by Shirley Morris ©2009
“I’m a hang dog sinner, Claire and you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I don’t have no aim or desire to be baptized. What I want a do before I die is see my horse. You take me to see Hog Eyes - then we’ll talk about it.”
Red Thompson, the former burly, 200 lb. rodeo cowboy and bulldogger, adjusted the small pillow beneath his head, pulled the thin blanket up and did his best to find a comfortable position in that miserable excuse of a bed on the second floor of County General Hospital in Forth Worth, Texas. He knew his wife, Claire would not be taking him out of that hospital to see Hog Eyes. Weighing 90 something pounds, blind and frail, he was well aware that he would not be going anywhere, ever again.Claire took Red’s hand between hers and with that pained, sympathetic, pleading voice Red dreaded because more times than naught, he would give in to it, said softly, “Oh my boy, I fear for your almighty soul.” She kissed his check and whispered, “I’ll be back to see you soon.”
The sound of her footsteps echoed distinctively in his ears as he followed them out the room, down the hall, until they were replaced with all the sounds associated with the green plaster walls and speckled linoleum floors of the hospital corridor. It’s been said when you lose one of your senses such as sight, your other senses become heightened and acute. Maybe that was why Red found the aroma of fresh roses, alcohol and oxygen so completely repugnant. Combined, that pungent odor reminded him of death and that was something he did not choose to think about.
He followed thoughts and past memories as they led him down roads lined with friends, love and glory in his minds eye. As his thoughts led him to the first time he had ever seen Claire, he focused keenly on the events of that time. It was 1927 and she was a trick rider working with Millers 101 Wild West. Red chuckled silently, remembering a time before the Grand Entry when the great rodeo cowgirl Tad Lucas told Claire, “You have to look the part of a cowgirl, Claire. Put your hat on! You can’t ride in the show without your hat.”
His smile broadened wider as he recalled her response. “Well, that’s fine but if I have to wear it, I’ll wear it like this.” Taking both hands, she pulled down the wide brim and cocked that great, black ten gallon hat just slightly over one eye. Red found such simple delight in her sass.
“She wore that hat like only she could wear it.” Red breathed in the smile it brought to his face; crooked, turned up at one end, lips slightly parted. It was the one he reserved for Claire, and Claire alone.
Red and Claire traveled the same show and rodeo circuit and had crossed paths for years before they married. While she was married to Bob Belcher, another rodeo cowboy, Red respectfully kept his distance. It was Belcher who taught Claire the art of bulldogging. When the two divorced in 1929, Red and the cowgirl started spending more time together and found they had much more in common than just a shared passion for bulldogging.
Claire was not a typical cowgirl. Born in Mansfield, MA February 4, 1902, she lived with her mother and father who soon divorced. Her mother decided she couldn’t or wouldn’t raise Claire alone. She was dropped off on her grandparents doorsteps who raised and adored her, giving her every privilege money could buy.
Claire attended the best schools including the New England Conservatory of Music where she became an accomplished concert pianist. Intelligent, athletic, possessing grace and social stature, the world was open to her and choices were as abundant as they would ever be for a woman born in that era. Years later when asked why she chose to be a rodeo cowgirl she replied, “I think people should do whatever it is that makes them happy. Being a rodeo cowgirl makes me happy and that is why I do it.”
Claire and Red Thompson competed and performed in the biggest and best rodeos of the day including the 1934 Tex Austin International Rodeo where they thrilled sold out crowds at Wembley Stadium in England. The English ladies and gentlemen didn’t understand the ways of the western cowboys and protests of animal abuse were reported throughout the country. The British humane society became involved and to help quiet the effects of bad publicity, all bulldogging events were canceled.
This was a terrible disappointment to Red whose only competition event was bulldogging, leaving him with nothing to do but cheer Claire on as she won the Ladies Saddle Bronc Riding contest and placed second in the Trick Riding event. Her performance was enough to win the title, “World Champion Overall Cowgirl” for 1934. It would take a big man to watch his wife come home a world champion when all you could do was watch the glory come down all around you with none for yourself. Red Thompson may have been short stock, but he was a big man.
