Kathryn Wilder has spent years in California, Hawai`i, and the American Southwest, on horseback, in outrigger canoes, on rivers. Her essays and stories have appeared in publications such as bosque (forthcoming), Southern Indiana Review, Midway Journal, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Bugle, Sierra; many Hawai`i magazines; and half a dozen anthologies. She was a Spur Storyteller Award finalist with artist Redwing T. Nez for Forbidden Talent, a children’s picture book (Northland Publishing 1995), and has received Pushcart Prize, Western Heritage Award, and Hawai`i’s Elliot Cades Award nominations. She is currently part of the low-residency creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction; previous degrees include an MA in English/creative writing from Northern Arizona University, and a BA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Today Wilder lives among mustangs on the Colorado Plateau, and advocates for use of the fertility control vaccine PZP, healthy herd and habitat management, and continued freedom for wild horses. Her in-progress novel and literary nonfiction manuscripts give voice to her mustang experiences and advocacy.
THE LAST COWS
Winner, Fourth Genre’s Editor’s Prize for Best Essay/Memoir, 2007 / Published in Fourth Genre, Volume 10, Number 1, Spring 2008 / Notable Essay of 2008, The Best American Essays 2009
“Don’t ever fall in love with your cows,” Keith said. We sat on our horses inside the corral fence, looking over a pen full of heifers that had been weaned a couple of months earlier. “That’s the best piece of advice I can give you about the cattle business.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” I said. “Love a cow?”
He got first pick, then I got a turn. But only one. My introduction to owning and raising my own herd of cattle would begin with one cow. Keith and I weren’t married yet. “Why not?” I asked.
“You never know when you’re gonna have to sell them,” he said, and yawned. “If it’s a dry year, or she doesn’t get bred or she loses a calf, or the market goes way up and you just can’t pass up the opportunity, she goes to town.” Meaning the sales yard, the slaughterhouse, the meatpacking plant, the supermarket.
“Oh.” I eyeballed the heifers. They were mostly Brahma crosses, blacks and reds, and some Santa Gertrudis, white markings like spilled milk on their redrock-colored faces, legs, and bellies. I tried to remember everything Keith had taught me—straight back, good angle from hip bone to tailbone, not too high-headed, no whites of the eyes. My horse shifted beneath me.
“Choose carefully,” Keith reminded me as he squinted at the herd from under the brim of his straw cowboy hat.
A near-black heifer stood in the middle, her ears nearly as long as her face, her legs long, too, like a colt’s or a deer’s. A sheen of red outlined her neck, chest, and belly, and ran down the insides of her legs. She had the Brahma hump of fat above her withers—the red there, too, and along her backbone—and dewlaps at her throat. I kept my eye on her.
Keith picked a pretty red heifer, one with not much Brahma showing and a splash of white above one eye that looked like a question mark. “Well?” he said.
I pointed. “That one.”
He lifted his reins and his horse took a step forward. “You’re sure?” The heifer stiffened, ready to bolt. “She’s a little high-headed. There’s a lot of other heifers here.” He rode across the corral.
The heifer moved into the thick of the herd and disappeared, but soon enough her head raised above the others, her ears twisting back and forth, one eye on him, one on me.
“Yep,” I said. “That one.”
Keith didn’t tell me that day the other reasons you might have to sell your cows. Like when your husband decides he wants to buy more farming equipment but he has to make a payment to the bank on an already too-big note first. Or he decides there’s no money in the cattle business anymore, and if he sold off more cows he could get better established in his side business of specialized bulldozer work, where he thinks there is money. Or the other reason: simply because someone tells you you have to.
I just walked about a mile and a half up a dirt road that wraps around the side of a mountain, my dogs sometimes at my heels but more often sprinting after jackrabbits they flushed from the sagebrush. Technically I am trespassing, having climbed over a locked gate to get here; on the level of the spirit, however, I feel I have a right to be here. Not because it’s all Earth and none of us own any of it, anyway, but because this earth, from the locked gate clear up the mountain to the National Forest, used to be “owned” by my great-aunt, “Sister”—my grandmother’s sister—and her husband Ed.
From where I’m perched I overlook a series of low, smoothly rounded hills criss-crossed with barbed-wire fences. A long strip of fenced land, which I cannot see but know well, runs upcanyon all the way to the National Forest boundary and includes 7,000-plus acres of the Cachuma Creek watershed. Just out of sight over a rise opposite me sits a reservoir—Lake Cachuma—that holds the water that supports the over-population of Santa Barbara, California, on the other side of the rugged Sierra Madre range. A tunnel housing a huge pipe cuts through the mountains, and the city siphons off water from Cachuma Creek and all the other tributaries that used to merge into the Santa Ynez River, which still tries to run along the bottom of the reservoir and—sometimes—gets let out onto the creekbed at the base of the dam. Two thousand-plus acres under that “lake” used to be the haying fields of Cachuma Ranch. That land raised good alfalfa, my Uncle Ed always said, the best land on the ranch. Five-hundred-and-eighty acres make up the ranch today, upon which a house, barn, and corrals were built back in the 1940s, when my forty-something-year-old aunt and her slightly younger cowboy-Indian husband settled here.
At one time this was a 10,000-acre spread, much of it wild, where big blacktail bucks hid up in the thick brush until the rut drew them out and the wise old steers used to go to get away; some of it tamed by tractors, non-native seed, and irrigation. The government condemned the tamed part, took it for the people of Santa Barbara. Eventually, my broken-hearted uncle sold the 7,000 acres of backcountry to a group of mostly rich wanna-be cowboys—men who live out a fantasy for one week a year, riding too-fat horses through steep, rugged terrain, wearing black felt hats, drinking whiskey, playing cards. In years past, prostitutes were sometimes imported by truck and even helicopter to complete the men’s fantasies. Often at least one of the over-fed horses doesn’t make it out alive.
The remaining 580 acres belonged to my aunt and uncle until he died, then to her alone until she died, then her nephew sold it off for millions to some ex-movie star, or movie star’s ex-wife. No one knows, or so everyone tells me, where the money went. What I have heard is that the Hollywood personality tore down the walls of the adobe house and rebuilt with something else. Adobe that was ordered by the newlyweds back in the ‘40s, handmade by Mexicans in the old style and shipped here by truck clear across the Central Valley from Bakersfield. Uncle Ed said that the trucks could only haul one or two layers of adobe on their flatbed trailers at a time, it was so heavy. A big old truck with a short stack of bricks on it. Bricks three feet thick that made windowsills you could sleep on, now rubble.
This perch in the spent yellow grasses of fall is as close as I’ve been to the ranch since before my aunt died. Her Alzheimer’s was acute enough in the last three years of her life that she didn’t know me, and my selfishness was so intact that I couldn’t bear it. But before that, for a time, Keith and I ran the 7,000 backcountry acres, living in a double-wide trailer on a bluff above Cachuma Creek, our nearest and only neighbors my great-aunt and great-uncle three miles downcanyon. I conceived my first son on that bluff.
Dusk is settling over the dry hills, though the western sky still flaunts a bright orange hue. Horses run across the hundred-acre pasture below me. I don’t know whose they are. I don’t know to whom the land belongs now. I only know that part of me belongs to it.
