Nicknames can be a tricky business. Over the years I have been called a few that I liked, several that I didn’t, and one that sort of grew on me when I finally understood it.
You see, I was ridin herd over to Ben Carlysle’s place, and I must a been about…. oh, maybe about twenty or so, not that I was keeping track. I just remember feeling too old to get away with kid stuff, but not respected enough to get away with man stuff. It happened that while I was out of sorts and honery, I was stuck with a monicker that rubbed me raw like no other.
We had quite a gallery of characters ridin with us back then. Each of them had some area in which they shined. I mean, there was something they were really good at. The Peterson twins, Eli and Avery
were amazing shots with their Colt dragoons. It wasn’t just how fast they got them out, but they could hit a wish on the wind without looking. I swear, it seemed like they were destined to be gunslingers like the old timers talked about in town. Now, I could handle a gun pretty well, but these boys had some special spark when it came to skinning leather and letting fly.
‘Bama was the best trick rider I had ever seen. He would come thundering by at full gallop, and spin in all crazy ways on the saddle, till you got just dizzy watchin the fun. I was a fair rider, in the sense that I could do my work easily enough, But I had an unspoken agreement with a huge old stallion called Jessup. I wouldn’t try none of that fancy stuff, and he wouldn’t kill me on the trail.
Not all of the talents were flashy. Some of the older men could patch fence like they were born to it. They could go faster than any of use, and leave behind a tighter, stronger fence than we could build from new materials. It was impressive to see, and honestly, I tried to learn as much from them as I could. But my patches were just that, patches. Good enough to hold the stock in, but nothing amazing.
I had never thought about the fact that everyone was especially good at something but me. Until the oldest hand Torillia made an off remark one night at chow. He said they should call me Mr. Medium, since I was pretty good at almost everything, but not the best at much of nothin. I didn’t pay no mind to his jawin at first.
He was some kinda ‘breed or somethin. No one knew if he was part Mexican, part Indian, or exactly what he was. But he was odd, and different. So I didn’t even think about what he said. But one of the twins heard him. And besides shooting guns, these two boys were really good at only one other thing, shooting off their mouths. So Avery, or maybe it was Eli, doesn’t matter, so he goes to calling me Mr. Medium, and folks went to snickering.
It didn’t take long till his brother was in on it, and they had half the camp hootin, and cat calling at me. They yelled to me to draw and pretended to shoot me. Even ‘Bama got worked up. He normally didn’t say much because of his terrible southern accent. But he jumped in and asked me to race.
Several of the men made remarks, but by then I was too angry and too hurt to pay much attention. These was supposed to be my friends. And it wasn’t like I was bad at anything. I just hadn’t found that one place where I could shine. So I stewed on it over dinner. Then I switched night watch with one of the other boys, and rode back out to the herd hoping the next day would leave this horrible nickname behind.
I took my turn sittin on my horse watchin the cattle, and after a while, my relief came to replace me. It was the foreman, Mr. James, hisself. He didn’t pull night watch often, so I figured he was takin my measure to see how upset I was, or if I was gonna act like a baby. I decided instead I would man up and ignore it. So I thanked him for taking my spot, and without much other word I rode back to camp.
It was around 2am, and everyone who was allowed to be asleep was. So I made short work of getting my gear off, and bunking down myself. I was still stewing for a couple hours, and eventually Mr. James came back and dropped his gear beside mine. My last thoughts just a few hours before sunrise was that I was glad to not be hearing anyone laugh at my expense. Today had been a lousy day. Mr. Medium indeed!
The next morning started out great. Everyone was full of excitement. No one had called me that name. And we would be home by lunch if all went right. We were bringin in a small herd from an isolated valley high on the ranch. We figured to make it back to the house early in the day, and it was Friday! A few of us hoped to head right out for town, after a bath and change of clothes of course. We were making good time and things seemed pretty good at first. Then a couple head split off from the main group. The twins should have picked them up, but they had never learned to be in the right place at the right time when the cows were moving.
I felt like I was stripped naked in the middle of town when Mr. James yelled out “Medium! Take those two nitwits and get them strays back!”
My ears were burning as I spurred the old black and took off. You would think that five hundred head of cattle, a galloping horse, and the sounds of the outdoors would be enough to hide folks snickering. But I was sure I heard it long before I caught up to my two helpers.
