Michael Johnson is a friend of Horse and Man – thank horsegods. He is the tremendously talented author of HEALING SHINE and THE TRIALS OF JOE BEN BLACK, Confessions of a Rope Horse.
Today, Michael shares with us his story, STAND BY ME, which I thought was a perfect way to bring in the gifts of the New Year!
Michael’s original story, STAND BY ME linked here.
In memory of Michael Cotter – April 13, 2031 – July 31, 2017
STAND BY ME
The words to a beautiful old song…Stand By Me. Just about says it all, doesn’t it? In our darkest hour, that’s what we want our real friends to do…and they do. They stand by us no matter what happens and when the ‘going gets tough,’ they stand right there…they don’t leave. That’s what real friends do and we are always blessed to have them.
I have a number of these remarkable people in my life and I want to tell you about one of the very best. Like many of my special friends, he is an old cowboy. He is a third generation farmer with a deep love of the land and interestingly enough, he is one of America’s premier storytellers. His name is Michael Cotter. He lives on a 1000-acre farm in Minnesota and his stories are as rich as the earth he farms.
At first glance, he seems like most all of the other farmers who populate rural areas. When you visit his home, you might find him on his tractor or in the middle of a soybean field, or tending cattle. You would never guess this 69 year old man, dressed in jeans and boots with an old hat drawn down over his bright eyes, has appeared from Tennessee to Ft. Worth, Texas, has performed at the Smithsonian and been featured a number of times on PBS Television. It just wouldn’t cross your mind this fellow has hosted two radio shows and shared his lessons about life in front of thousands of people and made them laugh and also caused them to pause and think about our time on this earth in a pure, clear and simple way.
He has been a mentor and friend of mine for a number of years. He encouraged me in the early days and I will never forget that. I remember once I had an upcoming presentation for a large number of corporate executives and I asked Mr. Cotter’s advice and suggestion on what he thought I might talk about. He thought for a while and said, “Take your rope and teach them how to throw a loop.” I replied, “Oh, Mr. Cotter, I can’t do that, they might think I’m “country.” He looked at me sharply and said, “Aren’t you?” And we both just died laughing.
I took the rope and showed the big business types how to throw a loop and things worked out just fine. As he said later, “Son, we just can’t get away from who we really are. Always be yourself.” Great lesson.
Of the many experiences he shares, one is my all time favorite. It’s Michael’s story of his very special horse and with his permission, I want to share it with you. Traveling through Minnesota on my way to a job in Minneapolis, I stopped to visit and stay with Michael at his beautiful old farmhouse for a few days. After a huge breakfast at the local truck stop with other area farmers, we spent a wonderful cold, spring day touring his farm and listening to his recollections of an earlier time. His barn looked exactly like a Vatican cathedral and I could feel the ghosts of busy farm hands and big draft horses from long ago as we walked over the land where his family had been for over a hundred years.
Late that evening, he prepared a delicious stew and after eating far too much, I sat at his kitchen table, with a cup of steaming late night coffee and listened as he spun me a true tale about the old days. The old farmhouse became very quiet as if its walls and hardwood floor were listening too. The old house and I both listened to a story from a cowboy who told about sadness and disappointment and about how life has a way of working things out if we just have faith. A story about a special friend who saved his life, a friend who stood by him in his time of greatest need.
“I was twelve,” he began. “I had always dreamed of owning a horse and I always knew just how he would look. He would be a black horse that could run like the wind.” He smiled and shook his head. “Imagine my excitement when one day, my Dad came home and announced we would be traveling to the sale barn the next day to purchase my very own horse. I couldn’t believe it. We were up long before dawn that next morning and after hitching the big draft horses to the wagon, we headed into town. I was so excited, I could hardly stay in my skin,” he laughed.
Arriving at the sale barn, the twelve-year-old jumped from the wagon and scurried up the side of the fence where the horses were corralled. His eyes peered over the last high board, fully expecting to see the black standing proud and…
What he saw filled him with revulsion and a wave of nausea. The horses were hollow-eyed ghosts with skeletal structures clearly showing through sagging skin hanging on jagged bones. Pathetic creatures dying from starvation, the horses had been so desperate for food, each animal had eaten the tales and manes from their companions.
His Dad placed a tender hand on Michael’s shoulder and Michael looked up at him. “What’s the matter with them, Dad?” asked the boy. His Dad sighed and said, “I didn’t know Michael. The cowboys who brought the horses in rounded up these wild Mustangs in Nevada and Wyoming. They shipped them by rail car and the horses had nothing to eat for the entire trip. While I don’t approve, this depression we are living in causes men to do desperate things.”
Michael couldn’t bring himself to look at the animals again. He sat in the wagon with his head down, sick at heart, waiting on his father to come so they could leave this dreadful place. Suddenly to his dismay, he saw his dad talking to one of the cowboys who had captured the starving horses. He groaned inwardly as the cowboy stepped down from his mount and exchanged his reins for the money his father was handing over. Michael’s Dad had bought the cowboy’s horse. Michael’s disappointment grew deeper.
The mustang his Dad bought didn’t look quite as bad as the other nightmarish creatures but that wasn’t saying much. This pony was also skin and bones and had a number of deep scars along his sides from spurs driven in too deeply. His body was bald and looked as if some sort of mange had ravaged every hair.
Michael said nothing on the long ride home. The shadow of the proud black the youngster had hoped for walked quietly behind the wagon, his head hanging low. His Dad tried a couple of times to lighten the boy’s spirit. “You never know son,” he said. “We can feed him and take care of him. Sweet feed and good care do wonders for all sorts of God’s creatures. Let’s just give him a chance.”
