(Let me set this up for you. Every summer, outfitters in the back country tended to hire young men fresh out of high school to do all the grunt work for them. Most of these kids just wanted to be cowboys -- especially the one written about here. Let's see what happens when "Craig" tries out a horse that has just a little... too...much...power...CW)
Some boys tried harder than others to be horsemen. At least they took instruction from a female who'd had a heckofa lot more experience in the saddle. Craig, from small town Wisconsin, was one of those few. But I doubt that neither he nor anyone who witnessed it will ever forget the wild ride he took on my personal Quarter horse, Clay — regardless of any hours already spent in the saddle.
It happened a few years after I’d moved to the guest ranch. Frequently, loose cattle turned out to graze in the surrounding forest wandered onto the property in search of the salt block. This was always a huge deal because they tended to leave patties all over the airstrip, which then hardened and made the mail plane bounce when the pilot tried to land.
Clay and I could herd those cows back where they belonged single-handedly; he was quick, cow-savvy, and so “push-button” it was like dancing with the perfect partner. Squeeze him lightly and he increased speed accordingly. Touch one rein and he’d turn on a dime. Duck alongside his neck and he’d pick his way under branches with barely a nick. Sit back in the saddle and he’d slide to a stop. But the thing he was best at was going from zero to blaze with a simple trick I’d learned from the movie, “Man from Snowy River.” All you had to do was make a hissing sound and hang on.
One morning when the ranch was crammed with guests and I was hustling about the kitchen fixing breakfast, a good-sized bunch of cow and calf pairs was spotted grazing at the edge of the meadow. The guys all quickly gathered the horses and saddled up to go after them. I wanted to join in the fun but couldn’t; there was far too much to do.
The lodge’s screen door banged and boots clomped across the floor while I was turning bacon on the wood stove. “Carolyn, can I take Clay?” Craig called out, breathless with anticipation.
Craig was what they called a dude hire — someone right out of guide school who hadn’t yet gotten his guide's license. Mostly, he split and stacked firewood in addition to other odd chores. “Please? Can I take Clay?” he repeated, clumsily blocking my way as I moved towards the counter. I can still see him standing before me in his brand-new cowboy hat with the stampede straps pulled tight under his chin. He was lanky, about 6’2”, with large brown eyes framed by roundish, John Denver-style, gold-rimmed glasses. There were pimples on his chin.
“No way,” I said immediately. “He’s too high-powered….”
“Pleeeeeaaaaasssssseee?” He begged, clasping both hands together. “He came up to the corral with the other horses. He’s just standing there! We need him! He’s the best!” When I hesitated, focused on breaking eggs into a bowl, he persisted. “C’mon! I know I can handle him! I’ve ridden lots of the horses here already and you said I was improving! C’mon! I know I can do it. Pleeeeaaaaaassssseee?”
Vigorously whipping the eggs with a whisk, I stifled a smile. It was no secret Craig was sweet on a dark-haired teen girl who was visiting with her family. Along with the other guests, they had gathered at the corral with their coffee mugs to watch as the crew prepared to go. This would be his turn to shine. Feeling a bit like I was handing Ferrari keys over to a newly-licensed driver, I finally stopped, looked up, and sighed, “Well, all right.”
The kid gave a brief fist-pump, burst out with “Yes!” and abruptly turned to leave but I grabbed for his sleeve. “Whoa, boy,” I warned. “Be careful. Ease the cattle out, don’t push them. You can trot and canter but don’t go full out. Clay might well jump out from underneath you.”
Craig nodded but I know he barely heard me. He bolted toward the screen door and let it bang again. I winced and returned to the wood stove, occasionally glancing out the wide picture window to watch them going by.
They never did.
For ten minutes I restlessly wandered back and forth, sometimes with one hand cupped under dripping utensils. Suddenly, there came the sound of running footsteps.
The door flew open again and the rest of the crew members literally fell onto the linoleum, howling like hyenas. One went to his knees, holding his stomach. The others leaned against the walls or each other for support. The noise was practically deafening. “What on earth happened?” I asked, nervously wiping both hands on my apron, hurrying over and bracing myself for the worst. It took a while, but one of them finally managed to gasp out the story.
With every guest lined elbow-to-elbow at the railings — some with cameras poised — Craig had stepped up onto Clay and gallantly tipped his hat in the direction of his teen crush. She had beamed back. Then, simply because he’d witnessed me do it a couple of times before, he hissed.
