I heard the audio version of this and was so charmed… it is part of Michael Johnson’s THROWING MY LOOP series. I have it in my truck. I just love this.
HEAVEN WITHOUT HORSES?
Horses in Heaven? What’s your answer to that question? It’s dawn here at Johnson Farms, and I’m sittin’ on my barn porch splittin’ a cup of coffee with the little kitten that ‘Becca and the Lord brought back from the dead. Naturally, she named him Lazarus. “You think there’s horses in Heaven, Lazarus?” I asked him.
He looks up at me with just a smidgin’ of coffee on his little nose, and yawns. I took that as a yes. “Me too, Laz,” I answer. “Me too.”
I’m just home from the place where I learned that piece of good news, the National Cowboy Symposium in Lubbock, Texas. Each year about this time, organizer Alvin Davis invites some 25,000 guests to come and celebrate the heritage of the “Cowboy,” and trust me when I say, it’s a special time.
Across the vast complex of the Lubbock Civic Center, thousands come to hear fiddle players, singers, poets, novelists, professors, and storytellers speak, play and sing from the heart about the west, about the cowboy, and about good horses. A special time indeed.
I’ve been for many years, and I enjoy every moment, but on the long drive home, I’m always struck by one particular thing. Along with the toughness and strength of these men, many of whom still ride the range at the 6666 ranch and the Pitchfork, men who still ride the desert in Arizona, and rope cattle in the canyons of Colorado, I’m always touched by the gentle side of these men. Not to slight the cowgirls – not at all, because they come too, and they sing too, and add so much to the gathering. It’s just that you wouldn’t expect an old cowboy’s morning prayer said to thousands gathered at breakfast to speak straight to your soul. It just wouldn’t cross your mind that my friend, Nolan Hefner and his fiddle, both about 80 years old now, can still sound like the rustling of an angel’s wings. And if you have never been, you wouldn’t expect to learn the answer to the question I asked a moment ago. Are there horses in Heaven?
I saw him coming. He was an impressive fellow even from a distance. “There’s a man who can rope a steer,” I thought. “And from the looks of those arms and shoulders, probably bulldog a buffalo.” And again, it just never crossed my mind that this cowboy would have a gentle, spiritual side, and he would be the one that would teach me – Heaven does in fact have a place for horses.
“I’m Mike Dunn,” he said, offering his big right hand. “You did me a good turn this morning, and I want to do one for you.”
“And how is that, Mike?” I asked.
“I listened to you presenting your paper this morning on Old Shine, and…” He looked down at my book table for a moment. I didn’t know if he was collecting his thoughts or perhaps had become a bit emotional, and then he laid a small book on my table. Still silent, he tapped the book with his finger for a moment.
“I want to do something for you,” he said. “Read my story in here – the one about ‘A Heaven Without A Horse,’ and maybe you and me will be even.”
And with that, he shook my hand and walked away. I did read his story, and me and that big cowboy from Arizona are not even. Now I owe him. If you would like a copy of Mike Dunn’s book, Somewhere Between Earth and Heaven, you can call Mesa, Arizona, 480-641-7175, and get your very own copy ‘cause you sure ain’t borrowing mine. Because of space limitations, I’ve cropped just a bit, and with apologies for that to Mike, here is the tale.
A cowboy and his roan are working cattle with the other hands, when they take a fall over the edge of a deep ravine. As they plummet to the canyon floor, the young man realizes he and his trusted companion will not survive. The impact does in fact, kill them both…
The fall was hard over the edge, the horse and I were gone.
Unaware, we shook it off, and got up as if there was nothing wrong.
No bright lights or tunnels, but a sense of calmness did fill the air.
We walked amongst the cowboys, but to them, it was as if we just weren’t there.
The cowboys went about their daily tasks, but we no longer belonged.
Had to leave, didn’t know to where, but staying seemed all wrong.
Saw a need to just get away, like I ain’t never seen.
