It's easy to get hit with hero worship when you're out in cowboy country.
One morning, John and I went down to the stable for a trail ride. There were several wildfires burning around the fort, and when we got to the stable we were told the rides were supposed to be cancelled because of the fires. But since no one had told us that when we bought our tickets the day before, they would find someone to take us on the hour-long ride.
They found Douglas. Douglas was 17 and skinny as a rail. He held John's horse (Toga) for him, but he couldn't hold mine (E.T.) because, as one of the other stablehands told me, E.T. didn't like Douglas. She said it loud enough for him to hear, and he muttered under his breath.
I was a little embarrassed to be bothering the stablehands. Many of them, we were told, had gone to fight the fires, and there were always chores to be done around the stable anyway. I hate being a tourist who doesn't know how to ride, and I imagine that the kids who get these summer jobs despise the people who clamber up on horses and say they've been riding.
Douglas confirmed it. He leaped onto his horse ("I STILL cain't do that," said the girl who'd held my horse, again loud enough for Douglas to hear, and he smiled) and almost before we were out of the corral, he sat sideways on his horse and began talking. I can't remember how we started, but the first topic was guns, and gun laws in Minnesota versus gun laws in Nebraska, and how he'd sure appreciate taking a shotgun along on these trial rides, just to keep annoying tourists in line.
Well. He said it completely without malace and spat when we he was done. And John, I could see, was hooked.
As we rode down into the creek bottom, Douglas talked about everything. "People dint think I'd ever want to be around horses again," he said. He took off his hat and showed us a scar, half an inch wide and running from ear to ear over the top of his head, from the brain surgery he'd had when he was three and got kicked in the head by a horse and branding time. He'd been flown by helicopter to Denver, more than 200 miles away. How on earth did your family pay for that? I thought. How could anybody's?
He talked about dogs he'd had, and horses, and trucks. I was entranced by his accent and the cadence of his words. Every once in awhile you could see his thoughts stop and wind back, run up against that scar. He talked about the wildfires, and how the geography teacher's house burned up and no one was sure if she'd be back this fall. I asked him if he would go into ranching after he graduated, and he said, "Mm, not right away," but didn't offer what he would do. What ARE you doing to do? I thought, remembering the tiny, on-the-edge town we drove through to get here.
John said very little as we rode. He told me later he remembered the riding instructions that Bree (a talking horse in Narnia) gives Shasta (a boy): Sit up straight, don't pull on the reins and look directly between my ears. But he listened to Douglas talk and after the ride, he talked about how he liked Douglas.
(Full disclosure: I did too. He had a thin little face and the part of me that is still 12 had a big crush on him, but then I remembered that really, when it came down to it, I'm at that part of my life where I legitimately AM old enough to be his mother.)
The last night we were at the fort, the stablehands held a small rodeo. As we walked over, John talked about how he hoped Douglas would win. I told him it wasn't a competition, that they were just showing us their riding skills, and John understood, then said he hoped Douglas would win anyway.
The rodeo ring was under a circle of bright lighs, but the darkness was tall around it. The ring felt like an outpost in that wild country. In one of the races, Douglas finished third. As he kicked his horse to the finish, John stood up, hands clasped, and shouted, "Go Douglas, go! GO DOUGLAS!" And the skinny kid in the cheap shirt lifted his hand and tipped his hat, and for a moment under the lights everyone saw a cowboy riding like the wind.
John still talks about Douglas, wondering how he's doing. I do too.