When I was a young man, I worked on cattle ranches at an elevation of seven thousand feet in the upper valley of the Little Snake River, in northwestern Colorado. And it was there I learned something about "bronco busting." Told briefly, the ranchers "broke" horses to the saddle, which meant a rancher forced himself on the horse's back and forced the horse to accept him being on his back.
Head of the Little Snake River Valley (top). One of the ranches I worked on (bottom).
It began with the horse being run into a corral and a rope being tossed over a its head and pulled tight about its neck. The other end of the rope was wrapped around a stout post set deep in the ground called a "snubbing post." The fighting horse was then pulled, choking, up to the snubbing post, where a blindfold was tied over its eyes. A bit was shoved into its mouth, a bridle put on its head, and a saddle on its back. Someone then climbed into the saddle and pulled taught the reins, while the person holding the horse head by pulling down hard on one of the horse's ears, loosened the rope from the snubbing post and took off the blindfold, at which time all hell broke loose.
The horse immediately began to buck, trying desperately to dislodge the unwanted intruder violating its back, while the rider, in his turn, was trying to subdue the horse to docile obedience. If one rider got tired, another got on the horse, and this sometimes continued until the horse was so exhausted that it was "broken." It was a war in which either man, or horse, or both could easily be injured.
This was and is cruel and unusual punishment based solely on violence and the fear it engenders. There is an alternative, however, which I can best tell in a story of four friends, so please bear with me.
I met Queenie, the Border Collie, the day I arrived at the ranch--the epitemy of a "tenderfoot"--seeking work. The ranchers with whom I work had three basic names for dogs--Rover if it was a male, Queenie if it was a female, and Spot if the dog was spotted, regardless of its sex. Queenie was nice dog, and we soon became friends, which meant she followed my around because I was the only one who took the time to pet her and talk to her without kicking at her, while yelling, "git out a here!"
Next I meet a huge palomino mare with hooves the size of buckets. I name her Wind Drinker after seeing her fly across the pasture. I left her alone, however, because I was warned by Jim, the rancher for whom I worked, that she was so mean she had to be thrown to be shod.
Actually, she had to be thrown to even touch her feet because she had been repeatedly abused by the ranchers--beaten with a whip and a chain--for not doing exactly what they want, when they want it done. In fact, most ranchers that I met were impatient with their animals and beat them if they didn't react quickly enough to commands in a way the ranchers deem appropriate. With Wind Drinker, it boiled down to the fact that they were afraid of her, perhaps because of her size and the knowledge that "she increasingly owed them" for the beatings they had unjustly given her. Anyhow, because she had been abused and trusted no one, the ranchers were increasingly afraid of her, which they expressed by continually beating her. That, of course, only added to her terror and to the problem.
After I had been working for some time, I met José San Miguel or "Joe Sam Magilly" as the ranchers called him. José, an old Basque sheepherder, was a small man in his early sixties with dancing black eyes and dark skin turned leathery from years in the sun. His thin, stringy black hair had a streak or two of white in it. But it was his smile that I remember most.
José loved gold. So he'd saved his money over the years and each time he had enough he'd gone to a dentist and had a tooth capped with gold, beginning with his two upper front teeth. And so it was that he flashed me a truly golden smile on the day I first met him.
I'd been introduced to him because he worked for one of the ranchers I knew. There was something about José that I intuitively liked. The feeling seemed mutual, and he invited me to his camp, an invitation I eagerly accepted two weeks later. Once there, I discovered that he made the strongest coffee and the best apple pie I had ever encountered. While I've since had stronger coffee, I've never had better apple pie!
Anyway, after we'd eaten, we sat in the shade of his sheepherder's wagon and talked about horses. José was truly a master with horses. They loved him, especially the team that pulled his wagon.
Seeing these two huge draft horses come freely up to him and nuzzle him, I asked: "José, what's your secret. I've never seen horses love anyone the way these love you. They're like puppy dogs around you. They're so big! And you're so..."
"small," he said, finishing the sentence I was too embarrassed to complete.
"Well," he continued rubbing his stubbled chin, "a horse is like a child. You don't break 'em; you give 'em confidence in themselves and in you. It's that simple."
José taught me to spend time talking to a horse, getting it use to me so I could touch it all over its body, which sometimes took days, even weeks. I also had to get the horse use to the bit in its mouth, the bridle on its head, and an empty saddle on its back. In other words, I built a relationship with the horse based on trust.
When we had such a relationship, I took the horse into a stream with knee-deep water and a firm, sandy bottom, where I again talked to it, rubbed it, and got it ready for the next step in its training--having me on its back. Once I was astride, the horse was free to buck, but on a firm, sandy bottom in knee-deep water, where it couldn't buck very hard, and it was much less likely that either I or the horse would get injured. As I repeatedly got on and off the horse, all the while talking to it and stroking it when I could, it seldom took long for the horse to accept me on its back with a goodly measure of confidence. And confidence is the foundation of love, just as love is the foundation of confidence.
