Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Part 2 of the Magnificent Seven Minus Six

Last week, we left Joe, the husband of the woman in the green rabbit hat stranded fifty yards down a mountainside in the Gros Ventre Wilderness. Buck, our head outfitter, tied a rope around a big tree limb and plucked a second from one of the packhorses. He put the other rope around his neck and under one arm.

He yelled for me to keep the horses calm as he semi- rappelled down to his customer (after stopping to retrieve Joe’s boot). Buck looped the extra rope under Joe’s arms, and then climbed back up. Buck’s stock went up as I watched his calm and skillful descent and ascent.  

He led the big roan I was riding forward a few feet and dallied the rope around the horn. I pulled the rope about chest high against a tree and he gently coaxed the roan forward. Joe was unsteady as the horse pulled him to his feet.

Joe tried to keep his feet, but fell several times on the way up. He suffered more from scratches when the rope dragged him along the ground than he had from the fall. I watched the rope steadily rub a trail through the tree trunk, hoping it would not fray and break.

Bruised-but-not-broken, Joe reluctantly remounted less than an hour after his fall (with both boots on). He said he had panicked as he stared down the deep slope, pulled a rein hard enough to cause his horse to fall and dump him down the mountain.

At the main campsite, Buck kept his promise and assigned me to a private tent several yards up the mountain and close to the cook tent. I liked the location, but the tent sagged with the weight of accumulated water.

When his two brothers and Patty, the cook, did not arrive with food and the wood cook stove, he sent me back down a different trail to see if they were in trouble. Alone in that pristine wilderness, I was in cowboy and mountain heaven.

I found the stragglers and discovered that they were behind schedule because the owner of the packhorses and mules (an experienced rider) had been thrown. They had to take him back to the trailhead to be treated for a sprained ankle.

It was well past dark when we rode into camp, but Patty had steak and potatoes ready in less than two hours. We ate together in the cook tent. The stove warmth felt good.

I learned that Phil was called Buck because he had broken his back and both knees riding broncs (I had a great deal more respect for his rapelling down a mountain when I heard this), his brother Randy was called Rangey, and brother George was called Stanley (no reason was given). They had children with names like Snow Ann, Wolf and Whiz.

And they took turns drinking. One brother stayed sober each night in order to handle any emergency that might arise while the others got roaring drunk.

The next morning, Buck awakened me well before daylight to help wrangle the horses. My bedroll was cozy and the water on top of my tent had turned to ice. I started to rethink my desire to be treated as a member of the crew.

They tied bells on the horses each night and turned them loose to forage for themselves because they could not pack enough feed up the mountain. We managed to find them easily by listening for the bells (every morning except one).  

At sunrise, Buck pointed toward a herd of elks in the distance, said he would be back during season with hunters. I asked about hunting for bears and he said he could get away with shooting me easier than he could a grizzly.

Unshaved and un-bathed after four days of riding and camping, I was beginning to feel like Jeremiah Johnson. I was sleeping like a baby in the wee hours when two mounted riders leading two packhorses complete with banging pans rode by my tent and stopped at the cook tent.

I rolled out of my bedroll in my longhandles, pulled back the tent flap, and watched. A dying campfire by the cook tent revealed Buck and Stanley asleep on bare ground with only a light blanket for cover and their hats for pillows in freezing temps. It had been their turn to drink the night before.

I had come to like and enjoy the brothers, but one could never accuse them of proper cowboy etiquette or attire like most ranch cowboys adhere to in Texas. Their hats were bent out of shape, their boots worn over on the heels, their shirts and jeans torn. By starlight, the two new arrivals looked like something out of a Gary Cooper western when compared to the brothers.  

Lights came on in the cook tent and Patty shouted loud enough to wake us all that “The Old Hag” had finally arrived. Much laughter as Patty hugged one of the riders and Rangey shook the hand of the other.

