The Old Broke Rancher on the Lonely Life of Buck Bronco

Old Broke Rancher Masthead
Buck Bronco

I've got a big bronzed statue on a table in my living room. It's a reproduction of a Remington cowboy desperately holding onto a bronco rearing onto it's hind legs, while the cowboy has also just started to swing his lasso. The statue's name is Bucking Bronco, but I've taken to calling him Buck. 

In like attitude have so many cowboys been pictured; at the moment of crisis, no one there to witness but his horse. No one there to tell him good job if he succeeds, and no one to admonish him if he fails. 

In my old age, I've taken to talking to the statue of the cowboy. 

'How's the day, Buck?" I might ask. Or: "Hold on, Buck. You'll get there yet."

No one speaks to Buck, as I have named him, after the pose his horse has struck, except me. I have been watching fairly closely for years now, ever since I bought him in a pawn shop in Miles City - probably two decades ago. In that time, he has never once received a visitor, nor moved a foot from his spot unless picked up and set elsewhere to facilitate dusting. I have gleaned from this that Buck doesn't have any family, or friends. Not even a sweetheart.

Not me; I'm up to my belt buckle in people. I've got a wife, kids, stepkids, in-laws, buddies, and a handful of enemies, too. Each of these are treasures, except maybe the enemies.

Take my wife, for instance, which I mean in the original sense, not the standup comedy sense. She's a wonderful woman, and a great mother to my children. She's kind, generous and warm. She is an altogether remarkable woman, which is why she sometimes expects too much from me, a mere mortal and a very potentially below-average one at that.

She's got the memory of a steel trap, but I have the memory of one of those non-lethal humane traps that require a lot of peanut butter or cheddar, but don't work, and are probably more appropriately called "mouse feeders," therefore. 

So she'll frequently give me a lot of very complicated directions in long-form expository prose. Many times, I am in another room, and she is speaking to me, a very nearly deaf man, in a volume more appropriate to a cartoon duckling. From my perspective, she is telling me the most vital step in a long and difficult sequence of actions that I must take or, say, the bank is going to foreclose on us and steal our children, but she is practically whispering it to me while I'm in the garage using a belt sander. Most of the time, I didn't even know I was being spoken to. It is only when I, for instance, fail to meet Gladys at the church with a tote bag full of marshmallows for her sweet potato pie during the potluck for Jim's grandchildren's e-sports team, which is going to play competitive Call of Duty in Sacramento next week, that I am made to understand that I have apparently missed something. 

"I told you to get some marshmallows and bring them to Gladys last week!"

"Huh? When last week," I'll ask. 

"I told you when you were 'fixing' the garbage disposal!" She indicated air quotes around the "fixing" because I had, in fact, failed to get it working again, though I had made a prodigious amount of noise trying. 

"I didn't hear you," I protest. 

"Then why did you nod and say 'uh-huh?'"

"Because its polite!"

Things like this occur with semi-regularity in the Shelton house. But it doesn't happen to Buck, as no one ever talks to him but me, and I never say anything I expect him to remember. He is never asked to leave his perch on the coffee table and go deliver marshmallows to potlucks. Or if he is, than I'm almost certain he failed in his mandate. Either way, no one is bawling him out. 

There are other advantages to being Buck Bronco the statue cowboy. He doesn't have to make money, pay bills, or do the laundry. He doesn't have to watch his cash dwindle as costs increase. He doesn't have to buy his kids all the latest Nintendo Switch games, making sure that it's Pokemon the Green of the Rising Blue (or something), and not Pokemon Red of the Fallen Yellow. One time, my son lost his retainer in a hotel restaurant, and we had to dig through a dumpster for twenty minutes because it had been thrown away with the food scraps. Buck Bronco has never had to wade up to his knees through cold spaghetti and warm lettuce to find his kid's retainer. 

Life is easy for old Buck, of whom nothing is asked and nothing is expected. The whole world is his open range. Or at least the living room. 

But then, something happens like I get something right for once and suddenly it's all "Wow, thanks, Dad," from the kids and "oh... you actually did what I asked" from the wife. Sometimes, if I am particularly lucky, I get a hug from my kids, which is a rare treat now that my kids are getting older, but which still has the potential to make my heart dance around my chest like a whirling dervish. Yes, it is true that there are lots of things I still want out of life: to be a millionaire, to then become a billionaire, then to subsequently become the world's first trillionaire, and finally to own both an RV and a yacht or two. Personally, I don't think that's too much to askYet, the older I get, the more I'm willing to settle for a baker's gross more of those special hugs. 

As for my wife, I'd settle for the admission that I'm not always an idiot.

"Hey Buck," I said to him last night. "Which is better: a life of responsibility, or a life like yours, unencumbered by obligations?"

Buck Bronco is too independent to render an answer, so I have to answer for him.

If I allow myself to put myself in Buck's cowboy boots, the first thing I notice is not relief from familial duties. I imagine that Buck Bronco is actually a little sad. He has spent the last dozen years or so watching the Shelton family gather around the hearth, eat meals together, celebrate holidays and birthdays, get ready for church, come home exhausted from band recitals and wrestling matches and football games. He's witnessed all the stuff I've tried not to take for granted - moments when my little guys still allow themselves some affection for their old man. He's had to watch as my kids go from adorably snot-nosed little rugrats to fine young men of which anyone sane and equipped with a heart would be proud.

Maybe that's what Buck Bronco wants, secretly, from his perch above the coffee table: a few ties to bind him. It could just be that Buck Bronco is jealous of me.

"You want to trade, Buck?" I asked him last week, as I was chewing these thoughts over in my mind. 

Buck stayed silent, apparently unable to admit, even to himself, that being a fat, middle-aged (let's be honest, late middle-aged) husband and father might be more desirable than being an immovable metallic cowboy. That what is lacking from his rigid and static life is some of the warmth which, if I am honest with myself, suffuses mine. In moments like these I understand how lucky I really am. Though I might not have a billion dollars, I'm a very rich man. Even if my wife will only tolerate me about half the time and my kids haven't listened to me for more than four words strung together in a decade, even then I reckon I'm about the luckiest man on Earth. 

"Poor Buck," I said, reflecting. I walked over to him and looked him straight in the immoveable eye. "I'm sorry that it's never occurred to me to share with you. And I know you probably won't like this, but maybe you'll forgive me for being such a big sap in my old age." 

Then I bent over and gave Buck a little hug, patting his rigid back with affection. 

I can almost feel Buck trying to squirm out of my grip, protesting that he's too manly for this sort of thing. But I think I know what he's really feeling. 

"You don't have to thank me," I tell him, a little bit sentimental. "Just be grateful I'm not in a kissing mood today, Buck."

Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy.  Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV.  Hell, scratch that.  Enough to buy the whole RV.  He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations.  Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.

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