I then decided that I wanted to get to know Wind Drinker, so I ran her into the corral, and for the next two months I just walk her around in the corral and talk to her. As our daily routine became more and more comfortable, I began touching her as she stood trembling uncontrollably and sweating profusely. By the end of the two months I could touch every part of her body, including her feet, without scaring her. With more time, I began riding her, and I was in heaven. I didn't know how Wind Drinker felt, but she was certainly responsive and easy to get along with.
She could out-walk any horse in the country, and being astride her was truly like drinking the wind while sitting in a rocking chair. My final triumph came when I could pick up her feet and fix her shoes. When the ranchers found out that I was picking up her feet, they warn me that I was going to get hurt, but they didn't know Wind Drinker like I did.
A perplexing problem developed, however, as our friendship grew. I couldn't tie Wind Drinker to anything and leave her where she couldn't see me. As soon as I was out of sight, she would break loose and come find me. She pulled down fences, snapped ropes, and even busted a huge, wooden hay stacker to which I one day made the mistake of tying her thinking that she'd at last be held securely. After that, I just let her follow me because I had to fix everything she broke.
Although Jim treated me the way José taught me to treat horses, for which I'm still profoundly grateful, he was unmerciful with his own animals, including Wind Drinker. Puzzled by this contradiction, I asked him why he was so rough on his animals. His craggy, weather-beaten face became rigid, and a glacial chill crept into in his aging blue eyes. "Let it lay," was all he said. And with that the subject was opened and closed!
Next I met Pig, who was at the time a whitish piglet, but she didn't stay a piglet for long. One day as I was fixing the seasonal irrigation dam in the river that ran by the ranch, Pig showed up. I heard her coming long before I saw her because she already had the habit of talking to herself whenever she was awake.
Anyway, she came over to me, and I, without thinking, scratch her behind her ears and around her neck. That did it! She stayed so close to me that she was not only an instant nuisance but also in the way of my work. Somehow an emotional glue formed between us when I scratched her ears and talked to her, and she remained by my side no matter what I was doing.
By sunset, Pig and I had become inseparable, at least as far as she was concerned. I couldn't understand why she had walked almost a mile and then decided, after so brief an acquaintance, that I somehow belong to her--or she to me, I never really knew which.
That night I asked Jim what was going on with Pig. He listened as long as he could, and then convulsed into laughter. Finally, between chokes, gasps, and tears he blurted out, "By God, she's in heat, ha, ha, ha; it'll go away, ha, ha, ha, in a day, ha, ha, ha--or two, ha, ha, ha."
But during that day or two everyone who'd listen heard about it, and I was the laughing stock of the river, especially when two days pass, then a week, then a month, and Pig became more--not less--attached to me.
Pig was always with me as I work around the ranch. She would, for example, keep me company as I cleaned out the horse corrals.
By keeping me company, I mean Pig walked around the corral scratching herself on every post, all the while grunting and squealing. The problem was, I didn't know for whom the grunts and expletive squeals are intended. If they were aimed at me, I certainly didn't get the point, but I couldn't make her understand that.
Then one day in late Summer, Jim rode up on horseback just after breakfast and said, "Chris, I'm goin' to ride salt and fence up in the forest, and I'd be pleased if a fella [meaning me] would fix the broken pole in the gate between the horse barn and the corrals."
"Sure," I said. After all, how difficult could it be to replace a broken, horizontal pole, especially when the replacement was lying right next to the gate to be fixed. (To "ride salt" means to make sure that the cattle had enough blocks of salt distributed throughout the huge Summer pastures, and to "ride fence" means to ride along the fence looking for broken places that need mending.)
And so, I got busy and took apart the gate, replacing the broken pole with the new one. It was simple enough. But while I was expressing satisfaction with my genius to Pig, I discovered that the gate wouldn't swing. In fact, it was so heavy I could hardly lift it off the ground to swing it downhill to open it. This made no sense to me, and all of my consultations with Pig were of no avail. Either she didn't know the answer or, if she did, she wasn't telling.
Suddenly, an idea struck. Of course, if I couldn't lift it up, I could dig out from under it until it swung. "Pig, why didn't you tell me that? You're good at digging. Must I figure everything out by myself?"
So I started digging, and I dug, and I dug, and I dug. It was now three o'clock in the afternoon; the gate swung, and I felt good. There was just one problem. The ground under the gate sloped downhill into the barn yard, and, while the gate swung downhill okay, it now sagged so much that there was a vertical two to three foot wall of soil on the gate's up-hill side that arrested it in its closed position. I was in the midst of contemplating all this, when Jim rode up. Sitting on his horse, he quietly rolled a cigarette as he surveyed the situation.
After several long minutes he asked, "Chris, do we ride horses through this gate?"
"Yes Sir," I replied.
"Do we drive cattle and sheep and our tractor through it?"
"Yes Sir," I gulped.
"Well, son," he said, "I want ya ta have that hellish hole you've dug filled in by supper time. An' tomorra, I'll show ya what a brace is for." With that, he rode away.
Without shaming or ridiculing me, he taught me the function of a gate's brace and how to make one. And by noon, he, I, Pig, and Queenie had the gate working the way gates are supposed to--and seldom do. Pig was the first to test our workmanship, giving us her rub of approval.
