denizens and writers ever to grace the world of horses and cattle, Ben King Green (1912-1974). Making high art of hearsay and anecdote, Green’s books appeared in his later years, the 1960s and 70s, and detailed his excursions, dealings and doctoring all over the Southwest, from Texas up to Kansas, out to New Mexico and Arizona and down into old Mexico. From his mid-teens on he managed to ease his way out of school and into the role of a precocious dealer in livestock, trading in horses, cattle and mules, showing an admirable streak of independence that often heightens his remove from our own day. In many of Green’s early stories, the reader engaged in detailed observations about animals and those who work them, can forget for great stretches how young the narrator actually is.
Melville famously said the foc’sle of a whaling ship was his Yale and Harvard, and Green likewise earned advanced and august degrees in the bunkhouses, camps and dusty sleepy towns all along the mazy cattle trails that lured him. For Green the cowboy life was no disembodied romance, but a practical, gritty reality where he learned to turn a profit in the roaring 20s, then pressed on through the hard luck of the 30s Dust Bowl and Depression. What he learned in those wide-open spaces about animals and those who made a living from them stood him in good stead. As a practical cattle and horse dealer he made use of the back roads and old trails to get around, but also the railroads to house and ship his livestock, and the railroad stock pens and yards were integral to his plans. Green’s savvy even extended to a canny use of the rules. For instance, when shipping livestock he always specified 40- foot cattle cars, which were in short supply, so the railroads without 40-foot cars were obligated by industry standards to supply two of the more common 36-foot cars for the price of a 40, in which his livestock traveled easier, with added room.
Green was raised around Weatherford, Texas, and in later life settled in Cumby, Texas, where he had a ranch and raised livestock. The old ways were still in full swing when young Ben Green first saddled up and rode out around 1927. For instance, the most common method of selling horses and mules then was to tie them behind a wagon and parade them through town several times a day. Those who took an interest would approach and ask if a certain animal was for sale, and what the owner might take in trade. These impromptu meetings and transactions account for some of Green’s most outrageous tales of snides and swindles. A mule with scarred lungs and windpipe that made a horrible rattle with every breath was tied up to a rock crusher making gravel to build a road. To young Green the mule seemed perfectly healthy. But as soon as he bought it and got the animal away from the deafening racket he realized it couldn’t be worked at all. He admits that the only way he could think of to get rid of that mule was to tie it back up to the rock crusher, and wait for the next sucker to come along.
By 1944, at the age of 32, Green claims he was on his way to set up a veterinary practice in old Mexico, when an outbreak of bitter weed poisoning in Southwest Texas got his attention. Here he found a need and no vets around to help for over 300 miles in any direction. So Green stepped into the breach, and was soon treating the sick herds, though no diplomas ever turned up in support of his educational claims. But no matter. By then his store of hard-won knowledge was prodigious. And as a vet his energies, curiosities and experiments on behalf of customers’ livestock were tireless and exemplary. At the wheel of his car he drove hundreds and occasionally thousands of miles a week answering calls far outside his home range in the trans-Pecos region centered on Fort Stockton. The town’s local drugstore took the good doctor’s calls and made sure there were standing orders for the ingredients essential to his cures.
The character that emerges from these stories is savvy and engaging, a natural storyteller who keeps his own counsel but is always willing to share a meal with a stranger, a dealer who makes a steady living by treating others as well as he treats himself. The stories can’t help but cover all the kinds of work and workers that surround horses and cattle then and now. In the 1960s he hired a secretary, and bought a Dictaphone. He would tell his stories into the machine, then his secretary would type them up, and suggest corrections, at which point Ben would amplify and rewrite them. He was a natural raconteur who could draw a crowd wherever he happened to start one of his tales, whether in a hotel lobby or on the porch of a general store. On a trip to New York he managed to meet an editor at Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, told him some of the stories and offered him a manuscript, and they soon became friendly co-conspirators.
Including Horse Tradin’ (1967), Wild Cow Tales (1969), The Village Horse Doctor (1971), Some More Horse Tradin’ (1972), and A Thousand Miles of Mustangin’ (1972), Green’s eleven books began with tales about dealing, buying and selling horses, but then branch out to include catching wild cattle and mustangs, and finally his efforts and experiments as a big animal vet. Though the gossip around Green and his books sometimes made him appear like a W.C. Fields on horseback, the man behind the tales was always more than a mere entertainer. Often the longest, fullest stories are his best, and they’re not necessarily the ones where he makes the fattest profit or is due the most credit. Some storytellers are given to boasting, and some are given to telling on themselves. Then there are those who tell mostly the unvarnished truth — though there is something special in what Ben Green chooses to share, and often a twinkle in the eye and a wink in the telling. He seems committed to capturing the experience at all costs, complete with hardships, mistaken notions, squabbles and misadventures. Horse trading is the legendary name for those arts of deception practiced by tight-fisted, devious characters looking to best a rival in a deal. True to form, Green seldom tips his hand when approaching downwind of a bargain, but doesn’t mind a good visit and is generous with his time, attention, and grub, and all told seems an easy man to like.
