Sunday, November 6, 2011

Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse

"Oregon Jim Creek was frozen solid and so was Smith's right ear".  So begins Paul St. Pierre's story of Smith; first name known only to people he hates, like bankers and brand inspectors. Smith is a small time rancher some 200 miles west of Williams Lake BC on the high Chilcotin Plateau. Set in the late 1950's when a ranch "needed 100 cows" to make a decent living, Smith has 78.  And many horses.  Many many horses.

Smith is a man of moderate ambition.  He has a Quarter Horse stud which he is convinced will make a legendary cutting horse IF Ol' Antoine, a local Chilcotin, will talk to the horse in the Indian fashion (this is long before horse-whispering became the rage).  He has promised Ol' Antoine $20 dollars and given him half already.  He has been waiting several years for Ol' Antoine to do this.   Ol' Antoine has a habit of promising Smith he will break the horse "right away, maybe start tomorrow".

Ol' Antoine according to his own stories might be 137 years of age.  He claimed to have fought in the Chilcotin War of 1864 and ridden with Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces in their futile race for the Canadian border. 

Smith's other ambition is to mind his own business and stay out of other people's troubles.  However the harder he tries, the more other people's troubles find him. Gabriel Jimmyboy, who "happened to shoot where someone was standing" and has been on the run for some months, has been pursuaded by one Walter Charlie to turn himself in to the law.  Smith trusts Walter Charlie "about as far as you can bounce an anvil in a swamp" and rightly so.  Ol' Antoine is to take Gabriel Jimmyboy in and collect the $500 reward which he will give to Walter Charlie who will "hire a good lawyer" and, as court translator, with Ol' Antoine in the witness chair, will speak "the words the white man wants to hear" to get Jimmyboy off the charge.

Other than warning both Gabriel Jimmyboy and Ol'Antoine that Walter Charlie is not to be trusted, Smith steers clear of the issue.  Until court is convened in the middle of haying season and his hay crew leaves to Williams Lake.  A broken mower blade sends Smith to Williams Lake and into trouble...

Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse was a gift from my parents back in the mid-sixties and surprisingly enough is still available from Chapters-Indigo.  The book was in the last care package MayB sent me.  I have read it dozens of times. It is an old friend. Paul St. Pierre spent most of his life in the Cariboo-Chilcotin country of interior BC and knows its people well.  The story is told in dry understated humour, which still leaves me laughing out loud at times.

They used coal oil lamps and gas lanterns. The toilet stood one hundred feet from the house and was made of logs, unchinked.  It was the coldest place in all Namko, possibly in all the world.
In the preceding summer Smith had built yet another line of his endless fencing between house and toilet.  He had not yet found time to make a gate through this fence.  The fence itself had required a month of hard work. The extra day required to make the gate had not been found by him. No doubt there was such a day, but he had not found it.
Some of these features of the Home Place annoyed Norah, in a general way.  On this day her annoyance was not general but specific.  Smith had been away for two days and he had neglected to notify her when he was going, where, why or when he might be expected to come home.

The story was originally written for television.  Chief Dan George made his acting debut as Ol'Antoine and went on to fame and fortune.  A good book, especially for those who enjoy ranching tales of a simpler time.

1 comment:

  1. Used to love listening to the stories on radio in the 50s as a kid. Then TV hit and the images that only you can create in your mind were gone. And not to forget the TV had to "warm up" before you could watch it. Ah oh my age is showing again.

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