Jim had let me make a mistake and accepted it for what it was--a mistake from which I was to learn. No one had ever done that for me before. I hoped I could treat other people the way he had treated me. It felt so very good. That notwithstanding, Jim remained an abiding paradox because, while he treated me with kindness and compassion, he was a totally different person in his treatment of animals that served to make his rancher's life possible.
According to Jim, Rebecca, referred to as "the barn cat," had a specific job to do. She was to keep the mice and rats out of the barns, grain house, and feed shed. To this end, she was not fed in order to keep her hungry enough to dispatch her assigned duty.
I had noticed Rebecca for the first time a day or two after she had kittens. She was creeping over bare ground from the corner of the horse corrals toward the hay wagon, keeping an ever-watchful eye on her intended prey--one of three house sparrows sitting atop the wagon searching for seeds. The wagon was parked in the open, too far from the barn door to afford Rebecca a place to hide, stalk, and ambush the birds, if in fact she was fast enough to leap the three or four feet from the ground to the wagon's bed.
It was a bright, sunny morning with crisply defined lights and shadows, making open-ground stalking difficult at best. From my vantage, assessing what she had do to even get within striking distance of her intended prey made me wonder how she proposed to catch a sparrow atop the wagon on its far side. She, on the other hand, was so absolutely focused on what she was doing, that I sat quietly down and watched.
Rebecca's stealth and patience were incredible. When the birds were head-down eating, she crept forward, freezing the instant one raised its head. Inch by inch, she seemed to float over the ground as she crept closer and closer until she was almost within the wagon's shadow, out of sight of the sparrows. Here she remained, motionless, for several minutes, listening. Then, having received some invisible cue, she moved quickly under the wagon and stopped just below the far edge, exactly under the spot where the birds were feeding.
Again she crouched, motionless, that's with the exception of her flicking tail. Suddenly, faster than my eyes could follow, she leapt upward toward the underside of the wagon. Just as she seemed about to collide with it, she stretched out her right paw and, reaching to the outside and just above the wagon's bed, grabbed a sparrow with her sharply curved, outstretched claws. Pulling the sparrow beneath the wagon, she dispatched it with a crunch. I was dumbfounded at what I'd just witnessed. I'd seen many a cat hunt, but never anything like that.
Her focus, stealth, poise, and grace were indescribable, and I know I've done poorly in my attempt to portray the beauty of her bid for life. But then, as I'm so often reminded, language lacks the words with which I can convey for you even an infinitesimal glimpse into my senses and feelings, let along translate them into yours. I cannot, therefore, captured for you with either the spoken or written word the sheer awe I felt in witnessing the grace with which Rebecca caught the sparrow. I'm sorry.
The next day Jim asked me if I knew where in the barn Rebecca lived. "No," I answered. "Why do you want to know?"
"She's just had kittens," he replied, "and there're too damn many cats around here now. Besides, she catches more birds than mice, so I want to drown the kittens 'cause they'll be worthless as mousers anyway, taking after their damn mother as they're bound to."
Not liking what I heard, I committed an act of silence. But search as I might, I found no sign of the kittens. So I began to wonder if the Jim was even correct about Rebecca's kittens being in the barn. Regardless, I hoped he wouldn't find them.
It was a few days after I first encountered Rebecca that she came to investigate me as I lay in my sleeping bag in the hay loft of the horse barn. At first she just looked at me. She then sat down and looked some more. Finally, she came over and sniffed my face. Although Jim had told me that no one could get close to her, she seemed to have little or no fear of me. I didn't try to pet her, however; I only talked to her.
For us, the hay loft was an ideal place. It was warm and had the wonderful odor of Summer embodied in the fragrances given off by the sun-cured hay. It was also private; no one bothered us. And there was a peacefulness in the sound of the horses munching hay from their mangers immediately below the loft.
Another two or three days passed, and Rebecca's nightly visits become bolder. On the sixth or seventh night, she rubbed against me and curled up by my neck, allowing me to pet her. Thereafter, she spent part of each night curled up next to me so I could pet her--that is until her kittens were old enough to play.
I went to bed early one night, and although Rebecca came to me as usual, she kept pacing back and forth all the while uttering a funny little "meow." She then started walking toward the large pile of loose hay. When I didn't move, she came back and repeated her performance. I still didn't move, so she disappeared somewhere behind the pile, only to emerge with a kitten in her mouth, which she deposited in the crook of my neck as I lay on my side watching her. She disappeared again, and returned with another kitten. In the end, I had five kittens snuggled in and on my neck, with Rebecca purring contentedly as she lay about a foot from my face.
I felt a delicious, warm sense of acceptance and love as though I had a family because I was now part of the kittens' growing up. This gave me a sense of responsibility and a feeling of parental pride in the kittens' achievements. As they became more comfortable around me, they came and went as they chose and played all around and over me. Occasionally, they even wiggled their way into my sleeping bag.
Rebecca still came almost every night to be loved, even if only for a few minutes. Most times, she still curled up next to me for a while, but she occasionally had pressing business elsewhere.
