Sunday, March 13, 2011

Coming of Age on the Trail

     No moon on this crisp mid-September night. The shadows were looming dark, and even huger than he'd remembered. You'd think you could tell direction by those boulders and mountains but it was as if they were ever-changing, ever-moving. Every time Bubba made this trip there was a new mountain along the trail, he could swear there was. Was he going daft? No, maybe it was the native spirits playing tricks with him again as they had on other drives. But high above, it was still the same sparkling stars in the sky, the same constellations as every other fall on the trail, though they seemed in his mind to be slightly off kilter (but that must be his mind slipping with age, what else could it be?) Still, a cowboy told direction by the stars and the sun, and they were the constants of life on the trail. They were the same for the natives and for the cowboy, on that they agreed.
      He'd always wanted The Position. Now he had it, Bubba Briscoe, Head Foreman. This was it. The last run. Barely enough cattle to make it worth it. But what else was there to do? He knew nothing else. And even though there was no one else to answer to him but the cattle, the position was his and he would live up to it, sure as if they were running a full crew. He had Franco, and he had the cattle. They needed him. And he needed them. He needed to prove that he could do it. He knew nothing about what else he would do when this was over. As the stars sprung out in that black sky, everything else was a mystery to him. Everything but the cows wandering across the barren scenery before him, and the saddle resting under his seat beneath him. No past, no future, just mystery. All his life he had aimed for the big job, The Position, the head honcho, the big dog, the Driver, the lead man, and now he had it, but what did it matter. No one would ever know. No one would ever celebrate with him. There would be no one waiting at the end of the road, no one to raise a glass, no one to run those dawgies in through the chute. In fact, where was he even going? A man in The Position ought to be going somewhere. Where was he going? He looked to the stars again. Had they shifted on him that fast?
      Rations were getting scarce. That was another thing he knew about. Wasn't it his job to keep everyone fed? When he thought about the rations, he thought about when rations were hand-canned, hand-raised vegetables and meats, peeled and cooked and seasoned in the old country kitchen in the big white house where his great-grandmama's mama had canned tomatoes and jalapeños. He had one jar of hand-canned jalapeños in amongst the few other bought rations and he'd been saving them for a last cooked meal along the trail. Jalapeños were a blessing and a curse. Too hot to handle yet the one thing that brought life to your innards when you thought you were too tired to go on. And they brought life to food that might have long since died as well, and kept it from making you sick along the trail. For that reason alone, they were worth having.
      Bubba Briscoe shifted in his saddle as he gave a little more heel to Franco to spur him on. It was the beginning of a long dark night and the shadows of all the geography loomed like monsters over the herd as Bubba slowly moseyed them along. He was alone, truly alone. Unless you counted how he talked to the cattle. Or himself. “Bubba,” he said, “this is a serious thing you've gotten yourself into. These dawgies are depending on you, and you don't even know where you are going. You have The Position and they know it. They have followed you out into this desert like blind mice and what have you gotten them into? They are foraging for grass that is getting thinner and thinner and they have ceased even raising their noses for water, and you, you are running them around in circles like a danged fool. You earned this Position, now start acting like it!” A sigh heaved out of him that caused Franco to throw his mane over his left side and peer with a curious eye back towards his friend. Franco never doubted Bubba. He couldn't afford to. But Franco didn't let him stray too far either. That was his job and he was known for doing his job well. For Franco, the deal was not the end of the road but the journey. All of his life had been spent on the trail and on the long journey with Bubba. Knowing was a word familiar to the two but never uttered because it was not needed. Being was a word that described their manner together.
      As Bubba's hand rested comfortably on his friend's soft shoulder, it was like sitting in his favorite arm chair. “Something's up with them dawgies Franco, can ya feel it?” Bubba said it as a mutter, almost as to himself, but Franco already knew and was headed off in the direction of the one hanging back and the others nodding and turning out of curiosity. It's like that with cattle; they are natural born followers, never leaders at all. They spend their lives waiting for the leader to emerge and one never does, so they are like communers in a cathedral of the lonely, waiting to be led to slaughter by the charismatic Christian cleric. Bubba and Franco innately knew this and they prided themselves on rising above taking advantage of this simple, soft trait of these gentle beings, and joined with them rather than abuse their nature.
