President Theodore Roosevelt
Owen was seventeen and full of life and adventure. He loved his parents and worked hard on their farm for them, but when it was time to play, he usually found some daring "do" for entertainment. Like many boys his age, he ran with his pals of the same age.
Owen and his friends had been out chasing coyotes for fun. They each had a gunny sack which they swung wildly over their heads and rode their horses hard through the brush or high grass. Coyotes are very smart animals and it is not easy to find or catch them. So, Owen and his pals weren't having much luck.
They rode up to the crest of a high hill and stopped suddenly when they saw, well below them, a large campsite with a number of huge tents set up around a large campfire.
"Eastern city slickers, I'll bet!" one of the boys judged. "Yeah! Look at the size of them tents—and all them fine lookin' horses!" another said. "I'll bet they're down there havin' tea about now," Owen laughed and held up his curled little pinky, mocking them. "Let's scare 'em a little!" he added. "Let's ride down on 'em like a bunch of wild Indians." Owen looked around at the boys in the group and they all agreed enthusiastically.
Owen began waving his gunny sack and yelling. He kicked his horse in the flanks and the horse took off down the hillside at a fast gallop. The other boys did the same, screaming and yelling. They rode hard, down into the middle of the camp, still waving their gunny sacks. Owen led them into the center of the camp and jumped off his horse. The others followed.
The boys were full of laughter as men came pouring out of the tents and surrounded them, with rifles pointed straight at the boys. Their laughter stopped abruptly and everyone became quite serious when they saw the rifles pointed directly at them! Suddenly, it was very quiet. But behind them, they heard one lone voice make a shrill cry, "Yee—aouw!"
Everyone looked to see who was making the sound, and saw a large, bespeckled man waving a huge "ten gallon" cowboy hat. He didn't have on a shirt, and his red underwear suit covered his upper torso. His suspenders were hanging on each side, below his waist. The mouth full of buck teeth gave away his identity, and the boys immediately recognized him as President Teddy Roosevelt!
President Roosevelt laughed loudly and motioned to the men surrounding the boys, who happened to be Roosevelt's personal body guards dressed in Army uniforms. "Now, men! Stand down! These fellas are just boys! Look at 'em! They mean no harm. They were just having some fun on us. Boys! Come on over here to my tent. Come on! Come on! It's all right."
The soldiers lowered their rifles cautiously and backed away from the group of boys. The boys stood transfixed, looking first aghast at the soldiers and then at the President of the United States . Roosevelt invited them once more and they finally found their legs to walk toward this famous man. They had all become meek as little lambs.
He invited them into his own private tent and motioned for them to sit down. He laughed once again at how meek they had become. "Well, boys! Where in blazes did you come from and what have you been doing?" Roosevelt asked in his jovial high voice.
The boys all looked at each other, began to smile at one another, and everyone began talking at once. Roosevelt laughed again and asked each one to give their name, one at a time. He went around the circle and listened as they introduced themselves. Soon he was chatting with them about his visit to Oklahoma Territory and his efforts to bag a buffalo. He showed them his big rifle for that purpose and asked them about their coyote hunting.
Before the evening was out, Roosevelt was telling them stories of his hunts for elephant and lion in wild Africa, as they hung on his every word. He seemed to enjoy his audience's rapt attention and they loved his stories. He let them try on his huge gauntlet gloves and put on his large hat. Much laughter came from this last act as each one tried on his hat.
For the next three days, they followed the President and his entourage around the area, watching him ride, eating meals with him, and listening to his stories. Finally, he had to leave to meet some men about the business of making Oklahoma Territory a state, he told them. What great news the boys had to take back to their parents.
Owen was simply swallowed up by the event. For once, he was quiet and listened to this great man. He just wanted to take in every moment he had with him.
When Owen got back home, he was beside himself with the story of meeting Mr. Roosevelt. His dad was a bit put out with Owen for being gone for three days and not telling them where he had been. Mattie had been quite worried about his whereabouts. Owen was shocked that they would be thinking of anything else but his experience with this great man.