As time passed, the kittens started going their own ways. But we still got together when I was in bed and shared our love and had fun playing in the hay. And best of all, Rebecca's kittens were fully grown by the time I left, and Jim had long since given up looking for them.
Being included in Rebecca's family was very important to me at a time when I was struggling for meaning. With Rebecca's family I had a sense of belonging, something I'd almost never known in my life.
Time passed and Summer slid unnoticed into Autumn. And it was toward mid-Autumn that Spot appeared.
Spot was a male Border Collie that simply materialized one day. Although I have no idea where he came from, he was obviously hungry, so I feed him. Swiping some milk, to which I add a touch cream, I pour it over dry dog food. Then, sitting on the step to the main house, I visit quietly with him while he "inhaled" his food. Finished eating, he came over and sat next to me, allowing me to pet him. Because he was so friendly, I was surprised when no one else could get close to him without his growling and showing his magnificent fangs in a most business-like manner.
I knew his name, if he had one, was either Spot or Rover because, as I've already said, the ranchers were short on imagination when it came to naming dogs. So I tried both names, and he responded to Spot. So, "Spot" it was.
Although Spot was with me only a couple of weeks, he followed me wherever I went. He even went along with Queenie and Pig.
I soon discovered that he loved to have me grasp a strong stick with both hands, let him clamp his teeth firmly in the middle of it, and then whirl around, lifting him off the ground as high as I could.
About a week and a half after Spot's arrival, it was time to ride the horses into the high forest for the communal, Autumn roundup. It was an all-day ride and far too much for Pig, so I made her stay home, which I heard about as I shut her in an empty pen. Queenie, perhaps in protest, decided to stay also.
I arose at three o'clock, the next morning. I had kept Wind Drinker in the warm barn over night so she'd be ready to go. I saddled her and led her into the cold, clear air as millions of stars snap and twinkled in the black of the heavens. I breathed deeply for a moment, admiring the stars, then mounted Wind Drinker and, with Spot trotting alongside, joined the ranchers and their hands as they headed up the gravel road toward "cowcamp," with its lonely corral and loading shut.
The ride was magnificent as the retiring moon gave way to the rising sun, which spread its warmth over the land. The odor of dew drying off of sagebrush mingled with the odor of horses. Magpies chattered. As we passed upward out of the sagebrush, we entered golden-yellow groves of white-stemmed quaking aspen only to leave them behind and enter a forest of dark-green lodgepole pines. Scattered within the forest were open meadows, called "parks," often with small streams meandering through them. The streams, choked with beaver dams, were lined with yellowing willows and patches of golden aspen.
As it turned out, we rode not only through a kaleidoscope of Autumn colors, hues, and textures on our way to cowcamp but also through an ever-changing bouquet of wonderful Autumn odors, from sagebrush, to aspen, to pine, to the singularly blended odors unique to the high mountain meadows with their dry grasses of Summer and their willow-shrouded streams.
Quaking aspens in Autumn yellow, which caused one area to become known as "Butter Hill."
I had no idea just how valuable a good "cow dog" could be until the next day, when we started driving the cattle out of the forest and the maze of willow thickets and beaver dams along the streams. I learned fast, however, because Spot knew exactly what to do. When he saw a cow, yearling, or bull go into a thicket or refuse to come out of one, in he went. And believe me, it was only a matter of minutes before his intended target came out, bawling and kicking at the dog snapping at its heels. Spot proved too quick for the cattle and never got kicked; although to this day, I don't know how he avoided all the close calls I witness.
His greatest feat, however, was with an ornery, old cow hell-bent on staying in the willows, and I can think of no other creature with which I've had any experience that can be as ornery or as stubborn as an old range cow with her mind made up! Spot chased her out of this thicket and that, again and again, only to have her run right back in somewhere else.
At some point, he'd had enough of this nonsense. Just as the cow was heading for the willows one more time, Spot rushed underneath her, darted between her front legs, and lept for her nose. Grasping her nose with his teeth, he set his brakes, and pulled her head downward. With slobber flying, eyes rolled back, and tail stuck straight out, she went "ass-over-tea kettle" with a black and white dog firmly anchored to her nose.
Spot released his grip just as she hit the ground. She lay there briefly, got up, and once again faced the thicket, but Spot was well ahead of her. Having firmly planted himself between the willows and the cow, he uttered a low, deep growl the instant she dared looked at the willows. After think about the potential consequences for a moment, she turned and joined the rest of the herd.
With the roundup over, Spot came to me for one final breakfast, one final pat on my part, and one final lick on his. He then he trotted out of the front gate, and that was the last I ever see of him. I have no idea where he came from or why, and I had no idea he was going to leave. One moment he was there. The next he was gone. To this day, I don't know where he went or why. None of the ranchers along the river with whom I spoke, and that was most of them, knew anything about him.
Our lives touched for but a few days in Autumn, and then, like falling leaves, he disappeared. Yet during those warm, sunny days and clear, cold nights, Spot gave me his heart and brought me incredible joy, as well as a lesson about dealing with ornery, old cows that wanted to stay in the willows! He also helped my to understand that some obnoxious circumstances in life will persist until I deal firmly and directly with them, like he had done with the old cow.
