Sunday, September 27, 2009

First Batch

I bought myself a canner-- a momentous purchase in the life of any ranch woman. It's a black speckleware beauty, looking like it's been lovingly bathing Ball jars in hot water since long before I was born, rather than simply waiting on a shelf at Ace Hardware for some naiive but enthusiastic young woman to come along. Now that she's here, we're canning like mad. Eight golden jars of applesauce sit gleaming on the counter. It feels like the county fair; I want to place blue ribbons by them each and write a comment about their smooth texture and hint of cinnamon.

Really, I should admit, there are three second-place jars. Our stew pots weren't big enough for my expansive and overzealous applesauce imagination, so we used the dutch oven for the first batch. Of course, the dutch oven has been strictly used for cooking over the coals, and the acid in the apples quickly soaked up the color of the charcoal-like coating, turning my first batch into a sort of grey-green concoction. Alas, three of my jars look like some kind of witch's brew. I'm calling the whole project a "win!" nonetheless, since despite the hardware clerk's comment that we would be so sick of canning we'd turn my pot in for scrap metal, we are anything but sick of it. In fact, the two of us are so enthusiastic, we've started planning a garden! (Surely, I am yet again overly enthusiastic and grandly imaginative, but that should only provide some funny stories to laugh about come spring.)

Friday, September 25, 2009

the boots i destroyed today while breaking trail through killer scrub oak

Reckless and With Abandon

Cisco and I flew from the barn like we were beating the setting sun to its horizon. He wore new shoes that sparked on the rocks, and I told him to run for the pure joy of it, to run for the feeling in your lungs and your muscles that says you are alive. We bucked and spooked and snorted past a black bear, and galloped up a sidehill like a rocking horse possessed. I only realized I was separate from my horse when I saw my hand reach up to adjust my hat.

The alpenglow made the mountains blood red, and Needle Rock stood stiffly black against an orange sky. We gave thanks with our every gasping breath. On the way home Cisco worried his bit and I just rode, unaware of myself as an individual, just another part of the firs and the river and the rock.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fading Season

The first snow of the year fell two days after we buried Meeker. He came in that morning shaking, and with swollen eyes. Jess had to kick and push and shout to get him up. I was in town, watching men who understand the foreign language of mechanics repair the skid steer tires for the tenth time. I was impatient with Levi when he gave me the message-- I had been trying to get into town for two days now! It wasn't until I hung up that I realized the severity of what he was describing to me. As I drove home, I told myself sometimes the severest of symptoms portended only a mild colic, and I stopped at the drug store for some infant gas relief drops. When I first saw him, his head was dragging as Levi walked him in circles. If we stopped, he shivered relentlessly, and swayed as if to topple.

It was Saturday, it was impossible to get ahold of a vet, and I knew he was gone. When Dr. Shull called, it was to say he had to put down a horse in our neck of the woods, and would come out after. Rob radioed in then: "I'm on the saddle above Tater Heap. Levi, you'd better step up your game: I've tagged out." He had killed a cow elk, and we were in for an eight hour ride to get it out of the wilderness.

Saddling and feeding the packhorses kept me from dwelling on Meeker. Watching Cameron and Levi drive away with the horse trailer, I faced the knowledge that I couldn't rely on anyone for help-- I was fully responsible for Meeker. He'd perked up some by the time Dr. Shull arrived. His gums were pink, and he'd drunk some water. Dr. Shull seemed hopeful until the elbow-length glove went on. His small intestines were distended: he'd twisted a gut. I made the call without thinking of anything except getting Meeker out of pain-- "It'll take me fifteen minutes to get the trailer back her to transport him to a pasture where we can bury him. Would you wait?"

Jess and I led him into the cattle pasture, and I told Meeker he could lay with friends. I pointed out to Jess all the depressions where other horses were buried. "That's funny-- I walked around here one day imagining all the buildings that once stood where these stones lay, and really they were graves."

I held Meeker's head as the liquid in the pink syringe coursed into his veins. I was thankful I didn't have to pull a trigger. He fell after just seconds, and we sat with him until the gasps had ended. Jess lay a sheet over his head to keep the flies off.

I hated to see him lie there. A horse is a partner, a friend to be trusted and relied upon, not buried or forgotten. I hated leaving him, and debated taking just a lock of tail. For other horses, I've had someone else skin them out, or save their tail, and then tan it and turn it into something useful or decorative, something to remember the horse by. But it had always been someone else-- I'd never been faced with the task of handling a dead horse and been completely alone.

