The fallen state of Texas

Books | Cowboy tales of creation and devilish dealings
by John R. Erickson
Posted 10/19/19, 10:08 am

John Erickson doesn’t write parables, but some of his stories about the cowboy life he once lived would work well in church. The Bible refers to us as sheep, sometimes without a shepherd, but we also act like cattle and anger the Owner of the ranch. In 1982, Erickson, the author of the popular Hank the Cowdog series of books, published a bunch of these stories in The Devil in Texas and Other Cowboy Tales. In July, August, and September, with permission, we republished tales from that volume, and this month, we wrap up the series with two more. —Marvin Olasky

The World’s First Cowboy

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And He said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.”

The dry land appeared, and it was very dry. He called it Texas.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth.” And it was so.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our own image and give him dominion over the earth.” So God created man and put him in Texas.

And God said, “Let us call this man Adam and give him a horse.” And it was so. God placed him astride the horse and saw that it was good.

Then God planted a garden in Eden, in East Texas, and there He put the man he had formed. He made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, and He populated the garden with all the beasts of the earth.

Among the beasts was the cow. And God said to Adam, “You may subdue every beast of the field and fowl of the air, but do not bother the cow, for it is special.”

Then God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper.” And God caused a sleep to fall upon the man and took one of his ribs and made it into a woman. God showed her to the man and asked if he was pleased.

And the man replied, “Yee-ha, woopee, mercy, mercy, mercy!” And God knew that it was good.

Now, the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord had made, and one day he appeared to the woman.

“Why do you not subdue the cow? She can yield milk and cream that can be made into cheese and butter. And she will bring forth calves for meat.”

“Why do you not subdue the cow? She can yield milk and cream that can be made into cheese and butter. And she will bring forth calves for meat.”

And Eve replied, “We are forbidden to bother the cow. God has told us not to, and He would be angry if we did.”

And the serpent said, “Surely you misunderstood. God would not make a cow and put it in the garden if He did not want you to use it.”

Eve was troubled by this and spoke to Adam about it. “No, it is forbidden,” he said, “but let me talk to the snake.” He found the snake and they talked.

And the snake replied, “If God had really wanted you to leave the cow alone, He wouldn’t have given you that horse.”

“The horse? What does the horse have to do with it?”

“Well,” said the snake, “if you train the horse, you can make the cow go anywhere you want her to go.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Adam.

So he took a vine and put it into the horse’s mouth and tied forked sticks on his heels and climbed on the horse’s back. He stuck the sticks into the animal’s sides and said, “Gitty up.” And, lo, the horse erupted and threw Adam into the tree of knowledge.

Adam returned to the serpent and said, “This will not work. The horse is much bigger than I and he does not wish to cooperate.”

The serpent said, “It is written that when a man is thrown from a horse, he must climb back on before he is frozen by fear.”

“I am already frozen by fear,” said Adam, “but I shall try again.”

And he climbed upon the horse and the horse did buck and Adam did stay on his back. And the woman cheered for him and said that she was proud.

So Adam and the horse went forth into the garden. He drove the cow around and around, just as the serpent had predicted. But when he got down from the horse and tried to catch her, she ran away.

He returned to the snake. “It does me no good to ride the horse to drive the cow, for she will not let me milk her.”

And the serpent spake, saying, “God has made the grass, and the grass shall provide you with a tool. Cut it, weave it together, and make a rope.”

Adam did as he was told, and when he had made a rope, he returned to the serpent. And he said, “Here is the rope. What does it do?”

And the serpent said, “If God had not wanted you to rope, He would not have made grass.”

And the serpent showed him how to build a loop, how to throw a hoolihan and a Blocker, how to catch forelegs and heels.

But Adam said, “Surely this is wrong. God has told us not to subdue the cow.”

And the serpent said, “If God had not wanted you to rope, He would not have made grass.”

So Adam went forth and roped the cow, and while he held her, Eve drew milk from her bag. And when she had finished, Adam let the cow go and roped her again, this time just for fun. And, lo, he spent the entire day roping the cow.

That evening, Adam and Eve heard God walking through the garden, and they hid themselves from His presence, for they knew they had done wrong and were afraid.

“Where are you?” God called. They did not answer, but He saw the cow, with an empty bag and rope burns around her horns. And He was angry and He called them in a voice of thunder. “What have you done?”

Adam came out, hiding the rope behind his back. “Well, you see, my wife …”

Then Eve appeared and said, “No, no. You see, my husband …”

And then they both spake in unison, “It was the snake that made us do it.”