A couple of days after Spot left, Adam came to me and asked if I wanted a drink of whisky from the bottle he had hidden under the mattress of the old bed at the north end of the enclosed porch. Adam, a small man, was old and stiff for his fifty some years. His stiffness, which all but prevented him from tying and untying his own shoes, was that of a man who had lived a hard and not very wholesome life. He had small blue eyes, a squashed nose, and a shock of the whitest hair I had ever seen. In addition he, more than anyone else, started most of his sentences with, "No by God,....". If you don't understand the meaning of beginning a sentence with "No by God. . .," that's okay, neither do I, but they all seemed to talk that way.
Although he was Jim's younger brother, he worked as a ranch hand the same as I. But Adam was different from the rest of us, or at least so it seemed--like he was somewhat mentally retarded. Even the animals sense it.
The dogs, for example, would follow Adam wherever he went but stayed well out of his way, because he would kick at any dog close enough to reach. Although I didn't understand why Adam kicked at dogs, it always warmed my heart to see them so loyal to someone most people made fun of. And Adam was the brunt of many a cruel joke.
Adam and I got along well, but it took a while for us to reach that point because he didn't trust many people, and I was a newcomer at that, with little trust of my own.
He had one habit that really tickled me. He had a set of false teeth, which he called his "Chiny clippers," and it was his false teeth that always let me know when he was angry with a horse. I don't know how or why he did it, but when his frustration with a horse, and only a horse, reached a crescendo, out come his teeth--not all the way out, mind you, only half way out of his mouth, just far enough to clack them up and down at a ferocious rate.
It was Adam's horse, Carol, that amazed me the most, however. Carol was a medium-sized, blackish mare. The tips of her ears were squarish, having been cropped by Adam for some unknown reason. Her tail was short, almost nonfunctional as a much-needed switch against the innumerable flies and mosquitoes of Spring, Summer, and Autumn because Adam insisted on pulling most of the hair out of it, which was a fairly common practice. It was ostensibly done to "shape" the horse's tail. To me it was just plain, stupid cruelty.
That notwithstanding, to pluck Carol's tail, as Adam referred to it, he tied her to the side of the corral, grabbed the end of her tail with one hand, and pulled the hair out with the other. This procedure obviously caused Carol much pain because she would stand trembling and sweating profusely while Adam pulled out her hair. And yet, ears laid flat back against her head, which for anyone else would mean "look out!," she just stood there and accepted whatever he did.
Adam drank a lot, as did all of the ranchers I knew, and it was fairly common to see him drunk. Having short legs to begin with, he presented a terrible ordeal for Carol when he tried to get his foot into the stirrup to mount her.
He held the reins and a hunk of her mane in his left hand and gripped the stirrup with his right, but try as he might, he was often too unsteady to get his foot into the stirrup. He would swing his leg again and again, only to end up kicking Carol in the belly with each swing. Carol, meanwhile, would lay her ears back, flat against her head; grind her teeth, which I could hear; and close her eyes. And there she would stand, unmoving, emitting a grunt of pain each time the toe of Adam's riding boot struck her in the belly. Finally, after many tries, he'd manage to climb aboard, and he and Carol would go about whatever business he had in mind.
Although other people could ride Carol, she didn't like it, and was disposed to buck. I rode her once. Though she tolerated me, I knew she'd buck the instant I relaxed my vigil. Such was not the case with Adam, however. With him, she was a model of good behavior and actually looked out for his welfare.
One day, for example, Adam was late for dinner, which was served at noon. It was Autumn, just after the roundup, and time to gather the Winter's supply of wood. So Adam had supposedly gone down along the river looking for dead limbs in the cottonwood groves. It was a critical job because all of the cooking was done on the old, wood-burning stove, which also heated the house.
When Adam had not returned on time, I was asked to go look for him. I saddle Wind Drinker, and with Queenie leading the way and Pig following behind, we set off. About a mile down the graveled, county road, I come to a car stopped in the middle of it with an angry, frustrated driver trying unsuccessfully to get a horse to move out of his way. As I rode up, I saw it was Carol standing over Adam, who was so drunk he had fallen off her. She, on the other hand, would not let the motorist close as long as Adam lay there.
I don't know how long the motorist had been there, but it took me about twenty minutes to convince Carol that I was going to help Adam, so she would let me close enough to move him out of the way. Finally, with Adam astride Carol, and with the help of Queenie, Pig, and the three other dogs that had accompanied Adam, I led them back to the ranch--but without a single stick of firewood.
Since then, I have seen and heard of other instances when animals have looked out for people who were mentally handicapped, or for small children. I remember, for example, an incident in which a famous rodeo bucking horse was considered too mean and unpredictable for anyone to risk getting into the corral with him. One day, however, a small child climbed into the corral, and the horse was as calm and gentle as a lamb, but the child had to be verbally coaxed out of the corral because no adult dared enter. I take it from this, that animals know when they're in the presence of innocence, and that's why, to me, they're living examples of how we must learn to treat one another.
