The Horse Who Made Max Evans a Writer
Story and Photography by Tim Keller
“By the time I got up and scraped the mud out of my eyes, Old Sorrel had bucked to the top of the hill and was now in a dead run for the ranch house. I was afoot with a two-mile walk ahead of me. I may say that I was unhappy with that horse…He was more of a horse than I was a cowboy, and that’s all there was to it.”
Like most of the events and characters in Max Evans’s 1961 novel The Hi Lo Country, Old Sorrel was based on an actual horse. Returning from WWII infantry combat in France, Evans had to restock his modest ranch outside Des Moines, New Mexico. In “The Horse Who Wrote Stories”, from his 2007 collection of horse stories For the Love of a Horse, Evans gives the real names and details – the neighboring rancher who sold him “Blackie”, his crash-prone bouts with the horse, and the new friend, Wiley “Big Boy” Hittson, who took Blackie off his hands and became the main character in The Hi Lo Country.
“Blackie could read minds, and when a simple mind like mine went blank or wandered into some foreign subject, such as the brilliance of coyotes, he knew it. The next thing I became aware of was the fact that he had jumped up into the realm of eagles and when he came jarringly down, I myself learned to fly. My new skill was short-lived.”
Home today in Albuquerque, Evans says, “If it wasn’t for that horse, I don’t think there ever would have been a Rounders, a Hi Lo Country, or a friendship with Big Boy. That horse started everything.”
Everything is an illustrious career highlighted by the novels The Rounders and The Hi Lo Country, each made into a classic film and each based on a famously cantankerous horse modeled on Blackie. Evans has received the Owen Wister Award from the Western Writers of America for lifelong contributions to the field of western literature; he is ranked number 11 on the WWA’s survey of all-time Best Western Authors.
The Rounders features a pair of contemporary bronc busters and their comic failures in trying to tame a roan named Old Fooler. Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford immortalized the cowboys in the beloved 1965 film version. The novel drew critical raves for its realism: “It is a book to read if you are in need of a good laugh or if you are tired of reading cowboy novels where there are no cows and where the cowhands never stop waiting around the local saloon for a final showdown with the visiting Indians,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle.
Evans came by his realism the hard way. He lived it. Born in Ropes, Texas, in 1924, his family was living in Lea County, in southeastern New Mexico, when Evans received his first horse, a small bay named Cricket, at the age of four. He went to work.
“By the time I was seven,” he recalls, “my dad cut the east end off of our outfit for his widowed sister to run cattle. There, all of sudden, with Cricket, I had the total responsibility of taking care of my aunt’s cattle when there wasn’t any grass. I drove them all over looking for grass. I drove them up and down the highway right-of-way between Hobbs and Lovington. There was grass left there. I drove them over and over, up and down, all by my little bitty self! I’ll tell you, if you’ve ever worked cattle by yourself, with just a few head, it is truly like shoving a log chain uphill. It just really is. But I didn’t know the difference, you see? When you don’t know the difference, you’ll do anything. You can do anything.”
When his family returned to Texas, Evans opted out, boarding a bus north to find his cowboy uncle on Glorieta Mesa east of Santa Fe. Eleven years old, he became a full-time working cowboy, often hiring out for day wages at the legendary San Cristobal and other area ranches. He came under the tutelage of cow boss Ed Young and was homeschooled by Mother Young, who instilled in young Max a lifelong love of art and literature.
Ed gave young Max “a little stocking-legged, blazed face, snip-nosed bay”, one of his many horses Evans immortalized in the nonfiction stories of For the Love of a Horse. Recalling Snip today, he adds, “We matched up perfectly. I could do anything on that horse. I really learned to heel and that got me by, cowboyin’, real good.”
Evans rejoined his family in Andrews, Texas for four fall seasons playing high school football, always returning to the Youngs with a heavy box of classic novels. “While I was gone one fall, Ed sold Snip to a guy from the Kansas City stockyards for $75. Ed must have needed the money. When I got back I was brokenhearted, but I couldn’t show it. $75 was so much money in those days it was just unheard of. No way I could blame Ed.”
Young must have seen Max’s disappointment. “To make up to me,” Max says, “he gave me Flax. Now, in my heart, I look back and see that Flax was the major horse of my life. He could work cattle: he made a dunce kid like me look like a cowboy. We worked cattle in rough country where a kid would normally get killed. Ed had broke him and it was a special gesture for Ed to give him to me. He saw something in me.
“Flax was a sorrel with a blonde mane and tail and stocking feet. He looked like a show horse but he was a cow horse through and through. Of course I imagine I had an exaggerated opinion of his beauty.” A 1932 photograph of Young on Flax suggests Evans was right: Flax was a beauty even as a colt.
