LACOOCHEE — When the old cowboys woke, he could smell the horses through his open window. Their manure smelled to him like the most fragrant perfume. His daughter helped him dress before breakfast. As a girl she didn't know her daddy had feet because they always were tucked in cowboy boots. Now his legs and feet looked tiny and weak.
Tom Everett, her daddy, is 80. For nearly 70 years his home was on the Florida range. Since an accident two years ago, home has pretty much been the wheelchair.
His daughter rolled him into his Pasco County yard. As he tugged his cowboy hat over his eyes, the horses watched from the pasture. To all and to nobody in particular he managed a polite "Howdy."
There have always been a few black cowboys here. Spaniards brought horses, cattle and African slaves to La Florida in the 16th century. Some of the Africans excelled at riding and herding. Everett comes from that tradition. So do brothers, sons, a grandson.
He was 78 at the time of the accident. Somebody had a job for him. His common-sense daughter, Vee Miller, told him, "Daddy, you don't have to be riding anymore. You be a teacher now. Let the young men do the hard work."
Old cowboys are notoriously stubborn.
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Vee puished her daddy's chair into the shade provided by a cedar tree so he could look at the horses while he told his story.
"I was born in Centerville near the border. My folks, they was truck farmers. Grew vegetables and raised hogs. We had a couple of horses. I started riding young. I mean 10 years old. I was a boy when I started helping out on a ranch nearby Webster. I remember when pay was a dollar a day. When I got $2 a day I thought I was a rich man."
In Sumter County he remembers suppers at the Speckled Butterbean after a day of branding. On Ben Hill Griffin's ranch near the Peace River, his wiry frame and big hat were as much a part of the scenery as the Brahman bulls. His worn face, everybody thought, should be carved on a monument: The Gainesville folklorist and photographer Robert Stone, in fact, recently featured Everett pictures in his art exhibit. In one photo, Everett and another black cowboy pray on their knees. Raised as a God-fearing Methodist, he is famous for elaborate prayers.
After his accident, he asked God the usual question.
"Why me, Lord?" Eventually he decided he had no right to interrogate the almighty.
"Things happen to cowboys,'' he said.
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In the pasture a horse whinnied. A cow lowed. Memories flooded back. He remembered his young cowboy days in Central Florida's Hardee County, the endless pines and pastures and white-skinned cowboys. He was the only black cowboy many had ever seen. "What do you think you're doing here?'' he remembered being asked.
"I'm a cowboy," he told them. "I'm here to work the cattle."
That got him by.
"I always thought they was after me," he said. "It took a long time for them to get used to a dark-skinned man on a horse."
He took care not to be sloppy. He drank his coffee sweet with milk. He never smoked or chewed. He avoided spirits. "I can get high just acting normal," he told people.
Impaired cowboys got hurt.
One morning at the Griffin Ranch as he marched through tall grass to check on the cattle he felt something move under his boot. "Good God almighty!" he remembers whispering. The morning was cold. The rattler was sluggish. Slowly he removed his hat and dropped it in front of the snake, giving him the chance to slip away to his horse for his gun. Cowboys shot snakes that bit bulls and dogs and horses and grizzled men.
He is sentimental about hats. Somewhere he has the one that saved him from the snake. He has others, too. They all tell stories.
One time his horse stepped into a gopher tortoise burrow and broke its leg. When Everett fell he broke his leg 6 inches above the ankle. Horse and man were miles from the nearest vet. He put down the horse himself and somehow slogged back to civilization. He was young. He healed quick.
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Under the cedar tree he old cowboy stopped talking when he saw his daughter lead his favorite horse, Red, through the pasture gates toward his wheelchair.
Vee said, "My daddy is a country boy. For a long time I was taking care of him at my house in Fort Myers. But that was city. He needed his country. He needed his horses and even smelling the poop. So we leased this place."
She handed her daddy the reins. Red looked away and then returned his gaze. Then Red inched close enough to touch his nose with her nose. He whispered something only she could understand. She nuzzled him again. He reached over and lifted the lips from her teeth.
"She's about 4 years old," he announced to nobody in particular.
His daughter laughed in delight.
"If Daddy could have a horse in his bedroom, he'd do it."
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He and his wife, Lacy, were together for what seemed like forever. They had 10 children but somehow got by. Lacy died in July 2010.
A month later, the cowboy widower headed to Floral City to look at a lame horse. On a borrowed mount he rode behind the lame one and studied her gait. It was humid and miserable that day. The deer flies swarmed around him and his horse.
Maddened by the flies, his horse dropped suddenly to her knees, pinning Everett's leg. He stayed calm, thinking "I'm not hurt bad. When she stands I'll be okay.''
As she scrambled to her feet, one hoof landed squarely on his back. He heard a pop. Went numb. Lying on the broiling sand he prepared to meet his maker.
Somebody called 911. An ambulance carried him to the nearest clearing. A helicopter transported his still body to a hospital in Tampa.
One operation. Then a second. A third. Physical therapy. Depression. A nursing home. Progress. Setbacks. Dealing with Medicare and Medicaid. Praying. Reading the Bible. At the rehab center he was the only patient who insisted the television be tuned to the rodeo channel.
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Vee takes care of him now. She never tells anyone her age but looks about 40. She has a nursing background and once operated a day care center. She is the queen of tough love.
"He couldn't straighten his legs when I brought him home."
Her daddy now demonstrated how he can straighten his legs.
"He can stand now if he uses a walker. He can't walk, but who's to say he won't?"
He is 80 years old. He still looks good in a cowboy hat and boots. A worn brass buckle, engraved with a rodeo scene, keeps his pants up. From his wheelchair he steals a dreamy glance at Red.
"If it's humanly possible," his daughter whispered, "he'll ride again one day. My daddy is a real cowboy. You know what I'm saying? He's a real cowboy."
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.