Cal Hayes ruled the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch like a little Emperor. He was a no-nonsense, old school cowboy who didn’t suffer fools gladly. His “boys”, as he fondly called the cowboys who worked for him on the Ranch, lived in fear of that sharp tongue. Cal did not like surprises, and woe betides anyone who showed up at the Ranch without him knowing.
Cal wore the same cowboy uniform every day on the Ranch – faded Wranglers, broad-brimmed black hat and a curious, small red bandana wound tightly around his neck. The strangest thing about his outfit was his footwear. Instead of the expected cowboy boots, he preferred an old pair of hiking shoes. Only when it was time to ride would he change into riding boots.
The first time I met Cal, I was hauling a pickup truck load of supplies to my new backcountry District at Scotch Camp in Banff National Park. Scotch was the closest neighbouring Warden cabin to the Ranch. It was my first time to the Ya Ha Tinda and I’ll never forget that great sensation of wide open country. The Ranch consists of sixteen square miles of rolling, hard grass prairie laced with heavily timbered creek valleys. All of this is surrounded by the craggy mountains that form the east boundary of Banff Park. When I arrived at the first gate, I debated whether I should drive up to the Ranch buildings or just turn west and head for Scotch. Cal’s reputation made me a bit nervous about how I might be received. But before I could decide, I noticed a vehicle barrelling down towards me in a cloud of dust.
It was Cal in the old Ranch Chevy. “Follow me up to the house, the coffee’s on”, he smiled, leaning out of the window with his cowboy hat perched on the back of his head.
Coffee was served in the kitchen of the little Ranch house cowboy-style, out of a big old pot that sat on the stove from early morning onwards. The kitchen table, which was positioned in front of the window, commanded a sweeping view of the Ranch all the way down to the first gate. Binoculars perched on the window sill. When I saw Ken and Steve – Cal’s “boys” – sitting at the table, I realized that Cal had interrupted his coffee break to go welcome me at the gate.
“Dale mentioned that you would be up this way” Cal said.
My boss, Dale, had brought up Cal’s name but had left out most of the details. As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry, since Cal and the boys made me feel right at home. After coffee and a visit, he showed me around the buildings. It quickly became apparent to me that Cal loved the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch even though, as an employee of a Federal Government horse ranch, he didn’t own a nail or board on the place. As the new neighbour, I would spend a fair amount of time at the Ranch, commuting to my District. I was always impressed by how things were done with military precision. Cal did not tolerate any disobedience or dissent. Orders were orders.
The Ranch raised horses for the National Parks Warden Service, and it was the Ranch cowboys who trained the colts for their future work as backcountry patrol horses. Under the watchful eye of Cal they started the two-year olds, riding them almost every day, winter and summer. By the time they were three, they were ready to hit the trails in the Mountain Parks. Cal had an iron-clad rule that no one rode the two–year olds except for “the boys”.
One fall, I had a lay-over day at the Ranch. Cal had gone home to Sundre for the weekend and Steve was on days off. Ken was left in charge, so I was helping him with the chores.
That morning, the colts charged into the barn as usual to get their oats. Somehow, they always remembered which stall was theirs. Watching the colts that day reminded me of Cal’s reaction one time when a colt mistakenly entered the stall occupied by his neighbour. There was a big to-do as the culprit came flying out backwards to a loud, “whoa you son-of-a-bitch” from Cal.
It was a beautiful, crisp fall day and Ken was about to go for a ride. Each cowboy had a string of 4 or 5 colts of his own to train. The Wardens who travelled through the Ranch would always lobby Cal and the boys for the best colts for their respective Park herds. I had been admiring one of Ken’s particularly good-looking two-year olds all summer. That morning, I screwed up the courage to ask Ken if I could ride him.
“As long as you don’t tell Cal”, he warned.
Ken had a bit of an independent streak, and I think he was glad to go along with something that he knew Cal would not like.
