“Bang!” I stopped and checked my rifle as my quarry slowly waddled away. I shook my head because the porcupine walked off after I shot him in vital areas. Three times! My friend held the dog and laughed hysterically…at me.
“Shoot ’em again!” she somehow managed to blurt out between gasps. I could only stomp away in disgust, shaking my head.
At the time, I was fourteen, green to most everything, and more than a little embarrassed. I had NOT missed. Why wasn’t it dead? But soon I contracted the giggles, too, when she imitated my ‘stalking’ the terrible beastie. We laughed about it, and it got funnier in the re-telling.
One of our realities in ranch country is varmints. Websters’ dictionary defines them as follows: “vermin; especially a person or animal regarded as troublesome or objectionable”. Although non-predatory, these critters do belong on the Wanted List.
Badgers are a nuisance. Their tunneling can damage water pipelines and water tanks. Skunks are a bother, and ‘coons and possums, because they get into things, contaminate feed, and love to kill chickens for fun. Snakes are always sent to perdition on sight. (We talked about them in the post “Just Part of It”.) And then there are porcupines.
These “harmless” little fellas are peaceful. They have an extremely slow metabolism (which is why it takes them so long to die, I found out), and keep to themselves in trees or in sandy holes in the ground. Since they’re slow, they don’t run fast enough from danger and therefore were given a defense which is, safe to say, quite effective.
It’s not if, it’s when a dog or a horse or a bovine gets got, ending up suffering greatly from their weapons of, well, suffering. The quills, unlike a cactus thorn, are barbed on the tips with tiny little ridges. When the critter projects them, the quills inflate and the barbs stick out, making extraction miserable. The end of the quill must be chopped off first, then pulled out. If not immediately removed, the barbs help to work the quill deeper into the flesh. Pain, infection, and misery result and usually the animal must be sedated in order to pull the quills out. Most often, they get it right in the nose.
Porcupines aren’t welcome around livestock and particularly around ranch headquarters. As a kid, we could ‘hunt’ them just to give us something useful to do, but in general if we see one, it was just his day to go, otherwise they are left to themselves.
Having wild pets is one of those ranch kid privileges that makes for a joyful childhood. I’ve tried to capture and tame most varmint species. (The glaring exception being skunks!) My sister and I each slept with our baby raccoons until mom put a stop to it because the little critters were a nuisance, especially at night! My “pet” porcupine was sweet, and would eat out of your hand, but petting him was never an option. The ‘possum was banned from the house because mom thought it might not be sanitary for a fifth grader to eat meals with a ‘possum hanging around her neck, even if the little critter did get regular baths. One set of baby mice tragically did not survive to adulthood because I found out the hard way it isn’t exactly good manners to bring them to church. The owl, the jackrabbit(s), the crow (s), and the rat were eventually sent outside as well, but they weren’t exiled because I was sent outside too!
In my lifetime, the only porcupine I’ve ever shot was the one in the above story. The rest were roadkill. This porcupine (pictured above) is one I met a few years ago. I was trying to see how close I could get to him without getting “quilled”. Thankfully, we both survived the ordeal.
The fact is, anyone who has worked to save their suffering animal from a porcupine’s quills won’t balk at shooting one given the chance. Last year, my sister’s Catahoula cow dogs thought a porcupine was a squeak toy. Days later, sore and swollen and sleepless, they regretted that.
Only a week or so after that incident one of my husbands’ horses had a run in with a porcupine too. This horse is the ‘no-touchy’ type, so earing him down and pulling them was out of the question. After being given a sedative, the minor “surgery” was successful. I bet ol’ Yeller never sniffs a fluffy rat ever again!
Livestock (and the dogs, people, and horses that are here to tend them) and varmints don’t always coexist harmoniously. But we know that to rid the range of all varmints would tip the ecosystem out of balance and that would be a price too high to pay in the end. I’m glad to have called a few of these critters my friends but in the end, there are always the realities of ranch life to keep my feet on the ground.