As the joy went out of Owen's meeting with Roosevelt, he began to quarrel with his dad, something he rarely did. But that night, he was full of testosterone and he looked on his dad as being not only short sighted about the famous meeting, but perhaps jealous. One word escalated to another and they both said things they shouldn't have.
Finally, Owen left the house, saddled his horse and rode off into the night. He rode a mile or so away and found a favorite spot to think. He sulked and hated his dad for being so small. After everyone had gone to bed, Owen sneaked back into the house, filled his travel bags with a few clothes and left the house for good.
The further he rode, the more he convinced himself that he could take care of himself, that he didn't need his dad bossing him around all the time, that it was high time he showed his dad a thing or two. He could ride and rope well. He was a good horseman. He could handle any cow or steer in his path. He'd get a job as a wrangler on a trail drive. He would go off and see the world!
Yes! That was what he wanted—for so long! To see the world! He was tired of being a farmer, of breaking his back every day doing menial chores. He would become a famous cowboy! A wrangler that knew no fear. That night, out under the stars, he felt the exhilaration of being alone—no bed space to share with all those brothers, no one to tell him to do this or that. He unrolled his bedroll and lay down by a little campfire to sleep. His head rested on the rather hard saddle, but that was okay. He was tough and he could take it.
The next morning, reality set when he awoke to no food, no coffee and no breakfast. His horse was content to nibble on the abundant grass around him but that would hardly do it for Owen, who loved a big breakfast of eggs, bacon, and biscuits covered in gravy. But, he would be all right, he told his horse, and saddled him up.
He rode into town but was careful not to be too obvious since his father might be looking for him. He went to the local dining house and paid for his breakfast but he would have to watch his money until he could make some more, he thought.
"Well, Owen. What are you doin' here? Aren't you a little off your beaten trail?" his waiter asked him. "I'm doin' some business for my dad. I had to get an early start. Give me some eggs and bacon and biscuits—and plenty of gravy!" he said matter of fact.
As he ate, his mind was racing about what he might do next. He would have to find a trail driver and sign on with them. He knew that there were several herds moving through what was called the Western Trail for a good part of the spring, so he would try to hook up with one of them. He didn't know anyone who was a trail boss in town so he would just have to hunt around until he found a trail drive on the move. He had to get out of town fast before his dad caught up with him.
His search went on for days. His money was running low and he was beginning to smell. He had forgotten his shaving razor and stubble began to grow on his usually clean-shaven face. His horse looked at him quizzically as if to say, "Where's the oats I usually get at night? Or how about some hard corn that you know I love? Is this buffalo grass all I'm going to get?"
Owen had been riding north, it seemed forever. He'd been following what was known as the Great Western Trail where cattle were herded by the thousands every year from Texas to Kansas and on to Chicago by rail. Finally, he saw ahead of him the cloud of dust kicked up by the hooves of many cattle, unmistakably in a trail drive. He hurried his horse on toward the cloud.
When he finally reached the drag men behind the drive, he asked where was the trail boss. They just pointed toward the front of the drive, and Owen asked, "What's his name? I'm hoping to sign on with him." The two men looked at him in disgust. One spit a juicy, long slime of tobacco juice onto the ground in front of Owen. "MacKenzie—a mean som-bitch!" The other one smiled and said, "You think you can wrangle? Ain't you a little young?"
Owen pulled his reins a little tighter to his chest. He didn't smile. "I can manage," he answered and kicked his horse in the flanks, skirting around the herd and riding toward MacKenzie. When he found him, Owen decided that it was true. This guy had to be the meanest lookin' snake he had ever seen!
MacKenzie was old—at least fifty. His hat was rumpled and his clothes looked like he hadn't washed them in a month. He had a stubby growth on his face that was salt and pepper gray. He had a permanent squint in his right eye—like he was always taking aim at someone.
