by Stephen Bly
“It’s time to light a shuck, Uncle Avery.”
“I don’t run. I never have. I’m not startin’ now.”
“That’s all noble and good, but this might be a judicious time to consider it.” From The Lady Who Lingered Too Long
It's the middle of December. The days are short. It's been snowin' off and on for a couple of weeks. That means we’ve got some dark and dreary days up here on the Camas Prairie. Makes me awful thankful for modern lights.
Shadows ruled the indoor dwellings of the Old West. At night kerosene lanterns cast a very dull glow at best. Rooms darkened as soon as the sun began to drop towards the horizon. Even in full daylight, windows were few because of the expense. A bright, well-lit room denoted ultimate luxury. Places like jails especially harbored the ultimate dark, dreary, damp existence.
Many a pioneer wife had to fight the depression of a long, dimly lit winter. Cheyenne, Wyoming, had electric streetlights by 1881. What an amazing invention. But that doesn't mean the whole West followed their lead. Some farmhouses about six miles down a gravel road from us didn't get electricity until 1961.
In the old days, cowboys didn't trail cattle in the heart of winter. But even during the other seasons, night light out on the prairies was a tenuous undertaking. In the early days, cowboys carried unshucked corn in their wagon beds as the principal food for man and beast. Selected shucks graced convenient spots by the fires. When leaving one campfire to go to another, a cowboy didn’t want the vulnerability of blindness from his own brilliant fire as he faced toward pitch-black wilderness. To penetrate the dark and give his eyes a chance to get accustomed, he’d light the tip of one of the whole corn shucks and lift it high above his head. The blaze lasted a minute, just long enough to get safely on down the road.
Not at all as convenient as a modern flashlight. But those old habits did add color to the language. When a departing hombre lit a shuck, he had to leave quickly or its light would be wasted. So, to “light a shuck” came to mean leaving a place in a hurry. "It's time to light shuck” meant. . .I've got to get out of here in a hurry.
The vocabulary of the west was colorful. I don't think we really have anything to take its place. A couple months ago a door-to-door vacuum salesman camped on our front porch. I wasn't about to let him in, so he began his entire spiel on the concrete step. I was gettin' a tad perturbed, when he paused long enough to say, "What do you think about that?" I mumbled, “It’s about time for you to light a shuck." He informed me his company didn’t allow smoking on the job. That's too bad. He could have lit his shuck on the heat steamin' from the back of my neck. Come to think of it. . .I've got to say one thing for these short days in the cold mountain winters, they do keep the salesmen away.
But knowin' when to leave is a learned skill. I reckon there are times when folks hoped I'd quit tellin' some western windy and hit the trail. Maybe we should all keep a small pile of shuck by the front door. When guests linger too long, we could just nod toward the shuck pile.
Just a thought, the kind of thing that comes to mind after long, dreary days in the cabin.
On the trail,
COWBOY CHRISTMAS CONTEST: