We hung over the fence watching his long stride as he ambled toward the barn, the bottom of his Levi’s and the pointed toes of his boots covered in dust from the cloud his feet created as he walked. Jack’s long whistle had issued, calling the horses in from the pasture just at sun-up. His lanky form held his straw cowboy hat up, the dark sweat stain forming the hat’s band. Short grayish hair could just be seen above his ears.
Careful to stay outside the faded wood fence while the hooves pounded the dirt, announcing the arrival of Jack’s dude string, Cathy called out, “Do you sleep in those boots?” My little sister, Cathy, was intent on Jack’s weathered boots.
“Well now, I have to let my toes out every so often and bedtime’s a good a time as any.” His gravelly voice sounds like a smile. Twenty-eight horses thundered down the hill, slowing to file past Jack on their way in for oats. His hand passes over each warm neck and he greets them. “Amigo. Pard. Oh, Bandit, now will you leave Hank alone?” Then, over his shoulder, “Alright you Prescott kids, come on in and help me halter. And mind you don’t get your feet underneath of theirs, I don’t want them horses limping around all day.”
He takes Cathy by the hand. “Come on Cathy, you can help me.” Jack leads her into Old
Pie’s stall and guides her hands over the halter buckle, his arms an extension of hers that can’t yet reach around Old Pie’s head. “See there, you’re almost big enough to do that all by yourself. You gonna help me with the oats?”
She’s tentative, but Jack goes on like she’s the best hand in the stable. Together they fill cans with oats and head down the aisle dumping feed into each box while muzzles plunge in devouring the grain like famine victims.
Later in the morning, we’re back on the fence of the big corral where the horses are saddled, bridled and tied by the feed bunks waiting for the first wave of hourly riders. Jack has the folks in a circle around him, his wrangler Tom ready to help people mount for the trail ride through the woods overlooking the Missouri River. As Jack sizes up each rider, he gives them the name of their horse and everyone is mounted, lined up, and ready to follow the horse in front of them out the gate and down the trail.
“Ma’am, now you just relax and let Pard do the work. You got nothin’ to worry over as he’s taken greener riders than you all over this park. He’ll take care of you and bring you right back here safe and sound. Sit up now and smile.” Jack rode along the line correcting and encouraging. We knew if there were a spare horse, he’d let as many of us ride as he could. This time, he went back, scooped Cathy off the fence and into the saddle in front of him, carrying on conversations as they rode down the dirt track.