The last time I saw Mitchell was thirteen years ago on his ranch outside Spur, Texas. As I sat waiting to meet him in Whataburger north of San Angelo yesterday, I knew to watch for a white ranch pickup, and I knew he’d be wearing a felt cowboy hat. Those two things never change.
When he walked in, I saw the spitting image of his dad from twenty-six years ago. Though his face was still young and lively, his hair and handlebar mustache had turned white. He still looked strong despite his permanent limp from the horse that fell and crushed his leg while he was patrolling the Rio Grande for the border patrol. He wore a different hat, but it was creased in the same style we both wore when we were younger.
Have you ever been so happy to see someone that you cried? It had to be a strange sight—two rugged cowboys hugging, tears in their eyes.
Mitchell and I met at Tarleton State University in the early 90’s. He was a real cowboy with a ranching background. I was a waif of a bull-rider who lived and looked like a stray dog. We became fast friends.
We’d spend our weekends at their 8,000-acre ranch north of Marble Falls, Texas—the most wonderful place in the world as far as I was concerned. Much of it bordered the Colorado River and, covered in sprawling live-oaks and cedar thickets, it was beautiful. The little red cabin we stayed in was said to have been the secret meeting place of Lyndon B Johnson when he was President of the United States. I loved the place regardless.
Outside the house was a split log barn with a dog run that was nearly 100 years old. That’s where Mitch kept the horses.
Mitchell’s dad met us there. Have you watched or read Lonesome Dove? Mitchell’s dad was Gus. Picture Augustus McCrae, and you know Dave Williams.
We’d go to the ranch to work, which was more play to me. I was no real help on anything done from horseback, but I could make a hand at fixing fence or roofing or cooking. But mostly we drank beer.
Michael, Mitchell’s cousin, also met us there. Mike had the best personality of any boy I ever knew. Always cheerful and outgoing—a friend to everyone. I could never imagine Michael angry, or sad, or anything but a load of fun. Being first cousins who were the same age with the same interests, Mike and Mitch loved each other like brothers.
The two of them taught me things I didn’t have the chance to learn when I was younger. They taught me about guns and hunting and horses and tack and riding and many other things about being a man. The first time I shot a deer, it was with Michael’s rifle. If you’ve never hunted in Texas, it is hard to understand what a rite of passage your first successful hunt is. It was Mike and Mitch who celebrated with me and then taught me how to process the deer.
Those weekends were full of laughter and exploring. Boys in their twenties playing cowboy like twelve-year-olds, shooting single shot six shooters at cans, drinking beer, and looking at the hidden stack of Playboy magazines. Riding horses and trying to speak Spanish. Drinking campfire coffee and eating half-cooked mountain oysters. Wearing our spurs into the local café.
We grew up and married and had kids and got busy. And the years went by.
As we talked yesterday, I could see that Mitchell was still actively grieving for Michael. And it wasn’t just grief, but guilt. Michael tried to call the night he took his own life, but Mitchell didn’t get the message until later, after it was too late. The always cheerful man couldn’t take any more of the pain he’d hidden for years. His son found him behind their barn.
“I guess it’s like this leg,” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t matter how much time passes; it’s never going to quit hurting.”
Mitchell can talk freely to me about Michael; he knows that I’ve struggled with the same thoughts over the years, and that I, too, loved Mike.
Our time was over too soon. Mitchell had to head southwest, and I had to go northeast. In the parking lot when our normal talk was over, the lump in my throat stopped the words. Instead, more tears came. I don’t cry in front of men, and neither does my friend. But there was still so much to say, and so many regrets, and so many years had passed. Adios, old friend. Next time will be sooner.