A Bullet For Chester

by Dianna Dandridge-Rystrom

The sight of the bow-legged old cowboy stumping down the dusty red dirt road was a sight I would come to accept as I worked on the Diamond G Ranch in West Texas.

He was a funny old stick of a man. He couldn't talk without using a string of dirty words and he was missing all but about four of his teeth.

If he had ever owned a new pair of jeans you couldn't prove it by me. Everything I ever saw him wear was just one shade off from being white. About the only blue left in his old blue denim was just under the seams.

His shirts were all the same khaki western shirt with pearl snaps. Most had at least one elbow out and all were pretty thread-bare.

He usually wore what at one time had been decent boots, but like the rest of his wardrobe, they too had seen better days. They were patched and scuffed, but they did have new heels and soles on them.

The first time I saw him was the day I went for an interview as a ranch cook's assistant.

I was in between semesters and needed the money. Cooking, even for a crew of 15 wasn't going to bother me. I was headed out to talk to the ranch foreman when I saw Chester Rollins in his faded denims, khaki shirt and scuffed boots.

I pulled alongside him and asked if he needed a ride. I told him I was going to the Diamond G, but I could take him that far at least.

That was when I got a blast of his first set of dirty words.

"Ma'am that would be awfull nice. That #$%* @#$%^&* horse went and threw me down in the salt cedars and I'll bet my @#$ he's home eating his @$$%% off," Chester said.

His language caught me off guard more than just a little bit. After all in 1978 people just didn't talk like that, especially to women.

The old fellow kind of folded himself into the front seat of my 1972 Ford Pinto and said he was going to the Diamond G as well. For about 10 miles I was blessed with his company and I just had to overlook all the rough language. I don't think he even realized he did it. I guess about every third or fourth word was one of those words that would have gotten my mouth washed out with soap.

For some reason, I didn't take offense at it like I normally would. I guess I just accepted it as part of the old fellow.

On the ride to the ranch I managed to get the picture that his horse, an appaloosa gelding, Bullet, had dumped him off in the salt cedars then high-tailed it for home. According to Chester, Bullet would do that every so often. Apparently when Bullet thought he had done enough work, he would simply dump Chester and go back to the barn.

Chester was right. When we pulled through the gates and past the barn doors I could see a big appaloosa, still saddled, pulling hay from a rack.

With another string of four-letter words, Chester wished me luck on my interview. I heard him threatening Bullet as he stumped into the barn.

Greg Harwell was waiting in the cook's quarters. He laughed when I told him I met Chester.

"He's a colorful old goat, that's for sure. He and that old Bullet are a likely pair. I don't know what either one would do without the other," Harwell said.

As it turned out the position was more for a cook than an assistant. Harwell asked if I would be willing to cook for the boys as a trial run.

I said I would at least try and found my way into an immaculate kitchen. I was told I would be responsible for the cooking, but two younger ranch kids did the cleanup.

That first evening I was unsure about what to fix, but there were some tenderized steaks in the frig, so I figured the boys would all get chicken fried steaks, mashed potatoes, spinach, a salad and a quick cobbler.

The hardest part was finding everything in the new kitchen. I finally had everything arranged. The oil was getting hot, the steaks were breaded, the potatoes were cooking and the cobbler was in the oven. About the time I got the first batch of steaks out of the fryer, in stomps Chester.

"Well son of #$%^&, it looks like the #@$%^#&^ hired you on the spot," he said.

I have to admit it was kind of hard to carry on a conversation with Chester, or even follow what he was saying, thanks to all the dirty words.

I told him thanks and hoped they enjoyed it.

The hands began filtering in, two or three at a time, helping themselves to the buffet style meal.

As they filled their plates, most of the hands introduced themselves.

Jim and John, brothers, could easily pass for Mutt and Jeff. Jim was short and kind of roly-poly. John hardly cast a shadow.

They all seemed to have their oddities. I’d get to know them all as the summer wore on.

The meal must have been a success because Harwell hired me that night. I moved out to the ranch the next day.

The cook’s cabin was pretty much just that – a glorified cabin with electricity and running water.

Breakfast had to be ready between 5:30 and 6 so I was up by 4. Harwell gave me full control of the meals. I would prepare two full meals a day and something of light at lunch. All he asked was that I watch the waste.

That first morning I set out some fruit and cottage cheese along with pancakes and sausage. Of course coffee was served by the gallon. Cold milk and juice were on the sidebar.

The kids came over after breakfast for the cleanup chores. They were quick and thorough. I didn’t have to remind them to clean the sinks or sweep the floor.

While the kids were cleaning the kitchen, I wandered out to watch the morning routine.

