The Fourth of July is a pretty big deal where I grew up. It was a kind of local equinox, a break between spring work and summer work. It was a chance for everyone to gather up and chat, to bitch about the weather and the water, and to discuss the all important hay crop. Back in those days there were some very good cowboys and cattlemen in that country. But more importantly there was a bunch of good irrigators. Without them and the hay they nurtured, come spring there wouldn’t have been enough cows alive to need a cowboy.
But this is a rodeo story about a rodeo called “Chuckwagon Days.” In the spring, cattle were turned outside on grass managed by the Sagebrush Rangers. They grazed there until about the first of July, by which time they had all been trailed upstream and counted through a gate onto grass managed by the Pine Tree Rangers where they grazed through the summer.
So, between the roundup and haying season, everyone pulled into town and barbecued a beef in underground pits. It was, and still is, open to the world and free. The ranchers take turns supplying the meat and the ladies do their part.
There have always been, for whatever reason, or for no reason at all, horses that just can’t get their headstall around “straddle my saddle and we’ll go for a canter through the cool summer breeze.” Most ranches had one or two of these horses, the kind that most cowboys would not get up a little earlier to hurry out to the corral and make sure no one else caught him first.
But on the Fourth of July the big hats and the boots from in the back of the chutes would put up their cash, saying they could ride one, and ride him better than anyone else could ride anything else there. Some done it for fun. Some done it for money. Some done it on a dare and some done it because the girl they hadn’t seen since school let out was there.
Buckin’ horse riders have always been heroes, or at least they’ve always been my heroes. Willie’s too. I have always wondered why some guys would load their saddle and drive two or three days for the opportunity to cinch it on a horse that surely would buck, and others would just as soon not.
To get on a bucking horse or a bucking bull, or jump off the roof of the barn for the first time, I don’t think takes much courage. It’s them guys and gals that keep coming back to try it again that get the badge. We all started out ridin’ calves. Encouragement was the key. On Sunday afternoons when company come to call, they would all go out to the corral and buck the kids off the milk cow calves. We had no TV. At the local brandings you could ride all the calves, with a hair holt, up off the ground that you felt the need to. Or you could enter the calf riding at the Chuckwagon Days Rodeo.
They would put the calves in the buckin’ chutes and a couple of guys would get down in the chute and help hold your draw while you put on your loose rope, mounted and coolly asked them to “open the gate.”
One year the local roping club got some bramer roping calves from out of the area. Anything but a horned Hereford was from out of the area. For some reason they had wintered these calves over and by July 4 of the next year they were a tourist attraction. Someone who had probably never been in the calf ridin’ decided they would be the calves to use. My buddy John was down in the chute helping get one ready and I was in there with them too, hanging back, hoping Hintz wouldn’t need any help. We had his head tied over to the side of the chute but that wasn’t helping enough. When he bawled it sounded like a motorboat and he was not calling for his mother. That July green was steadily collecting in the large switch on his tail and he was sharing it with everyone. The calf rider, who had just received some last-minute encouragement, climbed into the chute, put one foot on that bramer’s back, seemingly to partake in the festivities, but instead just used him to get to the other side where he climbed out and left, informing everyone as he went, “My dad’s been doing my thinking long enough!”