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Irons in the fire: Could I hve been wrong?

Progressive Cattleman Staff Paul Marchant Published on 01 August 2011

During my growing up years, I wasn’t particularly fond of certain chores. I was even less fond of piano lessons.

My mom had the misguided notion that I possessed some musical talent that lay hidden somewhere in the recesses of my tone-deaf soul and that I would some day regret my apathy toward developing my talents.

My mother and I had some epic battles as she would, ever so gently, (her recollection) attempt to persuade me to walk to the torture chamber cleverly disguised as the piano teacher’s house (my recollection) to my weekly lesson.

One spring afternoon, after I had returned home from school, my dad, who wasn’t really up to speed on the kids’ various schedules, told me to grab some gloves and hop in the truck with him to go pick rocks from the freshly worked rock pile that masqueraded as a hay field. 

How many chores are worse than picking rocks? If I take some time, I can think of about three. I can also think of several lies I might be willing to tell to get out of picking rocks.

The one I chose was a not-so-brilliant lie of omission.

I’d figured out a pretty handy trick to avoid piano lessons, though. The next week, we had to sort heifers on Tuesday after school.

Dad was still clueless as to my piano truancy, and I just avoided Mom that night. How was I to know that my piano teacher (the Jezebel!) would actually have the gall to call my mother to inquire as to my whereabouts.

The proverbial last straw was placed on my mother’s back, my Mozart days came to a screeching halt and I became intimately familiar with those two or three chores that are worse than picking rocks.

About a decade and a half later, I had gained a wife who had inherited the babysitting career from my mother.

I had secured gainful employment on a remote northeastern Nevada ranch. Every day, as I’d head out the door to load a horse in the pickup with a stock rack on the bed, my wife would inquire as to when she should start worrying that I wasn’t home yet.

My usual, not-so-cheery answer was to say that she needn’t worry and that I’d be back when I got back.

One afternoon, I received word from the boss that the local BLM royalty planned on touring one of our allotments the following day.

This wasn’t of too much concern to me, except for the realization that I had discovered a fevering cow a couple days earlier that had managed to break through the salt grass sod adjacent to a spring and had there met her ultimate demise when she couldn’t drag herself out of the mud.

I figured I ought to hook onto her with a chain and drag her out away from the spring before the BLM brass discovered her.

It was a time when we were receiving a lot of loving attention from the BLM and others because of a situation or two involving some feral horses (pronounced mustang) which roamed the king’s forest.

Anyway, the point is that we didn’t need to draw any extra attention to ourselves for any perceived mismanagement of John Q. Public’s resources.

Since I was running late, and I knew it wouldn’t be much of a chore, I decided to forgo taking a horse with me on that particular afternoon.

When I reached the spring and the offending bovine corpse, 45 miles from home, I discovered that a three-quarter ton Ford pickup can break through swampy salt grass sod about as quickly as can a sick cow.

I spent the first two of the three remaining daylight hours messing around with a handyman jack and four broken cedar posts in a futile attempt to free the pickup from the grasp of the saturated Nevada alkali clay.

My brains finally arrived, and I figured I ought to start walking. I took off at a high trot, sans my horse, but with Sadie, the half-wit Australian Shepherd, to keep me company.

I figured I’d be OK after the first two miles, because that’s when I’d reach the highway. I should mention here that said highway is Highway 50, famously known as the loneliest highway in America.

Oh, and did I also mention that this was well before I’d ever even heard of a cell phone?

My hitchhiking skills proved to be far less than adequate, as all four cars that passed me by in the ensuing several hours chose to ignore Sadie and me.

One time at about the eight-mile mark, two vehicles, one heading north and the other heading south, actually passed by each other at the precise moment they passed me.

After 13 miles, a VW van with Louisiana plates and a Norman Bates-looking character at the wheel picked me up and took me the remaining two miles to the bar at the junction of Highways 50 and 6.

My Louisiana chauffeur gave me four quarters for the pay phone outside the bar and bade me farewell. The bar had, of course, long since closed, and there was not a soul to be seen.

No worries, though, because I could just call my wife from the pay phone and sit on the porch and await my rescue.

The phone, however, had its own sense of humor. The numbers were somehow scrambled so that when I pushed 1, for example, it registered as a 6.

All of the numbers on the phone were scrambled so all I succeeded in doing was donating my four quarters to Ma Bell and waking up some poor guy in Tonopah!

Eventually, my wife showed up with Shorty and Duane from the farm crew. They had found my mired pickup and the note I’d left and backtracked to Major’s Junction.

Remember the two vehicles passing each other, traveling in opposite directions? Yes, one of them was Shorty’s pickup.

I thought there was a hint of smugness and sarcasm in my wife’s voice when she inquired about why I decided to leave the horse at home.

At any rate, when we arrived home at around 3:30 a.m., just in time for supper, I had a strange hankering to play the piano. If only I hadn’t skipped out on my lessons …  end_mark

Paul Marchant is a rancher from Oakley, Idaho. Reach him at

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