In my previous post, Cowed, I mentioned that Dearly Beloved had worked on a cattle farm one year when he was in college and has written a few stories about those days. He wrote them so that someday, if they want, the grandsons might read them.
Blogging is the last thing on his mind, but he did agree to let me share some of his reminiscences here.
Here is one from the year he ran a cattle ranch.
THE SALT LICK
When I was a junior in college, I happened into a job running a thousand acre cattle ranch with about three hundred head, mostly Angus. I found Angus rather mobile; consequently I spent too much time running them down after they had wandered away through a break in the old barbwire fences.
Early after I had taken the job, in late summer, it was time to get in hay. This was shortly after the new owner and the ranch manager disagreed over whether the manager would be allowed to cut and sell some of the land’s timber for his own account. The new owner said no, and the manager quit and took the hired help with him. I knew nothing about cattle farming, but I knew how to drive a tractor, and soon taught myself how to cut hay. With some help I learned how to operate the hay baler. Over a period of a week or so, while also going to school, I cut and baled several hundred bales. Next was the task of getting the bales in the hay barn.
I enlisted the help of a teenage schoolboy, who lived with his parents on the red dirt road just before it started winding back through the kudzu to the farm house, barns and other buildings. I had never gotten in hay, but quickly decided it would be better if we had at least one more hand. I would drive the stake truck; one hand would be on the ground throwing the bales into the truck to the second hand, as the truck moved slowly along. Schoolboy said he knew of a boy home on leave from the army, prior to going over seas. He lived with his mother and father in a cabin just over the property line, a mile or so down the rutted winding road through the kudzu and into the woods.
Off we went and the soldier was there with his father. The soldier was lean and hard-muscled, still there was a gentle look about him. The father was thin and looked as if he had avoided hard manual work for a long time. He seemed like an old folk singer that had lost his guitar, but not his bottle. But what I remember most about the father was his sad eyes. It was obvious though that he was proud of his soldier son, who said he was going to make the army his career. You could tell he wanted to please his father.
After some discussion, I decided to hire the both of them for the half-day and we would see how it worked out. The wages were settled, we all got into the stake truck, back down the dirt road, out of the woods, past the kudzu to the pasture where the hay bales were waiting.
I drove the truck; schoolboy was on the ground throwing bales into the back of the truck; soldier would push them back to the father who would stack them. This was working out really well and we were moving right along in spite of the mid afternoon heat and hay dust that got in our eyes and noses.
Just when I was most pleased with our assembly line, I heard a SPLAT out the window and behind me on the other side of the truck. I stopped the truck and ran around to the other side. There face down, spread eagle and limp, was the father. Schoolboy yelled the father had fallen from the very top of the bales that were stacked as high as they could go. Soldier calmly said, “He’s passed out. He had a lot of “shine” last night.” Sure enough that seemed to be the case. His shirt was now wet with sweat and you could smell the alcohol in his sweat and on his breath. We gave him some water; he mumbled a few words that he was OK, that he just needed to rest a bit. At that moment, I realized that he was only in his mid 40s at most, yet his teeth; and especially his sad eyes were much older.
Confident he would be OK if he got out of the heat; we helped him under a salt lick overhang, near a big oak tree with leaves just starting to turn fall colors. The salt lick was next to a brisk stream where the cool clear water came from the Appalachian Mountains. It was a nice spot. And the old man smiled peacefully, with the same gentle look that his son had. The rest of us finished our work, including stacking the bales in the hay barn. It was a very good day. The hard work had set well with the three of us. There’s something special about guys working hard together, doing a good job.
When we got back to the salt lick, the father gave us a rested, “How’d you boys do”?
“Great”, soldier said.
Long shadows from the late afternoon sun were across the pasture. We all sat by the stream behind the salt lick until it was time to go. I don’t think we said much. Then I took soldier and his father back to their cabin. It was a happy ride for the four of us. When I paid their wages, the father said, “If you don’t mind, I’ll pass on helping you get in the rest of your hay.” I told him I understood, that I would be back tomorrow after lunch to pick up soldier.
The next day my second period class at college was canceled; so I went by to get soldier early, around 10:00. I figured he and I could get a lot done before schoolboy joined us in mid afternoon. When I got to the cabin, everything was still. I tooted the horn; no one came. Since I was a couple of hours early I decided that maybe no one was there, but I’d go up and knock before I left.
The cabin was built on the side of a hill that ran down to a creek. Since they had no plumbing or electricity the cabin was conveniently placed. I suppose to ward against flooding creek waters, several steps went up on the high side of the hill, before the porch landing. The creek side of the cabin was entirely on stilts. Even so, the cabin appeared solidly built. No doubt soldier had a hand in the construction.
I mounted the steps, offered a few hellos, but no answer. The porch door was open, so I said hello a little louder. When I did, I heard a soft moan. I stepped in to the cabin, which put me in the kitchen area. In the living area, which was in the same room, were four of them, father, mother, young teenage daughter and soldier. I walked closer, the alcohol smell from the day before was throughout the small room. They were drunk. I went over to soldier and called his name. When he looked at me I knew he was not doing any work that day. Nor perhaps for a lot of days in his lifetime, because the look he gave me came from the same sad, wistful eyes I had seen on his father.
As the months went by, I had a few occasions to make my way up the winding road past their cabin, but I never stopped or saw anyone. November came; JFK was killed. There was a lot going on hard to understand. I decided the next time I was by the cabin; I’d stop and see how soldier was doing and where he was.
At the start of the college Christmas holidays, I took a shortcut to an orphanage to see if it wanted a rogue bull that had wandered into one of my pastures. I’d stop at the cabin on the way; ask about soldier. Even better if he was home on leave, he could help with the hard, and somewhat dangerous, work of cornering, and loading the rogue, shorthorn bull. I thought we both would enjoy it, and soldier was someone I could trust if things got rough with the bull.
I went up the steps to the cabin. It was obvious they had moved out.
I never saw them again. I asked schoolboy. He said he didn’t know about the mother, father and daughter, but soldier had been sent overseas.
The orphanage wanted the rogue bull. They came by the week before Christmas and got him.
Vietnam became more than just a word.
Many years later, I stopped at the farm, just to see how it looked. I didn’t drive back to the cabin, but the salt lick was still there. It was still a nice spot. The stream was cool and clear.