Shredded Rubber and Shattered Hopes
Walking along the shoulder of Highway 6 out of Bishop, California, with the bright morning sun rising through the White Mountains and a light breeze in my face, hinting at a warm day, I moved with intent toward Mount Barcroft, leaving the Sierra Nevada’s behind me. The hillsides were spotted with old bristlecone pines and sagebrush, and a few small herds of cattle were visible in the distance, which caused me to wonder what they lived on, as there wasn’t much grass growing in the rocky soil.
A few cars and a pickup or two went past my raised thumb without so much as a flash of brake lights, and I began to entertain the thought of having to spend the night out here in the high desert. I was glad I’d filled my canteen before leaving the motel room this morning when a faded olive green 1960 Studebaker Lark rattled past, its worn valves clacking the tune of too many long miles in a worn-out engine. It went past me without slowing, but about fifty yards down the road, brake lights lit up, and it pulled off the road, stopped, then began to reverse back towards me slowly. I hurried after it, thinking maybe I might just not be sleeping the night in amongst the rattlesnakes and sagebrush.
The old ‘Stude’ stopped just before it backed over me, and I walked up and looked through the passenger window at the driver, the young woman I had seen at Alice’s restaurant in Bishop, and her two towheaded kids in the back seat leaning forward to get a glimpse at me.
“SIT BACK—YOU TWO,” the lady screamed at her kids. “I saw you back in Bishop at the diner. Are you headed to Tonopah?” she asked me.
“Yes, ma’am, that’s my next stop if I can catch a ride?” I told her.
“Well, you’re welcome to ride shotgun if you don’t mind listening to my rug-rats endless chatter? Here let me clear this seat,” as she grabbed a coat and road maps off the passenger seat. I opened the door, noticing the hinges betraying its need for a little axle grease. I set my bag in the footwell and slid into the seat.
“My names Carol Ann and these are my kids, Bobby and Sonia.”
The nice lady held out her small hand, and I took it and gave it a quick shake, saying, “I’m Luke Canfield; thanks for the lift. I think it’s going to get warm today.”
“Yes, these high deserts have a way of heating this time of year. What brings you out on the road, Luke Canfield?”
I went into my worn-out explanation of being eastward bound to Florida as the boy and girl, maybe six or seven respectively, peered over the seatback, probably glad they didn’t have to listen to their mother yell at them.
“That sounds so exciting. What an adventure you’re on, Luke. I never did anything like that when I was young, just stayed in school, through high school till I married their father.” The maybe thirty-year-old woman said, pointing with her thumb into the backseat. “Then the cheating bum dragged me all over California, keeping me pregnant as much of the time as he could, so he could be-bop with every loose skirt he came across. I finally got shed of his lazy ass, and we’re on our way to Salt Lake City to stay with my sister until I can find a job and get on my feet.”
She rambled on, telling me more than I cared, glad, I guess, to have someone other than two young kids to bitch about her failed marriage too. I just nodded, hoping not to encourage any further discourse into her past, to no avail. Carol Ann went into the dump-my-sorry-life-on-Luke mode, and I just sat back as we crossed the state line into Nevada, letting the dusty road roll under us and nodding my head, hoping the story would end soon.
Carol Ann talked, as the kids, having heard this story before, probably too many times, worked with crayons and coloring books, telling me about her older sister, married to some great guy, an older fella, but well established in the Mormon church, and how her sister hadn’t been thrilled at first, about Carol Ann and the kids coming to live with them—but her husband had insisted that it must be God’s will that they open their home, to the husbandless woman and her small children, to become members of their family.
I wondered if Carol Ann had thought out the consequences of this move, having heard stories about the Mormon men with many wives in Utah. My father never took his tent and revival into Utah, saying the people were all of one mind with the Mormon faith and couldn’t open their minds to the true religion.
Or some such shit…
We had just passed a sign telling us TONOPAH 40 MILES when I heard a big pop from the back, and the car began to shake, sway and swerve. Carol Ann cursed, took her foot off the gas pedal, and let the old heap gradually slow up as she fought the wheel to a stop just barely off the road. The kids were quiet as Carol Ann, both hands locked at ten and two, leaned forward until her head rested on the steering wheel between her hands.
“Shit—not this. I don’t need this crap,” she said as I opened the door, figuring someone needed to address the problem—a blown tire for sure.
I got out and examined the shredded rubber, noticing that the other tires were in a state of extreme wear as well. Walking to the trunk, Carol Ann opened the driver’s door and joined me, still shaking her head and cursing under her breath. Without a word to me, she unlocked the trunk, which I opened to see her spare tire, as bald as a baby’s bottom, with not the faintest indication it had ever had tread, sitting and just waiting to blow out, like the one it would be replacing.
She pointed at the jack and lug wrench sitting handy against the left quarter panel, probably because it had been used recently. I lifted the jack out, then the wrench, and went about jacking up the car and loosening lugs, and switched the blown tire for a waiting-to-blow bald tire.
“We’re forty miles out of Tonopah, and judging from what we have driven past the last seventy miles or so, there might not be a service station until we get into town, so you need to drive easy and maybe a little slower. I’d hate to be stuck out here this afternoon. Your kids will get real hot quick.” I told her, hoping she would use good judgment and ease this old beater into town.
We made it to Tonopah, but not because Carol Ann drove easy. The tires just failed to blow.
We got into Tonopah and found a small truck stop and garage on the edge of town. Carol Ann pulled in front of the garage and shut off the engine, quieting the tapping valves. In greasy overalls, a big shirtless guy came out from under a car he was working on raised on the High-Lift. “Let me guess,” he said, knowingly looking at the baldy waiting to blow, “you got tire problems? I’m surprised that old retread got you in here. You must have Jesus H. Christ sitting on your dashboard,” he said, laughing heartily at his joke.
Carol Ann told him it was the old spare and opened the trunk to see the blown tire. He told her she needed two tires, five really, as there were few miles left on any of the four wheels. She told him that two would probably break her, but she would replace the others once she got to Salt Lake City.
Telling her he would get right on it once she paid him in advance for the tires and labor, she followed the mechanic into the little office to pay for the work.
I considered grabbing my bags and walking off, but it was only about three hours into Ely, and Carol Ann and company were going down that road whether I was sitting in the passenger seat or not. So, I just stood leaning against the faded olive-green coupe until Carol Ann came out, closing her purse and wiping tears from her eyes. She gathered up the kids, and we walked down the street to a drugstore that advertised a soda fountain, went in and took four empty stools, and waited for the older gentleman to finish filling a prescription for an equally older lady.
He finally finished with her and switched hats from druggist to soda jerk and came and took our orders for fizzy drinks. I ordered a root beer float because, well, I always ordered a root beer float at a soda counter.
As I sit here writing this story, my mind is running through all the things that have disappeared over time. For those of you readers that never got to experience a real old-fashioned soda fountain, well—you missed it. The ambiance of a soda fountain has never been replaced by fast food, Starbucks, or coke in a can. It’s a part of Americana that is forever gone. And one thing I truly miss.
We sat and sipped sweet carbonated drinks under a slow-turning ceiling fan for over an hour until the big grease-stained mechanic came in and told Carol Ann her car was ready. I took a handful of coins and paid the sixty cents due for four sodas, and with Carol Ann thanking me for the kind gesture, we got the car and filled the tank with ethyl, drove through the hot sleepy town of Tonopah, heading for Ely, Nevada.
The rest of the trip through the rocky hills and equally rocky valleys into Ely went smooth enough, at least without another blowout. It was late afternoon, and Carol Ann decided they would stay overnight and head out to Salt Lake City in the morning. I saw the running dog sign hanging on the front of a WESTERN AUTO store along the main street and asked Carol Ann to drop me there. I needed to check schedules, hopefully, to get a bus out that evening.
No such luck, as the next bus east to Provo didn’t leave until 8:00 a.m. I asked the ticket agent/store manager for a cheap motel and was directed down the street to the Stagecoach Inn. He said there was a café right across the street that served up an inexpensive meal too.
When I came out, Carol Ann was still there, and I told her the next bus was in the morning, that I would need to get a room here in town, myself. She kindly suggested we split a room and that she and the kids could sleep together. They were used to it, and splitting the cost of a double was less than a single. I considered it, thinking it would be helping her out after she’d spent money on tires she hadn’t planned for that day, and I agreed.
Carol Ann drove down and parked in front of the motel office, and we went in as she signed the guest register, and I gave her four dollars for my half of the room. We got two keys to Room 125 that looked out over the parking lot at the ELY CAFÉ across Main Street. She unloaded the kids, and I went in and threw my gear on one of the single beds, a room not much better than the one I’d had in Bishop, stale cigarette smoke and staler carpet smell, the order of the day in cheap motels in those days.
We ate across the street at the café, Carol Ann insisting she wanted to get an early start at daybreak for the long push into Salt Lake City. So she and the kids cleaned up in the small bathroom, squeezed into the little bed, and when I’d used the facilities and come out, they seemed to be in dreamland. I decided washing my face was good enough that night, as I would have time for a shower in the morning after Carol Ann and the kids left since my bus was not leaving until 8:00 a.m.
