Updated: Apr 15, 2020
Meeting the host of my Airbnb in Oklahoma was a dystopian chess game of staying a metre apart. She took me to buy food, and, as I fumbled with the unfamiliar coins, I apologised to the check-out boy, “Sorry about this, I’m English, I’ve only been here for a day.”
Back in the car, my host scolded me in a whisper.
“You can’t go around saying things like that! These’re country people. They crazy ‘bout the virus. You never know what they’re gonna do, you being British’n’all.”
We didn’t leave the house again.
I still hadn’t met my new boss, Van Flaherty of Hi Lo Pro Rodeo. We hadn’t even spoken over the phone. But, someone I trust told me that he’s one of the nicest men I’ll ever meet. So, here goes.
The doorbell rang yesterday afternoon. Silhouetted in the doorway was tall man in a wide, black cowboy hat, blue jeans, and dark boots.
“Are you ready?”
We got in his white chevvy and hit the road. We’re heading to his oil rig. With his hat off, I can see Van’s grey hair and his kind eyes. His accent is broad and deep, with those mouthfuls of ‘ar’ that I’ve seen in films. He tells me about the ranch, the ‘geriatric cowboys’ I’m going to be working with, and asks if I know how to drive a tractor and fire a gun. No, and no. “That’s ok. We’ll get you started with some smaller ones. And tractors, well they’re not so hard.”
It’s quiet for a minute, and then he says, “Alice, I’ve always wanted to be a cowboy, from the time I was just a little kid. But the reason I work so hard in the oil and gas business is so I can play cowboy and not worry about starving to death.” I wonder how many cowboys are left today who aren’t just playing. I wonder if I’ll meet any.
The rig looks like a theme park ride, a tall, metal structure with pieces moving up and down its lines, all lit up in the rain. We sit in the car for a while, watching. I can feel his pride in the silence. He gets his phone out to show me this app that says how deep they’re drilling, and at what pressure. His eyes flick up and down between the screen and the rig. The numbers change as one of the pipes gets pulled up and out of the ground. Eventually he sighs and starts the car again. We agree we’d better head off before they close all the restaurants. Neither of us is sure whether they’ll be closing for the evening or forever.
In the car home, Van tells me about the best bucking bull he ever had - Honky Cat - who used to chase the lorries down the driveway after he retired, begging to be taken to the rodeo. Honky Cat had been famous in his time, but those years were long behind him. One day, Van thought, ‘Alright, I’ll take him. I’ll let this old bull buck one last time.’ The bull was eager in the bucking chute, and, when that door opened, he bucked his damnedest, bucked his big old heart out. But Honky Cat bucked too hard. Van shakes his head, “That really was his one last time.” Van puts the handbrake on, and I realise we must be home.
Van’s been living in this house for the whole year and a half since it was built, here in the suburbs of Oklahoma City. The carpets are a stylish grey and the memory of fresh paint lingers in the air. It’s not what I expected of this long-serving cowboy. The sitting room is rarely sat in, and the kitchen surfaces are covered in takeaway cups and loose paperwork, and there, gleaming by the front door, are four Western saddles. I’ve only seen one Western saddle before, but I can tell that these are special. We’re miles away from the ranch where I’ll be working, and you don’t display just any saddle in your house like that.
“Remember that 1929 Capriola I told you about?”
“That’s it right there.”
J. M. Capriola was one of the best saddle makers there ever was. He began by apprenticing under other old masters, and, when he started stamping his own name on his work, he didn’t know that that name would become a brand. He made twelve saddles before he started putting serial numbers on them. There, on a wooden stand in Van’s living room, is one of those twelve saddles.
“You know what would really help me out?” says Van, “Tomorrow, while I’m at the office, would you oil that Capriola for me?”
He adds, “Oh, and that one right next to it. That one’s a 1927. That’s a Hamley. She’s a beauty. She could do with a clean too.”
