by Jack Lamb

For an old cow puncher, the autumn years of retirement seem to make the stories of chasing cattle even more vivid. Perhaps it is all the changes the working cowboy has witnessed on the frontier that makes these stories so memorable, so much so that even Mark Twain wrote that the cowboy was among Americaís greatest storytellers. So when rumor spread that Ira Kelly was wintering near Wickenburg, Arizona, there wasnít much to do but grab my tape recorder, fire-up the engine and drive the eight-plus hours to Morristown, Az. And Ira was there all right. At the end of a dirt road, gated with a split pole fence and a brand laden driveway arch (like every ranch home has on television). The dirt drive was filled with trucks, a rickety barn roof to cover hay, and a center drive decor of cactus and rocks. Inside the wide brimmed house, a creaking, boot-worn slatwood floor supported unmatched plastic and metal chairs at the foot of a hand carved table.

Wearing his cowboy hat and sitting with his back to the afternoon lit paned glass window, Ira was a silhouette, a faceless cowboy speaking to the present in a language native to cattlemen and cow punchers about mavericks, jacks, jerkiní the slack, give out horses and bad weather. With his first words, Ira started-in with a wit native to the cowboy: "You want lies or do you want the truth?"

That was a hard one to answer.

"How about your story," I say.

"Well, that depends on who you talk to. Iíve got some friends who may tell it a little diffírent. But Iíll tell you the truth."

He pushed his hat back and began four hours of talking about migration, changing jobs, shearing goats, working the mines, driving semi-trailers full of cattle, cooking from a Model-T chuck wagon and running a "horse killing outfit."

"As a kid, I was a cook on a goat outfit, and it was my job make five gallons of beans and twenty gallons of coffee a day. I made coffee morning, noon and night for those goat wranglers. Those boys ate a hell of a lot everyday. Everyday I had to cook beans!"

On an afternoon with an old-timer, you can cover fifty years in just a few hours time, and this afternoon with Ira was no different. Some of the tales are familiar: "I rode horseback to school for eight miles, over a mountain and down a steep hill, and we enjoyed it!" Others are homesteading tales, Depression tales, and just daily living that all seem eventually to flow together; a piece of memory jarring another, and off we go again.

As the heat of the afternoon wore off, the stories came slower; the gaze in Iraís eyes was clear and determined, but his voice was trailing off, breaking out and tired. The traveling across so many years takes its toll, and tall glasses of iced water couldnít replenish that energy of crossing those decades.

Now at 83, Iraís retired and changing pastures come winter and summer. He passes time with the two younger hands who work the fenced spreads of Maricopa County. The fences are closing in the land, he says, and most of the cowboys he used to know are gone.

"But thereís something that I canít figure out... when we used to be in camp like that, if you didnít have any cold biscuits, even if you came in late, you built a fire, put your Dutch oven on and youíd make warm biscuits. You had to have bread with your food. But nowadays it donít make any difference whether you have any bread or not. Iíll never figure that out."

If you liked this story, you'll love American Folk's newest section -- We've partnered with author Jack Lamb to bring you his zine, The Biscuits and Gravy Quarterly.

3/15/98


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