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Stumble-Step
Stumble-Step

Stumble-Step

by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA

If they had their druthers, most hands on the place would sit a tall horse and work cows. But there were always those who could farm if they had to, though they might grumble over the plowing and planting and weeding, coaxing things out of the ground, bucking bales. But as Len says, where else will winter hay and oats and feed corn come from — it don’t grow on trees, and whatever you buy, you surrender the profit. There would always be a few mechanics, who could work and fix any manner of machine. The thing is, to run a big rambling operation like the K-Bar, the foreman Len Dawes needs it all to get done, not just what the boys care to tackle, so he keeps a little notebook in his vest pocket with a fat rubber band, that they know all about from a distance, watch him make notes with a stub of a pencil, and reckon who can do what, for whatever kind of project comes along. The K-Bar is one of those outfits that never hires a thing done, or throws a thing away. There’s a complete blacksmith shop, with shoeing stocks and several barrels of shoes, and a pile of ancient well drilling equipment all dismantled and stacked in a shed, that nobody remembers where it’s from or how to assemble and operate. Then too we have a row of old pickups in the weeds back of the shop where they can be fixed up or resurrected, or else picked through and plundered for parts, since every three or four years, depending, they buy another of the same exact make and model, which just makes good sense, to always have a spare transmission or A-frame or starter motor on hand when you need one.

With horses as with cattle, the K-Bar crew breeds, raises and trains their own replacements. Every year they fatten and sell the yearlings, keep a few head to butcher and eat on the place, and turn out a few of the likeliest heifers to add to the breed stock. The herd that has slowly built over time has gotten to be worth a second look, and same as guarantees us a future. And just like they bale their own hay, the boys pitch and spread manure, that also speaks to things getting better as they go.

In Len Dawes’ little book he also keeps notes on what each of the boys did that month, not just what they’re good at. If they work breaking and training horses they might get an H by their name, where some who ride and herd cattle never get more than an R. There are several that take a turn cooking to give Bixler the Cook a night off, get a C, and some that can work on motors, fix machinery, that might get an M. One or two might get a B for butchering and packaging a steer for the freezer. There are just a few that can do a little of everything — shoe horses, handle breeding, doctor sick calves. Climb up on the windmill and grease it, while the frame sways with your weight in a cold wind. One or two with a whole alphabet by their names might at last get a T, which that month might double their salary. These are top hands, leaders, few and far between.

We had one real farm boy out of Idaho, Clyde, who had grown up on an old-timey horse farm, that could do anything on the place. A blacksmith who could hammer-weld broken parts, and a top-notch ferrier. He could make wine out of anything. He even baked bread on his Sundays off, three loaves that were always gone by sundown, before they got a chance to cool. Clyde’s only shortcoming might have been that he threw spuds into everything he cooked, since they were what he knew and liked best. Plus he mostly liked to work alone.

Len never made a fuss about who did what, unless it was a dirty job he needed to motivate. And nobody would complain about the wages, which weren’t all that much, but the grub was good and plenty, and the bunkhouse roof didn’t leak, at least not over anybody’s bed. We all knew we had it better than what most of the hands got other places, so we kept our traps shut.

As for cowboying, for a while when you’re young you have all the time in the world. You barely need to lay your head down for the night. Come time the sky lightens up, you’re practically saddled and gone. Maybe cowboys share a little extra delusion since they call themselves boys to the end. Ride like the wind where it’s mostly the horse with the hot blood and muscle, and them astride, holding on for as long as they can.

But then comes the day when you tip your head back and look out from under your hat brim, out to where the wide sky touches down, and realize you can see further than you might ever ride again. That you need to ask what you want to do right now, and do mostly that while there’s time. If you want to shingle a roof, best get up the ladder while you can. So these days Len Dawes was starting to think of stepping down.