Just like it does to another ranch a few miles from here. That ranch was my great-grandfather’s, my kids’ great-great-grandfather’s. He won part of it in a poker game in 1916, and, though he lived primarily on the Southern California ranch his father had purchased in the latter half of the 1800s, he spent a lot of time on the Central California coastal property. His children, too, lived there often—one of them was my grandmother, another my great-aunt Sister, who met my great-uncle Ed there, where he cowboyed for her father. You can imagine the family scandal that created: Boss’s daughter marries boss’s hired hand, who happened to be a quarter Cherokee. The scandal didn’t die until Ed did.
Something in the field below me gleams white in the sun’s afterlight, and I stand to get a better look. Lured by shapes glowing under ebbing twilight skies, I head straight downhill and climb another fence, making the final trespass onto the remains of Sister and Ed’s ranch. The dogs scoot between strands of barbed wire and run on ahead.
When I near the pile of bones, the dogs sniff at them for mere seconds before racing off to find something fresher. I pick one up—a thick, heavy cannon bone, which runs from knee to fetlock joint—and it occurs to me that the bones could be my grandmother’s Shire mares, or their descendents. Sister kept them on the ranch for years after my grandmother’s death until, one by one, the original team of eight Shires died, and then, one after another, so did their offspring. My grandmother, and then Sister, too, used to drive that team of huge draft horses pulling a huge wagon at rodeos and fancy horse events—tiny little ladies maneuvering horses with hooves bigger than their waists through obstacle courses of rights and lefts, forwards and backs.
The wagon lives in a museum now, but it used to be parked in the garage Sister and Ed built just for that purpose, leather and brass harnesses hanging from horseshoe hooks on the walls. Photographs at the museum show my grandmother sitting straight-backed on the wagon seat, all sixteen reins in her small hands, the Shires’ heads bent to the bit as if they had no idea what their great size could do. Sometimes in the pictures my great-grandfather sits beside her—the museum has those, too.
My grandmother’s horses. She died when I was five, but she taught me some things about riding first. She herself rode until cancer killed her. The mares and their descendants lived on, some to over thirty years old.
Bones, utterly white in the approaching night. I pick up one at a time and am awed by the size—the weight, length, and thickness. Clearly they are Shire bones. I find three skulls, as well, wrestling one from beneath the branches of a large sage. Two horses and a steer. The horse skulls are also Shires—I can tell by their monstrous size, damn near as long from poll to muzzle as my arm. One has a bullet hole between the eyes. It becomes clear to me that my uncle and his hired man turned the hillside beneath this white oak into a bone yard, a graveyard, a burial ground. Only they didn’t bury these mammoth horses, or the big old longhorn steers. They let the coyotes and turkey buzzards play undertaker, and the bones are strewn across the hillside and scattered down into the gully.
Sister died at ninety-three. Ed died seven years earlier. A big man, heavy with sadness and alcohol, he had a stroke one night sitting on the bench outside their adobe home with a couple of his cats, and a dog Keith and I had given him, which he named after my husband. Most of his cats—he always had at least thirty milling and mewing and mating around the place—were too wild to be petted, or to get caught for neutering, spaying, or doctoring, but often there were two or three that would rub up against his legs and allow the slide of his hand down their backs. These cats were not the same from year to year—coyotes and sickness killed them on a regular basis—but Ed didn’t seem to notice. He loved them indiscriminately. Talked to them all the time, fed them new canned food atop the old in the early mornings because that’s when he was sober, scared the peacocks off that came in to raid the pig-trough-like feeders full of dry Purina Cat Chow. In the summer with the windows open, the whole house stunk like too many cats and too-old canned cat food, but as long as there were cats around him, Ed was okay. The same way Sister was with her peacocks, her great Shire horses and small Welsh ponies, her cows. Animals filled up the lives of those two the way work used to, the way children would have had they married younger than middle age, the way family might have had they not married at all.
The peacocks didn’t seem to understand Ed’s preference for cats any more than most visitors did. Nor did my aunt Sister. As we sat at the small kitchen table eating our own meals, we watched the peacocks tormenting the pile of cats on the picnic table right outside the window—that pile often three cats deep, even in summer—and Ed wouldn’t dare chase them off with Sister right there. But if she left to answer the phone or something, Ed would grab the buggy whip he stashed behind the kitchen door and the peacocks would flash with color as they ran and flew to the branches of the closest oaks and pepper trees. The cats would fly, too, but that didn’t seem to bother Ed. His eyes would get all twinkly, as though he’d just tasted something fattening and delicious that he wasn’t supposed to eat, and we could only grin back, glad for his small coup, one of his few victories.
I imagine one of the striped gray cats rubbing along Ed’s Levi’s-clad thigh that evening as he sat on his bench watching the sun lower itself from the day. Sister had sat with him for a short time, then she got up and busied herself inside the house, and Keith-the-dog trotted down into the field to roll in horse manure, and as soon as they departed the cat jumped up on the bench and bent her head to the automatic reach of Ed’s hand. She was small—they never got very big, whether from inbreeding or lack of longevity I don’t know—and he called her Kitty. A deep sigh ran through him as he looked over the land before him, land tired from years of overuse by cattle and horses, deer—he didn’t allow hunting—and feral pigs. It was early March, March 1st, to be exact, and the green had already faded from his hillsides, the cattle chasing it away faster than it could grow. He knew he had not made a good rancher—just like they all said he wouldn’t—overgrazing and then feeding hay half the year, and he didn’t care. What kept him going was his alcoholic Cherokee cowboy stubbornness.
I imagine him feeling the cat purr under his large rough hand, and speaking to her, but the words came out funny. He tried again, and even to him his words sounded drunk, and his hand grew heavy, the cat squirming under the weight, her purr ceasing as abruptly as his truck’s motor on the days he couldn’t manage the clutch. He tried to lift his hand. He tried to call his wife. He tried to stand, the cat scrambling away and watching him from around the corner. I imagine him pushing the bulk of himself up off the bench, not noticing that the sun had dropped, that the sky was flooded with a pink so soft he might have cried over it on another day, not noticing that what he hit when he crashed was just the cement of his covered porch. Their porch. Hers, really, but he didn’t have to think about that anymore.
From inside the house, Sister heard the cry that was supposed to be her name, and she dismissed it as an anti-peacock yell—she knew what he did behind her back—or some strange new cat noise. But the thud made by Ed’s body could not be categorized as anything other than something wrong, and Sister rushed outside to find her eighty-year-old, 250-pound husband collapsed on the porch, his face smashed into the cement, blood oozing from a crack in his brow, one arm bent oddly beneath him. Keith-the-dog was pushing at the other arm with his nose, having run up at the sound of the odd cry. Sister knew from previous experience how heavy Ed was—she and I had helped him inside on many occasions when he was too drunk to walk on his own, his bulk leaning always her way because she was the shorter of us two—and she tried to budge him anyway. His eyes were closed, his breathing light but still in and out, and she pushed on him with the dog’s help and tugged on his free arm. He was not dead, nor was he dead drunk, but he was dead to her. She scurried into the house to call the hired hand. The dog lay down beside him and the cat crept up to Ed’s body and brushed against his limp leg.
