The tiny cemetery in the Mariposa County community of Hornitos is like a magnet these days.
It’s displaying a powerful pull, tugging on many hearts and emanating from a stretch of misfortunes that began at a historic ranch across the way.
Friends buried 61-year-old cowboy Gary Thompson of Escalon on Friday, the third funeral in less than three years and the second in just over a month.
In September 2012, 84-year-old Art Turner suffered a heart attack and died while getting ready to work cattle on the ranch that has been in his family for more than 140 years. Empire’s Bob Wood, his friend who loved the ranch as much as he did, built Turner’s coffin by hand and was among those who buried him, shovelful by shovelful, in that cemetery.
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Then, in March, Wood planned to ride out to check on the herd with Thompson and others. But he lost his balance while checking his horse’s hooves, and it was clear he wasn’t well. He’d suffered a brain aneurysm, dying at home after a brief time in a Modesto hospital.
As Wood did for Turner, Thompson and Turner kin Terry Robinson helped build Wood’s coffin. They lined it with the skins and pelts of deer and coyote the 59-year-old cowboy had shot himself. On March 27, Thompson led Wood’s horse, its saddle empty in Old West symbolism, up the hill to the funeral.
Two weeks ago Saturday, Thompson saddled up Wood’s horse. He and others planned to do pregnancy checks on the cows. He climbed aboard the animal, only to realize one of the reins had fallen to the ground and the horse had stepped on it. When Thompson leaned forward to grab it, the horse threw its head back hard, hitting Thompson. Scott Lankford of Modesto, another ranch relative, said he believes the blow instantly knocked Thompson out cold. The horse then bucked three times hard. Thompson flew off and hit his head on the ground.
Even though two others there that day, Lori and Dave Holmes, are registered nurses and responded quickly, Thompson never regained consciousness. He died Monday at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto.
Hence, another coffin to build, another grave to be dug. Another family planned another funeral. Friday, it was Thompson’s turn, the third in a trilogy of services that led them back to the hilltop next to St. Catherine’s Catholic Church, the community’s most visible landmark. Mark Calvillo again built the coffin, finishing it just before his own mother, Vera, passed away. Robinson again finished it, fashioning handles from horseshoes as Wood had done for Turner’s coffin and extras that went on his own. Lankford eulogized Thompson, just as he did Wood in March.
They decided against the ceremonial riderless horse for this one, though, Robinson said.
“The horse that would have been leading him is what put him here,” Robinson said.
Roughly 200 friends and family gathered – many who attended the other two funerals as well – and they tried to put it all into perspective. Yes, it hurts to lose Thompson just as it hurt to lose Turner and Wood before him. It’s hurt them deeply. But these men all died, in effect, doing what they enjoyed most in life. That Thompson and Wood lived long enough for loved ones to say their goodbyes but went relatively quickly without suffering seemed both merciful and fitting to those whose knew and loved them.
All three of these men cherished being cowboys, spending their weekends at the ranch away from their jobs. Art Turner graduated from UC Berkeley and became a beloved Spanish teacher at Downey High in Modesto. Wood worked in construction. Thompson, 61, drove a Rainbow Bread truck for 30 years. The ranch, however, was their collective passion.
Wood and Thompson likened their friendship to characters in Larry McMurtry’s classic Western miniseries, “Lonesome Dove,” Wood in the role of Capt. Woodrow Call portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones to Thompson’s Augustus McCrae, played by Robert Duvall. The irony would not be lost on students of the Old West.
McMurtry based the characters on real-life cattlemen Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, who forged one of the West’s most famous and profitable trails covering 2,000 miles from Texas to Wyoming. When Loving was attacked by Indians in New Mexico in 1867, Goodnight tended to him until Loving died. Then, granting Loving’s final wish, Goodnight took his body back to Texas for burial.
Granted, the trail from the ranch to the Hornitos cemetery is measured in yards, not miles, and it is mostly paved. Still, the commitment and dedication among friends, from building the coffins to burying their friends by hand, is the same.
It wasn’t limited to cowboys and coffins. In 2005, Thompson and best friend Grant Arnold went hunting near Hornitos. Driving back to the Valley separately, Arnold suffered a massive heart attack, causing him to crash his car. He died.
Thompson and the Arnold family soon established a scholarship in Grant’s honor, expanding it to include son Jason, who died in an auto accident in 2008. This year, the fund will grant its 84th and 85th $1,000 scholarships to area high school students.
The Arnolds joined the others who climbed the hill to the cemetery Friday to say goodbye to Thompson.
It’s not a difficult place to find. The trail up the hill is well-worn, the tracks all too fresh.
Donations in Gary Thompson’s memory can be made to the Grant and Jason Arnold Scholarship Fund, 2425 Thaddeous Drive, Escalon, CA 95320