When we gathered for breakfast, we all knew Julie Hagen (the Old Hag) and her companion Jimmy before we took our first bite. Both made the rounds and introduced themselves. Julie was a ranch manager who had worked on ranches in Arizona, Colorado and Montana, and the Little Jennie in Wyoming.  

Jimmy was an outfitter who led safaris in Wyoming, Montana, Alaska and Africa. Julie and Jimmy had been friends since high school and possessed that kind of free spirit that most of us long for but rarely achieve.

Jimmy and I were close to the same size. As we rode together the next few days, I tried to buy his chaps, his hunting knife, his pistol, even his boots. He wouldn’t sell a thing. They all looked like something the first People might have used before Columbus discovered America. I had never seen any like them, before or since.

Jimmy and Buck told me that Julie was also a painter and poet, that her brother was an Olympic skier, her father a biologist, her mother a professional flutist. Not your usual resume for a ranch manager or horsepacker. I also learned that she had met famous photographer Jay Dusard in college and that they had remained close friends.

One of his photos of her when she had been ranch manager for Wagstaff Land and Cattle Co. had become famous and had been included in his book, The North American Cowboy: A Portrait.  She was definitely more than an old hag as can be seen from this.

The trip down the mountain on the final day was not as pleasant as the one going up. It was warm and dusty; the horses knew we were near the end and fought their bits, finally taking off with the inexperienced riders, drowning us in a sea of dust.

We had started to sweat, so the dust formed a dark cover on our faces. I held the big roan back and stayed with the brothers.  I glanced at Jimmy and Julie as Buck and Rangey calmly watched the string of horses run full speed down the mountain, their riders (their responsibility) hanging on for dear life.  Jimmy and Julie seemed neither surprised nor perturbed. They had apparently witnessed similar spectacles before.

Rangey pointed at the riders. “We did these folks a lot of good in a short time. Not a single one fell off. Last week at this time, we woulda lost at least three or four.”

Buck asked me if I still wanted my money back as he reached for a billfold I knew was empty (“I never carry money in the mountains. Ain’t no place to spend it.”) I laughed and said no. It had not been the Magnificent Seven, but it still ranked as a great experience.

As we said goodbye at the trailhead, The Old Hag told me where I could buy some of her greeting cards in Jackson.

When I walked into the lobby of the little cabin court back in Jackson, I saw a reflection of a stranger in a full-length mirror and briefly wondered who he was. The bearded, dust-covered man’s face was about three shades darker than my own—he wore spurs and saddlebags were slung casually over his shoulder. He appeared to have stepped out of a time capsule from a century earlier.  Then I knew that, for a second or two, he was the man a certain boy had dreamed of becoming long, long ago.

I dropped by the store Julie told me about and bought some of her greeting cards and the framed photograph I later learned had appeared not only in Dusard’s book but in American Cowboy, Cowboys and Indians, and many other magazines.  I have seen it in publications many times since. The store promised to get it signed before shipping to me. Julie signed it, “to Jim, till our trails cross again”. It hangs in my office today.

Book Special. One free hardback copy of Rivers Ebb or Rivers Crossing with purchase any other book.  You can pay securely on my website through PayPal (you do not have to have a PayPal account to use your credit card).  Also, I am discounting e-book download cards to $9 including postage and tax.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Magnificent Seven Minus Six

A horse packing trip in the mountains had been on my bucket list for a long time when I read an article about an outfitter. Three months later, I was driving down the Chief Joseph Scenic Trail, alongside the Yellowstone River, then through the park. 

In Cody, Wyoming, I saw a sign that made me stop for a meal at the Proud Cut Saloon. The name made me chuckle (look it up if you don’t know the term). A sign over the bar read, “Some people are alive only because it’s against the law to kill ‘em.”  My kind of place. A place where folks have a sense of humor.

Spent the night in a small cabin in Jackson.  A driver in a small van picked me up the next morning. I was the first passenger, but expected at least six more to join me. I had been promised a full excursion into high-elevations in the Gros Ventre wilderness area with a group of experienced horsemen from New Mexico and Colorado. Two of my soon to be companions were hunting guides.

