|RIP Mr. Preston|
Thomas 'Amarillo Slim' Preston Jr. died today at the age of 83. Many of you may not know who he was but in certain circles he was rather famous or actually infamous depending on your point of view.
In my younger days I actually knew the man quite well. I went to school with his son Todd and worked summers on his ranch near Clarendon, Texas.
I know there are a lot of stories of some of his more famous deeds, like beating Minnesota Fats in pool with a broom stick or hitting a golf ball a mile on a frozen lake. But I too have a story about Slim and this one incident is one of the acute things that happen in your life that in some small way becomes a part of you - part of your make up for the rest of your life.
For all the glamorous side of the man - Vegas the outlandish bets and what not - the showman if you will, there was another side to Mr. Preston. He loved the land. He loved getting up on a cold January morning - dragging me and Todd to go count cattle in the North-forty as it were. Now I don't know how many of my readers actually worked on a ranch but oddly enough it is not that enchanting. But for a 12-16 year old kid it was heaven.
Slim's ranch was literally five miles just beyond the middle of nowhere. Not a lot of amenities if you take my meaning. We sometimes camped just like in the movies, coffee out of a pot that was new sometime in the early 30's over a metal grate with embers glowing yellow below it. We did have Jerky but little else when it came to 'store bought' vittles. I mean way beyond cool.
Slim had a 30 ot 6 he kept in an saddle holster that he could whip out in a heartbeat and take down anything around. But mostly he just used the .22 caliber long rifle to get our daily requirement of meat (mostly rabbit). I remember the look in his eye every time he took the .22 out; steal gray eyes never wavering from his prey. His hand mechanically doing everything while his eyes zeroed in on his target damn scary to witness. I am sure he missed a few times in his life but never in my presence.
I once asked him why he didn't use the 30 ot 6. He shook his head and said, "Son, there'd be nothing left to eat." That was Slim in a single sentence. Pragmatic, concise and to the point. I loved him for that.
Mae West was her name; she was a beautiful animal, dirty white and stood about 16 and a half hands high, fairly tall for a mare. She was 7 I was 12 and this was the first time I'd every been on a horse other than the pony round-about at the county fair.
Mae was what they call a cutting horse. She was trained to cut individual cows out of a herd for branding. She was a precision instrument when it came to responding to her rider - assuming that rider knew what the hell he was doing - which of course I did not. Needless to say when our eyes met across the corral I could tell I was in trouble deep and by god she knew it.
Slim was on his pride and joy. A beautiful 18 hand tall Palomino called Probation, or Pro for short. To say this animal was mean would be like saying that Pol Pot just had some mild anger issues. If Slim told Pro to bite me damned it that animal wouldn't throw his head around and take a nip at me.
Well the mission for the day was to go about 5 miles into the northeast corner to find a cow who'd thought it prudent to wander off to have her calf. It was early, cold and just about as miserable a day as you could imagine. In other words for a 12 year old out of his parents care for the first time - it was freaking perfect.
Slim had saddled Mae and Todd's horse Soxy (which by the way was remarkably tame compared to the beast Mae) and simply turned to us and said, "You boys said you want to learn some ranching, lets saddle up and get a move one." With that mounted Pro and started for the gate with out another word.
I looked at Mae with something bordering on panic then at Todd who nodded and threw himself on Soxy. I tentatively took Mae's reigns and did the same. Once on top of the animal she ambled amicably toward the gate following Pro.
"Well this is pretty damn easy," I said, "You're just a big old softy at heart aren't you Mae?" Well oddly enough that's when I thought I would most certainly die. You see with a cutting horse you have to be rather judicious with the reigns. If you loosen them on one side the horse thinks it's time to go a-cutting!
Well being new at the game I inadvertently did just that and off we go. Mae went from a walk into a full throated cantor. For my part being as seasoned as a clever garden snail I dropped the other reign and grabbed the horn and simply held on for dear life. Now I am sure there was some yelling and whining to go along with the festivities but honestly all I remember is the fact that I was on a 1700 pound animal of which I had absolutely no control over.
Time had no meaning at this point. I could have been on this ride from hell for 30 seconds or 2 hours but I do remember at one point seeing Probation literally flying up on my right out of the corner of my eye, cutting off Mae's flight to regions unknown and forcing her into a temporary fence.
We were traveling so fast that Mae literally climbed the fence with her front legs subsequently throwing me from her. I hit with a resounding thud that hurt like hell by the way. I pushed myself up instantly, not wanting to be trampled by Mae's stomping around, and burst into a run back to the truck. Game over in other words.
I hadn't made it ten feet when I heard Slim say in a voice I'd never heard him use before. "Son, get back on that horse." That' all he said. There was no discussion no pleading my case. I turned looked into his pale unblinking grey eyes, and I understood him completely at that point. I took Mae's reigns without a word mounted her and rode for the next 6 hours without incident.
I know it may not seem like a pinnacle moment to some. It's not like Moses parting the Red Sea or anything. But for me, Slim ordering me to get back on the fearsome beast meant more than anything. What if I hadn't? What if through my entire life I took the easy way out and simply gone to the truck and waited. Would I be who I am today? I choose to believe I wouldn't and for that you have my sincere thanks Mr. Preston for I am a better person to have known you.
Rest in peace my friend and thank you sir.