Born in 1908, C.O. Morgan was in his 80s and deeply ensconced in being a cantankerous cuss when he came to live with us. He’d buried his wife and both sons, leaving his only daughter to tend to him—and she’d had enough of his orneriness. Originally, I thought it a good idea for our girls to spend time with their great-grandfather, but after discovering he gave cigarettes to our 14-year-old and talked her into taking my 1964 Mustang joy riding, it became obvious I simply had another teenager in the house.
We all loved the old cowboy’s tales, but sifted through the often-repeated fables to find the believable ones. He told about meeting Pancho Villa, Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, as well as the great Cherokee, Sequoyah, but chuckled when I pointed out that Sequoyah died in 1840. As seniors of the clan passed, so did opportunities to authenticate C.O.’s stories, so we decided it didn’t really matter. He enjoyed the spotlight and his whoppers caused no harm.
One of his favorite stories seemed to come straight out of a movie script and involved picking up a hitchhiker along a sunbaked, dusty road in Arizona. According to Pawpaw, he’d taken pity on the crusty guy and offered a lift to the next oasis. Shortly after getting in the cab of the old GMC, the stranger pulled a knife and demanded money.
C.O. explained that his wallet was in the front pocket of the seat cover and, as he bent to get the cash, he jerked the wheel, pulled a loaded revolver from its hiding place and simultaneously squeezed the trigger as the bad guy fell against the truck door. The would-be robber dropped his weapon, clutching at the flesh wound as Pawpaw reached across the truck, flipped open the door and kicked the bleeding man out. He again yanked the wheel, slamming the door shut. The lanky 6’4″ cowboy moseyed on down the road.
Sometimes he came up with new embellishments to old stories, trying to test our attention. I’d heard about the time he and his brother were out motorcycling along that same gravel road and lost control when they hit a berm, sending the pair ass-over-tea-kettle across the road and almost ripping off Pawpaw’s kneecap. The gash freaked out the horse doctor who tended him, and his refusal to be still caused the sawbones to miss some of the gravel in the wound. At one point he declared that the bike was an Indian. Eventually he told us it was an Indian Squaw. I asked the octogenarian if perhaps it was an Indian Scout since I’d never heard of a Squaw. He bristled at the insinuation that he didn’t recall correctly, swearing it was true so I left it alone. Each time he retold the tale after that, he adamantly included that detail. The yarn did explain the huge scar that caused him considerable grief throughout his life, I reasoned, but I never was sure about the Squaw and he knew it stuck in my craw.
Eventually Pawpaw chose to surround himself with folks his own age, moving to a community with guys who played dominoes and could hold their own when he was giving them crap, though initially, acclimating was rough. We had to assure the staff that C.O. really didn’t mean anything when he pulled out the three-inch pocketknife and threatened his roommate. He just wanted to impress upon the man that arguing over TV shows was one thing, but stealing his peppermint Lifesavers was a declaration of war. It took a few relocations before bunking with a mute stroke patient, which worked well.
As time passed the old wound came back to haunt C.O. and he took to a wheelchair. We got a used motorized model, which he called his “buggy,” and he immediately turned his room into a sort of chop shop. Sympathetic grandkids showed up to extend his handlebars, adjust the joystick or perform whatever adjustments he came up with to make his buggy more custom—and fast.
Once he had wheels, Pawpaw became quite the Casanova. Dressed in cowboy shirts, Levis and polished boots, he offered ladies rides on his lap. Men grumbled and tucked their feet under their chairs as the wild man cruised around since he was known to roll across toes, claiming he had no control over his crazy buggy. Staffers constantly patched gouges in the sheetrock as he careened the hallways, cutting corners racing to the dining room to save seats for special ladies.
The larger-than-life leader of the Morgan clan was nearing 89 when he left this world. I found autographed copies of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey books, as well as an old photo of Pancho Villa when I packed up his things. As much as I wanted to believe his motorcycle story, though, I just cannot find anyone who has ever heard of an Indian Squaw. Have you?
**Editor’s Note: This installment of Free Range by Felicia Morgan was mistakenly cut off and was missing the final paragraph in the printed version of the May West, June issue.