photo by Kevin Martini-Fuller
THE HIGH STEPPIN’ KIND
by Sunny Hancock (1931-2003)
I was born in the depression
back when times was kind of bad.
Guess I learned the occupation
of cow punchin’ from my dad
Down yonder in the “cedar breaks”
on a “greasy sack” outfit
That was mostly held together
by just work, and hair, and spit.
Back in that stage of history,
at least in my part of the west,
About the time they got you weaned,
why, it was time to leave the nest.
One man was all the labor
those little outfits seemed to need
And a kid my age was nothin’
but another mouth to feed.
Of course that suited me OK
‘cause school seemed pretty slow
And I thought I’d learned most everything
a man had ought to know.
I knew that punchin’ cattle
was the place I’d make my stand
Because by that time I had figured out
that I was quite a hand.
Jobs there were a plenty.
You could find them by the score,
‘Cause we was right there
in the middle of the second world war.
So most outfits was glad to furnish you
with meat and beans
With all the cowboys in the army,
or the navy, or marines.
I hit a salty outfit
I’d heard was rougher than a cob.
The boss said, “Sure, unload your saddle, kid;
you’ve found yourself a job.”
When he talked about the horses
I thought he must have read my mind
Because he asked me
if I could ride that old “high steppin’” kind.
Well, sir, I then informed him
in a voice not meek nor small
That that’s the kind
I figured suited me the best of all.
I said I liked ‘em energetic
and so that’s the kind I’d pick
Because I was built plumb forked,
kinda like a witchin’ stick.
This outfit had been a breeding up
their horses quite a spell,
And they raised the kind
they figured suited these parts pretty well.
You see, they needed something big
and stout, but also they’d allow
That he must have speed and quickness
for to catch and work a cow.
So they got some thoroughbred remount studs
to start this herd of theirs,
And then bred ’em to a bunch
of big old feather-legged Percheron mares.
I’ll tell you, they was catty
and would near outpull a truck.
They could make them long old circles,
and they sure knew how to buck.
Next mornin’ we had breakfast
quite awhile ahead of dawn.
Boss led me out a horse
and said his name was Leprechaun.
And the reason that they’d named him
that, he said was pretty clear,
‘Cuz if you didn’t take his head right quick
it just might to disappear.
So while you’re riding out today,
why just keep a looking around
You’ll see a bunch of little holes
that’s been punched into the ground.
They wasn’t made by badgers
nor by prairie dogs he said,
And they’re just about the same size
as a braggin’ cowboy’s head.
And this old pony, Leprechaun,
he muttered through his nose,
Is probably responsible
for a-quite a lot of those.
Well, I rode that horse that mornin’
down through draws and over knolls.
We didn’t gather many cattle
but we sure drilled lots of holes.
And every day you had to watch it
’round the rope corral, you see,
When we caught horses it was rainin’
and it was mostly rainin’ me.
All them other cowboys got to followin’ me around,
and… do you know why?..
They figured I’d been busy
takin’ lessons “how to fly.”
It was just plumb entertaining,
and I heard one feller say
That he allowed as how
that I was flying further every day.
Another boy piped up then
with a Sunday school smirk,
and said, “Kid, your flyin’s really somethin’,
but, Man, them landings need some work.”
Then the conversation
took another nasty little twist
When the cook said he thought
he’d maybe add some bird seed to his list
‘Cuz if I really started flyin’,
and it seemed as if I might
He could scatter some along the ground
for the times I chose to light.
I don’t know why I didn’t quit,
I know wasn’t pride
Hell, I’d lost all that
when I couldn’t find no horses I could ride.
Nor the reason wasn’t all them
wrecks and spills I took;
I was either bruised or peeled up
some most anyplace you’d look.
I guess the reason was
that if I didn’t stick around
And let ‘em run me off
I knew I’d never live it down.
So when I thought it over
why, I reckoned as of how
I’d called the dance tune
so I guessed I’d pay the fiddler now.
But no matter what you’re doin’,
even if it’s hard or rough,
You’re bound to get some better
if you practice long enough.
And let me tell you, pardner,
down among them rocks and cactus
Them old ponies was a-making sure
I got a lot of practice.
But then one morning early,
why, I pretty nearly crowed
When a big black horse took to me
and I finally got one rode.
I guess it weren’t no time for crowin’
‘cause I heard one feller drawl
Old Hoss thought there was four or five up there
and he couldn’t throw ‘em all.
Then the jigger boss he said to me,
with a sorta sideways glance
You quit whippin’ on them horses’ heads
with the ass end of your pants
But an horse took to me one day
out on the roundup ground.
And someone said, watch it kid,
your ass is gettin’ out of round.
So my luck had got some better
and it seemed that as of late
I didn’t spend all my time
clutterin’ up the real estate.
When they pulled the wagon in that fall,
it was snowy, cold, and damp
And I asked the boss what the chances was
of a winter job in camp.
The old boy looked me over
kind of searchin’ like and slow,
And I figured from the look I got
he was ’bout to tell me no.
But he scratched his head a little,
then he bit him off a chew.
Then he said, “Well now, young feller,
I’ll just tell you what I’ll do.
“I’ve got a camp still open over
on the Peach Springs side,
And I might just let you have it
and some horses you can ride.
Because you just might make a cowboy,
or at least that’s my suspicion
So I’ll keep you through the winter,
only just on one condition.
“You see, this or any outfit
that a man is apt to find
Is always gonna have a few
of that old high steppin’ kind.
But I want you to promise me
that when you go down the pike
You’ll never tell nobody else
that that’s the kind you like.”
I kinda looked down at my boot toes
and I nodded my ascent.
And I’ve been to lots of outfits since,
but no matter where I went
I just tried to ride what they drug out to me
and not to pay no mind,
But I never told ‘em,
“Yeah, I like that old high steppin’ kind.”
…Sunny Hancock, used with permission
This poem should not be re-posted or reprinted without permission
Sunny Hancock, in his book, Horse Tracks Through the Sage, a collection of his poems and Jesse Smith’s poems, writes about this poem, “This is a true story. I left home when I was pretty young and this is kinda the way things happened. I see kids around now at the age I was then and most of them still need a babysitter when the folks are gone.”
Sunny Hancock’s best-known poems include “The Bear Tale” and “The Horse Trade.” Our 2014 post of “The Horse Trade” continues to be one of our most viewed posts.
Sunny Hancock cowboyed all over the western U.S. and after he retired, he and his wife Alice settled near Lakeview, Oregon. He was invited to the first Western Folklife Center National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1985. He was a part of many other gatherings and he received the Gail Gardner Award from the Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering. For a time, Sunny Hancock performed with fellow cowboys and poets Chris Isaacs and Jesse Smith as “The Cardiac Cowboys” and they made an excellent recording. He and Jesse Smith published a book of their poetry, “Horse Tracks Through the Sage,” in 2002.
Each year Oregon’s Sunny Hancock/Leon Flick Memorial Cowboy Poetry Show remembers… “Lake County poets Sunny Hancock and Leon Flick while raising funds for a local cowboy crisis/scholarship fund.” The next show is July 26, 2020, featuring Dave Stamey and Kathy Moss.
The poetry of Sunny Hancock is featured in the first MASTERS CD from CowboyPoetry.com, along with that of the late Larry McWhorter, JB Allen, and Ray Owens.
Find more of Sunny Hancock’s poetry at cowboypoetry.com.
This photo of Sunny Hancock is by top photographer Kevin Martini-Fuller, who has photographed participants of Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering for over three decades. Find some of those photos at his site.
(Request permission to repost or reprint this poem or photograph.)