--a tribute to Canyonlands' most loveable relic--
all copyright 1996 Lee S. (Dink) Bridgers
published in the Canyonlands Zephyr 1996
The 12 bed San Juan County jail facility, built to contain the criminal element of 9000 square miles of southeastern Utah, was filled to well over capacity with drunken Indians still loudly celebrating some special event, when a white man and a black man both named Johnson arrived handcuffed together. To the incarcerated Navajos and Utes Johnson and Johnson must have been a special sighting, because they were pointing, laughing, and joking among themselves from the moment the two made their appearance.
In full view of his rowdy, captive audience Sheriff Rusty Musselman ceremoniously uncuffed black Johnson and began to uncuff white Johnson, but ran into trouble with the cuff on white Johnson's gloved hand. Rusty fumbled for several minutes with cuff and keys until white Johnson finally asked, "Do you need some help with that?"
"Yea, I do." Rusty replied.
White Johnson calmly unscrewed his hand from his wrist, and gave hand and offending cuffs to Rusty.
"The Indians went wild with laughter," says Rusty Musselman thirty years later.
Now in his eighties and recovering from heart surgery, Rusty sat in a comfortable armchair in the living room of his beautiful log home just outside of Monticello. Rusty generates a special feeling whenever he shares such a story--a real love for people, for all people and the wonderful absurdity of life. Bette Stanton, author and recently retired director of the Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission, once said of him, "Rusty is a western treasure and the most lovable joker in all of Canyonlands."
I mentioned my worry about placing the words, "drunk Indian" in this article. I knew that Rusty had a lot more "dangerous" (albeit truthful) things to say, and the stories were only going to get more "off-color" as time wore on and the whiskey kicked in. I knew I would have to give in to his humor and let the stories flow without censorship, but I thought of Jim Stiles and the letters he will probably get from airing Rusty's delightful oral freedoms.
"How about 'chemically challenged Native Americans'? Do you think that will fly?" I asked.
Rusty sat before me smiling with an Oxygen respirator plugged into his nose. He chuckled in that way that is uniquely Rusty. There was a cosmic gleam in his eye, the look of someone who knew the score, but never needed to follow the game. He replied, "I don't know where humor went. Quite a lot of the old folks had humor, even though they was a lot of shoot-em-up artists. Nowadays, people just stand there with their mouth open and you can't go nowhere with that."
Rusty came to Utah in 1930 at the age of 15 when his father, Ross Musselman, moved here for health reasons. In 1949 the Musselmans purchased the Pack Creek Ranch just north of Moab and began taking tourists on horseback into the desert hills and the La Sal Mountains. It was at this time that Moab began receiving attention as a Hollywood film location and Rusty quickly found work as a wrangler for western films, beginning with Moab's very first, John Ford's "Wagonmaster".
In 1954 Rusty and his wife, Lilly, moved to Bluff and started an Indian trading post.
"We traded goats, sheep, horses, cows, wool, lambs, rugs, jewelry. The Navajo system is based on a one to ten count, so it was easy for us to work together. When the supermarket started in Bluff it damn near put the traders out of business. They used cash. We didn't. I eventually gave it up and became Sheriff of San Juan County from 1965 to 1970."
When Rusty talks about his tenure as Sheriff he inevitably mentions his deputy, Verl Green, someone he still admires and considers a best friend. There is a beautiful pen and ink drawing of Verl's uniquely western, wrinkled, and worn face beside the front door of Rusty's home. In order to fully relish stories of Verl you must understand the extreme nature of Verl's rugged appearance. He has a pronounced hare lip, scary sunken eyes, and is so thin that you wonder how he balances the cowboy hat on his head. Verl looks like he is about to draw a gun and shoot you, but his looks greatly contrast his personality. Verl is the quintessential western gentleman--soft spoken, extremely polite, kind, very warm and friendly. His hare lip is as much a source of humor for him as it is a hindrance to conversation. When you speak to him at length you begin to pick up the slur yourself, and Verl says, "It's catching, ain't it?"
Rusty's eyes shine as he speaks of Verl. "Verl was a great deputy, reliable and very faithful. He worked 90 hours a week and was very dedicated. Verl was especially good with dead people.