God holds the cards for us. He knows what’s coming. We just play along, so last December, he shuffled the deck for us Landry’s and some of the other folks out here on the ‘north side’.
Long story short, we moved ‘next door’. And other folks did the same. When the dust settled, none of us had really gone very far, but everything had changed in a way. And change, major or minor, can make you feel like the ground in front of you is not as solid as you thought.
Everything we owned was loaded up into stock trailers and rattled down the road a ways. In that short trip, all of our furniture was covered in a thick layer of fine dust. And it still kind of is, to tell the truth. I do clean, but the dust has to go somewhere! It might as well lay on the dresser so we can write messages to each other.
We have waited for snow, and haven’t seen any as of now. Guess that’s just not in the cards for this month. God sure does shuffle good. I was counting on winter weather!
Life isn’t predictable like we think it is when we are entrenched in a routine. As I come to know who God is, however, I’m finding that he is always the same. 2018 will likely hold some more surprises for us! At first, I got a little worried about that. But here’s a well-loved passage of the Bible that I find instructive. It begins with these words:
“The Lord is my Shepherd. I lack nothing.”
So the One who holds the cards isn’t some slick gambler as indifferent as Fate or as impulsive as Chance. He’s a wise and gentle Shepherd. Another passage tips the scales for me:
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
It certainly takes a deep commitment to care for livestock. I know. You can’t ever really be ‘off’ work, what if they need you? One cold night changes everything: calves were born that might need thawing out or ice needs busting or pipes need fixing. Cowboys (like shepherds) take their responsibility personally. Their ‘job’ is their life, and that relationship they have with the stock they care for is very unique. Cattle aren’t cuddly, but a cowboy will perform superhuman feats to get water to them. He’ll give up his chair by the fire, or his night’s sleep; he’ll freeze in the winter and melt in the summer and put his own health on the line. “Whatever it takes,” I’ve heard these men say. I suppose he does love the cattle, in a way. And maybe they love him (or just the cake truck…but he is the driver!) in a way, too.
But the Good Shepherd is different. He lays down his life for the sheep. Let’s all try to remember who He is the next time He shuffles the deck.
Scripture references are from the NIV, Psalm 23:1 and John 10:14 and 15
Tonight it is loud enough to keep me awake. Roaring shrill through everything, slipping in where it isn’t supposed to be, low and heavy with the dust of the day but other times, bringing mercy from heaven. It has been unbearably powerful and unimaginably soft, and can appear and disappear without so much as a thought.
Prairie, sea, mountain, and desert all know this invisible force: the wind. New Mexico has a special kind of wind, as does each western state its’ own. Here though, the wind is an almost tangible presence. It is constant from February to early July, and returns as a mighty downdraft from ominous thunderclouds in August and September. Back in force by mid-October, it always brings change. It carries in moisture, and carries it out. Those clouds we all pray for would never get here without it, but the wind doesn’t get the credit for the good it does.
I spent a small amount of time ‘back East’ and recall how people looked up at a flag pole, saw ol’ Glory stretched out, and complained that it was ‘so windy!’ when it was only a breeze. Compared to New Mexico’s average spring day, that is, when ol’ Glory never sits still, never flaps in the breeze but pops like a whip night and day. I’ve heard folks from New Mexico come back from Alaska and say the cold was nothing, because the wind never blows. In Virginia I saw snowflakes fall straight to the ground for what seemed the first time in my life. It was just hard to remember seeing snowflakes that were not flying sideways, like a ninja’s throwing stars.
If it sounds like I’m boasting, that’s not the case. Ranch folks and their livestock are forced to deal with this invisible resistance to their every effort for a good part of the year. Little kids, chickens, (all the birds, actually) laundry on the line, and anything else that isn’t tied down can go flying off but you probably won’t see it unless you’re watching from a window-the dust forces you to keep your eyes closed. (True story: my mom lost a hen in the wind once and found her two miles east of the house the next day.) The wind can steal the very breath out of you, too. I watched it carry off a roof once, and various other small structures. Complaining only seems to make it blow harder and longer, but I have done my share of that. Working in the wind wears you out twice as fast as the task itself.