I had been riding all my life, but had little experience riding in the mountains. I expected to learn from a group of rough and tough hunters and horsemen. The brochure described treacherous switchbacks, perilous canyons, rock slides, mountain vistas. But it was the picture on the brochure of six grizzled horseback veterans that brought to mind “The Magnificent Seven” (I saw myself as the seventh) that really got my attention. It was described as “A Real Man’s Ride”.

I frowned a little when the van stopped to pick up a couple from Minnesota.  The small green rabbit felt hat worn by the wife with a stampede string tucked tightly under her chin and the way the husband stumbled along in boots two sizes too large gave me an uh-oh feeling. Maybe they were going with another group.

By the time we picked up the remaining passengers, I had a real sense of trepidation. When we unloaded at the trailhead, I approached head outfitter Phil, nodded my head toward my riding companions, and asked what happened to the tough guys he had told me about. I was disappointed and angry enough to ask for my money back.

Phil stepped off a big red roan, put his hand on my shoulder and guided me away from the others. He explained in whispers that the six other gentlemen scheduled to ride with me had cancelled at the last minute and these riders were on a waiting list. Said I had already left home before he could notify me.

That was possible, because I had left a few days early to conduct some business. But I still wanted a refund.

Phil told me that he had no choice but to take these folks to the same places he had planned to take the magnificent seven. He said I could have my pick of the horses; could ride alone if I wanted to; would be treated as a member of the crew, not a guest; guaranteed me the experience of a lifetime. If I did not have it, he promised a refund at the end of the trip.

I didn’t believe him. “You’re really gonna take these folks on the same ride you promised me? The ride for experienced horsemen only?”

His face held a pained expression. “Got no choice. Plans already been made. Camps already set up. That’s why I may need your help.”

I felt my leg being pulled. Phil was one of those people who had an obvious knack for fooling you and making you smile at his effort. I looked up to the mountains for a few minutes, walked over to the van, got my saddlebags, tied them behind the red roan’s saddle, and mounted. Phil put a hand on the roan’s hip. “That’s my horse.”

I nodded. “You said I could have my pick. Did you mean what you said, or not?”

He removed his hat, ran his finger around the sweatband, and grinned. “My friends call me Buck. I’m short a hand since both of my brothers are staying behind to pack the food, cook stove and other supplies. You mind bringing up the rear in case one of these dudes falls off?”

I called after him as he ambled away. “Mind if I adjust the stirrups?”

He never turned. “You a cowboy. Do what you think’s right.”

I thought Buck was pulling my leg about dudes falling off, but we had traveled less than a quarter of the way up the mountain to our first campsite before one did fall. Six horses jumped across a spruce that had fallen across a stream without losing a passenger, but the seventh drug a hoof and stirred up a hornet’s nest. Hornet stings on a horse’s belly will cause him to buck.

The man in front of me had talked non-stop to his horse since leaving the trailhead. “Okay, can we leave now?” evolved into things like, “Would you mind catching up to the others?”

His legs, feet and arms were useless appendages and the horn was his only means of steering. He had no idea what to do with the reins. He seemed to believe that he could make friends and negotiate with his mount in human speak.

I shouted a warning when I saw the hornets, but he could not hear me over his ceaseless prattle. Soft mud in the stream broke his fall. I helped him up and he bravely remounted, whispering  to his horse,  “I know you didn’t mean to do that.”

An hour later, the dude and I were becoming friends and I was enjoying some of the most beautiful, pristine scenery I had ever seen. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees and I could see snow in the Grand Tetons in the distance (this was August). I could also hear, see and feel the mist off a waterfall.

The narrow trail sloped off steeply on our right so that we were eye-level with the tops of gigantic whitebark pines. The serenity and quiet had really enveloped me when I heard a squeal from the woman in the green hat and saw her husband tumble down the deep slope. He tumbled for what seemed like a long time.

