When I was little, my father would spend summer evenings taking me to “stables” (his choice of words) where we would boldly walk through pastures and into barns, sometimes chasing the horses for the fun of watching them run and buck, sometimes offering them carrots or apples. It was not yet 1950, and liabilities and lawsuits weren’t on anybody’s mind, but it’s still hard to figure why nobody ever shot us or called the local sheriff.
Our favorite place was named “Sunnyrest Farm,” with its rolling, tree-lined pastures and its well-maintained, red, gambrel-roofed barns. There were box-stalls in it for several horses, and it was on one of our evening invasions of that barn that I met Johnny Curry, Cowboy. I was four years old.
Johnny kept his horse at Sunnyrest in exchange for taking care of the other animals boarded there. He was probably in his twenties, though the age difference between us never quite registered with me. He talked about horses, and I boldly conversed with him, completely forgetting my usual shyness.
He was a saddle-bronc man in those days, and although the rodeo only came to town for one week in the summer, I would go at least twice (because that was all our family could afford and was willing to sit through) to soak up every bit of the action. I’d also casually speculate (in a voice that I made sure could be heard in the bleachers around me) about how “good” a horse “Johnny would draw,” hoping that he’d get “the one with the ‘Roman nose’ because that was the toughest bucker” (and therefore the one you could win the event on). I was a pretty cocky little cowgirl in my kid-size dungarees and western hat!
We both grew up a bit. My family moved to the opposite side of the city from Sunnyrest Farm. I got my own horse (a lame old mare rescued from a mink farm); Johnny got a wife and became a father. They planned to move west, but before they did, Johnny invited us back to Sunnyrest. He’d bought a new horse and trick-riding saddle that he thought I’d like to see. The horse was a beautiful palomino; the saddle, white leather. “Do you want to ride him?” Johnny asked. I’ve been proud at various times in my life, but never prouder than I was circling the ring on that cowboy’s horse.
A few months later, Johnny’s wife ran off with another man. She took their two sons with her, and Johnny went west alone. I never saw him again, but word came back that he died young. Most of us never realize how hard the life of a cowboy can be.