This book is for two groups of kids--town kids and country kids. Town kids will learn that cowboys are not just relics of the past or part of the rodeo world. For these kids, I have included a glossary of cowboy slang and ranching terms.
I also wrote it for country kids--the kids who are now my neighbors, who grew up on horses, whose dads are cowboys, who live on ranches--the kids who inspired this book.
This story is set in northern Nevada, part of the Great Basin area where cowboy culture and practices have been strongly influenced by the Spanish vaquero traditions of the Old West. Cowboy culture varies throughout the different parts of the West. Terms used in this story might not be used in the same way in other parts of the West. Be sure to check the glossary for any words you don't understand.
Ben lay sprawled on his stomach in the alfalfa field when the Great Idea came to him. He jumped up, trotted over to the nearby haystack and picked up some orange baling twine from a broken bale. Fashioning a slipknot in one end, he formed a small noose or lasso, then tied another piece of twine to the other end, making a long rope.
Ben approached a ground squirrel hole and arranged the loop over it. He lay down at the other end of his rope and whistled softly between his teeth. Soon a furry little head popped up, puppet-like. The dusty gray and tan of the squirrel's coat camouflaged it against the dirt as it stood up boldly, like a prairie dog, and peered around.
Yanking the rope swiftly, Ben took the slack out of it. His timing was perfect. The loop tightened around the squirrel's neck, catching one front leg too.
With a whoop, Ben leaped to his feet. The squirrel hit the end of the twine like a wild horse caught in a lass rope. He bucked and twisted, squeaking with indignation.
"Whoa, there! Steady, boy!" Ben called, laughing gleefully. This was more fun than halter-breaking a colt! Leading his captive, he galloped toward the barn, shouting, "Dad! Look! He's broke to lead!"
Near the corrals three cowboys stood talking beside their saddled horses. Inside the corral a few loose horses milled around. Two cowboys pushed a batch of bulls toward another pasture.
Ben's dad, Pete Lucas, holding a thermos cup of coffee, turned around. "Ben! No--get back!"
It was too late. Ben skidded to a stop, but the squirrel galloped past him, hit the end of the rope, and chattering noisily, somersaulted right into the nearest horse.
The little black mare rolled her eyes, jumped forward, then crowhopped and pulled back. Her reins, draped across the fence, whipped over the board and fell free. As she stepped on them, she jerked her head up and they snapped with a loud "pop."
"Let him go!" someone bellowed. Ben dropped the rope.
The squirrel leaped through the corral fence, right under the nearest horse. The twine rope wrapped around his hind foot as the squirrel dodged hooves. The tall yellow horse kicked out. He bucked and snorted--then charged the fence. As the rope fell free, he took out the top rail with a splintering crash. Up and over, he led the way as the other horses followed in a blind panic. Cowboys, cussing loudly, tried in vain to stop them. One managed to snag the black mare with his lass rope.
Ben froze, his eyes wide. His stomach lurched. All the laughter drained out of him.
Hooves pounding, the runaways veered to miss a pickup coming down the long driveway. A wrinkled old face peered out the driver's side window. "What the...?" His well-dressed passenger turned to watch as the loose horses thundered by.
Seeing the pickup, Ben gasped. "It's Fred!"
"Didn't I tell you to stay away from the barn today?" Ben's dad shouted. He swung into his saddle as he prepared to join the other cowboys in pursuit of the runaways.
Ben's face fell. "I forgot..." His voice trailed away.
"I heard you shooting--where's the gun?" demanded his dad. He unbuckled his rope strap and took down his lass rope.
Ben gulped. "Uh, I left it...in the field...I'm going to get it right now. I'm sorry, Dad." His heart hammering, Ben took off toward the pasture. Pete disappeared in a cloud of dust.
In the distance, the approaching bulls bellowed and began to scatter as the horses pounded toward them. A pickup door slammed and a raspy voice growled, "Hey, where'd that kid go?"
"Oh shoot," Ben muttered. He raced to the haystack, grabbed his gun off a bale, and ducked out of sight. His heart thumped against his ribs.
Today started out so good, Ben thought, chewing his lip. I am in deep doo-doo now. How could my Great Idea turn into a wreck like this? He thought back to the scene at the breakfast table, wondering where he had gone wrong...
Ben's fork stopped in mid-air, warm syrup dripping from the pancake. "But why can't I ride with you today, Dad?"
Pete Lucas wiped his mouth and took one last sip of coffee. "I told you yesterday," he said. "Fred is bringing a big cattle buyer who's flying in today. I don't want you anywhere near Fred!"