The next day, as soon as I was allowed, I visited Uncle Ed in the hospital. His skin was as gray as his hair, and slack. Everything about him was slack. When the nurses shifted him onto his side on the bed—it took two of them—they accidentally disclosed his flaccid penis and testicles. I had never seen anything so lifeless before that wasn’t yet dead. His whole body looked like that, a pouch of stretched and worn skin loosely containing what remained inside. The gray pubic hair startled me, too. I remembered a discussion between my mother and an aunt long ago wherein they debated whether pubic hair in fact grayed. Here it was, age and death in a way I had never before seen it.
I sat next to him, held his hand, talked into his ear, watched his face for signs. His large hand was heavy in mine. Hospital staff had cut off his wedding ring, so thick were his old fingers. He didn’t wink, grin, grunt, or flinch in recognition, that day or any other. The stroke had affected one whole side of him so that he had no use of one arm and leg, and could not talk. But that didn’t matter, because he remained comatose until death caught up with him five days later, the day after Cotton, my favorite little cowdog, was hit on the highway and killed.
When my aunt—not my great-aunt Sister but the one who discussed pubic hair with my mother—called to tell me Ed had gone, my instant tears confused her. It was only Ed, after all, and we’d all known it was just a matter of time. I told her about Cotton, and she hung up satisfied. I didn’t even try to explain what I had felt for Ed, my great-uncle, the old geezer who called my dogs turd-hounds and laughed when I got bucked off and giggled when he was drunk, and who gave me his middle name for my first-born son. Lafayette. Nor did I ever give voice to what I knew that old man, beneath his sober gruffness and drunken silliness, felt for me.
Ed had wanted to be cremated. I knew that, and Sister did, too, and in one sense the formality of the act, arranged by the family, and the lack of ceremony—there simply wasn’t one—honored Ed’s wishes. And that was the end of Ed. For them. No one questioned why he desired cremation, though I wouldn’t have told had anyone bothered to ask me. But here’s the truth: He and Sister had started on a different ranch, up near Paso Robles, on Nacimiento Creek. They built an adobe home there, and barns and corrals and a life. But shortly after they felt good and settled in, the government came along with plans to dam the Nacimiento, and there went that ranch, house and all. The ghosts of it float under the waters of Lake Nacimiento reservoir. Two ranches in one lifetime, and Ed wanted his ashes and the small bits of bone to be scattered over the waters of the reservoir called Lake Cachuma, over his old haying ground, the “best land on the ranch.” He wanted the last word.
A couple of years before this, Keith wanted to sell Sister and Ed our last cows. From 120-some-odd cows we were down to ten, including Ruby, my first cow, who had filled out big and beautiful, her short-haired red-black hide sleek and shiny over her rolling muscles, an 07 branded on her left side and my brand on her left hip. Ruby, and nine others. Our very last cows.
I said no. I pleaded, begged, threatened. But, we had a payment to make. And Keith was tired—in many ways ten cows require as much work as a hundred. I didn’t care—I wanted the cows, welcomed the work. Keith sold them anyway. My only compensation was that they moved to Sister and Ed’s, where I could visit any time.
After they bought the cows, Sister had the hired man rig up a water trough right there, ten yards from the house. He moved a white porcelain bathtub into the field, just on the other side of the fence, and filled it each morning with a hose that drew water from the house plumbing. Through the huge picture window in the living room Sister could watch the cows come to water, their cute little Brahma-cross calves dancing around their legs, bucking and butting heads, white froth covering their greedy mouths as they nursed. On warm days Sister would top off the trough herself when she went outside to talk to them, which she did until she couldn’t walk that far anymore. She called Ruby by name, as I did, and Ruby would lift her head high, flick her big Brahma ears back and forth, and look right at you but only with one eye, her other eye always on escape, her weight on her outside legs, leaning away. Ruby never got less than half wild, though her Brown Swiss-Brahma-cross counterparts, 06 and 13, acted like big old puppy dogs. Even out in the field they’d walk up to you and let you scratch them behind the ears, and Sister did this, too, when she was still able, or she’d lean through the board fence and rub their long faces, just like Ed and his cats, Ruby watching tall in the background, waiting to drink until all humans left but listening and answering in body language when Sister spoke to her: “Ruby!”
A few years back, when Keith and I still had a decent cowherd and lived on a ranch on the coast, we’d trailer the calves to a field a few miles up the highway when we’d wean them in either May or June, depending on the feed year. The cows would mill around the corrals for a couple of days after the weaning, bawling for their calves, their bags full of milk and taut between their back legs. The youngest mothers stayed the longest, thinking that since this was the last place they had seen their babies surely the calves would return to this spot, while the older cows, having been through this before and understanding the futility of it, wandered out toward the back pasture and better feed. Ruby had just been separated from her second calf, and I noticed on the second day that she was nowhere to be seen. We rode the pasture, about 2,000 acres of it, counting cows as best we could with them spreading out already—no Ruby. Keith kept saying she’d show up, not to worry, but I knew she was gone.
A couple of days later, as I drove up the highway from one pasture to another searching the last conceivable place, I saw movement along the shoulder of the oncoming lane of traffic. It disappeared, then I saw it again, a big dark shadow moving through the sagebrush near the edge of the road. I hit the brakes and yelled “Ruby!” through the open window. She jerked her head around, looked right at me, and trotted across the pavement to the center divider. I pulled over to stop traffic. “Shit, Ruby!” I said, and she fixed those big browns on me and held me there with her half-wild, half-mad, half-sad look, and then she crossed the near lanes of highway and trotted on, as if she had someplace to go and someone to see.
I followed beside her in the truck, my emergency flashers flashing, my heart pounding up into my head while she pressed through the overgrowth at the highway’s edge. She veered off with the fenceline and I stopped to watch her. She crossed over the old frontage road, paralleled the fence, and at the first sign of a loose top wire she hopped over, the barbs that sliced at her hocks holding on to tufts of her red-black hair.
How she got out of the original pasture, knew from miles away in which field to find her calf, and managed without water and without being seen for five days, I thought I’d never understand. But when I pushed my own baby out into the world and held him to my breast, the understanding hit me with that first rush of milk. Keith always said that Ruby didn’t make a good cow—she was too big, he said, it took too much to feed her, and the weaning weights of her calves did not compensate for the cost of keeping her. But I knew better. I knew Ruby was the best damned cow we ever had.
What Keith neglected to tell me that day so long ago when I first picked Ruby out of that herd of heifers was the main reason not to fall in love with your cows: because it cracks your heart open like an egg when they go, and all you’ve got left to hold a marriage together is slippery yolk and tiny bits of shell.
I make a sling out of my sweatshirt and load up a pelvis and two polished white cannon bones. I pack them up the hill to the fence and hoist the load over, dropping it on the far side. Carefully climbing the fence in the dark, I snag only one leg of my jeans on the barbs. Huffing uphill, bones on my back, I follow the dogs to the road. Their moonshadows guide me. Tracing unseen tracks, I start the trek back along the dirt road toward the truck parked on the other side of the locked gate, and I remember the rest of the story.
