by Scout Wilkins
During the free-wheeling years between leaving my own parents and becoming one myself, I worked for awhile at Sleeping Child Hot Springs in the Sapphire Mountains of southwestern Montana. Bob was a friend of mine who used to come up to the springs every day, to work out in the pool and have a couple of beers. He was a research doctor at the Rocky Mountain Lab, who’d had polio in his twenties, 40 years back. His legs were of little use, but his upper body was tremendously strong, and he’d lever himself around on a pair of canes. The hot water was great for him to exercise in. After his workout, he’d stop by the bar, and if I was around we’d shoot the breeze and tease one another.
The summer of 1983, my buddy Paula and I decided that we’d make our fortune offering horseback rides from the hot springs; a fun, but as it turned out not highly lucrative venture. We later figured out that we nearly broke even, if we discounted our labor, the cost of the corral we built, and the cost of hauling horses back and forth from our place to the hot springs once a week.
In a borrowed truck with no brakes.
One day I found myself sitting by Bob at the bar, tapping a straw on the counter and watching the beads of Pepsi roll out, thinking of nothing in particular.
I heard myself tell him he ought to let me take him for a horseback ride.
When he snorted, I pressed on. I hadn’t given it any thought, but it quickly became a challenge. “Really – I’ve got this great little stout horse, solid as the day…he’d carry you. You’d do fine.” Bob looked at me, squinted and said “You’re serious, aren’t you? You’re crazy.” And went back to his beer.
After that I worked on him every time I saw him – figuring he’d never do it, but it made great banter:
“Come riding, Bob.”
“Like Hell, Scout.”
One Monday Bob casually added a line:
“How are you going to get me on that horse?”
I jumped right on it. “I’ll help you up onto that log bench we’ve got sitting in front of the tack shed. You reach up and hang from the porch header and I’ll lead Pat under you. Paula’ll be there to kind of steady things.”
On Thursday I was brushing one of the horses out in the hot dust of the afternoon when Bob hoisted himself down to the corral.
“Let me see this famous horse.”
I pointed Pat out – the short, stocky buckskin standing in the mud over by the water trough. Pat turned his head to watch, flicking a fly off his side with his tail as Bob moved around the fence to look him over carefully. He scrutinized the porch roof, and the bench I proposed to have him start on.
“You really are crazy.”
But by the following week, Bob was back at it. “Tell you what. I’ll come around next Thursday, and we’ll see if I can actually get on that horse, and how it feels.” All the next week we continued our regular banter at the bar, until Thursday when he showed up at the corral. I had pulled the bench into place under the porch header; on this building, the rafters set on top of the header, leaving plenty of room for him to get a good arm wrap around the timber, and hoist himself up. Pat, saddled and ready, was watching the proceedings with interested ears.
Bob leaned his canes up against the doorway, and using the door jamb pulled himself up the two steps leading into the shed. Paula and I each offered a shoulder as he moved from the steps onto the bench. He leaned out and grabbed the header, and she stood next to him while I led Pat around and started him under the porch. Pat was interested in this novel idea, but willing. He was one of the calmest horses I’ve ever seen, and this day it almost seemed like he understood what was happening. He seemed to share the attitude of concerned eagerness that I know Paula and I were feeling.
Bob hoisted himself up and onto Pat’s back, and laid down over Pat’s neck as I led him out from under the porch roof.
The gravel parking lot by the corral was nearly empty, so we had plenty of room to lead them out and let Bob sit and get comfortable. He sat still quite awhile, then took the reins and very gingerly let Pat move around a little. He was holding himself in the saddle almost completely with the strength of his arms, and it worked just fine.
After about ten minutes, we reversed the mounting program and Bob got off. He stood there looking at Pat for a long time, then turned to me.
“OK, kid. Next Friday at 10 we’ll just go for that ride.”
I was young enough to be amused at the fact that he scheduled the ride more than a week off, when he came up to the hot springs daily – but happily, for once I was old enough to keep my mouth shut. Over the next week, we didn’t say all that much about the ride – Bob would end every conversation we had with “See you next Friday” but that was about the extent of it.
Friday came and we were ready for Bob long before he got up there. When he came to the corral, we got him in the saddle matter-of-factly, got our horses lined out and started out. I took Buckshot, my old faithful gray Appaloosa, and Paula rode Gus, a blue roan; the only other absolutely trustworthy horse in our stable.
Our route took us down the gravel road about a quarter of a mile, across a bridge, and then turned and followed the rocky trail up the east side of Sleeping Child Creek.
The trail was long, continuing all the way to the Anaconda Pintlar Wilderness and beyond. We would only ride out for half an hour and then turn and came back.
Bob had opted for an hour ride, with the understanding that we’d turn around sooner if things didn’t go well, but could go longer if he wanted to. When we started up along the creek and got out of sight of the road, he got pretty quiet for awhile – I was glad Paula was riding behind him so I knew he hadn’t fallen off. Although it was late July, the creek was still running high, and conversation was difficult. But as we rounded a few more bends, he began to call out:
“Oh, I had no idea.”
“Will ya look at that.”
“Listen to that creek.”
For me, it seemed much like any other day; I loved riding up Sleeping Child Creek, and was glad to be sharing it. When we decided we’d gone far enough about forty five minutes later, we stopped awhile and watched him try to soak it all in. Then we headed back down. On the return trip, we even took a shortcut through the creek and up the steep side of the canyon.
A month later, I ran into Bob’s wife Marcella at the grocery store. She said, “I want to thank you for what you did for Bob.”
I sort of brushed it off. “Oh, yeah, well I had fun too.”
She gave me a piercing look, took my arm and stopped me in my tracks. “Please hear me, Scout. Do you realize what you did for him? We moved to this valley 25 years ago, and he’d already had polio. He’s never hiked any of these canyons, and has never been out of sight of a road in this valley. He has always wanted to go up that creek, and you took him.
You gave him his first truly new experience in 25 years.”
Looking back on that ride with the wisdom 20 more years have given me, I shudder to think of all the could-have-happeneds. What if he’d fallen off – Paula and I were strong, but I know we could not have lifted him back on that horse. What if Pat had tripped? What was I thinking of, to take the steep, slippery shortcut coming home? What if, what if. But I was young and bulletproof – what if’s just weren’t part of my world.
And I’m so glad now.
About 60 at that time, Marcella was a picture of health, and we all assumed she’d outlive Bob – but one of the next times I saw him was at her funeral a few years later. We spoke of Marcella, and we cried. We spoke of the ride, and we smiled. Now, fifteen years later, I’ve just seen him again at the grocery store, in a motorized cart. He’s lost most of the use of his arms now and his legs are limp, but as we talked about that ride, we both could have sworn we heard the creek and the jingle of Pat’s bit as he shook the flies off his ears.