Ridin’ for the brand with family and friends
‘Ridin’ for the brand’ is a term that has long been used to refer to a cowboy who is dedicated to the outfit that has hired him. A cowboy that’s riding for the brand will place the well being of the ranches stock above his own personal health and safety. In short, a cowboy who rides for the brand would risk his life to save one of the bosses’ calves. His only reward for such dedication was often only a too-hard bunk, a couple of good meals a day and a wage that was just enough for necessities. But, most of all it was the satisfaction of a job well-done and of knowing he had done his best.
‘Ridin’ for the brand’ is also the motto of Christian Cowboy Ministries. My good friend and long-time hunting partner Fred Ellis from Meeker, Colo., founded CCM. Fred began a prison ministry several years ago that has grown to an expanded ministry that also provides a weeklong ‘cowboy’ camp for the children of inmates. The camp gives many city kids their first chance ever, to learn the basic care of a horse, how to saddle-up and how to ride. Meals are prepared cow-camp cook style and sleeping bags replace soogans inside the canvas tents where they bed down after a long day. Perhaps most importantly, Fred also provides daily Bible study and devotions in his own unique cowboy style.
Of course for all of this to be successful it takes people, people who ‘ride for the brand’ and are dedicated to making it happen. It was to this end that Deb and I traveled to Max, Neb., to take part in a trail ride and perform at a fundraiser to support this important ministry. Those of you who might not be familiar with where Max, Neb., is … it is located just over a dozen miles east of Benkelman, Neb., on Highway 34, just past the point where Mountain Time changes to Central Time. And for the record, Benkelman is the hometown of Ward Bond, longtime friend of John Wayne.
On Saturday afternoon, under a hazy sky and with a steady breeze that kept the mosquitoes hunkered down in the grass, nearly 30 riders saddled-up Paints and Pintos, Quarter horses and Tennessee Walkers, Welsh ponies, Shetlands and Arabians. There were Zebra Dunn’s, Buckskins, Red Roans, Flea-bitten Grays, Blacks, Whites, Sorrels and Bays. There were youngsters just out of their first year in school, Mom’s and Dad’s, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas all who came together for an afternoon of riding the hills and canyons of the Nebraska prairie.
This wasn’t a trail ride on a dude string of nags that plodded, nose to tail, along a well-worn trail. At times we rode in groups as much as half-a-dozen abreast as we visited with each other and gained new friends. A handful of riders might break from the bunch and race to the nearest hilltop, cresting the ridge at a gallop to stop and gaze at the vast expanse that lay just beyond their ponies’ ears and on to the far distant horizon.
Our guide and the ramrod of this expanse of Nebraska prairie, Tom Noffsinger, pointed out the meadow where some long forgotten settler had planted walnut trees near the edge of what had been a small pond. He showed us the jagged rip of earth and rock called ‘Deep Canyon’, so steep that it divided two separate ranges and so impassable that no fence is needed. He told of the daylong effort that he and his sons undertook to lower themselves, by rope, into the canyon and cut steps with shovels, to give a trapped cow a foothold to climb out. He told of the ancient cottonwoods, ‘just two canyons over’ where in years past, rawhide ropes and shreds of hide from Cheyenne burials, still dangled from overhead branches. And he pointed out the streambed, lined by cottonwoods and willows where the last winter camp of a Cheyenne band was made before they were rounded up and shoehorned onto a reservation.
This was country washed in history where the echoes of ponies hooves, the lumbering tread of buffalo, the rattle of wagons and the voices of those long past will always ride on the breezes that set leaves to rustling as they whisper their secrets.
It had been a long time since Fred and I had last ridden together and the time spent horseback was a time of quiet camaraderie, a remembrance of past rides and a renewal of a friendship that has continued for years despite the infrequent reunions that we manage.
After the horses were unsaddled and we’d had a chance to clean up a bit, we headed in to the Benkelman 4-H fairgrounds for a barbecue and the evening performances of poetry and song, Fred and I being the poets and my wife Deb the songbird. As Fred said when he introduced her, “Here’s both the beauty and the talent for this show.” I’d have to agree.
I’d say that we could count the weekend a success. Because of the dedication and loyalty of many people like Joni Peterson who organized the event and others who ‘ride for the brand’, at least one more child will be able to attend Fred’s Christian Cowboy Camp. Good hands from all over the Max and Benkelman area came together and saddled up to ride. They volunteered their time, rounded up the groceries, and came together as a community for a common goal.
As for myself, any time that I am able to spend in the company of my wife, my family and friends is a day to be remembered and cherished. When it can also be spent with others in the pursuit of bringing just a tiny bit of sunshine into someone else’s life, then it is just a touch sweeter. When it can be done horseback, well, I’d have to say it seems to be just a touch closer to heaven. Quite appropriate, when you’re ‘Ridin’ for the brand’.