Memories of Old Bill: You come a’ ridin’, cowboy


Bill Mulligan was an old school horse trader. The story was that he’d moved west from New Jersey in the 1960s because he got on the wrong side of the law. That didn’t matter to me because most stories like that are what they are; just stories. They’re a way for the locals to explain why someone from outside would want settle into a podunk town west of the one hundredth meridian.

Ft. Yates, N.D., was my home back then and Bill’s operation was close in Mobridge. I met him through Joe Harrison, a bucking horse breeder and race horse man who’d sent me a horse to school after I’d first moved to Ft. Yates. After watching me work with the filly, Joe paid my entire monthly fee up front.

“I can’t take this,” I said. “I only want half a month’s fee down.”

“Take it,” Joe said. “I’ve got money today. I may not have it tomorrow.”

And so it was that my friendship with Joe was sealed. Later that season he gave me an elderly mare that wouldn’t make the harsh North Dakota winter.

“Send it up to Bill,” Joe said. “He’ll take care of you.”

I hauled the horse up to Mulligan’s and Bill—almost apologetically—told me the mare was worth very little. She was old, she was thin, and she was weak.

“Oh Hell,” Bill said. “She’s just dried out and needs some groceries.”

We cut a deal. Bill was honest and though he wasn’t in the horse business to make friends, he was kind to me.

Over the years, I sold a couple of horses to Bill—horses that I’d taken in on trade. They were crippled and therefore worth what they weighed. Bill took them all, paying me enough to come out ahead. The horses were spared slow painful deaths.

“Life,” John Lennon said, “is what happens when you’re making other plans,” and after divorce I moved on, focusing on training ranch horses and starting performance prospects. The prospects—like show cars–often went on the auction block and I’d ride them through the sale ring for their owners. Bill was invariably at every sale I attended—and he invariably supported my work.

In the late summer of 1997 I put together a string of horses to sell at a big sale in Mandan, N.D., They were mostly good but some, owned by another trader, were quirky.

The way it works is this: horse buyers travel the country looking for horses that’ll fit the wants of their customers. They rely on their instincts to buy the ones they think might make money and it’s a rough ride to success. Nobody wants to sell their horses to a disadvantage and the buyers often end up owning horses with issues. The traders’ concerns are with profit and as one person said, “I’d rather ride a good looking horse than a good horse.”

My job was to work out the kinks. A problem was that I had less time than optimal. That’s the business, however. Mostly it works but sometimes it doesn’t.

The ’97 deal was a wreck. The skies opened up the weekend of the sale and the world turned to mud. For the first time, my horses didn’t sell well. I took a big loss.

I felt, if anything, desolate but as I rode the last horse up to the ring, Bill stepped in, motioned for me to pause, and put his hand on my knee. He’d seen what was happening.

“You come a’ ridin’, cowboy.” Bill smiled, nodded his head and I rode into the sale ring. Outside of getting a good price for my horses, it was the best anyone could have done at the time.

I later learned Bill had not felt well that day. He had cancer. It quickly killed him and he was given a short obituary. For the rest of my life, however, I’ll remember his singular vote of kindness and respect.

So, whenever I see someone giving their best and I think it’s appropriate, I try to pass it forward. I tell them — whether they appreciate it or not . . . “You come a’ ridin,’ cowboy.”


Keith is an SDSU alumnus and current journalism graduate student. Reach him at [email protected]