To round out the triumvirate of Date Creek Ranch nags I was stuck riding as a kid, there was Beauty. Beauty was all black, just like the Black Beauty of movie fame.
And right there all comparisons between Beauty and her namesake ended.
There was nothing majestic or glamorous about Beauty. In fact, there was something terribly wrong with that horse. She never spooked the way the other horses did when something unexpected or scary happened. She was never playful or grumpy or had any discernible moods at all. She didn’t interact with the other horses. Most of the time when I saw her out in the pasture, she was just standing there with her head down, unmoving. She basically plodded along through life with her head down. It was like she was like some kind of zombie horse. She only barely responded to the reins. Spurring her or swatting her with a riding crop produced hardly any effect.
According to my sister, Kim, Beauty had eaten some loco weed when she was younger (loco is Spanish for crazy). Kim showed me some loco weed. It grew all over the ranch and it was a weird looking little plant. Kim told me that loco weed makes horses go crazy. She said that if Beauty ever got too lathered up, the loco weed would kick in and that’s when the real crazy would start. She didn’t say what, exactly, would happen, but she made it clear it would be bad and that was good enough for me. I always kept a close eye on Beauty whenever I had to ride her. If she started to sweat even the littlest bit I eased off, even if it meant Dad was going to yell at me for showing up late to the rendezvous point. A tongue lashing was nothing compared to whatever Beauty was going to do if she got too hot.
(To this day I don’t know if loco weed has any effect on horses at all. Nor do I know if Beauty ever ate any. I never asked my parents to verify the information. I just believed it because my big sister told me it was true. Now, keeping in mind that this is the same sister who once told me that once a knight put on his suit of armor he could never take if off but had to wear it the rest of his life, I’m thinking I should have been just a bit more skeptical.)
Crazy or not, by the time I was nine or ten or so, it became clear to me that I needed a new horse. By then I was a functioning cowboy. I was expected to do my share when we went out on roundup. Dad never said, “Oh, Eric, since I stuck you with such a crappy horse again today, I’ll give you the short circle. Don’t worry if you can’t keep up. Just do your best. Here’s a cupcake and a gold star.”
No, Dad’s response was more along the lines of, “Goddammit, Eric! How come you’re moving so slow?”
Gee, Dad, maybe it’s because one of the horses I have to ride is older than Methuselah and hates every living thing, another is scarred for life and can’t be stopped or turned without an act of God, and the third is freakin’ crazy and liable to go all Cujo on me at any moment! (I know Cujo is a dog, not a horse, but you get the idea. And naturally I never said any of that stuff aloud.)
Of course, there was no point in asking Dad to buy me a better horse. I had a better chance of getting a unicorn for Christmas. Old, barely-functioning tools were just part of life on Date Creek Ranch. A person was expected to still do his or her full complement of work regardless.
Kim had a good horse and she’d paid for it with her own money. Which meant if I was sick of riding Lady, Misty and Beauty, I’d have to cough up my own hard-earned cash.
Fortunately, I did actually have money. It was money I’d earned working for my dad. The earliest wage I remember was fifty cents a day. Remember, this was the early 1970s and fifty cents was a lot more money back then than it is today. Why, back then fifty cents would get you…
Screw it. Fifty cents was still shit money then.
(Complaining about how little we were paid only got us lectures about how most kids who grew up on ranches and farms didn’t get paid at all. Most kids were happy just to help the family any way they could, Dad said. Bullshit. I never met any of those kids. Maybe other ranch kids didn’t get paid, but I bet not a single one was happy about it.)
I was never told how much money I had coming to me. All records were kept in Dad’s ledger and he wasn’t too forthcoming with what was in there. Nor did I ever actually get a pay check. All I knew was that I earned money and I never got to spend any of it, so I might as well spend it on a decent horse.
Once I told Dad I wanted to buy a better horse, he was immediately supportive of the idea. Horses began showing up at the ranch for me to try out. I remember being pretty surprised. Who knew the old man could be so helpful?
It wasn’t until several years later that I realized why he was so helpful. I mean, I never, ever rode my horse for fun, only for work. Basically I was just supplying Dad with a free horse for roundup, a horse that he would have had to eventually buy anyway. Not only that, but I actually spent my money buying a saddle, bridle and other assorted cowboy gear. All of it to work for him!
I did get the better of him in the end, though. One day when I was 12 or 13 I looked around and realized, Hey, I only use this horse to help him. And she’s going to die someday, whereupon I’ll be left with nothing. So I casually told him I was going to sell my horse. Well, he perked right up. First he tried to talk me out of it, but I wasn’t budging. By then he and Mom had split up and his only real cowboys were me and Kim. He needed us. He could no more put me out to ride on a broken-down old nag than he could send me out on foot.
He grumbled and complained and finally bought my horse from me. For the same price I originally paid.
After that I still rode the horse, I just didn’t have to pay for her. I used the money to buy a motorcycle which became my main source of fun for a couple of years. Then, one day a few years later I realized two things. One, the motorcycle was getting old and wearing out. Two, I no longer rode for fun. I basically used it to run errands all over the ranch for Dad, the dirt bike being lots faster and cheaper to run around in than a truck.
I’d fallen into the same trap!
(I’ve gotta hand it to that man. He was sneaky when it came to a buck.)
But, just like the horse, I realized he had come to depend on that bike as a ranch tool. So I told him I was going to sell it. First he tried to get my little brother, Scott, to buy it, but Scott was nobody’s fool. Then he got all hangdog and bought it off me himself.
And two weeks later the thing up and died for good!
To the end of his life Dad never forgot that. Anytime that dirt bike came up he’d say, “You sure took advantage of me there, Eric. You should have given me my money back.”
It always made me laugh.