Recollections of Mack Hughes
Stella Hughes; Illustrations by Joe Beeler
There's been no end of nonfiction books written about the cowboy: true accounts by old-timers telling of certain phases in their lives, most going back to the long trail drives of Longhorn cattle out of Texas to northern markets—books about the turbulent days of the cattle empires and the open range. There's been an endless number of true tales of bloody range wars and barbed-wire wars and rustler wars. There're ones of shoot-outs at every kind of corral from Adobe Walls to the O.K., and scores more about the two-gun man, the fast-draw artist, and the outlaw trail. It's all been told a thousand times and done exceedingly well.
But this is a different kind of book about the making of a working cowboy, with not one shoot-out. There's not a single steely eyed "shootist" making that long walk down the dusty, deserted street of a cow town, his aim to rid the community of some undesirable human being. There are no rustler gangs, driving hundreds of stolen cattle through the night to some hidden canyon, and not one wild chase of a posse in hot pursuit of horse thieves, the lowest of criminals in the early West, nor is there one fair damsel in distress to be found in these pages.
Instead, this is an everyday account, as told in the words of Mack Hughes, who as a twelve-year-old went to work as a regular cowhand for the famous Hashknife outfit in northern Arizona. In these pages he tells of hardships endured by his large family, headed by his father, Pat, a man trying to keep bacon and beans on the table on a sixty-five-dollar-a-month job of riding the rough string.
Mack's mother—pretty, blonde Oneta Susan Martin—was twenty years old when she married Pat Hughes, a tall, handsome, black-mustached cowboy, in December of 1903. Starting married life in Magdalena, New Mexico, the couple moved a dozen times within three years. Fortunately for the young bride, ranch life was no stranger to her, since she had come to New Mexico from Mountain Home, Texas, where her family—including five cowboy brothers—had been in the cattle business all their lives.
Pat and "Neet," as he called his wife, raised a large family: Mack, their third child, was born on September 6, 1909—the very first Labor Day proclaimed by President Teddy Roosevelt. The family's nomadic life continued as Pat moved often in search of work: he ran cattle near Globe, Arizona, took a job back in New Mexico, went back to Arizona to work on a ranch near Holbrook, and then, around 1919, moved his family to a remote homestead at Bear Flat, under the wild Tonto Rim in central Arizona. According to Mack, they stayed there "three whole years" while Pat worked for numerous ranches.
Since Pat was often away from the lonely homestead for months at a time, the three oldest children—Jim, Viola, and Mack—took on many responsibilities at a young age. When Mack could barely straddle a horse, he was riding daily and helping with ranch chores. When he was only nine, he shod his first horse, a feat many modern cowboys can't perform. In later years Pat Hughes remembered that Mack had learned to rope, ride bad horses, and do a man's job long before most ranch kids had quit riding their stick-horses. Pat was strict about working habits and behavior, and the children's respect for their father was quite clear in Mack's mind: "Pat never laid a hand on us all the time we were growing up, but when he said Frog,' we jumped!"
Mack's story of his years as a Hashknife cowboy starts unfolding in early 1922, when Pat sold the homestead at Bear Flat and moved his family once more—this time to Winslow, in northern Arizona. Here, in order to help provide for the family, Mack became a member of the Hashknife roundup crew—possibly the youngest cowboy ever on the ranch's regular payroll. Years later, when I asked Pat if it was unusual, if not impossible, for a youngster only twelve years old to become a hand in a very tough profession, the old man snorted, "Age and size ain't got nothin'to do with it. I've seen two-hundred-pound men in their sixties who been in the cow business all their lives, and a damned failure at it! You gotta want to be a cowboy, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut, and, by Gawd, don't think you know it all the first year. Hell, I been cowboyin' all my life and I'm still learnin'."
The Hashknife Ranch, where Mack went to work in 1922, was established in 1884 in northern Arizona. Edward Kinsley, a shareholder in,the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, persuaded a group of Eastern investors to purchase a million acres of grazing land offered for sale by the railroad at fifty cents an acre. The new ranch, called the Aztec Land and Cattle Company, soon purchased thirty-three thousand head of Texas Longhorns and a large remuda from the Continental Cattle Company, whose range lay west of the Pecos River in southwestern Texas. Along with the cattle, the Aztecs bought the Hashknife brand, which was a crude, upside-down drawing of a common kitchen tool used by cooks to chop vegetables.
The newly formed ranch headquarters was a cluster of adobe buildings south of Joseph City on the Little Colorado River between Holbrook and Winslow, and Hashknife cow camps were scattered all the way from Flagstaff to the New Mexico line. The Texans who rode for the Aztecs were soon known far and wide as a tough and wild bunch, but, then, perhaps they had to be. Rustlers and drought finally broke the eastern investors, and the Hashknife Ranch and brand were sold to the Babbitt brothers of Flagstaff in 1901. There were several men in partnership with the Babbitts over the years, but during the time of Mack's story Charlie Wyrick was their partner and general manager, and Charlie's son Bill Jim was the Hashknife foreman.
This book is not a history of the Hashknife outfit, but it is Hashknife history—at least a small part of it, as seen through the eyes of a young boy whose education was cut short so that his thirty-a-month paycheck as a cowboy might "help out at home." Covering about fourteen years, Mack's story relates the times and ways of the cowboys on roundup, during stampedes, and riding bog. He describes the dipping of cattle during the outbreak of the "scab" in 1925, a devastating epidemic that left so many cattle dying that half of the northern Arizona ranchers either went out of business or were taken over by the loan companies. There are yarns of bad horses and the men who rode them, and accounts of the killing of packs of "wild" dogs, which ravaged young calves more than coyotes or the earlier wolves ever did. Mack admits to having "broomie-chasin' fever" and relates the disasters, the fun, and sometimes the sorrow involved in running and trapping wild horses. He remembers the lonely weeks spent feeding bulls during the winter in a remote cow camp, where his home was a one-room shack so flimsy that snow, blown through wide cracks, covered his bed like fine talcum powder. Mack's account goes through the so-called Roaring Twenties,—the days of Prohibition and moonshine—then the Great Depression, and ends in the mid-1930s when he left the employ of the Hashknife Ranch for good. He tells how it was, "workin'for the other man," and how his hopes of ever getting a start of his own grew more slim each year as the open range was fenced in and the size of cattle ranches dwindled.
There has been no attempt to glamorize the life of the cowboy or paint an unrealistic picture by whitewashing a subject or making it appear "romantic." At one time during the writing of this book, Mack finished relating in gory detail how he and other cowboys had dragged the stock-killing dogs to death at the end of their saddle ropes. I was taping this on my recorder, and Mack stopped his narrative, saying, "If you write that, wimmin will say I'm a mean, cruel bastard." Then he considered a moment, and went on, "But that's what we did, and I ain't going to tell it no different." I'm sure the reader wouldn't want him to.
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