Gail Gardner: Arizona’s “Poet Lariat”
Excerpt from Arizona Adventure by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.
On a cool summer afternoon during the year of our Bicentennial, a large crowd gathered in Payson for the Old Time Country Music Festival held each summer in that mountain community, nestled at the foot of the Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. A parade of musicians, ranging from country rock to bluegrass to old-time fiddlers entertained the throngs, many of whom had driven up from Phoenix to escape the summertime inferno. The audience ran the gamut of age. Tiny tots frolicked in front of the bandstand, young people sucked on cans of beer or pop and the old folks sat around between songs talking about the “good ol days.” Just before the last act, the announcer stepped up to the mike and said, “and now ladies and gentlemen, Arizona’s ‘Poet Lariat,’—Gail Gardner!”
From out of the crowd stepped a wiry-framed old cowboy with a patch over one eye. He walked with a bowed back on legs shaped like horse collars. His face was full of freckles and sun spots from years spent in the out-of-doors and his grin was effortless. He climbed the stairs to the platform with the help of a couple of friends, took hold of the mike with one hand, pushed his hat back with the other, cast his good eye over the crowd and flashed a wry grin. “I don’t use any accompaniment when I sing,” he said, “for I’ve found that the guitar or piano is always off key from my singing.” With a wink and another grin, he belted out his doggerel verse masterpiece:
Way up high in the Sierry Petes, where the yeller pines grow tall, Old Sandy Bob an’ Buster Jig, had a rodeer camp last fall. . .”
The audience that unforgettable afternoon was given a rare treat. There aren’t many real legends left in the world today. To those who carry fond memories of those “thrilling days of yesteryear,” Gail Gardner was that—a legend. His lyrics have been sung by singers of cowboy songs in the most remote cow camps to the top stars of country music.
It all began back in the early 1900s when Gail and Bob Heckle were running a “greasy sack” outfit in the Sierra Prieta Mountains outside of Prescott. These mountains were known locally as the “Sierry Petes.” An old prospector had given them that dubbing some time before the name stuck.
Oh, they taken their horses and runnin’ irons,
And maybe a dawg or two,
An’ they ‘lowed they’d brand all the long-yered calves
That come within their view.
An’ any old doggie that flapped long yeres,
An’ didn’t bush up by day,
Got his long yeres whittled an’ his old hide scorched,
In a most artistic way.
In the song, Sandy Bob is Bob Heckle. He is also an uncle of country music star, Marty Robbins. Buster Jig is Gail. He picked up that moniker from his father’s initials. His father, James I. Gardner, ran a local general merchandise store and his son Gail was called “Buster J.I.G.”
There have been many misinterpretations of Gail’s lyrics—mostly from singers and critics who, as Gail said, “didn’t know which end of a cow gets up first.”
One so-called expert surmised that the two cowboys had to be rustlers since they were carrying “runnin’ irons.”
“That wasn’t the case at all,” Gail said. “All cattlemen carried little short runnin’ irons in their saddle bags when gathering cows. When we found a neighbor’s cow and calf, we put the mama’s brand on the calf same as they did when they found one of ours. We worked together that way. Besides, you couldn’t carry a branding iron for every outfit in the country in your saddlebag anyway.”
Now one fine day ol’ Sandy Bob,
He throwed his seago down,
“I’m sick of the smell of this burnin’ hair
And I ‘lows I’m a-goin’ to town.”
So they saddles up an’ hits ’em a lope,
Per it warn’t no sight of a ride,
And them was the days when a Buckeroo
Could ile up his inside.
The song, written in doggerel verse and sung to the tune of “Polly Wolly Doodle” tells the true story of two boisterous, devil-may-care cowboys, Gail Gardner and Bob Heckle out on a “whizzer” in Prescott, back before prohibition, when there were some forty saloons lining famed Whiskey Row. Any cowboy worth his salt could start drinking at the Kentucky Bar and down a glass in each saloon, all the way to the Depot House Saloon down near the Santa Fe Railroad tracks.
Those two irrepressible cowboys had committed just about every vice that Prescott had to offer in those raucous days and were headed back to the Sierra Prietas. Along the way one suggested that the “devil gets after cowboys that act the way we’d been actin’.” The other replied in the jaunty manner that typified the breed. “If the devil comes after me, I’ 11 rope’ m, mark and brand’ m and tie a knot in his tail.” The incident was forgotten until several years later as Gail was going off to World War I. He was riding a Santa Fe train across Kansas when he chanced to see farmers walking among their muley cows afoot and he immediately thought of all the ornery critters he and his friend had choused in Arizona’s mountain country. He sat down and on Santa Fe stationery he penned the words to the “Sierry Petes.”
Oh, they starts her in at the Kaintucky Bar
At the head to Whiskey Row,
An, they winds up down by the Depot House,
Some forty drinks below.
Then they sets up and turns around,
And goes her the other way,
An’ to tell you the Gawd-forsaken truth,
Them boys get stewed that day.
