Life in a cow camp was generally made up of long days spent in the saddle and short nights spent in rolled-up blankets. The eau-de-jour was a mixture of horse, cow, dust and man. We were lucky that the cook kept us well-fed with the usual beef and beans you find in every cow camp, but sometimes there were eggs and bacon and sausages and potatoes and Dutch-oven baking powder biscuits, everything flavored with just a touch of wood smoke. Once in awhile the "coosie" would even surprise us with some kind of "sweet." Usually this was rice pudding with a handful of raisins thrown in, or maybe his version of a fruit cobbler made out of dried apples or dried peaches.
But on truly special occasions he’d make up some extra biscuit dough and roll about a biscuit's worth flat and thin on a floured board, and drop a spoonful or two of stewed, sweetened dried fruit onto one half or the other of the circle. Then he’d fold the other half over the fruit, and seal the round edge with a fork or his fingers, whichever was handier, and drop the little half moons of raw dough into about two inches of hot fat. He’d keep an eye on things for a couple of minutes, then one flip with a fork, another couple of minutes’ worth of watch care, and then he'd remove those golden-brown little pies to some spread-out newspapers to cool. I swan, there’s nothing I’ve ever tasted better than a still-warm fried pie and a tin cup of hot, blacker-than-sin coffee.
My favorite recollection of coosie's fried pie cookery is one day in early fall when Toy Raynor and I were surveying the grass that was still green from the late August rains and making note where Mr. Ehrlecher’s cattle had scattered. Somehow those critters sensed the fall roundup was getting close, and took it upon themselves to make sure we all earned our fall wages by scattering themselves from here to yonder and back, so’s that every hand had to ride harder and longer than any other time of the year, except, of course, for the spring roundup. We had left the camp just after daybreak and had ridden all morning northwest and up into some of the most rugged parts of the ranch. This was sure enough Paradise for me. Toy and I rode at our own pace, stopping from time to time to let our horses blow while Toy rolled and smoked a cigarette. I was happy just to wait for one of his stories or to learn from the old cowboy as he taught me to judge how many head the grama would graze or to understand how cows thought and therefore figure where they could be found.
Well, on this particular day we expected to be riding all day and not get back to the wagon until the job was done or the sun had set, whichever came first. So coosie had packed us a lunch for our nooning. We weren’t in any special hurry to eat, since we'd fed ourselves pretty well at morning chuck, but when it was a little past noon we came to a slope with above-average grass and decided to stop, and give our horses and ourselves a chance to graze and rest. The slope slanted downward to the northeast and overlooked a wide valley that stretched north toward an upthrust of rust- and yellow-colored rock. The sky was as clear as spring water. There was a right nice breeze blowing in from Mexico down to the southwest. We could hear the cry of a red-tailed hawk somewhere off in the distance. The sight and the moment were just plain inspiring, even for a kid who saw this kind of scenery almost every day.
I loosened the cinches and removed the bits while Toy built a hatful of fire. I pulled the rolled-up horse blankets from behind our saddles and spread them on the ground. Toy already had unpacked the saddlebags with our lunch and the coffee pot. Coffee was making. We began to unwrap our two lunches—newspapers wrapped around a tea towel which was wrapped around two slices of sourdough bread with fried meat between them, a carrot, an apple, and in another, smaller towel, two fried pies. Toy looked at me, I looked at Toy, and he just grinned and said, "He went all out today, didn't he?" We sat in partial shade and ate our meat and bread. I got up walked over to the horses. Mine got the carrot, I never did like those things much, and I finished the apple. By then coffee was made. Toy pulled two tin cups out of the saddlebags and poured. It was time for dessert.
Now, you might not believe me when I tell you no king, no maharajah, no pharaoh of the richest kingdom on Earth has ever had any dessert tastier or any better than those fried apricot pies coosie packed for us, but I swear to you it's the truth. The filling was thick and sweet. The crust was browned just right, the edges were sealed so no filling oozed out until you bit into it, and the pies were still nice and warm after their 6-hour ride behind Toy's saddle. The coffee was hot, and no one ever accused Toy Raynor of using too much water in a pot of coffee.
We took our time eating our pies, enjoying every bite, quiet, not wanting to say any word that might break the spell of that moment. The red-tailed hawk, some cicadas and two grazing horses provided our noonday conversation. Coosie's fried pies provided everything else we needed.
It's been more years than I care to count since that day, but whenever I ride out in the fall of the year the memory is as fresh as if it was yesterday. I can almost taste that sweet apricot filling and the fried biscuit dough crust. I catch myself sniffing the air, hoping for that dusty, smoky smell of horses and men working cattle. Toy and coosie…both gone, now I reckon. They were "old men" when I was still a kid, and now I'm their age or more.
No such thing as bad pie, I suppose, but an apricot fried pie—and a memory of a good horse and a good friend—that’s unreservedly the best there ever was or likely will be.