A Little Bit Western


Bedtime Story

Sep 3, 2016

Story time is a sacred time in our household, and the kids know that no matter how late bedtime gets pushed (and oh, how it gets pushed at this busy time of year!) we usually read something before bed. We’ve read and re-read old favourites from my childhood, new books from the library, and other tales here and there. It was time to switch things up a bit, and our kids seem fascinated by cows and cowboys, history and horses, so I started reading a chapter each night from The Mustang Wranglers, a family classic.

Curly Gunter, a cowboy who has been long time gone, wrote a real life account about being the foreman of a small crew of cowboys who herded a large band of horses from Val Marie, SK to the Peace River country of British Columbia in 1931. The story is a candid, straight forward read about the challenges, adventures, and occasional mishap that they encountered on their tri-provincial journey from shortgrass prairie to the forests of the north. The tale itself engages and enthralls our children, but to add an extra layer of interest, Curly Gunter was their great-great grandpa.

With chapters like “The Skunk and the Rattlers” and “Shoeing a Bronco Mare, and Disaster,” you can bet the kids are interested in what happens next. Early references to familiar locations such as Val Marie, Gouverneur, Lac Pelletier, and the Little Six schoolhouse, leave the kids feel quite an attachment to this story. I myself had read the book long ago, but this time around different aspects of the story resonate with me, such as when Curly becomes homesick for his wife Lena and their young daughter who were waiting behind with his in-laws. It’s indeed a well-spun yarn that appeals to all demographics, young or old.

One of my favourite parts of the story happens early on, when the group camps overnight near Swift Current. Looking to have an early start, Big George, the cook, put on a quick breakfast for the boys, but before long, they were feeding far more people than their five-man crew. Hobos travelling from Montreal to Vancouver, many who couldn’t speak English, followed the scent of hotcakes and came straggling forward to beg a meal. While the horse handlers didn’t have much themselves, these homeless, destitute drifters in search of work, had less. “It’s a bad thing to be hungry,” Curly says, “better give them something.”

The story embodies a lot of traditional values that perhaps are lost on today’s generation. The crew was comprised of gentlemen but they were not pushovers. Along the trail they encountered many people and circumstances that were challenging, and they gave no trouble, but wouldn’t back down from trouble either. They were respected and respectful.

If I had to sum up the story in just two words, I would say it is about resourcefulness and perseverance. Curly and his crew were forced to use common sense and whatever they had on hand to adapt to situations including horse-scattering thunderstorms, lost chuck wagons, and the ubiquitous facial contusion and laceration (thanks, turpentine and iodine!). They had seen tough times and yet had no way of knowing the challenges that lay ahead. They persevered through many pickles, like having to find water for the herd, manoeuvering hundreds of horses across ferries, or breaking green horses to add to the saddle string along the way. Giving up wasn’t an option because they had animals to look after and a goal to achieve.

Curly spent many long days in the saddle, both before and after this epic adventure. This story, and many others that he wrote and published, refer back to a time when the work was hard but the rewards were genuine. It’s a reminder that perhaps everyone would benefit from spending a few more hours in the saddle, literally or figuratively.

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