The house in which Gail was born in 1892 (he died in that same house 95 years later) is on Mount Vernon Street. It is one of those quaint New England style houses that characterizes the classic, early Prescott architecture. The house, still owned by his family, is full of over a hundred years of Gardner family memorabilia. The walls are decorated with books, old photographs, paintings, and Navajo rugs. Gail called the decor, “early Fred Harvey.” His Western book collection is larger than most public libraries. The whole place lives and breathes Arizona history. In one corner of an upstairs room is an old, high-cantled silver saddle. In the closet hangs a fancy silver concho bridle with an elaborate eight-strand rawhide braided reins and romal.
As they was a-ridin’ back to camp
A-packin’ a pretty good load,
Who should they meet, but the Devil himself,
A-prancin’ down the road.
Sez he, “You ornery cowboy skunks,
You’d better hunt yer holes,
For I’ve come up from Hell’s Rim Rock,
To gather in yer souls.
Sez Sandy Bob, “Old Devil be damned,
We boys is kinda tight,
But you ain’t a-goin’ to gather no cowboy souls
‘thout you has some kind of a fight.”
Gail’s main “treasure” in this rich cultural setting hangs over the fireplace in the living room. A large painting illustrates two happy-faced cowboys astraddle two skittish, wild-eyed cow ponies. Each has his rope in action. One has thrown a loop over the horns of a diabolical critter that can be none other than the Old Devil himself. He’s taken up a dally around his saddle horn while his partner is about to drop a loop around the hind legs of the twisting, scowling Foul Fiend.
So Sandy Bob punched a hole in his rope
And he swang her straight and true,
He lapped it on to the Devil’s horns,
An’ he taken his dallies too.
Now Buster Jig was a riata man
With his gut-line coiled up neat,
So he shaken her out an’ he built him a loop
An’ he lassed the Devil’s hind feet.
After the war, Gail showed his doggerel verses to a good friend named Billy Simon who put them to music. The two began singing the song at local rodeos. During these years, cow work became scarce and many cowboys got themselves employed as wranglers on dude ranches that were springing up all over Arizona.
The song became quite popular, especially among real working cowboys who recognized the lyrics as having been written by one of their own kind. They took great pleasure and pride in the fact that it was a couple of cowboys that took the Devil in tow and with a fair number of drinks under their belts at that.
Oh, they stretched him out, an’ they tailed him down
While the irons was a-gettin’ hot,
They cropped and swaller-forked his yeres,
Then they branded him up a lot.
They pruned him up with a de-hornin’ saw
An’ they knotted his tail fer a joke,
They then rid off and left him there,
Necked to a Black-Jack oak.
If you’re ever up high in the Sierry Petes
An’ you hear one Hell of a wail,
You’ll know it’s that Devil a-bellerin’ around
About them knots in his tail.
Gail was a kind of an anomaly among old-time cowboys. He left his hometown of Prescott at the tender age of 16 for a year of prep school, thence on to Dartmouth where he was a star athlete. He graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Science in 1914 and remained in the East long enough to become romantically involved with a stunningly beautiful New York actress named Marie Carroll. He talked her into coming West and soon they announced their plans to wed. The engagement was announced at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
The wedding never took place. She wanted him to live in New York and he wanted no part of that. “That girl I wound up with,” he said with a grin, “is worth a hundred New York actresses. You’d never see a one of them out herdin’ cows.” The girl he wound up with was a lovely, charming lady named Delia Gist.
Gail met Delia while she was visiting at the ranch of a neighbor. She was an Easterner—all the way from New Mexico, but had “wested” and lived in Skull Valley. Her father owned Angora goats and for a time Gail’s friends referred to his lady friend as the goat girl. His friends figured he had fallen pretty hard for Delia when they heard he had given her his favorite horse. When Gail and Delia got married in 1924, they kidded him saying he only married her to get his horse back.
A few years later, Gail’s friends pressured him into putting the words of his many poems into a book. When the book was ready to be published, Gail rode out to his friend J.R. Williams’ ranch on Walnut Creek and asked the famed cartoonist-rancher if he would put one of his drawings on the cover. The book was to be titled the Orejana Bull. The title came from an incident that had occurred several years earlier when Gail had locked horns with a particularly intractable wild cow in the mountains near Copper Basin. An Orejana bull is an animal old enough to leave its mama but unbranded and not ear-marked.
Gail bought his first cow ranch in 1914. It was, in his terms, a “greasy sack” outfit, one that is a one or two-man operation. He kept that ranch for 20 years, but remained a cowman until 1960.
Most of the old-time cowboy song writers had their material pirated away because few bothered or even knew anything about copyright laws. Dude ranch cowboy warblers were prone to take any song they might have picked up along the way and if they did not know the author, or didn’t care, they just attached their own name to it. One such pirate was a fella named Powder River Jack Lee. Gail told the story this way. “Powder River Jack came into Arizona with his wife, Kitty, doin’ Hawaii music but that didn’t set too well with local folks, so they got themselves some western clothes and began singing cowboy songs. Pretty soon he puts out a songbook that includes Sierry Petes and Curley Fletcher’s Strawberry Roan and claims them for his own.”
Curley and Gail got pretty upset about this and decided to take legal action. “It was to no avail, however,” Gail said. “Hell, that ol’ fool didn’t even own the clothes he was wearin’ and neither one of us wanted Kitty.”
Excerpt from Arizona Adventure by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.