Emporia The funeral for Chase County cowboy Dan Matile wouldn't start for more than an hour but mud-streaked pickups, flat-bed trucks and a few sedans were already filling Charter Funerals' parking lot just west of downtown Emporia.
Most of the men behind the wheel, middle-aged and older, wore their western headgear low, barely above their ears, the way they were made to be worn.
Most shook hands and traded smiles and stories in the parking lot with hands buried in the front pockets of their fresh blue jeans or in the side pockets of stitched, western jackets. There were boots, lots of boots.
Small talk covered January's bad ice storm and the mud it left behind. Some talked pasture burning and fence mending and one mentioned Dan Matile's mules.
"He always had them damned big, old mules around," one man said.
Many eased up the sidewalk to the funeral parlor in uneven gaits with legs bowed, a consequence of years spent in the saddle. Most had been stepped on, kicked, sat and rolled on, bucked off and bitten by their four-legged sidekicks, and had scars to prove it.
Funeral director Paul Edmiston, expecting a full house, set the sign-in book outside on the front porch.
Inside, the pews were filling fast and chairs were being unfolded in the lobby.
At the front of the chapel a black, narrow-brimmed hat sat on the edge of Dan Matile's casket. At 83, with a bum hip and a bad back, lay the man who broke colts as a teenager and shucked corn for 10 cents a bushel. He was still riding horses after his last birthday.
His large hands were folded across a rodeo belt buckle the size of a small skillet. He won it for roping cattle when he was near 60. And, tucked neatly beneath his hands were five playing cards, Jack Daniels playing cards, face down against his body. Matile died March 7.
'A cowboy's cowboy'
Even before making his last ride to the Strong City Cemetery he was still playing the hand he was dealt.
"He was a cowboy's cowboy," said rancher Frank Buchman, pressing his white broad-brimmed cowboy hat against his chest as he paid his respects. Buchman and his wife, Margaret Mary, have a ranch near Alta Vista.
Matile grew up on a little farm between Olpe and Madison about 15 miles south of Emporia on Kansas Highway 99.
"Dad had a little real estate at one time," Matile had said in an earlier conversation. "The depression 'bout got him but it was his health that did get him."
During the depression Matile broke horses.
"In the '30s there wasn't no money but a neighbor had quarter-bred draft horses and I'd ride them colts (break them) for $10 a month. ... I could ride three of them in a month but in the wintertime you couldn't do nothin.'"
Matile recalled that a big Saturday night meant riding a horse five miles into Madison, alone, to drink pop and sit around talking with friends. The trip into town took an hour "taking the highway" but coming home meant a longer trip on a dark dirt road.
Did the horse walk or jig a little?
"I didn't run him 'cause I wasn't in any hurry," he said, smiling. "If I'd been in a hurry I'd have left sooner."
Working for a legend
In 1942, Matile answered a classified newspaper ad and got a job in Strong City working as a ranch hand for rodeo legend E.C. Roberts.
He was alone and it was his first time living away from family.
"Mr. Roberts was a great citizen and he really put the Flint Hills Rodeo in Strong City on the map," Matile said.
Roberts' two oldest sons, Gerald and Ken, were world champion rodeo competitors.
"Mr. Roberts" also had a sense of humor.
After working there for a week, Matile was asked to catch a small white "trick" horse Margie Roberts performed on during rodeos.
"It was a little old white Colorado Tokara and we finally caught and saddled him. When I went to get in the saddle the horse kneeled down on his front legs," he said.
Matile jumped on.
"I'd no more than hit the saddle and he made two jumps, bucked me off right over his head with me holding the reins between my legs," he said laughing as he hit the kitchen table with his hand.
He landed on his feet -- one foot in an icy water tank and the other on dry ground.
Still laughing, Matile said, "I was straddlin' that damned tank -- went over his head like a big toad."
When he looked up there was a large group of people looking through the fence and laughing hard.
"When Mr. Roberts would get a new hand half of Strong City would come out to see the trick horse in action," Matile said.
So, Matile did what real cowboys do. He caught the horse, got back in the saddle, rode through the horse's best moves, got off and tied the reins to the fence.
"I had an old neighbor who died just a few years ago. ... Old, couldn't hardly remember anything but he remembered me getting bucked off that trick white horse," Matile said quietly.
Matile also picked feed corn for Roberts, by hand.
"If I started out a couple of hours before sunup I could have a wagon load, 28 bushels a little after noon," Matile said.
By dark he'd pick another load. At 10 cents a bushel he'd pocket $5.60.
"If you wanted a dollar you worked for it," he said.
Matile had lots of stories.
In his tales he was rarely the hero. He was usually the cowboy, just being a cowboy, who got crosswise with a horse or a steer.
Labor Day, 1944:
"I went to a rodeo in Pratt, Kansas, and made $53 riding broncs," Matile recalled.
He figured he could pick up some easy money in the mule-busting competition.
"That little old mule made about three jumps, turned sideways, I fell off and she kicked me right in the butt -- broke my hip," he said.
The ambulance ride from Pratt to Emporia's St. Mary's Hospital cost $70 and he was in a "fracture bed" for six weeks and two days.
A fracture bed was stretched canvas on a frame. The patient was immobilized.
"I was in that bed, no mattress, no nothin' with my foot tied to one end of a rope that went up through a pulley and the other end was tied to a bucket of sand ... six weeks and two days," he lamented.
Matile's jobs varied from driving cattle to railroad pens in Bazaar and Matfield Green to working in a mule barn in Wichita where he learned to shoe horses.
"When I saw the grass greenin' through cracks in the Wichita pavement I knew it was time to get back to Chase County," he said.
Family of cowboys
The rest of his life was spent shoeing, trading and breeding horses and mules. He and his wife, "Tiny," raised four children, all rodeo competitors who together won 26 saddles and several national championships. Several of the saddles were still in his living room when he died.
He ended our visit by telling the story about trying to put new horse shoes on a "green horse" whose feet he'd tied together.
"I stuck a bale of hay between his legs so he couldn't move ... and I don't know how he got such a lick on me but that was the hardest I've ever been kicked in my life," he said.
He said he picked himself up on the other side of the barn.
So what came next?
"Well, you can't just shoot another man's horse," he said laughing. "I shoed the son of a gun."