We headed out beyond our range, and found belly-high fields of green.
The trail led us to a fancy gate, I stepped down hat in hand, the Roan by my side, we were halted by the gatekeeper who said, “The horse is not allowed inside.”
His hand came up, the keeper didn’t want the horse around.
The Roan’s eyes got big, his nostrils flared, but he stood his ground.
“St. Peter,” I thought? He played the part, and bid me, “Come on in.”
“Hold on,” I said. “Not so fast – a Heaven without a horse? That ought to be a sin!”
I’ve heard there’s few cowboys in heaven, perhaps this is the reason why.
When at the gates of heaven to his partner, the horse, if he’s asked to say good-by.
“There’s no place for a horse,” the keeper explained, but room enough for me?
My heart spoke out, “If Heaven has no horses, it’s a place I don’t care to be.
My equine friend’s been truer than me, so I’ll stay this course.
I won’t go to a Heaven – a Heaven without a horse.”
So the young man makes what he thinks is a decision that will affect him for all eternity, but he simply cannot abandon his friend. And even though the gatekeeper calls out that he wasn’t thinking right, the cowboy “mounts his Roan and rides ‘til the sun gives way to night.” Along the way, he accepts his fate…
Never looked back, nothing lost, the Roan and I had spring days with skies of blue,
We wandered for weeks, rode the back trails, roped us a steer or two.
Checked on herds, doctored some cows, sung every song I knew.
If this wasn’t Heaven, we decided this place would do.
We entered us a small town rodeo, and didn’t do too bad,
We had just as much fun as we had ever had.
And the steers didn’t mind being roped, they even loaded themselves in the chute.
And they would bawl at the cowboy when he didn’t connect with his loop.
I know it sounds strange, but that’s how it was in timed events and rough stock too.
I would bet it was Heaven for them, they were doing what they wanted to do.
And the young fellow begins to realize that somehow, he and his pony have slipped into Heaven, and even though he knows they will be asked to leave, “It was just so good, we’d stay as long as we could.” But his time in Heaven seems to be coming to an end when a rider appears one day…
“Where you been?” he said. “You never checked in. We’ve looked all over for you.
We got’a be going, get your grip, you got time for a good-bye or two.”
Where we were heading, the stranger didn’t say, and I wasn’t about to ask.
We mounted up, he spurred to a lope, bringing me in seemed to be his task.
Toward the end of the day, another gate we came to on the road.
It surprised me his stopping.’ “No need,” I said, “I well remember what I was told.”
The stranger broke a slight smile as he stepped down, then said, “Let’s talk.”
“That first gate you encountered, it was Heaven’s you thought,
but I’m telling you…it was not.”
That was your gate to Hell, and that gatekeeper was the devil looking for his due.
Haven’t you figured it out yet? That was Satan’s last chance at you.”
You showed your worth at the devil’s gate when you had your say,
You are in Cowboy Heaven and you and the Roan are here to stay.”
It was St. Peter that come for me, and he said I had made my decisions well.
An eternity without the horse he declared, was to have been my hell.
St. Peter smiled and said, “Without the horse, this place would be second-rate.
And if there were no horses in Heaven, you sure wouldn’t find me at her gate.”
And so I read the story aloud to Little Lazarus laying across my lap in the warm morning sun. I can tell, even though his eyes are closed, he enjoyed it just as much as I did. Just behind me, I see Shine and Little Blue in the pasture. “Lazarus?” I say, and he opens one eye to look at me. “You have to get up, son. I need to go saddle the horses and rope this morning.” He sighs and gently hops down on the wood floor, and then takes a long twenty second stretch finishing with a satisfied little grunt. And I look up to the sky. “I believe there are horses in Heaven,” I think to myself. After a moment, Lazarus turns his head listening. I’m surprised he heard it as clearly as me. “Me too,” said the Spirit in the wind. “Me too.”
Michael Johnson Books
1172 CR 4122 Campbell, Texas 75422 (903) 862-2082