The Man got up early to catch his horse. Billy was his best mare. She could almost chase cows herself, and she loved the thrill of it which made the man feel as one with the beast. They’ve been working together for years and had one of the rare relationships that God gives certain creatures.
Not like the ATV’s, though. The mindless machines couldn’t handle the creeks and bluffs his land featured. They would get stuck or in a spot that would leave the man to have to go around for miles if he didn’t beat the cattle to the crossing. No. He preferred horses and in all of his 50 years of cowboying, Billy was his best. From the ponies he had while growing up, to the professionally trained horses, this was the one.
Besides, the ride through hill country in central Kansas helped clear his mind. No cell phone reception at certain places in the area, no dirt roads for sections at a time, no bankers calling on loans he needed to deliver on. He was a conscientious person; one of the nicest, hard-working men who knew how to get the job done.
His wife of 28 years had made him hot coffee before he left. She was the very essence of a rancher’s wife. She cooked and cleaned, she wormed and treated the cattle, she bottle fed and tagged the calves. She had also raised three of their children. They were off to college and in their own lives now, but the work hadn’t lessened when they left.
He nudged Billy to the south-east, just to the right of the rising sun and into the pasture. He brought pliers and extra wire in case he had to let the fence down, especially if it was a neighbor’s fence. Bulls don’t exactly respect man-made boundaries, particularly if they are pressured by a man and his horse. They also don’t chase like other cattle. There was a technique that required the horse to stay in their sight at all times, either on the left or right of them. This constant weaving back and forth behind the bull was tiresome at times, but necessary. Once a cowboy understood that, it was a lot easier to read their next move before it happened.
Despite this, bulls could be very unpredictable. And if the bulls didn’t get the Man, then there were plenty of other things that could. Rattle snakes were uncommon, but they were a real threat when they appeared. The Man had only seen four in all his years while atop a horse, and had always avoided them nicely.
She had only been married two years and already knew it would be harder than she thought. Salina was barely a metropolis, but this was God’s country out here. She reckoned that if she wasn’t going to see another woman soon, she would be out of her head with madness. And the wind doesn’t help. The only trees around limited themselves to the small creeks. Nothing on that prairie would slow down the wind.
Not that they weren’t far from town, but it took half the morning to drive the buggy to Russell seven miles west of their homestead. Bunker Hill was closer to the south, but their church was in Russell.
This day was even better. They were celebrating the town’s 10 years as a county seat. A social was planned for later that day with all the churches participating. The Woman had to walk to the nearest creek to pick the best mulberries for her jam. Her mother had taught her how to can for the winter, but she still hated the process. She also brought a fresh loaf of bread and poppy-seed kolachies.
It was difficult to do this extra cooking on top of chores and keeping their sod house clean. Nothing was free from the dirt in there, and the constant wind made everything worse. They had to live in that God-forsaken hill until her husband finished their rock house. The native limestone was brutal to work with but it was very efficient. On rare occasions the Woman had visited their neighbors halfway to town. It was cooler in the summer and if it was well-built, warmer in the winter.
Now, though, the Woman uncovered her basket she was taking to the church social and waited for Nick to bring the buggy around. They were once again going to be late. She sighed contentedly, standing outside she enjoyed the spring Kansas morning. Raw and unforgiving, this country was still beautiful to her.
The Man had combed the pasture with hardly any indication of where the bulls were. He had been riding for an hour through each little valley and each rise of steep hills. Billy’s feet were sure and although he was officially working, he was enjoying the warming air. Soon, though, the creek would be stifling. Since at noon the air quit moving through the bottom, he wanted to finish before dinner time. Besides, he had other cattle to check in different pastures, not to mention a river crossing on the Smoky Hill River in the south pasture that needed fixing from the latest rain up river. It always washed out even if their area didn’t get any rain, which was typical.
