Gizmo and I spent a few days with Johnny and Rose Cook on the Navajo Indian Reservation, near Indian Wells, Arizona. They had graciously invited us to stay with them for a much needed rest. While we were there I pitched in to help with shearing, though I knew nothing about sheep. We worked in a remote sheep camp far up a box canyon. It was comprised of a small hogan and some holding pens. The canyon was closed on three sides by steep cliffs, which offered shelter and containment for the sheep, and enabled the family to better protect them from predators. I sat in the pickup truck’s bed with two others as Johnny drove us up the winding route to the camp. We set out before daybreak and followed an old wagon road—nothing more than two dirt ruts—and arrived at the camp just at daybreak. We wasted no time in gathering and shearing the sheep.
The five of us worked all day in the sheep camp. My pants and shirt had bits of blood on them from where I had wiped my hands as I tried in vain to shear the critters without cutting them. There was no electricity, so electric shears were useless. We trimmed over six hundred sheep that day—or, I should say, they sheared the sheep, and I mostly abused them with the hand clippers. I hadn’t known how thin skinned sheep were until that day, and I ended up lacerating just about every animal I attempted to shear. The Navajos around me were a good-natured bunch and joked incessantly, mostly at my expense.
“My cousin could shear almost as good as you,” Cecil commented. He was quiet and thoughtful and rarely talked, so I tended to listen when he did. He went on. “He finally got his promotion.”
“Oh? What did he get promoted to?” I asked.
“He works in a butcher shop now,” Cecil replied with a straight face.
The other three waited for several seconds then burst out laughing. I took it in stride. They had been merciless all day.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I was just gettin’ the hang of it. I think I’d be gettin’ pretty good by now if y’all hadn’t run out of sheep.”
They looked at me with deadpan expressions. Johnny responded, “Yeah, my uncle says he’s a good mechanic. He has seven cars at his place, and none of them runs.”
The others thought this was hilarious and began laughing once more.
“Okay, I get it, I get it,” I said.
The day before, I had driven Johnny’s sister to the chapter house at Greasewood for some tribal business. She didn’t know how to drive and Johnny’s father had asked me to take her in his old pickup truck.
“You know I’m going to have to take that horse from you,” Johnny said seriously.
“And why would that be?” I asked.
“Yesterday you drove alone in the truck with Dezba.” He paused to look at me thoughtfully then continued. “It is the law of my people that a man cannot be alone with a single woman unless he intends to marry her. If you don’t marry, there is the need to pay a dowry. This is usually done by trading sheep or cattle, sometimes horses or mules.” I could see that he was dead serious, and the smiles had disappeared from the faces of the others.
“Uh … I don’t know what to say,” I said. “I didn’t know anything about that,”
“The horse will be enough. You do not have to give your saddle or other belongings,” Johnny said, gravely.
“Oh boy,” I muttered, “I don’t know … I just can’t give you my horse. I’m sorry. Isn’t there some other way to work this out? I didn’t mean any disrespect. No one told me, and I just didn’t know … I’m sorry.” I could feel my face burning and my pulse quickening.
Cecil spoke up. “We would not leave you on foot. We would supply you with something else to ride. Maybe not as good as your horse, but you would not have to walk.”
I sat there, stunned. They all looked a bit embarrassed at having to confront me like this. They looked down at the ground, unable to meet my eyes. We sat in silence for a few minutes, each one carefully examining his feet.
Finally, Johnny broke the silence. “I think we could give you one of those big sheep to ride,” he said earnestly.
I looked up at them.
“One of the big ones. Your feet might drag a little, though.” Then they all burst out laughing until they cried. “The Big Sheep Cowboy!” Johnny cried, laughing hysterically.
They all got a good laugh about it at my expense. I had always thought I was good at practical jokes and pulling people’s legs, but I was a rank amateur compared with these guys. They continued to laugh while I just sat and shook my head. They made “sheep cowboy” jokes all evening and all the next day.
Two days later, I had saddled Gizmo and was ready to hit the trail again. Johnny, Cecil, and several others were there to bid me farewell and wish us good luck. I had stepped into the saddle and turned my horse to leave, when Cecil commented.
“Y’know, I went back east once.”
“Oh yeah? Where’d you go?” I asked.
“Gallup, New Mexico,” he replied.
And they all burst out laughing.