Mike patted his dusty jeans and pushed up his glasses with his right hand before reaching out to shake mine. His eyes were blue and easy, small for his big honest face. There’s a little gap between his front teeth. You see it when he smiles.
“A pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”
It was a pleasure to meet him, too.
That was a happy April. The Johnson family got a puppy called Moose – a huge-pawed bundle of curiosity who instantly decided he wanted to be Mike’s dog. Moose rejuvenated the ancient ranch dog, Rusty, and both sniffed around while Mike and his daughters took care of the ranch. His wife Martha ran the local liquor store, Johnson & Johnson, where she’d smile at her family wiping their boots before coming through to have supper in the back.
Martha met Mike Johnson back in the small Texas town where they both grew up. He was her grandmother’s neighbour. And in 1992, even though they went to different high schools, he plucked up the courage to ask her to Homecoming. They’ve danced together ever since.
Martha laughs, “We had a blast, but he was a terrible dancer.” Her daughters disagree, remembering being scooped up in his great arms as little girls and dancing a bouncy two-step.
Mike and Martha had three daughters, Courtney, Reagen, and Morgyn, then moved to Eads, Colorado, where Mike found a job on a wide, dusty ranch with a house they could call home. They’d been there almost 17 years when I met them. When Morgyn was born, Mike’s friends gave him hell for only having daughters. He just laughed, “I’ve always surrounded myself by beautiful women, why should I stop now?”
Maybe you wouldn’t expect this towering guy with scarred hands and a once-black hat to be a feminist, but I’ve seen cowboys try to tell Mike’s daughters that they’re no match for men, and I’ve seen cowboys put in their place.
“If we can’t handle something ourselves,” says Morgyn, “He’s always right there to help us. But, he raised us to handle it.” She pauses. “He raised us to handle anything.”
It was a bright day in May when Mike taught his daughter Reagen and me to castrate calves. Slowly I felt Morgyn’s truth; he was patient but direct, and stayed by my shoulder long after he knew I was capable on my own. He’s the kind of guy you want to stay there. That afternoon, Morgyn fell asleep while the cowboys passed around a whisky bottle after lunch. Her green John Deere cap was almost falling off her head. Mike shook his head and whispered, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do when she goes off to college. She’s the handiest cow-hand I’ve ever had.”
Nobody imagined they’d be facing life without Mike. He was a constant; as true as the earth he rode on. Then, on the 14th of July 2020, he gave his life to the ranch.
“He died doing what he loved,” said his wife, Martha. “One of my favourite things was just to watch him ride a horse. He was at ease and at peace when he was on a horse.” Her voice smiles. “He was always there to help anybody and everybody. Sometimes I felt like, you know – you don’t need to help them, we have things we need to handle here, but if somebody needed help, he’d help’em.” She chuckles at the memory, “That was just Mike, you know.”
The community remembered, and piled in to help in any way they could. Martha and the girls were grateful for the shoulders to cry on, but there were 1,000 animals that needed looking after, too. Neighbours and friends pitched in, the girls did all their dad had taught them, the cows got fed. But, it made no difference. The owner of the ranch wanted the Johnsons out of their lifelong home in 30 days. After 16-and-a-half years of loyalty and sacrifice, that meant moving into a trailer next to the liquor store; a trailer too small for their dogs and horses (all given away or sold), but too big to close the hole where Mike should be.
Morgyn misses calling her dad. “I just miss telling him about stuff. I started the John Deere course. I almost didn’t, you know, but I thought it’s what he would’ve wanted. He was so darn proud. I wish I could tell him how it’s going. A bunch of people have already dropped out, and I’m the only girl but I’m still here. He’d think that was awesome.”
He supported his daughters with his whole, huge heart. Once, he wasn’t able to watch Morgyn’s basketball game, so he jumped on his horse and grabbed a massive flag in the colours of Eads High School and intercepted the team bus on the highway. They deserved a proper send off. When the bus pulled into view, Mike took off, leaning into his horse’s neck as he chased them down, raising dust. At his memorial, Mike’s three daughters galloped across the arena with flags for Colorado, Texas, and the United States, in honour of Flag Dad, as he came to be known. They were followed on horseback by all those that loved him, and Mike’s faithful chestnut roan, Bill, who carried an empty saddle. At the county rodeo, a riderless bull was released for the ex-bull rider, and Martha received the buckle destined for Mike before he died.
Mike was a true cowboy. He lived as great a life as he could have dreamed, back in that little town in Texas. His life was short but it was good: a life of grit, heart, and family.