The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Maude and the Cowboy Summer

By Bob Heafner © 1991

Issue: October, 1991

In the late 1950's we lived in the country outside Cherryville, North Carolina. Our home was an unpainted two story 126 year old farm house. It had electricity but no running water. The well, with its bucket and rope, was located in the red clay yard. The outhouse was behind the house down toward the garden. Across the dusty dirt road stood an old log barn surrounded by gigantic oak trees. A pair of hard packed tracks separated by a grassy middle led across the road to the barn. It was a summer of a number of "firsts" for me

A half mile up the road was the home of our landlord, Loy Strapp. Her two story white colonial home remains to this day as a mansion in an eight year old's memory. Her grandson Billy, the only person nearby that was close to my age, lived just up the road beyond her place.

My introduction to TV and chocolate chip cookies came the Saturday morning that Billy invited me to his house. No child was ever more enthralled by Howdy Doody and Andy Devine than I was as I watched TV for my first time that morning. I could barely pry my eyes from the screen as Billy handed me a glass of cold milk and asked if I cared for a cookie. With a yes and a thank you, and a certain amount of awe, I reached into the bag for a cookie. It was delicious!

At home, our cookies were made by Mom, not something store bought. The wonder of getting a store bought cookie and watching TV, all in the same morning, are indelibly implanted in my memories of that time and place. Over the years I have futilely tried virtually every variety of chocolate chip cookie including soft, double chip, homemade, you name it, and none have ever lived up to the exalted memory of that one cookie on a Saturday morning so long ago.

It was about this time that Dad figured a way to come up with 30 or 40 dollars to buy a plow horse so we could raise a bigger garden. It didn't matter that she was an old work horse named Maude, she possessed every attribute an eight year old cowboy could dream and hope for. Finally - the day after she arrived - after much pleading, begging and pestering of Mom and Dad, I was allowed my first solo ride.

We never had a saddle, Dad was doing good to get a rickety used plow and harness. So with the reins in hand and me bareback on Maude, we started from the barn to the house on my first ride. Maude, for a reason I can't remember, started into a slow run and about halfway to the house I panicked and fell off. It was a long way down but luckily my fall was broken when my head hit a rock about the size of a washpan. Stunned and hurt, my first reaction was to cry but I knew if Mom thought I got hurt she wouldn't ever let me ride Maude again. Choking back tears I scrambled up and within minutes, before Mom had time to think about it, I was back on Maude and riding again.

Over the course of that summer, Maude and I became inseparable friends. Apart we were an old plow horse and a freckled faced kid but together she became a frisky colt and I was all the love in the world with a handful of sugar sneaked from the cupboard or a fistful of clover tops picked just for her.

Sometimes we were accompanied on adventures by my brother, Ken, who had his own aspirations of achieving cowboy status. Being older than me, almost sixteen, his imagination took a more practical turn so rather than simply riding the range he decided to become a cow puncher. With a length of old rope and Maude in her version of a full gallop, Ken picked out a "dogie" to lasso. Since we didn't actually have a "dogie," Ken's substitute was a dead limb about ten feet off the ground that stuck out several feet from the trunk of a pine tree. He approached his target with precision horsemanship, his rope twirling in a circle over his head till exactly the right moment when he cast his "lariat" at the limb. The rope snared his target with a precision that Hopalong Cassidy would have envied.

Watching from the sidelines I was definitely impressed. But things took a turn for the worse as the rope ran out when Maude ran past the tree. Ken weighed over 200 pounds and the other limbs he'd practiced on had all succumbed to his weight and momentum but this time the limb didn't budge. For a moment Ken, still clinging to the rope, appeared to hang suspended in mid-air as he and Maude parted ways. What followed was an awful crash and some very un-cowboy like comments from Ken. He quit practicing his roping on tree limbs after that.

I must have laughed too loud at Ken's pendulum swing to a bottom landing because not long after that the tables were turned. He and I were both just sitting on Maude's back as she munched grass beneath one of the old oak trees near the barn. I was in front and had slid down a might far on her neck and stretched out in order to scratch between her ears. Suddenly a black snake stuck its head out a hole just inches from the tip of Maude's nose. She didn't care much for snakes and immediately jerked her head up to get as much distance between her nose and the snake as possible. From my far forward position, her neck acted as a catapult throwing me up and over Ken and her rear end. It was not a gentle landing but a lesson was learned — you sit on a horse's back not their neck.

By the time our family decided to move to Hickory, Maude was a part of our family. She plowed the garden, pulled the sled that carried the harvest and served as a faithful playmate to a couple of would be cowboys. We were moving into town and Maude couldn't go but Dad arranged for a man who lived in the country, not far from where we would be living in Hickory, to keep her for us. Years later I found out that Dad had given her to the man but with the provision that we could visit and ride her whenever we wished.

After moving, Dad was busy and didn't have a chance to take me to see Maude right away. I missed her terribly and only knew that the man who had her lived near the airport. With the help of a new friend who knew how to get to the airport, and riding double on his bike, we started our search early one Saturday morning. Looking back I don't remember many of the details but I do remember that we crossed the runway and I saw an airplane close up for the first time. He pedaled house to house and I knocked on doors asking, "Are you the one that's keeping my horse, Maude?" To save my life I couldn't tell you how many doors I knocked on that day but it was late in the afternoon before a man finally said yes.

The only memories I have of our reunion now, that's not fuzzy like most old memories get, is standing in a red clay farm yard with my arms around Maude's neck and my face pressed against her mane and one other fleeting moment when, from my old familiar position on her bareback, with her mane and my hair blowing in the breeze we raced around the farm yard together.

It wasn't long after that when Mom and Dad told me that Maude had died. They tried to break it to me gentle but I still cried. Looking back across the years that separate a 45 year old man from the eight year old boy, I still cherish the memories of the "cowboy" summer — when Maude the faithful "cayuse" and a barefoot, freckled faced boy rode the range together.

In quiet moments when I look back now there is an image as real as a photograph of a Carolina summer sunset, the sky aglow with colors, a whippoorwill singing down near the woods and there, facing the sunset, on Maude's slightly swayed back sits a boy, his bare feet dangling, with the reins held loosely in his hands. When this image visits me I can smell the mixture of new plowed ground, the worn leather of the reins and Maude as vivid as if the scene were only an arm's length away not nearly forty years back.

In these moments of reflection it is all I can do not to believe that somewhere upstream along the river of life there is a quiet eddy where the waters of time are trapped and calm and there Maude and the boy that used to be, are still together sharing adventures and riding the range forever.