Coffee, history and talking cowboy


Coffee and history seem to go together. I know that statement requires an explanation, so here goes.
Way back in 1976, I was working at The Pagosa Springs SUN and also attending a revival of the San Juan Historical Society. In those days, the historical society contained names like Earl Mullins, Emmit Martinez, Archie Toner, Bill Warr, Worth Crouse, Genevieve Olsen and a lot more.
Because I worked at the newspaper, some of the historical society members suggested I write a history column in the newspaper to commemorate Colorado’s 100-year anniversary. I asked Glen Edmonds, then editor/owner of The SUN, for permission to write the column and together we arrived at a format. There was no shortage of source material because Edmonds had on file a copy of almost every paper written in Pagosa Springs since 1890. With the help of Mrs. Marquez, the high school Spanish teacher, I titled the column “En Busca de Leyendas,” which translates “In Search of Legends” in English. Another column, “Pagosa Before 1900,” was in there somewhere. And so my column writing career and local history quest was launched.
It happens that Mullins, Martinez and some other old-timers were in the habit of exchanging lies over coffee at the Elkhorn Café at about 10’clock every morning. A ritual was involved. Three or four of the coffee drinkers lined up in a row facing a wall in Mullin’s barbershop, a quarter carefully balanced against the thumb of their right hand. One at a time, they flipped their quarter to see who could get the quarter to stop moving closest to the wall. The loser, whose quarter was farthest from the wall, had to pay for the coffee.
Grumbling under his breath, the loser led the way to the table reserved for this particular group. The usual did-you-know talk began: did you know so-and-so died last night, did you know the sheriff had to go to Browny’s house last night, I heard there was quite a ruckus, etc., etc.
Finally, I wiggled into a conversational gap and started asking history questions. I was in the right place at the right time. A gauntlet of knowing eyes glared at me, the whippersnapper, then assumed a questioning demeanor as they glanced at each other, the silent question being,”Who’s going to start?”
Usually it was Mullins. As he cleared his throat and launched his message, every head nodded, “Yes, that’s the way it was.” Once in awhile somebody cleared their throat twice and everybody turned to the ghost whisperer. I soon learned what was to come. Another throat gurgle and then, “My old pappy dun tole me, it was back in the year the river dried up, I think it was 1917 …?” Side-by-siders faced each other, then nodded their heads in agreement.
I soon learned to get these old-timers to sit down with me, one on one over a coffee. Cheapest classes I ever had. My Pagosa history education moved into the fast lane. But, I realized if I was going to write about cowboys, I needed to speak and write cowboy lingo. Already I knew horses didn’t just shake you loose by running under a tree branch, you were having a wreck. At the Elkhorn, I had met an old-timer named Bob Cooper who was about as fluent in cowboy jargon as I ever heard, almost like Festus on “Gunsmoke.” I listened to him for about five hours one day at the Elkhorn, focusing as best I could on what he was saying and how he said it. I’ll admit he was generous with his palaver, but I also have to admit, as hard as I try, I still can’t talk cowboy like a real, honest-to-goodness bronco buster.