(Let me set this up for you. Every summer, outfitters in the back country tended to hire young men fresh out of high school to do all the grunt work for them. Most of these kids just wanted to be cowboys -- especially the one written about here. Let's see what happens when "Craig" tries out a horse that has just a little... too...much...power...CW)
Some boys tried harder than others to be horsemen. At least they took instruction from a female who'd had a heckofa lot more experience in the saddle. Craig, from small town Wisconsin, was one of those few. But I doubt that neither he nor anyone who witnessed it will ever forget the wild ride he took on my personal Quarter horse, Clay — regardless of any hours already spent in the saddle.
It happened a few years after I’d moved to the guest ranch. Frequently, loose cattle turned out to graze in the surrounding forest wandered onto the property in search of the salt block. This was always a huge deal because they tended to leave patties all over the airstrip, which then hardened and made the mail plane bounce when the pilot tried to land.
Clay and I could herd those cows back where they belonged single-handedly; he was quick, cow-savvy, and so “push-button” it was like dancing with the perfect partner. Squeeze him lightly and he increased speed accordingly. Touch one rein and he’d turn on a dime. Duck alongside his neck and he’d pick his way under branches with barely a nick. Sit back in the saddle and he’d slide to a stop. But the thing he was best at was going from zero to blaze with a simple trick I’d learned from the movie, “Man from Snowy River.” All you had to do was make a hissing sound and hang on.
One morning when the ranch was crammed with guests and I was hustling about the kitchen fixing breakfast, a good-sized bunch of cow and calf pairs was spotted grazing at the edge of the meadow. The guys all quickly gathered the horses and saddled up to go after them. I wanted to join in the fun but couldn’t; there was far too much to do.
The lodge’s screen door banged and boots clomped across the floor while I was turning bacon on the wood stove. “Carolyn, can I take Clay?” Craig called out, breathless with anticipation.
Craig was what they called a dude hire — someone right out of guide school who hadn’t yet gotten his guide's license. Mostly, he split and stacked firewood in addition to other odd chores. “Please? Can I take Clay?” he repeated, clumsily blocking my way as I moved towards the counter. I can still see him standing before me in his brand-new cowboy hat with the stampede straps pulled tight under his chin. He was lanky, about 6’2”, with large brown eyes framed by roundish, John Denver-style, gold-rimmed glasses. There were pimples on his chin.
“No way,” I said immediately. “He’s too high-powered….”
“Pleeeeeaaaaasssssseee?” He begged, clasping both hands together. “He came up to the corral with the other horses. He’s just standing there! We need him! He’s the best!” When I hesitated, focused on breaking eggs into a bowl, he persisted. “C’mon! I know I can handle him! I’ve ridden lots of the horses here already and you said I was improving! C’mon! I know I can do it. Pleeeeaaaaaassssseee?”
Vigorously whipping the eggs with a whisk, I stifled a smile. It was no secret Craig was sweet on a dark-haired teen girl who was visiting with her family. Along with the other guests, they had gathered at the corral with their coffee mugs to watch as the crew prepared to go. This would be his turn to shine. Feeling a bit like I was handing Ferrari keys over to a newly-licensed driver, I finally stopped, looked up, and sighed, “Well, all right.”
The kid gave a brief fist-pump, burst out with “Yes!” and abruptly turned to leave but I grabbed for his sleeve. “Whoa, boy,” I warned. “Be careful. Ease the cattle out, don’t push them. You can trot and canter but don’t go full out. Clay might well jump out from underneath you.”
Craig nodded but I know he barely heard me. He bolted toward the screen door and let it bang again. I winced and returned to the wood stove, occasionally glancing out the wide picture window to watch them going by.
They never did.
For ten minutes I restlessly wandered back and forth, sometimes with one hand cupped under dripping utensils. Suddenly, there came the sound of running footsteps.
The door flew open again and the rest of the crew members literally fell onto the linoleum, howling like hyenas. One went to his knees, holding his stomach. The others leaned against the walls or each other for support. The noise was practically deafening. “What on earth happened?” I asked, nervously wiping both hands on my apron, hurrying over and bracing myself for the worst. It took a while, but one of them finally managed to gasp out the story.
With every guest lined elbow-to-elbow at the railings — some with cameras poised — Craig had stepped up onto Clay and gallantly tipped his hat in the direction of his teen crush. She had beamed back. Then, simply because he’d witnessed me do it a couple of times before, he hissed.
