From Recollections of a Cowboy. . .

Boots

By Griff King

as told to Celestine Irons

 

Have you ever wished for something for so long and with such passion that it made your body ache? As kids, sure, we all wanted something like that. A sack full of lemon drops, a brightly colored neckerchief, maybe a book. For me, what I wanted so bad I could taste it, was a pair of boots. There was only one problem. I was a grown man and grown men aren't supposed to want things like that in that way. But I did.

When I had been a kid growing up, I had shoes or boots but I could only wear them in the dead of winter. We were too poor, I guess, and didn't go to church on Sundays, so the footwear I had needed to last a long time. I grew up fast, too fast really for a single pair of shoes to fit me for more than a single winter. Those boots that I did manage to get usually weren't new either. I recall stuffing things into them to cover the holes so snow wouldn't make my feet colder than they were already. That same batch of rags would cram down into the toe and make the boot fit a little better. Or it would until my feet grew a little more then I would remove the rags a little at a time.

By the time I hit fourteen, I was getting to be what most folks called a strapping young man. It was about then that my mother died and my stepfather took me out of school. He called schooling a waste of time. I went to work. Every week, I brought home my meager earnings and every week, my stepfather took it away from me. Most of the time, I went barefoot, even to work. That was something else that school had against it: you had to wear shoes. If you didn't go to school there was no need for shoes or boots.

One of the men I worked for gave me a pair of moccasins that last winter I spent in Montana. I thought they were fine until my stepfather saw them. He wanted them and, of course, he got them. I put up a fight but he fought meaner and nastier than me.

It wasn't long after that I tried to kill him. And not long after that, I went to jail.

When you walk in the door of a territorial prison, they say that your life changes. Mine sure did. They gave me clothes and, lordy, lordy, a pair of shoes. The clothes didn't fit any better than what I had worn before but the shoes - I still remember them to this day! The shoes they gave me were heavy things that laced up my leg. There weren't any holes in them and they were close to being the right size. For the first time in my life, I had shoes that I could wear all the time. I remember being strangely happy.

Happiness didn't hang around long once I got into the prison proper. Looking around me, I saw other men had the same clothes and shoes I had. Some didn't and those that didn't, wanted to take it from those that did. The first fight I was ever in while I was jailed was over just that: another inmate wanted my shoes. That poor man, I beat him beyond senseless, seeing in him my stepfather all over again.

But then, one day, a miracle happened and, when it ended, I was able to ride away from the Nevada State Penitentiary. That's a story for another day but suffice it to say that I became a ward of Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa Ranch, Virginia City Nevada. We hadn't been long gone from the jail when we pulled into a town and he bought me new clothes. And yes, new boots. The place only had one pair that would fit me but I was so angry at the world right then, it didn't matter. It was only a long time later that it dawned on me that old man Cartwright had bought me my first pair of new boots. As I sat on the side of my bunk and looked at them, a trickle of awe ran between my shoulder blades. I jerked my thoughts around, remembering that he had noted how much my new clothes - and boots- had cost and that he would take that amount from my first month's pay. No, Ben Cartwright didn't buy my first new pair of boots. I had.

Spring rolled into summer then, because Mother Nature doesn't know anything different to do, it became fall. I had worked hard, spending very little time in the town of Virginia City. I had saved my wages and had nearly a hundred dollars. That was more money than I ever remembered having in my life before. Candy, the ranch foreman and my good friend from years before, suggested that I put the money into a bank account rather than leave it in Mister Cartwright's safe. When he said that, it made sense to me so on the next time I went into town on an errand, I took my money and put it into the same bank Mister Cartwright used.

I was walking back to the wagon when I saw them for the first time. They weren't in some store window. Nope, those boots were thumping down the walkway at me.  Don't ask me what the man who was wearing them looked like because I have no idea. The boots are a different matter. They were black. A glossy black. With toes that were pointed. Those same toes were protected by a silver filigree that caught the sunlight. The wearer stopped and turned and I saw that the boots had a high stacked heel that was cut towards the front. Around the ankle and under the instep, a fancy silver chain held spurs to the heels that were wrapped like the toes. The bright silver, the dark shiny black, that all spoke as much to me as the cut of those boots.

