The Rent Horse Kid

June 16, 2019

 

At some point during my fourteenth year I decided I wanted a life on the range; riding a horse, chasing dogies, strumming lonesome cowboy songs on my old guitar.  I swooned over cowboy trappings and began to exhibit a passion for almost any form of livestock.  If a cow wasn't available, a goat or even a chicken would do.  I did try to reject sheep, having seen enough movies to know that sheep, and sheep men, were a pox on the land, but since they lived in the country, on sheep ranches, well . . . .

 

Because I was a city boy and had no contact with the real thing, motif was significant.  You could buy postcards at the dime store depicting ranch life, and I covered my bedroom walls with these.  For my birthday, I asked for spurs.  I found an ivy planter in the shape of a Hereford bull and put it in a high-enough place so you couldn't see the hole in the top.  I bought western paperbacks to go on the bookshelf (between a pair of wagon-wheel bookends) and collected ceramic horses.  I stapled a Mexican souvenir blanket on the wall, at an angle (I'd seen this in a restaurant), and when relatives learned I was "in a cowboy stage," more decorator accessories trickled in: a pot-metal longhorn belt rack, a real horseshoe (which I hung over my door), and a cheap bull whip I could take in the back yard and crack.  I say cheap, because after a few cracks, it began to fray and sling pieces of itself onto the neighbor's roof.

 

Of course half the fun of anything is looking the part, so I started accumulating "western wear."  I'd already talked mom into letting me get boots instead of school shoes, and I had one of the standard cowboy shirts of the day; green and beige plaid with yellow mother-of-pearl snaps.  I wore a wide tooled belt with one of those hubcap-sized buckles on it, but I still needed a hat and an item which really set a true man of the west apart, western slacks.  Anybody could, and did, wear jeans, but western slacks, I knew, meant you were serious.  Along with the spurs, I added western slacks to my birthday list.

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Much to my parents' chagrin (much to a lot of people's chagrin) country music became mine.  It was the kind of music that jangled from pickup trucks and highway cafes and just about all car repair shops. 

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Much to my parents' chagrin (much to a lot of people's chagrin) country music became mine.  It was the kind of music that jangled from pickup trucks and highway cafes and just about all car repair shops.  It went with Pall Malls and manual labor.  And, since this was the dawning of the Sixties, country radio stations still played what was called "hillbilly" or "honky tonk" music — Country/Western.  Hank Thompson and Hank Snow, Earnest Tubb, Patsy Cline, Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells.  Hank Williams remained such a staple I hadn't known he'd been dead for ten years.  Oh, yeah, Slim Whitman.  Yodeling.  

 

You know, I loved that name, Slim.  I wished to be called Slim.  Or Buck or Webb or Hank or Jake, anything more cowboyish than "Bob".  I always liked Matt, but then so did TV.  There was such a glut of them, I remember asking a friend if all marshals were required to call themselves Matt.

 

I took guitar lessons and learned to play "The San Antonio Rose".  I bought, secretly, a sack of Bull Durham.  I don’t think it’s sold any more.  It was cheap cigarette tobacco in a little pocket-sized cloth bag, secured with a yellow drawstring, and it came with papers.  A true cowboy could slip out a paper, load it with tobacco, roll, lick and light a Bull Durham on horseback.  With one hand!  At a trot, if necessary.  I practiced on my bicycle.

 

The backyard gate, by the garbage cans, was a sagging, dragging thing with a western-like (I thought) beam across the top.  For this, I designed a rustic, zigzag-bordered placard from a piece of orange crate and branded it with the words, Circle B Ranch.  I'd tried to make a branding iron from a coat hanger, but the results weren't satisfactory.  The coat hanger was too flexible or the board too rigid, so I wound up doing the job with a wood-burning tool left over from a previous "craftsperson" stage.  Reluctant to give up on the idea of coat-hanger branding irons entirely, I kept at it, making little improvements along the way.  I thought about practicing on the cat, but he must've read my mind; I was never able to rope him.  

 

Neighbors noticed that I had begun building campfires in the back yard.  I enclosed my fires in the obligatory ring of stones and equipped them with a couple of forked branches for suspending a pot of some kind.  I could sit there for hours, daydreaming and motionless — except to give one of my coat-hanger branding irons an occasional turn in the coals.  

 

It was during one of these solitary flights that Mother stuck her head out the back door and asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday.  (I was wearing my new hat.  The weekend before, I'd gone to a western shop and blown several months’ allowance on it.)  

 

"Come again, sister?" said I, nonchalantly.  Nonchalance was a required cowboy attitude.  Mother stood in the door, hands on her hips.  

 

"You heard me," she said.  "And don't call me sister."  

 

What I wanted, I realized suddenly, was to go horseback riding.  When I told her as much, mother cautioned me against the idea, but since she cautioned against all my ideas, I wasn't easily deterred.  

 

There is a chic, environmentally-sensitive mall there today, on an upscale suburban street.  But somewhere beneath the xeriscapes and double-parked Range Rovers remain the artifacts of an earlier, simpler commerce.  I remember "cedar-chopper" shacks, a place selling goats and Guinea hens, and, wedged between two fields of car entrails, the "Rocking B Riding Ranch and Stables."  A B riding on a "rocker" was branded in the rustic, zigzag-bordered sign.  I'd never actually visited the Rocking B, only admired the sign whenever we drove past in the car.