He made no announcements. And the boys had no idea what retirement for Len Dawes might even look like. He’d always been still as the grave about himself, and being foreman kept him a loner, as it mostly will. He had bought a little piece of ground of his own, 40 acres with a house he’d knocked together by himself, hiring a few of the boys on their days off to help mix and pour concrete, tip up walls, toenail rafters and such, all that three-and four-handed work. But he did everything he could by himself, and the boys he hired said it was all good and solid, built to last. So what was he going to do, start a ladies’ riding academy? His place was too far out from town.

But then there come a hitch, as will happen to the best and worst. One day when we were off doctoring some cows he took a spill — or rather, his horse Strongbow put a foot wrong. But then down he went. They said it only took a minute, but then Len got up slow and checked the big dun horse over before he got back on. I didn’t see how it went, since I was off looking for the other cow that needed a shot, that was holed up in a thicket, practically had to be dug out of there with a pitchfork.

But that night after supper Len pulls me aside for a talk. We go out the barn in the back of the tack room that he makes do for an office. He sets a little fire in the potbelly stove to take off the chill, lights an Aladdin lamp, then settles into an old armchair, and reaches down to pet his dog sprawled on the floor. Boney is an old cow dog that’s always been great on the drives. Boney, short for Bonaparte, works about as good as any mounted hand to turn the herd.

He starts off saying, You know, I can tell how a hand feels about the job and himself just by how his hat sets on his head. Practically says who you are.

Yeah?

I notice you practically always wear your big old black hat. You wouldn’t change it to set the points on your pickup. You wear it the same mending fence. Or catching a green horse.

What do you figure that means?

He says Something, though who’s to say. It’s always been clear to me you weren’t born to the life. You had to go learn it for yourself. But back somewhere you must of had horse people, everybody did, and farming folks, so it would be there in your blood come the need.

I study that a minute. Tell Len I had a female second cousin who kept chickens and knew her way around wild mushrooms, showed me a thing or two. Then I say You got an awful good dog there. Did you train each other, or did he raise you up from a pup?

That’s how he was when I got him. Sometimes you get lucky.

I’ve heard you tell the boys there’s no such thing as luck.

Probably speaking of gambling. Never pays to gamble. But sometimes cowboyin’ is all luck and nothing but. Just don’t tell ‘em I said that.

We talk horses a while. Len says Ol’ Strongbow is still the best I ever had, so far as that goes. I could ride Bow half a day with not much more than my knees. Turn my head and he looks to go that way. When I want him to pull up I lift the reins with a couple fingers off his neck, and he stops. That’s a horse. You had that Apache that would still be going strong, if he hadn’t stepped on that power line that come down in a snowstorm. We thought the power was out all over, didn’t know.

I tell Len I had a thought the other night when I couldn’t sleep. That maybe Apache thought that power line was a snake, sparking in the snow, and was trying to kill it. I recall how he once killed a big timber rattler in camp, pounced on it before I even noticed. Even so, we agree it was a hard way to go. He was a good horse. The way he worked cattle he same as read their minds.

But you know, now, my Strongbow just got old.

I heard today, all it was, he put a foot wrong.

Just between us he’s startin’ to stumble a little. Like he’s tired. But I wouldn’t want that getting around. Your Apache was a year or two older and still just as sharp as they come. Tell me, were you taking it easy on him? Holding back any?

Not so’s you’d notice.

I thought not. Some horses go on into their mid-late twenties. But there always comes a day.

Yeah.

Which is a goddamn shame. Could you use a snort, Ben?

I expect I could. We’re done for the evening.

So Len heaves up and reaches into the desk’s bottom drawer for the bottle he keeps there, and a couple glasses, which is, to hear Len tell it, strictly medicinal. We each get a good splash, and ring them together as he says To all the good horses and women, plus a couple of each that are wicked.

Then we taste the whiskey, study it in the dim light, feel the burn going down.

I think Strongbow same as told me today he’s about done with me.

He’s a tall horse, is all. It’s a good ways to the ground.