At seventeen, Evans’s “marryin’ Aunt Faye” offered him a little 1680 acre spread with good water, 14 miles east of Des Moines, NM. Though he ranched it for only a few years, he developed a deep affection for the people and sparse volcano-studded ranchlands of northeastern New Mexico. Sixty-two years after moving away, to Taos and later Albuquerque, Evans continues to place many of his stories there, in the region he himself named with his novel The Hi Lo Country.
In Taos he turned to the life of an artist, specializing in night scenes of men on horses. When that didn’t feed his family, he turned to prospecting, then writing. All the time, he continued to buy and trade horses and enter roping competitions. Today he speaks of his horses as if they were favorite children.
Max purchased Blackie for $75 from George Larkin, who owned a grocery store in Des Moines and a cattle ranch southeast of town. “The horse was as shiny black as newly mined coal. I named him Blackie right there.” Whether the horse was an outlaw, or had been abused, or a combination of the two, the gelding turned out to be too much horse for Max. Big Boy caught wind of that and offered to take Blackie off Max’s hands for the price he’d paid -- $75. The transaction kindled a close friendship between Max and Big Boy, who encouraged Max’s artistic leanings.
“Blackie only tried unloading Big Boy twice,” Max recalled, “and then with no choice given he settled down and made him an outstanding cow horse. Big Boy was a good amateur bareback bronc, bull rider, and ‘dogger,’ steer wrestler, but the nearest he ever moved Blackie to a rodeo arena was once when he decided to get all duded up in old-timers’ real garb and ride him in the Des Moines rodeo parade.”
In an eight-month transition between his ranch and Taos, Max opened an art gallery in Des Moines, calling it Met West. Big Boy was the only local who ever took an interest in it. Max closed the gallery and, late one night in November 1948, he and Big Boy drove all of Max’s worldly possessions to Taos. One year later, in a disagreement with his younger brother outside the family home, Big Boy was shot to death. He was 23. Max heard about it just in time to make the funeral, which is right where The Hi Lo Country opens.
At the reception following the funeral, Big Boy’s mother offered Max three of Big Boy’s most valued possessions. Max accepted his friend’s .30-30 rifle, and his sweat-stained hat. But Max turned down Blackie, saying, “No, thank you, ma’am. He belongs here in the country where he and Big Boy worked. Besides, a smart horse like Blackie will still remember that I’m not much of a bronc rider.”
After Big Boy took Blackie off his hands, there was Molly, a five-year-old bay mare who “wasn’t much of a cow horse but she loved to run coyotes.” Then he acquired Brownie, the first of several Taos horses, “as plain as his name, just brown all over,” Evans wrote in For the Love of a Horse. “There was nothing outstanding about him. However, for the thirty dollars I paid Horse Thief Shorty for him, he turned out to be quite a buy. Brownie was a good, solid cow horse, with good rein, fair stop, and some cow sense. I tried to make a roping horse out of him as well, over the protests of my wife, Pat. She was right.”
Next came Clabber, “a good roping horse with a wonderful smooth gait,” Evans says today. Raggedy Ann followed, a roan so unpredictable that he sold her to Red Boggs south of Santa Fe, negotiated over drinks at Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen. “Three months later I saw Red again at Maria’s. I thought I was gonna get beat up.” Boggs had “retired” Raggedy Ann, and Evans incorporated her with Blackie in creating Old Fooler for The Rounders.
He had three more horses before his writing career took off. “Reno was a white Arabian who could ride all day across the Taos desert and never break a sweat, a beautiful horse but not a roper. A Texas oilman had an affair with a Taos waitress who fancied my horse; he offered me $2000 for him and I took it.” Then there was Sleepy Kay, a roping horse with a deceptively relaxed appearance, and finally Powderface, “My one and only first-class roping horse, a blaze-faced, strawberry roan, quartered up like a champion cutting horse. He was good. In fact, he was much better than I was.”
As Evans began shuttling back and forth between New Mexico and Hollywood to shepherd his stories into movies, he gave Powderface to his cousin David Evans, now 74 and still cowboying on the Kinsolving outfit back in Lea County.
Since then Max has done his wrangling with a pen and legal pad, still drawing on seemingly endless tales from his thirty years on horseback, spinning yarns based on real people and real horses. His wry take on cowboy life and his hands-on knowledge of horses have made him a longtime favorite of readers, who smile at scenes such as this one atop Old Fooler:
“I stayed till I lost my hat. I stayed till I lost a stirrup. I stayed till I lost both stirrups, and a while longer after that. It just didn’t do any good. The world was jumping around and going in crazy circles, and eleven hundred pounds of horseflesh was pounding my behind to pieces. Then I flopped around in the pure, clean, fresh mountain air like a baby bird and came down on my back right where the roan had bit me. It was a very poor feeling.”
Tim Keller is photographer, writer, and teacher based in Des Moines, New Mexico. See more of his writing and photography at TimKellerArts.com. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.