When Ed died a nephew of Sister’s gained power of attorney and started running Sister’s life as if she were livestock on her own ranch, the ranch the family couldn’t wait to get their hands on to sell. One day a phone call came, no word of warning, just an order to the hired man from the power-of-attorney city nephew who fancied he knew what he was doing: Sell the cows. Today. They brought slaughter prices, though they still had a few good calves left in them and people would have paid good money for them because of Keith’s reputation as an excellent cattleman, and everyone knew Sister’s cows came from us. But no one knew they would be selling that day. Not even Sister. So to slaughter they went, including my Ruby, who weighed in at over 1200 pounds and brought near brood-cow prices anyway. But it wasn’t about money. It was about my aunt having Alzheimer’s and Uncle Ed being dead and her nephew having control. We learned later that he’d made a deal with someone who wanted to lease the land. To run horses.
Sister was never told what happened to those cows. Her cows. My cows. The last cows. Cows that would not leave skulls under a sprawling old oak tree on the side of a hill, would not leave bones behind for me to find like rays of moonlight on a darkening night. For the three years between the sell-off of her cattle and her death, Sister, unable to grip the passage of time, sat in front of that great big picture window day after day, waiting for the cows to come to water.
Chapter 15: A River
It turns out I bought a bad horse. My son Ken wasn’t with me when I looked at the horse (whom Ken calls Fubar) but he told me on the phone that he thought the horse might be too much for me. “I want him,” I said, unable to explain the pull I felt in my gut, or to confess that I’d already told the horse he would be better off with me. That was just stuff I felt, after all, stuff Ken would dismiss because, heck, cowboys don’t feel about such things.
He felt plenty, though, the second day I rode the horse, when Fubar starting rearing up and spinning off, refusing to turn right or stay calm or do anything but try to get away. I was stumped. I was scared. Ken was angry. The next day, alone in the woods on my new horse, pushing some cows down through the trees, he reared Trigger-high, scaring even himself this time, I could tell. I threw the reins up on his neck so as not to pull him over backward on top of me, pushed him forward with my knees, and got him turned around and headed after the cattle, but my heart stayed up on the hillside behind us, hanging on the limb of a tall ponderosa.
“Get rid of him,” Ken said.
Although it had only been four days, the guy I bought him from, a Christian teamroper from Pueblo, Colorado, refused to take him back. The next day my horse was perfect, and I loved him. The day after, not so much. Then came the day when, for no reason at all, Fubar went nuts in a stall. With two other horses standing calmly nearby getting brushed and saddled, Fubar reared and tried to jump the fence, busting the overhead lights and damn near his leg. Ken said, “I’m not just saying it, Mom. That horse could hurt you. He has to go.”
Go where? I couldn’t sell him, not the way he was acting. The good Christian wouldn’t take him back; I spoke to two trainers who didn’t want him; I didn’t know what to do.
My friend Trudell seems to carry the voices of the gods when I can’t hear them myself. Knowing nothing whatsoever about horses, she told me of a horse trainer in Wyoming she’d heard about. Ramón Castro. I called—he happened to be giving a horsemanship clinic in three weeks. I’d never been to a clinic, or even thought about it—it wasn’t a popular thing to do in the last century the way it is today, and besides, cowboys didn’t need lessons. Ken’s dad would have scoffed, as Ken did. But Ken hooked up the trailer for me, making sure the lights and the brakes worked, and I loaded up two horses—a colt of Ken’s and my bad horse—and drove by myself the 800 miles north, hoping this trainer could provide a solution.
“Whatever you do,” Ken said, “don’t bring Fubar back here.”
“I won’t,” I promised, thinking secretly that if this trainer said he was fixable, I’d take him to a barn in Taos instead, and give him a real name.
“He’s a good horse,” Ramón said the first day. “He’s sensitive and quick—he may be too much horse for you.”
I used to be quick myself, I thought, riding spooky, part-wild horses after fast cattle in rough country. But Ramón didn’t see that reckless girl, just a fifty-six-year-old woman afraid of her own horse.
“He’s doing everything he can to get away,” Ramón said, as my pretty bay gelding raced around the round pen—a circular enclosure made of twelve portable panels six feet high. “He’s been hurt, probably beat up, and he has no trust of humans. A horse’s instinct is to run from trouble, or rear or buck or fight.” Fubar ran toward the gate, pushing his nose up over the top rung, eyes and nostrils wide, looking for the way out.
Ramón stood calmly in the center of the pen, urging the horse forward, showing him that he could move. “As long as they can move their feet, they’re okay.” Fubar loped in a circle, trotted, sweated. When he slowed too much, Ramón moved toward his hip, applying pressure across twenty feet of dirt merely with his presence. Fubar moved away, repeating his circle at the gate, the flinging of his head at freedom. Ramón moved toward the hip again, pushing Fubar away from the gate, out to the middle and then the outer edge of the circle made by the round pen. “I want him to use his feet,” Ramón said. “If he knows how to use his feet, he will not feel trapped.”
I watched from the little bleachers, my horse lovely in his honesty; his brown hide shining, neck arched, black mane and tail flowing with his movement, his determination to take care of himself blatant and urgent. Escape was what he knew, all he wanted. He searched for it so hard I hurt—for him, for the hills that could hide and hold his wounded spirit, maybe for me. That he should run free was the only answer I could see. I loved him even more.
Fubar trotted around the circle, his nose still high, his muscles liquid under his skin. Ramón moved only when the horse slowed; Ramón’s body, too, seemed liquid, his spirit out there dancing with my horse’s. Then Ramón stopped, lowering his head and dropping in height just a bit. Fubar slowed, his inside eye on Ramón, who took a step toward the gelding, who was watching with that inside eye and pivoting ear, sweat highlighting the deep brown of his coat, his chest heaving. I knew that Ramón watched the details—the eye and ear, the tilt of the head and taut neck, Fubar ready, always, to bolt, just like my old cow Ruby.
Ramón stopped, took one step back. Just one. Then he took a deep breath, sighing aloud; Fubar did the same, visibly relaxing, and Ramón moved a step closer. Too much. Fubar reared slightly and spun out, Ramón following him, pushing him to show him that he could move, there was room, he was not trapped. This time when Ramón stopped, so did Fubar, both sighing deeply. Fubar’s head dropped a notch, his lips twitching, and when Ramón stepped toward him he didn’t move off. He was still watching but his eye was softer now, almost curious. Ramón walked slowly to his shoulder. Caressed his shoulder, neck, back. Stepped to the front of the shoulder, reaching under Fubar’s head, pushing his cheek away. Fubar turned, unsure, and started trotting around the circle in the other direction, Ramón positioning himself at the other shoulder, girth, hip, whatever kept the horse moving forward.
Again Ramón stopped. He didn’t step toward Fubar; he turned his back and walked toward me, sitting in the bleachers on the other side of the fence. Fubar took one step in the direction Ramón had gone. Then he remembered the gate and his quest for escape, spinning on his hocks to move in that direction.
“It’s okay,” Ramón said to me. “He’s learning to use his feet. He’s learning to trust.” Quieted by Ramón’s voice, Fubar stood still near the gate. We both listened, horse and human. “He doesn’t trust because he’s been hurt. Somebody has hit him, hurt him, scared him.” Ramon looked at me between the railings. “He just wants to get away. When he knows he can move he will start to trust, and I will ask more.” Both of Fubar’s ears now pointed toward Ramón. “You see,” Ramón said, “he wants to trust. He wants a friend.”