 

On the designated Saturday morning, pals John and Eddy showed up at my place.  Eddy was the nearest thing to a real cowboy, in that his folks lived in the country and ran a few Hereford cows as a sideline.  John, another city kid but as much a cowboy aficionado as myself, always wore boots.  For today's activities, he'd added a western shirt.  Eddy was in tee shirt and sneakers.

 

"Aren't you chilly in that thing?" my mother asked him.  Eddy's arms were purple with goose bumps.

 

"No, ma'am.  It ain't cold," he said, shivering.

 

"I've got a sweater you can borrow," said mother, completely serious.  

 

John and I squawked with laughter.  (I could've said "howled with laughter" except that, at our age, "squawk" was closer to the actual sound.)  

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I was the only one of our group in ensemble: Pristine, wide-brimmed, western hat.  Green and beige plaid shirt with yellow snaps.  Matching green slacks (the surplus waist crimped painfully beneath my sturdy Western belt).

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My birthday had fallen on the previous Thursday and, sure enough, when I opened my gifts, I got a spur from my sister.  One spur.  And from mom, western slacks.  They were a size too large ("room to grow") and green, to go with my green and beige shirt.  Probably, I would've chosen a different shade, but mom never bought any article of clothing unless it matched something I already had.  I've wondered since what would have happened if I'd started out in life with only one color.  Adhering to my mother's practice of natural selection, how many years would it take for, say, green to become something else?  Ten?  A hundred?  

 

I was the only one of our group in ensemble: Pristine, wide-brimmed, western hat.  Green and beige plaid shirt with yellow snaps.  Matching green slacks (the surplus waist crimped painfully beneath my sturdy Western belt).  Cowboy boots.  I didn't wear the spur.

 

Before we left, I gave my hat a final adjustment before the mirror and climbed into the car, nonchalantly.  John and Eddy admired my outfit and may even have been secretly envious.  They wouldn't be today.  They would probably feel sorry for me.  

 

We were, as most kids are that age, rather oddly proportioned.  Almost nobody, except the rare creature who reaches prime in high school, grows harmoniously.  Ostrich legs sprout from chickens.  Feet or even noses suddenly double in size.  Eddy was pudgy and had a big head.  John was the most normal looking, but wasn't used to his new dimensions and tended to trip over nothing at all and fall down.  Myself, I preferred to think of in western terms, like rangy or lanky.  But I was more of a wisp.  A reed.  A pale, slumpy reed with pimples.  And, being nearsighted, I wore glasses.  Gross, two-toned plastic things, black on top, flesh-tinted and transparent on bottom.  Things no Matt or Webb would be caught dead in.  But it was MY DAY and, fortunately, I had no idea I was such a geek.  Mom drove us to the Rocking B in the family Falcon.

 

I didn't know who actually owned the Rocking B, but it was run by a truly hateful old bastard.  He hated the customers, he hated the horses, he loathed everything about the place.  Of course, we worshipped him.  Because, to our unpracticed eyes, he was the real McCoy.  He chewed, spit, dipped, cussed, and smoked Bull Durham.  His legs were bowed and he walked with a swaggering limp — had he been thrown from a bronc?  

 

The stables themselves were rickety, unpainted sheds which leaned against one another for support; the kind of structures that removing one rotten board would've caused a disastrous chain reaction.  The bridle path started at the back of the sheds and wound through typical hill country scrub; live oak, cedar, lots of rocks, and cactus.  Nothing remarkable but, of course, I loved it all.

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"Long as I don't get one of them danged English saddles," Eddy said, spitting.  We all agreed that would be something awful.  Besides, I hadn't gone to all the trouble to look authentic just to wind up on the wrong saddle.

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We had to wait a while because a bunch of girls were there ahead of us.  One, in particular, couldn't take her eyes off me: a hefty, scowling, gum-chewing giant in pedal pushers.  "Why do they let people like that in here," I muttered.  At a respectful distance, John, Eddy and I watched helplessly as, one after another, the "good" horses we'd picked for ourselves got loaded with shrieking, hysterical girls.

 

"Long as I don't get one of them danged English saddles," Eddy said, spitting.  We all agreed that would be something awful.  Besides, I hadn't gone to all the trouble to look authentic just to wind up on the wrong saddle.  They were little more than flimsy leather pancakes.  You didn't straddle them like a cowboy, you perched on them like a monkey.  They had nothing to do with the West.  

 

When the mob of girls had finally been loaded and sent inching around the sheds toward the bridle path, there remained exactly four horses, three with English saddles.  The old cowboy had started towards his chair, tilted against an oak tree next to his spit can, when he saw us, evidently for the first time.  

 

"Well, hell, come on then," he snarled, impatiently.

 

He took me first and led me to an English saddle.  "What about that one," I cried, motioning to the last horse with a real saddle.  The old man made a derisive, ugly noise.