The base of a lodgepole pine about fifty yards down finally stopped his descent. I saw a solo boot against a tree trunk about halfway down.

Part 2 next week.

Remember my two-for-one book offer (see last week’s blog or my website. Order securely online or e-mail me to take advantage of this offer while the books last. Also, I now have e-book download cards for $10 (Go Down Looking).

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Buyers, Readers, Fans and Evangelists

My sincere gratitude to the folks who filled the large room at the Alumni Center to capacity and waited patiently in line to buy and get books autographed.I tried to acknowledge all the folks who came from long distances, showed up with gifts or special memories, but I know I missed some.  

Larry and Elaine Whitlock brought me a framed photo of the Delta County Champion Indians in the charter year for Little League. Geral Dewitt of the Giants was also there.

Dr. Stephen Turner came from Plainview with his latest book On the Western Trail. And poet Wanda Myers Glawson, ninety, came from San Antonio. She’s one of those people I knew, but didn’t know that I did before Rivers Flow.

My attempts to chronicle the past through fiction brought about more connections than I can list here. Wife Jan said I should write about them all.  When I saw the faces of people that I would never have known if not for the books, saw old friends reuniting for the first time in decades, I discovered an answer to a question I have been asked many times.

Some of my friends seem incredulous about my now decade long venture into writing novels (most are guys who might buy a book, but never crack the cover). Their questions range from a simple “Why?” to , “How many novels are you going to write before you give up? Have you had a best-seller yet? Why don’t you write a thriller so it at least has a chance of selling big?”

I now have an answer, but they still may not understand.  Someone said that writers write to explain the world we live in to ourselves. But during this signing event, I learned that I also write because of the people in that room, people who are sending in orders, all the people who read my books, people who read this blog, and people who reconnect because of the books.

And writing has given me a whole new appreciation for songwriters. One of my favorites is Tom T. Hall. A particular line in one song often pops into my head when I hear those comments and questions.

You remember how the young boy follows Clayton Delaney around because he is “the best guitar-picker in our town?” The young boy asks Clayton why he doesn’t “pick up his guitar and head on down to Tennessee”.  Clayton’s reply, “Son, you better put that old guitar away. There ain’t no money in it; it’ll lead you to an early grave.”

That part about the money could certainly be said about writing. And writing non-genre novels could leave to an early grave, I suppose.  Publishing and marketing those babies is tough.

But writing allows me to be more introspective and reflective. I hope it helps readers to do the same as they identify with my stories.

The few early readers of Go Down Looking want to know if any of the stuff I wrote about happened. Again, I turn to a song. Remember when George Burns recorded “I Wish I was Eighteen Again” when he was in his final years? 

I always thought one of the lines was “Going where I’ve already been.” Turns out it was “Going where I’ve never been.” Well, both lines apply to this book and me. Writing allows me to  be eighteen again, going I’ve already been and where I’ve never been.

Ken Ryan, who came to the signing from Lufkin, has already read the book and sent me his comments. We were both astonished to learn that he was an eyewitness to at least one critical scene in the book. I can’t share all that he said without giving away too much, but suffice it to say that the connections are uncanny. And he is a guy I never met before the signing. We connected through this blog.

It is said that writers have buyers, readers, fans, and evangelists. I appreciate every single person who fits into any of those categories. I know a few folks buy the books, never intending to open them. I still appreciate them because they want to support my efforts.

I also recognize the tendency to think that someone we know can’t be a real writer. That’s even truer if you are related to the writer. Some readers read to see if they recognize the characters.

I know there are readers who are indifferent or just don’t care for my books. I even appreciate them. At least they gave me a chance.

Fans are the good folks who read them and take the time to let me know they liked them and why. I need more of them. They encourage me to keep going.