I don’t rightly remember getting the stragglers back with the main herd. I was just plum too angry. I do remember the twins giggling on and on like some kinda females out courtin. I finally told them to shut it in my toughest voice. They both knew I was about the best fighter in our gang. Just the Mute, and old Torillia himself could out box me. And ‘Bama was the only one to ever out wrestle me. I looked at them hard and said “First one that speaks, I am gonna pull outa that saddle and whup till yer hind end bleeds. I swear.”
Together, they could have beat me easily, but that would never happen. As soon as any of our wranglers did anything dirty like that, they were sent packin. Mr. James was strict about it. “If you’re gonna start trouble,” he would say, “Fight with honor, or you won’t ride for me.”
They both knew I had them, and they tried to choke back their laughter. It sort of made it worse. The two of them were coughing and drooling, even to the point of almost falling out of their saddles. They had the giggles so bad.
As we rode into the compound, I felt a sense of relief. Finally we were home. I figured I could chose to go to town, and try to find me a girl to woo. Or I could find a quiet corner of the bunkhouse and just be left alone.
This wasn’t meant to be though. As soon as we arrived, the ladies came out. A few of the boys that had been around long enough had wives. But the prettiest females belonged to my employer. Mr. Danford was blessed in all kinds of ways. His spread was one of the largest around. His foreman was considered to be the best manager of a ranch anywhere.
His wife was a stunning beauty whom age had forgotten to touch. (Those weren’t my words. I just heard him say it to her one day, and fully agreed with his assessment.) His daughter Chelsea was a couple years younger than me, and had just over night stopped looking like one of the boys. I had more memories of her wearing jeans and working alongside the rest of us, but the best memories I had were all recent.
She had come out on the porch one morning with the sunlight behind her, and revealing her shape through the fancy gown she had on. I admit it. I had been struck with her. But she was the boss’s daughter, and completely beyond a simple cowhand’s reach.
I knew I shouldn’t be too friendly with her, but my heart still leapt when she saw me and waved. She came running up, talking about some ranch rodeo they were having that weekend in town. I would normally have been pretty happy to go try my luck with the others, but now I felt singled out. Everyone would be watching me to see if I won an event. I mumbled something about not feeling like it, and went to unsaddle my horse. I didn’t need to see the hurt expression on her face to know she was disappointed.
The others rode to town, but I stayed back. The decision had been cast when the twins had called out whether “Mr. Medium” would be riding in the middle or the back of the party. I yelled out to them to go on without me. Rather than let them think they had gotten to me, I also yelled “I gotta write my folks.” So I stayed in, and went bed early.
As I lay there unable to sleep, I had some time to think. A thought occurred to me, and I abruptly changed my mind about the ranch rodeo. “Maybe I could push through and win one of the events. That would shut my tormentors up. I could lose all day, but if I won at just one event……” I thought darkly.
The next day, I gathered my kit, and headed to town. I figured that if I got there early enough, I could try to get some information on the bulls and broncs that had been brought in. I made it to the arena, and several of the fellers I knew from other ranches were already there. I smiled and waved at them, but my smile died when one of them yelled out “Hey Medium, over here!” I guess my friends had been talkative last night.
I turned on my heel and ignored the fool waving at me. Instead I went into the livestock barn. It was easy enough to weave around the animals, and avoid speaking to anyone else. I found the men running the event, paid my two dollars, and went to hide till time to ride. I still didn’t have a plan other than to try to win one event if it killt me.
Fate did not favor me that day. I drew a mean nag for the bronc ride. It bucked, and jumped, and shook, and I went sailing into the air at seven seconds. Two more tries, and I made the buzzer each time, but neither ride was my best. I took third place.
The calf rope was usually one of my better events. And I did pretty well. But Tyler Sanders from over at the Lazy J was just a jack rabbit. No one could beat his time.
My whole day was a series of near misses, and second or third place finishes. As the events flew by, I became more and more distraught. All I was doing was proving those idiots right. I almost walked off, but then I caught a glimpse of a yellow dress up in the stands. I didn’t think I cared enough, but I found my self climbing onto the back of a very mean and dangerous looking bull, named Widowmaker.
This bull was known in our area. He had broken a few of the fellers up so badly, that the ranch owners had asked for him to be put aside. Of course someone had argued that the badder the bull, the better the ride. Then someone asked if someone else was skeered. That ended the talk right there. No one would admit to being too skeered to ride this horned beast.