Anyone horseback learns to respect the wind. In fact, we all check the weather…and check it again…before we need to go gather or work anything. Why? Well, checking won’t change the fact that it’s going to blow, but it helps us know which hat to wear and which horse to use. Wind can make some horses afraid of their own tails and nobody enjoys riding one of those all day. Besides that, you’ve never seen the romance stripped away from the West until you’ve seen a whole crew of cowboys doing their ‘romantic’ cowboy work in ball caps (baseball hats). We’ve just learned to hate riding a half mile out of our way just to chase down a hat- darn wind!
It may be night, but the wind is singing through every crack it can find right now and I can hear the leaves outside being shaken off. Wind and ice or wind and fire do a great deal of damage and strike dread in our hearts at times. Most often, people describe wind as ‘strong’, they say it ‘sweeps’ across the ground, ‘driving’ things before it. I have read of people going mad from having to endure wind day after day after day. Old timers can predict the weather by discerning the direction of the wind. It can come from anywhere, and there’s nowhere on earth it hasn’t been.
One thing about wind has always mystified me: you can’t see it. You can’t prove it was there, you’ll never know its past or its future. That and the fact that for all its alleged destructive power, it does so much cleansing and relief, too. It carries pollen from one plant to another and moves the clouds wherever they are meant to go. The ground is literally swept clean, trees are stripped so their branches don’t break from the weight of ice and snow. Deserts conquer and are held back by the wind alone. How is it that something so powerful and so magnificent cannot even be seen?
Then it clicked for me.
It was no coincidence that Jesus made a comparison between the wind and the work of the Spirit in John 3:8. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” At times I look at my own heart astounded that such an ugly thing could belong to God. Other times, my life and my story seem so miraculous, made iridescent by grace. And I have to marvel at it. What is going on here! Tears come hot. Grateful ones. Maybe I don’t know how He is doing it, but His work is perfect. I’ll never know what the wind is up to, but I know Who commands it. He sends it for a purpose, whether to sweep away unimportant things or to drive me to Him, or both...”so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit…”
Tomorrow, the crew will be branding the fall calves in what we hope is a somewhat tame wind. We hope it will let up, but we’ll bring our ball caps just in case.
I know the sounds and the smells so well; without thinking I can instantly be there. All the feelings that come: anxiety- nerves, even-mixed with elation, excitement, and mystery. Since I can remember, that day begins hours before the sun takes the reins for the day. Friends and family gathered around, each one busy and all feeling the same things with me. We work all morning and find ourselves laughing with relief in the afternoon. We wait expectantly and prepare all year for this day and when it comes, we still aren’t ready for it. We are counting down the days, waking up with questions, anticipating that special morning when everything stands still for traditions to unfurl.
No, I’m not talking about Christmas. I’m talking about shipping.
Maybe you’ve never heard the term. It’s no holiday, not by a long shot; it is a long-awaited harvest day. It’s the day we present our finest product and see the fruit of a year’s worth of hard work, worry, sleepless nights and weekends on the job. Ranching as I know it climaxes on shipping day, when the calves are gathered, weighed, and loaded on the truck to be sent to whatever feedlot they now belong to, and ultimately, to your plate. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The countdown begins in late winter or early spring when the first of the calves is born. The cows live out in a pasture bigger than some small cities. Every cow teaches her calf how to make a living out there; where to find water and the good grass; and where to hide from the wind. And most importantly, she shows him where to wait for the feed truck until the rains come and they don’t need it anymore.
The calves are branded and vaccinated a few months later, and this gives them the best possible start to the summer. Now all they have to do is grow. The cowboy is busy making sure there’s always enough water, no cockle burrs in the tanks, fences are standing up, and that there’s enough salt and mineral out to balance their nutritional needs. Of course if it all goes according to plan, it rains on time and the grass grows high and every calf gets big and soggy. Summer ends, and in the fall, the day arrives.
