Tony Vagneur: One day that means lifetime between father and son
We were about a mile from the house, in the flat bottom of Woody Creek Canyon. We’d just loaded about a ton of hay on the sled and were headed to the pasture by the corrals, near the house. “Let me drive, dad,” was my attitude on the cerulean blue-sky day, to which my father replied, “No, it’s a little tricky here and I don’t want to take a chance on getting stuck.”
I bristled at the rejection, figuring my driving of a team of horses was as good as anyone’s, but let it slide, wisely. Being around on the occasional weekend didn’t help my credibility with those who worked the ranch every day, and even though young at 12 or 13, I’d learned to respect the reality.
The reality was that the hired man and my dad had been hauling out of that hay stack every day for a while and had packed down a trail, a sleigh road, so to speak, that through successive snowstorms and travel, had become higher than the untracked, deep snow on either side. Not much, but enough.
If the teamster didn’t pay attention, particularly with a loaded sled, the whole apparatus could easily slide off the packed portion, either side, and would be immediately stuck. A loaded sleigh was too heavy for the horses to pull out, so the hay bales would have to be tossed off, making the sled light enough for the horses to pull out and get repositioned on the trail. Then it had to be reloaded.
Thirty, 40 bales of hay and deep snow. That was a sweat job, for sure. Yep, damned glad my dad didn’t give me the opportunity to create such a scenario. The very next week, it happened to Dad and the hired hand. My dad was glad he hadn’t given me that opportunity, either.
Every once in a while, you see a write-up in some western magazine about ranchers who still feed their cows with a team of horses. And why wouldn’t they? My god, it’s quiet, it’s peaceful, the air is fresh and the camaraderie between animals and men is remarkable.
One man can feed a large herd of cattle, and it really helps if his team and he are on the same wavelength. Voice commands are imperative, although the horses usually know what needs to be done next. If a rancher feeds two or three loads of hay to a herd every day, the team generally knows after the final trip that it’s time to head home. They really can count, in some way that horses have.
Several years after the above rejection, my dad invited me to help feed the cattle one weekend. He wanted to show me a new place he’d found for a part of the herd, and seemed rather excited about it.
He harnessed the team while I continued my reluctance to get out of bed any sooner than necessary, and before long, we were headed out the door. Dad dressed as I’ll always remember him: red wool coat with a hidden game pouch in the back and blue jeans tucked into a pair of yellow insulated rubber boots.
“Damn, dad, where’d you find that coat?” I remarked, knowing I’d lost track of it somehow. It had been a gift to me from a close family friend. “You left it on the steps to the attic,” he replied, “and it’s too good a coat to leave lying around.”
Oh, wow, he looked so good and natural in it, I couldn’t object; the best I could do was envy him for his good taste.
He’d pushed the mother cows up on what we called the Homestead Mesa, directly above the house. My grandfather had homesteaded that land, along with three other mesas, about 600 acres worth. Dotted with sage and oak brush, the homestead mesa wasn’t much good for anything but summer grazing and was discovered by my dad, through some sort of serendipity after a lifetime of ranching, to be the perfect place to winter feed mother cows.
It was about a half-mile from the “maternity ward” corral, easy herding distance away for soon-to calve mothers, protected from the wind by all of the western-edge oak brush, plenty of open space for the cows to feed and with water close by. For my dad, who was working alone that winter, it was three miles closer to the house than the traditional feed ground. The homestead cabin my grandfather had built, before my dad or I had been born, stood sentry over the mesa.
Whatever it was, I don’t know, I’d never seen him that pleased with what he had going on. He smiled a lot, talked a lot and really included me in. It was a day, so many years ago, that means so much to me today. My dad, I wonder if he ever knew how much he meant to me.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
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