John Becker was born in 1889 and had led an incredibly varied life. He lived with his wife, Ruth, in a small house they had homesteaded in the fifties, far out in the Mojave Desert. They invited us to stay the night, and I was glad I had accepted. I sat transfixed as he described living in logging camps in the Pacific Northwest in the early part of the century. He told stories of driving a horse drawn milk wagon in Los Angeles in the 1920s and running a Hollywood agency for actors and models during the Depression. But I was most enthralled with the tales of his life with horses.
He poured each of us a shot of whiskey as we sat in the living room, surrounded by saddles and bridles, spurs and lariats, and other horse gear on saddle stands and hanging on the walls. There were old photos of the couple in Los Angeles when they were young. One showed them standing next to a tall, lanky show horse, John holding the lead rope in one hand and a riding crop in the other. He was wearing Jodhpur riding pants with a long coat and white gloves. He stared sternly at the camera with a somewhat military look about him.
“Our last horse left us just about a year ago,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be gettin’ any more now. Tie you down more than kids do, I expect.” He paused, then added, “You can always get a babysitter for the kids, but not for a horse.”
He got up to take a look out the back window and check on Gizmo. There was a gleam in his eye, and I knew that we had stirred some old memories in him. Satisfied with how the horse was doing, he sat down again then returned to his storytelling.
“There was this one time, oh, musta been just before the war. We brought in twenty or twenty-five head of unbroke horses from Nevada. Every one of ’em was right off the range and wild as all get-out.” He stopped, chuckled to himself, and continued. “I was in the business of buyin’ and sellin’ horses back then. We was livin’ out near San Bernardino, and we’d sometimes run ’em through the horse and mule auction down in LA, but the market was real bad right about then. So, I figured I’d try to sell ’em one at a time.”
He stopped to think about it for a while then turned to Ruth, “Say, was we livin’ in San Bernardino, or was it at the place down in Hemet?”
“Hemet, I think,” Ruth replied.
“Yep, I think it was Hemet,” he agreed. “You see, there wasn’t much out there in those days. Just a cow-calf operation or two and a few folks tryin’ to make a livin’ offa land that wasn’t fit for much of anything. We turned those horses out on two or three hundred acres, but there wasn’t much for ’em to eat, so we had to feed ’em. Of course, hay was a lot cheaper back then, and you could get a bale of good alfalfa for next to nothin’.”
He took a sip of the whiskey, paused as if lost in thought again, and then continued.
“Well, we brought those horses down and turned them out into the pasture. Had to rope ’em to catch ’em. Ain’t a one of ’em would come up to you, so you had to run ’em into a corner and toss a rope on ’em. Like I said, they was wild, right off the range.
“I put an ad in the local paper with the idea that I could sell ’em, one at a time. I said in the ad that they was unbroke. I think I was wanting to get sixty-five dollars apiece for ’em, or thereabouts. But there wasn’t any takers. I got a couple of calls about ’em, but I damn sure couldn’t sell ’em.
“It was comin’ winter, and I was getting’ to the age where I didn’t want to take on a bunch of rough stock like that. Didn’t want to be breakin’ all those critters to ride. Hell, it probably woulda killed me. Anyway, I kept trying to run ads and let folks know I had ’em for sale. I sold a few, but still had most of ’em left. They was pretty nice horses, all up, and I hated to see ’em just goin’ to the killers for dog food.
“But then, I had this bright idea. I figured I’d change that ad, and so I did. In big bold letters on the top of the ad I put, ‘WILD HORSES FOR SALE,’ and I ran that ad for a couple of weeks.
“Well sir, them folks couldn’t get there fast enough. Seemed like everyone wanted to have their own wild horse. Sold ’em all in two weeks.”
Throughout the story, I noticed Ruth, nodding and smiling as John related it. When he was finished, she nodded a bit more emphatically and said, “Yeah, that’s right.”
“Why do you suppose those folks would buy wild horses and not unbroke ones?” I asked.
“Well now, that’s the funny part about that,” he replied. “Most of them folks wasn’t horse trainers or anything like that. Hell, most of ’em didn’t know one end of a horse from the other. But ya see, I think that maybe livin’ down there in Los Angeles and bein’ tied down and all that … well, maybe they just wanted a part of something wild and free. Maybe they figured those wild horses would rub off on ’em a little.”
He took another sip, and I did the same. He got up again to go to the window to check on my horse, and I watched him watching Gizmo. He was seeing a wild horse, and there was a light on inside him that would never go out.