Soupy The Outlaw

by Dianna Dandridge-Rystrom

Meeting Bart Hanson meant taking a trip back in time to a place where men still wore the pants in the family and a day’s work began at sunup and didn’t end until after sundown.

I met him one fall day, just as the wind was beginning to shift to the north for the first cold snap of the season.

When I first met Bart I thought surely this was some gag the rancher who I was there to interview staged for my benefit. After all I was there to interview the owner of a working ranch, a ranch which had been in the same family for 135 years. I had heard of the owner’s penchant for practical jokes as well as his love for all things of the old West.

The Crooked R Ranch straddled the Brazos River, encompassing some six sections of land. Not the biggest spread by any means, but a part of the history in Central Texas not to be ignored.

Driving through the gatepost, the brand burned into each post, I got my first look at the beautiful old ranch houses and barns. The main house, I was to learn had been updated in the early 1950s. It now had running water and electricity, most of the time. The hand’s bunkhouse was more modern, as the original burned down during an electrical storm in about 1970. The rest of the barns had been built somewhere between 1870 and 1895, no additions or modifications. The whole place could be called the real thing.

I pulled up at the barn where I had been told to meet Jack Randall, the great-great grandson of Ira Randall, the founder of the Crooked R.

I was by no means unaccustomed to ranches or the common ranch dog, so it was no surprise when a large, rather ragged shepherd, greeted me. He barked in a non-aggressive fashion and immediately plunked his huge feet on my shoulders for a chance to swipe my face with his wet tongue. Suddenly, from out of the barn walks this tall, thin rail of man whose age I could only guess at. The first words out of his mouth made my head spin around to see if I really heard what I thought I heard.

“Snap, get yore feet off’n that lady. She don’t want you pawin’ at her like that!” His vernacular had to come from an old western script. No one really talked like that anymore, so I thought. He thumped the big dog on the shoulder, “Now git outta here fore I have to chain you’re lousy hide up!” The big dog dropped to all fours, kind of smiled at me then fell into step beside this old cowboy.

“Ma’am, Jack ain’t here, right now. One of our best bulls got hisself tangled in some barb wire up near the crick and Jack done took him in to town to be vetted,” he said, as I stood there mouth agape, surprised to find a real living piece of the old west right in front of me.

“Jack done tole me to offer ya sumthin’ to drank. Ya want coffee or I can fetch ya some water from the big house. He also tole me wach ya’re her fer. Said I can talk to ya fer a while, maybe show ya round if you’d like. By the way I’m Bart Hanson, been on this place for more than 50 years, knowed Jack’s pa and granpa before him.” he said sticking out a grizzled old hand with the first joint off two fingers missing.

“Hi,” I stammered. “Yeah, coffee would be great about now,” I foolishly accepted his offer.

We went into the barn where an old enamel coffee pot perched on a real pot belly stove sent forth the wonderful aroma of fresh brewed coffee-- cowboy style, hot, black, and oh my gosh strong! First sip told me there wasn’t enough water in the Brazos River to water it down enough to make it drinkable for me. I carried the cup around for a while, pretending to take a drink every now and then, but as soon as I saw my chance I poured it on the ground behind an old water tank.

“Ma’am, Jack says yore thinkin’ on writin’ us a nice big article ‘bout this ol’ place. Gonna be a big event in some local magazine. That’s good. Folks don’t seem to be about larnin’ about these places no more. It’s a shame most folks don’t take the time to see God’s beauty way out here. Seems like all they want these days is the crowds and big cities. This is where man belongs, out where we breathe real air and don’t mind gittin’ a little dirt on our hands,” he said as we walked through the old barn.

Along the way Bart pointed out some of the antique tack that went with some of the antique wagons, buggies and carriages stored in another barn.

“This ol’ barn is where we meet in the mornins for a cup of coffee ‘fore we head out for the daily chores. It ain’t much more than storage, now. We keep some old harness, but mainly we stash some hay here case of a bad winter and critters can’t get out to graze.”