Autumn finally gave way to Winter, and I stayed on to feed cattle. The women and children moved into town so the children could attend school, since they'd outgrown the local, one-room school house.
Four of us men stayed on the ranch-- Adam, Jim, their father Oliver, and me. We had a particular routine: up at four o'clock in the morning to milk the five cows and clean out the cow barn, breakfast by six, and by eight we had the team of draft horses hitched to the sleigh and were at the stack loading hay to feed the horses, cattle, and sheep.
As Winter deepened and the snow piled up, I got teased by everyone living up and down the river that Winter. It was understandable when you imagine how I must look to them. First off, I still slept in the hayloft of the horse barn, and Pig was my "alarm clock," waking me on the dot of four o'clock every morning. She then waited while I got dressed, followed me to the cow barn, waited while I milked the cows and cleaned the barn, and followed me to the "main house" for breakfast, where she sat patiently outside the door while I ate.
Mind you, none of this was not done quietly because Pig was constantly talking both to herself and to me, which often prompted Adam to say, "No by God, Chris, your gal's a wishin' for ya!"
Breakfast over, we harnessed the team and load the sleigh with hay. If the snow was shallow, Wind Drinker, Queenie, and Pig followed along behind the sleigh while I fed the livestock. If, however, the snow was too deep, I had to put Queenie on the sleigh on one side of me and Pig on the other while I drove the team with Wind Drinker following behind. This scene--Queenie, Pig, and me followed by Wind Drinker--brought roars of laughter as I drove the team up the road.
The Winter, as I've already said, was spent with just us men tending to the ranch. So, there we were, with the long Winter nights and short days. We usually finished our chores, including feeding the livestock, by one or two o'clock in the afternoon, and had little to do the rest of the day other than milk the cows come evening.
When I was finished feeding the livestock, I ran a small trap line to catch weasels in their coats of Winter white. But this became an ordeal to say the least because there was no way I could leave Wind Drinker, Queenie, or Pig at the ranch. No matter how I tried to outsmart them and slip away by myself, they always showed up. Queenie tracked me, and the others followed. I thus had to set my traps by committee--Queenie supervising me on one side and Pig on the other, while Wind Drinker peered over my shoulder. Consequently, every place I set a trap looked like the site of a rendezvous for the characters from Animal House.
Other than that, I spent much of my time with the rest of the men around the kitchen table, where they played cards, told stories, or read. The kitchen in the old ranch house was the center of all activity, especially in Winter when the wood-burning cook stove was the only source of heat. We cranked the stove up and prop open the oven door so the kitchen was always warm and cozy, even when the temperature outside dropped to twenty or thirty below zero Fahrenheit with a stiff north wind.
Cozy as it may have been inside, Winter was a time of "cabin fever" and its attendant strange behavior. Nevertheless, it came as a surprise when Adam and Oliver, bored on a Winter's day, decided to dye their hair. Oliver, in his early eighties, was a short, stoutly built man. But unlike Adam, Oliver didn't have much hair. Not that he was bald, his hair was just thin. Anyway, sufficiently bored, the stage was set for their great adventure.
For some reason, they had both settled on having red hair, and not just red. They want red, red hair. I have no idea where they got the dye. The first I knew of it was when, having finished my chores, I entered the house shortly after noon.
As I walk from the enclosed porch into the kitchen, I heard Oliver say: "Well Mr. Oliver, I can see you're not going anywhere this Winter!" Oliver was standing in front of the bathroom mirror gazing at his reflection. I could see this, because he had left open the door to the bathroom, which faced into the kitchen. And there he stood, not with the bright red hair he'd hoped for, but with bright green hair! Now that was funny enough, but within five minutes Adam came in--and he didn't have bright red hair either; his was "hot pink"!
The green was pretty well gone from Oliver's hair by Spring, but Adam had so much hair that his dye job was only half grown out, which meant the lower half was as white as newly fallen snow and the upper half was the hot pink of Pepto Bismal. From then on, he was dubbed "Pinky."
As Winter progress, the time arrived--unbeknownst to me--to butcher the pigs, all six of them. This was an exceedingly difficult period, because the ranchers simply couldn't understand my love for Pig. To them, she was merely bacon on the hoof. But that's how it was. I was only a ranch hand with no voice in the matter, and so she was to be butchered with the rest.
To kill a pig, a rancher shot it high in the middle of its forehead, but one must know precisely where to shoot a pig to kill it instantly. I was an expert shot, thus I refused to let anyone else kill Pig. So, with Pig looking straight at me, I aimed, slowly took up the slack in the trigger until it was tight, then gently squeezed it. As the trigger reached its threshold of resistance, it released the firing pin, which struck the primer and ignited the powder, sending the small lead bullet spinning down the rifle's grooved barrel out into the open air and through flesh and bone into Pig's brain. She dropped--dead--without a sound.
