There’s an art in defining a cowboy. Poems, songs, and books have been written on the idea of a rugged, hard-working man. There’s clichés for defining a cowboy and there are certainly metaphors made about the cowboy way of life. Yet few people have met a real cowboy, mostly because the term real is subjective.
I describe a real cowboy based on one man, a man I knew for most of my life but not nearly long enough. I considered asking other people their memories of this man, but I realized my own are the very best there are. Because there is no relationship quite like that of a grandpa and a granddaughter, especially not when a horse is involved.
My grandpa was a man of few words. But even before I knew the things he faced, I knew he was tougher than the rest. His boots were always curled up at the slightly-pointed tip, not for style but from wear. He was classic. He was timeless. He faced a lot of cancer and he put his energy into crafting bits and spurs and team roping. And he had a horse I loved.
I won’t deny that my love for the horse probably came from knowing who his owner was. But I would take this horse out in the arena and play tag with him. Yes, tag. The game where someone is it and the rest are trying not to get tagged. Except his version of tagging was biting which only made me adore him more. He isn’t the most lovable of horses; he was cranky and high-strung. But I was convinced he was mine and I had to make sure. So one day I asked my grandpa about his will. “Do you have a will?” I asked slyly over buttered cheerios and Pepsi. Maybe he nodded, maybe he didn’t. “Is Jose in it?” He glanced at me with a smile and said nothing else. I convinced myself that there was no way he couldn’t give me that horse. I must have been 10 at the time.
He had hip replacements and after a while he stopped riding. Before that I remember vividly seeing him climb a fence next to his horse Jose and lift his leg over with ease to sit in the saddle. I thought nothing of it except that he was a smart ol’ cowboy that never let anything slow him down, not even a painful hip. He always had Juicy Fruit and in church he'd reach into a pocket full of candy and passed it down the aisle. The candy usually consisted of candy corns and jelly beans, way harder than they should be.
I started competing in barrel racing with that horse of his. And we clicked right away at the event of pole bending clocking a 22.9 second run at our first rodeo together in Fraser, Colorado. That horse was a jack of all trades in team roping, barrel racing, pole bending, and calf roping. This horse was rare just like my grandpa.
Sometimes I wonder if I ever really knew my grandpa. I was young the whole time I knew him. I was in high school when he died. But when I reminisce, it's obvious that even if my memories are warped, they're what I have of him. And when he was in the hospital that evening, I could sense everything was not okay. I made jokes, I smiled and tried to cheer everyone up.
When he went to hospice I tried to be there every second I could. I spent one night by his side and his breaths were so far between the next that I would watch the arm on the clock reach 30 seconds. The next time it was 45 seconds. I thought surely 60 seconds between breaths and he would be gone. I slept on the floor and left early in the morning to get to school. The roads were slushy the night before so when I got to my car I realized my lanyard had gotten stuck in the door for most of my drive and was covered in ice and dirt.
My mom, my little brother, and I were the last ones to get there. Our family and the pastor were there to say goodbye. One by one my family sat beside him and held his hand. There was no response from him. I sat next to him and felt miserable having to pick his hand up of the bed to hold it, but instead of being limp, his hand squeezed back and his face brightened into a smile. He was looking at me and shaking my hand back and forth. He was happy to see me.
Shortly after he died, I was competing in a rodeo at the arena close to our house. We had our ups and downs that day but I think we won one of our events. I was walking my horse out to the trailer. It was a particularly still day so I decided to walk a little longer. The reins were around Jose’s neck as he walked on my right side, my eyes staring at the ground. My heart quickened suddenly because I thought someone was next to me; I heard the distinct shuffling of boots that belonged to only one man. I looked up quickly because I thought for sure he was there. But he wasn’t. At least not to my untrained eye. I smiled and laughed a little because I realized that he truly must be by my side always, always watching over me.