The key to most of Ben Green’s stories is meeting a stranger on the way to or from somewhere new and strange. Is this a friend, an adversary, a rival in an elaborate charade? A farmer down on his luck, or a fellow trader addicted to the thrills and rewards of sharp practice? Green has the knack of traveling incognito, of gaining valuable information by sharing meals and swapping favors. Even in his early years he has a back-trail of both mavericks and solid citizens who rely on him and vouch for him. As for the animals, it seems that many of them carry insights into human nature as well. Horses respond to daily attention and care, and once trained to man’s ways can easily suffer when the human abandons them to their own devices. Wild steers, rogue mules and outlaw horses didn’t start out that way, and Green had seen enough abuse and neglect to outsmart the erstwhile victims, and figure ways of getting back in touch with feral animals. He savors how he has one horse, Beauty, who always comes when he calls her, no matter how hard she’s been ridden, or lately fed. She will follow him untied anywhere, and can be depended upon absolutely.
What the reader is offered is a special brand of storytelling, that is a treat to the ear. There is no hurry about getting to the point, and in his stories there are no creatures of the plot, no humans or animals who exist only to help shape or ride herd on the action. There are no fake animals in them, no fake cowboys or Indians. Green is as surprised as we are to learn that Yaqui tribesmen in Mexico herd their wild mustangs on foot, and doubly surprised to find that the chief he is dealing with is having a band of Yaqui girls herd the horses on foot at night in the high desert.
His telling is replete with expressions from Texas ranch country. He “steps on” his horse, and “drops a loop” on a steer. He treats an infected steer horn gouge in his leg by packing the wound with sugar, and when the ants won’t let him sleep, cleans the sugar out and dresses the gouge with salt pork, by “greasing around it with that salty meat rind.” Next morning he sears the wound with a spur heated red-hot, and says “I just set me a trail down through that sore with the rowel and shank of that spur.” When he is on the road he always “drifts” his herd so the animals graze a little as they move. When he gets to private property, he might “put down” a fence to get through, but after his herd has passed, he always “ties it back up.” When provoked over strays on cattle drives, he might call farmers “pumpkin rollers.” His favorite places for grub are all-you-can-eat diners where “you pitch until you win.”
Let’s taste a few samples of his style in action. He might offer secret knowledge on catching wild mules, for instance:
Something that most people don’t know about wild mules—or any kind of mules—they will take up with a gray mare or a spotted mare. These horses had been out there all night, and I knew the mules had winded them and come to them; so I fed the gray mares in plain view, in the feed trough in the front pen. I looked around and, sure enough, it wasn’t but just a little bit until those mules were sticking their heads out through the brush, looking to see where the gray mules went. I just whistled and sang and paid them no mind. I walked around my horses and rubbed them while they ate—and talked to them some more. (Horse Tradin’, p. 225)
Who knew that young wild mules were just looking for mama, and would follow a kindly big gray mare anywhere, looking for home. Ben was observant, and schooled in the tricks of horse dealers, so the stories are full of arcane treatments and questionable wonders:
I had an old horse-trading friend that I was partnerin’ with, and he had brought a bunch of horses and mules into Mineral Wells the night before by leading them behind a wagon—which was the custom of the day. Among them was a nice little fat brown mare. She would work and ride, was gentle, and she looked good. I had traded for her a little while back; after I got her, one day I rode her pretty hard and discovered she had a pretty fair case of the heaves. I fed her some wet bran and turpentine, and put bluing in her water, and used all of the other well-known and respected remedies that good horse traders used. This little mare breathed perfectly normal as long as you didn’t run or trot her or try her wind. (Horse Tradin’, p. 79)
Such remedies could be carried to the extreme of treating an older team of horses with slight doses of arsenic minutely measured on the point of a pocket knife to make them perky for auction. Yet in spite of the occasional air of larceny there is useful information to be had:
Old-time cowmen can tell from a distant bawl whether it’s a cow, steer, or bull by the tone and the long or short of the sound. Other things that can be told by the tone of a bawl is whether a cow has lost her calf and is bawling for it to answer her, or if it’s a stray that’s lost from the herd. Sometimes cattle will make different tones of noises when they are bawling at the change of weather, and when cattle are excited by the presence of animals of prey, such as panthers or wolves, the tone of their call takes on a considerably higher pitch…The most blood-curdling of all these different sounds is when primitive or cold-blooded cattle smell blood and they can actually tell the difference between cow blood and other kinds. I knew real quick that the faint afternoon breeze had carried the smell of blood to the rest of the wild steers the same as the whirlwind had carried the scent of blood from my leg when the steer followed me into the corral. (Wild Cow Tales, p. 240-241)
Throughout his tales Ben Green emerges as a self-appointed historian and translator of cowboy culture. He saw it as his task to make sense of what he and men like him had been doing on cattle ranges in-between the two world wars, using time-tested methods from long before. Although the days of the great Texas cattle drives were done, in his youth there was still open rangeland in Oklahoma, southern Kansas, and west Texas, and money to be made fattening cattle where grazing fees were minimal and property lines weren’t too strictly drawn, where cattle could be moved cheaply by rail to market, where the price of beef minus the work involved might still net a modest profit.
The reader can still find all of Ben Green’s books out there in used bookstores, libraries, and on-line sellers. His tales will carry on as long as folks work horses and cattle, in the pace and flavor of the telling, with its stream of improvisations, setbacks and surprises. What we are treated to is an oldtime ride-along, a promise of good company shared with this quintessential cowboy on the trail, by turns restless, loquacious and quiet, with a few good horses, riding herd, wide-awake, swapping stories, doing the best he knows how.