The last couple of years, I have brought the kids to the corrals to watch them ‘load out’. This year, I was on the crew. I got up at 4 a.m. with my husband. He left before I did and saddled the horses, I waited for the babysitter, who arrived at 5:45. (Not to brag, but this is one special babysitter. We all love her, probably more than she realizes. Who can expect your babysitter to show up at that hour?) Whispering “I love you,” to my babies in the dark, I walked off the porch with my coffee in my hand and my hat on my head. Not many folks are lucky enough to know that feeling.
We met at Trans-Western, it’s just a road off the highway that leads to nothing much. All of us enjoyed a breakfast burrito and coffee and waited in the early dawn cold. There were clouds in the east, so the sun seemed to take it’s time. You can’t gather anything in the dark, anyway.
When we headed for the corral, I watched the tail-lights ahead of me but I could still see the morning star. It was quite chilly. We wear plenty of layers in this country. Out of habit I glanced in the rear-view mirror, looking for little faces where there were now only empty car seats. I laugh to myself about just how much has changed since they came along.
With horses unloaded, cinches snug, the crew gets horseback to gather the trap (small pasture) of weanlings (calves weaned from their mothers) whose curiosity had already drawn them up close to the corral. I don’t take a second of it for granted. I’m happy just to be on a horse. I look across at my husband and feel a kinship many don’t understand. When you can work with your spouse, both doing what you love, you share a rare and priceless bond. Just one more blessing to count, I think.
Of course, my mind drifts back to the little ones, too. All morning I think of them waking up with crazy hair and eating scrambled eggs. One day, they’ll be with us, too. I can’t wait.
And the day goes pretty smooth. For once, the flighty calves don’t break loose. Everything is done quiet and slow, no rush. We pen them and watch them mill around, all guessing weights in our heads and proud of the work we have done. There’s a little joking around, and some dust in the air.
We are done weighing by the time the trucks arrive a little after 8 a.m. Cattle trucks- semis pulling double-decker aluminum trailers with compartments like a beehive. As we load the cattle on, we load them by the numbers the driver needs. The horseback crew brings calves up the alley by three, by thirteen, by seven…and they go up the ramp and into their compartment, gates shut behind them.
Five trucks are loaded and rattle off in a dust cloud. I watch them go and think of all that little scene means to us. It means relief, satisfaction of a year-long job well done, and a change of season on the range. It’s payday. Ranching is considered an industry, but for time out of mind, it’s been a way of life. Cowboys are hired on salary and they live where they work. The manager is the cowboy responsible for running the ranch and making most decisions, but the ranch owner only sees payday once a year. Alot can happen to affect the budget in a year’s time. Rainfall that grows the grass directly affects the weights of those calves, which are purchased by the pound. So no wonder ranch folks get so excited about thunderheads and so depressed by sunny summer days.
And me? I feel that relief, too. As I leave the corral for the house to relieve the babysitter, I can’t stop thinking about the great privilege it is to be a part of ranching in my generation. I thank God for it.
Tomorrow, the year starts over, and the countdown begins again. I’m just a cowboy’s wife, I’ve got no stake in this. But in a way, it’s everything to me. It’s another year passed in our happily ever after, and here we are handed a new beginning. We look forward again knowing there is no guarantee, no promise that the coming year will be the same. Fires in the Texas panhandle this spring, floods and hurricanes in the south, drought in the west, fires in the Northwest ranch country that took their winter grazing…all this affects a ranching year in major ways. Recovery will be a long, long process and they’ll hang by a thread for a while.
Payday is a good day, but not really because of the check. It’s a good day because we got to do this one more year, together. I hope next year is just as good, but for now, I’ll savor the feeling of gratitude.
I walk in to the living room still wearing my hat and the little ones come hug me. We all smile. Thanks, God…
She has a mind fed on C.S. Lewis and the great Christian thinkers, hands that learned to calm a nervous horse, eyes that have looked deep and long into the sky and desert, lungs that have breathed the smoke of wildfires and the dust of spring branding. Somehow she, who knows all these things, knows also the miles of asphalt between herself and her land. She performs where people put their lives on display in digital cages like rare exotic creatures. She walks in beauty in a place where beauty is a distortion of truth, where people only see her animated by the same lights that lie to them about who they truly are. But she lives in their world as being apart, like the Native American children of the past, taken from the tribe to learn the ways of the white man, she does not belong here.