Staring at the hole and the red of Pig's life dribbling out of it, I felt suspended, stuck in time. The hole was black in the middle, where it disappeared into her brain. Its edges were bluish from the bullet's impact. The hole was so small, so very small, but then a 22 caliber bullet makes a small hole. How could such a tiny hole make Pig go away? How could it kill her? It looked so harmless. Her blood was red in the sunlight, bright red. Then it began turning dark, even blackish, as it began to dry. This couldn't be real! I was going to wake up and find this was only a bad dream. I had to wake up! I had to!
Something shifted inside me, and I was suddenly shocked by the realization that it wasn't a dream, that Pig was somehow really gone. Gone! Where?
There was a bullet hole in the middle, the very middle, of her head, and I was holding the rifle that put it there. "I put it there! I did it! I shot her! What have I done? Oh Pig..."
I'd shot and killed, knowingly, on purpose, for whatever reason, one of my best friends so that she could be butchered and eaten. She felt nothing, but I was devastated.
"Why couldn't you let her live? How could you be so black and white in your view of life and death?" were the questions I wanted to ask Jim, but I knew better, remembering his response to my query about his abuse of animals. It was as though Pig's life didn't count for anything except as meat on someone's plate.
There had to be more to life than that. With these unspoken thoughts in the air, the day's butchering, traditionally a festive time, was strained and silent. For me it couldn't be otherwise because I couldn't forget the image of Pig lying dead on the ground with a small, round hole in her head from which her blood was slowly oozing.
Looking back today with a greater foundation of life's experiences, I know I shot pig out of love because I knew that I would kill her instantly. Besides, having been with her through the best of times, Love dictated that I stay be her and participate in her death--I owed her that.
Wind Drinker saved my life twice that Winter after Pig died. The first time was in a ground blizzard, commonly called a "white-out."
It was five o'clock in the morning when Jim gave me a choice of activities over our usual breakfast--oatmeal smothered in homemade butter and drowned in pure cream; bacon; eggs; sourdough hot cakes; a thick, juicy steak; and lots of hot, strong coffee.
"Ya can take Tim into the hospital," he said, "'cause he's got the damn DTs again. (Tim, one of Jim's five brothers, was an alcoholic with bouts of delirium tremens.) Or ya can go up into the forest and git those two damn bulls we missed last fall. The son's o' bitches are bound to be hungry as hell by now an' likely'll be happy to come home. Take yur choice."
I chose the bulls.
It was seven o'clock in the morning and about twenty-five degrees below zero Fahrenheit when I started out on the twenty-some-odd mile ride up into the forest to get the bulls. The clear, starry sky covered the frozen world like a domed lid as Wind Drinker and I left the warmth of the barn and began squeaking our way up the road in the dry foot-deep snow. It was cold enough for Wind Drinker's breath to freeze on the sparse hairs of her muzzle. I had on everything warm that I could think of, and I still I felt the cold.
The Sun began climbing the horizon as we passed the last ranch. A few more miles, and we were passing through stands of naked, sleeping aspen and around frozen beaver ponds. Rounding a bend, we were suddenly in the middle of a small herd of elk crossing the road. Up and up we climb into the cold, thinning air over eight thousand feet, a thousand feet higher than the ranch. We were now in the lodgepole pine, a forest of silent, huddled trees enduring Winter. A raven croaked. A flawless blue sky and brilliant sunlight made the snow glisten like a field of newly-cut diamonds. A Winter flock of chickadees and nuthatches talked among the pines as they searched for food.
We reached the creek, where Jim had seen the bulls from an airplane the week before. Turning up the creek, we came upon their tracks leading up the creek's steep side. I turned Wind Drinker up the slope to follow the bulls' trail. Suddenly, without warning, Wind Drinker slipped, her feet flew out from under her and she fell. Putting my hand in the middle of the saddle's seat, I pushed myself upward as I kicked free my feet from of the stirrups. Wind Drinker, landed heavily on her side, rolled downhill under me, her feet whizzing past my head. Landing with a thud, I felt the wind being knocked out of me, and I saw millions of multicolored stars before my eyes.
Then I heard Wind Drinker getting to her feet. Getting up slowly, I tested my legs' ability to hold me; then I walk and slide down to Wind Drinker. I felt her all over--nothing broken. I led her around, watching her move. She was okay!
I led her to the top of the slope and climbed into the saddle. Within half an hour we found the bulls hemmed in by snow drifts, for the snow was deeper here than at the ranch. Although short of food, they didn't want to leave the area they knew; so it took us about an hour to drive them out of the drifts and head them toward the valley.
We'd been on the trail home about two hours by then, and it was getting colder as the breeze turned into a wind. The wind-chill factor must have been somewhere around forty below. The wind began plucking snow from the ground, flinging it harder and harder over the already-whitened surface. I was getting ever colder, but the wind was too strong for me to walk and see where I was going. From Wind Drinker's back, I could still see well enough to guide her and the bulls.
Then the wind picked up even more, blowing so hard I couldn't see. All about was a wall of stinging, blinding snow. I couldn't see! I was losing my sense of landmarks! What direction was I going in? I was getting numb with the bone-searing cold.
