This Story is Dedicated to the Memory of Buster Dunlap
It was the summer of 1974, after I got out of high school. We were getting the machinery ready for harvest, and my dad was always in a hurry when it came to the process. Get the grain cut as soon as it was ripe, get it in the bin or hauled to town, out of the field, out of harm’s way before the wind or hail, wiped out an entire year’s work.
We had to go to Chester, to pick up a replacement bearing for the feeder housing on our old Massey 5-10 combine. Chester is in the heart of north eastern Montana about sixty miles from my home town, Big Sandy, where I grew up on a nearby farm.
When something broke down you had to get on the phone and start calling to find an implement dealer who had the part you needed, and then go there and get it. You were lucky if it was just sixty miles of dirt road one way; it could be available only in Billings—three hundred miles to the south.
We were leaving Chester, and I was driving. I knew my dad wanted to get back home and get back to work, and I was looking forward to some high-speed driving on those gravel roads—sliding the corners just a little more than I had to. But as we drove by the Chester Cemetery, my old man put up a hand.
“Hold up,” he said. “Turn in here for a minute—and go slow.”
There was a burial taking place.
I drove slowly up to the cars parked helter-skelter nearby, turned off the engine, and opened my window.
Close to the open grave I saw three saddle horses. They stood at attention, with deference, the way the small group of people now stood around the grave—some with heads bowed, many of the men holding cowboy hats.
We sat in the pickup for about fifteen minutes. This being eastern Montana, there was a hot wind blowing.
“Nice cool breeze,” I said to my father. It was something we always said while enduring ninety-degree weather with a sharp wind blowing dirt and crested wheat grass spears in your face.
Thanks to the distance and the wind, we could hear the preacher talking, but couldn’t make out much of what was being said—something about returning to the soil, an eternal reward, telling people not to be sad or fearful but rather, glad, for the man who died was returning home to his God in the sky.
The service came to an end, and people started to mill around, talking to one another; some returned to their cars. Two cowboys came and mounted two of the horses; one of them took up the reins of the third.
“Okay, let’s get back on the road,” my father said.
I turned the pickup around and we headed out of the cemetery, then out of town, back on the gravel cut-across road that would plant us back at the farm.
After we had driven a-ways, I asked him, “so, what was the deal there? Did you see somebody you knew? Should we have talked to somebody?”
My dad didn’t always say a lot. On this afternoon, he had been silent.
He shook his head. “Nope, no need for that,” and he didn’t say anything more.
A few more miles down the road I spoke up again. “You gotta tell me what that was all about,” I said.
After a minute, my father spoke. “I saw those horses,” he said, “and I knew it was a cowboy funeral.”
“Okay, sure,” I said. You saw that sort of thing in small towns in those days.
“You know I practically grew up on the back of a horse, before my legs got wrecked in The War.” My father’s neck was fused from the arthritis that also destroyed his knees and hips; it was very hard for him to lift his head but as he spoke I saw him make the effort.
“I guess . . . I guess I kind of knew that; never thought about it much though.”
He turned and looked at me. My dad wasn’t an emotional person, but I could tell by the look on his face and the tone of his voice that right now he was struggling with that.
“A man who spends his life on a horse,” he said, twisting his shoulders to look more directly at me, “is a man who sits up above the rest of ‘em. He is a man who holds his head high, and who looks up into the sky whenever he wants, just to look his boss square in the eye.”
I had never heard my father talk like this before. “That kind of man,” he said, “when he passes on, he is always due a few minutes of your time, no matter how much of a hurry you might otherwise be in.”
I didn’t say anything. I did not have any idea what to say, and for once, I thought about the words my father had spoken.
A couple minutes later, he spoke again: “One more thing,” he said quietly.
I nodded so he’d know I was still listening.
“Stop driving so God-damned fast around those corners. This ain’t the Indianapolis Speedway, you know.”
I took my foot off the accelerator and ever so gently applied just a little bit of brake. I had rolled the window up when we left town because of the wind and dust on the gravel road. As the pickup quieted itself, I opened the window and stuck my head out. I gave myself a moment to breathe in the dirt and the sun, and to hear the voice of the wind as it herded a single puff of cloud across the deep blue sky above.
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