I brought the skinning knife out and tested its blade-- too sharp, I thought. If I get nervous I'll go right through a finger. Thankfully, I am not a squeamish woman. The first slice took the most courage; after that, it took me a simple half hour to flesh out his tail. It took me at least that long to get ahold of a neighbor with a backhoe and enough free time to come out and dig me a hole. What an awkward phone conversation.

The 14-foot-deep hole was bitten into rocks. I didn't have to think much for the two hours it took to be dug. I went home and silently cleaned his tail. Now that it was removed from a swollen, lifeless carcass, it became something of beauty again, something of the gentle ex-cowhorse it had been a part of. I rubbed a mixture of salt and ash into the skin, grateful for this thing to remember him by.

The men came home around 6:30. I'd been a strong women, stoic and quiet over the death of one of my horses, but I found myself concentrating unnecessarily hard on the simple process of unsaddling a pack horse: take the smooth leather strap, push it out of the keeper, brace it against his shoulder and pull it loose of the buckle... When Levi said, "Let's go unhook this trailer," I almost said no.

I shoved a rock under the trailer's rear-most tire, and looked up to see Meeker's fresh grave. Behind the trailer I put my face in my hands and cried. Levi came walking back, silent as a cat, and put his arms around me. "I should've stayed here with you," he said. "I should've realized you needed a hug earlier." I didn't tell him, but I was glad he hadn't, or I would've broken down into quiet sobs earlier, before the work was all done.

Today it snowed on Meeker's grave, covering the scab evident in the grass of the cattle pasture. It reminds me that all things heal, an dI am grateful for the gentle horse he was, and grateful he is resting under the shadow of the mountains.

Monday, September 21, 2009

In Constant Pursuit of Quarry

On Wednesday, Levi took me dove hunting. Yes, doves. This is definitely a moment in my life that I look at and think, man, if this was five years ago and you asked me to go dove hunting, I would tell you where you could stick it. But I decided not only to be a gung-ho girlfriend, but I also figured this man isn't going to say the right prayers and ask the doves to honor him and all that like I do, so it's probably going to be nicer for them if I'm along, rather than just getting killed. Dove hunting involves wearing camo, sitting under a tree watching birds fly around, or strolling leisurely around cornfields, then dropping to your knees like you're in a war zone every time a bird takes flight. It was generally more enjoyable than elk hunting can be, since you don't have to wait (or worse, hike) through multiple freezing-cold hours of the night or sit motionless and silent for way too long while your legs cramp up and you have to pee, and instead just enjoy a hot cup of tea from about 7 til 10 in the morning. (Don't get me wrong, I love elk hunting. I just get cold really easily.) While I was trying hard to be a good sport, I did have a difficult time when he would actually shoot a bird. Instead of being ready with a "good shot!" or something else a supportive girlfriend would say, every time a bird fell I would gasp in dismay, or blurt out, "oh no!" I would then apologize, but Levi didn't mind. He understands I'm not good with killing stuff. We brought home five little doves. I saved one's beautiful wings. At the end I asked him for his chewing tobacco, and he started laughing and said, "Did this stress you out that much that now you need a chew?" But I just wanted it so I could leave a little behind with some dried sage in honor of the birds.