She was packing the kids up in the morning when I woke up, thanked me for sharing the room and helping her out with the flat tire the day before, hugged me, saying they were going to grab a quick bite across the street, then head for Utah.
I waited for them to leave, got clean underwear from my bag that I left on the bed, and went and took a shower. When I came out of the shower, the first thing I noticed was my empty duffle bag lying on the floor, next to my boots. The contents of the bag were spread out on the bed and floor, and my boots that I’d left standing together next to the bed were lying on their sides, not the way I would ever leave them.
Frantically, I grabbed my boots up, knowing nothing of value had been in the bag since I’d slipped my knife and two saps into my bedroll the night before. I rammed my hand into one boot, then the other, searching deep into the toes for the two rolls of money I needed to get to Miami.
The boots were empty.
I quickly pulled on a pair of pants and crammed my bare feet into my boots, and ran out, leaving the door open to the room. First, I looked for Carol Ann’s car in front of the motel, then, shirtless, ran out to the street and looked at the café’s parking lot, hoping beyond hope that I would see her olive green 1960 Studebaker Lark. Seeing nothing, I looked east down Main Street.
There wasn’t an olive green anything. She was gone, with almost six hundred dollars of my carefully saved money, intended for a rainy day. Sick to my stomach, I went back in and went through my boots, then all my clothes, hoping I’d simply missed the stash someplace. But it was gone—down the road, heading to Mormon country in an olive green 1960 Studebaker, with three bald tires and bad valves.
I was left with seven dollars and some coin to make it over twenty-eight hundred miles across the country, from Ely, Nevada to Miami, Florida. I sat on the bed, hands holding my head, scared, very scared.
And stayed there until I heard the Greyhound Bus heading for Provo, Utah, pull out of the station at eight o’clock in the morning.
I listened to the long grey bus roll down the street, gears shifting higher as the wheels carried it towards Provo, Utah, while I sat on the worn single bed, lighter by almost six hundred desperately needed dollars than I’d been an hour ago. Finally, I stood up, opened the door, and sat on the threshold, looking out onto Main Street, Ely, Nevada.
I wasn’t going to catch Carol Ann. That was a known fact. She wouldn’t stop until she needed gas, and that would be way down the road. I couldn’t go to the police, either. For sure, they would question my having six hundred dollars in the first place, and then it wouldn’t take much to recognize a runaway. I couldn’t chance it.
I didn’t need to count coin to know I would be broke real fast, so I needed to figure out how I was going to eat and make enough money to move on. I didn’t want to get stuck in Ely, Nevada.
My stomach rumbled, not letting me forget I hadn’t broken my fast. First things first, I would think better with coffee and something on my stomach. Standing up, I went back into the room, glancing at the bed Carol Ann and the kids had slept in last night, wondering when she had decided to rob me. She probably had been looking for an opportunity to present itself since she picked me up on Highway 6.
My first thoughts were that I might be able to wash dishes at the café across the street for a meal or two, then maybe try and find work in town long enough to get a bus ticket into Provo. There was probably more chance for gainful employment in a larger city in Utah.
I changed out of the bell-bottom pants and tie-dyed shirt I’d acquired in San Francisco into the traveling clothes I had left Oregon in, just keeping on my new Red Wings. I was still lugging around my old high-heeled riding boots in my duffle. I couldn’t quite let them go yet.
I strapped my knife on my right leg and one sap in my back pocket; the other I slid down inside my boot. Looking around the room one last time to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I left the room and walked across Main Street, my bag in my hand, bedroll and canteen, over my shoulder, into the Ely Café. As usual, breakfast was a busy time in any roadside café or diner, but I found room at the counter, squeezing between two men finishing up and paying their bill. A middle-aged woman with a pleasant smile and a name tag that introduced her as MOLLY brought me a menu and asked if I wanted coffee.
“Yes, coffee would be great, and I’ll just have toast if that’s all right?” I replied. Molly’s eyes rose slightly in question, then nodded slightly and went to get me coffee. As the morning rush began to clear out, tables and booths were cleared off and bussed by kitchen staff. It looked like they had a lot of help, so maybe they wouldn’t be hurting for a dishwasher after all. My plan might need to be rethought already.
Molly brought back my coffee and a plate with two slices of toast and a couple of jelly packets on the side. Grape and strawberry. That would work. I fixed my coffee, sweet and white, like I liked it, and went about preparing my toast, not in a hurry, my mind working through the limited possibilities in front of me. Without a new customer to service, Molly began to clean and straighten the counter for the next rush of hungry diners to come. She glanced at me out of the corner of her eyes a couple of times while I took slow bites of grape smeared over bread.
She came over with a fresh pot of coffee, topped off my cup, then set it on the counter and looked at me. “Toast and coffee are not much of a way to start the day, young man. You sure I can’t get you something more to eat? Our breakfast special is only fifty cents. It’ll carry you till supper if you need it to.”
I swallowed a bite, looking at the nice lady, thinking she probably was someone’s mother, and said, “This will have to carry me, I think. I had a little problem this morning, and my travel plans have changed. I was supposed to be on the 8 a.m. to Provo. Now I need to find some work if I can. You wouldn’t, by chance, need a dishwasher, would you?”
“What happened, hon? Maybe I can help you. I know everyone in town, but we have more help than we need right now. Al just hired a new guy yesterday to help in the kitchen.”
“Well, I caught a ride yesterday and helped the lady change a flat tire on the road, then let her share my room with her kids last night ‘cause she was broke from having to buy new tires for her junker Studebaker. After they left this morning, I took a shower, and she snuck back into the room and stole all my money, and drove out of town. Now I’m broke, and my plans for getting across the country left town in a ’60 Studebaker, so I need to make enough money to eat and buy a bus ticket.”
I let it all hang out in one long breath. Molly listened intently, her face forming into a concerned look as I dropped my troubles on the breakfast counter. “You poor dear,” Molly finally said. “What a horrible thing to happen. I’m guessing you can’t call your parents or someone to wire you money.” Intuitively understanding, I was out on the road without my parent’s blessings. She had seen more than one runaway grace her counter.
“No,” I said, “I have no one that can help me out, but I’m a good worker. I don’t mind working hard if I can find someone who needs some help.”
“What kind of work can you do?” As I thought about an answer to a question I had never been presented with before, Molly stuck out her hand, “What’s your name, honey?”
“I’m Luke—Luke Canfield, ma’am. Well, I grew up on ranches, I know everything about ranch work, and I can train horses too.” Unsure if there was any work like that in the area, “But I’ll do anything, sweep floors or unload trucks; I’m not afraid of hard work.”
“Well, Luke, there are a lot of ranches around Ely. Let me think on it a minute,” she said as she left me to finish my meager meal and sip my coffee. Molly cleared some dishes, and as I looked out of the corner of my eye, I saw her talking to a tall, stoutly built man sitting at a table, eating breakfast and reading the newspaper. She leaned over his table, one hand resting on the top, as the other slowly swung a dishtowel at her side.
Shortly, Molly was at my shoulder, “Luke, let me get you some fresh coffee; there’s a gentleman that would like to buy you breakfast and talk with you. How do you like your eggs, honey?”
Taken by surprise, I looked at her earnest face and mumbled, “Over easy, ma’am,” as she pointed me to the man she had been talking to, now looking in my direction.
“Go over and introduce yourself. I’ll get your food,” Molly said as I slid off my stool, picked up my gear, and headed across the room to the big, grey-headed man, no longer interested in the day’s news.
I approached the table and stuck out my hand. “My names Luke Canfield, sir,” I said as he shook mine.
“I’m Tom Randall, son. Molly told me you had a bad run of luck. Why don’t you tell me about it and maybe you and I can both help each other. I told Molly to get you a decent breakfast. Even if this doesn’t work out, the price of the breakfast special is worth the cost of hearing a good story for me, so just sit down and tell me about yourself.”
“Why, thank you, sir, I appreciate it very much. Yes, I was supposed to be on the bus this morning, but I got robbed by a lady I’d helped out.”
“There are some women that can be as bad or worse than any man, young Luke; sometimes it’s hard to tell the good from the bad. Molly tells me you grew up on a ranch, and you know something about horses. What takes you away from home?”
“Yes, sir, I had a little trouble at home in Oregon and had to get away. I’m afraid my folks may be trying to find me, so I’d rather not say my father’s name, but I’ve lived on ranches my whole life, and I worked on my grandparent’s place out in Wyoming, too. My grandfather was a well-known horse trainer and breeder. He taught me, and I’ve gentle broke a bunch of two-year old’s myself. I can do any ranch work, and I’ll work real hard.”
“I understand where you’re coming from, son. Unfortunately, we don’t get much choice in picking our parents. I’ll honor your request about your father, and I won’t tell anyone about this conversation, but what was your grandfather’s name? Maybe I’ve heard of him?”
Molly came up and slid a huge platter in front of me, loaded with eggs, done just right, ham, sausage, crispy hash browns, and hot biscuits steaming fresh from the oven. More food than a regular breakfast special, I thought. I looked at her, and she smiled and said, “I told cook to load a plate for a growing young man. Thought you could use the extra food, Luke,” she said as she topped off coffee cups.
