The American Cowboy has been immortalized in song, story, on the movie screen and the television. He has been the subject of more written words than perhaps any figure in the vast fabric of American History.
He captured the imagination of the world. He was a knight errant, roaming the west, doing deeds of daring, a free spirit, who somehow represented what an entire culture wished they could be. Today, the cowboys are mostly gone.
Oh, there are a few pockets of them remaining here and there, but somehow, the romance is gone and they have become figures of curiosity, only vestiges of their past glory.
Their only counterpart in recent history is a group that has, of their own choosing, remained anonymous and out of literature. The only place one can hear the fascinating tales of their existence is in a gathering where one or more of them chance to meet.
They were the ringmen during the heyday of the registered cattle business, that period between the 1930's and the 1980's when the production of registered cattle was a haven for the wealthy of other businesses -- when everyone who made lots of money craved to be a gentleman rancher. It was a time when ringmen and auctioneers ruled the marketing of seed stock in America.
Not many people outside this in-group realizes how closely this group of people resemble the storied American Cowboy in the most basic ways. They were mostly young, vigorous, unmarried or, at least, unencumbered by marriage, wild, free-spirited, wide ranging, fun-loving and in most cases, highly skilled at a very demanding trade.
They represented publications from sea to sea, and cattlemen bought reams of advertising simply to get the proper mix of ringmen to their sales. Those who didn't, more often than not, had less than successful sales.
They combined the very best qualities of knowledgeable cattlemen, helpful consultants, snake oil salesmen and accomplished actors. And from fall to late spring for five decades they beat the roads to death traveling from one sale to another in behalf of their publications and their clients.
Along the way, they had a ball. Though they were deadly serious during a sale, they were the epitome of the fun-loving, free-spirited rover when sales were not in progress. They worked hard, and played harder. They imbibed strong drink of all kinds -- whatever was handy -- and no member of the opposite sex, who expressed an interest, was ever disappointed if time allowed.
Those of us who operated on the fringes of their fraternity could only shake our heads in amazement at their skills, their antics, their staying power and their rollicking good humor.
I remember one sale for example where they all gathered in a nameless hotel in a nameless state. On the night after the sale the boys gathered for a cup of cheer at the bar downstairs. They were in a jovial mood. It had been a good sale, and a friend of theirs who was a manager of a ranch had shown the grand champion female in the show prior to the sale.
Nothing would do but that they present him with a loving cup. But where to find one? One of their number, and bull of a young man, happened to go into the men's room, and decided that the facility mounted on the wall would serve very well, so he promptly tore it from its place. Leaving behind water gushing from its former connections, he carried it through the bar and followed by his friends carried it up the outside stairs to the friend's room.
When the winning friend came to the door of his room, the boys sang “for he's a jolly good fellow” and presented him with the trophy. He declined to accept the offering, shut the door and left the group standing on the upstairs porch, facility in hand. What to do now with the unwanted loving cup?
The presenter walked to the edge of the porch and tossed the facility off, into the pool. It fell so hard and sank so rapidly that it cracked the bottom of the pool and the water all drained out. Oh, well. The boys simply took up a collection and paid for the damages. Easy come, easy go.
In another incident, a young ringman was headed to his room after a similar party, and chanced to pass a room door in which the key had been left. It was about 3 a.m. and the occupant of the room was obviously sound asleep. Unable to resist the temptation the young ringman opened the door, bounded into the room and, waving his arms, shouted, “Bugger, Bugger, Bugger” at the top of his lungs. He left hastily, but you can just imagine the reaction of the occupant.
In one sale, there was a paint mule offered as one of the lots. A syndicate of ringmen was immediately formed and in a spirited bidding war, bought the mule, put it into training, and raced it in the mule races at Ruidoso. They didn't make any money, but had a hell of a time at the races.
This group have since departed, gone into retirement or into gainful employment elsewhere. Some have died, some are now respected members of other professions. Those who followed them are for the most part serious sale professionals, good at their job, but without the free and easy attitude of their predecessors, pale reminders of those who came before. They serve the same purpose, keeping the auction sales organized and taking the bids, but as with most modern young people, they lack the good humor of the old boys.
The old ones were vital and a necessary part of an era that is gone, and as I said, come close in my mind to embodying the free spirit, wit, and independence of the American Cowboy.