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by Frank Shortt
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Wendell, Bill Chambers and I become Cowboys
2014 Spectator Ron - The Spectator All Rights Reserved
My greatest desire as a child was to be a cowboy. I spent most of my daylight hours
riding on a make-believe horse and shooting a wooden gun carved out of a wooden powder box or a crooked stick. The sparse movies I
saw as a child only whetted my appetite for my intended career. Wild Bill Elliot, Lash Larue, Gabby Hayes, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene
Autry, Roy Rogers, Rex Allen, Tim Holt, just to name a few, were all in their turn, my idols. The old theater at Raven, Virginia became
a haven for me as I grew older and was able to “pay my way,” into the movies. Of course, twelve cents was awfully hard to get in those
days of the early fifties.
The only large scale coal mine in our region was run by
Irby Altizer. His operation was just below Shortt Gap, where the combination post office, store, and hangout were, also run by Irby.
This area of Virginia was and continues to be environmentally and financially inopportune. Dependence on coal was the only means of
making a living. This continues until today.
Irby used ponies to pull the buggies
that hauled the coal from the mine to the tipples. Iron rails, much like railroad rails, only smaller, ran to the face of the coal.
On these rails the buggies made their endless journeys to and fro hauling their ebony loads to fill the tipple. The ponies, half wild,
were overworked and underpaid for all the work they did. When not pulling the buggies, the ponies were allowed to run wild in a field
foraging for the scant grass and saw briers the field afforded.
One early summer
morning, after Irby had closed down operation of his mine, Wendell and I walked out the door to be greeted by Bill Chambers. Bill
was our closest neighbor and with whom we shared many adventures both fun and dangerous.
“Hey, did you know Irby Altizer’s ponies got out last night?” Bill asked with enthusiasm! They’re down at the creek bottom right now”.
I think the wheels in our heads began turning at the same time.
“Let’s go catch them and ride them. All we’ll need is some rope to catch them and make bridles for them” Bill assumed.
We easily found the rope we needed and assayed to go down and catch the ponies. There were three of them and there being three of
us, we felt sure we could catch one for each boy. This proved to be a much harder task than we thought. As soon as we would corner
one of them, it would begin to buck and kick straight out behind. It was all we could do to dodge the hooves much less put a rope
around his neck. We were crazy with enthusiasm to have attempted this foolish trick. Bill assayed to jump on the back of one of them
only to be bucked off immediately.
We finally isolated one of the ponies and between
the three of us we were able to herd him out to an abandoned mine, above Grandma Shortt’s house, where we hoped to corner and subdue
him. Steel rails lay in twisted masses, the wooden ties lay scattered all over the area producing a stumbling hazard.
We said things like; “Grab him around the neck!!. Lasso him!! Put the halter on him!”.
Finally, we were able to get a rope around
his neck, and when this happened the pony, suddenly, ceased to struggle. It was as if he thought he was being caught to pull the coal
We fashioned a rope halter, trying to emulate the work done by the cowboys in the movies
at the Raven Theater. We led him over to a pile of wooden crossties in order to be able to mount him. This would not be easy for a
boy of eight. Of course, I wanted to be first. Bill and Wendell held him while I mounted him and all of a sudden they let him go.
My ride was short lived. I had no more than touched his back when he went into a
frenzy! Did I mention that he was ‘half wild’! This was an understatement. He tried to bite, kick and buck at the same time!! I found
myself lying on my back only a short way from where I had mounted the pony. Had we even thought that this could turn out to be a travesty,
we would have let the pony go then and there.
Bill and Wendell, determined to have
a ride, caught the dangling rope of the makeshift halter and once again led the pony over to the crosstie pile. It was Bill’s turn.
He quickly mounted the pony and was just as quickly bucked off. He didn’t last as long as I did probably due to the fact that the
pony was already worked up. Still no Cowboy!!
We quickly caught the pony again, leading
him to the pile of crossties. Wendell was determined that the pony could be ridden. Hadn’t we watched Lash Larue, Roy Rogers, Gene
Autry and a host of other cowboys ride wild broncs? As soon as Wendell hopped astride the pony, he spread his body along the pony’s
body and gripped it around the neck. What a ride!
“Ride ‘im cowboy” Bill and I shouted.
Stick on him, Wendell,” we cried.
Alas, the pony headed toward the rusty steel rails
lying profusely about. In the pony’s haste to unseat Wendell he didn’t pay any mind to where he was going. Wendell couldn’t direct
him which way to go because the halter was streaming along behind. As a result, Wendell ended up getting thrown off in the rusty rails.
“Are you ok, Wendell?”
I’m dying,” he replied.
Bill and I suspected the worst because no one could survive
such a great fall as Wendell took. He was lying among the rusty rails, in a seemingly grotesque position looking as though his back
was broken, and as we thought, every bone in his body. We finally were able to extract Wendell from the rails and to get him in a
sitting position. Outside of being bruised and a few small cuts that miraculously didn’t bleed a lot, Wendell seemed to be ok.
We all decided we were not cowboys after all We succumbed to the safety of riding broomsticks or small poles that we cut in the woods.
We were too afraid to tell our parents that Wendell had been thrown by one of Irby Altizer’s ponies so we shortened the report to
telling our parents that Wendell had simply fallen into a pile of the rails at the abandoned mine. Our parents never knew the real
truth until several years thereafter.
As for the ponies, they were finally captured
by Irby or one of his boys and sold to the highest bidder. I still like to think I was born to be a cowboy.