Chance encounter with a cowboy
As a child, your attention is drawn to certain characters who write an indelible mark on your mind. For me, one of these was
It was the first of July, 2001. Dennis and I had driven to my hometown of Beechy to spend the day with my Dad at his seniors’ care home. I knew it might be a lonely day for him, as my siblings who lived in the community, along with their families, would have joined the mass exodus to Frontier Days in Swift Current, a hundred miles away. Some of them would be showing horses. All would be enjoying the rodeo. ‘The First’ at Frontier Days was a family tradition.
After an hour of visiting it was clear Dad needed a nap, so Dennis and I left, promising to return in a few hours. It was a fine sunny day. We decided to drive through the hills towards the village of Kyle, thirty-five miles away. The road took us past the places where country schools once stood, past the road to the farm I grew up on, now owned by my brother and sister-in-law, and past the resort village of Clear Water Lake. Memories began flooding in, memories of places as they had been fifty years ago, people long gone, the fun we had then. The lack of good roads or indoor plumbing had been no drawback to a good time. As Dennis drove and listened, I reminisced.
We both knew from first-hand experience that, for a child growing up on a farm in rural Saskatchewan in the 1940s or ’50s, entertainment was usually of the home-grown variety. A school house dance, picnic, Christmas concert, sports day or ballgame – all gave us a reason to get together with friends and neighbours for some welcome socializing. But the big events that offered excitement and drama as well as entertainment were the ones we especially looked forward to: hockey games, horse races, and, best of all, rodeos. And for kids like me, the best rodeo (because it was closest to home) was the Clearwater Lake Stampede.
A small spring-fed lake, Clearwater Lake was an oasis in the rolling hills that surrounded it. People had begun building cabins there almost as soon as the land was opened to settlers. With the Matador Ranch nearby and lots of young men eager to show off their bravado and their horsemanship, the first stampedes began as informal competitions. My Dad had told us about riding to a stampede at Clearwater in the 1920s. By the years I recalled, the rodeo had become a well-established tradition. And, to me at least, Ticky Miller reigned as the most important character.
All rodeo events were -and still are - dangerous. That danger is rodeo’s attraction. And as I child, my reaction was equal parts delight and dread. A rider could be crushed by a steer, gored or stomped by a bull, thrown by a bucking bronco. Bull riding, while probably the deadliest event, was marred for me by the clown who danced out to lure the bull away from the rider when the ride was over. And I failed to appreciate the fine points of team roping or steer wrestling; that was the time to make a trip to the bathroom or the lunch counter. But bronc riding was something I could feel, I could appreciate, I hated and I loved. The humiliation of being dumped by my pony on the way home from school, the exhilaration of a good gallop, translated into admiration for the skill of these riders and a desperate fear for their safety. I would sit clutching the wooden bleacher as though I could by force of will keep the rider from being thrown.
The broncs were driven almost mad by a cinch pulled tight round their flanks, goading them to kick and buck in desperate attempts to get free. After a few weeks or months of such treatment some horses would deliberately try to maim their riders by dragging them against the corral fence or by kicking at them once they were down. The most dangerous part of the ride was when it was over, after the horn sounded the 8 second mark when the rider could grab with both hands and stop raking with his spurs and just hold on, waiting for the pickup man to yank him to safety. My heart was in my mouth until The Hero arrived.
Until Ticky Miller swooped in.
There were always two pickup men, galloping into the arena the instant the siren sounded. They worked in tandem, one to loosen the cinch and try to get control of the bronc, the other to pluck the rider to safety. Ticky Miller generally did the plucking. To me he looked like a superman, galloping alongside the enraged snorting bronco, and in one smooth effortless motion leaning sideways, lifting the rider to safety, setting him down, then helping his partner haze the horse out of the arena. It was magnificent. To my ten-year-old eyes he achieved super human proportions. I never met him, never even saw him except mounted on his horse, but I never forgot him.
“Do you know where he I now?” Dennis asked.
“Ticky Miller? Oh, he must have died years ago.”
By this time we were approaching highway #4, where we could turn towards Kyle or turn round to head back to Beechy. At the junction, a service station lunch counter appeared to be open.
“Let’s go in for ice-cream,” Dennis said.
The place was empty except for the pleasant woman who manned both the pumps and the lunch counter. We got our ice cream and sat down in a booth.
A few minutes later, the door opened and an elderly couple walked in. They had the wrinkled skin and far-seeing eyes of people who have lived their lives in open spaces of sun and wind. We exchanged small talk while they waited for their ice-cream.
“Where you folks from?”
“Pretty dry out your way too?”
They had just come from Frontier Days in Swift Current.
“Mind if we join you?” the man asked.
And they slid in beside us.
“We should introduce ourselves,” the leathery old cowboy said, extending his hand to me. “I’m Ticky Miller.”
Photo credit G.Bothner