Then there are the evangelists. They hold a special place in my heart because they like the books enough to make their reviews public and to spread the word. They are the biggest sellers of my books. I need many more of them. They may keep me away from that early grave.

About two years ago, I sold out of Biscuits and Rivers Flow books and could not get more.  A publisher went out of business; a set of plates damaged by storm. To get those books back in print, I made a deal with a new publisher.  

Long story short, that deal replaced me as the only source in the universe for Rivers Crossing and Rivers Ebb. All my books are now digital. That means orders from bookstores and Amazon are now filled elsewhere, leaving me with an overstock of quality hardbacks.

I gave books to wounded vets, VA hospitals, etc… but who better to have the surplus than the people who have been fans and evangelists.   

With that in mind, I am offering a two for one deal. With the purchase of any of my books, I will send a free copy of either Rivers Ebb or Rivers Crossing. I know that many have purchased these  books already and I thank you for that. If so, please consider giving copies to friends or family (with your recommendation).

If you haven’t read them, I hope you will. There are no catches or tricks to this offer. It’s two for one, four for two, any quantity as long as they last. We are updating the website for this offer now, but just e-mail or call and we will work out details.

If you purchased your copy of Go Down Looking before this offer, just let me know and I will see that you get your free copies.

The publisher wanted to know if I wanted a catchphrase on promotional items for Go Down Looking.  Find the Flow, Hear the Music, sort of tumbled out in a split second. Those six words underscore an underlying theme in all my books. Did I know that when I started writing? No. It began to emerge only after three books. 

A few days ago, one of the connections I made through writing sent me a poem. Here are a few lines from Slow Dance.

You'd better slow down
Don't dance so fast.
Time is short.
The music won't last.
Ever told your child, we'll do it tomorrow?
And in your haste, not see his sorrow?
Ever lost touch, Let a good friendship die
Cause you never had time to call and say,'Hi'
You'd better slow down, don't dance so fast.
Time is short--the music won't last . . .
When you run so fast to get somewhere
You miss half the fun of getting there.
 Life is not a race.
Do take it slower
Hear the music
Before the song is over.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Cowboys Don't Know How to Say Goodbye

I have dreamed about you every night since you left without my telling you goodbye. I saw you inside a trailer, looking over your shoulder at my waving, sobbing grandchildren. The miles pass, carrying you farther and farther away from your home. In my dreams, you ask me, “What did I do to deserve this? Why did you send me away with strangers? Didn’t I deserve to spend the rest of my days with you?”

I don’t have good answers to your questions, of course. Truth is, you did everything that I ever asked you to do – most of it willingly. You do deserve a good life. But you were visiting my son’s family when I was asked if you were for sale.

You were close enough for me to see occasionally, but not close enough for me to have to look you in the eye when I said yes. I chose pragmatism over what I saw as sentimentality. My son seemed to understand that I didn’t have the courage to see you leave and didn’t call until you were already gone.

Growing up on a farm, I saw lots of births and deaths: cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, you name it. I learned to suck it up and go on. My father and grandfather always told me that living and dying and buying and selling are part of life, even horse life. My grandfather also said that a horse that isn’t being ridden needs a new home. That, if anything, is my excuse for letting you go.

You see, you and I are getting old. Yes, I know that seventeen is not necessarily old for a horse, but it is me that is getting too old (or too lazy) to keep you exercised, groomed and busy. The kids weren’t riding you anymore, and I was taught that a horse should never be allowed to get bored or fat.

The people who bought you plan to ride and rope. I like to think you will enjoy that – that you will be healthier in your old age if you keep exercising. 

Just after you left, I decided to travel back down a trail that you and I traveled together more than twelve years ago – a trip that changed my life for the better. I owe you for that … and for so much more.

As I looked at the landmarks along that trail, I had visions of you and me traveling there more than a decade earlier. Stirring those memories probably started the dreams. I have not forgotten that you carried me on that long trip across part of Texas, leading a covered wagon and other riders.

