Ranch of Dreams

© Fred Pastore

published in ANVIL Magazine, November, 1998

This article began as a tribute to a friend. It has become a eulogy. As I was completing this article, my friend Bill Raftery passed away in early July. Bill was one of the most interesting men I have ever met; I am sure that I echo the sentiments of his many friends and acquaintances. Vaya con Dios, Captain -- you will be greatly missed and fondly remembered.

Pulling off Route 89, the main road just north of Tucson, I head east toward the Catalina Mountains, taking in the western face which has seen many changes over the years. As the valley opens below me, I stand atop the ridge and see the "progress" that has taken place -- new homes, trailers and, now and again, the stray beer can someone decided they didn't want anymore. Out toward the end of Golder Ranch Road, I pass the 4-wheel drive utility vehicles with their bicycle racks and see the brightly colored spandex uniforms of the trail jockeys. I silently wonder what drives a person to want to ride for miles through and over rocky terrain on a rubber-tired, chain-driven, manually powered, air-cooled vehicle, rather than on the back of a horse.

Down another three-quarters of a mile is the entrance to the Anvil Ranch. As I pass through the hand-made entry gate, I begin to forget about what I just saw. Pastures on both sides of the main road are filled with cactus, quail, coyotes and the local mule deer herds. Many of the horses belong to the city folk who board here, and want to keep as much of the cowboy way alive as they can. Although this is no longer a "working" ranch, hundreds of cattle have passed through the various pens and pastures over 35 years of the ranch's existence. Passing the hay barn and pulling up towards the main house, one may very well see the owner shoeing a horse or doing one of many chores a ranch requires.

Captain W.D. (Bill) Raftery has been out and about since 5:00 am, feeding and tending to the dozen or so horses on his property. A 60-acre piece of heaven, this ranch is the result of a man's dreams and accomplishments. The fences and feeders, some new and some in need of repair, show the cowboy touch. A little baling wire, a horseshoe nail here and there, and a lot of ingenuity can go a long way.

As I parked and got out of my vehicle, I was welcomed by the ranch dog, Stranger. She is a small dog -- a heeler, I think, that patrols the ranch from one end to the other, making sure things are as they should be. If this dog could talk, I'm confident her memory would be more interesting than mine.

Not far behind was Bill. He was of course curious to see who had entered his domain, and he would scrutinize you with a warm and inquisitive stare that he had cultivated through the years helping people -- as a ranch hand, cavalry officer, highway patrol officer, vet and farrier. He was pretty amazing -- he learned more about you in the first few minutes than sitting down and hearing your life story. "You can learn a lot about a man by the way he shakes your hand, the way he carries himself and the way he rides a horse," Bill would say. I can hold my own with him, even though my cowboy experiences are few compared to Bill's. I had heard about Bill often, long before I met him, and was fortunate to ride with him for many years.

Bill carried with him experiences most people can only imagine. He grew up as the son of an adjutant general in the army, which took him all over the country and allowed him to work on a number of ranches as a young man. His experience with horses and teaching people about them took on a different shape when WWII broke out. He was assigned to the Brave Rifles, out of Fort Riley, Kansas. "I guess I was pretty good at what I did, so they made me an instructor," he told me. He rose to the rank of master sergeant, going from fort to fort, teaching new troops how to become horse soldiers. That included how to care for their horses and how to create a bond with the animal that would carry them into, and, hopefully, safely out of battle. Bill once related to me that "with some of our guys, the closest they've been to a horse was a John Wayne movie. But I taught them the basics and we rode those horses all over France and Luxembourg." Before WWII, Bill's unit was used to patrol the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and was also the official Presidential Cavalry Unit, used in parades.

He went ashore D-Day (June 6, 1944), but was seriously wounded on July 4 and sent back to a hospital in England. It was one of several times he was wounded. He lost much of the use of his left arm when he was hit twice by machine gun fire. However, Bill was not one to be held back, and he made his way back to his unit in a couple of weeks.

One day he saw a staff car approaching, and a general with stars all over the place got out. Bill thought he was in big trouble. The general looked at him and said, "Raftery, I should have known it was you, somehow finding a horse and running all over the countryside." The general was George Patton, a fairly well-known horse soldier in his own right.

The army may have become Bill's career, but after being wounded for the fourth time, he was discharged on V-J Day. "They figured I was too shot up to be of any more use to them." He ended up a Captain, and was awarded a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and four Purple Hearts. Until his recent death, he also held the rank of captain in the Arizona Governor's Horse Guard. He walked and trotted his troop through drills and exercises at least once a month and the look on his face told you when some extra work was needed on the formations. The list of parades the troop has taken part in is long, and has included the 1996 Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, California. Bill trained the troop, but was the only original horse soldier in the Guard.