The gelding, which had been standing quietly before the open gate, dug in and took off from a standstill. So powerful was the motion of his hindquarters that Craig instantly lost his balance, dropped the reins, and slid behind the saddle. Downhill towards the meadow Clay flew, ears back and tail level with his spine. “And there was Craig with a death-grip on the cantle,” one of the guys hooted, straightening and wiping at his eyes, “yell…yelling…” he paused to laugh again, “whooooooaaaaaaaaaa all the way until we heard him thud as he hit the ground!”
When Craig finally showed up at breakfast, we immediately noticed he had grass stains on one side of his shirt and jeans and his glasses were bent. Guides and guests hunkered down and gave each other subtle grins as they passed the platters, milk and pancake syrup towards him. The conversations kept going, but he didn't join in. I could tell he was deflated.
I briefly touched Craig’s shoulder when I poured his coffee. Images of my own past, spectacular falls came to mind while moving around the table, refilling other mugs. There had been plenty. When Craig forlornly followed the rest of the crew out after breakfast, I caught his arm again. “It’s okay,” I whispered. “Every good horseman hits the ground along the way.” His large brown eyes settled on mine and he smiled a little. Ever so slightly, in the manner of a real cowboy, he lifted his chin in acknowledgement while settling his hat down on his head — this time with the stampede straps hanging down in back.
The little house I bought after moving to town was completely filled with mice, which drove me crazy.
The couple who had lived there before me had no cats, and since the place was surrounded by forest, it had taken no time at all for the mice to move in and multiply. Their dung was everywhere, and I cursed them out loud every time I tore off another paper towel, dipped it in water and bleach, wiped down a shelf, and washed yet another cup, plate, or saucer in hot water.
Lester, Squirrel and Monroe had a heyday. Having grown up catching mice in the hay mow of the guest ranch, those cats got to work right away, snagging them under the kitchen sink and clawfoot bathtub, behind the washing machine, dryer, couch, and piano, and in the tack shed. Hearing any type of scuttling noise in the night, each would silently slide off the bed into the darkness and minutes later, there’d be a sharp squeaking sound.
I learned to lean over the bed and check the floor each morning before putting my feet down and stepping on remains.
Within six months the epidemic was under control, and all three cats wandered off toward the neighbor’s place. He lived in a reclaimed gravel pit, where he’d planted hundreds of baby trees to sell later on. My cats always came trotting up the hill from that direction when I pulled in after work, and it made me a little nervous because the man — a Vietnam vet who insisted on being addressed solely as “T” — hated cats, or so his young daughter, Spring, had warned me.
T hadn’t exactly rolled out the welcome mat when I arrived, fresh from the back country and a bit wary of strangers. Nevertheless, I walked over to his trailer compound one afternoon, determined to introduce myself. I was taken aback, however, by the heavily bearded, ball cap-wearing man who scowled down from his threshold at me.
“Hi! I just moved in,” I said (after a startled pause) while gesturing up the hill towards my house.
“Yeah. So?” He countered, crossing his arms. He was wearing a grayish undershirt, cut-offs, and flip-flops.
“I thought I’d introduce myself. My name is Carolyn…”
“I know who you are.” I laughed nervously. “Oh, sure, Spring must have told you.” His precocious, eleven-year-old daughter had been up several times already.
“Yeeesssss….” He sounded annoyed.
I looked around at the pond, the outhouse, and the neatly-stacked piles of wood, car parts, crates, two-by-fours, roofing material, chicken wire, and barrels. “Um, have you lived here very long?”
“Maybe.” He lifted his chin defiantly.
“Are you originally from here?”
“I’m not, either.” I paused, trying to think of a way to restart the conversation. “I just spent seven years living on a ranch in the back country..." I pointed north..."outside of..."
I continued lamely, “It was really isolated, so this new place was perfect. I like to be isolated.” He stared but said nothing, so I added, “…And the house was priced so low, I went ahead and bought it…”
He retorted, “No sh--. The people moved out because they were afraid of me.”
“They put up a for sale sign within the year after I bought this gravel pit and started hauling my stuff in.” T snorted.
Oh, so that’s what had happened! The young couple who’d owned my place had two young daughters. The realtor said they wanted to move closer to town so the girls wouldn’t have to travel so far to school. But looking up at my fierce-faced neighbor, I suddenly understood why they’d been in such a hurry to make a deal and sign the contracts. I wasn’t about to be frightened of T, however. “Good for me, then!” I said cheerfully. “I scored!” He hurrumphed, and we stook in silence for an uncomfortably long time until he put one hand on a hip and the other on the knob.
“Listen, do you need something? I have a lot going on here. I need to go.”
I opened and closed my mouth, trying to think of a response, but he had already closed the door.
We didn’t have any other contact for several weeks, until forced to pass each other on our shared easement. As we got closer, T rolled down the window of his ancient truck, stuck his arm out, and motioned me to stop.
