One of many tender mercies is that my dad was in great spirits the morning that he died. Dad had spent the prior afternoon picking green beans and snapping them and made my mom can them that morning. They worked together canning while dad anxiously awaited the arrival of the other cowboys to go round up cattle. He rides horse at least once a week, but he loves it and the excitement of riding with someone never grew old to him. He was pacing the floor as he waited. He even shaved a put on clone. Mom teased him that he was stinky and suggested that he was really going to meet a girl not to go out on the range gathering cattle. My parent’s house is just a short distance from where the range begins so he waited for two horse trailers to pass so he would have friends to ride with. He hugged my mom from the back, gave her a kiss on the neck and he was off.
If this concept of “round-up” is unfamiliar to you let me explain. A few hundred passes are owned by local cattlemen for their cows to go on the government owned mountain range each summer. In the fall the cattle are all mixed up and must be found and brought in for the winter. The cowboys designate a time to work together to bring them all in. Round up is one of my dads favorite things. He loves his association with the cowboys and he loves the work. (There were older cowboys that came through the line with tears streaming down their faces wondering how they would get their cattle rounded up without the help of Neil.) He carried much more than his share of the weight. He loved it.
That morning my mom asked my dad to ride her horse, a calmer palomino, but he had been riding Captain trying to get him ready to sale. My dad breads his horses to be high strung because that made them good cattle horses. Sure, people had a hard time staying on them, but those high-strung horses “walked out” and know how to get the job done. At about 10:00 AM he was on a beautiful mountaintop called the school section and he suggested to the three other cowboys he was with that he could go down one side and they could go down the other. Blake Smith, his 11-year-old son, Brody, and Ryan Hall split from him. Blake said dad’s horse had an arch in his back and his tail was up as Neil gave it a firm kick and separated from the group.
When my dad didn’t meet up with the others at the bottom of the hill they didn’t think a thing of it. They figured he had found a herd of cattle and that he had headed back to the coral with them. It wasn’t until they got back to the coral and realized he wasn’t there that they began to worry. Blake and Brody trotted back to the base of the mountain. They stopped to give their horses a rest and Brody said, “Dad, lets say a prayer that we can find Neil.” They went up to where they last saw him and only 1-2 minutes from where they separated they found his hat. They were yelling his name and his dog Mia came “yapping” from a “wash” (a nature made ditch). As soon as Mia saw that they saw her she went running back to my dad’s side.
His hat was about 100 yards from where they found him. His head was at a slight downward incline so he didn’t look good. It was about 1:00 that they called 911 (they were on the mountaintop so they could get cell phone reception) and search and rescue was dispatched to come get him off of the mountain. Blake got permission to move him and put dad’s head in his lap. Blake took off his hat and shaded dad with it until the rescue team arrived.
This is a picture of Blake tearfully showing us the spot where dad had died. It is a couple of miles from home, but you could see the home place from there as well as a beautiful view of the mountains with the leaves changing. A few weeks earlier dad had told a neighbor, on a ride, that he was going to die with this cowboy boots on. That he did, in a spot where he could overlook the things that he loved most.
We will never know exactly what happened. (The dog was the only one there and she’s not talking.) We do know that it was an accident. Based mostly on the fact that his left rib cage was broken right at his heart. One of those broken ribs probably pierced his heart or spleen. It looks as if he didn’t struggle. He was lying on his back with his arms out. It appears as if he died where he landed. We assume that he was either kicked on his way down or stepped on by the horse. Although he had no external bruising. This can only be explained by the mortician by the fact that he was wearing his garments. With his hat so far away and his glasses also found about 3 feet away we can assume the horse was giving him trouble, either it bolted or was bucking and when it got to the wash it turned or stopped suddenly causing him to fall off.
I find some peace in knowing that dad died doing what he loved to do. He died in a beautiful spot and he will never suffer from old age. My dad loved life so much! I know that if he were given the choice he would have stayed on earth with us, but if he had to leave I am glad that he died on the mountains that he loved. I am glad that he was with friends so that he could be found very quickly, and I am grateful that he didn’t lay there alone. He and Mia have always been special to each other. I am sure he was comforted by the presence of his dog.