You see a lanky man with long hair, an up-and-comer creating his own image to brand and market and sell. Look deeper. Listen harder. Listen to him: the voice of lapping waves, of highland snow, of hot, desert wind and New Mexico pines, of adobe shade. Deep truth lives in the eyes of this young man who has lived several lifetimes in one, and whose journey has only just begun. In his hands he holds an instrument that speaks for him when he has no words to a crowd who has no ears.
Together, she and the lanky young man appear again and again with a message that no one hears, making sacrifices others would not call a sacrifice at all. A poster in the window at a coffee shop. Is that all you see?
The ‘why’ of it is clear to me, but perhaps you missed it. This is a man captured, heart and soul, by the great love and majestic name of Jesus. The truth of that Name is the spark, the depth of that love the driving force that carries him to a lead a life abandoned, investing all his creativity to magnify the Name, and proclaim it to the deaf people living in the dark. This is a woman created, called and wholly given to serve her Redeemer. Whatever He asks, wherever He bids her, whatever the cost she is invested even knowing she will be away from her home and her people and her way of life.
Have these artists so concealed Christ behind their art, is He so well-hidden in melodies with lyrics about the world that their message will never be heard? Have their struggles to stay on the narrow way destroyed their witness? That depends, I guess, on what you choose to see. Perhaps it depends on where you are standing. I know one thing about Gleewood: they go where it’s dark, but their Light does not go out. I know that there are souls dead in the dark that have been drawn to this Light, awakened for the first time.
It’s a promise that we will reap what we sow. And these two called-out, blood-bought followers of Christ have been out sowing seed where the rest of us won’t go. They have given and they have gained, and they have lost along the way so far. But like you and I, they live missionally. They do this with purpose and ultimately to live honestly before God, exercising all of His gifts for His glory and to give Him all the credit and all the praise for everything. They do this for souls to see the Light.
Missionaries in America are like unicorns, the real ones are hard to find. If you were looking and truly listening, you found two of them when you saw that Gleewood poster in the window. Perhaps you know them. Perhaps you disagree with me, and see a back-slidden pair of struggling youth swimming in the graywater of a post-Christian culture. So find me a perfect representation of Christ on earth and I’ll concede. Until then, I’ll insist that the Gleewood duo is the real thing. Real Christians who show real love to the real lost and dying world that their Perfect Redeemer has sent them to be in, not of.
Gleewood, wave the banner of the King everywhere you go. In the world, you’ll have your share of trouble. But take heart, because He has overcome the world.
Dear Reader, I’ve had it on my heart to write a review of this Indie band, Gleewood, ever since their departure for Europe on tour. It’s only now that they are back that I have published this. You may wonder what in the world this has to do with ranch life? Well, the woman in this story is my sister, Callie Sioux. Her dream in life was a range management degree and a ranch, but she felt drawn to Hollywood. As did our mother, and our great aunt…in fact, in three generations of sisters there has been one who chose a somewhat public life and one who chose ranching. Dear Reader, you can consider this post a ‘teaser’. Because I’ll be telling the tale of three sets of sisters from the 1930’s to the 1990’s and beyond, growing up on ranches in the American Southwest, and the grand Western women they have become (or in the case of Callie and I, hopefully becoming). That’s down the road a bit, but thank you, nonetheless, for reading. My best to you!
With every hard reality ranch folks have to face, there’s a corresponding confidence that grows in place of fear. You can ask any one of us. We’ve lived through things that should have turned us into cynics or scaredy cats. Somehow, the challenges and realities make us love this life even more, if that’s possible.
Anywhere in North America that the range is good for grazing cattle, you can pretty much bet you’ll find some rattlesnakes. Often, the dog, horse, or calf that’s bitten doesn’t make it; if they do, they are never the same. Only the animals that were in peak health will make it. I know two people who have survived a bite, and it was not easy for them. The infection it causes drains the immune system while also putting stress on the liver and kidneys because the venom is so toxic and dirty.