We rode off on the colts, heading west in the direction of the Park. Things were going well. I could feel my nervousness disappearing and a slight cockiness taking its place. “This colt business is no big deal after all”, I thought.
I knew Ken was watching me closely, although he didn’t let on or look concerned in the least. We turned around after a couple of hours and were heading home when I started telling Ken a particularly interesting story. I was gesticulating with my outstretched arm to make my point when it happened. The colt leapt 10 feet sideways with cat-like agility. In a split second I was unseated, unceremoniously crashing to the ground. I lay there in the dust and gravel, looking up at Ken.
“You ok?” he asked, as he gathered up the reins of my frightened colt.
“I’ll be fine”, I moaned, as I felt the shooting pain from my sore wrist and my wounded pride taking hold.
While we rode home in silence, I could tell Ken was already praying that he wouldn’t have to fill out an accident report for Cal to sign.
That night, Cal returned from his days off with his family in Sundre. I was staying in the old log cabin. Being the sociable type, Cal always came down to visit the Ranch guests at the cabin. I pretended that nothing untoward had happened that day. He asked about my lay-over day at the Ranch and what I had done. Unconvincingly, I made up a story about some important paperwork that needed doing. I was quite sure that Cal couldn’t tell that my wrist was hurting when I poured the coffee.
The next morning, I was packing up at the hitching rail in front of the cabin. As was the custom at the Ranch, whoever was around would help pack up and get you on your way. Ken was there pulling slack on the diamond hitch and pretending like nothing was out of the ordinary – just another routine day, seeing off the Wardens. I climbed on to my saddle horse and Ken untied the packhorse and passed me the halter shank. As I started riding down through the yard towards the gate, Cal came stomping around the corner of the barn. He stood there with his short legs planted wide apart, a no-nonsense look on his face, his hands on his stocky hips.
“I don’t want you boys to ever do that again, you hear?” he bellowed in his usual crusty way.
“Oh God, we’re in shit now”, I thought.
Then, with his big black Stetson shading his eyes from the sun, he gestured out to the west and grinned, “Now, get the hell outa here”.
Cal loved chasing horses. He came by it naturally, growing up in the ranching tradition in the foothills of Alberta. During his time on the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, he got to chase a lot of horses. Every time the herd of more than 100 horses needed to be rounded up there would be a good old-fashioned horse chase to haze them in from the open range to the corrals.
One spring, everyone decided that it would be good idea to trail the Banff and Kootenay horses from the Ranch to Banff instead of hauling them by truck – just like in the old days before trucking took over. As it turned out, this would be the last horse drive to Banff, ever – a distance of 60 miles along the Cascade Fire Road.
The corral at the Ranch was full of horses, some fifty or so head destined for the Parks. Cal strutted around with his chaps flapping in the wind, barking out orders to all assembled – the Ranch cowboys, Johnny Nylund the Banff Barn Boss and the Wardens who would trail the herd to Banff. The plan was to turn them out of the corral and start them heading west with a bunch of Wardens acting as lead riders out front. Cal, Johnny and the boys would bring up the rear.
All went well for the first hour or so as the horse herd followed obediently after the lead riders. But then something happened – the whole herd turned as one and started stampeding back to the Ranch at a dead run. This is when Cal came into his own. Whooping and waving his arms like a Plains Indian chasing buffalo, Cal and the rearguard riders outflanked the herd leaders at a dead gallop and managed to turn them back. It was a masterful display of horsemanship by all. Reluctantly, the leaders turned back towards the west and the rest of the herd followed them. After that, they seemed resigned to their fate and followed the lead riders off the Ranch property into the Park.
Cal and the boys turned back at this point and wished us well. Sitting tall in the saddle, he yelled, “Keep them moving fellas. Don’t stop ‘til you get them to Scotch Camp.” With that, they rode back to the Ranch, having completed another day’s work in the saddle.
We waved at Cal and the boys. The rest of us turned our horses up the Red Deer River to begin the last horse drive to Banff.