The horses were all saddled and seemingly ready to go.

I watched as one cowboy after another mounted and rode off in different directions for their daily tasks.

Bullet stood out from the rest of the horses. Bullet’s splotchy hide was a sharp contrast to the sorrels and bays lined up at the rail.

I had to laugh as I watched Chester walk up and pet the old boy. Chester turned his back on him to answer a question from one of the other boys and Bullet took the opportunity to bite Chester right between the shoulder blades.

I knew it had to hurt when Chester let out a long string of dirty words.

He stepped up in the stirrup and I knew that big appaloosa was going to put on a show.

Chester hadn’t even got in the saddle real good before Chester’s heels were in the air and his head was between his knees.

For about five minutes, I watched Bullet and Chester give the daily rodeo performance. When Bullet stopped bucking, he stopped everything. With the use of his spurs and another long route of dirty words, Chester finally got Bullet headed out.

I smiled and went back into the cabin planning lunch and supper.

There were lots of cold cuts on hand so lunch was going to be submarine sandwiches and salad. I brewed a fresh pot of tea, sliced some onions and tomatoes.

As a quick afterthought I mixed up a carrot cake, thinking the hands would enjoy a little something sweet. I peeled the carrots and chopped a couple of apples, saving the skins and cores to offer to a couple of the horses when the hands came in.

Dale and Kevin were the first two to come in for lunch. They washed their hands, hung up their hats and made their way through the cold spread. I let them cut whatever slice of cake they wanted and offered them some sweet tea as they sat down.

Maybe half of the hands had wandered in when we all heard the familiar string of dirty words on the porch.

In comes Chester telling everyone what jerk Bullet had been all morning. Through the dirty words I figured that first thing Bullet wouldn’t cross a small creek. He had apparently sat down on his rear end. When Chester got off him and tried to pull him, Bullet jumped up, pulled back from Chester’s hands and ran a short distance and started to graze.

When Chester finally caught up with him, he walked back to the creek and Bullet crossed it like he had done a thousand times.

Then, they went after an old red angus cow and calf and Bullet went all goofy as Chester tried to rope the calf.

By the time Chester was through with his morning tale everyone was laughing.

As the hands ate their lunch, I grabbed the handful of carrot peels and apple cores and went to make friends with some of the horses.

Kevin’s horse was a lovely bay mare with marvelous manners. She took the offered apple skins so gently I hardly even felt her soft lips.

Dale rode a big dun that wouldn’t take the treats from my hand, but instead waited till I dropped them on the ground.

Sass was a long, rangy sorrel with four high white socks. At the time I wasn’t sure which one of the cowboys rode her, but she was sure easy on the eyes.

Then I came to Bullet. First thing he did was pin his ears back threatening me. I started to walk on by, but thought better of it and went ahead and offered him a few peels. He took them, but I think he swallowed them whole. He kept his ears pinned back all the time I was trying to be nice to him.

It didn’t take long for the hands to finish lunch and come out for the afternoon work.

I got the first glimpse of Chester and Bullet’s odd relationship. Bullet seemed to hate everything about Chester. In return Chester called Bullet everything but a cowboy’s good horse.

Just before Chester got ready to mount, I watched as he handed the big horse a sizeable slab of the carrot cake.

“Ma’am, that cake was purty good, but sweets kinda hurt my teeth, but old Bullet sure appreciates them,” Chester told me just before Bullet gave a repeat of the morning performance.

Watching it brought a smile to my lips before I wandered back in to start supper.

I had already set out chickens to thaw. I figured eight birds would be enough. That big commercial oven made roasting them a snap.

I mixed up some onions and mushrooms in some rice and stuffed the birds. Some of the ranch kids had brought in some fresh green beans so I sat at the table and snapped beans. I fried a few pieces of bacon for seasoning and set them on the stove ready to cook.

The rest of the afternoon was mine to do as I wanted, so I wandered over to the barn to look at some of the mares and babies. There were maybe twenty mares and babies with runs coming into the barn.

I knew most of the babies would be sold as soon as they were broke to halter and trailer. I had to admit there were some pretty ones.

I waited that day, half expecting to see Bullet come running into the barn, but no, he came in with the rest of the hands. He went straight to his feed bucket and patiently waited for Chester to bring feed and hay.

The boys cleaned up the roast chickens making me think next time I might need to cook an extra bird or two.

That evening I watched Chester come out to brush and curry Bullet. That mean old horse pinned his ears back, kicked, bit and was in every way completely disagreeable.

What surprised me though, was Chester seemed to forget all his dirty words. He petted the big horse and talked so nice to him, I think I was a little bit surprised.