More to come . . .
Photo of “Fubar” by Mattie Allen
Walking the Twilight II: Women Writers of the Southwest, edited by Kathryn Wilder
Northland Publishing, 1996
Forbidden Talent, by Redwing T. Nez as told to Kathryn Wilder
Northland Publishing, 1995
Walking the Twilight: Women Writers of the Southwest, edited by Kathryn Wilder
Northland Publishing, 1994
ESSAYS & STORIES
“Where hope, science and mustangs meet,” High Country News “Writers on the Range.” http://www.hcn.org/articles/pzp-where-hope-science-and-mustangs-meet
“Friday Night Dogs,” bosque 5. Bosque Press. 2015.
“Sundance,” Southern Indiana Review, Volume 16, Number 2. Evansville, IN: The University of Southern Indiana. Spring 2015.
“Holding,” River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things.” http://www.riverteethjournal.com/blog/2014/09/29/holding. September 29, 2014.
“White Sugar,” Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the ‘60s & ‘70s. She Writes Press. 2013. Edited by Kate Farrell, Linda Joy Myers, & Amber Lea Starfire
“In Security,” Midway Journal. http://midwayjournal.com/in-security/. May 1, 2013.
“Night Crawlers,” River Teeth, Volume 14, Number 2. Ashland, OH: AshlandUniversity. Spring 2013
“Afraid of the Dark,” Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative. Petaluma, CA. Fall 2012
“Canyon Metaphor,” Grand Canyon Trust News.Flagstaff, AZ.Grand Canyon Trust. 2012. http://www.grandcanyontrust.org/news/2012/07/2489/
“An Odd Coupling,” Grand Canyon Trust News.Flagstaff, AZ.Grand Canyon Trust. 2011. http://www.gcvolunteers.org/stories/2011/10/an-odd-coupling
“Taking Place.” Southern Indiana Review, Volume 16, Number 2. Evansville, IN: The University of Southern Indiana. Fall 2009.
“My Hānai Mother” in Hawai`i Magazine, 2009
“Bringing Kahekili Home” in Holoholo, 2009
“The Last Cows.” Fourth Genre, Volume 10, Number 1. East Lansing, MI: MichiganStateUniversity Press, MichiganStateUniversity. Spring 2008.
“Onboard a ‘Guiding Star’” in Hawai`i Magazine, 2008
“Stones and Jawbones,” What Wildness Is This: Women Write about the Southwest. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. 2007. Edited by Susan Wittig Albert, Susan Hanson, Jan Epton Seale, & Paula Stallings Yost
“Listen with Your Heart to Hawai`i’s Story” in Spirit of Aloha, 2007
“The Spirit of Kalalau” in Spirit of Aloha, 2007
“Four Musical Monarchs” in Hawai`i Magazine, 2007
“Pili to Kaho`olawe” in Hawai`i Magazine, 2007
“Bridging the Generations” in Hāhālua, 2007
“Turtle Girl” in Spirit of Aloha, 2006
“Calling Back the Rain” in Spirit of Aloha, 2006
“Mau’s Canoe” in Hana Hou!, 2006
“Big-Wave Wahine” in Maui No Ka `Oi, 2006
“Hawaiian at Art” in Maui No Ka `Oi, 2006
“Nest of Voices” in Spirit of Aloha, 2005
“Paddling Will Bring Us Together” in Spirit of Aloha, 2005
“Follow the Stars” in Spirit of Aloha, 2004
“Inside the Rain” in Spirit of Aloha, 2004
“Hilo World Sprints” in Hana Hou!, 2004
“Hawaiian Canoe Club in Bora Bora” in KANUculture, 2002
“So Close to the Wild” in Bugle, 2000
“The Thunder That Follows” in The Bear Deluxe, 2000
“Glen Canyon Dam” in Earth First! Journal, 2000
“The Grace of Geese,” American Nature Writing 2000. Corvallis, OR:OregonStateUniversity Press. 2000. Edited by John A. Murray
“Looking Up,” American Nature Writing 1999. Corvallis, OR:OregonStateUniversity Press. 1999. Edited by John A. Murray
“Looking Up” in Sierra, 1997
“River Words” in Standing Wave. Prescott, AZ.1997.
“Aisles,” What There Is: The Crossroads Anthology. Salt lake City, UT: 1996. Edited by Heather L. Hirschi, Ariana-Sophia Kartsonis, and Brenda Miller
“Sheila,” Walking the Twilight II. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Publishing. 1996. Edited by Kathryn Wilder. And in Valley Guide Quarterly, 1996
“The River World” in Flagstaff Live!, 1996
“Shaped by Water” in Flagstaff Live!, 1996
“Building a Piece of the Circle” in Flagstaff Live!, 1996
“Circle of Safety” in Flagstaff Live!, 1996
“Stones and Jawbones” in Visiones, 1996
“Like Blood” in Valley Guide Quarterly, 1995, & Walking the Twilight: Women Writers of the Southwest. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Publishing. 1994. Edited by Kathryn Wilder.
AWARDS & HONORABLE MENTION
- Finalist, River Teeth, 2014
- Partial Fellowship, Summer Literary Seminars, 2014 (for two pieces)
- Honorable Mention, New Millennium Writings, 2013
- Second Place Winner, Tiny Lights Personal Essay Contest, 2012
- Finalist, Summer Literary Seminars Unified Literary Contest, 2012
- Elliot Cades Award nomination, 2011
- Finalist, Writers@Work Fiction Competition 2010
- Finalist, Richard J. Margolis Award of the BlueMountainCenter, 2009
- Finalist, Dana Award for the Novel, 2009
- Finalist, Southern Indiana Review Mary C. Mohr Nonfiction Award, 2009
- Notable Essay of 2008, The Best American Essays 2009
- Winner, Fourth Genre’s Editor’s Prize for Best Essay/Memoir, 2007
- Finalist, Ellen Meloy Fund’s Desert Writer’s Award, 2007
- Finalist, The Bear Deluxe Edward Abbey Fiction Award, 1999
- Honorable Mention for the Heekin Group Foundation Juvenile Novel In Progress, 1998
- Winner, Sierra magazine’s Write on the Wild Side competition, 1997
- Honorable Mention, Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, 1996
- Finalist, Spur Storyteller Award, 1995
- Finalist, Write on the Wild Side competition, Sierra, 1995
- Pushcart Prize nomination, 1994
- Western Heritage Award nomination, 1994
First published in Walking the Twilight: Women Writers of the Southwest. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Publishing. 1994.
You have to understand, beef is my life. Me and my husband T, we breed it, raise it, sell it, eat it. My mom and dad that before me and so did his, and so did most all our grandparents.
I woke up early that morning and went to the window to see the morning star in what me and Dad called a hunter’s sky—a sky that made shadows of mountains and turned canyons into rivers of promise when we’d creep through sagebrush we could smell but not see, moving into position before the deer came down to feed in dawn’s light. But the sky at the ranch where T worked at the time was corralled by ponderosa pines, and though I loved to put my nose in the bark and breathe in caramel, and to hear the wind coming long before it got to me, I missed seeing the morning star. I went back to bed but not to sleep, something restless inside me wanting out, and I lay there with the ranch I grew up on floating above me like a cloud, or dream.