I hovered above his back and knotted my gloved hand in the rope. Too tight of a wrap, and you could be drug to your death. To light, and you would lose your grip and get thrown early. I considered my choices, and wrapped an extra turn around my hand. The men helping me on looked at my hand, then one of them looked me in the eye, and said “Viya Con Dios my friend.” I think that meant good luck or something.
The buzzer went off and time stopped its even flow. I was down, then up, then sideways, then up again. I kept thinking, lay back and spur when you go high. I don’t know if I did or not. In fact, I sort of don’t remember anything until I smashed through a piece of fencing board, and flew into the stands. I think the buzzer had gone off already, but I wasn’t sure, so I had just kept holding on. I ain’t sure when I came separated from the rope, but I had some good marks deep in my gloves to show for the effort.
Hands were all around me, some were men’s, and not a few were ladies. I caught the scent of perfume, and heard a strong female voice telling everyone to back off. Things went dark for a while. When I came to, I was sitting propped up against a pole in the stable behind the rodeo grounds. Chelsea was sitting right there in the hay and the mud and the poop. She had a wet rag and was washing my face with it.
When I realized how nice it felt, I tried to pretend that I hadn’t woke up at all. But she was too clever for me. She smacked me in the face with the towel and said “Get up you big faker. They are giving out the awards.” I climbed to my feet, already dreading how the rest of my day would go.
My ride on that bull became sort of legendary. It was called the second best ride ever. The best was turned in by Billie Blunt, a kid from our neighbor’s place. He was a short little squirt that couldn’t rope, couldn’t shoot a gun, but he could ride ANYTHING. He had out shown me, and I was second best again.
I leaned against the rail watching my peers get their awards one by one. And I kept thinking I was doomed to never be the best at anything. I almost missed them calling my name. First the announcer, then a few other folks, then almost everyone was chanting my name. They wanted me “out to the middle of the arena right now” said the announcer. I climbed the fence, and hobbled over to them like a newborn colt. I don’t know if it was the hit on the head, or my own emotions, but my feet just didn’t want to work.
As I got to the small podium, the man announced the award for the “Best All Round” cowboy, and handed me a shiny belt buckle. All I could see was proof positive that I was going to be Mr. Medium the rest of my life. Here it was printed in silver, and I was expected to wear it with pride. It was proof that there was someone better than me at EVERYTHING.
I mumbled my thanks, and gathered my winnings, which also included a cash purse. The thought struck me that I could take the money, and head south. Maybe there would be a ranch somewhere that didn’t have a fast shooter, or a good fence man. As I mulled my future plans, I got to the fence, still looking down at my hands full of loot.
Chelsea was waving from the other side of the arena, but I was trying to ignore her. I was too embarrassed. As soon as the others called me Mr. Medium, she would look at me differently. I was sure. So I climbed the fence, and started back to the ranch on foot.
A mile or so down the line, a buckboard drew beside me. It was Torillia. He told me to get in. It wasn’t a request. I did as he said, and sat beside him on the bench. He kept looking sideways at me for a while, then he spoke.
“You know, I don’t think sometimes. I saw what that nickname did to you.” he said. Then after a pause he said “For that, I am sorry.”
I kept my head down and looked to my right. I didn’t want him to see the water that refused to stop pooling up in my eyes.
“You know, that nickname has a history. You ain’t the first to earn it.” he continued.
My curiousity got the best of me, and although I was still too unsure of my voice to speak, I did cock my head a little to listen.
“I came to this land with a cowboy who was good at most things, but not the best at any. He got a job working the same spread as me. And eventually did pretty well for himself.” Torillia explained.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
I thought he had changed the subject when he asked me “Have you noticed how hard a time Mr. James is having lately? He hurts when he sits his horse. And he tosses all night when we’re on the trail. I think he might be looking for a line boss. Someone who might take over as foreman someday.”
I perked up at the idea of a promotion, but I still had to know for sure, “What about your first Mr. Medium. Who was he for real?” I asked.
Instead of answering me directly, the old man said “You go ask Mr. James to tell you about his belt buckle, and if he would let you take the men out next trip.”
I distinctly remember settling down to sleep on the trail, and the old man had put his kit beside me. On top of it was a tarnished old buckle that read “Best All Round.”