I didn’t break nothing, but I coulda. Layin’ there I rolled my head lookin’ around for my hat, and noticed a boulder alongside me the size of a dump truck, that coulda finished me.

There’s always close calls, Len, always will be. You know that. So here’s to near misses. Which are the ones you see. We raise our glasses and drink to that, and sit quiet a minute.

What I mean, Ben, it got my attention. I got Bow up on his feet, but come time we rode in, he was limping. I got down to take the load off, and let him walk that last mile, and damn if I wasn’t half-limpin’ myself.

Like they say, It’ll feel better in the morning, and look worse. Think you could spare another splash a that—what d’you call it?

Medicinal.

I reach for the bottle and splash us each some more.

Well, here, let this seep in your bones and see don’t it soften the hard knocks a little.

We lift and touch our glasses, then sip. Len says I really wanted to have your thoughts about a couple things.

Like what?

What do you think I should do?

Hell, I don’t know. You’re seriously thinking a quitting us? It’s occurred to me lately.

Look, Len. You’re good at it, in a way most people ain’t. The Kendricks family, ol’ Lionel and his little sister Lucille, they got no notion how damn good you are. You make it look easy, right where it’s anything but.

Len considers that a minute. Then he says Maybe it’s just the bottle talkin’, but I’m about done giving orders. Tired a the thinkin’ ahead an’ the plannin’, all that. Think I might find me a sweet little widow woman, and settle for the ride.

He looks up and over at me, says How does that strike you?

Sounds pretty damn good. But then what do I know? Never had much success with the ladies.

I know how that is. But it could change.

Maybe you could use a younger horse. You could run a little spread, and make a go. That piece you got is not so far from some federal grazing lands. You could sign up and run you some cows.

I could.

Besides, you might wake up tomorrow full a beans, and go scoutin’ that new horse. I’d be glad to help.

Len shakes his head, turns and looks right at me. Ben, he says, What do you see up ahead for yourself?

I’m not fillin’ your shoes. You got a dozen years on me, and I ain’t half the man.

You’re a top hand, Ben, the best we got. You got the smarts. You could ramrod this outfit.

Ol’ Lionel might just want to get him a new broom, and clean house.

He might. But to start with, he’ll do what I tell him, which means you’ll get your chance.

Len, face it. Lionel Kendricks don’t know I’m alive.

Well, you stick around, he soon will. When we come out to your place for that party for the Birdsalls, it was all he could talk about for a month.

That’s kind of you to say.

Just makes sense. So think about it, will you. Tomorrow maybe we can look around for that young horse, and put ol’ Strongbow out to pasture with a few old-timers, and see how he bounces back.

One more toast, Len.

All right.

There’s never a horse that couldn’t be rode

And never a cowboy that couldn’t be throwed.

We both laugh, and Len says Now ain’t that the truth.

A couple days later Len looks me up after breakfast, says We’ve got an invite to dinner tonight, up at the big house.

You sure about this?

All I done was put your name in the hat. You’re the one‘ll have to do the work. So quit your worryin’. Look here, they promoted me up off the place. May a been pure laziness, but I’ve never heard a complaint. Their daddy ol’ Gander Kendricks was a real cowboy. Far as that goes, so was his daddy before him. That’s why they picked me, and I think that’s still what they want. And it ain’t hard to see that’s what you are, no mistake. Just be straight with ‘em, and tell yourself if they’re partial to cowboys, you’re it. Otherwise, they’re idjits.

So I scrape off the dirt and whiskers, put on my Sunday best, and catch up with Len in the barn and walk with him up the hill in the twilight as the mourning doves start to call from the grove down by the creek, and the swallows swoop low after bugs.