He had two ratty-looking but well-running vehicles, a beater, 1960’s Chevy pick-up and a scratched-up brown Vega. That day he was driving the Vega, so we were on eye-level. He beard brushed against the dust on the door as he leaned out the window. “Hey!” he snarled when I braked alongside.
“Your stupid cats have been snooping all over my property!”
Hidden behind sunglasses and the ever-present ball cap, it both looked and sounded like T was mad so I braced myself, preparing for him to pull a dead, bloody cat body from the back seat and toss it in the bed of my small truck bed. But instead...
He added, “They’ve wiped out all the *}>#+^/ mice from around my house and storage sheds.” T smiled ever-so-briefly. “I like it. Thanks!” And off he rolled, leaving me staring after him with both hands frozen on the steering wheel..
Spring and Monroe.
McCall, back when it was still fairly quiet.
"Oh, God, Mindy, I just miss her so badly right now!” I grabbed at a napkin and noisily blew my nose. That napkin couldn’t hold it all so I grabbed at another and repeated.
There was silence on the other end of the phone as Mindy – sensible and no-nonsense mother of two beautiful, accomplished daughters, ex-wife of two husbands, doting nana to three handsome grandsons, and one of the dearest and most loyal friends a woman could ever have been blessed to have — gathered her thoughts together. I knew her well enough to understand she was thinking carefully, that she’d speak when she was ready, and when she did I’d get whatever solid, down-to-earth, and sensible advice a grieving friend most needed.
And that by the time we hung up all would be well in my shattered little world again. Feeling better already, I picked up my beer and took another pull at it.
My Rottweiler and Catahoula Leopard dog mix, Darby, wandered in from her nap on the couch and leaned against one thigh to have her butt scratched. (Which, no doubt, she figured was bound to make me happy.) I roughed her up a little before kissing her forehead and rising to crack open a second bottle. That beer went down a little faster than the first few had; I was off from work the next day and it seemed like a really good night to get drunk.
The kind of stinkin’ drunk one gets on purpose when the heart hurts so bad it’s unbearable.
“So Carolyn,” Mindy finally said. I heard her take another drink from her own, lite beer before continuing, “Think you’re gonna make it?”
Did I really have a choice? “Yeah, I’ll be okay,” I sighed. Reality was setting in, and acceptance was coming easier. “It is what it is, I guess. Everyone dies. Good ol’ Satan, he really knew what would flatten us when he slipped it into the world.”
“Yes, it’s never easy,” Mindy murmured.
“Anyhow, to be honest, I guess I can’t be too torn up since Mom lived such a long and healthy life.”
“That, she did.”
I blew my nose yet again. There was enough of that third napkin left over, it could be re-used, so I set it off to the side, on a magazine. Mom would have been proud; it was something she would have done, too. My mood lightened as I thought of her unmistakable mixtures of frugality and practicality. “Scottish to the bone,” as my brother used to say.
“I’m sooooooo grateful Mom died at home in her own bed,” I went on, “with my brother and sister nearby. I’m grateful the Home Health people were there, and treated her wonderfully, and that one of our High school classmates was the nurse who was holding her hand when she checked out. I’m glad she didn’t have to go into a nursing home or a hospital. Geez, Mindy, she didn’t even have to use oxygen or take pain medications! She couldn’t have died any easier…” I picked the semi-used napkin up again and using the dry half, dabbed at my eyes. “That definitely takes away some of the sting."
Shrouded in the mist of memory, I saw my mother as she’d been towards the last, propped in the living room armchair, wrapped in a plaid shawl and clean flannel nightgown with her feet propped up, regally receiving her visitors. She’d stopped talking by then (except for ‘yes’ and ‘no’, the result of a small stroke) but her eyes were sharp and strong.
“Tell me again?” Mindy asked. “How old was she?”
“Ninety-eight.” I smiled that time.
“Wow. That’s so amazing. She certainly was ageless,” Mindy mused. “Good old Alice. I’ll always remember that Southern accent, black hair, and red lipstick.”
“And head just as hard as a rock,” I said dryly.
“Sounds like someone I know,” Mindy observed with a short laugh.
“I guess that’s why you and I are such good friends. We’re a lot alike,” I countered.
“Hey! I resemble that remark!”
Both of us laughed then, and the ache in my heart lifted considerably. How fortunate I was to have a friend who had known both my parents well and clearly understood how I was feeling.
Then, out of the blue, in a tone that practically twinkled with mischievousness, Mindy teased, “So tell me something, Ker’lin. When they buried her next to your dad, did they remember to roll her over on one side so her back would be toward him?”