Some of my very earliest childhood memories on the ranch, when I was three or four years old, are of riding behind my father during round up. (Round up being that time when the cattle are gathered off the range and brought into the corrals, in case you’re not familiar with the term.) Now, you might be wondering why a toddler was going along on what sounds like a fairly risky job. Why not leave him with a babysitter? I mean, aren’t horses quite large? Aren’t cows, at least the Old West kind, somewhat prone to running off, causing the cowboys to race after them?
All true. However, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Dad wasn’t the sort of person to spend money he didn’t have to. Babysitters cost money. Bringing the child along for the ride, as it were, didn’t cost money. Now is it clear? (In case you’re wondering, in addition to caring for the house and preparing food, Mom worked every bit as hard outdoors as Dad did. That meant she was out riding with everyone else, and thus not able to stay at home watching children.)
I also remember riding behind Mom, but those rides weren’t as memorable as the ones when I rode behind Dad. Mom—as mothers are known to do—checked on me during the day, made sure I was doing okay. She made allowances for my age, perhaps even letting the occasional rowdy cow escape rather than risking the child to catch it.
Dad was a lot more focused on the work at hand. In Dad’s mind: There’s cows in those hills and we’re bringing them in, come hell or high water.
There just wasn’t a lot of time for other considerations.
Which meant I had to be alert. I had to keep a good hold on Dad’s belt loops at all times—no matter how much my nose itched—because I never knew when I was going to need those things.
Most of the time it was pretty uneventful. We’d plod along. I’d amuse myself by wondering if I’d ever be able to walk again. The wondering was due to the fact that Dad’s horse, Dinah, was quite fat, so my short little legs basically stuck straight out to either side. More than once the cowboys Dad had hired to help us would get a good laugh when, at the end of a long day, I got off Dinah and wobbled around while I tried to get my legs reacquainted with each other. (If you’re wondering why Dinah was so fat, despite the fact that, like the other horses, she mostly had to support herself on a meager diet of desert grasses and rocks, it was because she would eat literally anything and did so at every chance she got. I’m pretty sure she ate in her sleep. I’m not kidding. The horse definitely had an eating disorder.)
But every now and then things would very suddenly get very exciting. A cow would bolt for freedom, Dad would clap the spurs to Dinah, and off we’d go in hot pursuit. I learned pretty quickly that there’d be no warning from Dad when this happened. If I’d gotten careless, and I wasn’t holding onto those belt loops tightly enough, I was going for a quick ride to the ground. Which meant that after the rebellious cow had been brought back into the herd, Dad would come back and get me and express his displeasure at having to do so.
I distinctly remember one time when we were driving some cattle across the creek a half mile or so downstream from the house. Just across the creek the trail—actually an old wagon road—goes up the side of a hill and there is a mesquite thicket.
Well, we were just about to start up the hill when one of the cows made a break for it. Dad clapped the spurs to Dinah and off we went, charging through the mesquite thicket. All well and good at first. I was paying attention so I was still on the back of the horse, holding tight, two inches from Dad’s back, no idea of what’s going on except that I better hang tight.
Suddenly Dad’s back was gone. He ducked. The whole world opened up and I could see! Hallelujah!
What I saw next was a limb right in front of me. It dawned on me then: that’s why Dad ducked.
A split second later the limb whacked me right on the forehead and I just sailed off the horse backwards.
Being young and basically made of rubber, I was okay, except for a sizable lump which appeared on my forehead with astonishing speed.
What I didn’t realize is that incident foretold what would be a definite trend in my childhood at Date Creek Ranch. People get hurt on ranches. They are dangerous places, full of large, excitable animals and rusty machinery. But I, I was the champ. I got hurt the most. I was the one on a first-name basis with the emergency room staff at the Wickenburg Hospital.
And I’ve got the scars to prove it.