The phone call with the news about the accident came later in the day. I knew T wanted to go with me, and God knows I wanted him to, but we couldn’t both go—it was the middle of calving season and the boss needed T to help with the calving. But I had to go, because somebody had to calve out Dad’s cows. His big Beefmaster heifers especially—he’d bred them to an Angus bull that usually threw small calves but he had been worried about them nonetheless, and since Mom was staying in town to be near the hospital that left me.
T and the boss could spare me because I just drew day wages when they needed an extra hand, which was pretty often, so me and T had some money put away toward our down-the-road ranch, even though Dad kept telling us we already had a ranch if we could just wait long enough. I didn’t like thinking about waiting for Mom and Dad to retire or worse so I kept putting my wages, small though they were, away in a savings account. The boss’s wife watched Charlie when I cowboyed, but she didn’t charge anything for babysitting, said it was her way of helping out since she wasn’t about to get on a horse. I never did understand living on a ranch and not wanting to ride and cowboy, but I appreciated the help. And the extra money, though as it turned out Dad was right and we wouldn’t need it.
It was a neighbor that called, and I didn’t understand exactly what had happened, only that Dad had gotten hurt in a bulldozer accident somehow and was in danger of losing a leg. I packed the old leather suitcase with the corners worn clear off—the one Mom had given me for my honeymoon trip, that she’d had since hers—with enough clothes to last me and Charlie a week, folding his tiny Wranglers and snap-button shirts carefully on top, thinking Dad would get a kick out of seeing his little cowboy all dressed up. I heard Charlie crying in the front room and went in and picked him up, pressing our faces to the cold window where we watched T throwing my saddle, chaps, and ropes into the old Dodge down at the barn. The cold made Charlie’s cheek turn pink and his tears stopped flowing. I pulled him tight on my hip and went back to packing with him riding there. He liked me scooting around like a Kaibab squirrel, and he flung his hands out and squealed.
“Hold on to Mama,” I said, reaching into the closet for my dress boots. Sometimes I wore them outside my jeans to show off the red leather with its black stitching swirling up to my knees, but as I set Charlie down to take off my work boots and put the dress boots on, I decided that that might not be a good idea today. I snapped the suitcase shut and Charlie clapped his little hands. When I picked him up again he reached around me as far as he could, hugging his cheek to my shoulder, and I felt a pinch in my stomach.
T drove up to the house and got Charlie and put him in his car seat, and had a hug waiting for me when I got to the truck. “Colette,” he said, but I felt tears coming and didn’t want to cry so I pulled out of his hug and onto the dirt road leading toward the highway and Dad.
Two hours later, the big lady behind the desk at the hospital said Charlie couldn’t go upstairs. I paged Mom, and me and Charlie flipped through Outdoor Life, Charlie pointing to pictures of bucks and bull elk, saying “Deer” and “Ek” at most of the right ones.
“There’s my little cowboy!” we heard Mom say as she stepped from the elevator. Charlie climbed over the table covered with magazines and ran to her. She scooped him up and hugged him while I picked Outdoor Life and Sports Illustrated up from the floor, and even though she didn’t look at me directly I saw that her face wasn’t as round as usual and that the silver waves of her hair had flattened.
“How is he?” I said, reaching for Time, which had slipped under the table.
“He’s in Intensive Care. They haven’t made up their minds yet.”
Right then I really wished T was with me. He and Dad had always liked each other, and I figured T might know the right words to say. All I could think was Hang on to that leg! I found the stairs and climbed toward Dad, remembering the last time I’d been in that hospital—a year and a half ago I’d given birth to Charlie there, on that other floor with babies crying in the nursery at one end.
When I stepped out of the stairwell onto Dad’s floor I heard the beeps and hums of life-saving machinery and a voice on the loudspeaker calling for Dr. Milligan to come to the nurse’s station. I couldn’t help but look into the rooms as I walked by, at the gray heads on white pillows facing televisions with the sound turned off. A dark-haired nurse pushed a cart out of one of the rooms. She smiled at me and I tried but couldn’t smile back. I made the turn into ICU, thinking I’d be able to walk right up to Dad’s bed, and stopped cold. Someone asked me who I was there to see and pointed toward him, and without her help I wouldn’t have picked him out. He lay there as pale and lifeless as the sheets covering him; even his eyes, normally the brilliant blue of the high desert sky, were washed-out. I could see the shape of bulky bandages under the sheets, and when I stared directly into Dad’s eyes I thought I could see the future.
“I’ll take care of your cows, Dad,” I said, my throat tight. “They’ll be all right.”
“I know, Collie,” he said, squeezing my hand for a second with all his old strength. As I leaned over to kiss his forehead I couldn’t tell through the tears swimming in my eyes if there were tears in his, too, and when I left I felt as if I was leaving everything I knew behind me in that hospital bed.
I found Mom and Charlie in the cafeteria, eating “cafeteria cardboard,” as Mom called it. I told her Dad had gone back to sleep, and I hugged her quickly and headed out of town with Charlie as fast as the old Dodge would go. But when I came to the bridge over the big river I slowed to a stop right there in the middle of the road and watched the water roll and tumble away at the bottom of the canyon. Even at that distance I could feel it moving through me—that river had been running through my family for a hundred years, like the ranch I was going home to, like the love of raising cattle, like blood.
“There’s the river, Charlie!” I said. He strained against the straps of his car seat, said “Ribr,” and smiled, and I gassed the truck toward the cliffs, and the vast flat made by the wash that was our valley, and home.
The ranch house felt the same as always but cold. Charlie willingly settled for a nap, cozying deep under the goose-feather quilt on my old bed. As I built a fire in the woodburning stove I noticed things—the newspaper fanned out across the floor in front of Dad’s chair, his moccasins half buried beneath it; the earth-toned Navajo saddle blanket Mom smoothed along the back of the leather couch several times a day lying crumpled up on the cushions; two coffee cups on the antique end table, a black wolf painted on one and a gray wolf on the other, both peering through yellow eyes; Mom’s down jacket thrown over the horseshoe hat rack by the front door, one arm leaning toward the floor, the other up high, dark stains splotching the front of it.
I picked up the cups—the black wolf held black coffee, the gray wolf’s coffee swirled murky brown—and took them to the kitchen. After washing yesterday’s dishes I went back to the front room to check the stove, smoothed the saddle blanket in place, and picked up the newspaper. I took Dad’s moccasins to his bedroom, set them by his bed, thought better of it and put them away in the closet. Only Charlie’s face could be seen under the down comforter when I peeked in. Sleeping angel.
Warmth spread slowly through the front room. I meant to straighten Mom’s jacket up, even out the sleeves like she always did, but the blood stopped me. Snatching the coat off the rack, I checked the pockets on the way to the laundry, threw it and the bloody handkerchief I found into the washing machine, and left them to soak in cold water.
