© Copyright 2019 by Dale Fehringer
My parents had dropped me off at my uncle Bill’s and aunt Margaret’s ranch outside the small Colorado town of Otis. Mom and Dad were going on vacation (probably to the Colorado mountains), and they left as many of us children as possible off at relatives’ houses. That gave them a bit of privacy, and a short break from us.
I liked being dropped off at uncle Bill’s house. They had kids my age, and they had horses. And I was crazy about horses! I have a photo of me at age four, dressed in a cowboy outfit, complete with a toy six-shooter in a holster on my waist. I read library books about cowboys, and I knew they all rode horseback, so I needed to ride horseback, too. I had done some riding – mostly on old, tame horses owned by a family in my home town. But the horses uncle Bill owned were younger and more spirited, and more fitting for a real cowboy like me.
This was a year or two after I had been dropped off at the same relatives’ house during the same time of year for the same reason. During that stay I suffered a broken arm and told my first lie. I’ll get that story over with, so I can concentrate on the main topic of becoming a cowboy.
During that previous visit uncle Bill had a group of a dozen or so horses in a corral near his ranch house that he was “breaking” for neighbors. He had always been good with horses, and he enjoyed working with them, and breaking them provided a little extra cash for his family.
Because they were basically wild, uncle Bill had told us kids to stay away from them. But, being kids, we instead went directly to them, and my cousin Bob and I stupidly tried to ride them, with no bridals or saddles. As you might expect, we were bucked off, and I wound up on my back in the corral. Our imposition had stirred the horses, who began to run in circles around the corral. One of them accidentally stepped on my right arm, badly breaking the bone just above the wrist. Cousin Bob helped me to my feet, and after looking at my arm implored me not to tell his father what we had done, because he would get in trouble. So I made up a story about running through the barn and tripping over a milk pail, and I told that story to my parents, to Bob’s parents, and to the doctor who set my arm and applied the cast, which I wore the rest of the summer. Several people questioned my story, but I stuck with it. Years later, cousin Bob teased me for telling the lie, apparently forgetting it was he who asked me to tell it.
But now my arm was healed, and I was eager to get back on a horse. This year uncle Bill had just a couple of horses, which had long ago been broken. They were the ones us kids would be allowed to ride.
Bob and I played games, helped uncle Bill with chores, and watched the horses run in the corral. And we talked about going for a ride.
Then one night Uncle Bill said something that changed my whole stay.
“How would you kids like to go for a trail ride?” he asked.
“Sure,” we replied, “That would be neat!” (or something like that).
“OK,” Uncle Bill said. “Tomorrow morning I’m going to drive a grain truck out to the south field and leave it there with a tarp over the back. You kids pack sandwiches and water, and tomorrow afternoon you can take the horses out to the truck and spend the night.”
“Wow!” we said. “That’s groovy!” (or something like that).
I doubt we slept much that night, thinking about the big adventure that lay ahead. And I remember being pretty excited the next day as we waited for uncle Bill to get home from his job delivering mail to nearby farms. When he arrived he helped us saddle the horses; made sure we had warm clothes, food (for us and the horses), and water; and helped us up on the horses.
He gave us strict instructions.
“Ride straight to the truck, sleep under the tarp, and do not leave the truck during the night for any reason!”
I remember setting off, feeling very grown-up in the saddle of my horse, looking over the prairies ahead of us and watching uncle Bill’s ranch house grow smaller behind us. I don’t remember if we talked, or sang, or simply enjoyed the feeling of being grown up and free. We were cowboys, and cowboys didn’t need to talk a lot. We just enjoyed the fact that the whole wild world lay ahead of us.
It probably took an hour or so to reach the grain truck that uncle Bill had parked at the edge of a wheat field. We climbed down from our horses, tied them up, and removed the saddles; then scrambled up into the truck bed, ate our sandwiches, fed the horses, and watched the sun go down. The rest of the night is a blur. I imagine we sang cowboy songs, and we probably told spooky stories and experimented with some “rough” language.
When it was pitch-black dark we crawled under the tarp and arranged the blankets over us. It was cozy and warm, and we could see the stars through the corner of the tarp. We fell asleep imagining we were camping on a trail in the middle of a cattle drive, with weeks of trail life ahead. We slept well, dreaming the dreams of real cowboys.
The sun came up early, and we rubbed the sleep from our eyes, climbed down from the truck to pee, and ate our remaining sandwiches for breakfast. Then, we saddled the horses, untied them from the truck, and slowly made our way back to the ranch. We must have felt very grown-up and independent.
It wasn’t a long trip for us, and it was all pretty well-controlled. But it was our first real adventure – an indication that we really could exist in the world on our own, even if it was just for a few hours. It was an experiment with being grown-up, and a taste of freedom. But what lingers in my mind is what else it offered us -- our first real chance to be cowboys.
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