I was ten years old when I killed my first “coontail” (code for Diamondback Rattlesnake). I found him in the corral, near the fence. Somehow, my slight little frame climbed the fence with a partially-licked-off block of livestock salt (which weighs about 50 lbs), and dropped it on the rattlesnake. Then I went and got my mom. I had, by then, developed quite an independent streak.
About a year later, I shot one with a 4.10 shotgun right off the back steps. My five year old sister had almost stepped on it. It was a pretty good sized snake. I still have the ‘buttons’ (the rattler on the end of his tail). My sister and I used to compete at collecting buttons from my mom and dad. It’s funny that some things that ought to truly terrify us can somehow become so routine, we forget our vulnerability.
One fall morning, early, before light, I went to feed the horses for my dad. It was a little chilly and I was groggy. The light switch was on the opposite wall from the door, so I had to cross the room in pitch black dark. I tripped at the door and almost ate it on the concrete floor, and when I finally turned on the light, I was in for a real surprise. I had tripped over a four-foot long Diamondback stretched across the threshold! I was not about to go out the same way. I had to crawl out a hole in the feed room wall to go get help for that one.
I shake my head now as I write this, knowing all the close calls I have had and even laughed about. Today as a mom of two little kids under age three, I shudder when I think of the inevitable encounter they’ll have one day when I relax enough to not hold their hands and patrol the corral and yard first.
Last year, as I was learning all the unspoken fears of motherhood, my husband and I discovered some baby coontails in our yard. You can see why we call them that, as they have black and white striped tails. The fear of them seized me like never before.
But here is where faith comes in. I prayed that I could find and kill every snake that would be a threat. I found a couple of the babies, but in my heart I feared there were more. I became specific in my prayers and asked God to send natural predators in force to our house and barn. I turned to him with all my heart for protection, because as the summer went on, I was less and less able to keep up with my toddler outside because we were expecting our son at the end of August. (Seven or eight months of pregnancy tend to slow a gal down, you know.)
Can you guess what God did? He sent a pair of road runners to my yard and let me see one every day. He also gave us a litter of kittens, a batch of guinea fowl, and a couple of bull snakes (a ‘good’ snake that competes with rattlesnakes for food and eats their young). My God reassured me every day that He was looking out for us. We have only seen one snake around the house since, and my husband killed it. God has a very good record when it comes to taking care of me and mine.
We can never totally escape the snakes. This year one of my daughters cats and also, my husbands horse, were bitten. The cat disappeared, and I feared the worst, but she returned after a week as normal as could be. The horse was a rather large expense, but he made it, too. We kept him up at the house in our carport (when he came home from the vet, that is) and the kids and I pampered him and tried to help him recover. This horse was never dog-gentle, but after the snake he suffered some “PTSD” and was even less friendly. I used my essential oils on him, prayed for him, my daughter sang to him, and I petted him as much as he would let me. His recovery is almost complete now, and I am thankful for the grace that brought the healing.
Five years ago, my dog, Bek, ran into a large diamondback rattler while I was mowing the yard. Poor pup! Her life was saved by quick thinking, prayer, and a good vet. She’s never fully recovered mentally, but her lapses in intelligence are endearing and usually comical. I’m so thankful just to have her with me still.
Rattlesnakes aren’t a big deal to us, but then again, they are. We never wake up in the morning thinking about them but it’s highly likely we will see a few from spring to fall. Nobody wakes up planning to hunt down and kill snakes all day. We don’t like killing them any more than we like seeing them, but it must be done to protect our livestock, horses, pets and family. Dangers like poisonous reptiles are insignificant compared to the rewards of ranching, and I’m not talking about money. Sharing the rangeland with all its’ creatures is a blessing few in our modern times can claim, and I wouldn’t trade that blessing for a man-made, snake-free world.
“Is there really a deadly rattlesnake lurking around every corner on a ranch? Really?” you wonder.