There is Lionel holding forth in front of the big fireplace in the living room, with cedar kindling snapping and popping against the screen. His sister Lucille and her husband Anthony Depew the accountant look skinny and frail in a couple of overstuffed leather chairs. Then there is the lawyer and family friend Archie Mayhew, leaning on the mantle with his silver mane. Len leads me to Lionel, who shakes my hand, then makes introductions all around. I sense there are three parties here, maybe even three and a half. Lionel makes one, independent and unpredictable but in charge. His sister Lucille is another, both of them with agendas that reach back most of their lives. And then there are the retainers, of which Len Dawes is still one, and the most grounded as head of the day-to-day workings of the ranch, though Lucille’s husband Anthony does the ranch’s taxes and books, and Archie Mayhew handles all legal matters and administers the family trust, so between them hold legal and fiduciary sway. Out of the blue I remember Lucille and Anthony’s boys, and ask after Max and Tony Junior. It turns out they’re both upstairs doing homework and watching TV.

And it turns out they all recognize me, clear back to when I was on the spot when Gander Kendricks had his massive heart attack. Though I was still a boy I had helped carry him to the truck and lay him on the back seat, then rode in with Len to unload him at the hospital in town.

Lionel offers me something to drink, and I take a cold Dos Equis. Then they all want to hear what they call my story, which to them means family. I say there’s not much to tell, then lay out what little there is, about my father Randy Wilder a farm boy from outside Merced running an auto body shop in Fresno till the day of my eleventh birthday, when his car got hit by a train at a grade crossing. Faulty signal arm that never blinked or rang the bell or come down to stop him. With a new bike for me in the trunk, that got crushed with the box it came in. The day after his funeral me and my younger sister and brother got farmed out to relatives while Mom went looking for another man. Which I gather she never found before her end. How I ended up in San Angelo, Texas, with Clyde Hooper and his wife Mayellen, who was actually my mom’s cousin so my second cousin, but still a pretty good egg. But Clyde taken a belt to me when I was 17, come in late from a school dance with beer on my breath, and I had hit him with a tub full of dirty dishes it was my job to wash, grabbed my coat and lit out right there in the middle of the night. Slept under some bushes out at the west end of town, and over the next couple days I walked the roads, hitchhiked around lookin’ for work. And got lucky, hired on as kitchen helper at a ranch, the Lazy B. I’d already learned a little cooking from Mayellen, who kept chickens and showed me how to scout wild mushrooms. I could chop and peel like a demon, caught on quick and was never scared of work. Pretty soon they had me going on a drive as chuck wagon cook. Along the way I learned riding and roping and driving their team of mules as I went.

So how come you’re not still on the Lazy B? Lionel is nothing if not direct.

They needed a cook too bad to let me try anything else.

Sounds like you tried it all anyhow. What kind of a cook were you?

Fair to middling. I know to taste what I’m cooking. But the hands wanted it all plain vanilla, where I kept wanting to fool around, spice it up a little.

So you didn’t last?

I trained my first horse in the hours I had off between meals. That next season I moved on, and at the Rockin’ R Ranch didn’t mention kitchen work at all. Told ‘em I was fit to make a top hand some day, though I still had to borrow a saddle. Worked that place two years, and wore out the old one they lent me.

And why’d you leave there?

Tell you the truth, I’d heard about the K-Bar. Liked what I heard, so I gave my notice and come out to give you a try.

You quit that other job, before you even laid eyes on this place?

Yessir.

Lotta confidence for a youngster. What exactly did you hear?

Mostly little things. That you had a good ramrod, for one. All the boys knew about Len, that he was calm and fair, and said what he thought. Heard your horses were fine. And mostly how the grub was good.

Everybody laughed.

It may have been all rumors an’ dumb luck, but I found what I was looking for.

How long you been here now?

Goin’ on thirty-two years.

With that Lionel looks over at Len, then turns to me and says I’d like to hear your thoughts about any changes to the place. When I give Len the eye, he tips back his head and looks away, as if to let me know I’m on my own, so don’t go so far out on a limb I can’t get myself back. I say I been around long enough to figure out why some things are done like they are, but not everything. So maybe it’s too soon for changes. How about if I tell you a few things I like about the K-Bar, that should never change.