"One time we got a call that an Indian had died in the hospital and nobody came forward to collect the body. They didn't know what to do with him. A doctor in Tuba City said he had a big refrigerator up there, so well, we didn't think no more about it. I sent Verl up there with the body and pretty soon he called saying, 'these guys don't want this fella up here'. I told him to leave the guy right there on the doctor's porch and get back down here. He did just that.
"Another time I had Verl put this dead guy under a tarp in the back of my pickup and take him all the way to Salt Lake City for an autopsy. He stopped for gas and this kid was filling up the tank. Verl told him he was going to go have a coffee and asked the kid to park the truck in the shade after he filled it up, because there was a dead guy in the back and he didn't want to leave him out in the sun. The kid didn't believe him. Verl watched the kid park the truck in the shade, then peak under the tarp and take off running. Verl was great at taking care of dead people.
"He had a heck of a good memory, too. He can still tell you the license plate numbers of cars he pulled over thirty years ago. He was a hell of a deputy, except for the time he went to the Ute Reservation to investigate a shooting and left the truck open with about 40 guns in it." Rusty chuckled and took a swig of whiskey.
"Did I tell you about the Indian gal who would always take her clothes off in the back of the patrol car?"
"Yes, but tell it for the record."
Rusty told me this story over a beer a few months before the heart attack when he weighed fifty pounds more and was quite spry for a man in his eighties. Rusty is such a hard worker that it scares the hell out of those who love him. Bette Stanton, concerned with his health once remarked to him, "Rusty, you are getting mighty old. You'd better slow down or get some help. What do you think will happen to you if you just keep working so hard?"
Rusty smiled and said in a matter of fact tone, "I guess I'll die."
The heart attack took a lot out of him, but he was slowly returning to his old self. The evil chuckle was back, as infectious as ever, and his wit was as sharp as it ever was.
He continued, "A couple of my deputies arrested this Indian gal and she started taking her clothes off in the back of the patrol car. She kept saying to my deputy, 'John, I'm gonna take my clothes off.' She ended up throwing her clothes out of the window. She was stark naked and crawled up onto the shelf above the back seat. By the time they got to Bluff there must'a been 60 cars following them."
I said, "She must have been an exhibitionist."
"Yea, we had a lot of them. Inez Posey was another one. Her son shot her in the breast one time, and me and my deputy took her to the doc, an oriental fella, to get the bullet out and sew her up. She was drunk as a skunk and laughing like crazy. Inez weighed way over 300 pounds and the doc was having a hard time getting to the problem. Hell, her breast must'a weighed 30 to 40 pounds by itself. My deputy was getting really tired holding it up so the doc could work on it. He and Inez was laughing and Inez was jiggling like jello. Finally we had her hang upside down so her breast would dangle down and the doc could get at the wound. It was pretty funny lookin'. The doc was laughing. Orientals is pretty reserved. You know if you can get an oriental to laugh, it must be really funny.
"You could write a book on that jail."
I was thinking about it.
"We had a gal who lived at the mouth of Red Canyon and was always calling in about UFO's landing out there. She said she would talk to them aliens, but they didn't like no strangers. She said their space ship looked like a giant M&M with spider legs. I think she was a little dinged out, but she was real serious about them UFO's. She said they was keepin' her awake with that humming noise. I don't know what she thought we could do about it."
I stepped outside to shoot some photos of Rusty's collection of western artifacts. When I returned I changed the subject to Rusty's current profession; furnishing western props for movies. His propping business is named after Roughlock, a cowboy whiskey and on his business card is written: "1% profit: Buy for $1, sell for $2".
"I got into propping for the movies while I was sheriff. I worked on Blue and Rancho 'somethin' or other' and The Commancheros and Fade In with Burt Reynolds. You know, I've worked on maybe 50 pictures, but I haven't seen five of them. I don't remember any of them Hollywood people's names, but they all know me pretty good."
"What about actors, Rusty, who did you meet?" I asked.
Rusty stood up, trailing the oxygen line behind him. He fumbled in a file cabinet in the corner of his dark living room. His wife, Lilly, looked on, obviously concerned with Rusty's hyper-activity.
"Where are those pictures? They are in that brief case around here somewhere. Lilly, where'd those photographs get to?"
After several minutes' search, Lilly discovered the brief case behind the couch.
