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Tom Ford, a Winifred Cowboy Deluxe

Who must we cherish?  Old friends. As often mentioned, seniors do not have enough time to make many more great friends, requiring investment of shared experience over the years. Thus, we must look to the few good ones left, many now moved to greener pastures.

To me, a great blessing is an old cowboy, Tom Ford, now 91 and blind. He was born and raised in the Montana Missouri Breaks Country, not too far from the Canadian line and will never leave there, but he knows the ‘place’ like the back of his hand. Tom is one of a vanishing breed, telling stories, often like Lois Lamour books, true. His outfit is near Winifred, Montana. To get there, you first hit Billings, then head due north on a two-lane highway, traveling about four hours.  Pass Round Up, eventually getting to Grass Range where a bar and café offer the opportunity for sustenance or wetting the whistle.  Then it’s only another hour to Winifred, where about 400 hardy souls live, offering the rudiments: bar, grocery store, library, school and gas station. It’s best to refortify yourself there before slowly hitting a gravel washboard, leading to the Tom Ford place, another hour. Yep, it is the same country where notorious old-time outlaws ‘holed up’ because it is was treacherous for lawmen to give pursuit.

Yet, I voluntarily went – in pursuit of a horse training job, the opportunity to ride and train some of the finest well-bred horses in Montana, owned and raised by Ford. He is a small feller (about 5’6”) in size but very large in spirit and determination. He had so many horses (at least 400) that he needed help getting around them, hopefully to make a nickel or two, often challenging.  But, one wound up in the movies, the big bay rode by Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove, known as a wonderful stunt horse

When hired, 22 years ago, I did not know him, nor he me. “I hear you are handy,” he first remarked, “but you are kind of small.”

“Look who’s talking,” I sassed.

With that, started a wonderful equine experience and friendship enduring to this day.

First, I noticed his blue heeler cow dog.  The little blue, wearing a plastic cone, nervously pawed at that irritating contraption.  “What happened to him?”

“He follows me around,” Tom explained. “One day he raced up and ran into the propeller on the airplane.  Almost got his head chopped off. But, the Vet saved him.”

In that far flung country, a two-seater ‘Pup’, airplane, is necessary, for daily flights to scout the wild cattle inhabiting those ranges.  Tom, while accomplishing that mission, was renowned as a reckless western flier of the ‘Big Sky’.  Learning that, I refused to go along, preferring to keep on the ground, a good horse being much safer.

“What’s his name?” I inquired, knowing I would have to befriend Tom’s best friend.

“Max, after a good friend of mine, who is also kind of an idiot.”

“I have a good friend named Max,” I added. “Small is his last name. He sometimes nearly loses his head too.”

“I’ll be go to hell,” Tom chuckled. “That is exactly who the dog is named after, a very good friend of mine too.”

That started one of those western conversations where we discovered many mutual friends and acquaintances.  Tom knows many Cheyenne, Gros Ventres and Assiniboine, many whom worked with him over the years, a lot of rodeo guys, good horse hands. He liked them and vice-versa. Montana has many small communities with very long streets.

After awhile, the isolation of the Missouri Breaks got too much, just me and Tom manning the outfit. I needed to get closer to town.  He understood and then we went into the horse-trading business (somewhat of a nefarious trade) it being easier to market them closer to civilization, such as Billings. Tom provided the horses while I was the marketer. Hopefully, we were more honorable than most, Tom’s name and hard-earned reputation being on the line.  He was a wonderful partner, ever treating me fairly. But, due to proclivity for new adventures, that good game also came to and.  Alaska was calling my name.

Since Tom has had the same phone number for 50 years, I would occasionally give him a call and now do every day, for there will come a time when he will not answer. He kept me updated – going from having a million dollars of fat steers in a feed lot to dead broke – vicissitudes of weather, the cattle market and maybe a bad investment or two. Somehow, he salvaged a bit of the ‘old place’ where he is determined to spend the rest of his life, a solitary old bachelor.  His parents and wife are buried there and someday he will be too.

He is now down to one horse – a blue roan stud, put-together son of a gun, like all his horses were. Each day, no matter the weather, which can be very harsh in the Breaks, he wades a quarter mile to feed and water that beautiful creature, who greets him with a whinny and soft nose.

Otherwise, Tom has the TV jacked, keeping up with the news and crazy Trump doings.  Now, I call him everyday asking “How are you holding up?”

“Still here. Except for my headlights, fine.” And then we talk about how horrible the country is becoming or funny stories, mostly about good horses and other old rascals we have known.

“I love you,” he ever says, which never came up when I worked for him.  But, as you face the jaws of mortality, it is important to say mention that.

“Ditto.” That until the next day.

Since we, at one time, sold so many good horses, he’s after me to try and market the blue roan.

I am not in that business anymore.  And, even if so, I wouldn’t. Tom needs the blue roan and Blue needs him.

(Clara Caufield can be reached at


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