The Man reached the spot where the bulls got out. He could tell where Buffalo Bill had pushed through the barbed wire fence. Buffalo Bill was his best bull but he was always causing trouble. Once he broke out of the corrals at the vet’s in Russell and ran south across I-70. It took an hour and three ropes to get him back in the trailer.
The Man left the fence down knowing cattle typically returned to where they got out. Billy crossed the road and climbed the other ditch into CRP land. The electric fence there was down as well so the Man expertly maneuvered Billy over the downed wire. Only 10 yards in, a pheasant jumped out and flew away, fluttering and making all the noise it could, probably to lure them away from its nest.
Billy barely jumped and stayed on course. The Man had a good idea where to look. The next pasture over had many trees and a creek going through the entire half-section. He had never been through the whole pasture, but he knew his neighbor wouldn’t mind as long as he put things back where they belonged.
He put Billy into a lope and headed into the first gully.
The Woman had a slight frame. She barely put any weight on the buggy. Nick, on the other hand, was a burly man. The buggy leaned considerably and they proceeded to town with an inherent hitch.
The horse plodded along and the young couple talked about their week. Nick worked hard and came home late every night. He really wanted to get his wife out of that darn sod house. He knew she hated it but never had he heard her complaining about the dirt. It wasn’t what she was used to growing up in town and he tried hard to please her, but he feared that he had failed.
The Woman bounced along in the buggy pleased as pie to be accompanying her handsome husband to town. She knew he could have picked any girl from the county, but he was hers, and she loved him.
She gazed across the endless prairie. She could see for miles and on this day the wind was not blowing. A peaceful morning led them to Russell, the sun kissed her shoulders and threw a short shadow in front of them.
Even though the hills appeared to roll and slope, the rough grass and small ruts pervaded the land’s smooth appearance. The buggy jostled them up and down, from one side to the other. The woman hoped this trip wouldn’t be too much for her. She had pondered how to tell Nick, but she wanted to wait until her mother replied to her letter from last week.
Nick was going to be a father.
The wreckage fascinated the Man. It must have been a hell of a wreck. There were parts of an old buggy strewn everywhere for 25 yards. For someone to leave it as it lay meant it was not salvageable. He picked up the rusted step. It fell apart from the frame it was attached to. The bend and twist from the original shape had to be from the initial wreck.
Billy was ground tied, eating wild oats growing 10 yards away. The man had inherited the ranch from his father who had helped his father with the homestead 70 years ago. He knew who all the families in the area were and the names of the previous generation. His roots ran deep in this land and he wondered what could have happened to the people in the buggy. Was it on its way from town? Had it carried one or two people? Was it a borrowed rig that caused hardships between families? He probably would never know.
The Man tossed the buggy step aside and remounted Billy. They still had work to do.
After three miles the woman was running out of things to say. Nick was still tired from working on the rock house so he had quit initiating conversation. Her mind kept returning to the family they were soon to have. She knew it was dangerous out there alone and vulnerable in her condition, and the risks were paramount. She wanted to wait a few more weeks anyway; she still hadn’t figured out a way to tell Nick.
The buggy rolled its way through a small gully. Only one more mile until they would arrive at the Daubers, their closest neighbors. The bottom of that gully was flat for long enough that Nick had begun to use that path on his way to town. It was smoother down there than on the top of the rough hills that were eroded with rain wash and deer paths. They followed the creek’s natural weaving through the land.
She didn’t even have time to yell out Nick’s name. The snake struck at their horse like lightning. All she had time for was to inhale and try to hold on. Nick’s weight had caused the buggy to catapult her into the air. She landed with a sickening thud into a clump of tall grass just off the path.
Nick sat down beside his wife’s body and couldn’t get himself back up.
The Man had barely started Billy into a trot when the rare side step caused the mare to go down. Her hoof caught on the lip of a cow path at the top edge that led down into the creek. Horse and rider tumbled and rolled, but only the horse got back up.
Billy sniffed her rider, shook the dust off, and grazed back to the patch of oats.