I wanted to go out and check the heifers before dark, but I could hear Charlie’s deep breathing. Warming my hands at the woodstove, I didn’t want to see the picture that came into my mind of Dad in the hospital bed, tubes poking into him in every possible place, his face ten years older than the last time I’d seen him. I thought instead of T a few years back, the two of us stretched out on the red and black Navajo rug, Mom and Dad off to a poker game. We’d turned so our feet were pointed toward the stove because mine were cold even in socks, so I didn’t see the lights coming up the long dirt road from the highway. T lifted his head during one of his pushes and said something like Holy Shit! and about ten seconds later I heard the door handle turning. I grabbed my Wranglers and ran to the bathroom, flushing the toilet like I’d already been in there, but when I went to put on my jeans I saw that my panties must have fallen out somewhere. I pulled the jeans on anyway, straightened my hair and makeup, and walked out like I hadn’t done anything wrong.
T stood with his back to the stove, his hands clasped behind him, and I saw the edge of black lace in his fist. Dad settled himself into his chair near the picture window, gazing at T.
“Who won?” I said, reaching my arm around as though to give T a squeeze.
“Nobody,” Dad answered, his eyes twinkling like the night sky behind him.
Deciding to unpack while Charlie slept, I went outside and grabbed the old leather suitcase from the faded green Dodge. A cold wind blew in from the west, which means a storm coming in this country, and with a storm come the calves. For some reason I never figured out, cows like to drop calves during or at the tail end of bad weather. Of course Mom had me during a blizzard and I had Charlie in the middle of the year’s biggest hailstorm, but that didn’t give me any insight. Shuddering, I faced the different directions and prayed for easy calving.
Like a ghost roaming the house, the warmth of the woodstove had drifted into the room Charlie and I would share, the room that would later become his own. I took his Wranglers and cowboy shirts and put them in the top drawer of my old oak dresser, looking into the beveled mirror I grew up in. Pulling a blouse out of Mom’s honeymoon suitcase—the red one with the swirly black stitching across the yoke that T got me to match the boots—I held it up to my chest, seeing Dad’s blue eyes and Mom’s round face. I never thought I was at all pretty until T told me so in tenth grade, and now what I saw was Dad’s pain and Mom’s worry in a face that seemed much older than my own. My mind wanted to think about what Dad would do without a leg—how he would ride, rope calves, rodeo, or even drive the damn ‘dozer—but my heart couldn’t allow it. Shaking the thoughts out of my head and the wrinkles from the blouse, I hung it up in the closet and lay down next to Charlie to wait for him to snuffle awake.
“Mama?” he said, touching my face, stroking my cheek as he would a cat.
“We at Gwamma’s Mama?”
“Yes, we are. You have a good sleep?”
“Gwamma and Gwampa here?” he asked, his eyes getting bluer as sleep slid away.
“No, baby. They’re at the hospital, remember? Grandpa’s hurt.”
Charlie raised up on his elbows, his head poking out from beneath the quilt like a prairie dog’s. “Mama cry?” he said.
“No,” I said, a smile breaking through. “Time to go check cows!”
“Boots!” Charlie said, emerging quickly from the quilt to stand up on the bed and point to the little red Ropers beside it. Charlie would not go check cows without his boots on.
Four days at Mom and Dad’s and the house got quieter with each one. I kept Charlie and me busy as best I could. We’d bundle up and hike up to the water tank on the hill behind the house, and if I got Charlie interested in building miniature rock corrals I could hurry up the ladder on the side of the tank and sit for a minute on the platform on top. From up there I could see weather coming, clouds rolling in across the high desert from as far away as California, and if I snuck out when morning was still mixed with night as I used to do when I was a kid, I could watch the morning star hover in a hunter’s sky that covered the world. Dad had showed me how big the sky was from up there when I was a little girl, packing me up on his shoulders; I had shown T one moonless night; and I would soon show Charlie. But for right then, with Dad in the hospital and T at a different ranch and Charlie too little, I kept that hunter’s sky for mine.
We watched TV, too, and listened to Willie Nelson and Merle, and the phone rang some—Mom calling from the hospital, friends and neighbors wanting news and to offer help—but other than that the house sounded like a library. Except inside my head. Inside my head the noise was like the locker rooms in high school—the chatter never stopped. Sometimes it was so loud that I couldn’t hear Charlie; once I didn’t even hear the phone ringing until Charlie tugged at my knee, saying, “Mama, phone; Mama, phone!”
Every day we drove the hour to the hospital, and every day we checked the cows and heifers. We did the other chores, too, feeding the horses and chickens, gathering eggs, splitting wood, tidying the house, but that never seemed to take more than about ten minutes. I stopped soaking Mom’s jacket after the first two days, deciding to throw it away instead. I took it out to the big trash cans Dad hauled to the ranch dump on Sundays, and by the next day it had frozen in there. The dark stains stared out at me like eyes and I climbed in and jumped up and down until the other garbage covered the jacket. Then I pulled it out, shook it off, folded it neatly like Mom would, and placed it back in the can, thinking that for sure I was going crazy, or had already gone.
Dad didn’t want to look at me or talk much during my hospital visits, and I guessed he couldn’t what with the drugs dripping into his veins like a leaky faucet. I’d tell him the ranch news—who had calved out and who was ready—and watch his eyes get hazier and his thinning body turn toward the wall. It seemed as if he pulled farther away each day, and I’d think Hang on, Dad, hang on! And I’d want to say something about how they could customize the Cat so he could drive it again; and trade the Chevy in for an automatic, no matter how much he hated them; and teach old Bulldog, his retired rope horse, to respond to one real and one fake leg; and, hell, that he could humble himself and hunt from the damn truck! And maybe I should have said all that—maybe it would have made a difference—but the fear in me would get so big at my throat that all I could do was kiss him on a cheek the color of a December snowstorm, mumble, “I love you, Dad,” wait for a minute hoping for an “I love you, too, Collie,” and meet Mom and Charlie in the lobby downstairs when the words didn’t come. Then I’d hug Mom goodbye and head back to the quiet ranch house and the noise in my head.
On the fourth day the call from Mom said that Dad’s leg was infected bad. I called T even though I figured he’d be out on the ranch somewhere and listened to the phone ring for a long time before finally putting the receiver down. I picked Charlie up and held him close, squishing his round red cheek against my wet one. “S’okay, Mama,” Charlie said, his little hand patting my back. “S’okay.”
I knew T would call later, after nightfall, and told myself it was okay to be alone, me and Charlie in Mom and Dad’s house, all the parts of me that were connected by blood held together the way the river connects the country and the people it runs through. I made hot chocolate and sat with Charlie in Dad’s chair, sipping out of wolf cups and fingering the chair’s frayed arms.
Everything in the room held a scene from my memory. I could see Dad loading river rock into the bucket of the front-end loader, and him and Mom on their hands and knees fitting rocks like puzzle pieces into the frame of the hearth. I could hear him sneaking down through the sagebrush ahead of me to shoot the perfectly symmetrical four-point mule deer, whose head now crowned the oak bookshelf he’d built. I could feel him racing up the roping arena behind me, yelling “Atta girl, Collie!” as my loop fell round and flat over the steer’s horns, Dad wheeling two hind feet just as I turned the steer off and winning us the mixed-teamroping championship.
“More?” Charlie said, the yellow-eyed black wolf cup suddenly interrupting my vision. A horse’s whinny floated up from the barn.
“No,” I said. “No more. We gotta go check cows.” A big Beefmaster heifer had been springing pretty strong, her sides swelled out and bouncing with each step like a huge water balloon. According to Dad’s records and her belly, she was due any day.