Every time Bullet tried to kick, Chester just stepped aside and I heard him say, “Come on now, you know we gotta get this tail brushed. We’ll need to work on your feet here in a day or two won’t we?”

Chester carried on his one-sided conversation, never seeming to notice Bullet’s determination to do him in.

Finally, just as it was getting to dark to see much more, I watched as Chester delivered a flake of alfalfa to Bullet’s hay rack and stood there as he ate.

I had to get up early the next morning, so I said good night, happy to know that Chester treated Bullet well, even when Bullet was less than friendly.

Omelets, ham, and toast were on the menu for breakfast. I had them lined up on wax paper under a heat light when the hands rolled in the next morning. Chester was the last one to come in.

He said good morning and then asked no one in particular “Do ya’ll know what that stinking ^&^**( mule of mine done? He pulled his &(* 0% %^^$%#$# hay rack off the wall and trampled it. &*((&(*^^& now I gotta put up a new one.”

I guess I just figured this was routine as far as Chester and Bullet were concerned.

Chester and Bullet played their rodeo game again that morning, but all seemed well.

About 10:30 I heard pounding hooves and looked out in time to see Bullet head for the barn. There was no sign of Chester.

The boys begin filtering in for lunch about an hour later. Just as they were finishing up I heard a truck outside. I stepped out and watched and listened as the foreman, David England, dropped Chester off at the barns.

Let’s just say everybody got an earful of Chester’s opinion of his appaloosa gelding. Needless to say if Bullet hadn’t already been gelded, Chester probably would have taken the opportunity to do so.

He came in and grabbed a quick bite, but had to eat on the run because all the others were just about finished.

One more time, I watched as Bullet pitched and bucked and crow-hopped while Chester cussed him.

The summer wore on pretty much with the same pattern.

Bullet would come charging into the barn two or three days a week, sometimes in the morning sometimes in the afternoon. Chester always arrived with a mouthful of dirty words and vile threats, only to lovingly care for him that night.

About two weeks before I was going to go back to school, something changed. I heard some noise late one night.

When I went out to see what was going on, Chester and a couple of the other boys were trying to get Bullet up.

I could see he was kicking at his belly. Even in the dim lantern light I could tell the big horse was dripping with sweat.

Chester was at his head. Kevin had a second rope wrapped around his butt. Dale was pushing on his shoulder, trying to get him on all four feet.

This could be bad. I knew colic when I saw it.

The boys finally got Bullet up but he wouldn’t move. Every couple of seconds he kicked at his belly and made some terrible groaning noises.

Somebody said the vet was on his way.

I grabbed an old towel and soaked it in cold water, planning on rubbing him down. As I walked past Chester I saw a tear streak down his face. This wasn’t just an old cowboy with a raunchy horse. This was a man fearing he was about to lose his best friend.

The boys pushed and pulled and tugged on the big horse until he took a few steps, but it wasn’t enough to keep him moving. He tried to lie down again. One of the boys popped him hard on the butt with a rope.

Chester unwound on him with a string of dirty words, “$##@* don’t you ever *^% hit my &%^$#@ horse like that again!”

We had all heard Chester swear and cuss, but it had never been directed at anyone. This time they were more than just a string of dirty words.

The vet finally arrived and gave the big boy some pain meds and dosed him with some oil. Before he left, Bullet deposited a big pile in the corral. By morning we knew Bullet was going to be all right.

Chester was kind of quiet that morning at breakfast. Before he had his second cup of coffee he cleared his throat and made an announcement.

“Fellas, I want to thank you for helping me with old Bullet. He’s all I got. Sure would hate to lose him now. I think I got kind of rough with a few of you boys last night and I’m sorry. I just can’t stand the thought of anyone hurting that horse. I know you wouldn’t hurt him on purpose. I didn’t mean what I said.”

I don’t think anyone had really taken offense at what he said the previous night, but I know we were all shocked with the apology and the lack of dirty words.

Chester rode out that morning on one of the ranch mares. I watched as he kept turning back to make sure Bullet was still standing.

Chester took the afternoon off to spend with Bullet. He brushed and combed his mane and tail, cleaned the feed trough and generally just fussed over the big horse.

Within a week things were back to normal. A rodeo every morning and afternoon, sufficiently laced with Chester’s colorful language.

The last time I saw him I knew what had happened. I had said good-by to the boys that morning. I left beans and cornbread for lunch but I had to go back to school.

Bullet came charging into the barn as I threw my last suitcase in my car.

About two miles down the road, I saw Chester. Someone else had already picked him up. I just waved and wondered what kind of cussing he was preparing for Bullet this time.