This week I’m in Texas to see my son-in-law off on his deployment and bring my daughter home. First and foremost, God bless and protect our military! I am grateful to live in a free country and humbled by the sacrifice of those who serve and their families.
Being in Texas it seemed appropriate to step away from my usual crime genre to write about cowboys.
Growing up, I played cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians, daily. As an adult, I have been blessed to do a little of each. Okay, a lot of one, some of the other. And although I spent the first half of my life in the big city, I’ve always been a cowboy at heart. (Fun fact: my wife and I met at a rodeo 27 years ago.) So if you love horses or enjoy a good cowboy story, this is for you. But most of all, this is for my cowboy buddies.
The Outlaw Buddy D.
“Get tough or go back to town.” His grin stretched as wide as the brim that shadowed his pale blue eyes. Buddy dropped his reins and relaxed in his saddle. His colt cocked a hind leg, lowered his head, and let out a breath that sounded like a kid blowing bubbles in the water, playing motorboat.
Covered in dirt and blood, I sat punching at the crown of my crushed straw hat. I tried in vain to reshape it while muttering bad words and watching Benny-boy the Wonderhorse lope circles across the arena. My stirrups banged against his sides, sending false cues that encouraged him to keep running. That or he was taking a victory lap.
It had been a good week until that day. Each morning, I rode with Buddy and paid close attention while he broke green colts and put the finishing touches on clients’ horses. I was still green myself and learning to ride. Buddy was one of several working cowboys I was fortunate to have as mentors.
“What’d I do wrong?” I asked.
He removed his straw hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead as he squinted against a rising summer sun. He seemed to contemplate the question for a moment, or maybe he paused for effect. “It looked to me like you were getting off when you should’ve been riding.” His grin seemed to widen as he looked back down at me.
I smiled through the pain and humiliation. Buddy’s sense of humor could lighten up the worst of situations.
It had been my second wreck in an hour, and you can bet I’m not bragging when I say that. The first accident happened when my horse stumbled as we loped along behind a steer. Benny lost his balance and his front legs folded beneath him. I don’t know for sure if we rolled or flipped, but my trusted pony went over the top of me, and we both landed like we’d been shot by Indians. I thought it was just some awkward thing that had happened, a clumsy equine misstep. But as the years have passed, I’ve learned about the importance of balance and developing a proper “seat.” I look back and realize both of the wrecks—and all the others—had been my fault, not my horse’s.
The Other Wrecks
Another time I was riding with Oliver as he tended to a herd of cow/calf pairs he managed in the mountains of Idaho. Footrot was going through the herd. Since the cattle were far from corrals and chutes, doctoring a cow or calf required roping them and stretching them out on the ground to get the job done.
We had doctored half a dozen cows. The last one didn’t take so kindly to Oliver’s bedside manner, apparently, and she was not a happy patient. I sat on my horse, coiling my rope, happy as if I had good sense. Oliver, on the other hand, knew to watch the cow. He recognized her ill-tempered disposition and shouted, “Ride off!”
I looked at Oliver with that puzzled city-boy stare and was about to ask what he meant, but didn’t have time. The cow charged, and she rammed her head into the side of my horse. Benny tried to get us out of there because, to a horse, that made good sense. But I got in his way, pulling the reins in a fit of panic, so he reared up and off I went. Fortunately, Ollie’s a top hand, and he quickly rode between me and the cow who was coming back for more now that I was on the ground. Oliver’s quick work likely spared me a few broken bones.
Now I recognize a pissed off cow when I see her, and know to watch for it. I also have a solid understanding that “Ride off” means RIDE OFF!
I listen carefully as these cowboys graciously share small parts of their vast cowboy knowledge. It is said that horsemanship is a journey, not a destination. Bill Dorrance, a famous horseman who influenced the greats like Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman, lamented there wasn’t enough time in one man’s life to learn all there is to know about horses and horsemanship.
Wade Black, an Eastern Oregon cowboy and the grandson of Ray Hunt, says, “Block the thought,” meaning be a step ahead of the horse or cow. You have to learn to read livestock well to know what they’re thinking. And that, my friends, is a hard-earned skill for most, a God-given talent for others.
The horses do the best they can do with what we present to them. I think back to the wreck when Benny stumbled, and it occurs to me I’ve never seen him stumble out in the pasture. I’ve seen him buck and kick and jump over barriers while running with other horses, and not once have I seen him stumble.
“Get out of his way,” the legendary horsewoman Leslie Desmond once told me. I wasn’t actually in his way when she said it, not in the literal sense as I was sitting on top of him. But the manner in which I rode impeded my horse’s natural way of moving, leaving him to do the best he could in spite of me.
Back to the Outlaw
Buddy seemed to appraise my situation as I slowly stood and brushed at my jeans. “You’re a tough sonofabitch; I’ll give you that.”
“But not a very bright one,” I conceded.
What he didn’t say were the things I’d have to learn myself: work on your balance, trust your horse, don’t pull on his mouth and ask him to go forward. He knew that someday—if I stuck with it long enough—I’d figure some of these things out on my own.
To answer his question, No, Buddy, I’m not tough, just stubborn is all. Or, as my old partner and friend would say, I can be hard to stop.
Many thanks to Buddy, Oliver, Riley, both Wades, Pete, Bo, Leslie, Buck, and all the other top hands who have helped me along the way.
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NOTE: Buddy isn’t really an outlaw, it’s just what I call him. Well, most of the time, he’s not.
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A GOOD BUNCH OF MEN
DOOR TO A DARK ROOM
THE COLOR DEAD