As a reporter, on a paid assignment, I knew I would have to write about the Crooked R, but as an old west history buff myself, I realized the real story was in this bow legged old cowboy walking beside me. In true cowboy fashion Bart opened each door and gate we came to, holding it till I went through. Walking through the buildings, listening to Bart’s colorful speech, gave me ample opportunity to experience the old west.

From the curled brim of his gray felt hat to worn out turned over leather boots, Bart Hanson lived and breathed the Old West. Each building, every pen drew a comment from the old fellow. He informed me that the Crooked R raised mainly beef cattle, but could hold its own with some of the finest cowponies in the country. He said Jack Randall would be the one to talk to about the breeding programs and the real workings of the ranch, but he was just there to give me a good feel for the place before Randall showed up.

I could have listened to Bart Hanson talk about the old ranch for days on end, but then he pulled up short in front of a pen with a single, dilapidated old dun horse.

“Thiss’un is the one that ended my cowboying days,” he said. “Don’t look like much now, do she? ‘Bout 15 years ago we brought her in from one of the back pastures as a four or five year old. Somehow she managed to miss gittin’ brought in durin’ spring roundups. No one’s really shore who her daddy was, but her momma, we think was a good dun that Jack’s pa bought down in Dallas. She were a good cow pony and always threw purty foals. She died ‘bout a year ‘fore we came across thissun here. We called her Soupy, ‘cuz the only time we could catch her was when the rain made the pasture all soupy.”

I started to go through the fence, just to get a better look at the old girl, but Bart stopped me short. “Ma’am, don’t go in there. She don’t look like much, but she’s as bad as they come, even now!”

Grinning I said, “I’ll take my chances. I want to see a real outlaw up close. I might never get to see another that has lived this long.”

Bart let me pass, but I could feel the disapproval of his eyes watching me. It didn’t take but a few seconds for all thought of the old cowboy’s disapproval to be forgotten. What seemed like a quiet, old horse, rapidly turned into a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

First thing I noticed were the ears lying flat against the top of her head. Then came the pawing foot and the tightening muscles in her rear end. I remember seeing the whites of her eyes as she erupted. I hit the fence and was up and over just barely being missed by those long yellow teeth. By the time I turned around and caught my breathe, Soupy was again standing on three feet, looking as if nothing had disturbed her afternoon snooze.

“What happened?” I asked. “She just went crazy for no reason!”

Bart shook his head. “No ma’am. Soupy ain’t never had to have a reason to be crazy. She just is.”

“What’s her story?” I asked. “If she’s so bad, why was she kept all these years and why is she still here now. I know she has to be too old to really do anything.”

I knew enough about ranching to know that every animal had a purpose and if they couldn’t fill that purpose, they were replaced.

“She was kept, mainly because like her mama, she threw some damn fine babies, but her story is more than just her babies,” he said in a slow drawl, leaning against the fence.

“That year we finally caught her she was done full growed. At first it seemed we were going to be able to tame her down some and make a useable pony of her. After a few days left alone in the round pen, she started thinking’ some grass and a drink of water might not be such a bad idear. Now, you gotta ‘member, this was before we really gentled the horses. We just broke ‘em and worked ‘em. That was just the way it was.” he said shrugging his shoulders. “No one out here was ever really bad to the critters, just didn’t take the time to be nice, I reckon.”?

“Three days without food and water and ol’ Soupy was thinkin’ twict about kickin’ and chargin’ when we went in. Harvey Smither was the boss wrangler back then. He done took a likin’ to the looks of Soupy and was gonna break her for his own mount. Soupy was settlin’ down and would get closer and closer ever time we went to feed. Touchin’ her was still a ways down the road,” he said as he spit between his boots.

“I guess Harvey had put a halter on her about three times when Jack hired a kid to ride the rough off some of the green horses. Cain’t member his real name. We all just called him Curly ‘cuz of his bright red curly hair. He did okay ridin’ the green stock. All of us boys took note he could sit horse.”