Ben hated Fred. The reason was simple-Fred hated Ben. He always had, ever since they moved here. Ben had no idea why. His dad was sure he was concealing some dreadful deed he had committed against Fred. Since Ben couldn't prove that he wasn't, it gave him even more reason to hate Fred.
All the cowboys at the Circle A Ranch did what Fred said, because he was the cow boss on the ranch. Fred was old and grouchy. He was so old and had worked there so long that he got the whole weekend off, instead of just Sundays like the other cowboys. But some Saturdays he had special jobs to do, like today.
"Why don't you do some target practice instead?" Pete suggested.
"OK," Ben said, disappointed. School started Monday and this was his last Saturday to spend with his dad. During school he always looked forward to helping his dad on Saturdays. He loved working with his dad, even though sometimes he was hard to please. Ben wanted to cowboy on a ranch when he grew up, and hoped that someday he would be as good a hand as his dad.
"What's the matter? You and that old gun aren't seeing eye to eye anymore?" Pete laughed at his own joke. "Maybe I need to buy you a scope for it!" With a wink, he reached over and tousled Ben's hair.
His mother, Susie Lucas, smoothed his hair as she got up from the table.
"You guys!" Ben complained, grabbing his head with both hands. "Quit treating me like a baby!" His voice cracked momentarily.
"Baby?" Pete echoed teasingly. "It's that hair that I love! And those freckles on your nose!" As he reached for Ben's nose, Ben jerked his head to the side.
Getting up, Pete tousled Susie's short bouncy hair, too. "Just like that strawberry-blond that I married!"
Ducking away, Susie pretended to be miffed. "Can't you see I'm trying to pour the coffee into your thermos?"
"Well, Ben and I have our mornings planned. What's on your agenda, dear?" Pete asked.
"Oh, I need to finish preparing the piece I'm playing for church tomorrow. It's rather difficult. Then I have two piano students coming before noon."
Pete nodded as he stacked his dirty dishes in the sink. He pulled on his jacket, then reached for his black felt hat and his thermos. "Oh, and Ben..."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Ben interrupted. "I'll remember to be careful with the gun."
As his dad headed out the kitchen door, Ben grabbed his jacket, the .22 that stood in the corner by the door, and a box of ammunition from the shelf.
"Bye, Mom," he called as the door slammed behind him. His dad waved as he got into the pickup.
"Ben!" his mom yelled out the door after him. He stopped and looked over his shoulder. "What did you forget?"
"Sorry!" He ran back in, cleared his dishes from the table and dashed out. A few seconds later, he jerked the door open again. Grabbing his black felt hat, he crammed it onto his head, then flew out the door.
Next to the shed sat Ben's brand-new, bright-red All Terrain Vehicle. His grandparents had bought him the ATV for his twelfth birthday. He slid the rifle into the plastic tube attached to the utility box on the back rack and threw the ammo into the box. Ben jumped on and revved the motor. It sputtered and died. Adjusting the choke, he turned the key again.
The motor purred to life. "Udd-nn, udd-nnnn!" Shivering in the brisk morning, Ben kicked it into gear and took off, leaving a roostertail of dust behind. August was over half gone, and in the Nevada high desert, night-time temperatures already dropped to near-freezing.
About a quarter mile down the dirt lane, Ben skidded the four-wheeler to a stop, cranking the handlebars so that it slid around in a half circle. As a cloud of dust billowed up around him, he grinned with satisfaction.
Three horses grazed in the small fenced pasture where he stopped. Ben reached through the barb wire fence and turned on the faucet above the round aluminum water tank. A white mare and a splotchy grayish-white gelding raised their heads to watch him. Off by himself was a tall reddish-brown horse with black legs, mane and tail. Nickering, the bay trotted over to join the others.
Although the ranch provided horses to each cowboy, most of them also had their own private horses. These horses carried his dad's brand on their right shoulder. It was a "P" with an upside-down and backwards "L" attached to the bottom of the "P." The ranch's brand was the same as its name, the Circle A: a perfect circle with a capital "A" in the middle.
Ben had learned to ride on the old mare, and she had taken good care of him. But Pete finally decided that Ben needed his own horse. The young gelding, her last colt, belonged to Ben. Soapsuds, as they called the blotchy, mottled colt, wasn't exactly pretty, but he was Ben's first horse. In the spring, when he turned three, he'd be old enough to start under saddle. Ben dreamed of the day he'd finally be cowboying on his own horse.
"Hey, Soapsuds! How are you doing there?" The colt eyed him curiously.
Ben sighed. "Just a few more months..."