Leaving me looking at the overloaded plate, Molly left, and Tom Randall said, “Go ahead and eat, son, talk as you can; I’ve got time to listen.” So, I started feeding my hunger as I explained to Tom through bites,
“My grandfather was Russell Fetterman,” I said and noticed Tom’s eyebrows raise a little. “He died a few years ago, but I spent summers with him, and he taught me how to gentle break horses like no one else does. He trained and gifted me with the best lineback dun stud there ever was, but my father sold my horse to a New Mexico breeder after Grandpa Russell died. I still miss that horse, I reckon?”
As I stuck hot food down my neck, Tom Randall nodded his head and agreed, “Good horses are few and far between. I understand you missing your stud horse. I miss a few horses I’ve owned that are no longer around myself. Now I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a Canfield from Oregon, and though I never had the pleasure of meeting your grandfather, anyone that does any horse breeding has heard of Russell Fetterman. I’ve seen his trained horses work on cattle more than a few times at rodeos. I’d heard of his passing—too bad that was.”
I was plowing through my breakfast as fast as I could eat and talk, washing down mouthfuls with coffee, thinking this meal may have to carry me awhile. Tom Randall sat thoughtfully, watching me eat and sipping coffee.
“Well, this might work out better than I thought,” he finally said. “I’ll tell you what I’m thinking and see if it might work for you. I’ve got some horses that need to be broke for saddle I could let you work. In fact, I’ve got a big, coal-black, three-year-old stud; no one can get close to, I’d like you to look at as well. He comes from good lines on both sides, but someone started him off wrong, and I bought him cheaper than he should have sold for cus he had a real bad attitude. My boys won’t even get in the pen with him, and I’m either going to have to sell him for soap, or put him down myself, which I sure hate to do. This is what I’ll do, I can pay you twenty-five dollars for every horse you can break enough for someone to ride, and if you can make a workable horse out of that big black stud, I’ll pay you one hundred dollars. You can bunk under a roof and get three meals a day while you’re doing it. How does that sound to you, Luke Canfield?”
I had stopped feeding my face as he presented his offer, thinking this was too good to be true. I would have been happy to sweep floors or wash dirty dishes, but this was a chance to make more than a few cents a day. I’d never considered working on a ranch, as I sat feeling sorry for myself this morning. This day might just turn out alright.
“Tom, that’s very generous of you. I was prepared to muck out stalls and throw hay bales if I had to. I’ll gladly accept your offer, and I’d be happy to look your black stud over. I hate to think of you having to put down a good horse.”
With a big smile across his face, Tom Randall put his hand out to seal the deal, and I gratefully shook it heartily. “Well, finish your breakfast, Luke, and we’ll load your bag and bedroll and go look at that black stud. It would make my heart smile to get a good cow horse out of him—he sure has the bloodlines.”
I dove in and mopped my plate clean as Molly brought the ticket, and Tom paid it and collected his wide-brimmed cowboy hat. I stood up and grabbed my gear to follow Tom out of the café as Molly came up and gave me a motherly hug, whispering, “Tom Randall is a good man, Luke. I hope everything works out. You be sure and stop in here if you get back in town, okay, hon?”
I promised her I would and went through the big glass café door and outside where Tom Randall was opening the driver’s door on a new but dusty, dark blue ’67 Chevy Apache C-10 step-side pickup. I loaded my gear in the back and crawled in the passenger door as Tom backed out and headed down the street.
“I need to stop at the feed store and pick up some salt blocks; then we’ll head out to the ROLLING R,” Tom said as I sat back and let the warming morning breeze wash over me. Tom backed into the loading dock at the feed store, “Give me ten salt blocks, Gus. How’re you doing today?” Tom said to the man with the hand truck, ready to load bag or block for customers.
“Doing just fine, Tom, thanks for asking. I’ll get them out here right quick.” Gus said as he headed into the big feed shed, filled with stacks of feed and grain and bales of hay. I helped Gus load the salt blocks when he came out, then with a wave and good day, we left, turning north on the McGill Highway, and drove out of Ely, Nevada.
Driving north, Tom told me a little of his family’s history. His grandfather had come out to Nevada in the 1800s to mine for gold. One of the few that struck it rich in the Nevada mountains, he had fallen in love with the sparsely populated state and settled in the Steptoe Valley, on the western side of the Schell Creek Range. Spreading his cattle herds over hundreds of thousands of acres, he and later his son, Tom’s father, had established the largest ranch in eastern Nevada.
Tom had been raised on the ranch but sent away to the University of California to study business before returning and taking the reins of running the vast spread from his father, who was slowly dying of lung cancer after a long life of smoking cigarettes, a habit Tom would never take up.
Tom had established a good herd of breeding horses to keep his ranch in riding stock and now sold off extra mares and geldings at auctions from California to Colorado. He had bought the big black stud as a two-year-old in Denver and planned on making him his personal mount, but unbeknownst to him, someone had hurt or scared the black, who he called Nightmare, for lack of a better name, and the colt wouldn’t let anyone near him. Tom told me his patience was almost drained for the black stud, but something told him at the café, when he saw me, that maybe he’d give it one more try. He had nothing to lose at this point.
Tom turned west, off the two-lane road onto a dusty dirt track surrounded by hills covered in sage, cactus, and creosote bush. The road climbed slowly into the foothills of the Schell Creek Range, and after a couple of miles, I saw, spread out in a broad valley, crisscrossed with two creeks, the barns, pens, corrals, pastures, and a big ranch house of the Rolling R Ranch.
Tom pulled up in front of a huge hay barn, not unlike the ones at my old home place, and got out. Men worked on hay equipment inside the barn as Tom led the way through to the back of the barn, which looked out over the valley. He pointed at a small pasture, about forty acres, that had about twenty head of grazing horses in it.
“If you look careful, Luke, you can see the black stud in the middle of those mares. I’m trying to get some of his bloodline passed on, even if he’s worthless as a workhorse.”
I looked at the herd, about a half a mile away, too far to make out any features, but felt at home, back among the sights and smells of a working ranch. The ranch looked very well maintained, as not all ranches are, with barns, sheds, bunkhouse, and fences freshly painted, without any old trucks or tractors visible. I was impressed and told Tom so.
Two cowboys rode up, looking me, the stranger over. Tom pointed out into the valley and spoke to them, “Butch, you and Ray go bring up the black stud and put him in the round pen.”
“Sure, Boss.” The cowboy I would come to know as Butch replied, “You going to finally sell that bad bastard?”
“Not just yet,” Tom said with a chuckle. “I’ve got a young man here that wants to look him over. We’ll meet you at the pen.”
They pulled their horses around and loped off into the valley as Tom motioned for me to follow him. He walked out by the truck and pointed out all the different buildings. A long clean looking stable, two round pens, one smaller with high boards that limited any visibility from inside the pen. A good place to start a young horse, as it kept their attention focused on training. Hay barns lined the road that wound up into the hills. To the east, North and South Schell Peaks and Taft Peak rose high about the crowded mountain range. It wasn’t hard to guess why Tom’s grandfather had picked this spot to settle in; it was picture perfect.
Tom led the way down to the stable and training pens as I heard horses coming and the yip, yip of cowboys moving stock in front of them. Two men pushed long panels across the road connecting the pasture to the round pen and opened the tall gate as Butch and Ray came through the alley. The big beautiful black stallion snorting and throwing his head, notably upset to be disturbed from his carefree breeding duties, followed closely by five fine looking mares.
The cowboys pulled up short of the wide gate as the stud and mares trotted in and began a slow circuit of the tall round pen. Tom walked up a set of steps to a viewing platform with me on his heels. I stopped and looked out into the pen as the horse they called Nightmare stopped circling and turned in our direction, nostrils flaring and big chest heaving, looking at us with more than a hint of defiance in his eyes.
I didn’t say anything — just looked into his eyes, trying to get a feel for him, to get a read, Russell would have said. Feeling eyes on me, I could sense the two cowboys looking me over with interest, wondering what I was there for, as Tom spoke up, “Well, Luke, what do you think? Do you want to try and do something with him? I won’t blame you if you want to pass on him. If so, I’ve got plenty of two-year-olds for you to start. I can keep you busy for as long as you want to stay, and you’ll never run out of work.”
I turned back to the pen, locked eyes with the black, and told Tom, “No promises, Tom, but give me a few days with him. He’s beautiful, with plenty of spirit. I’d like to try and settle him down and see if we can get to know each other.”
Butch snorted and said, “Young feller, that black son of a bitch will stomp you if you turn your back on him—you best be careful. I sure hope you know what you’re doing cus no one here will walk into the pen with him, that’s for sure.”
Tom just looked at me questioningly and said, “It’s your call, Luke; no hard feelings if you walk away from him. Tell me what you want to do.”
I thought a minute and then said. “Cut out those mares and leave the black by himself in the pen. I’ll give him some hay and water later. Bring up four or five two-year-olds that you want me to start on, and put them in that little trap next to the other round pen. I’ll work with them as I can. I’ll need a lariat, some long reins, and a saddle. I left all my stuff in Oregon, except for my riding boots. Also, do you have any old chaps and a pair of gloves I could borrow, and maybe a hat too?”