"I got plenty o' help, sonny. Maybe you can help Cookie for now. I ain't got time for no kid wet behind the ears. Cookie'll let you wash dishes for your meals. That's the best I can do for ya'." MacKenzie turned back to his lead steer.
Owen was about to turn and show his horse's backside to MacKenzie when the growl he heard in his stomach reminded him of how hungry he was. He decided quickly that, for the moment, he would play along with this MacKenzie, get something to eat for dishwashing, and then haul ass! He tipped his hat and rode toward the chuckwagon which was being driven by Cookie.
Owen found the chuck wagon and rode up beside it. There, an even uglier old grouch sat in the wagon seat. Owen explained that he was to help with the dishwashing which really wasn't washing dishes at all—rather, scrubbing out the large metal kettles and washing the tin plates and cups that the wranglers used.
That evening when Cookie set up camp and cooked the meals, he ordered Owen to fetch just about everything. It was apparent that Cookie had a very badly mangled leg from some accident in times past. He walked, or hobbled with a decided limp. Owen did as he said without comment.
When the men, including Cookie and Owen, received their evening grub, they sat around the campfire or leaned back against the chuck wagon wheels or any place else they could find a little comfort. Owen paid little attention to the men, but much more to the food he was given, something he hadn't had in a couple of days.
The cowboys watched Owen from the corners of their eyes and said nothing about the way he devoured his food and sopped the plate clean with his bread. One of the friendlier men asked, "So, where do you hail from, Kid?" Owen looked up only long enough to see who asked the question and returned to eating. "Elmer, down by the Red River."
"You lookin' to sign on with us boys?" the friendly cowboy continued. "Yeah," Owen replied. "I been ridin' and wranglin' all my life. My dad has always owned a good sized herd, so I know how to rope and ride purdy good."
"You talk to MacKenzie?" one asked. "Yeah," Owen chuckled. "He wants me to help Cookie—but I know how to wrangle!" he bragged. They all smiled and said nothing more.
After dinner, there were smokes and a lot of rough talk. Owen tried to act like he had been around and knew all about their language, but in reality, the roughest talk he had heard was from some of his boy pals back home—and that wasn't much. He was shocked at the remarks they were making about women in general—a lot of remarks. In fact, the evening's topic seemed to be about the physical virtues of women—all women.
Cookie called him away from the campfire pretty quick to help with the evening clean up and Owen was relieved—but curious about what the men meant with some of their talk. He was pretty innocent of life at that point.
Cookie sent him after a half dozen things and then they began washing and drying the huge cooking pans and utensils, standing together, side by side. "You best turn your ears off to the talk around the campfire, Buddy. This ain't no place for a kid." Cookie didn't say anything for awhile. Then, "I can see you are wantin' to sign on and wrangle, but I gotta better idée for ya'. I can tell you run off from your folks. Did it once't mysef. Regretted it ever since."
Owen started to say something but thought better of it. He wanted to hear what Cookie was going to suggest. "There's a big ranch about two days' ride on up futher north. It's a big 'un!" he said with emphasis. "If I'se you—I'd hightail it on over there and get me a good job. They always are wantin' cowboys and you'd fit right in with them'uns. And they'd treat you right. Them's decent people what run it. It's called the Hunderd and One."
Owen thought about this. "Where is this place?" he asked. Cookie leaned in close to Owen and Owen smelled his fowl breath, whiskey mixed with the evening's meal. "You stick close to me. In a couple days, I'll tell you which way to ride. You won't have to take no gruff off'n MacKenzie if you hook up with Hunderd and One. MacKenzie don't treat nobody right. You'll do a sight better at the Hunderd and One."
They said no more and Owen felt better about the possibility that he could find a good job and one that paid for more than his meals. That night he slept easy for the first time since he had left home.
[Author's Note] Owen Mead described the story of meeting Theodore Roosevelt around 1907.