After college I took a temporary job as a wrangler on a 137,000 acre ranch in northern New Mexico. My first duty station was in a remote location – It was me and five boys in a barn. We had no electricity and no running water – just an outhouse and a rainwater shower.
On occasion, we would ride our horses bareback down to the little road to the little town (population: 800) and leave them in the little field while we went to the saloon. Nestled in the historic St James Hotel, there was an old saloon where the likes of Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill Cody, Jesse James and Black Jack Ketchum rested their heads – and shot up the ceiling in a few places. It was a great treat to go to town since we had no real entertainment out there in the woods – just us, thirty to fifty horses and some cattle.
Once we got to the lower field, we took the reins off our horses, threw ‘em over our shoulders and set out on foot. We were all dressed pretty much the same in short-sleeved button-down shirts, blue jeans and cowboy boots – plus or minus chaps. This was standard wear in Cimarron, and we fit in seamlessly as we strolled the half a mile or so to the hotel where it sat – and still sits – on the edge of town. There we’d spend a couple of hours imbibing, playing pool and telling tales.
The very first time we entered the saloon, I pulled the bartender aside. She was a skinny thing, probably in her thirties. She was definitely a local – knowing her way around those parts and around all those cowboys, too.
“Ma'am, you see those boys?” She glanced over at the boys – all Texans – and nodded her head. “I’m out at camp with them.” I stopped there and looked at her. She met my eyes. “Me. And them.”
Her eyes got wider. “You’re the only girl? Out there with all those guys?”
“That’s right.” I answered.
“They’re a good bunch of boys – protective of me, actually. However… I do not intend to get intoxicated and return to a barn full of boys.”
“I see.” She said.
“Here’s a contribution to your tip fund.” I handed her a twenty dollar bill. “I’d appreciate it if you’d help me out.”
She took the money from me and said, “Darlin’, don’t you worry about a thing.”
From then on we had a regular agreement. Whenever she came around to collect empty beer bottles and bring another round to our rowdy crew, she picked up my full beer and gave me a new one. Whenever the boys ordered shots, she gave me a virgin one.
Occasionally, one of the boys was chatting her up, and she had to give me a liquor shot with the boys. They were most fond of ordering “The Three Wise Men” – Jack, Jim, and Jose. I wanted no part of those wise men, thank you very much. The bartender would give me a little sign or just stare at me really hard when she’d had to pour me a real one. Then, when we made our toast, I’d lift my drink and throw my head back just like the boys – only I’d throw my shot over my shoulder and onto the floor. Usually they were too drunk to notice, and the bartender just discreetly cleaned it up as we moved back over to pool table and our bar stools. On the off chance they did notice, we’d all just laugh it up that I was too drunk and had missed my mouth.
After the boys got good and sloshed, we’d headed back up the road – the distance not long enough to sober ‘em up before we reached the horses. This field, while smaller than most we had, was still an acre or two. We had to catch our horses in there. Generally, my palomino gelding Questa was usually fairly easy to catch – not easy to ride as he had a tendency to buck off riders he didn’t like. So, most nights I was sitting astride Questa before the boys had caught their horses.
Oh the scene of four or five boys weaving around drunk trying to catch a horse. Even worse was when one of ‘em tried to mount up. Sober as a saint, I’d watch as one managed his way up only to fall off on the other side or see one get halfway up only for the horse to run out from underneath him. Now that was entertainment.
Eventually, we would all be ready. Then we would ride the half hour or so in the dark back to the barn. The boys would pass out in their cots as I settled down in mine behind the particle board partition, snuggling in for dreams of five drunken cowboys and three wise men.