His blue eyes brighten as he remembers something, then he hurries off to another room and calls for me to follow. It’s a home office holding so much paraphernalia that the computer becomes irrelevant. A series of velvet cases stand open on the bookshelves, showing sparkling belt buckles reading TOP SADDLE BRONC 2018 and TOP BULL. He’s got the prize spurs too; black with National Rodeo Finals emblazoned in gold lettering around the sides. While I’m reading all the titles he’s won, Van’s searching amongst the books. He pulls out All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. The blurb praises McCarthy as one of ‘our finest contemporary writers’. I do a double take and flick to the publishing details. First edition. Of course.
“Better than The Road, for sure,” says Van, “and when you read it, you’ll see he gets one of them Hamley Form Fitters. That’s just the saddle you saw out there.”
I’m beginning to gather that Van’s something of a magpie for these things.
This morning, Van was already at the office before I woke up. He’d left out a couple of copies of ProRodeo magazine for me to read, plus an old Capriola catalogue. I tried to match pieces of the saddles with the strange words in the catalogue - ‘rigging’, ‘skirts’ and ‘fenders’ - and the different styles; ‘flat plate’ vs. ‘conventional’ rigging; ‘old timer square’ skirts vs. ‘regular round’. Van’s newer saddles are both an orangey colour with a basket-weave print. There’s a gun holster as long as my leg to match. As I gently oiled the old saddles, the ridges of the embossed patterns began to shine on the dark leather. If there’s a baptism of fire in saddlery, this is it. The Hamley is decorated with oak leaves and acorns; the Capriola has the Poinsetta Flower design. I prefer the acorns. Both of them have been on this earth more than four times longer than I have.
I got a text at about 5: “Get your boots on. We’re going to the horses.”
We drove an hour across open plains where cattle graze amongst nodding donkeys.
“You know, oil and gas sure are great for the rodeo industry.”
The earth turned red as we pulled into a small farmstead, with an aluminium motorhome and a redbrick dairy shed. A two-year-old called Tel played with plastic ponies in the mud. One of his legs twisted into hiding behind the other while he waved a little red hand at Van. Tel’s parents are called Audra and Bo. Audra took off her gardening gloves to shake our hands. It’s hard to tell what Bo’s face is doing, between his baseball cap and his thick moustache. He offered us an egg sandwich, then they left us to ourselves.
We catch two fluffy chestnuts of no particular breed and head back to the truck to tack up. Van swings his saddle over the horse’s back with one hand. The only saddle left in the truck is the 1927 Hamley. He smiles, “Thought it’d fit you nicely.”
“Van, no, you’re not serious.”
“Don’t take it personal. Just wanted to see how it rides.” He winks. “Never taken it out before.”
I put my toe up to the bell-bottom stirrup. If there’s a baptism of fire in saddlery, this is it. Van adds, “Anyway, don’t tug on these strings. They’re original so, you know, they’re probably pretty delicate.”
Western saddles are made to fit the rider as much as they’re made to fit the horse. Now I know why. Your pelvis is hugged close between the ‘swells’ at the front and the raised edge at the back of the seat. The rising trot doesn’t seem to be an option. The seat itself is hard, but comfortable because it's curved, hence 'Form Fitter'. It was odd having the horn in the way of my wrist. I asked Van how cowboys hold the reins.
“However the hell they want.”
The sun set as we rode along the bright red path and out into the country. Six deer skipped out across the road just in front of us, white tails flashing. The nodding donkeys kept on in their sleepy rhythm, and I smiled as I realised I might as well be riding through Willa Cather’s My Antonia:
'On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.'
Something howled in the distance.
“Kai-oats,” said Van. That’s how you say ‘coyotes’ if you’re from Arkansas.
All too soon, we were back at the farm. We patted the horses goodbye, tipped our hats to Bo and Audra, and stopped off at Taco Bell on the way home. The prairie slipped away into memory before the night swallowed it completely, and soon the only colours in the sky were the flashing signs of Oklahoma City's countless drive-thrus, sliding by.
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