Baxter Black: My new horse, and Tom

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I traded for a new horse awhile back. He’s a buckskin, 11 years old by his teeth, no papers, 15 hands and sound.

It was not long after my friend, Tom, had been diagnosed with cancer. It was a bad one. He was younger than me and, by outward appearances, a healthy man. I included him on my prayer list and called occasionally.

I put my new horse into the string. He had come from a ranch in California. They said, “Try him out. Don’t know much about him except he’s supposed to be gentle.”

Tom’s condition continued to crumble. Each call I made he described the treatment he was on, its expectations and alternatives. We also discussed his sister, who was in another hospital and suffering through a malignant cancer problem of her own. Tom was part of her “Circle of Hands and Hearts” that kept her spirits up.

I received this horse sight-unseen. The first 10 yards out of the corral he stuck his head between his knees and started pitching. I let him get in a couple of bucks’ worth then clamped down. He’s never tried it again. Our first trip to the rancho he was a little nervous. It was new country for him — rocks, canyons, mesquite, cactus, rattlesnakes, snakey cows, the scent of strange horses and a new cowboy on his back. There was lots of snorting, stopping, jumping sideways and asking directions on his part. But as soon as he figured it out, it was OK.

Tom was the kind of person who often served as part of the foundation in his community’s enterprises. A quiet, God-fearing man who worked behind the scenes to get things done. He shared the credit with modesty and addressed missteps or obstacles with firm resolve, regardless of who was to blame. He was like an offensive lineman, protecting and clearing a path for the flashier MVPs in the game. It took a while to get to know him. 

Well, months have gone by and I’ve made a lot of circles on the new horse’s back. I’m getting used to his character. He doesn’t really care to be petted. He’s touchy about his head. He stands there waiting while I dump hay in his trough, just watching. Most horses talk to you while you are feeding, indicating you should feed them first. Not him. You do your job, he’ll do his. He cooperates when I shoe him, doesn’t kick or lean on ya. I have a term for big-footed, cover-the-country horses like him: Nevada Slogger. Nothing delicate, nothing fancy. One word: strong.

I got the word yesterday that Tom had passed away. It hurt a lot. There’s no justice, no explanation, just the hope that someday we’ll meet again.  We each have to handle death in our own way.

This morning we made a 20-mile circle just trying to see where the cows are getting scattered. The buckskin packed me through the brush, up the canyon walls, over the rocky ridges, staying where I pointed him, standing when I got off to warm my toes. He just soldiered on, crashing through the mesquite, digging in, always forward, getting me where I needed to be and getting the job done. I guess he was doing it the way Tom would.

It takes a while for me to name a horse. It came to me as I looked down at his ears when we turned back to the corral.

I’m gonna call him Tom, I decided … Tomperry.

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