Well, my answer to that is no. But if you don’t expect to see one under every rock, you’re in for a heart attack at least once every summer. Rattlesnakes are a reality we all learn to deal with. In the end, it’s just part of it.
What? Miracles take work? My inner self recoiled. I love Chisum and I had her back! But what kind of happily every after was this?! One where I had to use all of my patience and everything I had learned about horses to truly earn this animal’s trust. At times it meant being satisfied short of my goal, knowing we had only gone one step instead of five. And if I’m honest with you, I would have liked it better if it were easier. If only this little mare just instinctively knew that I wouldn’t hurt her or ask too much, I wouldn’t have to…well, be humbled by slow progress.
My husband and I had been cutting firewood and pruning fruit trees all winter on the place we lived. That’s not bad work unless you have it in your blood be a’horseback, because if you do, not even cold New Mexico wind can keep you off of one. Our horses were in good shape and ready for spring works, in case the ranches we worked on last fall needed any help. Little did I know what would transpire for Chisum and me in that time.
Usually, I would ride for about an hour in the afternoon almost every day. Although she handled fine, if you know me, I’m not one to let a horse get sloppy turning around or walk out of a stop or back up crooked. I despise a barn sour or herd-bound attitude, and crossing water or bridges or going through brush calmly is expected. Chisum had these habits and wouldn’t try very hard for me- she liked to use her energy getting hot and mad. I tried not to get in wars with her, but there were some. Eventually, by riding her in headgear that was mild, taking my spurs off, and going slow, I learned a thing or two about horses. I learned that I didn’t know half as much as I thought I did. And I saw that the Golden Rule taught by Christ applies to horsemanship as much as to all of life. Should’ve know this already, but as I said, this was the humbling of an arrogant cowgirl. I couldn’t see then how vitally important these lessons would become…very soon.
Finally the time came to gather for spring branding on one of the ranches we helped on. The magic I had wished for between us when I first brought her back had merely waited until we were out there in the cactus flats. She went all day without pinning her ears. She could sense a cow when we gathered and I just put my hand down and let her find them. She was bright and alert and never missed a thing, ready to go all day long. I was kind of shocked, really, at the transformation, but the little mare just seemed to say, “So what? I know what to do. Let’s get busy!”
She drug calves for me and did a fine job. The only hiccup was once I had drug a few, she balked at going back into the bunch for another. I made her do it, and she did it, but I was glad for once we only had a few to do. Chisum did her job and we came home tired and happy. She didn’t act sore the next day, so I just figured her reluctance was just the last of her crabby attitude flaring up.
Then the unthinkable happened. I got so sick I couldn’t go with Cody for the next branding, and the doctor told us I needed a blood test to determine the cause. You may be laughing already, but I thought I had cancer or something terribly serious. The blood test revealed the truth: we were going to have a baby!
I could have gone on riding and kept up with the works, but folks, I was so sick that there was no way I could do it without stopping and laying down under a tree (make that a cholla). This wasn’t just riding along with the family on the home ranch. This was an invitation extended with the expectation of a days work in exchange for pay. So Chisum and I stayed home.
I hope you caught that. The promise from God that someday my children would ride Chisum was about to come true. I look back and marvel at that promise, and how powerful it was, and how it carried both me and my horse through the summer of 2014.
Other women seem to take pregnancy and parenting in stride. It’s just life, a stage that you adjust to as part of being a woman. Perhaps these wonderful gals even dreamed about one day carrying a child, and planned for it. But I truly was afraid. I know this is very personal and perhaps a little too close of a look into a cowgirl’s heart, but there was a quaking, a desperation, and the fear of imploding that threatened every day of my first two months of pregnancy. It was partly because I was so free all my life I had never really thought about what it would be like, a kind of unbridled naiveté. Part of it may have been cultural, as most girls in my generation are conditioned to dream of careers and not motherhood.