One afternoon, Red found himself among the many Wembley spectators watching the Calf Roping event when one of the greatest rodeo cowboy’s of all time, Bob Crosby came out on a dusky bay pony named Hog Eyes. What that pint-sized horse lacked in stature, he more than made up for in speed. Somehow, he got tangled up with a broken fence and a stick was impaled clean through his neck. Bob didn’t know if Hog Eyes would survive but he did know he didn’t have time to care for him. There were still more events scheduled and Bob wanted some of that prize money. With nothing but time on his hands, Red took it upon himself to nurse the badly injured horse back to health. Claire and Red slept in the barn, doctoring Hog Eyes night after night. By the time the rodeo was over, it was clear Hog Eyes would live to rodeo another day. By then, Red had lost his heart to the little horse and with Claire’s help and some of her earnings, bought Hog Eyes from Bob Crosby and the three of them returned to the United States, one big happy family.
Red and Hog Eyes spent many hours training as a bulldogging team. Red would show Hog Eyes a trick, who, in return would then show Red how a real good horse would do it. Together, they won many competitions. Soon, many of the other cowboys were paying close attention to that little horse flashing across the arena. More than a few of those cowboys wanted to ride Hog Eyes for a chance at a championship. Red always obliged the cowboy’s requests and when they ended up in the money with Hog Eyes help, Red was paid a percentage of the winnings. Red believed that was Hog Eye’s way of saying “Thank you for saving my life.”
“Yeah,” he thought, “Life has a way of coming ‘round.” The old cowboy tried to punch some shape into the pillow to make it a little more tolerable for a few more minutes. Fumbling for a half filled glass of water on the metal tray beside his bed, he found and sipped a small bit from it.
It had been almost ten years since that steer turned and gored him at Burwell. He thought his badly gashed stomach was healed and went out to rodeo one more time. The old wound tore open and this time it was real bad. This time it would take Red Thompson all the way home. As the pain ripped through once more, he bit down hard and thought, it was sure a long, hard road to get there.
He could only find relief from the pain when he would lose himself in past memories of Claire. It was there he would find strength in her strength. Her courage, resolve and indestructible tenacity truly amazed him. He remembered those many nights spent in the barn nursing Hog Eyes. Claire would set her jaw, narrow her eyes and tell him, “Don’t worry, Red. This horse wouldn’t dare die on us.” He believed her.
He thought to himself, “If she wants somethin’ it better run ‘cause she’s a’gonna ear it down and git it.” Red Thompson had no idea of just how true that would turn out to be. If he did have notion of it, well, that would have made him smile as well.
The hospital lights were turned down and all visitors had obediently gone home. An occasional nurse would move from room to room to deliver medication and offer some comfort. Sleep finally fought a successful path through the pain and found the cowboy.
Still half asleep, Red thought he heard a familiar sound. Out of place, but a distinct, familiar sound. “Must be a dream.” The cowboy turned his head toward the sound and slowly opened his eyes. He listened hard. There it was again … ta-clip, ta-clop, ta-clip, ta-clop, in a perfect rhythm. He knew the sound and reasoned “It can not be - don’t belong!” The sound grew more distinct, close enough to almost touch … Red reached his hand out, desperate to find what was at the end of the sound as a sudden warm burst of heavy breath carressed his hand, hit his arm, raising each hair and finally rushed into his nose as he inhaled a sweet familiar aroma. He held his breath not wanting to turn loose of the moment as his useless eyes found new purpose and flooded with grateful tears. Patting the soft fur on the muzzle of the huge beast standing guard over him in bed, Red cried, “It’s you! My Hog Eyes, I’ve missed you so.”
Red also recognized the familiar scent of his woman who now was laughing quietly in delight, quite pleased with herself. “Claire! How did you do this?” Red whispered the words, realizing with no instruction they must be very quiet or some nurse or doctor, someone would come in and spoil one of the most splendid moments he had ever experienced in his life.
The cowboy felt the warmth and energy from Claire’s hands as they embraced his. “Red, you told me you wanted to see Hog Eyes so I went home and got him and I brought him up the service elevator. He was a good horse and stayed very quiet until there was no one in site and we slipped into your room.
It took a lot to impress Red Thompson and he was always amazed at how often Claire managed to impress him throughout the years. “Oh, Claire, how can I ever thank you? My horse, you brought me my little Hog Eyes. Now I can say goodbye to him.”