I would have asked the man where he got them but as I moved towards him, he got into the Overland Stage. Standing there in front of the depot, all I could think about was that pair of boots was gone forever.

On the ride home, I studied my own feet, propped on the front of buckboard. I kept trying to tell myself that boots like those wouldn't do for ranch work. Why, for one thing, imagine stepping into a mud puddle with those on. Poof! There goes that pretty shiny silver! Rub that glossy leather foot against a bronc for too long and there wouldn't be much gloss to it that wasn't covered by sweat and horsehair. And spurs? What did I need spurs for if all I was going to do was clean out the barn or chop wood? Finally a word settled in my head: impractical. I tried to see it in big red letters stamped all over the mental picture I had of those boots but the boots would rise up one at a time and step on those letters and grind them into the dirt.

A few days later, one of the hands, Smokey, I think it was, got a catalogue from some place called Sears and Roebucks. He was hooting and hollering around the bunkhouse with it, showing everyone the ladies' wear and getting red in the face while he did. After a while, Smokey and the others left to go into town for a little Saturday night celebration. The catalogue stayed. Not having anything to do and not wanting to go into town, I stayed behind and, of course, the catalogue came into my hands. I studied some of the same things Smokey did. After all, I was still a young man and full of piss and vinegar! Gradually though, the interest wore thin and I turned to other pages. There were drawings of farm equipment, harness and all manner of things but there, on page eight, in the finer men's clothing section, were my boots. I read the description nine times over to make sure I had the right ones. I did. Frantic, I flipped to the back of the little booklet and found out how to order then I turned back to the page. With shipping, just the boots alone would cost me a month's wages. Then when I did a rough figure on those silver toe-points, the heels, the fancy spurs and the chains and straps. . . . I closed the catalogue.

As I lay in my bunk, I did my best to kick the thoughts of those boots out the back door. I struggled to convince myself that I was being foolish to want such a fancy pair of footgear. After all, if I spent all my money on them, where would I wear them? Couldn't afford to go taking a girl  - presuming I could find one - to some dance to show them off, now could I? And while the horse I rode now was a good animal, he didn't care squat for what was on my feet. We won't even discuss what I imagined my bunkhouse buddies saying.

At dawn the next morning, I was still burning with desire. By Monday, I had it all figured out. I would work like a son-of-a-gun for the next three months and save every penny I could lay my hands on. Then I would get the money order and send for the boots. That was step one. Step two was to find someplace in either Virginia City or Carson City who could make me the hardware. A little dickering and . . . it. . . would be. . . winter.

Winter in Nevada is about as pleasant most times as having a tooth pulled. Snow usually shows up about the first of November and doesn't leave until April or May. During the winter, most ranchers, and I couldn't see old Cartwright doing any different, laid off their hands. At best, they would keep four or five around to feed stock, chop wood and that sort of thing. In my brain rattled the idea that Cartwright had an interest in me and would therefore keep me on. That secured my income but also secured my butt in the bunkhouse with snow piled up outside with little or no chance to go into town.

How long would my precious boots sit in the Post Office in Virginia City before they were sent back? Sure, the Cartwrights would have their mail checked regular, once every two weeks at the outside. But what about those of us who got their mail general delivery?

That Monday morning, I saw those boots getting on the same Overland stage and riding out of town. On their own. Leaning out the windows on either side and waving good bye. I pulled on my old boots and went out to work.

I had been right. By the time November rolled around, there were three of us left in the bunkhouse. We alternated pairs going out and seeing to the stock, one man left behind to make sure the stove stayed hot. I chopped wood with Candy and stacked that same wood with Jamie Cartwright. I stomped hay into wagons and hauled it to the outlying stock. I cleaned the barn, fed the horses, milked the milk cows, and gathered the eggs from the hen house. I carried water from the pump to the critters twice a day. That was, after I had broken the ice out of the pump and gotten it working again. And all that time, every time I looked at my feet, I imagined those boots there.

