From the paddock of the barn, I stood watching the snowstorm furl and unfurl over the windward slopes of the Elk Mountains like the coarse cotton of a shroud. Not yet seven in the morning, I’d already mucked out the barn and combed the hair on the half-dozen horses Kate and I kept. Footed in the foul, fecal soil of the paddock, I drank my last cup of coffee that Kate had brewed and poured in the Stanley steel thermos I took with me as I began every morning. Gathered at my feet was Clancy, the border collie that never left my side. Restless already, he was pawing at my pant leg. I gazed at the enfilade of clouds advancing towards the homestead my great-grandfather built by hand, south, by south-west, and roughly eighteen miles out of Carbondale. The cirrus clouds were just started to skate over the summit of Mount Sopris, and soon after the blizzard blossomed over the slopes above timberline, they would descend scattering the herd to the lowest swales of the fence line of the ranch at the edge of the White River National Forest. Before finishing the entire cup, though, I upturned the steel and dark grey, plastic cup and sprayed what little was left among the dirt and clumps of horse dung. Having finished my coffee, I screwed the cup back on the Stanley steel thermos, setting it on one of the fence posts. I strode into the barn to collect Pancho, my favorite horse, to ride the fence lines, to check on any strays or any other head that was in distress. It was the rite of a rancher I’d performed ever since I finished high school in Carbondale.
In the barn, I placed the bridle in Pancho’s mouth and gently eased him out into the paddock, where my saddle straddled the top rung of the paddock fence. Once in the paddock, I threw on a wool saddle blanket. Walking over to the paddock fence I lifted the saddle that straddled it. Holding the saddle in my hands, I strode over to the black stallion, tossing it over the creature’s strong back that refused to sway over the dozen years since I’d raised him from a stallion with gangly legs that splayed and could not control. I opened the paddock gate and led Pancho out, shutting the gate behind me. Feeling the front dropping the mercury in the thermometer, I fastened the collar of my Levi coat with the sewn-in fleece, and put on my leather working gloves. The leaves on the Aspen trees on the windward side of the ranch house fluttered in the wind as the branches bowed.
I heard the door of the worker’s cabin open and close. Ernesto Hernandez, the undocumented foreman of the ranch who’d been with me for more years than I could count on both hands, came up to me, wearing a washed-out pale yellow lined Carhardt jacket, over his wool shirt and Wrangler jeans. Though most foremen would be up before the dawn, Ernesto kept his own hours. Setting the time he would work, he was, though, the hardest working hand I’d ever that ever shouldered the demanding tasks of a working cowboy.
“!Hola! Jack,” he said.
“!Hola!” I replied. Working with wetbacks through the years had bequeathed me with the tendrils of working Spanish.
“Are you sure you’re up to it today? I can check on the herd myself.”
“I appreciate it, Ernesto. We’ll go out together this afternoon. The herd needs hay. No, just keep to your regular chores. I haven’t got the feed out to the horses yet. I though you could do that.”
Ernesto started to say something, but biting back on his words just nodded his head.
I rode out, Pancho cantering through the thin grass in front of the ranch house. Clancy loped along beside us as he always did. Kate waved to me, then seemed to wipe away a tear.
Kate wanted a simple ceremony.
We all had to work it out in our own way. Now I had to check on the some two hundred and some head of cattle with the blizzard coming on.
As Pancho slowed to a brisk walk, I thought of Bill, our oldest, who was fighting with the Marines in the South Pacific. At nights, I could not sleep worrying about him. At least three or four times a week, Kate and I received a letter from him. The last was from New Guinea. Or so we thought. The censor had blacked out his present location, but he had a code of letting us know where he was and what he was doing in most of his missives. In this last letter, he had written how is Aunt Jenny. Bill had no Aunt Jenny, and Pete, our next oldest it was most likely New Guinea. We followed the news of the war on the radio every night after we ate. Thank the Lord the Marines could not claim Pete because his age. Julia, Bill’s fraternal twin, was in junior college in Riverton, a hundred miles downstream, past the fork of the Crystal River with the Roaring Fork, and finally past the Roaring Fork that merged with the Colorado River.
He certainly had not received the news yet. How could he? They were so close.
I hardly knew myself. I came out and just said it in the letter I wrote him.
The wind was brewing up and Pancho’s mane was fluttering in the stiff wind while Clancy’s fur swirled about his back. As we rode out, snow began falling, the fat, wet flakes settling on the Pancho’s neck, only to melt into drops that flowed down his haunches. We ran across our first stray on the way to the western border of the ranch, which was Morrison Creek. The chill of winter had already set in and ice bordered the banks of the oxbow creek like piping on the pants of the business suit of a big city banker. The calf had strayed from its mother, and was stuck in the muck bordering the creek. Pancho slipped descending the bank, his horseshoes scraping on the morainal rocks that shifted just the least under our combined weight. Having reached the stranded stray, I descended from my saddle, tying the Pancho’s reins to the limb of a cottonwood. Clancy barked at the stray, in his own way to master the calf and move him along. The calf’s hind legs were mired in the dark Mancos shale, the geologic formation that caped the ranch. Placing my right shoulder on the creature’s haunches, and pulling at its left rear leg, I applied all my strength to free the animal. But the animal was really stuck, taking many minutes to liberate her from the earth. Freed, she skedaddled back in the direction of the rest of the herd downstream.
It took me the balance of the morning to ascertain how the herd was doing, Clancy attempting to herd them in no particular direction. Pancho, the gentlest of horses, sensed when it was time to head back to the barn by just the gentle nudge of my spurs. It was as though we were the oldest of friends. We – the three of us – slowly made our way back home. In the afternoon, Ernesto and I would have to drive the herd closer to the house, somewhere that we could supply them with hay that would hopefully see them through the storm. But there was one other thing to attend to until Ernesto and I went out after lunch.
Upon arrival at the ranch house, I led Pancho to the paddock. I intentionally did not put him in his bay in the barn. Unbuckling my saddle, I left it straddling the rung of the paddock fence. I left the bridle in Pancho’s mouth, tying the reins to the fence post. Snow was quickly accumulating on the ground. With the white patches grew on the superior aspect of Pancho’s hide. He whinnied as though I had forgotten something.
I walked toward the house. I could smell the soup that Kate had waiting for me inside. Sitting down on the bench on the porch I took off my spurs.
How could have I known that Pancho would spook. I had helped Betsy, our eight year-old, up onto the saddle before I left the paddock for the barn to check on the other horses. I heard Pancho whinny like the wild wind. Ernesto ran into the barn beseeching me to come. There was fright in his eyes. Betsy lay on the paddock floor.
Entering the house, I kissed Kate, and proceeded to the living room, then on to my office with its primitive wooden desk. My fingers fumbled with the key to the door to the gun cabinet where my Remington rested. They trembled as I chambered it.
By Joseph Dylan