Tom, a big smile forming on his lined face, said, “That is not a problem. These boys will get you geared up with anything you need and show you the tack rooms. I’m sure you’ll find what you need there; if not, tell Butch, and he’ll get it for you. Butch, you and Ray show Luke around and get him settled in the bunkhouse. I can’t wait to see Luke working his Fetterman magic on our stock.”
With that, Tom walked off, and the two slightly bewildered cowboys stepped down out of their saddles and began to lead their mounts off to the stables. I started to follow, then turned and looked into the pen, once again locking eyes with Nightmare. He stood looking at me as if gauging me, sensing something yet to come.
Animals have incredible instincts. I turned and followed them, wondering if I just bit off more than I could chew. I hoped Grandpa Russell was watching me.
I knew right then—I was going to need all the help I could get from him.
I grabbed my gear out of Tom’s Chevy as I went by it and followed Butch and Ray over to the stables, where they tied their horses and loosened the cinches for them to cool. They both watched me walk up, and Butch motioned for me to follow them into the bunkhouse, conveniently located next to the stables. I liked that. Everyone wants a short commute to work in the morning.
They led me in and down a row of bunk beds and past a room with gang showers and a bunch of toilet stalls lined up across from the showers. It wasn’t hard to notice the bathroom area didn’t smell like old piss, and everything was spotless.
Beyond the bathrooms were more rows of bunk beds, and Butch stopped by one set and spoke to me, “You can have this bunk, throw your gear on one, and sleep on the other. That’s what we do when we’re not full up with hands during spring and fall roundups. My name is Butch, I’m Tom’s remuda foreman, and this is Ray, my right hand,” he said, putting out his hand to shake mine.
“I’m Luke—Luke Canfield, pleased to meet you,” I said, shaking both their hands.
“There’s lots of room, right now, as there’s only fifteen of us here, and some of the hands stay out at the line shacks, so we all can spread out a bit,” Ray explained.
They seemed to warm to me a little, and Butch asked, “Tom mentioned Fetterman magic. Was he talking about old Russell Fetterman from up in Wyoming, the horse trainer?”
“Yes, he was my great grandfather. He passed on a few years ago, but I got to spend some time with him, and he taught me a little,” I told them.
Butch and Ray glanced at each other, and a veiled expression passed between them. Ray looked back at me and said, “Butch and I got beat out of a nice purse up in Denver at the National Western Stock Show a couple of years ago by a Fetterman-trained horse. A cowboy rode him into the herd and cut calves without a bridle. He stole the show riding that dun horse with just his legs. The crowd just went wild, and the judges gave them the blue ribbon, and we went home with chump change for prize money.”
“Everybody’s heard of that old man,” Butch added, “but it was the first time Ray or I ever saw his work. We didn’t talk about anything else for weeks.”
I gave an understanding smile and nodded my head, “I know; he had a real way with horses. I owned the brother of that dun for several years. He was the best horse I ever rode. I made the mistake of riding him hands-free, showing off, and a horse breeder out of New Mexico talked my father into selling him. I hated to lose that horse.”
I threw my bag on the top bunk and my bedroll on the lower. “I left Oregon without any tack or riding gear. I even left a good Stetson behind. All I have is my boots,” I said, pulling them from my bag.
“Well, that’s no problem. We have a whole room of extra gear, stuff that hands left behind or didn’t want anymore. We’ll get you all fixed up, and we need to get you a horse to ride while you’re working that black and the two-year-old’s,” Butch said.
“Change your boots, and we’ll get you taken care of, and then you can pick out a mount. But first, you need to meet Rusty. He’s the one that takes care of us here. He does all the cooking and cleaning, so you need to keep on his good side. He’s worked for Tom Randall for thirty years, and he knows everything that goes on here.”
I kicked off my Red Wings and pulled on my high heel boots. No one said anything when they saw the leather black-jack fall out on the floor, but I saw Ray and Butch look at each other. I just picked it up, put it in my bag, then took the sap from my back pocket and joined the other. That got a remark from Ray, “You carrying some lead in that leather? How long you been on the road, Luke?”
“Yes, I ran into a little trouble and find it easier to carry that to stop it from happening again,” was all I needed to say.
“Come on, let’s go find Rusty,” Butch said, and I followed them out of the long bunkhouse.
Turning left off the front porch, they led me to an equally long building wrapped in windows that had three smokestacks sticking through the roof, all belching smoke, and I caught the inviting smell of roasting meat with a light gust of wind in my face.
The cookhouse had a wide wrap-around porch, with lots of tables and benches, suitable for eating during the warmer months. As I stepped inside, I was enveloped in cooking smells, making my stomach start to do its rumble. The room was full of long pine-topped tables and benches made from split pine logs. There was probably, I guessed, seating for a hundred men.
The open kitchen area was in the center of the big room, with several stoves and wood-burning ovens, two large stainless-steel sinks, big enough to bathe in, with more counter area than most diners would have. It was the largest cookhouse and kitchen I’d ever seen. I figured Tom Randall must like to keep his ranch hands happy with full bellies.
Bent over one of the oven’s pulling out trays of biscuits was Rusty. I would come to know Rusty well and found him to be a genuine person whose only reason for living was to make life easy for everyone. He was a good guy.
Rusty stood up, set the trays on the counter, and turned to watch us come to him. A broad shoulder man, about 5’10” with a high crowned cowboy hat that made him look 6’5” tall.
As he moved to greet us, I noticed him dragging his right leg a little. He wiped his hands on his long apron and spoke through a grey handlebar mustache that hung to his chin. It was so bushy you could barely see his lips move. “Whatcha bringing me, Butch? Gotta hungry lad with you? Hi there, boy, I’m Rusty,” he said, putting out his hand.
“Rusty, this here’s Luke. He’s going to be with us a while, working some colts. Tom wants him to try and get a saddle on that black bastard too. Luke, meet Rusty. He’s the real boss around this spread, despite what Tom Randall might have told you,” Butch told me, laughing.
Rusty’s mustache spread in what appeared to be a smile, and he said, “Don’t you believe anything this tall cowboy tells you, Luke. He and his partner in crime will lead you astray if you’re not careful.”
“Nice to meet you, Rusty. I’m Luke Canfield,” I said, shaking his strong hand.
“What’re you getting yourself into, young man? Tom needs to have his head examined, trying to make something out of the black stud. You best be careful around him, or you’ll end up hobbling around like me,” he said, slapping his right leg.
Rusty reached over and pushed up some hot biscuits with a wide spatula, then tossed Butch, Ray, and I each one, “Hot out of the oven, boys. Eat when you can, I say. Never know when you’re going to miss a meal.”
I took a bite of the best biscuit to ever pass through my lips. Rusty saw my look as I munched on the baked dough, “Those sourdough biscuits are famous in Nevada, Luke. That sourdough starter is almost a hundred years old. My mother kept it fed after her mother died, then passed it on to me. You’ll go a long way to try and find better biscuits. I make’em all day long, so anytime you’re around, you just come grab a few. Don’t be bashful; I keep food around all day and into the night, so whenever you’re hungry, you don’t have to wait for meals; just grab something to carry you along.”
I nodded an acknowledgment as he handed out another biscuit to all of us. Butch, through bites, told Rusty my needs. “Rusty, Luke has been traveling light and needs to be fitted out. Gloves, chaps, a hat, he’s got his boots, but little else it looks like.”
Sizing me up and down, Rusty started moving, talking over his shoulder, “Follow me, Luke Canfield, from Oregon, I’d guess, unless I’m wrong.” Rusty added.
Not knowing how he figured I was from Oregon, I followed him out the back door. Butch called after me, “Luke, meet us back at the stables, and we’ll get you a saddle, then, let you pick out a horse from the remuda.”
Rusty led me with a hobbling gait to another building, set back off the road, just past the cookhouse. He swung open a wide door and moved inside. The building was storing, well—everything. Old equipment, lumber, fencing, fence posts, nails, staples, metal roofing panels, and anything else you could think of to keep a ranch repaired.
Rusty swung open the door to a big storage room filled with used clothing and coats, worn hats, and assorted cowboy gear. Turning to me, he said, “Luke, I’d say you’re about my height, but you’ll be touching six feet before long, young as you are. Let’s see what we can find?”
Rusty opened a trunk that was sitting to the side and looked in, “I think this might do?”
I looked in and saw it filled with what appeared to be hardly worn clothing, boots, jackets, shirts, and Levi’s. It was bulging with better clothing than I owned.
“This trunk belonged to a young cowboy from Montana that worked for us, oh, probably not even a month before he was killed. He went to a local weekend rodeo and told the rodeo producer he was a big-time bull rider, and the first bull he got on bucked him off and did a tap dance on his chest. He left this trunk, and it’s sat here ever since. He was just about your size; let’s see if it will work?”
Rusty bent over, favoring his bad leg, and started digging through the folded items. He handed me two pairs of leather roping gloves, a slightly worn set of batwing chaps, a couple of work shirts, and two pairs of Levi’s. He held up a fleece-lined denim jacket, lighter than the coat I had with me, and then pointed behind my shoulder,
“Look there, Luke, and see if you can find a hat to fit your head,” as he tossed a set of spurs with rowels the size of silver dollars on the growing pile.