Then it was Christmas Eve. Mister Cartwright called me into the house and gave me not only my month's pay but a bonus, too. It was a hundred dollars. He suggested I put it in the bank but I suddenly saw those boots riding back into town on the stage! I thanked him for the gift and ducked out to the bunkhouse.

I waited until no one was around then did like the catalogue said. I traced around both feet, filled out the order blank and did the math. My order was in the mail by the first of the year.

If I had been an expectant father with my wife in labor, I couldn't have been more anxious. I put marks on the calendar, counting off the days until I was sure my boots would be delivered. Just before then, I took time off from work and on a clear day, rode to Carson City with Joe. He said he had to go on business but I think his business was to see what was making me act so crazy. I found a bootmaker there in Carson who knew what I was talking about when I described the silver toe and heel things. We haggled over price and in the end, because I could see Joe crossing the street, I caved in and gave him the price he wanted. He told me to bring the boots, which he said he could have made cheaper, and he would fit the toe caps and all on.

It was pushing spring when my boots arrived, coming all the way from Chicago by way of every place else in between to look at the battered paper wrapping the box up. I sat on my bunk that Saturday and opened the box slowly.

There they were. They were so shiny and so black I could see my face in them. I tore off my old boots and pulled up my sox carefully so my toes didn't poke through the holes there. Then, smiling like a fool, I pulled them on. It was like sticking my feet in butter. I took a few steps and found out that you have to walk different when you have them fancy stack heels. I'd spent a while clomping about on flat heels and this took some getting used to, let me tell you.

I was looking at myself again, courtesy of the shine, when I heard the other men coming back. Quick, I took the fancy boots off, put them in their box and shoved my feet into the old one. First chance I got and I would go back to Carson. Those boots had a date!

For the next two weeks, I'd take every chance I got when I was alone to try those boots on and practice walking in them. I felt. . . different with them on. Taller? Yes. Handsomer? Maybe. More worldly, more debonair? More, well more everything.

Wasn't long before I had the fancy toes and heels and the spurs with silver chains. I stood there in the Carson City bootmaker's shop, looking into the mirror he kept at floor level and saw those boots on my feet. I had even tucked my pant legs into the tall stovepipe top so I could see all of them. My, my, I remember thinking; these looked even better than the ones I had first seen.

The bootmaker just smiled indulgently at me and took the rest of the month's wages he'd charged me. I couldn't have cared any less. I had my shiny black boots with all the trimmings. All was right with the world as far as I was concerned. When he asked me about the boots I had worn in, I looked at the sad fellows, the tops falling over sadly, the heels run down some. They'd been good boots and they still had some life in them so I suggested he give them to someone who needed a pair. I felt real noble when I told him that, recalling my own earlier years as I stared at that mirror.

Well, you know what happened. When I went to the bar to join back up with Candy and Smokey, they laughed about my new boots. I could stand that but when the saloon girls started in on meÖ.

Okay, so I did look a little dandified, but only from my knee down. I tried pulling my trouser leg over the top but the silver stuff . . .

No, I wasn't heartbroken or anything like that. At least not until I went back to the bootmaker's to get my old boots. I had decided that I needed to put these black ones up and wear them only for special. But the bootmaker had given away my old boots. He did have a pair of work boots he would let me have for five dollars.

I had to borrow the five dollars from Candy. The work boots were uncomfortable, raised a bunion on my right foot and a blister on my left. They ate my soxes like they were gourmet meals. The stitching came undone and I had to fix them while I was on the trail drive to Sacramento.

So, the boots that made me ache with desire aren't these fancy ones still in their box under my bed. No, itís the ones I gave away. So if you should see them, I'll buy them back. Ten bucks. Hard cold cash.

The end

Celestine Irons

March 2004

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