His training as a daring young man of the Wild West occurred while sitting on the buckboard of a hand-built wagon, ye-hawing his team of mules across the frontier plains in the midst of summer’s squelching heat. In this vast openness where nothing but waving grasses spread in every direction, he kept a close eye out for intruders – Indians, buffalo or perhaps a lone wolf or a rabbit that would make a tasty meal over the fire.
But this could be true only in a fantasy world where a day bed became the wagon and a long pillow stretched across one end sufficed as the seat – where adventures existed only in the mind of little six-year-old Ted. He could see it all, however – the scope of wildness out there on the lone prairie – and by golly he was more than ready for anything that might come his way.
With his trusty popgun by his side, Ted’s courage could not be daunted. “Y’all git up, mules!” he shouted. “Git there, you old Sally and Sue – we’ve got miles to go before sunset.”
One day while rolling through a make-believe canyon with tall, rocky sides, an ambush of whooping, hollering Indians poured off the cliffs. They galloped toward Ted on their ponies, much like a mountain stream might flow in a noisy gush from its origins in the peaks to the valley below.
“Git yerselves going there mules! Run like you’ve never run before!” With that, Ted mercilessly flogged his imaginary team of six with a whip to send the wagon’s wooden wheels speeding over the rocky ground. He grabbed his popgun, looked back over his shoulder while bumping along at breakneck speed, and proceeded to down the handful of Indians - one after the other - without missing a single shot.
Now that’s daring.
Another time Ted was faced with a drought. He looked around in his minds’ eye and saw nothing but sandy soil, desert-like cactus plants, and occasional creepy-crawly spidery insects. His scanty supplies were now used up and he had a week yet to go on this trip. What to do? According to Ted you do what you must. He purposed to go without and valiantly survive on an empty stomach.
There was really just one thing about being a cowboy. You had to be tough.
Eventually Ted grew up and left the daybed behind. Gone were the wagon; the fantasies of heroism and valor; the bright, inviting sun porch where daily adventure carried him beyond the four walls into some deep, heart-throbbing inner reality.
Meanwhile, the real world demanded his best while offering unforeseen challenges and unpredictable circumstances. The workplace expected top-notch performance. His children needed guidance as they grew up amidst a culture strewn with rocky situational ethics that threatened to lead them to disaster.
But Ted’s little boy cowboy heart never stopped beating – not really. The cowboy lived on somewhere in Ted’s deepest self, alive and well nourished by a collection of western fiction novels, as he continued to figuratively clutch that trusty popgun in one hand and the reins in the other. He was ready; he would never crumble in the face of adversity; he would not live with regrets. Ted knew what it meant to push the limits of fear and fully engage with life.
Eventually Ted grew older, which is what happens to all cowboys sooner or later. A chronic, debilitating disease partnered with him until its symptoms began to lead the way, just like the mules of old. He sadly laid his popgun down, once and for all, and succumbed to this predatory disease that plodded him along in a foreign lifestyle. It was a sad day when the cowboy sparkle and resolve passed from Ted’s eyes; when the fire in his heart turned to almost-ashen embers.
Right now I sit across the room from gray-haired Ted who sits in his recliner with a dog-eared western paperback. On the cover the face of a weathered cowboy wearing a Stetson glares my way.
If I squint back and pretend, I can imagine Ted fully restored in that place beyond the eternal sunrise where cowboy ghost-riders prance on cloudy, barely-tamed ponies. There he is, wiry and strong, bigger than life itself. He may not wear a pair of six-shooters, but in my mind’s eye he carries himself with that same almost reckless, bold fearlessness of his youth. He’s unstoppable.
When summoned, this cowboy will boldly stride through the gates of glory.
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