But for me, it wasn’t motherhood or even pregnancy that caused my negative emotions. It was purely the element of surprise, like how a mustang must feel the first time she’s run into a corral and there’s a fence everywhere she looks. I couldn’t comprehend life with the limitations of pregnancy and thereafter, the limitations of parenting and caring for an infant. I was petrified. And every well-meaning person who tried to give advice made me feel like a pit bull being poked at with a stick. By the beginning third month of morning sickness and feeling like a skeleton of myself (no baby bump yet, really), Cody and I were both frazzled and weary of it.
Having prayed my heart out for relief from morning sickness, knowing God helped every other new mother and wanting God to just change my heart to be like all the other women who naturally adjust, I felt broken. Why was this so hard for me? I loved that baby so fiercely already, and all the excitement of having a child…that was there, too. I would lay awake (nauseous, usually) dreaming of showing the baby the stars for the first time or of the first ride on a horse…or dreaming of a few years down the road, teaching them to ride and rope; or what songs I would sing them to sleep to…I had the joy…just buried underneath the burden of a pretty rough first trimester. What I was missing was assurance that it was going to turn out alright, that I could do this. Up to then, I was just hanging on. And my husband hung on with me, waiting on God to come through.
“What did God do?” you ask. You must know He would have to speak to me in an extraordinary way in order to get the message through to my hard head and harder heart. This is funny. Hold on to your hat for this part.
Cody continued cutting wood, and I tried to help as much as I could. I rode a little bit, here and there, but again, usually ended up laying under a tree. So Chisum got fat. Fatter than fat. I cut her feed back a lot because I thought she was just eating too much, but every time the house door opened, she would nicker at whoever showed their face as if to say, “Hey! I’m starving over here!”
Being in the state I was, I finally got a clue.
“Cody, is there any chance she was exposed to a stud before we got her?”
“No way. But I’ll give Ronnie a call…”
Sure enough. A yearling colt got in the same pasture with his saddle horses and more than one of his mares was accidentally bred, too. Chisum was in foal.
Chisum was much further along than I was. She was due in July, and I was due in December. She wasn’t being crabby for no reason when we drug calves in the spring. She was probably hurting somewhere, an ache I understood well by now.
Watching her bring a colt into the world and raise him well, teaching him what he needed to know about life, became my inspiration. I watched her and then did the same. Gentle with the newborn, patient with the youngster, firm with the rebellious brat. We moved to the Block Ranch in October of that year, and our little girl was born in December. She knew Chisum’s shadow over her in her stroller from the very first day of ‘warm’ weather. Chisum taught me that being a mother is a job that you do your very best at, because it won’t last forever. Whatever sacrifice you can give is privilege, not burden. You can’t teach them everything, just make sure whatever you do teach them is right. That alone will keep them out of more trouble than worrying about them. She would walk along with me as I waddled around, trying to let me know that if she could do it, I could do it, too.
Although she was probably uncertain at first, she confidently took on motherhood with pride. That’s how I got my assurance and my confidence. God helped me start a new chapter in my life by taking what was worthless and lost, helping me find it, teaching me to be compassionate and hopeful, and redeeming the past. God used both of us, the little mare and me, as agents of the Kingdom in a plan and a purpose that is bigger than us. He gave me a gift in His promise that has become a fountain of good with every new page that turns in my life.
Since weaning her foal, Chisum became Cody’s top horse on the ranch we now live on. And when he wasn’t using her, he would saddle her and bring her to the branding corral for me. I would park the stroller in a safe place, get on and drag calves, and when my bunch was done I would be back on mom-duty. I rode Chisum during both my pregnancies, and have ridden her with both of my children. She has blessed every person that has handled her, and not only that, but she’s still awfully pretty to look at.
Chisum’s foal is a green colt, started this summer by the ranch family that bought him from us. And Chisum spends part of her time with me, and part of her time with some dear friends who need a horse to ride while I am too busy with the kids. When she’s not here in the horse trap, I still find myself looking for her out the window. I don’t know what the future will bring for my little gray mare and me, but one thing is for sure: we will never be separated again. She still has her scars and her memories, and I have the lessons she has taught me.
There’s always a ‘take-away’ from horse stories.
From this, I have only one: God keeps His promises.