The gelding, which had been standing quietly before the open gate, dug in and took off from a standstill. So powerful was the motion of his hindquarters that Craig instantly lost his balance, dropped the reins, and slid behind the saddle. Downhill towards the meadow Clay flew, ears back and tail level with his spine. “And there was Craig with a death-grip on the cantle,” one of the guys hooted, straightening and wiping at his eyes, “yell…yelling…” he paused to laugh again, “whooooooaaaaaaaaaa all the way until we heard him thud as he hit the ground!”
When Craig finally showed up at breakfast, we immediately noticed he had grass stains on one side of his shirt and jeans and his glasses were bent. Guides and guests hunkered down and gave each other subtle grins as they passed the platters, milk and pancake syrup towards him. The conversations kept going, but he didn't join in. I could tell he was deflated.
I briefly touched Craig’s shoulder when I poured his coffee. Images of my own past, spectacular falls came to mind while moving around the table, refilling other mugs. There had been plenty. When Craig forlornly followed the rest of the crew out after breakfast, I caught his arm again. “It’s okay,” I whispered. “Every good horseman hits the ground along the way.” His large brown eyes settled on mine and he smiled a little. Ever so slightly, in the manner of a real cowboy, he lifted his chin in acknowledgement while settling his hat down on his head — this time with the stampede straps hanging down in back.
Everyone has memory of a favorite car or truck they once owned. Here is a segment of how I found mine. CW
McCall, Idaho, mid-1990's
Mick nearly scared me to death. Standing mere inches away at the pharmacy’s narrow, plexiglass divider, he was staring at me, motionless. All one could see was a head, reminiscent the scene in Young Frankenstein when Frederick and Inga discover human skulls in the laboratory — and just like them, I jumped back and shrieked. “Mick! Don’t do that! Do you want me to have a heart attack?”
One corner of his mouth turned up in a taciturn smile. “Sorry,” he said.
Still clutching at my chest with one hand, I reached for a piece of paper with the other. “Do you need your meds filled?”
“No, I’m good.”
There was a brief silence before I added, “Can I help you find a vitamin?”
“No.” He glanced down for a moment, then said, “I heard you are looking for a truck.”
I most certainly was!
The horses had been hauled everywhere from New Meadows to Weiser at that point, and some of the logging roads were so gnarly, I’d decided to sell my six-cylinder rig and buy an eight. Trouble was, anyone who had a decent, eight-cylinder truck was hanging on to it. They were great for hauling firewood. For a year I’d been following every single lead that had come along, only to be disappointed. I knew exactly what was needed — and I wasn’t going to settle.
“What have you got?” I asked hopefully.
Mick gave an almost inaudible sigh. “I just bought a diesel, and my wife says we have too many vehicles now. We’re putting that two-tone Ford up for sale — the one I tow my boat with. I hate to part with it, but…” he shrugged.
Staring at him, I tried very hard to stay cool.
I knew that rig well, since Mick and I passed each other on the road a couple of times a month. (He was hard to miss. There were usually three German Shepherds milling about the bed.) Although long-faded from exposure to sun and snow, the Ford was very striking. “What are the specs?” I asked casually.
“I’ve been the only owner,” he began in his low, monotone voice. “I bought it brand new about twelve years ago. It has an eight-cylinder, 460 engine and two gas tanks. The air conditioner works good. And it’s four-wheel drive…although you have to get out in order to lock in the hubs.”
I leaned towards the glass on my elbows. “How many miles are on it?” About then the phone rang and I held up one finger, nodding towards Mick to excuse me. In my professional technician’s voice, I picked up the receiver and answered, “Pharmacy. Would you hold please?” The caller never had a chance to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because I shoved a button and cut them off. My complete attention returned to Mick. “Sorry about that. How many miles…?” I repeated.
“About 82,000,” he replied.
Perfect! My mechanical engineer father had taught me that on the average, drivers put 10,000 miles on their vehicles each year, so I knew these were low. As if reading my mind, Mick added, “Most of them are highway — you know, driving back and forth to Riggins to fish for Steelhead.” He waited for me to say something, but I couldn’t quite speak. (Highway miles, to boot!) “That’s what I primarily used the Ford for, you know. Towing the boat,” he added. “It’s got the perfect engine for heavy trailers. You won’t even feel those horses behind you.”
