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Clint’s Last Ride
Riding a horse,
soaking up the sun
and rain on the
range, is a good way
to live and a good
way to die.

By Michael Martin Murphey
His mother’s voice on the telephone was firm and steady, without a trace of remorse, maudlin self-pity, or patronizing grief. I listened as she spoke plainly of her son’s last wish. Her 30-year-old son was a lover of the cowboy lifestyle, a latter-day Wild Westerner who proudly hailed from Oklahoma. He loved grazing animals, rodeos, customized pickup trucks, good horses, and cowboy songs. Yes, he loved all these things, and he had an inoperable, incurable, rapidly spreading brain tumor. His last wish was to get back in the saddle one last time, to ride in the mountains. He wanted to hear the creak of the leather, feel the easy rhythm of the hoof beats, get a whiff of the sap of the spruce on the wind. It would be Clint’s Last Ride.
I first met Clint, his mother, and the earnest souls from the hospice in Taos, in Red River, N.M. They came to hear my cowboy music show at the 150-seat Mine Shaft Theater on Main Street, in my tiny little hometown. After the show, they brought Clint, who was leaning on a cane, to the backstage for a visit.

I am a singing cowboy, a horse and cattle rancher, an outfitter, a confessed addict for all things western–a “romantic.” I live just up the road from Red River, in a log cabin at the top of Bobcat Pass. It’s easy to pack up my guitar, drop down from the cabin’s 10,400-foot altitude to 9,000 feet in my four-wheel drive pickup, to play a few cowboy songs for the good folks who visit our town in search of a “Western Experience.” Red River, you see, is sort of like a western version of “Mayberry,” the wide spot in the road where Andy Griffith and Don Knotts played out their endearing small-town antics in one of the most enduring television comedies in history. Of course, that was a Southern town, but you get the picture. Just put cowboy hats and boots on the Mayberry folks, and you’ve got Red River. I sometimes call it, “Ski-Berry.”

“Oh when I die,
take my saddle from the wall,
Put it on my pony, lead him out of the stall.
Tie my bones
to his back, turn our faces to the West
And we’ll ride the prairies we’ve always loved best”

–19th Century Cowboy Folksong, Author Unknown

Clint wanted to come to Red River to hear a few cowboy songs, to breathe the mountain air, no matter how frail he might be. As I stood there, making nervous conversation with a dying young man, he smiled at me, handed me a card, and told me to read it. The card was handmade, painstakingly drawn and designed by a man who had to struggle to steady his hand. It was a well-drawn rendering of Clint, riding off in the sunset toward a rock formation like the Rainbow Bridge Arch in Utah. Clint had drawn himself twisted around to face the reader of the card, nodding a cowboy’s farewell. But he had also depicted himself as flicking a horsefly off the horse’s rump. The message was clear. He was leaving, riding off in the sunset–but he was in no hurry. It was as if the horsefly was his pesky cancer; it was a part of the process, expected to be there, but a pest to be whisked away, as often as possible.

Another image on the card showed Clint as if he were dancing to a cowboy jig of a tune, with one foot cocked back in readiness for a mule kick to a large tin feed bucket. The caption, in his own writing, made it plain: “Well, pards, I’m a gettin’ ready to kick the bucket!” It was funny, it was direct, and it was as courageous a farewell to a dying man’s friends as I have ever seen. It was a masterpiece of black humor–western-style. When I looked up from the card, Clint was grinning a Slim Pickins grin–a cowboy who plainly had no intention of loping gently into that good night. No sir, Clint’s Last Ride was going to be high, wide and handsome!

I told Clint’s mother I would try to set up a last ride for Clint in a week or so, knowing that he might be an unwilling member of his own whimsical version of Boot Hill by then. But I had obligations, commitments, appointments–things that Clint would see as trivial, compared to the chance to get to ride a sound horse and cover good ground. But that’s life, as Clint put it, and his death would just have to wait!

I was nervous about putting Clint on one of my energetic, eager ranch horses, so I called my friend Henry. I explained to him that my string of trail horses was unavailable, because I outfit out of Colorado with my partner Willard, who keeps the string in shape. Henry, a fellow outfitter who shares my love of putting neophytes to equestrian life in the saddle, told me that he would be more than happy to accommodate Clint’s Last Ride.