I looked at the hats hanging from hooks and reached up for one similar to the one I’d abandoned under a pile of wood at the lumber mill in Springfield. I pulled it down, and it fit just fine, “I think this will work, Rusty. Wish I hadn’t left mine behind, but this will fit the bill, I think?”
“You know where this is now. If you need anything else, just help yourself. We never throw out anything good. Someone like yourself will find a use for it someday.”
I thanked him for the generosity as we closed up the room and storage building. “You come see me if you need anything or have any questions, Luke. I’ve worked for Tom Randall more years than I care to count, and he’s not around all the time, anyway, so I’ll help you or point you in the right direction if I can.”
I thanked him again and took all my newly acquired clothes and gear back to the bunkhouse. I left everything except for one pair of gloves. With my head shaded with the Stetson hat, I went looking for Butch and Ray. They were inside the stable that was at least twice the size of my father’s back in the valley. The tack room was just inside the stable. Two wide pine doors were swung open to racks of saddles, easily over a hundred, halters, bridles, hackamores, headstalls, boxes of assorted bits, latigo cinch straps, and leather to repair saddles and tack, all in a neat and orderly arrangement. On one wall, brand new braided lariats hung, sorted by length.
“Come pick you out a seat, Luke.” Ray hollered out from the back. Like a kid in a candy store, I wandered down the rows of saddles in various states of wear, my hands running over the well-oiled leather, loving the smell of oil and horse sweat like a mother loves a powdered baby.
Butch and Ray were just watching me to see what my choice would be when I stopped in front of a high-backed roping saddle, built on a Wade tree, with some wear, but not worn out. Rough-out leather, not fancy, but a solid working saddle.
“I think this will work for me just fine if no one else is using it,” I said, looking at them for confirmation.
“It’s yours, Luke; a good seat for sure. Drag it out and hang it up front where you can get to it. While you’re at it, pick you out a couple of lariats—these are all new, so you’ll need to work the newness out of them, but that shouldn’t take you too long, I figure?” Butch said.
I sorted through and selected two ropes, one fifty-footer for in the round pen and a sixty-footer for pasture work. I carried them with me, so I could break them in as time permitted.
“Now, let’s get you something to set that saddle on. Ray and I will bring up the remuda into the corral back here; just swing the gate open for us when we get close. We have about sixty head in the remuda right now. During roundups, we might have two hundred or more, but we always have some good stock ready all the time. Pick what looks good to you and swing a loop over it; then, we’ll take the herd back down to the pasture. You can use the stall that’s open right there,” he pointed, “switch out your ride as you see fit; you don’t need to ask—that’s what the remuda is for.” Butch said as he and Ray tightened the cinches on their mounts and rode off to bring in the herd of riding stock.
I walked back to the stall and saw it was clean, with fresh wood shavings, ready for use. I hung the shorter rope on a horseshoe hook, then walked out to the coral and watched Ray and Butch circle the herd and head them up to the coral. The horses knew where they were going, used to this sorting, and needed little guidance to come loping up through the gate I’d opened.
Ray and Butch reined in short of the gate, which I closed and barred as the herd started circling the coral. Moving into the center, I opened up a wide loop that I tested with a couple of swings over my head, then dropped the loop and let it just follow me as I walked in a circle. As the remuda flowed past me, I put eyes on the shape and form of the stock, looking for something to catch my eye.
There wasn’t any crowbait in this bunch; any one of them would work for what I needed. But I continued to look them over as they circled past me. Finally, I saw what I was looking for, a well-built red roan gelding, about fifteen and a half hands, with high withers and glossy mane and tail. He was watching me, trying to catch my eye, maybe, but something told me he would work just fine.
I stepped into the herd as they loped around me and waited for the roan to come back around. Timing his approach, I swung the big extended loop up over my shoulder and took two swings to open the loop, then released it, letting it sail up and over the roans high head, and as the loop dropped over his nose, I took up the tension, easing the loop closed around his neck.
As I’d expected, as soon as he felt the loop, he began to ease up, not fighting it; a horse used to being roped. I drew him into me and, holding him close, let my hand run up his neck and over his ears, and down his face. I held him as I breathed lightly into his flaring nostrils, letting him know my smell. A horse will never forget you once he smells you. And he will always remember how you treat him. Horses have longer memories than a woman, which, as I’ve learned over a long life—is fucking forever.
Ray leaned over and pushed the bar on the gate, then opened it. I heard him and Butch laughing as they eased through the gate and into the coral. “Well, Luke, you just won me five dollars. I owe you,” Butch said, still laughing. “Ray and I made a bet on which horse you’d cut out, and I picked that roan. Ray thought you’d want that big-chested bay over there.”
I joined in on the laugh with them, knowing how cowboys will bet on how far a locust will jump if they get a chance. “Good choice. He’ll do you well, and he’s fresh shod. We just put new shoes on him two days ago,” Ray said. “We’ll just take this bunch back and turn them out.”
They pushed the herd out and headed them back towards the pasture down in the valley as I led Red, as I’d call him, up to the stable, where I put a halter on him and, finding a brush, went to giving him a good curry. Butch and Ray rode back and told me they would go sort out some two-year-olds and pen them for me so I’d have something to start on. I finished cleaning up Red, gave him some hay, then left him stalled while I filled a bucket with water, picked up a brick of hay, and went back to look at Nightmare.
My plan was to isolate him for a few days in the high-sided round pen. I would bring him feed and water whenever I went into the pen, but I would take it away when I left. This act would make him reliant on me for his sustenance, as well as being his only company. Horses like being around other horses, they have a powerful herd instinct, and as I denied him any company, he would, I hoped, begin to see and trust me as his only herd mate.
Then I would start to introduce him to halter, rein, and saddle slowly. The speed at which his training moved forward would be up to him. I didn’t want to push him too fast. That would just back him up because trust is hard to develop with a horse, and I needed his total trust in me to do what I hoped to do to him. I was already thinking of some off-the-wall techniques I might employ to speed up the development of trust. Time would tell if they worked.
I opened the round pen gate and went through, closing it behind me. The big black stood across the pen, looking at me as I walked slowly towards him, his ears standing at attention, head high, muscles tensed, ready for whatever might come.
Bucket in one hand, hay in the other, I moved slow, talking low to him as I moved, telling him what a fine animal he was, that no harm would come to him, letting him hear and get used to my voice, introducing myself to him. I moved dead center in the pen as he started to prance around, right up against the boards, as far from me as the wood walls would allow, never taking his eyes off me for a second, round and round he went.
I set the bucket down next to the hay I’d dropped and took three or four steps back, turning to face him as he circled me. I stood, arms by my sides, low talking him—watching him move. He finally slowed up and then stood watching me, and looking at the bucket and feed, chest heaving, nostrils searching for any scent of danger. I stood there for at least thirty minutes, not moving, talking to him the whole time in a low steady tone.
He began to relax a little; his ears came down, flicking towards me a little as he realized I wasn’t going to attack him. I picked up the bucket, spilling some on the ground so he would know what he missed, and left about half the brick of hay lying on the ground, carrying the rest with me, straight out the gate — not looking back at him.
I left the bucket and hay outside the gate and walked around to look into the trap where the young colts would be waiting for me, just as Butch and Ray rode up. “We picked out five head for you to start on, Luke. Let’s grab some grub. Rusty will have something setback for us,” Butch said, so I followed them as they rode towards Rusty’s cookhouse.
Sure enough, Rusty had a mess laid out when we got there, a huge pot of beans, beefsteaks, and biscuits, real working man’s food. We filled plates and coffee mugs and sat together at one long table. They introduced me to a few of the other hands that were getting a late lunch tucked away. As we filled up, Butch and Ray told me about Rusty and how he came to be running the cookhouse and bunkhouse on the Rolling R.
Seems Rusty had been the head foreman for Tom Randall after a long career on the rodeo circuit, and he and Tom were real close. Tom trusted Rusty to manage the affairs of the ranch while Tom traveled on business. Well, one day, Rusty was tallying a herd of cattle on foot, and a bull kicked him good, shattering his leg and knee so bad, the doctors thought they might have to cut it off.
Tom wouldn’t let them and brought in, at great expense, specialists to operate and do what they could to fix him up. Rusty didn’t lose the leg, but it finished him off for cowboy work as the stiff leg wouldn’t bend enough to get his foot in the stirrup. Rusty begged Tom to let him leave, not wanting to be a burden, but Tom wouldn’t hear of it, and Rusty took Tom’s offer of managing the ranch headquarters and playing mother hen to the cowboys.
That was over ten years ago, and Butch told me Rusty was still the head foreman, as all the men come to him for everything, but Rusty plays his roll down, acting more like a train conductor than a ranch foreman.
We finished up, and they went to work sorting through some breeding mares, and I saddled Red up and spent the afternoon looking over the colts and periodically checking on the black and letting him get used to me.
Towards evening, I took the black some hay and water. Placing it in the center of the pen, I walked back and leaned against the side of the pen, giving the stud as much room as possible. I wanted him to get a good drink before leaving him for the night. He walked back and forth, giving it a long thought, but finally, thirst got the better of him, and he slowly stepped up to the bucket while warily watching me and took a drink. Lifting his head as I low talked to him, he worked on the hay, standing and eating while he watched if I would surprise him.
