Stories from the Stringam Family Ranches of Southern Alberta

From the 50s and 60s to today . . .



All of My Friends

Monday, August 30, 2010

Topper

My Dad and . . . not Topper

Topper.
My eldest brother’s horse.
The ultimate in challenges.
My world was small. I admit it.
By the age of seven, I had moved through the ‘pony’ stage was ready for something a bit . . . bigger. Certainly more challenging.
My brother’s sorrel gelding was the answer.
If I could ride him, I would have achieved my greatest goal. By so doing, I would enter the world of the adults. I would finally be considered a grown-up.
Or so I thought.
We were selecting our mounts for yet another round-up. This one to include branding and all of the fun and highjinks that went with that.
My brother, Jerry, stepped into the corral ahead of me. He lifted the halter he held. He approached . . . Ranger.
Ranger?
My day had come.
Before anyone could think of stopping me, I moved to Topper’s side and slid my halter over his alert head. So far, so good.
Grooming and saddling took next to no time. A good thing as I was in a fever of impatience.
And then I was aboard.
Wow!
The ground was so far away!
This horse was a giant!
Okay, he would have had to stand on tip hooves to reach 14 hands, but I had been riding a Shetland pony. My measuring stick was slightly skewed.
Moving on . . .
And we were off.
All went well to that point. In fact, all continued to go well as we received our assignments and separated to begin collecting the herds. I was given one of the smaller fields. A measly little quarter section.
No problem.
Topper and I started off with a will. I was amazed at how much more quickly he moved than my little Pinto.
I have to admit here that Pinto had one speed.
Slow.
Actually two speeds. Slow and stopped.
This was living!
And then that sun.
In Southern Alberta, at least the corner where I was raised, the early summer days are . . . hot. There are no trees. The sun beats down on the hard-packed earth, turning it into a heat reflector of gigantic proportions. In no time, the heat waves are distorting every horizon you face.
And the favourite little blue jean jacket so necessary when you first hit the barnyard is suddenly superfluous. And distinctly uncomfortable.
And really needing to be removed.
With slow, staid Pinto, a simple task. No sooner thought of, then accomplished. He wouldn’t even have noticed.
With Topper, another story entirely.
I undid the buttons.
His ears flicked back. I’m almost sure his eyes narrowed. “What are you doing up there, Human?”
I slid one arm half-way out of the sleeve.
A jump. A little kick. “Whatever it is, I don’t like it!”
I stopped moving.
He settled.
I moved, he jumped.
This went on for some time.
Then that . . . inconvenient impatience. The same that usually got me into trouble.
Today was no different.
I finally decided to show him who was boss and shed my coat entirely.
He decided to show me who was boss and shed me.
Entirely.
He began to buck.
I’m not sure whether I bailed off, or he planted me.
It matters little because the results were the same.
My face took the brunt of the landing.
When I came to my senses a short time later, I struggled to my feet and discovered that Topper was actually waiting for me a little distance away.
I approached him slowly. The only speed I could muster.
He watched me, warily.
I drew closer.
He tensed.
Closer still.
He let fly.
With both back hoofs.
I really don’t know how I managed to survive life on the ranch.
I must have a particularly hard head.
The next thing I remember is one of our hired men, Bud.
He had followed the trail of my belongings until he finally discovered me, lying in a very small heap.
He plucked me from the prairie floor, like flotsam off a beach.
I noticed, with some degree of satisfaction, that he had already rescued my beloved jacket.
Reunited.
I must have smiled.
In your face, Topper!
He set me on the saddle in front of him and I looked down at the horse he was riding.
Eagle.
The delicious appaloosa.
The ultimate challenge.
Once I got my head back.




Jerry

Jerry. My Hero

I have two elder brothers, Jerry and George. The boys the entire world looked up to. The pinnacle that one can achieve. In teasing. The banes of my existence when I was four.

This story is about Jerry. George gets his own.

* * *

Jerry is my oldest brother. The one, chosen by the rest of us, most likely to be just like Dad. In my earliest memories of him, he is working. Hoeing the garden, mending fence, riding, milking cows. Always busy. Always cheerful.

Always teasing.

He could put just the right inflection on the most innocent of phrases and it was enough to send his middle sister into paroxysms of anger. His favourite? “Oh, Diane!” Pronounced more like, “Oh, Di-Ane!” With the buffer of many years, it doesn’t seem so bad. Rather cute, really. But at the time, it was enough to set me off like a miniature Mount Vesuvius.

Okay, so that particular volcano runs in our family. You should have seen George when Jerry used his favourite phrase on him! ‘Pimple pants’.

Pimple pants?

Now where would that have come from? And, more importantly, how does one get . . . never mind.

But the old phrase, “If we hated you, we’d ignore you,” certainly applied to Jerry. He must have truly loved us. He’d take us everywhere. Riding. Sledding. Swimming. Exploring. You’d just have to be prepared to put up with the teasing.

