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The softer side of Cowboy Coward

Angel, Cowboy’s pet squirrel, attends church with him regularly. Cory Vaillancourt photo Angel, Cowboy’s pet squirrel, attends church with him regularly. Cory Vaillancourt photo

While Haywood County native Herbert “Cowboy” Coward may be best known for his spine-tingling performance as a toothless mountain man in the 1972 film “Deliverance,” that was almost 50 years ago. 

Since then, he’s lived a simple — if not star-studded — life as a local factory worker and nowadays is probably best known by his friends and neighbors as the guy with the squirrel. 

“I’ve got the only squirrel that goes to church every Sunday, over at Long’s Chapel. He’s the only animal that does that, ain’t you boy?” Cowboy coos to Angel, who despite being fastened by a tiny leather harness, climbs all over Cowboy. “That’s’ my pleasure, that squirrel is.”

Angel isn’t Cowboy’s first pet squirrel; decades ago, an early morning encounter set Cowboy on the path of rehabilitating any of the adorable little rodents that crossed his path — a stunning juxtaposition at odds with his villainous on-screen persona.

“I went down to the mailbox, and a little squirrel come down the bank and I picked him up,” Cowboy said. “He was about starved to death when I got him.”

While handing Angel a shelled pecan — which Angel then proceeds to hide in the front pocket of Cowboy’s bib overalls — Cowboy details his motivation. 

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“Somebody’s got to take care of them when they get hurt,” he said. “I’ve raised a lot of them. When somebody brings me a baby, you’ve got to take a dropper and put milk in it, and if you don’t get the air out their stomach will blow up and they will die. Then after they get a little bigger, you get to put them on the bottle. I’ve got little bottles in here. I tried to raise them on that.”

He’s nursed several squirrels back to health several over the years — most recently a pair named Amos and Andy, who he recently turned loose because he said they were “mean.”

Angel, too, has his moments. 

“You have to watch him,” Cowboy says with a sly grin. “He’ll say a bad word every once in a while. He loves me to death, but he bites me sometimes. I bite him back.”

Still, Cowboy and Angel spend lots of time together and make quite the pair. 

“He’s been all over the United States, that squirrel has. New Orleans, Canada twice, Texas and Mexico, Alabama, Tennessee, out where they got those presidents carved on that mountain,” Cowboy said. “But I get him up on Sunday morning, me and him go to church every Sunday. Disregard how bad I feel or what what’s wrong with me, we go to church.”

When Cowboy is out and about in Haywood County, sometimes it’s hard to tell who is the bigger star — Cowboy, or Angel. 

“I have a lot of people, if I go to grocery store they will ask me about the movies and stuff, what I done and how I got in it, but they’ll take pictures of me and the squirrel,” he laughed. “I’ll go in the doctors office, and tomorrow I go to the doctor, and I’ll take the squirrel right along with me, because if I don’t take him they get mad at me.” 

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