     Franco sauntered in their direction as Bubba cast his eyes towards the loner cow. Bubba knew it was bad to mix cows and cattle on a trek, but these days there were too few to separate them. He'd told the boss not to ship him out with this mess of a herd but here he was. Well he would deal with whatever was dealt to him, because that's what you do and that's what he'd always done. As they rounded the bend, it seemed the cattle were lost behind another obstacle. What were those things? Tarnation he said to himself and to Franco. Civilization keeps creeping in on these poor critters 'til there's barely a space for the grass to grow. No wonder they're scared. Sounds like mating turkeys and thundering buffalo up from the valley below but all that could be seen was a distant yellow mist like gas vapors rising off a swamp. In the desert? Maybe he was going crazy from lack of food and water. Bubba shook his head to shake the spirits out – not time for this now, my animals need me. Franco shook too, shaking the flies off, and casting a worried glance back. “What're you lookin' at? Get on now!” Now, where was that darn cow.
      Something stirred in his brain, like a voice calling from afar, and he felt like something was pulling at him from somewhere, like he'd forgotten something he was supposed to do, but he shook it off. This was way too important and he was wishing he could snap himself out of this fuzz that had taken him over and get back to his job. This was no time to have one of his spells come over him...
      Dozing in the saddle was something he'd gotten used to over the miles and years, but this was ridiculous. It seemed like every time he looked up instead of a few paces, miles had gone by. He was beginning to think Franco was losing his touch. Instead of being out in the open range, here they were on the edge of another town. And just over yonder to the left was another gaseous, noisy mass – what was that stuff anyway? Tarnation! You could barely hear Matilda's bleating for all the crickets in that swamp. Must have been some damn sight rainy monsoons down this way this past summer, while he was up north getting the herd. What a strange season. “I'm comin' Matilda!” he yelled, and gave Franco a squeeze behind the girth, and off they loped in her direction. Of all things, he noticed as he rode up, she was lookin' fat when everyone else was wastin' away in the dry sparse heat. Was she fat, or...
      “My heavens, Matilda, you can't be havin' a winter calf this early!! Could you? We've miles to go before the stock yards (I think, he said to himself warily). Get on girl, don't you lie down now, it's not your time!” Franco prodded the heifer with his nose, as though he knew what Bubba was saying and the cow moved out, but slowly. She clearly had something else on her mind, tongue hanging out a little, eyes drooping, panting, tail up. “Move on out, girl!!”
      Clouds were covering many of the stars and shadowing the sky, yet there was a haze of blue light around the area. Eerie, like the spirits were telling him something. Ohhhh jeeez, he said to himself. I haven't seen a time like this since '76 when the Teton Dam broke. I was still a greenhorn then, just getting used to life on the range. We almost drowned the whole crew and the herd, along with the other 10,000 or more who floated away. If my Daddy hadn'ta heard the roar and run us all like hell up that mountain not a one of us would be doin' this run today. (Now would that be so bad, he thought, but pushed it out of his mind. He'd thought it was native spirits then too, but it turned out to be the Civil Patrol helicopters coming in from overhead trying to guide way for the many herdsmen trying to find safety.) Still this had an even more eerie quality to it.
      Franco looked thin and worn out and tired. His coat was rough and rain-rotted in places. Hadn't he looked younger just a few minutes ago? "Better give him a rest," Bubba thought, as he threw his leg over the top and bounded off to take look at Matilda, his favorite heifer. She looked thinner too, yet there was that fat belly. Ooffh, he grunted as he landed hard, maybe I've got less meat on my bones too.
      When did Franco let her get on the ground like that? Matilda was breathing harder than he thought necessary. There was no turning back now. He stroked her head. “Watcha doin' here girl? You should have been left home in the pens with the other girls. Who brought you out on this drive? You ain't goin' in no stock pen. Nobody is gonna make steak outta you. You been breedin' the best calves on the ranch since my daddy started runnin' the herd. Somebody is gonna take a beatin' over this...” Then he stopped and he breathed as hard as her and his heart started beating fast and a sweat broke on his brow so quick he had to pull his bandanna from his pocket. Was HE responsible for Matilda being brought on the drive? He had the Position. It was his responsibility. If she DIED it was on him and only him.
