“Mornin’,” the rancher mumbles to her as he rolls out of bed. She blinks, takes a deep breath, and leaves her pillow, knowing as she makes the bed that she won’t be back.
She flips on the kitchen light to shake off the early morning dark. He’s already outside, she can see the barn light is on. He’s catching horses and pouring out feed. The sun won’t reach through that window for another hour and a half, but by that time, if she doesn’t have breakfast ready for the crew the whole day will be thrown off rhythm. Eggs. Sausage. Tortillas. Tin foil. Somewhere between these things, the smell of coffee starts to wake up the other occupants of the house. One of the her little ones is up.
When the crew shows up to eat, they come in her house and don’t take their boots off. Without saying much of anything, they line up with plates in hand. She has set the day in motion.
“Orange juice or more coffee guys?” she asks, sleepy kiddo on her hip. The little cowgirl is barely awake and too shy to speak to the men gathered around the table, but she’s up and dressed because she wouldn’t miss it. It is 5:30 a.m. after all.
“Thanks, this salsa is sure good,” one of the men might say. She lets the complement roll off her back while she gathers plates. Out the kitchen window she sees tail lights and a cloud of dust in the first morning light. The baby will wake up any minute now.
Her routine is the same as usual for a little while. Chickens, the other horses and the dogie calf get fed. She scrapes off any breakfast leftovers for the cats and waters and feeds the dogs. If she has time, she’ll tend to the laundry so she’ll have that done. But by 8:00 a.m. she starts lunch. And this is where she shines. It’s the one job on this ranch she knows she can do and do well. She puts her hands to it and hums along in the kitchen because she knows they’ll all love this potato salad. And the brisket she cooked last night…and the pie…He could call anytime in the next three hours, so it will be smart to have things ready. Sure enough, the phone rings at 10:45 a.m.
“Hey, we just finished the second bunch so you might want to head this way,” his words are casual but she can read the way the morning went in his voice.
“Ok,” she says. He knows he asks a lot of her. And she knows he is depending on her.
Loading up the chuck wagon is a logistical feat in itself. She has her paper goods, napkins and more coffee in a box and has packed a couple coolers, one with hot food and one with the ice and tea. Then the kids. She throws her hair back under a ball cap and asks herself if she forgot anything. On her way out the door she grabs her camera.
Halfway to the corral where they’re branding, he calls and asks her to go back for one more bottle of vaccine from the barn refrigerator. On her way back he calls and asks her to stop and turn a valve on. But she makes it to the corral as they are finishing the last bunch. The kids are glued to their daddy from this point on. He sets the youngest up on the back of the branding rig to watch and lets their daughter help him vaccinate.
But the woman who cooked breakfast perches on the fence, carefully choosing the right spot. Not for camera angle, but to stay out of the way. She could spend a lifetime out here and still not understand their ‘rules’. After seven or eight years, though, she has at least gotten down how to stay out the way. It was a foreign world she has always been happy to come to when he needs her, but fitting in here would take an act of God. She learned that the first time she tried to join the crew horseback before the kids were born. The man she loved turned into someone else, his voice barking sharp orders she didn’t understand. He had been reluctant to bring her along and she couldn’t understand that until then. After all, what’s so hard about riding a horse? But once she got out there with him, she figured out that he was right. She didn’t belong out there. Memories of that day have done more to make her content with her role than anything else, besides being good at her own job here.
But the kids? Its a different story. Even the littlest seemed to understand how to stay out the way before he could even talk. And their daughter only thinks of going with her daddy. Days like today-blowing wind and dust and sun- are her favorite. He brought her a horse and she’ll stay with the crew after lunch, to finish branding and put cows back and do whatever else it is that they do. She begs him to teach her how to rope, she begs to ride, begs to work the chute…and her daddy almost never says no. He patiently teaches her enough to keep her safe and lets her try things like sorting cattle on her horse, following him, and when she gets in the way, he corrects her with a hand motion or a simple word. Maybe if he had done that with me, I would be more help, she thinks. But no. She really wouldn’t want to have to stay out there in the wind all day. And, she likes her job. Besides that, if she didn’t do her part, it would put more on his shoulders that already carry enough.
Lunch is served on the tailgate of the ranch pickup, on top of a tablecloth she brought. Things are held down with rocks to keep from blowing away, and the crew sits in the shade of their stock trailers, on the ground, telling stories and stuffing their faces. She is showered with adoring complements of how great her food is, and it makes her smile. She whips out her camera as they all get horseback and gets a few good shots for Facebook. Then she packs it up, that is, what’s left, and heads home with a crying kid. He doesn’t understand why he can’t stay with sis and daddy and the cowboys. But by the time they get home, he’s asleep. She cleans up her kitchen, tends to her dishes, and heads out to do her other chores for the rest of the day. She has everything ready for tomorrow, when she will do it again, and again…for the next three days. She’ll have to go to town at some point for more supplies, as next week they’ll finish branding on Tuesday and Wednesday. If the weather is good. Without realizing it, all his concerns are hers now, too. There was a time when changes in the weather meant nothing more to her than a wardrobe adjustment. Now she’s like him, always checking it and worrying about whether or not it will rain.
After writing this I realized I have no idea what I’m talking about. This is the ranch wife life, and I’m living it, too. But to put it in perspective for you, I am the granddaughter of the little girl in this story. I’m the third generation of women who stayed in the corral with daddy instead of helping mama clean up after cooking for the crew. I have had to make some serious adjustments from loading a horse in the morning to loading up babies instead. But now that I have lived on both sides of this fence, I can tell you that these women are truly the most valuable asset a ranch can have. They can cook great, keep a house and garden and raise kids, make their man happy sometimes with an additional income, and look pretty doing it. They may not know it, but the sight of them pulling up with lunch makes everybody’s day, especially his. They are the unsung heroines of the sometimes epic days of working cattle. While the most remembered thing may be somebody’s near wreck or super loop, no one forgets the food and the kindness that it was made with.
I gave my heart to becoming a good hand with horses before I remember anything else about life, but now, I kinda wish I was more like them. The ranch wives. They are the real top hands, you couldn’t throw just any gal into their position.
Hats off to the Ranch House Rose. She’s special, and the place wouldn’t run without her.
I would like to thank the women in my life whose stories I have borrowed from to write this post. Shirley Goodloe, Mary Lou Edwards, Connie Goodloe, Beth Sisk, Toy Long, Kit Hall, Jani Day, Dot Vaughn, Sherry Haught, Stacy Turney, Brianna Gibson, Ruth Wold, MaKayla Eldridge, Kyla Bannon, Amber Eldridge…and others of you who are the top hands on your outfit. You’re all special to us.
“…and He said to them,
“If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
from Mark 9:35