Michael knew there was no hope for the wretched beast and he was embarrassed for the neighbors to see this…this thing walking behind the Cotter wagon. Sure enough, on the way home neighbor’s kids pointed and laughed at the apparition following the wagon and Michael’s spirits sank even more. He had been so excited just hours before. He had even picked a name for the horse he thought would be coming. The name was Thunder. “I certainly will never name this ugly thing Thunder,” he said to himself through gritted teeth.
“Turns out I was wrong about a lot of things that day,” Michael said between sips of coffee. “My dad was right. We fed the horse and kept him in the barn through the winter. To everyone’s astonishment, the horse responded much better than we expected. He filled out, the scars healed and…” He paused here and stared at me. The old house and I leaned in, waiting for the rest of the story. An upstairs board creaked as if to say, “Get on with it! What happened?”
“He filled out, the scars healed and the next spring, he grew a new coat of the blackest hair you ever saw in your life. I remember my Dad standing in the pen looking at that horse who had come back from the dead and my Dad just smiled.”
Michael named his new friend “Thunder” and Thunder became a trusted companion on the family farm and a good working cow pony. The boy and the animal grew close as only as men and horses do after a hard day’s work in the field. Hidden inside a starving mistreated mustang, there was a proud black after all.
Except for one small problem. Like most of us, Thunder wasn’t perfect. He was certainly a good horse but he had one flaw. Thunder would not stay “ground-tied.” Every working cowboy knows the value of an animal that will stand still when you get off of him…and Thunder would not do that.
“Maybe it was the mustang in him,” Michael said from the other side of the beautiful, old weathered kitchen table. “You know,” he said, “they’re born to run free and maybe when we dropped the reins, he felt he could be wild again. He just wouldn’t stay ground-tied.”
Michael explained how it wasn’t really a serious problem because everyone knew of Thunder’s tendency to hit the road if left alone. So, all of the hands on the farm always handed the reins to a partner when they had to dismount from Thunder.
Now entering adulthood, Michael found himself with even more responsibility on the family farm. Even as a youth, he was always able to pair the mommas with their respective baby calves at round-up time. Michael had a sense of ‘cow’ in him. On one particular winter day, he was worried about an older cow that he hadn’t seen for several days. Knowing that she was about to calve, he decided to saddle Thunder and ride the farm to find her.
As he left the barn on the black, his concern increased as he saw the blue-black clouds building in the north. “Wouldn’t do for a man to get caught in one of these Minnesota “blue-northers,” he thought to himself and kicked the pony into a trot.
He rode for hours and found no sign of the momma cow or her baby. The wind was whipping now and a few large flakes began to fall. Michael and Thunder rode on, faster now, each step taking them farther away from the safety of the barn and home.
With his hat pulled down low and collar turned up to shield the icy wind, Michael fought to see through the snow coming in full force now. He decided to turn Thunder home and could hardly bring himself to do it. He knew such a decision would sentence the old cow to death. Then he heard her bellow farther to the north.
With Thunder at a dead run, he raced up a small hill, feeling good that he had found the old girl. As he crested the rise, his hopes fell like the snow around him and he immediately realized everybody was in trouble here.
The old mother cow had in fact had her baby. After the birth, the little one had slipped from her mother’s womb down a slope into a small ravine holding icy water. The baby couldn’t get up and the momma couldn’t get her out and Michael knew
One was that he was simply not the kind of man who could let a cow and a calf die in the snow. Call him foolhardy and too soft…call him anything you want. That’s just the kind of man he was and still is. The second problem was even worse. He was riding a horse that would not stay ground tied and there was nothing to tie him to out on this open range.
Michael knew what he had to do. Some would laugh and call him a fool. I am not one of those. Michael dismounted from Thunder and whispered in his ear, “I have to go down in that ravine, son, and one time in your life…Thunder, just one time in your life, you have to stand by me. Don’t run, stand by me.”
And with that, a young farm boy turned his back on a mustang, born to run and walked down into an icy arroyo to save a life while risking his own.
At the bottom of the depression, icy water filling his boots, Michael cradled the baby and began his ascent up the steep hill. He peered through the snow and…Thunder was gone.
His hopes fell again as he desperately weighed his non-existent options. The wind stopped for just a moment…the flakes ceased their swirling and there stood old Thunder nervously pawing at the ground. Not too happy about the whole thing, but at least he was still standing. One time in his life, old Thunder stayed ground-tied. He stood by his friend in his time of need.
Michael cautiously approached the pony and gently grasped the rein…the lifeline that would take them all to the warmth and safety of the barn almost a thousand acres away.
The baby lost her ears due to frostbite, but grew to be a fine cow on the farm. The momma lived for several years and had more babies and Michael, although bitterly cold, was fine… because old Thunder brought them all home.
Why did he stand there that one time? Was it because he remembered a family that had been kind to him? Did an angel wrangler whisper in his ear, “Stand by your friend this one time.” I don’t know, I like to think it was both. All I know is I’m glad he did.
That black mustang saved the life of one of the finest men I have ever known. Like Michael’s Dad said, “A little sweet feed and good care can do wonders for all sorts of God’s creatures.”
Thank you Thunder.
Review all Michael’s books, tapes and CDs at michaeljohnsonbooks.com.
Michael Johnson Books
LAST CHANCE TO GIVE TO THE DECEMBER BUCKET FUND – The MIGHTY TRIO! We are ONLY $75 short of our goal! Many, Many thanks for all the donations and calendars/jewelry purchased!! Here is a sneak peek at how wonderfully the old mare is doing after 4 weeks of food and love. She was the one who wasn’t supposed to make it through the first night… Click here to read the story. Click here to donate! THANK YOU, EVERYONE!
Strawberry Mountain Mustangs is doing an AMAZING job…