      “Where is that damn moon when you need it!” He cursed at God, the spirits, the Moon, anyone and no one at all. Matilda needed him and that was that. No amount of tiredness, no amount of food or water or sleep or lack of it was going to make up for what was needed now. “Franco, watch the herd,” he said, and Franco was on it, no sooner than he'd pulled his saddle and bed roll and rations off his back. No need for the gelding to be saddled with more weight than necessary; he already pulled twice his weight out here. Franco needed no mount to know that his job was to keep the herd rounded up while the trail boss tended to the neediest one.
      On the ground, next to her, small brownish-red triangles of hardened earth bearing black pieces of long lost languages. “I knew it! Curse you damn Spirits! I knew this was a test!” The rough stoneware shards couldn't have shown up by accident. “Of all the times to play tricks, not now. This is not just my own life your messing with. The old girl needs me.”  As if to agree, the old heifer bleated soulfully and gazed up at him with her brown wet eyes and long, long lashes.
      Bubba was transported to a place long ago. He was barely 16 years old, the summer before his first run from Idaho all the way down to the Texas stockyards. It was a night as moonless as any, stars bright enough to wish upon, and Emma Matilda Swensen and he were on the wraparound porch of Grammama's White House, swinging on the swing, talking about what was to come. “I wish I could ride out with you,” she crooned, “I'm good enough, and you know it!” She blushed, and he looked out over the hills.
      “You know girls don't go on cattle drives Emma May! It's just too much. Besides, it's against tradition. If it wasn't, my maw woulda been out with my paw years ago. Besides, you got school. And your little brother to tend to. And the cannin' and gard'nin'. All that stuff.” He could feel himself blushing, just thinking of her alongside him in the range, in the dark, by the fire.
      “Sure, just like your maw never woulda gone with your paw anyway. There's always farms to run and dishes to wash and aww, shoot. You better watch out, or I might be married off before you even get back. I might get to raisin' horses and ridin' in the girls rodeo and run off with some bull-rider and wouldn't that just serve you right for goin' off and leavin' me!”
      It had never even occurred to him she'd think of anyone else but him. It never occurred to him there was any other life. He'd been waiting to go on a cattle drive since he was 6 years old. That was the first year that he wondered where his papa was when he got home from school. That was the first year he was lonely for the menfolk and realized he was one of them. And ever since he'd longed for the day that he would ride out with them and cease to be one of the women and the children. It had never occurred to him he would have to choose between the girl he loved and the man he wanted to become. And there it was, the night before his first drive, the biggest choice of his life and no time to think or make it in.
     So he rode out. And he rode out every year after that. He never looked back. Every spring, and every fall, of every year of his life right up to this one, the last ride of his life. It all came down to this moment with Miss Matilda here, and the new life she was bringing into the world. If only he could shake this nagging feeling that something wanted to pull him away from her. “Wake up you old coot,” he said to himself. “Matilda needs your every nerve. Pay her mind.”
      On the ground, the heifer was heaving back and forth trying to get the calf out, but Bubba Briscoe could see, from his years of experience, that this was not going to be an easy birth. Normally cattle need no help from humans to take care of themselves. They simply go off to a quiet place and within minutes they're down, up and licking off the afterbirth, urging their new babes to stand. But between the dryness, the lack of grass, the unfamiliar noises, and the general restlessness of the herd, Matilda was in trouble. It seemed that calf was coming out sideways, so Bubba was going to help with the birth. And Matilda was running out of steam before she was halfway through.
      “Easy now sweetheart, we can do this together, we can. I know you're tired, and I've almost forgotten you, but I'm here now, I am.” He stroked her brow and around those huge brown eyes, speaking so softly to soothe her as he looked into her eyes, into her soul. He was thinking of all the times he'd left her alone, struggling with his decisions. He pushed on her belly tentatively, softly, feeling for where the baby was. “I know you're hurting darling, but we can do this together, we can.”
