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Monday, August 1, 2011

No. 60 Harkers Island “Cowboys” - Mike, Bill & their horses

A recurring fantasy, even a dream, among boys of my age on the Island was that we have one of those much touted Shackleford Banks ponies for our very own (see post no. 25). For most of us that was all it ever was, but for some of us, including two of my brothers, it became a “dream come true.”

The horse-penning that occurred at the height of each summer, and that most everyone on the Island got to witness, could not help but arouse the interest of a generation that was fed a daily dose of TV westerns. Several times each evening we watched in our living rooms as both Cowboys and Indians rode their horses gallantly into town, into battle, and even into the sunset. Knowing that there were large herds of seemingly free and wild ponies for the taking just across Back Sound was constantly on our minds and in our conversations.

Actually, the wild ponies were wild but they were not really “free.” Almost all of them were claimed by owners from the Island and the mainland, and one of the main reasons for the annual penning was to identify young foals so they could be claimed and branded. My father even owned a few, and when I was about five years old he allowed my brother, Mike (son number four), to bring a young, roan colored mare over to the Island to spend a summer. After just a few weeks, and before the horse was fully “broken” for riding, the pony sustained a serious cut on its hoof while grazing in a wooded area between our house and Cliff Guthrie’s. 

Seeing how grave the injury was becoming, and knowing that veterinary help was out of the question, my father decided to transport the filly back to the Banks so it could heal itself in the salt marshes that until then had been his home. He wrapped the wounded heel with strips of a bed sheet and tied it up with string, and then turned it loose in Cab’s Creek, a section of marshes that lie directly across the Sound from our house.

My brother, Mike, as a young teenager
My brother Bill (son number three), however, had a much more fulfilling experience as an Island cowboy. In the Spring of 1953, when he was fifteen years old, he was rewarded with a gift of fifty dollars for the previous summer of helping my father in the water. They had agreed to use the money to buy a Banks pony from an Island neighbor, Joe Neal Davis. ‘Joe Neal’ had a two year old stallion he was keeping at East’ard (Core) Banks that was both bigger and more lightly colored than most other feral horses. Needing some immediate cash, he sold the pony for approximately half of the going price that similar stock would bring had he waited until the auction that accompanied the summer penning.

Daddy and Bill pulled a skiff behind the “Ralph,” my father’s boat, to the Banks where the horse was captured, and then hobbled so he could be carted in the skiff back to our landing. The pony proved so spirited that both the capture and the fettering were much more difficult and time consuming than my father had anticipated. Memories of that experience would resonate with my brother and would be evidenced when the time finally came to move his pony back to the Banks for the Winter.

Bill stabled his new pony, that he named “Samson” after the long-haired Biblical strong man, in the grassy yards that belonged to our father, our Uncle Louie, and our grandfather, Ole’ Pa. He soon had Samson gentled enough to ride, but when Daddy realized that Bill had begun a pattern of mounting on the horse’s right side, Indian style as it was called, he demanded that his son retrain both him and his ride to the more traditional “left-sided mount.” That was fine with my brother, but the horse, now used to the original routine, began to bite at Bill’s arm every time he approached from what Samson assumed to be the “wrong side.” Eventually, my brother grew weary of the “snipping” and in a reflex punched his horse squarely in the jaw. “After that,” he said, “Samson never snapped at him again.”

My oldest brother, Ralph, was already married and living in Idaho when he heard about Bill’s new venture. As an expression of both love and admiration for what was being done, Ralph purchased a used saddle from a military surplus store and had it shipped all the way to the Island so that his younger brother would not have to ride bare-backed. Bill kept and cherished that saddle long after the horse it had straddled was gone.

The Island in 1953 might not have been thickly settled, but it was still thickly wooded, meaning that there were few open spaces for riding, especially running, a new pony. Bill made use of a north-south path that stretched from the landing, ran beside our house across the main road, and then back to the “old road,” roughly a quarter of a mile, as his riding circle. After a while the rider and his horse extended their range all the way to the Sand Hole at the west’ard; more than a mile each way. The horse loved to gallop in the soft white sand that interspersed the dunes and bushes, and they were often joined there by Bill’s good friend, Jim Sparks, who also had a pony of his own. While riding there alone among the hills one day Samson was “spooked” and threw off his rider. Startled by the event, the horse ran all the way home without Bill, while my brother, who had punctured his side on a tree limb, had to make his way home using only his own two feet.

By the end of that summer the sight of Bill riding his horse was recognizable to almost everyone close to our home. Samson had been fashioned into a dependable mount and was much loved by his rider. But the financial realities of the era did not allow for anything other than grazing for sustenance. Purchasing hay was out of the question, so Bill knew he would be able to keep him only until the grass began to die in late Autumn. After that he would have to carry his horse back to the Banks so that he could forage the same shrubs and grasses that had sustained the herd for almost three centuries.

As the sun moved farther south in the evening sky, and the summer grass quit growing, Bill realized that the time had come to retrace the same journey that had brought Samson to the Island six months earlier. At least this time he would be able to deposit his horse on Shackleford, much closer and easier to get to than Core Banks could ever be.

Anticipating the problems that had been evident when his horse had first been captured and transported, Bill began to prepare his horse and friend for the journey that awaited them both. More than a generation later, my mother and sisters would still wax emotional as they described my brother training his horse to get into the skiff; not just to make Sampson more comfortable, but also to avoid the frustration that my father had shown a few months earlier when the routine had first played out. Day after day, Bill would walk his horse to the landing so he and Samson could practice getting in and out of the skiff. Finally, the day arrived for departure, and, much to everyone’s relief and satisfaction, Samson comfortably climbed across the gunwale and stood erect, where, being held by my brother, he was towed across Back Sound to his winter home.

Teenage boys grow up much faster than horses, and by the next summer, just like Mike a few years later, Bill had turned his attention to other more “normal” interests for a sixteen year old boy. But he did so having lived out a fantasy that only a very few boys, even Island boys, ever got to experience.


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