* * *

Jerry was the most amazing swimmer. He was the only one of us kids who could make headway against the current of the river. The rest of us were pretty proud when we could hold our own. That wasn’t good enough for Jerry. He would dive in and battle the current. And win. Races against him were moot. How could you even contemplate winning against the only ‘current defeater’ in the family?

The one good thing about the constant competition, however, was that when we were given swimming lessons, we could out swim all of the other kids. We weren’t weak swimmers.

Just weak against Jerry.

* * *

Dad had purchased a small ranch in the Coaldale area. Over an hour from the Milk River spread. A logistical nightmare for one man to run. But an adventure if said man put his four eldest kids on one of the ranches for the summer.

Which he did.

Soon after we took possession, however, we discovered an entirely unexpected crop which our new ranch produced in abundance. Rattlesnakes. Big ones.

Jerry and George were hauling in the hay. Jerry on top of the stack . . . ummm . . . stacking. George tossing bales up to him. Jerry sat down on a bale, waiting for George to bring in the next stook. Just as his butt touched the bale, he heard the unmistakable sound of a rattler. A ‘tell-tail’ sign.

Literally.

Sure enough, curled there at his feet was a small rattler, poised to strike.

Without conscious thought, Jerry pitched sideways off the stack, neatly avoiding being bitten. Then, boys being boys, the two of them closed in for the kill.

Sometime later, I was interrupted from my morning chore of . . . doing nothing . . . by the ring of the doorbell. Excited at the prospect of company, I raced for the door, only to discover – no one. I opened the door for a better view. Maybe someone was . . . you know . . . pressed up tightly against the wall so they couldn’t be seen from the doorway.

There, coiled neatly on the front step was a rattler. I never really noticed that it was rather . . . lifeless. Panic first, think after. That’s my motto. I screamed, and almost pitched backwards down the stairs.

Then laughter. And two brothers’ sunburned faces peeking around the door. “Did it scare you?”

No, this is my usual slap-dash method of going down stairs, but thanks for thinking of me.

* * *

My friends wanted to walk into town and visit Charley’s. The soda shop hang-out. But I needed money. And neither of my parents were anywhere around. In disgust, I kicked at the dusty road and resigned myself to sitting and watching everyone else consume floats or shakes. Maybe, out of pity, offer me a sip.

Ewwww.

Suddenly, Jerry emerged from the feed lot. The answer to my prayers. Maybe he would lend me a dime, or if I was really lucky, a quarter.

Okay, so my expectations weren’t very high.

I asked him. He grinned. One of two things was going to happen. Either he’d lend me money. Or tease me. And lend me money.

The day was mine.

“You can have all the money that’s in my pocket,” he said.

Uh-oh. A trick. He must be a broke as I.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out . . . a handful of change. Pennines, dimes, nickels, quarters. I felt as though I had hit the jackpot. And he poured the glittering contents – all of it – into my waiting hands. I had enough for . . . anything . . . everything.

He just smiled. And went to start chores.

* * *



Jerry was out in the feedlot, feeding the yearling bulls.

Now let me point out here that yearling bulls are just like little kids. They love to play. And chase each other. And play. The major difference is that they weigh in the neighbourhood of 1600 pounds. A bit larger than your average toddler.

I had decided that I wanted to be where Jerry was. Maybe I could help. Or get in the way. I was equally good at both.

I climbed the heavy board fence and sat on the top rail, watching. Jerry was pouring buckets of feed into the troughs and the bulls were delicately picking at it. Politely allowing everyone his own space.

Not.

When feeding cattle, pushing and shoving is the norm. Reaching over or under your neighbour to get that tasty morsel directly in front of him - equally common. Manners flee when a bucket of grain comes into sight. It’s every man for himself. And every man wants it all. Especially what is in front of the next guy.

For some time, this supper brawl fascinated me. I watched as these overly-muscled and underly-intelligent ‘adolescents’ bickered and fought over their evening meal. But as with anything, watching soon became boredom and I wanted to be in there. Ummm . . . helping. I scrambled down off the fence and started towards my brother.

One young ‘Four-Footed Apollo’ spotted me. Someone to play with! He bounced towards me in his finest ‘let’s play!’ mode.

The invitation on his part was misunderstood on mine.

All I saw was a mass of solid muscle, encased in a red hide, coming at me, death in his soft brown eyes. I screamed. And ran. Exactly what he was looking for. He followed. Still bouncing. This was fun!

I reached the fence just as my brother entered the fray. With a 5-gallon pail in one hand and an aluminum grain shovel in the other, he went for my attacker.

He swung the empty bucket at one side of the bull’s rump. That got his attention. Then, with the same accuracy and effectiveness, he bounced the shovel off the other side. The bull immediately forgot his erstwhile game with me and started back across the corral with Jerry in hot pursuit. Swinging the bucket, then the shovel, my brother chased the thoroughly frightened young bull, shouting with each blow, “Leave. My. Sister. Alone!”

My hero.

* * *

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Diane was born and raised on one of the last of the great old Southern Alberta ranches. A way of life that is fast disappearing now. Through her memories and stories, she keeps it alive. And even, at times, accurate . . .

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