You Can’t Keep An Old Cowhand Down

oldcowhdA cowpoke since the age of 14, Art Biddlecomb says that what distinguishes a real cowboy is simply that “the others don’t know diddlysquat.” Worse, in increasing numbers, they are driving “quads” (a motorcycle with four wheels) or pickup trucks. “A cow,” he explains, “feels more relaxed and does a lot better if she regularly sees a cowboy on horseback poking through the herd; better than if she doesn’t see a cowboy or if she sees a pickup truck roaring at her.”

Art continuously explains what his animals are thinking. “If you get mad at a cow, you never want to show it,” he advises. “That cow’ll pick it up and you’ve lost the battle; she’ll fight you all the way to the barn. It’ll be like pushing on a rope because the ole lady ain’t mad, it’s you, and you’re getting more silly than the cow. She says, `I’m going to win the battle.’ ”

On the rugged, tree-covered slopes of the Porcupine Hills, Art camps out the entire summer, along with his four horses, two mules, and dog, Tuff, to “doctor” 800 cattle, fix fences and scatter salt. In a voice rough and pliable as old burlap, he remarks, “The cattle know that if they need a hand, the cowboy is there to help.” Help when they are calving or when they catch a snoutful of porcupine quills or if they are chewing on sun-bleached bones “for the minerals” and a splinter lodges in their teeth. “A cowboy can spot a cow in trouble a mile away,” he says. “She’ll be ganted right up–her whole belly empty because she hasn’t ate or drank for a week. That’s why a cowboy should check the herd every week. And once you help a cow in trouble, she doesn’t forget.”

Cowboys must not only read cows, they must also bond with their mount, be it a horse or mule. Art is particularly partial to his mules, Nick and Banjo. “If a colt messes up and you give him a good spanking and stop when you’re supposed to, he’ll learn and never hold a grudge. But you can’t spank a mule. He’s too sensitive; he’ll never forget it. The worst thing you can do is laugh at him; insult him and he’ll never be your friend.” If, however, you successfully bond, “he’ll do everything for you. If you’re going to cross a log over a 10-foot gorge, if you walk in front of him, he’ll say, `Art can go across, and I will, too.’ If you’re not bonded, the mule will say, `I don’t trust that Art. He’s trying to push me into that gorge.’ ”

Gazing out at grass like blown water, Art says the secret to life is doing what you love and not “living too quick” like many of his now-deceased city friends. Does he wish he had been born 100 years ago? “Nope,” he replies. “I’d be dead by now.” And with his two children raised, he plans to keep on “cowboying” another 20 years. “A lot of times you’ll be riding home in the rain, soaked and cold and your horse is cold and your hat is leaking down your neck and you say, `What the deuce am I doing?’ ” he muses. “Then you get warmed up and a good cup of coffee in your belly and you get thinking, `Those old cows need me around.’ And you decide, `It ain’t such a bad life.’ “

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