By Robert Wolf
Decorah, IA, USA
Background: The summer of 1967 I was living at Chaquaco, a ranch owned by Gene and Genie West. My education in southwestern ways increased exponentially that summer.
Rodeo de Santa Fe is held each year on the third weekend in June. Each of Gene's three daughters—Margaret, Susie, and Diane—had been rodeo queens. This year's queen was Brenda Hapgood, who lived with her parents on the Las Vegas highway.
Being selected rodeo queen is an honor in ranching country. The queen is feted by community groups, gets her picture in the newspaper and rides at the head of the rodeo parade, surrounded by her court.
Susie was anxiously looking forward to the rodeo dance, held the night before the opening of the rodeo. Since Dennis was in the army, Susie wanted me to take her to the dance. I wanted to go but balked at wearing Dennis' jeans, western shirt, boots and hat. This was not my style. But Susie wanted me to look as though I fit in and I gave in. I dressed in Dennis' clothes and she and Genie approved. But I had difficulty walking steadily in Dennis's high-heeled boots and felt like a dude in his western clothes. Susie, though, was delighted. She too wore jeans and high-heeled boots and western hat with sides curled up. I drove us to Santa Fe and as I crossed the street to La Fonda, trying to walk steadily but tilting side to side, a couple saw me and laughed quietly.
The dance was held in a large room that was already jammed with men and women wearing cowboy hats, jeans and western shirts. The women wore tight jeans and embroidered shirts with their hair curling under their hats and looked good. A four-piece country band played a shuffle. Couples moved smoothly across the floor. Once in a while a man would swing his partner who would return and they would continue sliding across the floor. Everyone, no doubt, had already had his share of bourbon, the preferred drink in ranch country.
Susie and I moved across the room, but wherever we moved another couple followed us. Twice the couple bumped into us and twice the man lifted his arm and knocked off Susie's hat. This man clearly wanted to provoke a fight, but as much as I was embarrassed for Susie and for my own lack of courage, I was not going to fight.
When the dance ended someone went around the room to tell some of us that the Sheriff's Posse Lodge would open for more dancing. I bought a pint of Jim Beam and Susie and I drove to the lodge. Someone named Lonnie Barrett unlocked the doors. The lodge was soon packed. We were not there long before a man walked up to me and said, "I hear you've been sayin words about Brenda Hapgood." I had not. I had never spoken to Brenda Hapgood and knew nothing about her except that she was rodeo queen and lived with her family on the Las Vegas highway.
It was pointless to deny that I had been "sayin words about Brenda Hapgood." The man wanted a fight.
"Let's go to the men's room," he said, and we both walked through the crowd of dancers to the restroom. We squared off, then everything went black.
I do not remember driving back to Chaquaco. The next day I lay around, hung over. That evening when Gene returned he told us, "I ran into Lonnie Barrett this afternoon. He apologizes for having to knock you both out."
Lonnie Barrett knocked me out?
"Who were you fighting?" Margaret wanted to know.
"I don't know."
"He was fightin Red Smith," Gene said. Gene turned to me. "Lonnie said you were whippin the hell out of the judge."
"Judge?" I said.
"Red Smith!?" Margaret almost yelled. "I'd be ashamed of Bob if he couldn't whip that shrimp!"
"Lonnie couldn't allow any fighting at the sheriff's posse." That apparently was why he knocked us out. "He wants to make it up to you and says he'd like you to come out and work a day."
I never did take Lonnie up on his offer.
In those days the old culture of Santa Fe bar fighting was still strong. I witnessed and came close to witnessing several other bouts that summer. The second brawl, or stomping, came a week after the rodeo dance at a party in a hotel suite jammed with rodeo cowboys. I was there with Gene and Genie. This time I was dressed in khakis and wore shoes, not boots, and did not wear a hat. The only other person beside myself who was not a part of the culture was a middle-aged man who sat in the middle of the room with a pretty young woman. I was sitting by myself. Gene and Genie were across the room. A rodeo cowboy approached two others sitting in front of me and whispered, "We're going to get Mr. Slick. Pass the word." And one of them leaned over and whispered it to another.
I was sure that I was "Mr. Slick" since I was not wearing western clothes. Then I looked again at the middle-aged man who was still smiling and talking confidently to the young woman—the cowboys' "woman." She was smiling back at him. I realized he was Mr. Slick and was blithely unaware of what was planned for him.
I went to Gene and said, "Let's go. There's going to be trouble," and the three of us left, just before Mr. Slick was stomped by a roomful of cowboys.
My southwestern education continued later that summer when Gene and Genie and I, and perhaps Susie, went to the Mineshaft, a restaurant and bar in Madrid. Madrid was a ghost town twenty miles up the road from Cerrillos and had been a populous mining town but now the miner's shacks stood gray and weathered and deserted on the hillsides. The Mineshaft was now the only business in town. We went there to dance but instead of the ranching crowd, the room was packed with Hispanics. We danced and drank, but at some point one Hispanic man made the mistake of asking another man's girl to dance. I heard an argument behind me, and this time it was Gene who said, "Let's go."
A fight broke out and the Wests and I made a break for the parking lot. We were halfway across the stone and gravel lot when the fight spilled outside with men and women throwing rocks at one another. As we hustled away Gene said, "The Mexicans don't consider the evening a success unless they have a fight."
Fifty years later, when I talked with Sue (no longer "Susie") about some of her father's fights, she said, "Daddy loved to fight." But though he loved to fight, Gene knew when fighting was pointless.