That cowboy soul of yours

Looking like the heavens caved in that day, grey hoary clouds drove in encompassing all the northwestern horizon, proceeded by rapacious gales ripping the sage from this nearly worthless patch of earth, followed by flurries of scathing snow like so much ash swirling.  In Baggs, Wyoming, winter had arrived.  Starting with scarcely any warning early in the morning, we mounted to ride out and greet it, my father, Seamus, my brother, Seth, and me.  Galloping off toward the herd of Hereford, we set out to round them up and drive them towards the paddocks and the barn where their hay lay like listless straw soldiers.  Soon the blizzard immersed the spread; my only home, my only heritage.

No more than eight hundred acres, this patch of prairie circumscribed by barbed wire, the Blind Owl Ranch was meager compared to some of the other surrounding ranches.  When storms erupted, the herd gathered at the downwind section of the spread, up against the barbed wire fence—so too that morning.  Stirrup to stirrup, we gamboled towards the southeast corner of the pasture, where the Herefords appeared as apparitions in the blowing snow.  Slowly we drove them back towards the paddock where they’d find forage.  There, none would succumb to the freezing winds.  Turned towards the tempest, the storm stung my face, ice hanging from my horse’s hackamore.  Wheeling off in a new direction, a single Hereford required me to ride him down.  I am Samuel Sutherland.  Here I was born; it is here I will die.

Postcards of Wyoming declare mighty ranges of the Rockies.  What they don’t show are the engulfing low, rolling swells and swales of the earth that form the majority of the Cowboy State.  This land is no good for anything other than grazing livestock, and that is how the Sutherland clan has scratched out a living on the high plains of southern Wyoming for over a hundred years.  North of Baggs, lies the Continental Divide, no more than a brazen bluff running north-south, the Atlantic claiming the east side; the Pacific claiming the west.  Our thousand acre spread, homesteaded by my great grandparents, lies leaning on the Pacific side, forty miles to the west of Baggs, a hovel of a half-dozen trailers, a few clapboard houses, and one general store.

In southern Wyoming, it is either summer or winter.  There is no such thing as the promise of spring, the balm of autumn.  Except for winter, the cattle are half-feral and require little work tending: those tending them must foal and brand them in spring.  But in the winter, the herd requires a keen eye for all God’s dangers.  After each severe blizzard, it is not unusual to find one of the Herefords dead, protruding from the snow, an icy, white bas relief.  And the blizzards here pass through with the frequency of a maiden’s tears.

Today, my father lags behind, something not like him.  In the past several months he has slowed considerably.  A cattail of a man, he has lost weight, pounds he can’t afford to lose.  So too his strength has been sapped.  Within the last week or two, this has been accompanied by the occasional cough of a smoker.  And he has given in to retiring to bed in the early hours of the evening.  All these I attribute to his age.  Mom says that it is just his heavy smoking habit catching up with him.  Now in his mid-sixties, Steve Sutherland is the greatest man I’ve ever met.  Always quick with a smile or a sharp quip, I’ve never seen him mad for anything that would have infuriated a lesser man long before.  He is also the toughest man I have ever met.  I’ve seen him toss bales of hay on top of a low boy from sun-up to sundown, for days on end, something neither Seth nor I would ever even venture to try.

Today, as we stand watch over the herd, the cough is so bad that one convulsion reminds me of a consumptive.  Coughing into his handkerchief, he stains it with flecks of blood.  I point it out to Seth.  Shouting to be heard over the gale, my roan quarter horse, sideways to his deep bay one, I ask him, how long he’s been coughing up blood.

“Just started last week.”

“Every time you cough,” intercedes Seth, who has sidled up to where we sit our horses.  Seth and I look at each other.  Pa stares first at the crystalizing sage, and then at the herd.

“Pa, I think it’s time you go lie down.”

“Maybe I will.”

He lifts the reins gently towards the old homestead and trots off to the house.  It is the first time that I can recall my father being sick, ill enough to not be able to sit his horse and watch the herd in a storm.  Seth and I are again, stirrup to stirrup.  The cows that lie down in the blizzard, we coax to back to a standing position.  To lie down in this maelstrom means succumbing to shear death.  By the paddocks, we are by the house.  Seth and I take turns going back to our house, where mother has a warm lunch waiting for us.  Seth goes in first.  He returns with two thermoses of coffee in his leather saddlebag.  I drink a cup of lukewarm coffee from the steel thermos before going in for a bite myself.

When I open the door and step in, the storm follows me like some dark alley cur, the draft sparking up the tongues of flame burning in the fireplace.  I walk back to the kitchen where my ma has already started preparing dinner for the lot of us.  “How’s pa?”

“He’s asleep.”  That’s a first as far as I can remember, pa sleeping during the middle of the day.

“Did he tell you he’s been coughing up blood?”  I inquired as I sat down at the kitchen table.  She brings a bowl of hot Irish stew over and places it in front of me.

“I noticed it on one of his handkerchiefs just last week.”

“Did you say anything to him about it?”

She pours me hot, steaming coffee into my glazed metal cup.  “He just said he must have some bronchitis.  When I asked him if he should see Dr. Weaver, he said it would pass.  When I asked him how he was feeling, he said he was okay.”

“He’s such a liar!”  Both of us smile.  A bale of hay could tumble out of the barn striking him on the head and he would just say he was doing fine.

After I fill my belly and slake my thirst, I climb the cedar rungs of the stairs that lead to the bedrooms.  I slowly open the door so not to wake him, but I do.  He has the down comforter hiked up to his chin as he lies on his back.  I’ve startled him.  “What time is it?” he asks.

I look at my watch, the one that always run fast.  “I’ve got one-thirty.”  The old homestead is a log cabin, and I can feel the cold drafts of the wind coming through the joints that Seth and I should have caulked last summer.  Still it is warm in his bedroom

“Go back to sleep.  We’re taking you in to see Dr. Weaver tomorrow morning, the worst of the storm is over.  Seth can watch the herd while we’re gone.”  It is over an hour under dry conditions driving into Craig, the largest town to us.

I don’t sleep well that night.  The clouds have lifted.  Out my window, a moon shaped like the heel of a cowboy boot is waxing.  In addition to losing a couple of pounds, he has grown wan like a full moon.  Once having the zest of young colt, he has slowed down as if congealing in his tracks.

Like the moon, the X-ray that Dr. Weaver obtains, shows the left chest cavity full of milky-white material.  “That’s fluid, Seamus.”  My father displays no emotion.

“It’s cancer, isn’t it?”

“Now I didn’t say that.”

“But that’s what you meant.”

“I’m going to send you to a doctor I know in Riverton.”

“The hell you are.”

It was a long drive back to the ranch.  I went to check on the herd and told the news to Seth.  The silence that follows the passing of a big blizzard was rent by the sound of a loud report that came from the house.  Instinctively, I ran toward my father’s office.  Slouched in a chair at his desk, was my father, dead.  His favorite shotgun was perched under his chin.  Blood, bone and brain matter was scattered on the floor and against the opposing wall.  A note on the desk read: “A cowboy knows when he’s dying.”


By Joseph Dylan


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