A serious tone replaced the brevity of the moment as Claire spoke, “Red, you told me you wanted to see Hog Eyes before we could speak of your Baptism. I want you to join me in heaven and you must be baptized for that to happen.” No doubt about it. Red had been eared down and stopped dead in his tracks. Exhausted, he closed his eyes and nodded in agreement. Claire kissed his lips softly and said goodnight. Red listened for the familiar rhythm of the dusky bay’s hooves on the linoleum until they dimmed in the distance forever.
The next morning Claire phoned Dr. J. Frank Norris and arranged a soul saving meeting between the preacher and her husband.
Dr. Norris was the flamboyant and controversial Preacher at the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, TX. He was known for traveling back and forth across the stage holding the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, crying wildly, bemoaning the fate of the American people as reported in the morning news. The Preacher embraced sensationalism, especially if he could use it as a method to save a soul.
Red Thompson had gathered himself and, as he would sometimes with Claire, set his jaw with all the strength he could muster and told the preacher he didn’t want to go to Heaven if it would not welcome his horse, Hog Eyes. Norris, recognizing the value gained in the baptism of the famous cowboy and his equally famous cowgirl wife could find no good reason the horse could not to accompany the cowboy to the promised land. And so, word of the baptism went out over the radio waves of KFQB, which stood for “Keep Folks Quoting the Bible” and coast to coast for an entire week before the glorious event would take place on November 26, 1944.
Red Thompson was too weak to walk into the church under his own power and had to be placed upon a stretcher and carried in by four men. Claire walked solemnly beside him. Everyone, including Red and Claire were dressed in white for the glorious occasion reflecting the energy and glory of the occasion on to the parishioners as they passed each row headed toward the deep Baptismal pool. Few of the great rodeo’s they had performed in saw any greater crowd than present at the church on that day. More than a thousand and they were literally hanging out the windows and stuck like glue to the side of the walls of the huge building. One of the young women sitting directly across from Dr. Norris exclaimed, “This is a holy moment” as the chorus sang “Shall We Gather At The River”
Red strained his neck and could see Norris standing ahead of him, arms outstretched with Bible in one hand and the other reaching for his soul. Claire was smiling down and he swore he could see angels wings coming from her pure white blouse. He looked around wildly but little Hog Eyes was not to be found.
The steps were too steep for the men to bring the stretcher down into the water and Red, feeling strength from the energy of the moment, willed himself to stand and walk, with Claire down the steps to salvation.
Dr. Norris welcomed the cowboy and cowgirl and started to speak, “Red Thompson, are you…” Before he could utter another sound Red, realizing his pony was not there screamed toward the door, “Hog Eyes! Where are you!”
Norris nodded toward the direction of two men standing by the great double doors and the doors were opened. Standing in the doorway bathed in golden sunlight was Hog Eyes. Wearing a new white bridle especially chosen for the occasion, he was led down through the congregation now all singing the chorus of “Amazing Grace”. As he reached the pool he saw his savior Red already in the water. Hog Eyes didn’t hesitate to descend the steep steps to be by his side. The little pony managed to submerge everything with the exception of his large rump into that pool.
Somehow, Dr. Norris managed to compose himself – after all, it isn’t everyday you find yourself performing a baptism with a horse as witness and in the pool alongside you!
Looking at Red, he finally asked the question that begged an answer for almighty salvation: “Jack Thompson, you now trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for your only salvation?”
And Red said “I do.” With that, Norris dipped Red backwards, submerging his entire body into the holy water.
Some would like to say Hog Eyes knew the precious meaning of this action, others say Hog Eyes was trying to save Red from drowning but whatever that little horse understood, he let out an ear piercing whinnie and plunged his huge, furry head beneath the water and as he resurfaced with Red shook his head wildly, saturating the amazed congregation with holy water.
Young parishioner, Louise Oldham exclaimed, “You could feel the glory from here to the moon!”
Claire concluded the historic event with her own salvation.
Red died a week later. Claire continued to love and care for little Hog Eyes until he died at the age of 39. Claire moved to Florida and died in 1971. Thanks to a man’s love for his pony, a women’s love for her man, the three of them can be found together somewhere behind those pearly gates where you can still hear a chorus singing softly, “Shall We Gather At The River”.