We got home and took a long nap, which was really welcome. When we woke up, Levi said, c'mon! We're hiking to the big beaver pond and going elk hunting! I was like, "We have twenty horses. Can we please ride instead?" So we rode up the trail doot do do do doo, dressed in camo t-shirts, with Levi's big bow and his hunting pack. Levi's horse, Dollar, loves hunting, and camo, and all kinds of boy stuff, so he was excited too. I rode Arapaho, which is Levi's horse's half-brother. Arapaho doesn't really like hunting, he likes hard-boiled eggs and brightly colored windbreaker suits, but I thought since they were brothers and friends they could keep each other company. We got up near the beaver pond, and started hiking. Suddenly, I heard a bugle! It was a really pathetic bugle for an elk, but I was just sure that's what it was. Levi has terrible hearing-- he has very little hearing in his right ear since a snowmobile accident a few years ago-- so I said, did you hear that? It was a bugle! We glassed around with his binos, and spotted a very large 5 x 5 bull elk with two cows and a calf on the opposite side of the drainage. They were on the move, and looked to be dropping down to the creek below us! Levi only has a cow tag, so although we were impressed by the bull, we were looking at the cows instead. We had just climbed this huge slope on horseback, and now the elk were below us and looked to be descending! We ran past the horses, and ran down the mountain, probably about 3/4 of a mile, leaping rocks and skidding and jumping creeks. We got to a point just above the creek, and sat down to see what they were going to do. Well, the cows decided to head into the aspens to eat. We rested for an hour, keeping an eye on their movement. Finally, they started moving again--- up. We spent another hour watching them graze their way up the ridge and over off the horizon. We slowly hiked back to the horses. We still had about 20 minutes until "shooting light" ended, so we walked up to the small beaver pond. I'll be damned if there wasn't a lone cow elk, grazing along the fringes of the pond. She metered in at 72 yards, which is a LONG shot for Levi. He opted against it, and we watched her wander closer and closer. It was so exciting, waiting. She was just literally giving herself up-- she was grazing broadside to us, and kept looking over at us. Because she couldn't smell us, she didn't run away, but we didn't move, either. Darkness kept descending. Finally, she was only at 50 yards. Levi pulled and aimed, thought about it, and brought the arrow back down. She moved a step closer, and he pulled and aimed again, and let fly! She leapt into the air and jumped about four leaps away, then moved into a patch of scrub oak. By this time it was too dark to be able to see exactly what she was doing, and you had to watch her sort of out of the corner of your eye to see her movements. She appeared to be itching her side, like she was pulling at the arrow. She hadn't run off, which was a great sign-- an elk shot badly can run a LONG distance. She shuffled around in the scrub oak, and then came wandering slowly back to the edge of the pond. She moved with her head down, and stumbled a bit. She took her time. I was cold and getting colder. The stars were coming out. She wandered back into the scrub oak. I listened for her to fall, or to bed down. I was praying she would give us a sign, so we wouldn't get up too soon and spook her, meaning we'd have to chase a wounded elk up the mountain in the pitch black night. I told Levi I thought we should wait until ten thirty. It was nine. I was in a t-shirt and light cotton hiking pants. My clothes were all back on my horse, a 1/4 mile away. My legs were cramped. I couldn't see anything. There were scary noises in the dark, and I wondered if a bear or a mountain lion would smell the blood and come check it out. The coyotes started howling, and the stars were out clearly now. I was shivering all over, and my teeth were chattering. Levi sat behind me with his arms and legs around me, which helped a lot. Finally at nine thirty, he couldn't wait any longer. We tip-toed over to the edge of the pond, watching, using his headlamp to pick up sign. A footprint here-- a scrape here. Followed up into the scrub oak, but no sign. No blood, though, either. We walked back along the edge of the pond, moving slowly, placing each footstep carefully in case she was lying alive in the bushes. And then we saw it-- the arrow, lying in the rocks. No blood at all, and one edge of the broadhead dinged up from the rocks. We looked back to where we had been sitting. He shot high! At this point I was like woo hoo! Thank goodness-- no having to pack out this huge elk in the darkness, and be up for the remainder of the night (and most of next morning) butchering. let's get the hell out of here! But Levi had to satisfy himself that indeed, it was a clean miss. We wandered around looking for blood droplets for some time before we turned for home. It was such a relief to find the horses standing quietly, and to put on all the extra clothing I had brought along. There was no moon, and we were riding through forest, so it was truly black. At this point I was extremely grateful I had ridden Arapaho-- we had used him to gather the herd one night, well after sunset, when a fence had broken, and I knew he was trustworthy in the dark. Horses have good vision in the dark-- although not as good as a cat's, it's much better than ours. Nevertheless, it was even a little too dark for Arapaho! He put his nose to the trail and followed along, trying his best to avoid rocks, and me riding blind, holding a hand in front of my face to push away branches that scraped my skin. Twice, he lost the trail and wandered off along a cattle trail until the brush got too deep and we both realized the error. We just turned around, retraced our steps, and met the big trail once again. It took us about an hour and a half to get home, but we made it safely. What an exciting night!

When we got back to the barn, we put our horses away and I went to shut up the barn. My chickens roost on the saddles, but only one was there! Now, we're down to three, since one was murdered by raccoons the other night. But the other two were nowhere to be found. We walked around looking for them, but couldn't turn up a feather. I checked the mangers (where they like to lay their eggs) and the grain bins, and heard a rustling inside one. Thinking a chicken had flown up to steal some grain, I looked in, and who do you think was in there? One of those loathsome raccoons, trapped! Obviously, we'd just come in from hunting, so Levi handily stepped up onto a riser, and neatly dispatched the villainous little killer with an arrow through the brain. I found my missing two chickens in the morning, thankfully alive.