Many years ago while living in Wyoming, I worked in the commercial loan department of a local bank. One of my responsibilities was working with the ranchers who had lines of credit to cover the daily operations of their ranches. I was tasked with verifying that they had all their brands registered with the state, and that all the livestock cited as loan collateral were properly branded. I filed with the state the bank's liens and releases on the livestock and made sure that no advances against the line of credit would exceed the loan's terms.
Since I was not part of the bank's loan board which gave a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a rancher's request for credit, and I only worked with those who had already secured their loan, it was easy for me to establish good working relationships. All the while I had that job, I met a lot of cowboys - which most of the ranchers I dealt with proudly considered themselves. My absolutely very favorite one was a weathered old cowboy named VS. His knees were severely bowed from a lifetime of working from the back of a horse, and his hands were the color of tanned hide with knotty knuckles that had strung a lot of barbed wire in all kinds of weather. And he was such a gentleman.
His family were European immigrants, most of whom worked in the coal mines near the base of the Big Horn Mountains long before mechanical advancements would make their jobs safer and easier. Not wanting that particular life of back-breaking work for himself, VS got a job as a cowboy - equally back-breaking, but outside in some of this country's most beautiful land. For many years he was a hand for a couple who owned quite a spread of land, eventually becoming ranch foreman. Not only was he very good at managing cattle herds and cowboys, but he earned a widespread reputation as a saddle maker, even carving his own saddle trees. By the time I met him, though, VS had stopped making saddles, calling the work better-suited for a lonely young cowboy.
Young he was not, but why was he no longer lonely? Because some time after the ranch owner died and left VS to take care of his widow's land and cattle operation, VS married the widow. They were the sweetest couple, and even though they never had children together, they had each other. In the cold winter evenings, VS would craft miniature saddles to precise proportions, and his loving wife would knit patterned saddle blankets to drape over the tiny saddle racks he made. The little saddles were in great demand, but VS gave them as gifts rather than ever selling them. Eventually his wife died, and VS went back to being a lonely cowboy. He told me many stories about her and her graciousness whenever I would see him.
When I was moving on from the banking job and that small town in Wyoming, I hoped that all my favorite ranchers would come into the loan department before I left so I could say goodbye in person. When VS came in, he was carrying a small box, not wrapped, but presented to me just as if it were clad in silk moire and a big bow. Since he used to bring us hand-made brittle and Christmas cookies when his wife was living, I thought maybe he was giving me some of her recipes. But when I opened the box, my breath was taken away by the tiny little saddle inside.
As I teared up, VS apologized, "I made this for you. It's not very good, as my eyesight is getting bad, and my hands are too shaky to set the glue right. But I had one last little horse blanket that my wife had knitted, and I wanted you to have something to help you remember Wyoming." Not only will I always remember Wyoming, but I will never forget VS. And his gift fits right into the "Cowboys & Indians" decor at Le Rustique.
There is a tradition at one of the Serbian Orthodox churches in our city neighborhood where the name of every member who has passed away since the establishment of that church is read aloud once a year to ensure that no person is ever forgotten. I have taken on a form of that tradition myself, and every Thanksgiving during my morning meditation, I say aloud the names of those people I've known and loved who have passed away. In addition to my grandparents, parents, favorite aunts and uncles, there are the names of a handful of friends. VS is one of those. So old cowboys really never die, they live on forever in the hearts of those they befriend.