 

"He'd kick you over that roof, kid.  That's my horse."

 

We all got English saddles.

 

Now, any story about dudes and horses must, by tradition, center around one of the dudes falling off.  To save time, I'll tell you up front it was me.  

 

John's horse plodded lethargically toward the bridle path and Eddy's followed its tail.  This happens.  "Following the leader" is a classic rent-horse behavior.  Others are: attempting to scrape the rider off on the nearest low-hanging branch; ignoring all steering and braking maneuvers the dude has seen work just fine on TV; ignoring the "go" command.  There are more, such as galloping at breakneck speed back to the stables (the terrified dude clinging desperately to whatever he can grab onto), but that's a return-trip behavior I would not have a chance to experience.

 

My horse, a spindly, three-quarter sized creature with strange, thick fur, lulled me into thinking he, too, would play follow the leader  — until we reached the entrance of the bridle path where he ignored all steering maneuvers and went to stand atop a heap of stones grown over with prickly pear.  Here, he ignored the "go" command.  If you've ever been around dudes and horses, you've seen it a million times:  the dude flails his arms and whacks his knees against the horse's ribs.  That failing, he rapidly shifts his behind back and forth in the saddle as if momentum will start the damn thing rolling.  I tried all of these until my horse lost patience and began to shake his head threateningly and clack his teeth.  John and Eddy rode back to see what was wrong.

 

As if I were the first man on earth this had ever happened to, I attempted to explain the problem.  Eddy suggested slapping the horse with the reins.  I'd tried that, I said defensively, but nothing had worked.  We hadn’t even entered the actual bridle path and my hour was ticking by.  I was paying for this.  John returned to the stables to tell the old cowboy. 

 

There were other eyes on me.  To my right, the giant girl in pedal pushers sat on a fine western saddle, astride a handsome roan.  She wasn't scowling any more, she was smiling.

 

The last thing I remember clearly was seeing John trot back into view from the corner of a shed.  Then everything went crazy.  My horse sensed it before I did and lurched sideways so abruptly my hat flew off.  A sort of buckskin-colored guided missile roared past John and headed for me at blurring speed.  It was the old cowboy, on the horse that would kick me over the roof.  With a horrible squeal, my own beast plunged down the rock pile, and I slid off the saddle.  My right foot came out of its stirrup.  I grabbed for the pommel but, on English saddles, there isn't one.  At this point my horse was flinging itself in a mad circle.  The old cowboy sought to calm it with a whip lash across its face.  The saddle slipped sideways, there was a loud pop, and I was on the ground.  

 

Receding hoof beats.  Dirt in my mouth.  Pain.

 

Through the rising dust, I saw John and Eddy gaping at me with such alarm I thought I might have a serious wound.  "There's yer hat," said the giant girl.  It hung neatly on a twig, looking very new and ridiculous.  "Yer sittin' on yer glasses."  She turned her horse efficiently and rode away.

 

When I realized I could still move my fingers and toes, I told my friends to ride on.  I'd catch up as soon as I found my stupid horse.

 

"Your horse ran away," said Eddy.  Now that he'd said that, I could hear violent thrashes and the old cowboy cussing somewhere deep in the bramble.

 

"Y'all go on," I said valiantly, thanking God my horse had run away.  I used my dirty shirttail to wipe the dirt off my glasses, took a feeble step and almost fell down again.  I'd tripped over something.  The stirrup was still attached to my left boot.  The strap had broken off.  English saddles. I limped the short distance back to the stables to wait for the old cowboy.

 

An hour later, as soon as John and Eddy had returned from the trail and checked in, I started lobbying for the broken strap theory.  I had to convince them that I'd fallen off because the stirrup broke, not because I was a dude.  "Those English saddles are pieces of crap," I said with authority.  John and Eddy couldn't agree more.  Next time we'd all insist on real saddles.  They'd let me off easy, and I knew it.

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When the Falcon swung into the drive, I braced myself

for the more crucial reckoning. 

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When the Falcon swung into the drive, I braced myself for the more crucial reckoning.  My brand-new slacks were filthy and there was a bloody rip in the elbow of my green and beige shirt, a school shirt.  My glasses would no longer sit straight on my nose.  Mother had cautioned me, I knew that.  

 

But almost immediately after we'd climbed into the car, Eddy began to laugh.  Like hiccups, he couldn't stop.  Mom thought that was pretty funny, too, and she joined in.  Everybody, except me, laughed.  Then John shouted, "Bob fell off his horse!" and it was ho ho ho, ha ha ha, all the way home.

 

It wasn't my last ride.  Later, I made friends with a kid whose family owned horses and I got what I wanted: a real saddle and a horse content to follow the leader at a nice, easy pace.  But times were changing.  By my sixteenth birthday I'd already begun the move to a new stage: beatnik poet.  Kerouac.  Zen.  It was time to redecorate.

 

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Bob Brown © 2019    Above photo: Cowboy Bob with his Stella guitar, 1962

 

Bob Brown is a legendary musician from the 60’s Austin Music scene. He is also a writer and continues to live in Austin.  You can listen to some of Bob's classic recordings HERE.

 

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