Feeding and watering their horses every morning and evening was part of Ben's daily chores. There wasn't much grass left in the pasture so they needed a little hay too. Half a dozen bales were stacked near the fence. Ben reached into his front jeans pocket, pulled out his jackknife, and slashed the three strands of orange baling twine on the top bale with a loud "pop…pop…pop."
The horses nickered as he grabbed a four-inch flake of hay and tossed it over the fence. He pitched another a little farther down the fence and one even farther away. Soon each horse was tearing into its own flake, pulling it apart and shaking it to loosen the firmly-packed hay.
While the water tank was filling, Ben picked up a brush lying in the weeds and crawled through the fence. As Soapsuds munched his breakfast, Ben brushed him all over, talking to him softly. When the water started running over, he shut it off and crawled back through the fence.
Ben got back on the four-wheeler and roared down the road. Miles of dirt roads snaked around and through the ranch, and Ben took every chance he got to race up and down each one of them. Much later, he ended up at the alfalfa field across from the barn, a half-mile from his house. He drove into the stackyard and parked his machine near the haystack, far enough from the barn that there would be no danger of ricocheting bullets. He grabbed the gun and ammo.
Ben was pretty handy with the .22 his dad had given him for his ninth birthday. The old bolt-action gun had been Grandpa Lucas's before he died. Ben spent many hours with his dad learning to use it safely and responsibly.
His boots crunched through the weeds to the target he had tacked to a bale. He filled the tube magazine with shells, then slid it back into place, pulled back the bolt and chambered a round. Hugging the worn wooden stock to his shoulder, Ben sighted down the barrel and clicked off the safety. He carefully squeezed the trigger.
Not a bull's eye, but close. He fired again. He practiced from a standing position, then on one knee, and then on his stomach, propped on his elbows.
Most of the ground squirrels had gone into hibernation, but a few were still out. One watched him fearlessly, standing up on the rim of its burrow. He aimed.
That's when it happened. That's when he got the Great Idea.
Now, here he was, hiding behind a haystack. I am a dead man, thought Ben. They're all going to be after my butt-Dad, Fred, all of them. He shook his head. What an idiot!
When the last of the cowboys had disappeared and Fred's pickup finally turned around and left, Ben slunk back to his four-wheeler. He emptied the gun, ejecting the remaining shells onto the ground and picking them up. He slid the gun back into the tube, threw his ammo into the utility box, started his machine, and made a bee-line for the house.
At noon, when Ben joined his parents at the dinner table, he knew there was going to be a scene. Keeping his eyes down, he silently filled his plate and began to eat, waiting to hear what his punishment would be.
His dad opened fire. "Well, have you caused enough trouble today? Or what did you have planned for this afternoon?"
Ben didn't answer. Why does Dad have to use that sarcastic tone, he thought. I hate that.
"You've pulled some careless stunts before but this takes the cake. Let's see...Skeeter's broken reins, a runaway horse which is still on the loose, and a bunch of bulls that have to be gathered for the second time." His voice rose. "Did you stop to think before you brought that berserk squirrel around the horses?"
"No," he muttered.
"What? Look me in the eye when you're speaking to me," his father said sternly.
Ben looked up. His father's eyes were the same color of blue as his own, but sometimes they could be as hard as ice.
"No," he answered a little louder. "I didn't think."
Susie protested. "Pete, I don't know what this is all about, but that tone of voice is not necessary."
Ben flushed. He pushed his food around on the plate with his fork, losing his appetite. Taking a deep breath, he said, "I'm sorry. Like I already told you, I'm sorry."
"You won't be seeing any of your friends for the next month except at school. No company, no going to visit, no phone calls. You'll have plenty of time to learn to think before you act!"
Ben hung his head.
"And as soon as you finish eating, you get your room cleaned up. It looks like a whirlwind hit it."
Ben started to get up.
"Then you spend the rest of the day shoveling manure."
That's not so bad, thought Ben. Cleaning corrals was one of his regular jobs anyhow.
"And you won't be getting paid for it for the next month."
"Aw, Dad!" Ben whined.
His father narrowed his eyes at Ben. Ben's eyes dropped. He cleared his dishes and slouched to his bedroom. He could hear his father telling his mother of the disastrous morning.
Ben turned on his stereo, cranked up the volume and kicked at a pile of clothes on the floor. In a moment, boots clumped down the hall.
"Turn that down!" his dad said.
Ben obeyed, but made a face.
"And one more thing!" came the voice through the door. "Before you come home for supper, I want you to go apologize to Fred. He's really mad." The boots clumped back down the hall.
A couple of hours later Ben stood dejectedly at the scene of his disgrace. Well, I'd better get these corrals cleaned, he thought. That'll give me plenty of time to figure out what to say to grouchy old Fred.