      She panted and stuck out her tongue to lick his hand, but she was so dry, her tongue was like sandpaper and just dragged across the top of his hand, scratching him. “Oh momma, I got no more water in my canteen, no more.” Tears dripped from his eyes onto her tongue and she sucked them in gratefully. More, her eyes pleaded. He grasped for his ration bag, and searched through only to find the jar of tomatoes and jalapeños, the only thing left that had any juice to it. “Do I dare?” he asked himself. “Bleeeeeeeaaaaaaa,” she pleaded
with him.
      “Oh sweetheart, honestly? It might burn your tender insides...” but when he looked in her eyes, he could tell she would try anything, so he opened the jar, threw the tomatoes aside, took the final jalapeño and chewed it himself, hoping it would clear his mind finally, and then gently, tenderly, tipped the wide mouth jar to her mouth, so her tongue could reach inside.
She lapped the insides up as though she couldn't taste the hotness, refreshed by the wetness first then, suddenly, JOLTED by the heat...
      She leaped to her feet, and as she leaped her body rolled, and the belly rounded, and gentleness of the moment was over as things were now in motion. “MOOOOAAAA” was the sound of her first push and the head of her calf was out, as Bubba climbed to his feet and stood to catch the big babe. “MAAAAAAOOOOOOO” and another push and the feet came with a gush of blood and water and all Bubba could do was guide as the cow was almost dancing to get that baby out. “MMMMMMMMMAAAAAAAAAA” And out came the hind legs and suddenly on the ground was a bloody mess of a calf and Matilda turned to start licking off the head of a beautiful brown calf with pale black zig-zag markings on its head. Bubba Briscoe knelt to pet the head of a calf that was the finest feeling he'd ever had, like velvet, no, as soft, well, as soft as silk...a true miracle birth. He bowed his head to give thanks to the spirits.
      “Mr. Briscoe! Mr. Briscoe! What is all that yelling and moaning going on in here?
What in the world are you doing holding on to that deerskin? I knew they shouldn't have ever let him have that god awful hide in here. Here, LET GO! Honestly, that thing is probably full of bugs. Puh-leasse, get back in bed. Where's that buzzer...Francine, I need some help with Mr. Briscoe, he's out of bed and out of control again. Help me get him in restraints, please.”
      Where was he? What was this place with its dull green walls and its bed with the bars? They'd tied him down, like a crazy man, and here he was, no clothes, just a sheet and some leg and wrist straps. He felt no different than a stock calf shackled and ready for branding. “OUCH!” What was that – not a branding iron but something stuck him in the shank. Off to sleep he drifted...
      That sweet little calf wasn't still for very long. A few pats, a few strokes on the head, and mama Matilda had finished licking with her sandpaper tongue and up he stood on his rubber-legs. Then it seemed like Bubba and Franco and the whole herd were alert once again and gathered around to laugh at the silly little thing. First light was just dawning pink over the horizon and it was the blamedest thing, all those houses and roads and highways just bursting out from the foot of the mountain spreading out like weeds running up from the ground. Was this a trick the sun gods played on him overnight? He had no time to think about it. The calf was calling for his attention.
      “I'll have to call you Lightning for that crazy blaze you've got there” Bubba said. “Partly for how fast you made up your mind to get movin' up and out of your mama, and partly to pay tribute to the spirits that got you here. If it wasn't for the heat in that jalapeño juice, who knows if you'd ever a'been born!” He and Matilda breathed a sigh of relief. It was sunrise, but the herd was all tired.
      Bubba knew he ought to be saddling up and riding on. But with a new calf, it was going to take awhile to get back on the trail. And hell, he had the Position now. And who was there to argue with him. Franco looked spent. Bubba knew that he was. And the new little son, he had a long way to go yet, so he could bear with a little rest before he began his journey. So as the sun dawned over the horizon, instead of moving up and out, Bubba's holy trinity settled down for a good long-deserved rest.
     When the grey-haired morning-shift nurse came in the room, pink morning light was streaming in through the sheer curtains of the tiny room's one window. As she leaned over to take Mr. Briscoe's vitals, all was peaceful and well. A tear came to her eye as she pulled the cover up to his chin. “Rest well Bubba Briscoe,” she said, “Your long ride is over.” And Nurse Emma May laid his favorite hide blanket right on his lap where he loved it so well and folded his hands on top. “Yep, I know,” she said, “Smooth as silk.” With that she brushed his forehead with a good-bye kiss.