I left him in the pen much more settled than he’d arrived that morning, taking the nearly empty bucket with me but leaving him the remainder of the hay. I was pleased with the progress of a few hours but knew I had a long way to go.
I kept the same routine with Nightmare for a week, not pushing him, not getting into his space. I would occasionally stroll in a circle in the center of the pen, then stop and go the other way. Nightmare would respond by turning with me and moving along the pen in the same direction.
I had started working with the five-two-year-olds, all geldings, at the same time, going back and forth between the two round pens throughout the day. The young colts were much easier to work with since none had ever been forced to do something that they didn’t like before, so I had no barriers to gaining their confidence and respect. My morning started before daybreak with breakfast in Rusty’s cookhouse, usually with Butch, Ray, and some of the other ranch hands. Rusty always stuffed extra biscuits and sausage into a paper sack for a morning snack, and I would usually find a moment to grab a hot coffee later, going between stables and pens.
I was getting along great with the red roan that was a good solid horse but without any fine-tuning, so I began to work him on some of the finer points. One thing I did right out was stop using a bit—switching to a hackamore to give his mouth a break. Many riders saw their reins hard on a working horse and ruin their mouths, and with time requiring heavier and heavier steel in their mouths to control them.
I preferred, thanks to Grandpa Russell’s instruction, to go the opposite direction. Get off the mouth and teach the horse to respond to a light touch of the reins, with pressure on their nose. I also would grab a handful of mane, right over the withers, and tug it the same direction as the reins, teaching the horse to respond to that pressure. This training would come into play when I decided to show off, riding without a bridle, something I intended to do at some point. Yes, all cowboys like to show off—anytime they get a chance.
Rusty found the time to sit and chat a little with me often, despite being busy from before daylight to well after dark. He did all the work, except cutting firewood for his stoves and ovens. That chore was handled by other ranch hands. He cleaned the bathrooms, eating tables, and kitchen. Cleaned all the dishes, pots, and pans and prepared all the meals, never repeating the same thing twice in a row with one exception. His sourdough biscuits were at every meal, with never a complaint. And for breakfast, he always had heaping stacks of sourdough pancakes, crispy fried around the edges, just like I liked them.
One day, I asked him how he’d known I was from Oregon the first time I met him. He told me he had worked at one time for a rodeo contractor up in Billings, Montana, that supplied bucking stock for rodeos all over the country. Years ago, he’d delivered a load of sorry bucking horses to a big ranch in Oregon owned by a man named Canfield. He had been told, by his boss, that the ranch was part of the Fetterman ranches in Wyoming and Montana. Rusty told me that when he unloaded the stock, the ranch foreman had told him that Mr. Canfield wouldn’t buy a decent horse for his men, only old bucking stock. Rusty never forgot that, and hearing my name caused him to remember the Oregon ranch.
After about two weeks of working slowly with Nightmare, one morning, I stepped into the pen with hay and a bucket of water, and the black horse nickered at me and started walking towards me from across the pen. At this point, he hadn’t seen another horse or human except me since I put in the pen. It was apparent he was glad to see me that morning, not just for the feed and water. He was looking forward to having company, and I knew I was starting to soften him up a little.
I walked slowly towards him, and as I got closer, he turned and went back to the side of the pen. Not quite ready yet, I thought, but close—time to do something to bring him to me. I thought about it all day long as I worked with the young colts, now on long reins in their round pen. In a week, I hoped to be introducing them to a saddle.
That evening, a Friday, I ate supper with Butch and Ray. Rusty served up huge thick pork chops so tender they melted in your mouth. After we ate, the two wranglers were driving to a poker game on another ranch to the north of Steptoe Valley. I declined the invitation, thinking I would turn in early, worn out from a long day.
I thanked Rusty for the great meal and went to clean up and crawl into my bunk when an idea began to form in my mind. I don’t know where the thought came from, and I don’t think I’d ever heard of another horse trainer try this, certainly not from Russell, that’s for sure.
Entering the empty bunkhouse, I went to my bunk, put on my denim jacket, rolled up my bedroll, and walked down to the small round pen. I didn’t take hay or water, as I’d already fed the black stud earlier. When I stepped through the high gate, I saw him looking at me from across the pen, ears raised, watching for any sign of danger as a horse is born to do. I talked softly to him as I slowly walked to the center of the pen, to my space, the area I occupied when in the pen, letting the big stallion have the rest of the pen as his space.
I slowly kneeled, and very slowly, so as not to spook the black, unrolled my bedroll and sat on it. The black’s eyes watched my every move. I sat there for at least an hour, maybe more, talking to him as he stood there trying to figure out this new situation, something he’d never seen before.
Tired, my eyes wanting to go south, I finally succumbed and lay down, using my jacket as a pillow, and fell asleep. I don’t remember waking up during the night, but when I did wake up, it was still dark, early in the morning. At first, I was unsure where I was, then feeling the hard ground under me, I remembered my bold move of the night before.
Without moving, I opened my eyes and looked around me. Not two feet from me, just behind my head, Nightmare stood sentinel.
Without moving, I spoke to him, and he nickered a response softly but didn’t move. I slowly rolled out of my canvas bed and stood up. His ears were perked, and his head high, looking at me closely. I raised my hand, and he, for the first time, allowed me to touch his neck; stroking him gently, I continued to low talk to him. I felt his muscles quiver under my hand, but he didn’t shy away. He accepted my touch, finally confident that I was not out to hurt him.
As I stood there bonding by touch and voice, I glanced at the side of the pen and saw Rusty, standing on the viewing platform, just looking at me, shaking his head in disbelief. He finally turned to go, and Nightmare’s ears went up, and he nickered softly, letting me know he had seen Rusty too.
I left him and went and got some water and a brick of hay and then, as a treat, two big handfuls of rolled oats in the crown of my Stetson. I held my hat as he stuck his nose into the sweaty interior and lapped up all the sweet grain. Then, leaving the hay and water with him, I rolled up my bedroll and went to break my fast.
I walked into the cookhouse, and everyone’s eyes turned to me, and it wasn’t hard to guess that Rusty had been wagging his tongue about my escapades. I filled a plate, suddenly very hungry, and sat on a bench across from Butch and Ray. I didn’t look at them and just put my head down and tucked into my food. After a bit, I glanced up and saw smiles of approval creasing the faces of the two cowboys. Hearing boot heels beating the floor behind me, I glanced over my shoulder and saw Tom Randall heading my way. I hadn’t seen Tom but a few times since I got here, as he traveled a lot.
Tom took a seat next to me as Rusty brought him a mug of coffee. “Want me to load you a plate, Tom?” Rusty asked our boss, as I stopped eating, wondering if I was about to have my employment terminated early.
“Sure thing, Rusty, thanks,” Tom answered. “Well, young Luke, the word around here this morning is that the nice accommodations that we’ve provided for you in the bunkhouse aren’t good enough. Instead, it seems, you feel you need to bed down in a round pen with a high-spirited black devil horse that a week ago, no one on this ranch wanted to be in the same pen with unless they were on horseback. What can you tell me about that, Luke?” Tom said easily.
“Tom,” I started to explain, “Nightmare showed me yesterday that he was becoming receptive to a little more attention. Last night, it just came to me that maybe he would accept my staying the night in the pen with him. I was sure he wouldn’t hurt me as he’s never been aggressive to me—just untouchable.
“This morning, he let me touch his neck and stroke him and then ate oats from my hat. I think I can move forward with him now. I’m sure I’ve gotten past his bad experience, whatever it was, though I expect he was whipped or even worse. I’m going to go slow, not rush it, but I feel good about it this morning. I hope you’re not upset with me for doing what I did? My grandfather always told me that a horse will always let you know real quick if he’ll let you do something with him or not. I felt okay, giving it a try.”
Tom just sat there looking at me as Rusty set down a plate loaded with hot food. “No, Luke, I’m not upset, though it’s as crazy a stunt as I’ve ever heard. This is one story I can’t wait to tell. I’m just glad we didn’t have to wrap up your stomped broken body in a blanket and bury you up in the high pasture,” he said, getting a laugh out of everyone. Tom chuckled at his joke and went on, “Just promise me you’ll be careful with him, but use your best judgment. You’ve already gotten farther with that black stud than I thought you would after just a couple of weeks. I can’t wait to see what you can do with him in the next few weeks. Now, how are you doing with those two-year-olds?”
I went on to tell him about my progress with the young colts as we finished our breakfast. Then Tom and Rusty started discussing ranch affairs as I got up and left, followed by Butch and Ray. I was going to saddle the red roan, and Butch asked if I would ride out with them to look at a pasture of yearlings they were fixing to sort.
Glad for a little break from my routine, we all rode out together, heading up into the hills under the watchful gaze of South Schell Peak. The morning air felt good on my face coming down out of the mountains, and we rode for a while without a word between us, lost in our internal dialog. Finally, Butch broke through our thoughts by saying, “Luke, when Rusty told us about your bedding down in the round pen, we thought he was trying to pull one on us. No one could believe a sane person would do such a thing. Is that some trick you learned from your grandfather? Cus I’ve never heard anything like it my whole life.”
