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Irons in the fire: This

Paul Marchant for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 July 2020

She got home later than she’d wanted to. She’d been out on a breeding project over by the Nebraska line. It had been a windy, miserable day by most folks’ standards, but a little rain had come with the never-ending east Wyoming wind, so she knew better than to complain.

And besides, she was following the spirit of her cowboy passion, which on this day had led her to an almost-functioning set of corrals, a wiry and nervous 70-year-old first-time client, and the tail ends of 230 heifers, all synchronized and in need of her 5-foot-nothing frame, complete with a strong left hand and prodigious ability to thread a cervix.

It was nearly dark as she pulled up into the driveway and past the pen that was home to the kids’ 4-H steers. It was obvious the chores hadn’t been done, evidenced by the frolicking, happy-dog pace of the two red steers as they trotted up to the gate as she drove by. This is why he hadn’t answered her calls.

She was used to it. “This” was a common theme in their sometimes hectic but always appreciated lives. Today, “this” was a junior wrestling tournament. He, of course, just had to be a coach. He’d been, at worst, a decent little wrestler back in his high school days – and now their fiery, bouncy 8-year-old son was proving to have the gift, and their 11-year-old daughter, when she wasn’t busy with one of her own gazillion projects, was fairly adept on the stat book. Junior must have won a match or two and gone deep into the tournament; otherwise, they’d have surely beaten her home.

“This” had proven to be a lot of different things over the past decade and a half. Once it was the pickup with the torn-up differential stuck in the rocky bottom of the creek where he’d tried to cross when the bridge in the heifer pasture had washed out. Another time, it was his old high school buddy who needed someone to listen, if not commiserate with, as he cried in his beer when his soon-to-be-ex ran off with the horse-shoer from Laramie.

On more than one occasion, “this” had been one more run through the steers when he was tuning up the new heeling horse. More often than not these days, “this” was honestly really nothing more than a slight inconvenience requiring an extra dose of patience and a half-hour of doing chores alone in the dark.

The first run-in she’d had with “this” was a little more aggravating than what it had now evolved into. She was a 19-year-old student, not entirely enamored with the scholastic dedication required to hang onto her scholarship. He was a 21-year-old, slightly-less-than-wild-but-much more-than-tranquil former college student. She’d been calling him for two days with nary a word from him. Her prone-to-exasperation disposition didn’t handle her being ignored with much grace. He’d better have a pretty darn good explanation, or at least an entertaining story to explain his inexcusable neglect.

She was on her way home for the weekend, just a few miles from the home place, when she first encountered “this.” As she rounded the corner she, and anyone else who passed by, could see it. There, 20 feet off the road, was a dead bull, all four legs in the air as the stench of June rigor mortis set in. Between the road and the recently deceased bull was a 100-foot gap in the fence, complete with yards of twisted barbed wire and busted steel posts.

“This,” she instantly thought to herself, “is why he hasn’t called.” She instinctively knew he was behind this weekend’s version of the hometown excitement.

Of course she was right. As it turned out, he’d fallen asleep at the wheel of his dad’s little half-ton Chevy. The pickup didn’t fare any better than the bull. He was unhurt but, after he called the sheriff and then his grandma to come pick him up, the sheriff had a question or two to ask him, and it seemed he wanted to invite him to a slumber party at the county jail. Our benevolent but flawed hero of course obliged and, before the air was all cleared, he’d spent nearly a week in the clink.

Just for future reference, in case you spend a day or two in county jail, don’t switch the mattress from the bottom bunk to the top and hide an extra ham sandwich from the county-provided lunch – and especially don’t do it on the day of a shakedown. The sandwich was far less threatening than the shivs and pieces of broken glass the real bad dudes were hiding, but timing, whether good or bad, is everything …

They buried the bull at the very spot of his demise. The gravesite settled and, the next year as they drove by one spring day, several calves were standing around the depression. “Oh look,” she chided, “They’re honoring their poor deceased daddy.”

He wasn’t able to find as much joy in the remark as she did, but he decided to marry her anyway.

These days, she’s mostly thankful for every “this” they’ve gone through, around and over these past many years. Every rock, canyon and hill; every mishap, screw-up and wreck; every win, every triumph, every tear – all of “this” is what shaped their perfectly imperfect little ranch family. And that’s as it should be.  end mark

Paul Marchant is a cowboy and part-time freelance writer based in southern Idaho. Follow him on Twitter, or email Paul Marchant.

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