It had been an hour since I had been able to see anything but whiteness, and I was getting sleepy. I knew that I must stay awake or I would freeze. Swaying in the saddle, I felt myself slipping, then falling so slowly it seemed forever before I hit the ground. Wind Drinker stopped, turned, and sniffed my face. Her hot breath roused me a little, but it was just enough. Getting up took an monumental effort and all the will power I could muster, as did focusing my mind long enough to loop the reins over the saddle horn. Then more effort--so much more effort--and will power as I tied a knot in Wind Drinker's tail, making a sling through which I put my arm, letting her lead me and drive the bulls all by herself, as I began walking to get warm.
She knew exactly where she was. She stopped for me to open every gate. She then drove the bulls through and waited for me to close the gate, which was all I can manage with the cold, the howling wind, and the stinging, blinding snow.
"Wind Drinker," I said out loud, "how do you know where we are or where you're going? Am I going to die? Are we all going to die? All I can see is white. I'm so tired. Can't we stop and rest awhile?" Her steady gait was her only reply.
Between my alternately walking with my arm looped through her tail, riding, and the excruciating, shooting pains of warming up, she got us home around midnight, when the world, which had been all white, was a sparkly black under the moonless sky of dancing stars.
The second time she saved me was a month or two later while driving horses across the river ice, which suddenly broke under us. The other horses made it across, but Wind Drinker and I went into the river when she lost her footing and fell. With a death grip on the reins, I was swept under the ice by the clutching current. Wind Drinker, however, regained her footing, turned around, and pulled me out from under the ice by backing out of the water toward the barn.
By the time we'd walked to the barn, about a hundred yards away, my clothes were so frozen I could barely move, and with my stiff fingers, I had great difficulty removing the frozen saddle. My lips were even too cold to greet Queenie who came out of her warm, little house to greet us.
You may be wondering why there's been no separate story about Queenie. There hasn't been because she was one of those quiet, loving beings that seemed so ordinary, so always there. Queenie simply went with me everywhere she could, and she personified that special kind of quiet, patient love for which we all long, seldom find, and even less often recognize when it's offered.
With the coming of Spring, I got ready to leave the ranch to work on the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad in Steamboat Springs because I thought I needed more money than I was able to make working as a ranch hand. Although it was to be a temporary job, after which I would return to the ranch, things seldom work out in life the way we expect them to, and I never went back.
Just before I left, however, Wind Drinker, Queenie, and I spent a day together up in the hills above the main house as I tried to say good-bye to two friends whom I loved. I talk to them about Pig, and reminisced as best I could. Lastly, I said good-bye to Rebecca and her now-grown kittens. Then, all too soon, it was time to leave.
As I walked around the final bend in the road and the ranch was suddenly, completely shut out of my view, a part of me died and was left behind. I felt at once as completely empty and alone as I had when Pig died, and yet I knew that Pig, Queenie, Wind Drinker, Rebecca and her kittens, and Spot would always be with me in spirit.
That was over forty years ago, but they are with me still in memory and in my heart. How can it be otherwise? We loved one another, and where there's love, there's no separation.
After working on the railroad for a couple of months, I decided that I really wanted to be a ranch hand. So, packing up my gear, I headed out to find work, and ended up working for an old man in a wheelchair--Old Man Keyler. The "Old Man," as the ranch hands referred to him, had piercing, gray-blue eyes and thinning, gray hair. He was short on words and long on action. He ran his ranch with an iron fist, and his word was law. That was all I knew about him. Like the rest of the ranch hands, I lived in the bunk house, ate in the cook house, and was in awe of the "big house," where the Old Man lived.
One day toward mid-August, the ranch foreman came to the bunk house: "Maser," he said, "the Ol' Man wants ta see ya at the big house."
My heart stopped. Everyone looked at me. "What's he want?" I asked, wondering what I'd done to be called up to the big house.
"I don't know," snapped the foreman, "but you'd better get yer butt up there--now!"
The Old Man was waiting for me at the front gate, his eyes snapping as usual. I swallowed hard. "Yes, sir," I croaked, "you want to see me?"
He looked at me for a moment in silence--a damn long moment! "Chris," he said, "you've been ta college, I hear. Yur're a hell-of-a worker. What're ya going ta do with the rest of yur life?"
"I think I'll be a ranch hand," I replied, having given it serious thought over the last months. I loved being out of doors, where I could get away from most people. I had been to town once or twice in about a year (even my railroad work had been outside of towns), and that was enough for me. Besides, $300 a month and keep was more money than I'd ever dreamt of making, and I had nothing to spend it on.
"Well," said The Old Man, "I've done some checkin,' and college starts the end of September. If yur're still here, by God I'll fire yur ass, and I'll see ya don't find work nowhere in these parts. Yur're just too damn smart with too much edjication ta quit now and be a damn fool ranch hand! Now git on outa here an' go back ta school, where ya belong."
And he did it! The Old Man fired me, and I couldn't find work anywhere. As I said, I don't know where the Old Man got his information. Nevertheless, he gave me a gift--a crisis, which can be thought of as a highly focused choice that "demands" a response. Thank you, "Old Man," for closing your hand with "tough love" and helping me to focus with greater wisdom on the future of my life when I needed it most.
© chris maser 2002. All rights reserved.