“No,” I said, “Grandpa never did it, not that I know of, but he had such a way with horses; they just knew they were safe with him. I don’t know; it just came to me, so I tried it, and I think it worked out okay. I’m going to try and get him in a halter in the next couple of days. If I can do that, well, I hate to say it will be downhill from there, but it’s a good first step, anyways.”
They both agreed with that as we rode up Worthington Canyon and crossed Berry Creek, and into a big pasture of young yearlings. We stayed up there most of the morning before riding back down the mountain to the ranch headquarters. After a plate of beans and biscuits for lunch, I took several halters and lead ropes into Nightmare’s pen with hay and water. He greeted me like he was glad I was there and stepped right up to me, and started eating the hay I was holding before I could even put it down. He’d never done that before. While he ate, I scattered the halters and leads around the pen, then spent the rest of the day with the colts.
I bedded down again in the round pen that night, with Nightmare taking up sentinel duties near me all night long, and the next morning, before I went to breakfast, I picked up a halter, and the black let me rub him down with it before I slipped it on his head and buckled it. A huge step.
I walked on clouds that morning, a Sunday. Day off for the ranch hands, so everyone was moving slow, many having been into Ely drinking the night before. I worked colts that day, getting a saddle on two of them for a few hours and then putting them back out in the trap.
“Always finish on a high note.” Grandpa Russell used to say.
I took the halter loose from around Nightmare’s neck that evening but left them in the pen with him and slept in my bunk for a nice change. I slept easily that night, looking forward to the week ahead, and hoping for great strides with the big black, called Nightmare.
I woke up the next morning, and my first thought was of the schooner Coeur d`Alene and my friends, the Farris’s, wondering where they were. I was sure they must have made it through the Panama Canal by now and were somewhere into the islands, maybe Jamaica or the Cayman Islands. They had no idea if I had gotten away from my abusive father or if I was on my way to join them. I wondered how long they would wait for me, if at all, after outfitting the schooner in Miami before sailing for the islands to start taking charters. I lay in my bunk, working my mind over how long it would take me to finish this set of two-year-olds and, more importantly, get a saddle on Nightmare. I hoped the money from breaking them would be enough to get me to Miami, so I could join up with the Farris’s and thought I’d better get to work. Time was slipping away quickly.
At the end of another two weeks, I had all the two-year-old geldings carrying a feed sack strapped to the saddle in the round pen. Nightmare had slowly accepted the halter, and I was leading him around the pen without a fight. On that Sunday morning, with several cowboys, including Ray and Butch, watching, I rode out of the round pen, leading Nightmare with a long lead rope, into the east pasture for a good lope.
It was the first time he’d been out of the pen in almost a month, and I was wondering if I could maintain his concentration. He did just fine and didn’t fight the lead at all. When we got back, Ray opened the gate for me, and I hollered across the pen for Butch to open the other side. I was going to stable the black as a change of routine and reward for making some significant steps. From that day onward, he only went into the round pen to train.
That afternoon, almost the whole ranch showed up, including Tom’s wife, Roberta, who I had only met twice before. She traveled with Tom quite a bit and stayed in the big house, where they entertained frequently. Rusty told me Tom was thinking of running for some political office in the state, so he, in Rusty’s words, “needed to glad-hand” all over Nevada.
I had let it be known I was planning to saddle and ride all five of the two-year-old colts that day, and as the saying goes, everyone likes a rodeo. If that was the case, then I disappointed everyone that day. One at a time, I brought in each colt and saddled them and eased up into the saddle, and rode them back and forth around the corral. Not one of them so much as hopped, jumped, or bucked.
I think Russell would have been very proud of his great-grandson as I showed off what it looked like to soft-breaking a colt. Everyone clapped and yelled their approval. After I pulled the saddles off all five so they could cool off, I finished the show by riding the red roan into the corral. As everyone watched, I reached over his neck and took off his hackamore, then holding only a handful of mane, I backed him up, turned him, and rode at a lope first one way around the corral, then pulled him to a sliding stop, and spun him with my spurs and loped off the other direction.
As a big finish, I turned him and rode across the big corral, right at the crowd sitting on the top rail, and with a good pull on his mane, slid Red to a sliding stop right in front of the group of cheering cowboys and my boss.
“Always finish on a high note,” Russell would tell me.
I don’t think Rusty stopped smiling for two days. He said that was an outstanding performance, “Blue Ribbon Worthy,” he called it. Tom asked what I wanted to do with the colts, and I told him I’d like to spend a week or so working them on cattle, roping, and cutting before they went into the remuda. He agreed and told Butch and Ray to help me every minute they could spare from their regular duties.
Rusty fixed a big barbeque that evening out on the covered patio of the cookhouse. Everyone showed up, including Roberta and some of Tom’s rich friends from across the state. Tom decided after everyone except myself had imbibed in cold foamy beer and dark liquor to tell the story which he embellished, of me sleeping on the ground in a round pen with the devil black stallion.
He probably could have gotten elected with that story alone if he’d have tried. I left the party early and checked on Nightmare, or ‘Night’ as I called him. I took him out of his stall and brushed him down until he gleamed; then, as a surprise to Tom and the rest of the party crowd, I took off his lead rope and walked out of the stable, with Night following me
He had taken to following me around the pen, giving me little pushes with his nose. As I came out of the stable, I didn’t even turn around, just walked out and past the stunned group with the ‘Devil Black Horse’ following me like a puppy, pushing me with his nose, without any lead rope to control him. I walked past a little, then turned in a wide circle and strolled past again and into the stable. I heard the crowd of slightly inebriated cowboys and wealthy ranchers erupt.
I hadn’t planned on doing it in advance, so it was a surprise to everyone, including myself. I gave Night a big hug and put him away with an extra ration of rolled oats. Those cowboys couldn’t stop pumping my hand and slapping my back when I joined them again. Tom came up and told me I’d earned a bonus that day with my performance, and Roberta gave me a big hug before I headed for the bunkhouse, happy as a lark on a spring morning.
Tom surprised us with a semi-trailer load of Mexican roping steers from Arizona the following week. These were young steers weighing around five hundred pounds with long horns sticking out about a foot on each side of their heads, perfect for swinging a loop over.
It was just what I needed to get the colts used to roping behind cattle. I also worked with them on cutting to see which had the most cow in it. Only the one sorrel gelding showed much promise right off, but time would tell as they got more time in once they were in the remuda. Ray and Butch rode with me quite a bit and were very pleased with the young colts’ training. None of the colts were ridden with a bit in its mouth, and all worked with just the slightest touch of the reins. After another week working the colts on cattle, I turned them over to Butch for the remuda stock. All the cowboys wanted to get them as their mounts, so the five young geldings would get plenty of work. I could now concentrate on Night.
I started Night on long reins and began to get good results. I moved an old saddle into the round pen and hung saddle blankets all over the pen walls so he could get good and used to them as well. This was where it might get tight, as I suspected whoever had tried to train him had tried bucking him out. So, he might have a real fear of the saddle.
I spent part of every day brushing him, so he would get used to being handled. It was time to get him shod, and I wanted him used to having his legs bent and hooves handled. I also draped myself across his back every chance I got, getting him used to my weight on his back. Finally, I figured he was ready, and Butch told Toby, the ranch farrier, to put shoes on Night. Toby did a great job, and Night was a perfect gentleman, although I’ll admit, I heard there was a betting pool running to see how long it would take Night to kick Toby. There were no winners on that bet, and as I walked Night around on neatly trimmed hooves and new shoes, I was very proud of him and glad that people were beginning to stop referring to him as Nightmare.
In the second week of August, I put a saddle on Night and cinched it up. His muscles quivered as I took my time drawing the saddle down on his back. I walked him around for about an hour, letting him feel the stirrups brush his sides as we walked back and forth. Then I got a feed sack of oats, laid it over the saddle, and tied it on tight with sisal twine. I’d had more than one train wreck when a feed sack slipped off the saddle on a colt.
I left Night in the corral carrying that feed sack all morning, then after lunch, unsaddled him and brushed him down, then saddled him and unsaddled him about twenty times, getting him used to having the cinch pulled tight. I left him saddled with the oats while I went and got a cup of coffee. I stood with a mug on the porch of the cookhouse, looking down on the corral and watching Night carry it around.
Rusty came out, favoring his messed-up leg, and stood beside me, drinking from his cup.
“It’s time,” I said.
Rusty nodded his head, “Yup, I think it is. You’ve shown great patience with that stallion. Not sure anyone would have eased him along so. Mount him clean, and show him no fear, the horse loves you, and I don’t believe he’ll hurt you.”
I pitched the rest of my coffee over the railing and handed Rusty the empty mug. “Well, I guess I’m about to find out,” and I walked down the hill into the corral.
I led Night up to the stable and removed the feed sack and training saddle. I swung my high-backed saddle up, settled it over his withers, and cinched it up, leaving it a little loose. Then I led him back to the corral, not the round pen that I would typically use for a first ride. Once inside, talking low to him the whole time, I tightened the cinch tight, stepped into the stirrup, swung my leg over his back, settled into the saddle, and lightly touched my spurs to his flanks.
