“I did it my way, and I’m proud of that.” “Of course, things didn’t turn out exactly like I expected.”
You’re apt to hear one or the other of those claims whenever our October peers look back over their lives. In the following excerpt from Family Matters (See Tanner Chronicles on the right sidebar) Dan Padgett is on his back-road tour of the western United States when he meets a fellow who lays claim to a bit of both.
The Stone Bridge Saloon was not a spacious watering hole. The bar itself seated three on high wobbly stools. Fortunately, since I appeared to be the only customer, seating was not a problem. Then the creaky rest-room door on the far side of the room opened and a balding, jean-clad cowboy limped across to the bar and plopped himself down on the stool next to mine.
“Howdy, friend,” the newcomer mumbled, taking the overflowing glass the lady behind the bar held out to him. He sucked the foamy head off his brew, then turned to me. “Buster Henshaw here. Don’t believe I caught your name.”
“It’s Dan. Dan Padgett.”
“Glad to meet you, Dan.” He raised his glass in my direction, then put it to his lips. Seconds later, with a single long gulp, in was empty. Pushing it back across the counter he explained, “Gertie was hoping to get a little business from that bull riding thing down the road. So far it’s just the two of us.”
“I expected to see more folks,” I nodded, taking a stale pretzel from the dish Gertie pushed my way. “Especially after all those signs I passed out on the highway. But I haven’t seen anything that looks like The Battle of Stone Bridge.”
Buster took a moment to fondle, I believe that’s the right word, the refilled glass Gertie slid across the bar to him. “That’s Pokey Turner for you,” he said between sips. “No one knows how to squeeze a few bucks out of a bad idea better than that old bandit. Folks around here know it’s the wrong time of summer to find enough riders and decent bulls for a dinky little show like Pokey’s. The good cowboys are out on the circuit. So he rounds up a few kids and a couple of worn-out old timers, pays them ten bucks to ride a used-up steer, and puts on his show. I guarantee you he don’t get many repeat customers.”
“I don’t think it would matter how used-up the bulls were,” I offered. “From what I’ve seen on the tube riding a bucking brahma is a tough way to make a few bucks.”
Something seemed to have set Buster thinking. He sat staring into his beer, until I asked. “You ever done that? Bull riding?”
“Oh yeah.” There was a remembering look in his eye. “I’ve done that. Rode most everything with four legs. But I don’t do bulls any more. I might try the buckin' horses again during the fair. But not the bulls.”
“Horses are easier to ride. Is that it?”
“Not really. Either way it hurts when you hit the ground. But it’s a lot better to get bucked off a horse than a bull. At least that horse won’t try to run you down when you’re on the ground. Not the way a seriously-mad bull will.”
“So, how old are you, Buster?”
“Well, I just turned fifty-one. I expect that’s about a hundred in ‘rodeo years.’ About thirty-five of those years been spent on ranches all over the Outback---from Provo to the Canadian line, Ogallala to Boise. Hell, I’ve done it all---trailing cattle, pulling calves, breaking mustangs, and baling hay. For a lot of those years I’d schedule my jobs so they didn’t interfere with my rodeoing. That’s really what I lived for---a good bull, a good brew, and a good woman. Not necessarily in that order.”
“You ever been married?” I asked. “Sounds like rodeoing would play hell with a relationship.”
“A relationship?” my new friend repeated with a laugh. “Now there’s a big-city word if ever I heard one. Fact is, I've been married---three times. Had three kids that I know of. Don’t remember that I ever had a ‘relationship,’ but I did have three wives. The best of the bunch was Elsie. We were together almost a year, ‘til she made me choose between my job at the grain elevator and the Four Corners Stampede, down in the canyon country.”
“And you had to decide? Between a rodeo and a job?”
“Yeah I did. And I gave it quite a bit of thought.” Buster paused to nod his thanks to Gertie for the beer she handed him. “But you see, I’d won twelve hundred bucks down there the year before. Took first in a short go-round. How could I pass up a place that had been so lucky for me?”
“So you went back again?” His nod confirmed that much. “Did you win anything that time?”
“Nah. I ended up with a couple busted ribs. Couldn’t do much of anything for two or three months. By the time I got back home Elsie was long gone, along with the cutest little girl you’ve ever seen.”
“You ever see her? The daughter, I mean.”
“Have no idea where she is. She must twenty-five or so by now. Probably has babies of her own.”
Buster set his beer down and half turned to greet the lanky fellow, a cowboy from his Stetson to his boots, standing in the doorway. “Howdy, Tom. Good to see you again.”
Tom answered with nothing more than a touch of his hat brim as he followed Gertie to the front counter.
“Ole Tommy and I go way back,” Buster explained. “We started out together, up on the North Fork, went to lots of rodeos together. Had some good ole times. At least ‘til he went to work for old man Brunner on the Cold Hand Ranch. After that we didn’t see much of him, especially after he married that Carrie Braxton gal. She was a sweet thing. A heck of a barrel racer too.
“Anyway, I’ve seen ole Tommy a few times over the years. Heard that they had a few kids and built up a nice little spread of their own. Near as I could tell he was always working. Didn’t have time any more to rodeo.”
I watched as Buster turned silent again, perhaps wondering how things had worked out so well for “Ole Tommy.” Finally, I had to ask, “You ever wish it had been like that for you? You know---a real family, a place of your own.”
“Sure,” he nodded. “There were times I wished it could have been that way. The thing is, stayin’ in one place that long just wasn’t in me. I was a damn good ranch hand. Everyone knew that. Finding another job was easy. So I just kept moving around, from one place to another, riding bulls when I could.
“Then, after I’d slowed down a bit, I moved on to broncs. Anymore, I don’t do much of that. It got to where I couldn’t ride anything but a barstool.” I caught a flash of his gap toothed grin. “Hell, I’ve been bucked off one of them a time or two.”
“I can tell that rodeoing must have been hard on your body,” I said. “Seeing how you limp like that.”
“Yeah.” He offered a sad little laugh, trying to make fun of what was not a laughing matter. “It’s my hip, you know. It’s kind of messed up. Been bent, broke, and stepped on.”
“Damn. That must hurt, whether it’s a bull or horse, or even a bar stool. If it hurts like that, why would you keep doing it---even a little bit?”
“You’re right. It does hurts. Sometimes a lot.” By then his grin was about as sad as his laugh. “But what most fellows don’t understand is how good it feels when you make eight seconds. Hearing that buzzer, and knowing that you’re still up there and not on the ground. Let me tell you, that’s worth a lot of hurtin'.
“Anyway, the doctor in Butte told me I needed a new hip, a ‘replacement’ he called it. He also said that I needed health insurance. Turns out, if I don’t have the one, I don’t get the other.”
I left Stone Bridge that afternoon thinking sad and sometimes envious thoughts of Buster Henshaw---of the hopeful young man he must have been, and the sad and tired old man he had become. He was doing his best to sound satisfied with the life he had lived. Yet, hearing him tell of how “Ole Tommy” had used those same years, Buster’s disappointment was evident. By the time I had chased away the last of those Stone Bridge thoughts I was wondering if Buster’s choices held any lessons for me.
Here’s hoping that your October Years are a time of “doing things your way,” without getting too hung up on how they turn out. You’ve earned that. They tell us we mustn’t die with our music still in us. I happen to believe that, even if your “music” is getting bucked off a bull, or a bar stool.