The old-timer wasn’t in a hurry.
There was no place for him to go. His family was dead or gone and his personal possessions—a wellworn and dusty saddle, a few faded and curling photos, plus a change or two of clothes—barely filled the back seat of a car.
The bent and weathered old man was finishing out his days camping in a friend’s bunkhouse. He got meals and lodging in return for checking water, salt and operating gates around headquarters’ corrals.
His accommodations weren’t much, but better than they could have been.
“Back in the ’30s, me and a couple of hands were pushing a remuda through the desert,” he reminisced with friends in his quiet, whiskey-soaked voice. “We spotted a couple dozen wild horses watching us from the rimrock.”
The wild mares mixed in and out of the remuda in curiosity while the bay stud kept his distance and watched the parade.
“I told the boys that I was going to get up early and catch that stud,” the old timer said.
Before the sun was up, the old-timer had cut the stallion’s track on a wide circle. He followed and found the big bay snoozing in the rimrock as the sky was getting light. Working slowly and quietly, using juniper trees as cover, he and his ranch-tested filly tiptoed to within 400 yards of the stallion.
When the stud woke up, he spied the old-timer and the chase was on.
The filly knew how to go the distance. She could lope all day and play the waiting game for the big bay to tire. About a half hour later, the old-timer roped the exhausted horse and laid him down on his side.
Nearby was a junk pile some forgotten soul had left behind in the desert—rusting cans, bits of equipment and baling wire.
The old-timer built a sagebrush fire and shaped baling wire to make his personal brand on the shoulder of the stud. Then he cut the ropes and turned the horse loose.
“I don’t see a stallion,” was the comment he got returning to camp.
“You boys might want to keep your eyes open,” the old-timer, said, “there’s a horse on that hill that has a fresh brand.”
“Did you really catch him?” they asked.
The old-timer said nothing and let the conversation drop for the rest of the trip.
A few years later, a friend wrote and said he had a bay stallion in his pasture with the old-timer’s personal brand. After collecting the horse, he sold him to a rodeo stock contractor who put him in a West Coast bucking string.
Years later, on the cowboy grapevine, the old-timer heard about three young fellows who’d drawn the big bay with his personal brand at a rodeo.
The first one cartwheeled off the horse way before the buzzer. The second spent less time on the horse and more with his face planted in the dirt.
“By God, some cowboys you are,” the third one hooted, “letting a little wild horse buck you off!” Quicker than the first two, the big bay ploughed another divot in the arena with the last loud-mouthed cowboy.
“Empty Saddles” had earned his rodeo name. For 12 years, that horse earned a fearsome reputation on the circuit—and a lot of money for his owner.
“Ya know, I lost track of that horse,” the old-timer says, rheumy eyes tracking around the cinder-block room. “I never knew what happened to him.”
The old-timer set his beer can on the dresser beside his bed.
“I think that’s about it for me fellas,” he said, “you’ll need to continue the party on your own; I have a big day tomorrow.”
Each of us shuffled out the door. We knew the ranch owner was gathering in the morning and there’d be plenty of work around the pens for the old-timer.
Around the pickups, someone asked, “Any idea if that story was true?” “Nope,” someone said, “it was the first time I’d heard it.”
“Might be,” said a third, “the old-timer was a helluva hand back in the day.”
We climbed in our trucks and went home. The oldtimer’s memory was famous for drifting and facts fading into the fog. I don’t suppose it matters if the story was true—I enjoyed it anyway.
— D. “Bing” Bingham [Bing Bingham is a writer, rancher and storyteller. If you know anything about “Empty Saddles,” he’s interested. Contact him at bing@ bingbingham.com.]