I was already visualizing myself tooling down the road in that truck with two horses behind me. This truck definitely fit all my requirements. “How often do you change the oil?” I continued, still trying to sound casual.
Dad would have been pleased to hear Mick say, “Every three or four thousand miles” — although he looked sheepish for a moment before clarifying, “more like four. Sometimes I forget.”
The phone gave its 60-second warning beep to remind me someone was waiting. Robin, my pharmacy boss, was busy checking out a customer and couldn’t answer it. Wishing I could throw my blue smock and name tag off and run to see the Ford, I motioned to Mick again, lifted the receiver and said (as patiently as I was able to in that moment), “Thank you for holding. May I help you?”
My mind raced even as my hand automatically wrote down the refill numbers, which the customer droned off intolerably slowly. Mick’s head — the body still hidden behind a wall of vitamins, protein powders, and disposable exam gloves — continued waiting stoically. When the caller finally finished, I swiftly replaced the receiver on the cradle and asked him, “Okay. How much?”
He shrugged. “I’d like to get six thousand. Blue book is six thousand five hundred…”
I mulled it over for a moment. “Will you take payments?”
I exhaled. “When can I come for a test-drive?”
“Tonight is fine.”
“You got it!”
Mick had barely made it out of earshot, walking towards the automatic doors, before I turned to Robin, did a half a dozen fist pumps, and started jumping up and down. She’d finished with her customer by then and picked up the last part of the conversation. “C.C.! Did you finally find a truck?” she asked, excited.
“Not just a truck, girlfriend. My dream truck!”
And Robin, who totally understood my passion for riding, slipped in a quick high-five before I started jumping up and down again.
What follows is a sample of Chapter 11, "The Methods of Mindy." We all remember getting in to mischief as teens, and facing the consequences; here is what happened to us on cold December night.
Find out what what's next when "Like a Swarm of Locusts" is published in November 2020.
Christmas Eve, 1979
The thudding sounds were loud enough to be heard over the Creedence Clearwater Revival tape that was blasting through Mindy’s car stereo. “What’s that?” I asked, twisting my head around.
Leaning forward, Mindy turned down the volume and replied, “What did you say?”
“That strange noise…hear it?” The rhythmic kerthumpkerthumpkerthumpkerthump came through loud and clear now so I added uneasily, “I think you have a flat!”
Mindy scowled, straightened in the driver’s seat and exclaimed, “Oh shit, I think it is!”
With skill that was surprising for a nineteen-year old, she whipped her giant Oldsmobile — nicknamed “The Green Goose” by a cousin who’d previously owned it — off the road onto a shoulder. Stunned, we stared into the blackness which surrounded us, broken only by two headlights, one of them being quite dim. Despite the vigorous scraping Mindy had given the windshield before we left, ice had re-formed around the edges of it and even with the heater on full blast, the inside of the car felt like an igloo.
I’d ridden in that old beater enough times to know things wouldn’t start warming up until we pulled into the driveway of Mindy’s apartment, which was several miles away.
There were no other drivers on the road. Partying hard, we left the holiday gathering around 2:00 am. We had no cell phones. There were no streetlights, and no nearby houses. Worse, it was downright cold — the bone-chilling, teeth-freezing, lip-numbing kind of cold that is known only to people who live by two rivers.
What made the situation even more challenging, we were wearing dress coats (which weren’t made to be warm), fancy clothes (same), and high-heeled shoes, not boots: Mindy, in fact, was in open-toed Candies.
My feet already felt like ice blocks. Walking home was not an option — but neither was spending the night by the road. “Man, this totally sucks!” she exclaimed with great irritation.
“Yeah, it does,” I agreed, adding worriedly, “I hope you know how to change a flat.”
“Yes I know how to change a friggin’ flat!” she snapped. “I’m just not sure if I have a jack!”
That should have been sobering.
We sat for a few more moments being blown by semi-cold air while mustering up the courage to step out of the car into the much colder night. I glanced into my side mirror several times, hoping against hope to see headlights approaching. There was nothing but dark. Finally reaching for our door handles, we set about changing the tire…two stranded teenagers who were ill-dressed, ill-equipped, and totally, shamelessly, and outrageously drunk.