I leaned against the metal rail of the corral and watched my great-uncle Vernon work the bay mare. He sat his saddle like most men sit their recliners, with complete ease. He listened with every nerve in his body. He controlled the horse with the most imperceptible movement of the reins in his hands, the shift of weight in his body. He made her dance, back and forth, side to side, in a tightly controlled circle. Below the brim of the silver-grey cowboy hat, his weathered face bore no expression; he was working. Yet, that no expression was familiar to me for I had seen it on people on the cushion.
Often the mind has been compared to a horse. Saykong Mipham is particularly fond of that metaphor, being a horseman himself. Our mind is a thousand-pound animal intent on going where it wants to go and we are just along for the journey, unless we learn to master it. Well here before me was a man who had mastered the horse, in the most literal sense of the word, and in so doing, mastered his own mind as well. The bay mare was young, not long trained to the saddle. To ride a horse like that requires the mind to be still, for there is no attention to spare for wandering thoughts. The horse would know. The horse would take advantage. And the resulting bruises would be a far stronger reminder than the gentle label of “thinking” that we apply while on a cushion.
No doubt Vernon learned this at an age when children today wouldn’t be allowed to drive. Then he spent sixty or more years to cultivate it. Vernon, like all the other members of his family, was born with his cowboy boots on. He is my grandfather’s older brother. He is a rangy man, not particularly tall, though in his hat and boots was he always a long drink of water.
Later, I sat with a smattering or relatives on the shaded patio behind Vernon’s brown brick ranch house. My folks were there, along with Grandma Delmira, Cousin Ruthie and her husband Dale, and great-uncle Bob. Velma, Vernon’s wife, had gone into town with Alberta, Bob’s wife, to visit the western wear store. Bob, though shorter and rounder, was dressed identically to his brother – silver-grey cowboy hat, white cowboy-cut shirt with grey pinstripes and dull silver snaps, dark denim jeans, boots, and a belt with a large silver and gold buckle, the kind that is earned at a rodeo or competition, not bought.
Vernon came in from the barn and as I watched him walk across the perfectly trimmed lawn, I realized what I had always felt was wrong with his gate, an odd walk I had attributed to his broken hip a few years ago. He was missing the horse. He walked like a sailor just off the ship who still hadn’t found his land-legs.
“Guess I better be a host,” he grumbled in his gravel voice.
He went into the house and returned a few minutes later with a picture of ice water and stack of glasses, which he passed out. He returned to the house and this time emerged with a three-pie carrier.
Bob chuckled. “That’s Alberta’s pie carrier. We’s s’posed ta save that for supper,” he said, though he didn’t seem at all interested in complying with his wife’s instructions.
Vernon pulled his jackknife from his jeans pocket and flipped it open.
Cousin Ruthie leaned over to my mother, and in a carrying stage whisper, asked “Do we want to know where that jackknife has been?”
My mother leaned her shoulder against Ruthie’s, and in a similar whisper, replied, “Ruthie, we all know where that jackknife has been.”
Vernon cut the pie and levered each piece up with the blade of the knife. He didn’t ask who wanted any, he just laid a piece of Alberta’s pumpkin pie in each relatives hand, and set his own slice carefully down on the metal table. He wiped the blade of the jackknife on one denim-clad thigh, folded it, and slipped it back into his pocket. He then carefully removed the second pie, put the empty tin in the middle slot, the whole pie on top where it would be visible through the translucent cover, replaced the cover, and carried the pies back into the house. We all sat and quietly ate our pies and drank our ice water.
When Vernon returned, he took a seat and the visiting resumed. Misty, Vernon’s dog, an improbably small, but perfectly trained rat terrier, hopped up with Vernon and patiently waited for a piece of crust. By the time Velma and Alberta returned all evidence (there being no incriminating forks, napkins, or plates) was gone.
No one said a word about it.