He stepped out and didn’t show any sign of wanting to drop his head into a buck. I clicked my tongue, signaling a change in gait, and he smoothly slipped into a slow lope around the corral. I brought him up short after a few turns, turned him with reins and heels, and loped around the other direction. I rode him for more than an hour, then opened the gate, and we rode out into the east pasture and circled the ranch buildings, then turned him up into the hills.
I could tell Night was glad to be out, away from the training routine and buildings and pens. It was therapeutic for both of us. I didn’t press him, just lightly directed him along, slowly climbing higher into the hills. After about two hours, I turned him, and we rode back to the ranch. The cookhouse was filled with ranch hands getting into their supper when I rode up to the stable on Night.
I saw men standing up from the tables and getting a good look through the windows, and Rusty, Butch, and Ray walked out on the porch and watched as I unsaddled Night, rubbed him down, and stabled him. I was tired. Bone tired, after all the anticipation, finally having this big step behind me. It had never taken me so long to ride a colt for the first time, but then again, I had never worked on a damaged horse before. Now I just needed to spend a few weeks tuning Night up and getting him ready for Tom. It was all downhill from here.
I walked over and joined my friends on the porch, and without a word, we filed into the sweet smells of roasting meat and fried potatoes. We ate and talked about the day’s accomplishments and plans for the rest of Night’s training.
The next couple of weeks went very fast, as I spent almost every hour of the day in the saddle putting Night through his paces and starting him on cattle. The first time I rode Night into a herd of young calves, I knew this was a horse with a lot of cow in him. His ears went up, and his total focus was on the movement of the herd.
I’d been doing some light roping on small calves in the corral, just enough to get him used to stopping a calf and holding him, very basic stuff. With Butch and Ray’s help, I spent one afternoon working on the longhorn steers out of the roping chute. Then we went out in the pasture the next day and roped calves in the open pasture, much different than an enclosed roping pen. At the end of the week, I was satisfied that he was ready for any roping duties he would be asked to perform. He was a pure athlete.
Finally, I was ready to turn him over to Tom. I’d spent more time than I had planned, but truthfully, I couldn’t get enough of the big black stallion. Every day he reminded me more and more of Shawnee, the lineback dun stallion my father had taken from me, sometimes to the point of hurt.
After lunch on the first Sunday of September, I saddled Night, and with everybody gathered, Tom and Roberta front and center at the big show corral, I put Night through his paces. I roped a couple of steers and loped him this way and that, showing off his moves with just a light touch of the reins from his hackamore. Then I walked him a bit to cool him off as Butch, Ray, and a couple of other cowboys brought in twenty head of fresh calves.
I walked Night over to the stands, leaning forward in the stirrups, slid the hackamore off his head, and handed it to Roberta. Grasping a handful of mane, and directing him with my spurred boot heels, turned him and walked him calmly into the herd.
Butch and Ray and two others worked as turnback riders as I chose a brindle calf and, signaling Night, cut the calf out of the herd. Once Night had pushed the anxious calf clear, I touched him with my right hand on his neck. The calf moved its head, its body language telling of a move to the right, and Night dropped. With his front legs bent and head down so low I felt my chaps brushing the ground, he swept left to block the calf, then right as the calf began to move the other direction.
Swiftly crossing the open space in front of the herd, blocking every move the calf made to get back into the herd, Night worked that calf for several minutes until it gave up and moved to the other end of the corral.
One more time, we entered the herd and cut another calf, a baldy this time, and Night showed off his supreme athleticism, moved so swiftly—sweeping right and left, that it took all my focus to keep from being unseated from the saddle. Moves that you can’t train into a horse. They must have the cow sense bred into them.
Finally, the baldy gave up, and I patted Night’s neck, leaning forward to whisper in his ear that the show was over. I rode him up to the stands and stepped out of the high-backed saddle. While Ray and the other two cowboys pushed the herd out of the corral, Butch brought Tom’s saddle while I removed mine from Night.
I replaced the hackamore while Butch saddled Night and handed the reins to Tom, now waiting next to me. He stepped into the saddle and turned the horse, formerly known as Nightmare, and rode around the corral to a silent crowd of ranch hands and cowboys.
Later, after stabling our mounts, we all returned to the cookhouse for the last time I would supper with this great group of westerners. Rusty had barbequed a whole calf over a huge spit, and we all filled up to the point of splitting.
After dinner, Tom asked me to join him outside and, on the front porch, spoke with me. “Luke, I wish I could talk you into staying here on the Running R. If you stayed, I would put you in charge of all the working horse training. I’ve never in my life seen any cowboy with the soft hands you have for a horse, and I never thought you would get through the evil spirit of the black stallion. You know—the Paiute Indians around here say that a warrior has the spirits of his ancestors guiding him through life. If that is true, I’m betting your grandfather is, sure enough, one of your guides. Your way with horses is uncanny.
“But I’ve watched you close since I met you in Ely, all those many weeks ago, and I feel you’re on a quest of some kind, maybe to find yourself—or something. So, I want you to know this; when you get done searching for whatever it is, you have a place on this ranch for as long as you want. If you need money to get here, from wherever wire me, and I’ll send money to Western Union to get you here.”
With that, Tom paid me one hundred and twenty-five dollars for the five-two-year-olds and one hundred, as agreed, for breaking the black stallion to saddle, then handed me another two hundred as a bonus, “for the fine work,” he said I’d done with the horses. I thanked him from the bottom of my heart. Then we rejoined the group, planning on meeting at daybreak for the ride to Ely’s bus station.
After almost everyone left, I stayed after talking with the three men I now considered my friends, then went to pack my gear, ready to leave early in the morning. Rusty told me to take whatever I needed and leave what I didn’t on the bunk. He said he would have hot food ready early and to come eat as soon as I got up in the morning.
I hardly slept, my mind turning so much in unknown anticipation of what was before me. I finally got out of bed and finished sorting my gear. I left my old Hudson Bay Coat, as it didn’t fit me anymore. I’d had another growth spurt, probably from Rusty’s good cooking. I traded it for the fleece-lined denim jacket that was lighter anyway. I figured there was no need for a heavy coat in Florida
I folded the batwing chaps that had served me well and placed the pair of spurs on them on the lower bunk. My riding boots were almost too small anymore, so I left them as well, one of the last things I’d brought from my father’s Oregon ranch. The old well-worn Stetson I kept, I guess, to hold onto something from the Running R.
I had sown pouches inside my boots to hide paper money in an attempt to learn from past mistakes. Then I strapped my knife on my right leg, put one sap into my left boot, and one in my back-right pants pocket.
Wearing the Red Wing boots I’d arrived in, I carried my bag, bedroll, and full canteen to the cookhouse and left them on the porch. Rusty, Ray, and Butch were drinking coffee already, waiting for me to show up. We chatted, ate breakfast, and with the first hints of daylight spreading fans of light through the peaks of the Schell Creek Range, I said my goodbyes and walked over to the stable.
Night nickered at me before I could even see him in the dim light. I talked to him as I haltered him and led him from his stall. With a brush in my hand, I curried him and stroked his powerful neck, and spoke my goodbyes.
I have known many good horses in my life, in youth and later in life, but few will hold my heart like the lineback dun stallion, Shawnee, that my father stole from me, or the big black stud, Night, that I had grown to love unconditionally. More than a few tears streamed down my face as I hugged him one last time, then put him away and left the stable for the last time.
Night must have understood I was leaving him because I heard him nicker loudly at me as I loaded my gear into Tom’s waiting ’67 Chevy Apache C-10 pickup. I didn’t look back. If I had, I might never have left.
Not much was said between Tom Randall and me as he navigated the roads from Steptoe Valley into Ely, Nevada. We got there well before the bus would leave, and Tom tried one more time to talk me into staying. Then he shook my hand, gave me a fatherly hug, and drove away.
I walked inside the Greyhound Bus station and bought a ticket to Provo, Utah, then asked what it would cost to get all the way to Miami. Realizing I had more than enough money to get there, I thought maybe I should protect myself from theft on the road and went next door to the Western Union and wired two hundred of my dollars to Miami, Florida, in my name.
Getting instructions on how to pick it up once I was there, I, for the first time, realized I lacked any form of identification. Of course, I didn’t have a driver’s license, nor any Social Security card, not even a wallet to carry any I.D. The agent told me I would have to present my receipt in Miami to get my money, so he said I best not misplace it.
With a little time left, I went into the Ely Café and had a cup of coffee, quickly filling Molly in on my experiences working for Tom Randall. I said goodbye to her and thanked her for her help when I heard the bus pull into town.
I was seated on the Greyhound Bus to Provo, Utah, when it drove out of Ely, Nevada, at 8 a.m., eighty-four days later than I had initially planned.
Though I would always hold hatred in my heart for Carol Ann and what she did to me, I honestly have to thank her for the time I got to share in the foothills of Nevada’s eastern mountains, on a ranch called the Rolling R, with friends I still remember fondly, and a horse named Night, that holds a place in my heart to this day.
A Horse called Nightmare is an excerpt from my first novel, The Redemption Wall. I hope you’ll read it. Available on Amazon and Goodreads.
Look for this story and others in Behind the Mask- An Anthology of Short Stories, available here.
A Horse Called Nightmare is an excerpt from The Redemption Wall. Get the book here.