“Boots!” Charlie said.
The pickup bounced over the road heading south toward the calving field, the potholes lulling Charlie to sleep. When I was little we didn’t have car seats and Dad would lay me out on the seat next to him, his right hand resting on my shoulder to keep me in place as he drove. “Go to sleep, Collie,” he’d say. “I’ll wake you when we get there.” But sometimes he didn’t, and I’d wake up mad when we got back to the ranch house. “You were sleeping so peaceful,” he’d say, “like a little angel. I couldn’t wake an angel.”
Charlie’s head fell over onto his shoulder, his lips parting slightly. Through my thoughts I could hear his soft breathing. I passed the rock outcropping where T had proposed to me, its lone juniper standing tall but crooked in the wind, and then the calving field spread open between sage-covered hills.
The heifers lingered near the corrals, which was a good thing because I could see right away that the big heifer was in trouble. She stood off to one side under an old cottonwood near the sometimes-creek, and as the pickup rolled over the cattle guard into the field the heifer arched her back, her sides tightening and her tail lifting, one dark hoof parting the loose skin beneath.
“Damn it!” I said.
Charlie stirred, raised his head to drop it on the other shoulder, didn’t wake up. I eased the Dodge as close to the corrals as I could, cracked a window so I could hear Charlie if he started crying, tucked a blanket around him, and stepped out into the cold.
The heifers were used to Mom and Dad and didn’t spook as I opened the gate into the corral. They ambled toward it before I even asked, the big heifer among them. “Dad’s spoiled you rotten,” I said, smiling at pictures of him hand-feeding hay to his cows. I’d often teased him about it, but I’d always been grateful.
As soon as the big heifer passed through the gate I stepped in front of the others, cutting them off. “Sorry, girls,” I said, “no time to play.” And as I sorted the heifer off I thought about how I talked like Dad. The heifer didn’t appreciate being singled out and started to get huffy, and I remembered how I felt in the hospital with Charlie trying to come out and I didn’t blame her.
Finally I clanged the gate of the squeeze chute shut behind the heifer, and, hating to do it, pulled the lever, tightening the steel bars of the chute against the heifer’s ribs so that she couldn’t jump forward or back and break my arm. When the bars tightened the heifer pushed, and I could see that the hoof belonged to a back, not a front, leg. Breach. Shit.
Throwing my jacket over a juniper post I climbed the fence and stepped in behind the heifer, pushing up my sleeves and then pushing my hand into the hot depths of the heifer, the heat almost burning after the cold air outside. I followed the course of the calf’s leg and a rush of panic washed up from my stomach into my throat as I realized the second leg wasn’t there. Double trouble. I should have tried T again, I thought; he could have been here in another hour. But I knew I might not have that much time—the sack on the hoof sticking out was dry.
In the tightness of the birth canal I followed the one leg to the calf’s hip, my fingers sliding along slick fur, until I felt the second leg pointing forward. Tears pushed up behind the panic in my throat. I can’t do this, I thought. I was up to my shoulder in the heifer, my cheek resting against her warm red hide, the smell of blood and cow manure thick in my nose. Beyond the corrals, the field, the sage-and-juniper hills, the sky shifted and changed in strange gray shapes. “You gotta help me,” I said.
The heifer grunted and pushed, and the calf’s rump slid toward me. If Dad were here, I thought, remembering other times, and I knew I had to get the second leg parallel with the first or turn the whole calf around. I strained into the heifer as she groaned and strained against me. The mucous helped me inch forward until the heifer stopped pushing and the calf slid deeper into her, my hand slipping on the hot jellied placenta, my arm cramping from the strain, from the muscles clamping down on me.
“Come on, heifer, help me!” I begged, and she bawled long and low with another big push and I knew life hinged on my efforts and I pushed, too, reaching into the depths, my arms not long enough, not man’s arms, but I got it, got my fingers wrapped around the hock and the heifer pushed and I slid forward enough to grasp the bone below the hock and bend the hock and ease the bent hock backwards.
I prayed for time and strength and breath, easing the hock around. The calf started slipping away and I hung on, hung on to everything I had with everything I’ve got, my body straining as if in my own labor, my shoulder mashed against the heifer’s rear, my cheek against her tailbone, feet braced behind me, not feeling or smelling or tasting any of it; not remembering pulling other calves with Dad, not remembering the results; not hearing Charlie cry out as he slid into the world, or woke in the pickup to find himself alone; or was it Dad’s scream in the hospital; or mine as Charlie tore through me; or mine now as I pulled the leg backward to join the other one and felt the shudder of life slipping away.
I knew I’d lost the calf and I almost lost my grip, but the heifer was quitting—I could feel it, could feel myself saying “I’m done” after Charlie’s head ripped through me, and the room rallying against me: “Go Collie!” and I’d had to suck in and push, push the rest of Charlie out of my body and into my life. I had to get the calf out to save the heifer.
I groped about and found my grip on the leg. I pulled slowly at first, and when the heifer felt the calf moving inside her she joined me and pushed, and the calf slid and the heifer paused, me resting with her, and then the heifer pushed again. And I pulled, each hand on a leg now, feet braced against the chute, body leaning backward, watching the heifer doing the same, hearing her strain, remembering, knowing, and with a giant effort the heifer pushed and I pulled and the calf slid all the way out. And I fell back on my butt and the calf landed on top of me, slimy and warm and deep dark red.
The weight of death heavy in my lap, I hugged the slick fur, resting my cheek on the wet fuzzy forehead, short red calf hairs and long stringy blond hairs curling together. When the heifer bawled again I squirmed out from under the calf and picked it up, its head drooping over my arm, its eyes closed, sleeping angel. Struggling under eighty pounds of dead weight and the wonder about the weight of a dead leg, I carried the calf into the corral for the heifer to grieve. Letting the heifer out of the squeeze chute I showed her the calf, turning away as she started trying to lick life back into it. I would bring her some hay later, after I got back from the hospital, let her mourn overnight, and dump the calf in a ditch for the turkey buzzards and coyotes tomorrow or the next day. By then its spirit would be long gone, and the heifer would know it. And, I decided—cows and fear and death dry on my teeth, the river and a hunter’s sky tight in my heart—I’d go ahead and tell Dad we’d lost one.
Kathryn Wilder has spent her life in California, Hawai`i, and the American Southwest, on horseback, paddling outrigger canoes, running rivers. Her essays and stories have appeared in Southern Indiana Review, Fourth Genre, Hawai`i magazine, Spirit of Aloha, Hana Hou!, Maui No Ka `Oi, Bugle, Standing Wave, Sierra, the American Nature Writing series, What Wildness Is This: Women Write about the Southwest, and elsewhere. Her award-winning essay, “The Last Cows,” was listed as a 2008 Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2009. Additional honors include being a Spur Storyteller Award finalist for Forbidden Talent, a children’s picture book written with Navajo artist Redwing T. Nez (Northland Publishing 1995), and receiving Pushcart Prize, Western Heritage Award, and Hawai`i’s Elliot Cades Award nominations. Wilder edited the Walking the Twilight anthologies for Northland in 1994 and 1996. She lives in Hawai`i, New Mexico, and soon in Colorado, where she will operate a natural-horsemanship training facility with renowned Mustang trainer Ramón Castro.