All right.

Well, first thing is how you don’t have the whole place covered in roads. Old State Route 6 works just fine for trucking livestock to market. The trails you got take a little upkeep, but not a thing like roads. It’s the trails that keep the place working horses, which is how it ought to be.

Why is that?

You’ve seen places that work their cattle with those stinkpot ATVs. Keeps the livestock nervous, all stirred up. Don’t gain weight so easy, I suspect.

And with that, one of the kitchen help steps in to announce dinner is served. When Lucille and Anthony’s two boys come down from upstairs, they step up, say their names and shake my hand, then we all go in and sit down. Here come platters of steaks and steamed vegetables and baked potatoes and whatnot, and they uncork a couple bottles of wine to pass around. Then for a little while it’s just like the boys in the bunk house—no more talk, just the serious sounds of eating, china and cutlery and such.

After dinner we go back out to the fireplace in the big hall. Lucille, that only her brother calls Lucy, approaches me and asks what I know about their mother Eleanor. I say I remember her and her taste in clothes and fancy things. And her carriage, how straight she held herself, though she got thin as a rail in the years that I knew her.

What do you figure she thought of this place?

I didn’t get to see her all that much, but expect she cared about it a good deal.

Why is that?

She knew most of the livestock by name, and seemed to watch over them. Last time we talked she asked after Dockerty, our old kitchen mule.

The last twenty years of her life she lived in that downstairs front room in the oldest part of the house, Lucille says, pointing across the hall. Kept her binoculars right there on the window sill.

She was from back East, wasn’t she?

Yes, but it’s not what you’d expect. There is something in Lucille’s tone of voice that quiets the others, who had been talking about how different breeds of cattle stand the heat. She says Eleanor grew up on a farm in New Hampshire, that had a regular dairy herd. Did you ever hear any stories about when she was a child?

I shake my head. The others are listening intently.

Eleanor could just barely walk when she started following the milk cows round the pasture. It was hard to keep her from doing it, or even keep track of her once she could work a doorknob. So this one muddy spring morning she was out following the cows when she stumbled and fell face-down in a drainage ditch and got stuck. Well, their oldest smartest cow Hulga had been watching. She came over and bent down and worked one of her horns up under the straps on the baby’s overalls, and picked her up in the air. There that muddy little girl was, hanging up on the side of old Hulga’s head, blinking, not making a sound. Then the old cow turned around and plodded back to the barnyard, and stood by the fence with all the other cows around, till somebody noticed them. That limp little baby girl all covered in mud hanging there never cried or squirmed or anything. Finally her mama happened to look out from the house, and came rushing out onto the porch, followed by all the rest. Then they all got quiet, and whispered to each other back and forth. You know what they were saying, Ben?

Who knew and liked that old cow the best.

Exactly. Then their old hand, Virgil, who did most of the milking, walked out to the fence, climbed over and talked to Hulga a little, unhooked the baby and lifted her down.

Lionel came over to Lucille, and said Lucy, where’d you hear all that?

From Eleanor, on one of her shopping trips. We’d have lunch when she’d come to the city.

How come I never heard that one?

She didn’t think it was something to be proud of. She said she didn’t remember all that much, just the mud in her eyes and nose, and the taste of it in her mouth. But her mama and old Virgil told her all about it, plus a couple of the older kids who’d been there.

I bet she felt that bond with animals her whole life.

Lucille looks up at me, nods and smiles.

Then Lionel says I think we’ve about heard enough, and these boys likely need their rest. Len Dawes laughs, then everyone eases out onto the porch to shake hands and see us off.

They all wave and watch us go, then turn back inside.

As we crunch along in the dark on the gravel, I ask Len how he thought it went. He says I think that old lady from beyond the grave same as picked you out herself.

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