I remember when he got the idea. Dad used to get the Western Horseman magazine every month; I remember him reading to us the funny stories or poems by Baxter Black, or discussing an article with Mom. In this issue, there was an article on mutton-busting, a sort of juvenile rodeo where children rode semi-wild sheep for time in a ring. A rope was tied around the sheep’s neck for the kids to hold onto, and the one who stayed on the longest was the winner. I remember seeing the pictures in the magazine, a young girl in cowboy boots, jeans, and a button down shirt with a number pinned to her back, riding a jumping sheep. I believe she even had one hand in the air in the classic rodeo pose.
I remember Dad showing the article to Mom, but I don’t know if she agreed this would be a worthwhile past time for the Baker children. After all, we had a round pen, a couple of sheep, good boots, jeans, and button-down shirts. The paper number didn’t seem essential. I do know that Mom was not there when the first (and last) Baker Children Mutton-Busting event was held. The participants were Amanda, Bethy, and me, roughly aged 7, 6, and 4 (my two-year-old brother was either with Mom or deemed too young to participate this time around).
Dad was the judge and sheep wrangler. His concession to our limited infrastructure and general newbie-ness was to tie a rope around the sheep’s neck to keep it from slipping under the round pen rails and heading for the hills (as any reasonable sheep would do after the way we were about to treat it). Amanda was first. I remember sitting on the top rail with Beth, hands by my sides for support, boots hooked onto the middle rail, while Dad held the sheep (a young ram) still so Amanda could climb on and get a good grip on the rope. Then Dad let the sheep go, let out some rope, and the ram ran around and around the pen, kicking a little but mostly going for speed. Dad’s firm two-handed grip on the rope kept the animal from making a break under the rails, and all was peachy.
Bethy went next. I remember her face, a little more timid, less certain than Amanda, but she did it. Around she went on her woolly bronc, gripping one end of the rope while Dad held tightly with both hands to the other.
I remember the general feeling of success in the air. The first Baker Children Mutton-Busting event was a hit! We might eventually move up to steers!
And now it was my turn. I remember approaching the sheep, who was by now a little out of breath and seemingly broken in. Dad was feeling more relaxed, holding the rope with one hand as I climbed onto the itchy wool, the smell of manure and lanolin strong in my nose. Mostly excited, with just a touch of trepidation, I got a good grip on the rope and signaled I was ready to go!
I remember whizzing around the pen, one circle after another. I remember watching the rails fly by, and seeing my Dad standing in the middle of the pen, laughing and happy, wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a straw cowboy hat. That image is the quintessential Baker Dad, how I always remember him. He was holding the rope in one hand, talking to Amanda and Bethany, who were now taking their turns sitting on the rails. Everyone was smiling and happy.
And then the rope slipped from his hand. I remember when the sheep turned, or rather, didn’t turn in the circle as he had been doing but headed straight for freedom. I remember seeing the bottom rail of the round pen coming straight at my head in a blur.
I don’t remember much after that.
From what I’ve pieced together from family accounts, I wasn’t actually knocked unconscious, but I did have a knot the size of a chicken egg on my forehead. I know the sheep was eventually caught and returned to his pen; fortunately, our entire yard was fenced so he couldn’t get away completely. I know Amanda was convinced Dad had killed me and spoke about it loudly and at length as Dad took me inside to wash my head and put an ice pack on the goose-egg.
Mom returned not long after that. She says she opened the gate and was met by two brown-eyed, wild-haired little girls, both talking at once about mutton-busting, sheep, the rope, and that Dad had nearly killed Bekah (me). She said I soon followed them out of the house, holding a cloth and ice pack to my forehead, solemn-faced. But when she asked me what happened, I said nothing, just stared at her with a blank face and then went back inside. I came out again when Dad did. I was no fink, but Dad looked pretty sheepish.
This isn’t a story about a Dad who let his daughter down; in fact, it’s the opposite. Because what I really remember from my childhood is a father who was always there for us, who loved to play with and spend time with us, teaching us the most important things, like faith and love, hard work and integrity, and the little things, like how to laugh, how to make no-bake cookies (his mother’s recipe), and how to make soap carvings with a pocket knife. I remember a father who read to us in the evening: Summer of the Monkeys, Treasure Island, A Christmas Carol. A father who adjusted a tool-belt to fit my four-year-old waist so I could carry my own hammer and nails and trail around after him as he worked around the farm and house. A father who didn’t get angry after I helpfully “painted” the nice, new wooden fence it had taken him weeks to build- with tar. Who played guitar while we all sang, who made root beer floats and bonfires, who taught us to ride and shoot and swing an ax and tell a joke with a straight face. Who gave us the greatest gift of truly loving, respecting, and supporting our mother.
Happy Birthday to the best of fathers. I’m pretty sure he said he will be two-hundred and seventy-eleven, at precisely one-oh-three and a quarter in the afternoon. He said his birthday is October 14…this year. Apparently next year he’s trying something new.
There was no more mutton-busting, and since Mom’s milk goats were off limits, we had to resort to riding horses like normal people.
And I’m pretty sure we ate that sheep.