God rebuked the serpent, gave him poisoned fangs and a rattle on his tail, and ordered him to crawl on his belly forever and ever.

And, to Eve, He said, “Because you have not listened to me, I shall make your husband a cowboy. He will work long hours in the heat of summer and the cold of winter, and he shall receive low wages.”

And, to Adam, He said, “Because you have not listened to me, because you have chosen to chase cattle, I shall smite the cow-brute in the brain and make it stupid. You shall spend your days working with stupid animals.

“And I am giving you a more serious curse. Here is a plow. With it you will till the ground and plant crops. At the very time when you want to go rope cattle, you will have to plow and plant.”

Adam cried and begged God not to give him the plow, but God heard him not. Then He said, “You are naked. Make yourselves some clothes, for you must leave the garden.”

When they reached the ends of the earth, they knew they had arrived in the Panhandle.

“Where will we go?”

“I shall drive you to the ends of the earth, beyond the wilderness and the desert, to the place where the wind moans across an empty land.”

“Not the Panhandle!”

“Yes, the Panhandle. Go!”

So Eve sewed fig leaves together and made a dress for herself. And for Adam, she made a pair of shotgun chaps. And with the Lord pointing the way with a fiery sword, they climbed upon the horse and drove the cow away from the garden. When they reached the ends of the earth, they knew they had arrived in the Panhandle.

There they stopped and made a home. The cow brought forth calves, and lo, they were stupid. Adam could not support his wife and children with the cattle and had to use the plow. Following the plow day after day, he dreamed of roping calves, and he felt the sting of God’s curse.

(Author’s note: This ain’t exactly the same story that appears in the Bible, but it helps to explain a lot about cowboys and rattlesnakes.)

Illustration by Gerald L. Holmes Illustration by Gerald L. Holmes

The Devil in Texas

After lunch, me and High Loper usually curl up on the floor of the ranch house and take a short nap. It kind of settles our grub and gives us a fresh attitude about the afternoon’s work.

The other day we ate several bowls of hot spiced chili, and while we were eating, one of my favorite songs came on the radio. It was Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

I don’t know whether it was the chili or the song that did it, but during naptime I had an outrageous dream.

Me and Loper were ahorseback, riding through one of the pastures north of headquarters. It was a cold winter day. The prairie country was brown and bare, and the old cottonwoods reached like skeleton hands toward a brooding gray sky.

As usual, we were playing with our ropes as we rode along. Loper was mounted on a big sorrel named Happy, and I came along behind on my little Calipso mare. Loper was pitching his rope on soapweeds, and I was right behind him heeling his horse.

Old Hap was the kind of horse that was always looking for boogers. He’d shy from a cow chip, walk around a little sand rat hole, or fly over a trickle of water. So we weren’t particularly surprised when all at once he dropped his head, stretched out his neck, perked his ears, snorted, and started running sideways. But when Calipso did the same thing, it made us a little curious.

We got our broncs under control and did some heavy spurring to get them back to the rock ledge where the runaway had started. We thought we might find a porcupine or maybe a dead calf.

He was ugly—ugly as the very devil.

What we saw was a little guy sitting on a donkey. He had his right leg thrown over the horn of his saddle, and he was rolling a Prince Albert cigarette. His face was skinny and sharp pointed, his skin as red as a hot branding iron.

He didn’t wear a hat, and it was easy to see why. He had two horns coming out the sides of his bald head. He was ugly—ugly as the very devil.

Me and Loper traded glances, as if to say, “What is this?” The man lapped his cigarette and lit up. When he snapped his fingers, a flame appeared out of his thumb.

“Afternoon, boys,” he said in a high, squeaky voice.

We nodded. Old Happy was pointing this guy like a bird dog. He’d spent his whole life looking for boogers, and by George he’d finally found one.

“My name’s John Devil,” said the man. “I come from Hell and I can out-ride, out-rope, out-cuss, and out-spit any cowboy I ever met.”

Loper kind of grinned. “Well, if that’s true, Mr. Devil, then you’ve spent too much time in Hell and Kansas. This here’s the Texas Panhandle, and me and my partner have never been out-rode or out-roped. Nobody ever tried us on the spittin’ and cussin’.”

Old Devil laughed to himself and looked at Loper’s horse. “Do you milk that thing or use him strictly for plow work?” Then he looked at my mare. “Kind of a cute little thing. If she ever grows into them long skinny legs, she’s liable to stand twenty-seven hands at the withers.”