He didn't settle down for awhile, working on ranches and riding in rodeos. He was an RCA rodeo cowboy, roping steers and riding bulls and broncs. Whatever he was doing, it had to do with horses. He signed on with the Arizona Highway Patrol for seven years and shod horses to make ends meet. He was a farrier from that time on. He was one of the best at what he did and always stayed busy. Horses need to be shod every six weeks or so and it required that Bill travel to ranches from Sonoita (about a three-hour drive south) to Oracle (about an hour north) and all points in between. When asked how dangerous his job was, he would say, "Heck, I haven't been kicked since 3 o'clock this afternoon!" He once got bitten by a horse, getting part of his pectoral muscle ripped out. "Up until that time I thought horses were vegetarians," he laughed. Bill didn't see retirement any time soon. "When I stop eating or when they stop taxing me, I guess then I can stop working," he'd tell you.

One morning we were remarkably early. The group that rode with us could usually be heard giving Bill a bad time about having to wait for him to saddle up and get with the program. We would mill about, shooting the breeze and shaking hands. If necessary, we'd introduce ourselves to some new soul who had decided to venture out of a warm bed to join the ride.

This particular morning we were heading out to the east, straight for the Catalina Mountains. These hills are steeped in Arizona history, ranging from old outlaw hideouts to Hohokam Indian dwellings. Bill had come to know these hills like most people know their way to work. His ranch was the only place out here 35 years ago -- Bill cut the first road in from the main road and fought to keep it unpaved. "Keeps the speeders down, although they will say it's the horses damaging the road," he'd tell you. There are many trails to choose from -- some overgrown and some bared out from use, and Bill knew them all. Throughout the ride Bill pointed out hand-carved metates (Indian grinding stones) in the rocks, petroglyphs (Indian paintings) and natural rock formations he has come to name. Heading north from his ranch you can see for miles. If it looked like rain, Bill would steer clear of the hills, as flash floods can ruin a guy's day pretty quick.

This time of year the grass was growing, giving the desert a lush, green appearance. Bill used to run cattle out here until a few years' droughts cost him his herd. There are still cattle herds spread out through the hills, but not as it was in years past. It explains why your horse may spook when you come on some steers or cows: they just aren't used to seeing the livestock.

Meandering through the different washes and cuts in the rock can give a person a whole new outlook on his 9 to 5 life. For some of us, to have this at your beck and call is the way to live.

As we topped a ridge, a small herd of white-tail deer hit the run, followed close behind by Bill's dog. Stranger bellowed and barked as long as she had the deer in sight. Deer are pretty quick up here, even in the rocks. Bill didn't like for Stranger to get too far out, as there are mountain lions in these rocks. Stranger tied up with one some time back and was lucky to get out in one piece, so the riders help keep an eye out for him while we're riding. Stranger's latest rendezvous was with a couple of coyotes, which called for 25 stitches.

For three or four hours, Bill led the group on a ride that most people only dream of. The beauty of the Catalina Mountains is something that I'm happy to have experienced in my lifetime, and Bill was always more than willing to share the panoramic views as well as his expertise, with me and all the others.

As we headed back towards his ranch, Bill would amuse us with jokes and stories he'd heard over the years. One could tell, by listening closely, that he cared for this land deeply, and treasured his memories of all that had taken place here, raising his family with his wife, Nancy. His kids have grown and moved on, but have become expert horse persons in their own right. His son Scott is one of the top cutting horse trainers around; he doubled for Gene Wilder in the bullriding scenes in the movie "Stir Crazy." Lance lives in Australia. Bill often related stories of horse trips in Australian Snowy River country that were told to him by his son. His daughter Heather had done stunt work, doubling for Sarah Miles in "The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing." Heather has also written a script entitled, "The Last Horse Soldier," based on her father's experiences. The script was recently purchased by Turner Network Television, but has been put on hold due to TNT's restructuring.

Upon entering his house, you feel as though you have stepped into a museum. A collection of ribbons, trophies and pictures adorn the walls of his family room. Headstalls, spurs, chaps and hats used over the 70-plus years of Bill's life hang neatly as if waiting to be used again. Enormous sets of longhorns canopy either side of the entryway in the main room of the house, giving credence as to the size of the bulls that once carried them. A sculpture titled "Sabre and Tomahawk," by Dan Bates, one of Bill's troop members, sits on display, reminiscent of the old cavalry. Bill also sat for a horse soldier sculpture by Dan that stands in Ft. Lowell Park in Tucson. The stories that these walls hold, not only on them but also inside of them, are but to be imagined.

There was always quite a combination of people who came out to Bill's Anvil Ranch to ride with him. There were judges, construction workers, policemen, railroad workers, retired millionaires, and even a computer analyst. Some of the guys brought their wives or girlfriends, many of whom handle themselves as good or better than some hands I know. The cowboy way burns in the hearts of all these people, and Bill did his best to fan the flames.

It was handshakes all around as it came time to put up our horses and leave. He'd tell you to write if you found work, or make some other amusing remark, but you always heard Bill tell you to come back soon. My time spent on the Anvil Ranch always seemed too short, and it was always entertaining and memorable. It was a pleasure to have Bill as a friend, and an honor to have made his acquaintance. Happy trails, Bill.

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