The case was locked with a combination Rusty had long forgotten. He cussed at it and chuckled at himself. "Damn thing. I'm gonna get rid of this business altogether," he said as he pried the lock off with a knife. Inside were reams of photos of Hollywood stars posing inside the Musselman's Pack Creek Ranch house, clowning on the set, taking a break between shots, and posing with Rusty. There was Ricardo Montalbahn, Rock Hudson, Harry Carey, and Joanne Drew, among other familiar faces whose real names have been lost in time.
"Joanne Drew was such a snob. I liked Catheline O'Miley . . . and Ben Johnson. It didn't matter if you were a sheep herder or the king of England. Dobie (that's what Harry Carey's friends called him) and Ben and me were going to make a documentary about John Ford this year, but Ben up and died on us.
"John Ford was loud, but that was his way. Once he had an actor that was supposed to fall off a horse into a cold river, but the actor refused to do it. John screamed out. 'I'll give a hundred bucks to anyone who'll fall off this goddamn horse'. A hundred bucks is a lot to fall off a horse. I was doing it a lot for free and I thought, 'Damn, why not do it for a hundred bucks', but before I could get his attention somebody else took the job.
"I wrangled for a lot of movies. At one time I had this fallin' horse that I was offered a lot of money for. When you fell off he wouldn't step on you no matter what. That made him a valuable horse for working in the movies."
Rusty fumbled through the photos, reminiscing.
"John Wayne, I couldn't stand him when he was young, but when he got older and the cancer scared him, he turned out to be an alright guy.
"I spent a lot of time with Spencer Tracy and Brian Keith. Those guys were real drunkards. I know this Episcopalian Monk up at the mission in Bluff who went to school with Spencer. He said Spencer would drink shoe polish, but there's five actors I really think were the best, and he's at the top. There's Spencer, Catherine Hepburn, Marie Dressler, Wallace Berry and Judy Garland. You know with actors, after you begin to think you're good, then you are, but the old actors are gone now. Acting is different now.
"I had a few speakin' parts in movies. Just last year I had a speaking part in that movie, Riders of the Purple Sage. I got paid $600 to stand with my backside to the camera. The director said that my backside was cheap compared to most.
"I was propping for Dean Kennedy who was the set man on the picture. We was standing in the hall talking when this fella came up and said, 'Who are you?' And I said, 'Who are you?' right back, and he snorted and said, 'I'm the director of this picture. Come into my office when you're done here.' When I went into his office he asked if I was acting in this picture and I said 'No'. He said, 'Well you are now. You're going to be a Mormon Bishop.' I said, 'Well, I been called worse. I guess it's better than bein' a son of a Bishop.'
"The movies ain't what they used to be, you know. Video is taking over. The movies is always changin'. After I got married I tried to get Lilly's folks to go to the movies in Moab and her dad said he couldn't go because he couldn't read fast enough."
All during our conversation Lilly had been by his side, supporting him, jogging his memory, smiling beautifully, stepping in at the right moments, but refusing to let me take her photograph. She said, "You've been at this for over three hours. Don't you think it's time to stop?"
Lilly was concerned with Rusty's health. I had him drinking whiskey and running all over the house dragging his oxygen tube through the dust. Old age is so unfair and it has never been more obvious than in the case of Rusty Musselman. His body is old, but he remains eternally young at heart and so innocently honest.
As I stood in the doorway Rusty spoke in a resolved tone, jiggling the oxygen nozzle dangling from his nose as if it were one of his props, "I don't know if I'm ever gonna recover from this, but I'd better try."
An Epilogue:Rusty Musselman passed away in April of 1997. I did not know about his death until September. I found out from Verl Green, who told me he placed an announcement on the local television station's cheapo computerized ad listings. I guess I just didn't see it. Verl said Rusty's nephew told some great stories about Rusty at his wake. One story was that once he asked Rusty how he could remember things so well. Rusty told him that he would always link something in his mind to the thing he had to remember. Like when he needed to remember where his keys were he would place them in his briefcase and he'd link the briefcase with the fact that he had a lock on the briefcase. Rusty's nephew asked him where his briefcase was at that moment and Rusty turned around and shouted, "Hey Lilly, where's my briefcase?"
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