Me and Loper don’t mind personal insults, but bad-mouthing the horseflesh is hard to forgive, especially when it comes from a man on a donkey.

“We manage to get the work done,” I said.

“I’m surprised.”

Loper shifted his quid to the other cheek. “You’re fixing to be more than that.”

“Tell you what let’s do, boys. Let’s have us a little roping contest, Hell against Texas.”

“Hell against Texas is a normal day around here,” I said. “What else you got in mind?”

“You see that steer?” Devil pointed his finger and a corriente steer suddenly appeared on the flat below. “One loop apiece, head, half-head, or horns.”

“What’s the stakes?”

Devil arched his brows. “Your souls, fellers, your souls. If you both miss and I catch, you got to work for me. We just can’t find good help in Hell anymore.”

“If you both miss and I catch, you got to work for me.”

“What if we win?”

He untied his catch rope and held it up. “You get this rope. It’s made of threads of pure gold, and it’s worth a fortune.”

It isn’t every day that a cowboy gets a chance to make a fortune. We told old Devil to kiss his rope good-bye, and we went charging down the hill toward the steer, just the way we do when we’re doctoring sick cattle. First man there gets first throw, and the second man stands by for a second throw or heels.

Calipso and I got there first. When the old steer saw us corning, he stuck out his tail and made a dash for the creek. He ran straight and fast, just the kind of shot I like. I knew I couldn’t miss. Calipso put me right on top of him. I swung my loop and floated out a nice flat, open noose.

But at the last second, as if by magic, a gust of wind came up. My loop hit the left horn and fell into the dirt. “Get him, Loper!” I yelled over my shoulder. Loper and Happy were hot on his tail. Loper swung and threw a pretty noose, but the same thing happened to him. A strong gust of wind came up and the loop died in the air.

We heard a squeal of laughter behind us, and here came John Devil and his donkey. “Out of the way, Texas! Here’s how we do it in Hell!”

That warn’t no ordinary donkey. He was as fast as a racehorse. He caught up with that Mexican steer in a hurry, and when he did, John Devil did a strange thing. He turned clear around in the saddle so that he was riding backward. When the donkey flew past the steer, Mr. Devil pitched the golden rope around his horns, put the end of the rope between his teeth, and jerked the steer plumb out of his tracks.

It wasn’t the sort of thing a normal man could get by with.

“You know,” I said to Loper, “there’s something funny going on around here.”

“Yalp. A guy might think that old Devil was cheatin’.”

“A guy sure might.”

“You want to work in Hell?”

“Nope.”

“What do you think?”

“Let’s do it.”

He’d never seen such a wicked pair of faces, not in Hell or Kansas or anywhere else he’d been.

John Devil came riding up to us, coiling up his golden rope and chuckling to himself. “Tough luck, boys. Pack your bags, we’re going to …”

“Hell if we are,” said Loper. We had our loops built. “We’re fixing to do a little pasture work.”

John Devil glanced at me and then at Loper.

He’d never seen such a wicked pair of faces, not in Hell or Kansas or anywhere else he’d been. “Now boys …” He stuck the spurs in that donkey and hauled for the caprock.

I was dallied when the slack went out of my rope. The donkey kept going, but John Devil came to a sudden stop, seeing as how I had a nice little loop fitted around his horns.

He squalled and bellered and kicked and pitched, but Loper scooted a big old circle of nylon around his middle and picked up both hocks. We stretched him out, throwed half-hitches over our dallies, and met in the middle, each of us packing a medicine bag.

“What do you reckon?” said Loper. “Pinkeye?” I said yep, so we squirted both eyes with blue drops and glued on a couple of eye patches.

“Loper, I think he’s bloated too.” We got the rubber hose and ran it down his guzzle.

“And he’s kinder droopy in his ears.” So we gave him fifteen cc’s of Combiotic and a couple of big sulfa pills for good measure.

Just then I felt somebody shaking my shoulder. I opened my eyes and saw High Loper and his mustache. “Wake up. What’s the matter with you? You’re over here gruntin’ like a bunch of hogs.”

I sat up and eased out a burp of garlic and chili powder. Or maybe it was gun powder. “Brother, I had a bad dream.”

“About what?”

“Well, we was out roping and …”

“Hold it right there. I know you’re lying.”

“Huh?”

Loper smashed my cowboy hat down on my head. “Any dream with roping in it ain’t bad. Let’s go to work.”

John R. Erickson

John is the author of the Hank the Cowdog book series. He and his wife, Kris, live on their cattle ranch near Perryton, Texas.

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