The wheelbarrow stood on end against the side of the barn. The rake and the scoop shovel hung next to it on big nails. With a clang Ben dropped them into the wheelbarrow and pushed it toward the gate of the corral. He stopped short. Half covered in dirt lay the orange twine.
The slipknot was enlarged and had obviously loosened and fallen off the squirrel as it ran. Ben couldn't hold back a mischievous smile. It was pretty cool how I caught that little booger, he thought.
Man, did he jump and flip!
Sighing, Ben coiled the twine and stuffed it into his jacket pocket. He let himself into the corral and slid the latch into place. Half a day shoveling manure was definitely to be preferred to an hour or two of cleaning his room. Outside, life always seemed better.
Ben loved the fresh air, even cold and crisp like today, the earthy smell of manure, the audience of horses, the bawling of cattle, and the rugged snow-tipped Ruby Mountains rising like a fortress above the ranch buildings. It was almost enough to make a person forget his troubles. Ben raked up mounds of manure, then scooped them into the wheelbarrow until it could be heaped no higher.
Working hard, Ben forgot about Fred. As he pushed the wheelbarrow toward the gate, the sight of Fred's truck brought him up short. It was headed his way.
"Aw, shoot!" he said to himself.
He set down the wheelbarrow and slid back the latch. Fred pulled up in front of him, shut off the motor and rolled down his window. Ben pushed open the creaking gate and took a few reluctant steps toward the old man.
"Uh, Fred, I just wanted to say that..."
Fred never even heard him.
"There you are, you dad-blamed kid!" he yelled. "Do you know how long it took to get them spooky bulls rounded back up? And what about the horse that jumped that fence? He stepped in a squirrel hole and broke his dang leg!"
Ben's head jerked up.
"Broke his leg?" He knew what that meant.
"That's what I said, didn't I? He broke his leg!"
"I...I'm..." Ben stuttered. His stomach flip-flopped. He knew that a horse with a broken leg had to be put out of its misery. Only very valuable horses had their broken legs set.
"You killed that horse, boy! Guess it'll be coming out of your dad's pay. And I hope he whips the tar out of you!"
Ben slowly wiped a cold hand across his sweaty forehead.
"And those broken reins of Skeeter's, a good set of braided rawhide reins! Who's going to pay for that? I'll tell you who! You are, that's who! You're going to buy him a new set of reins!"
Ben bit his lip.
"I'm sorry, Fred," he said, talking fast. "I really am. I didn't know this would happen. I didn't mean to cause all that trouble." His voice was shaking. "I'll never make trouble again. I swear it."
"Yeah, sorry...You're always sorry about something. I never seen a sorrier kid than you."
Fred looked past Ben.
"HEY!" he yelled. "Those horses are coming out the gate behind you!"
Ben spun around and flapped his arms. "Git! Git!"
The horse nearest him wheeled around, eyes rolling. He careened into the arm of the wheelbarrow.
"Oh no," Ben groaned. With a clang the wheelbarrow, shovel and rake tipped over. The four snorting horses raced around the corral, kicking and squealing playfully. Ben pulled the gate closed and latched it. After retrieving his shovel and rake, he set the nearly empty wheelbarrow back up and glanced over his shoulder.
Fred was climbing stiffly out of his pickup. As the shriveled-up old cowboy marched toward Ben, a small slender border collie jumped out of the back of the truck and glided along behind his heels like a shadow. The dark look on Fred's face, under the brim of his battered black felt hat, gave Ben an uneasy feeling.
"I've had it with you, boy," he growled, shaking a bony finger at Ben. "I've had it with your shenanigans. I been telling your dad that you're too young to be hanging around."
One of the cowboys, Seth, was trotting his horse toward the barn. At 19, he was the youngest hand on the outfit. Glancing at Fred, he reined his horse to a slow walk, pulled the brim of his hat down lower over his eyes, and went on by.
"All you do is cause trouble! Every time you come around, you're BAD NEWS! You're plumb USELESS!"
"But I promise! It'll never happen again!"
"I've heard that story one too many times! The only reason I let your dad bring you around here is because he's my top hand. But no more, you hear? I don't EVER want to see you around my barn and my horses again! Starting RIGHT NOW! Now git! Put them things away and get home!"
"But my dad told me to clean the corrals!"
"And I'm your dad's boss! And I said GIT!"
Ben pointed at the pile of manure. "Do you want me to…"
"GIT!" Fred bellowed. "NOW!"
The skinny little man turned and stumped angrily back to his pickup. Scowling at Ben, he started the motor and drove away.
The knot in Ben's stomach tightened. So much for apologizing, he thought.