My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

My dad left me suddenly in 2008. He walked into the bathroom and fell over dead against the door. Susan, my sister, had to push him across the floor to get the door open and discover what had happened. I miss him. It seems a little stark to put that phrase down on paper, but I do miss him. After my graduation from high school, and especially after my graduation from medical school, we didn’t spend a lot of hours together. Despite the lack of geographic closeness, it was a comfort knowing he was in this world. A strong father figure, he seemed to be an anchor to  me, and with his passing the role  of anchor for the family settled on my shoulders. I get the out-of-the blue thought frequently  that I should call him and discuss how things are going.  For a split second if feels right, but then the empty ache fills my chest and reality returns. There is no one to call.

He lived in a most interesting time. He was born in 1929, just prior to the Depression. He was raised in rural Montana and grew up as an honest ranch cowboy. His father, my grandfather, was drafted at age 37 into the Army Tank Corps during the waning days of World War II. That left my dad at age 14 back home in charge of the ranch, cows, hay, horses, siblings and mother. He was equal to the task.

He began his adult business life buying and selling livestock, especially horses. Mechanization of agriculture hit the American West at that time. Four cylinder tractors were replacing four-legged horses – even beautiful, matched teams of big draft horses. Dad bought them for canners, at prices that were discouragingly low. 2000 pound Belgians were slaughtered and shipped to Europe for sausage. He loved horses, but not in a sentimental way.

Many of those horses were simply turned loose on the high plains. The Blackfoot Reservation had a lot of horses like that, high plains drifters, difficult to tell who could sign the bill of sale. It was  a practical  idea to have an Indian companion from the reservation. Dad did. They rounded up horses by the hundreds, shipped many on the Great Northern, boxcar load after boxcar load. The two of them, a young white man and an old Blackfoot man, rode the prairie. They ranged from north of Great Falls  into southern Alberta. They trailed the herds to the rail head at Great Falls or sometimes to Browning, on the reservation.

His Indian companion was older. One  day  while  riding together  in the Sweet Grass Hills, the  Indian  stopped,  looked  carefully  around  and  said, “This place is familiar.”

He rode over to a small bluff, looked out and pointed out across the open plain toward Canada. “When I was a boy, I was up here gathering sweet grass for the Medicine Man. Some movement caught my eye over there.”

He told the story of how in his youth he was up on that hill. He was the sole witness as a single rider rode lickety-split across the border into Canada. Three other horsemen in pursuit were trailing. The lead rider got across the border, pulled his horse up short and dismounted. Pulling his rifle from his scabbard, he kneeled down and shot the other three riders as they got close .

The scene had played out in real time, and the echo of the shots reached the hill a couple seconds later. After putting his rifle back  in his  scabbard, the lead rider got back on his horse and rode north, disappearing into the wild rose country of southern Alberta. The Indian boy waited for what he thought was a safe time, then rode down the hill to the three shot men.

He said to my dad, “It was a sheriff and two  deputies.” He paused for a second and went on, “They were all white men. All dead.” He paused as if looking back into the years, and finished, “I got my sweet grass  bundle, climbed on my pony and rode home.”

My life as a doctor was interesting in its own right, but I always had some yearning for my childhood cowboy days. We didn’t have bicycles growing up, but we each had a horse. At the time it seemed perfectly normal to ride up to the grocery store, tie my horse to the telephone pole and go in to get some penny candy. Horse manure on main street was a normal event in our town. My first horse was an Appaloosa mare named Beanie. All summer I had to stake her to the roadside for feed and lead her to water twice a day. One day she slipped on a ditch bank, fell and broke her neck when the stake rope pulled tight as she hit the bottom of the ditch. Dad came and broke the news to me. He took me with him on my first overnight cattle-buying trip and my first stay in a motel. I was on my best behavior. I got up early the next morning and had my motel bed all made perfectly before it was time to go. It took me a few years to figure out why my dad laughed and hugged me when he saw the perfectly made bed.

Russ, the second child in our family, ended up the new owner of a big ranch in Lewistown, Montana in the late 1990s. It was 11,000 acres – one third in the mountains for summer range, two-thirds along the creek bottom for hay and  winter range. He had  500 mother cows. Once I had to speak at a conference in Billings, a fast two hour drive from Lewiston. I took an extra cou­ple days and drove to Lewistown to check out the lay of the land. The lay was awesome, the scenery stunning. I was back in the saddle, riding through the trees and cattle seemed to calm that yearning. I stayed as late as I could and drove back late to Billings. I missed the first flight but caught the second. A bit disgruntled at the hiccup in my schedule, I boarded the half-empty plane, claimed a row for myself and got out my computer.

I was typing away, not paying much attention to the other passengers. I had stretched out completely and was completing my journal entry for the weekend. Pausing to think before adding the next entry, my attention was grabbed by quiet sobs coming from the row behind me. I sat quietly and eavesdropped.

The sobs were coming from a woman who was flying to Alabama for  the funeral of her son. That he had died tragically was obvious, but I missed  the part where she had described the exact accident. She was telling her seatmate about the accident, and about how sick her husband had been recently, nigh unto death, but he had pulled through.

“Not that I want my husband to die, ” she said,  “but why not him, an  old man who has lived a good life, why not him die instead of taking my son?”
Her seat-mate, a man, quietly replied, “I know what you mean.”
She went on, “I would rather me die a hundred times than take him and leave his wife and new baby behind.”
Another gentle reply, “I know what you mean – I had those exact same thoughts when my son died.”

The sobs from his seat-mate stopped and the woman and I  both listened as he shared his story – the story of his 22-year-old son who had died several years previously .

“He was the fourth child out of six,” he said, “but  that  didn’t  make it  any easier. You miss them just as much as if he was the only one.”

Speaking quietly, not crying, but with a  tremor  in his voice, he  went  on, “My son was driving home and his car broke down, so he thumbed a  ride with a 17-year-old girl and her companion. The young woman driver  hit  black ice at 100 mph. My son, in the back seat was killed – the other two survived.”

I was amazed at his understanding and compassion as he listened, shared and responded to  this  sorrowing woman for the entire one hour flight. He shared his insight as he told her, “The pain never goes away, you just cry less. You can’t hold anger or hate against the person who caused it – it just eats your heart, and you need your heart to love the rest of your family.”

The woman’s sobs faded as she was able to talk about her loss. She pondered a few moments of silence as we were pulling up to the gate in Salt Lake City, and then said, “At least I’ll get to see my new baby grandson that I’ve never met.” She closed with, “I don’t know how to thank you for listening to me. I thought this flight would be unbearable, but it wasn’t.”

I could hear the sound of flesh on flesh as he patted her hand and replied, “You are more than welcome.”

I sat quietly as the passengers disembarked. I was dying to see who these people were. After the row in front of me emptied, I stood, stepped into the aisle, turned and reached back to pick up by briefcase. I was face to face with the conversation couple.

She appeared about 70. Short hair, streaked with gray, done in an old-fashioned perm. Nike shoes, comfortable cotton shirt and double knit pants with elastic waistband. Lined face, work-roughened hands deformed a bit with arthritis.

He about 50, whip-leather thin. A cowboy with baseball cap, short-sleeved pearl button snap shirt with vertical stripes. Levis, ostrich skin boots and a big rodeo buckle. I thought of speaking, but found I had nothing of significance to offer.

I nodded my head to them, let them pass and followed the two quietly out of the plane and down the ramp. My ostrich skin boots made a quiet staccato tapping on the aluminum  stairs, echoing his as we stepped down to the tarmac.