“Seems like Curly took an immediate dislike to everthin’ about this place. Didn’t like bein’ called Curly, to begin with. Didn’t like sharing’ a bunk house with us old geezers as he called us. Most of all he didn’t like bein’ told to leave Soupy alone. He was here just to ride the green off the younguns. Then one Friday night, Jack had paid all us boys and we headed into town. Curly said he’d be right behind us, but had a couple of chores left to do. That was okay with us, we was ready to go to town.” Bart moved his chewing tobacco from one cheek to the other before he continued.

“I guess Curly thought his best chance at Soupy was whilst everbody was gone. None of us really missed the kid in town. I doubt if we really cared. He was wise ass and we had done got tired of the comments about old goats. Along about nine that night, we all loaded up and headed back to the ranch. About half way home, Bud, the driver said a ambulance was coming up behind us. He pulled over and let it pass. I guess it surprised us all when it turned into the Crooked R. As far as we knew Jack and his family were all that was home.” Again, Bart sent a spray of dark brown liquid between his feet and stopped to look at the dozing old horse, now standing in the center of the pen.

“We pulled in just as the ambulance boys were loading Curly in the wagon. Blood was everwhere. All over Curly’s face, in his hair. A bone was sticking through his britches. He didn’t look so good. One of them ambulance boys said something about internal damages. Seemed like Curly taken the situation in his own hands and had met his match.”

Bart went on to explain Jack and his family had gone to town right after paying the hands and had come back just before sundown. One of Jack’s daughters had seen the saddle sitting on Soupy, kind of sideways and went to investigate. She was the one who found Curly, lying in a pool of his own blood. According to Bart she went screaming to the house and Jack had to rescue Curly from the horse.

At first, Jack thought he could just go get him, but Soupy wasn’t having anyone in the pen. At last Jack managed to rope her and tie her to a corner post. He had to get a second rope on her, though and tie her to the opposite corner to keep her from charging him. Jack drug the boy out of the pen and tried to get him to tell what happened.

Curly was hurt too bad, and dragging him out of the pen took his last conscious effort.

“Jack follered the ambulance into town and all us boys could do was just wait to hear how bad he was. None of us really wanted to see the boy hurt. I guess they were gone for three or four hours when we finally got the call. Jack said Curly was just out of surgery. Doc said he was going to be okay, but he was gonna be laid up for quite a spell. Jack said something about a bunch of busted ribs, a punctured spleen, a concussion and the leg had been broken in a couple of places. Curly’s bronc riding days were over. By this time Jack was wishin’ he had never hired a smart alec kid.”Bart reached in his hip pocket, pulled out a bag of Redman chewing tobacco and I noticed as soon as he opened it up Soupy’s interest perked up.

“Watch this,” he said. “After all the damage she done to Curly, most of us boys were a might ‘fraid of her. Don’t ‘member if it were Bud or old Harvey who found out she’d do just nearly anything for a wad of Redman. We tried some of the other brands, but it has to be Redman.”

He pulled off a good size plug, rolled it in his hand for a minute before offering it to Soupy. She edged over, kind of skittish like, taking care to keep her eye on me. She reached for the plug of tobacco, just as gentle as you please. I’m not certain, but I think the old outlaw actually grinned before she closed her eyes and rocked back on her heels to the rhythm of her chewing.

“You’ve got to be joking,” I laughed. “How, did ya’ll find out she likes tobacco?”

“It was just an accident really,” Bart smiled back, showing his own set of tobacco stained teeth. “One of the fellers had some in his pocket and bent down where she could reach it. Took the whole pouch and weren’t about to give it back. After that we used Redman to get her to be good. It worked then and looks like it is still workin'.”

“Okay, so what about Curly and why did Jack Randall keep Soupy?” I asked knowing we had gotten off track a bit.

“Well, Curly stayed in the hospital in town for a long time. Jack fetched him home while the kid was still on crutches. Tried to make him feel welcome at the house, but I guess the kid had a grudge to hold. Folks came to get him maybe two months after he come home. Never heard from him again,” he said, reaching out to scratch Soupy between her ears. “See she ain’t all bad!”

