I Might Be A Murderer

Not All Cowpokes Are Created Equal!

“I might be a murderer, a pedophile, a miscreant! How do you know your bones ain’t gonna be picked clean by birds of carrion nigh these next two weeks?”

Homer and the little Heroines.

These were the words that rang out in an empty canyon (a perfect place for burying corpses) a-scream-and-a-yell-just-out-of-reach of the Cowpunch Bar Ranch from whence my mom, my daughters and I trotted on trail horses led by our guide – and potential assassin – Homer LeGree.

It was the first week of summer break.

I’d taken the girls up to see my mom in Santa Barbara while Henry toiled away at home. She’d signed us up for a horseback riding expedition. 

We arrived at the ranch an hour early on a promising, sunny day.

The Cowpunch Bar Ranch was clean of road apples and equine piss. The horses were snort-beguiling and the cowpokes picaresque.

Skinner, who’d been in 126 episodes of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, was still “flat-broke as a mule during harvest.” 

He helped my girls mount their mares with aplomb. “Let’s go little ladies, throw them boots (tennis shoes) over the saddle and tell that there filly who’s the boss!”

I was worried.

The horses were big, my daughters are small. What the hell kind of crazy idea was this?

But I took comfort in knowing we were in good hands. Our guide, the aforementioned Homer, introduced himself by asking 7-year old Bridget if she wanted him to lead her horse Lady by a rope or “brave it alone.”

“Um,” I interrupted, “can’t I just hop up behind her?’

“It’s one body per horse,” Homer decreed. Body? Isn’t that the way they refer to the corpses on CSI: Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Sassparilla, Texas?

I didn’t protest. Look, I wanted to say, I’m cool. I’m not one of those Helicopter Parents that has to stick my kid in a little mommy-hewn pouch under her ribcage.

“She can ride alone,” I said, “but I’d like you to hold Lady’s rope.”

“Can’t the kid speak for herself?” hammered Homer.

This was his No-Nonsense Shtick, right? Like if we were at Universal Studios he’d be a stuntman on the O.K Corral set. The kids eat this stuff up. They know it’s all an act. Sure enough, Bridget piped up, “I want you to hold my rope, Homer.”

Good. Great, I thought, I molly-coddle my girls too much. It’s good for them to meet a few “characters” in their lives.

Like the enervating Tiger Mother says —  being an insecure American mom raised in the ’70s by nudist-wife-swappers (except for you Gini) — I assume weakness in my children and want to protect them from life.

Perhaps I should assume strength — like the Chinese Mothers of Tchaikovsky child-savants — and allow them to rise to the challenge of the hard-bitten trail?

So I shut my piehole and Homer instructed my girls in the art of Western riding.

They didn’t need to hold onto the saddle horn to stay on their horses. No, they needed to lean back and stick their feet out straight in the stirrups. The stirrups’re what’d keep them in the saddle. Meanwhile I hung on to my saddle horn for dear life.

Up hills we went, down dales we plodded, through rocky brooks we traversed, up steep inclines we scrabbled. 

Homer regaled us with the story of an 8-year old girl — whose mother was “too Godammed lazy to ride the trail with her kid” — who fell off her horse and broke her pelvis. It wasn’t Homer’s fault. He “wadn’t no babysitter” he was a “guide!”

I wanted to yell “Inappropriate Homer! You owe us 50 cents for the ‘Goddamned’ and a dollar for scaring the Bejesus out of my kids with the broken pelvis story!”

But I was distracted by Clare’s horse, Dunnit, who had decided to rub her right flank into a bunch of scrub growing out of the hillside, taking Clare with her.

Homer acted like nothing was happening. 

WTH? Then I noticed Dunnit’s legs were buckling like she was going to fall down and potentially roll over on my first child. It all seemed to be happening in slow motion yet I was incapable of action.

“Do you know how many hours I’ve put into maintaining this child’s safety, soul and soft, sweet, solipsistic brain?” I said to Claire’s horse with my mind. “If you hurt her I’ll eat you with a side of fava beans and a nice Chianti you 17-hands-tall horse fillet!”

“That horse is making an ass outta you,” Homer shouted at Clare (50 cents for “ass”). “You gotta show her who’s the master. Now kick her!” Clare kicked. It was a tentative kick. She had no spurs.

“Now yank on those reins,” Homer barked. 

Clare pulled on the reins. Dunnit stood. Then Dunnit actually began to walk backward yielding to the tension in the reins. Clare threw a half terrified-half exhilarated glance at me behind her as we continued on like nothing just happened.

My daughter was alive and unhurt.

Her slender child hips swayed in her Western saddle in time with Dunnit’s gait as we headed back toward the Ranch.

This was about the time Homer began to complain about “some parents” expecting him to babysit their children on the trail.  “How do they know I’m not a murderer, pedophile” and so on and so forth.

But by this time I wasn’t worried about Homer anymore, because Clare had defied pain-by-horseflesh and appeared quite regal on her mount. And Bridget seemed to be leading Homer by the rope now.

Was it worth it? This slightly dangerous venture? 

I don’t know. This is the conundrum. These babies have to “stay alive no matter what occurs!” (Okay, I stole that from Daniel Day Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans), but they also have to gain confidence and meet life on its terms.

Perfect Balance where are you? Guarantees? Where are you?

These are moments I remember from my chidhood that thrilled me and which I survived intact and maybe stronger:

6 years old — My older brothers putting me in a shipping box and rolling me down a steep, grassy hill, picking up speed, out of control, flying. Sublime.

7 years old — Letting all the breath out of my lungs and lying on the bottom of the swimming pool with my older brother Derry. Staring into his eyes waiting for him to surface first. He did.

8 years old — Sitting in my nightgown on the prow of my mom and stepdad’s 30-foot catch as it heeled steeply leeward doing forty knots in the San Francisco Bay at midnight with the city lights aflame on the horizon.

9 years old — Beheading, gutting and skinning a Blue Gill I caught with a Nightcrawler worm I hooked on Lake Cachuma. Best dinner ever.

10 years old —  Leaning in to my trail horse, Champion, as he broke from the plodding group and into a gallop. I was scared shitless as I leaned forward over the saddle horn and happier than I’d ever been in my life.

I want my kids to live. Not just be alive, but live, God help me.

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