“But what about insurance, liability, etc.?” I asked him. “We’ll make sure to bring a piece of paper that holds you harmless if anything happens.”

“Just forget all that, and come on out,” Henry drawled. “We ain’t gonna worry about that. I’ll take responsi-bility for the whole thing, if you will. All I need is a handshake from Clint himself. That’ll do ’er.” One week later, I was a co-conspirator in Clint’s Last Ride.

The other tourists at the stables who were waiting to take the next trail ride out, tried very hard not to stare. My partner in the cattle business, Fred, who was visiting from the Flint Hills, helped me escort Clint from the van to the corral. Clint was not a small man. He had huge shoulders and arms, and stood over six feet. He was still as strong as a blacksmith, and determined as a steer-wrestler. You could almost imagine him bending his steel cane into the ground, if he wanted to do it. Fred and I each held a hunk of right and left bicep, and barely helped to stabilize Clint’s hulk of frame. “I can get out of this saloon by myself,” Clint chided, as he pushed us away gently. Then he tottered toward the big horse on his cane.

Henry, and the man who assisted him in his day-ride business, much bigger men than Fred and me, hoisted Clint into the saddle, as his cane dropped into the dirt. Although he was nearly paralyzed on one side, Clint pulled himself up by the saddle horn with his good arm and leg. Somehow he swung his nearly dead leg over the cantle of the saddle, and met the stirrup with the toe of his boot. He sat up straight, pushing from the saddle horn.

In the next hour or so of that idyllic Rocky Mountain summer afternoon, I watched as two stout cowboys rode along on either side of Clint, in order to keep him from losing his balance. It is a scene that will be burned into the inner-vision of my soul forever: two large men reaching out to grab the shoulders and arms of another big cowboy who had gone weak, yet somehow seemed stronger than his helpers. Clint was tall in the saddle to the last.

The participants in that ride didn’t say much. The whisper of a mystic, yet soothing, call of the wind in the quaking aspens was enough conversation. There was a poetry in it beyond human expression of idle conversation. It was if the Great Spirit of the range was saying, “Nuff said, amigos! Nuff said!”

There are cowboy and cowgirl guardian angels everywhere–men and women like Henry and Fred who reach out to help their weaker partners, without hesitation, without a thought of legal entanglements or paperwork. The National Western Stock Show of Denver, Colo., is run for the purpose of raising funds for young people in agriculture. So is the Fort Worth Livestock Show, the San Antonio Livestock Show, and the great Houston Livestock Show. And Cheyenne Frontier Days! Just beneath the bucking and bawling, the whoops and hollers, you will find the strong, throbbing heartbeat of Charity and Compassion.

Cowboys and cowgirls, ranchers and farmers have always left their fields and pastures to fight fires, to fight disease, to fight ignorance and misunderstanding. It’s always been about loving the life, and passing it on–about dreaming. As my cowboy poet friend Waddie Mitchell said to me at The Motherlode Saloon in Red River the other night, “It’s always the dreamers and the romantics who seem to make it in the cattle business–the ones who stay in it because they love the life.”

Riding a horse, soaking up the sun and rain on the range, is a good way to live and a good way to die. It’s a way of healing. Just ask Tim Jobe of Cal Farley’s Boys’ Ranch in Amarillo, and I quote: “The same principles that apply to building a caring, working relationship with a horse will be successful when used in all areas of the lives of youth at risk.”

If the American cowboy, the ranchers, the farmers, the horse culture, and the unbending truths of range life are lost, a lot of healing will never happen. Maybe cowgirls and cowboys are no angels, and then again...I’ll always remember Clint’s Last Ride. It symbolizes all that is great within and without the rangeland culture. So long, Clint, and thanks for what I learned from your last ride. How can you dream of going to Heaven, if you also have to leave it? I hope the grass is tall up there!

Michael Martin Murphey is originator of the Westfest (a festival celebrating the American West culture), owner of Westfest/Valley Records of Santa Fe, founder of The Murphey Western Insitute for American West Cultural Studies, The Murphey Public Trail Fund, and The Murphey Library of the American West. He serves as an adjunct professor at Utah State University and The University of New Mexico-Taos. His websites are <>, <>, and the web portal for the American West, <>.

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