“The next morning’, after the accident, us boys got to looking’ round and kinda pieced things together. Ol’ Soupy was still tied, believe me us boys kept our distance,” he drawled. “We found he had managed to get a bad gag bit in her mouth. Nobody really knows how he done that. She had whip marks on her shoulders and flanks, even had a couple of marks on her face. That just weren’t good. Like I said, no one round here was ever mean to the horses. She had spur marks down both sides, deep ones that had to hurt. Curly pushed Soupy till she couldn’t take no more, I guess. We figured she must have pitched and bucked hard. He must have rode her awhile. When she finally got rid of him, she took her heels to him.”

Watching the old man, I knew he was remembering a bad time on the ranch. Having an outlaw horse was never good, but knowing they could have prevented the accident was even worse.

“Jack’s gran’pa, Charlie, was still alive then. He didn’t do much by that time, but his word was law. The old man hobbled out to the pen to look at Soupy. Told us to get her some feed and water and cut her loose. We put out a good stack of hay and drug over a tub fer some water. When all the boys was clear, two of ‘em reached in as far as they could and cut the ropes. She backed out of reach and wouldn’t come near the food while we were close by.”

“Charlie got pretty steamed seeing those kind of marks on a horse. He let it be known right quick the next hand to ever do that would be needin’ to look for other work. I think we all appreciated that, cause we depend on our horses and if they’re ‘fraid of us we can’t count on ‘em,” Bart said.

I knew the story was nearly finished, but I had to ask, “Ok, so how did Soupy end your cowboying days?”

“Well, after that it took us a long time to make friends with Soupy. I guess she had good reason not to trust us. Anyways, as soon as she healed up some, Harvey started working with her again. It was slow going, but he never got in a hurry. Charlie said it didn’t matter none, we could always use her just as a brood mare,” he said spitting again and straightening his hat.

“Harvey worked for a year, just gentling’ her down. Before he could get down to getting’ a saddle on her, we figured she were pregnant. We let her have her foal in peace. She threw a fine colt horse that spring. Jack won some good money on him.”

Again he reached over to scratch the old mare. She never asked for attention, but was willing to accept it if it were offered with a wad of Redman.

“Harvey did a good job on her. Later that year he was riding her purty regular. She was always a hard one to catch, though. Rain helped. So did the tobacco. As time went on most of us older fellers took a turn on her, riding fence or checking calves. ‘Bout five years ago me and Harvey were down in the sand pits separating calves from their mamas. Harvey had stepped off ol’ Soupy to untangle a calf when a big red roan bull came out of the cedar,” he straightened up and I realized Bart was a natural-born storyteller, knowing just the right spot to pause for emphasis.

“Soupy spooked. She turned as if to head off that bull. He charged her, sent her flying into my horse. He fell on top of me and Soupy was on top of him. The rest is kind a hard to ‘member. Harvey said after that one charge the bull wandered off. Soupy got up, but was hurt bad enough so’s she couldn’t run off. My horse had a broke leg and had to be destroyed right there. Harvey pulled me out from under him. I guess the sand is what saved my life. As hurt and scared as Soupy was Harvey didn’t know if he could ride her back to the house. Somehow, fer some reason she let him get on her. He got back to headquarters and called the ambulance. Spent 22 days in the hospital had both hips replaced and one knee. I was a sorry sight.”

“So she didn’t really end your cowboying days. In a way she tried to save you,” I pointed out, as if he hadn’t already thought of it.

“Yeah, but it’s a better story if folks thinks she’s a real outlaw!” he laughed.

I laughed too, because he was right. Seeing her as a bad horse was one thing. Seeing her as an outlaw presented a whole different picture.

About then we heard the rattle of a trailer and walked around to see the real reason I was there.

Jack Randall stuck out his hand, “I guess Bart’s been entertaining you. Sorry I couldn’t be here to hear how Soupy ended his cowboy days.

Bart interrupted his boss to tell me, “By the way, that mean old dun has given us four fine foals and three outstanding fillies. She has served her purpose.”