You walked so fast that we had to stop and wait on the others. On most days, we rode ahead to find a camp for the night and returned, making the miles you traveled more than the other horses and mules.

I hobbled you at night, but you soon got the hang of hobbles and could travel with them on. But you never went far away from my bedroll. I awoke most mornings to your nicker or the sound of your grazing. You could have stepped on my bedroll (and me) anytime, but you never did.

I also remember that hot day on the trail when you tried to follow me into a store in downtown Decatur. I remember when trucks honked as we traveled down a busy highway. You just eyed them with disdain, never acknowledging their efforts to frighten you with as much as a swish of your tail. Just like you did when you and I and a grandkid or two rode in those parades.

And yes, I remember those earlier team penning days. During our first competition, I rode you so hard that you began to shake. You stumbled and almost fell in the arena. You leaned against the side of the trailer all the way home to keep from falling.

I apologized for that, but please let me say I’m sorry again. I remember the night you had colic and fell against the barn door. I got you up and walked you into the wee hours. And when you got an infection from a shot, I trotted beside you for two miles every day for a month. But, of course, that pales when compared to what you have done for me.

Just after that trip across Texas, you and I started team roping. I could almost hear you talking way back then. You said I was too old to team rope.

People told me that I needed a trained roping horse if I was ever going to learn the sport. Green ropers and green horses don’t mix. But I said that you and I would learn together or we wouldn’t learn at all. And we did.

I don’t think you really liked roping, especially in those early days. But that makes it all the more important that you learned for me.

I remember pulling wet pads and blankets from your back hundreds of times. I remember those moonlit nights when we crossed the creek bridge after roping under arena lights. I was angry with you on many of those nights.

There was a lot of rearing and acting up on your part. You never threw me, but I did fall off once and had more than one steer drag me off. I blamed you most of the time. I belatedly learned that those things were my fault, not yours. That’s when we started to win.

And how about that night I left you ground-tied in the arena as we pulled horn wraps off the roping steers? You were tired and hot and decided to head to the house without me. I whistled as you headed down the lane. You stopped. I yelled, “Back up”, and you retreated to the spot where I had left you. Who says horses can’t understand humans?

I remember the look in your eyes that night we won our first saddle. You looked sort of silly, standing there with two saddles on your back. I just know you asked me, “Are you satisfied? Can we quit roping now?”

Remember that spring roundup on the great Moorhouse ranch? We got to see real cowboys in action. You made great friends with your trailer buddy on the way out to the ranch and wouldn’t let that smaller gelding out of your sight.

When we threw you and the little gelding in with the Moorhouse remuda, you circled your buddy all through the night, ears pinned, daring any other horse to bite or kick your friend. As recently as a year ago, you protected the mare you shared a pasture with from a runaway stud and got yourself all cut up in the effort.

My daddy and granddaddy said that every man has a right to own one really good horse in his lifetime. I have had horses almost continually since I was nine. I have never owned a perfect one.

A perfect horse can spin both directions on a dime, do effortless rollbacks, stick his tail in the ground on a slide, squat like a cutter when looking at a cow, and come at a gallop every time I whistle. And the mane should always lie in place on the left side.

You weren’t perfect, but you came closer to a perfect horse than I ever came to being a real cowboy. You were and always will be my great horse of a lifetime. And you helped to raise my grandkids.

I have pictures of you in the book we share, and there is a nice painting of you and me on my wall. I look at that painting most days and remember. I will never forget.
Goodbye, old friend.

I found some solace and assuagement of guilt in these words from Waddie Mitchell, cowboy bard . . . performed with Don Edwards and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and released as A Prairie Portrait.

For horses and dogs and good cowboys have hearts full of gumption and try,
They’re chuck full of grit and don’t know how to quit but they don’t know the concept goodbye . . .

For horses and dogs and good cowboys don’t know how to tell you a lie
Just don’t take it wrong when one day they’re gone
Tain’t in ‘em to tell you goodbye.