The Day the Mules Went Crazy
by Jim Foreman

Chapter 23


            To a cowboy, a hat is not only fully equal to a good horse in value and importance to him, but also rates well above the other necessities of life like boots, whiskey and women. It protected him from the sun, warmed his head in the winter and kept the rain from going down his collar. It was a bucket to bring water to his horse, a fan to nurse a campfire to life and could be used to trap a rabbit for dinner.

            There is an old saying that one can tell the size a rancher's spread was by the size of the hat that he wears, however there is also the opposite saying which referred to someone as being all hat and no cows. There were also a few rules of propriety which cowboys had to observe. You should always remove your hat for a lady but not necessarily to eat and never wear a bigger hat than the boss.

            A person could tell how the cattle business had gone during the past year by looking at the hats that ranchers were wearing. If it had been a particularly good year, they bought a new hat. If the year had been only fair or even worse, they wore the same old hat for another year. After all, a rancher could hire a cowboy for a full month for the price of a good hat. It was claimed that the big packing houses in Kansas City and Chicago would always check with the John B. Stetson Company to see how hat sales were going in order to estimate how many cattle to expect.

            My Uncle George was working on the Coble Ranch and as fall was approaching, the cowboys began to discuss what they would give to Mr. Coble for Christmas. He was a good man to work for and they wanted to give him something rather special. It was finally decided that if they all kicked in a dollar each, they could buy him a new Stetson hat. George was going to Panhandle for supplies so he was given the money and told to order the best hat that he could and have Mr. Coble's name stamped in gold on the sweatband. It usually took a couple months to get a personalized hat from the factory in Missouri so they wanted to get their order in early.

            George placed an order for the most expensive hat that Stetson made, the 24-X Beaver Boss of The Plains. This particular style of hat was the biggest and most impressive ten gallon hat that they made. It later became the hat that Tom Mix wore in the movies. Mr. Coble had a rather small head and wore a six and seven-eights hat. I'm not sure when George's rather odd sense of humor kicked in on this deal, but he also ordered an identical hat in his own size, seven and a half. He asked that "W. T. Coble" be stamped in gold on the sweatband of both hats.

            When the hats came in, George took the size tags out of both hats, turned the small one over to the cowboys to give to Mr. Coble, then hid the big one that fit him. On Christmas morning, the cowboys presented the hat to Mr. Coble. It hadn't been too good a year so Mr. Coble had resigned himself to wearing his old hat for another year. This made the gift even more special to him. He had never owned a Boss of The Plains hat before but had always wanted one. He wore the hat all day and when it was time for bed, he carefully placed it back in the box that it came in to protect it. A new hat to a cowboy is like a new car to other people, they dread the day when they put the first mark on it. Only after it has been used to beat out a grass fire, rained on several times and stepped on by horses do they mold it into the familiar shape of all well-worn cowboy hats.

            When everyone had gone to sleep, George quietly traded his big hat for the small one and waited for the fun to begin. After breakfast, Mr. Coble got his hat out of the box and put it on. It dropped down over his ears like a tub. He didn't say anything, just checked the sweatband to be sure that it was his hat then stuffed tissue paper around the sweatband until he had shimmed it down to his size.

            That night, when he had put the hat away, George moved the tissue paper from the big hat to the small one and put it back in the box. The next morning, the hat sat on top of Mr. Coble's head like a teacup. He pulled the tissue paper out and it fit properly again.

            George played the hat and tissue paper trading game for about a week until one morning when Mr. Coble was in an especially bad mood and it all came to an end. He tried to put the small hat on with the tissue paper in it. He let fly a stream of cuss words as long as a well rope, ripped out the tissue paper, slammed the hat to the ground and stomped it until it was flat as a pancake. Then he picked up the battered felt Frisbee, punched the crown back into some semblance of its original shape with his fist and jammed it on his head.

            Having finished with his fun, George never traded the hats again. A month or so later, George wore his pristine Boss of the Plains to a barn dance where everyone admired his good taste in hats.

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