An idea, a dream of what could be, comes easily to me. In my mind I can see my farm, a place of production and beauty, right down to the tiniest detail. My farm is built of all the best memories and comforts I knew as a child. During the Winter, the golden rays of sunshine reach through the south facing windows, warming a boy that stands there, looking out at the snow. Mint tea is brewing on the wood-burning stove and apple pies are baking in the oven. In the Spring the barn has calves in every stall, and stanchions for milking the cows. The loft is stacked with sweet smelling grass hay that leaves little seed burrs in my flannel shirt. I tell the kids to be careful coming up and down the ladder, because one time I knocked the breath out of myself falling backward off of the barn ladder. “Okay, Daddy,” they say and swing on my arms, laughing. Then after chores, we head back to the house with our buckets full of frothy, warm milk. Waiting for us on the porch is a smiling and pretty girl who loves this life as much as I do.
It's all so real—in my mind—I feel like it exists somewhere and I just need to find it.
In reality, I have forty acres of dry New Mexico mountain land that's short on grass and only the foundation for a house. As for a wife, I'd never met a girl, other than my own sisters, who'd want to live the way I do. The amount of work ahead of me, the lack of money to ease the labor, and the fact there was nobody to share it with was starting to get me down. Truth be told, I'd rather close my eyes and recall the dream of what could be.
I sighed and squatted on my heels to search for the sprouting grass seed I'd scattered in early winter before the first snow.
“A little bit at a time,” I said aloud to encourage myself. My horse, Roy, turned his head to blow a breath of warm moist air on the back of my neck. The afternoon sunshine coming over the ridge warmed my back as I hunched over and looked across the surface of the bare clay soil. The red rock canyon across the valley gleamed rust-orange in the afternoon light. Darker streaks decorated the sand stone walls with garnet-red where the rain and melting snow had run down. There, in a stand of large ponderosa pines, just to the side of the canyon, was where I planned to build my house this year. I loved the colors and the textures of this mountain. I glanced back down at the bare soil and ran my hand over the surface.
“Not a blade in sight,” I muttered to Roy, who blew on the back of my neck again. “And look at that—unopened grass seed all over the place! What the heck?”
Behind me I heard the sound of pounding hooves, and I turned on my heels, expecting Jake or Ramona.
It was Dad, and I stood up in surprise. It'd been a long time since I'd seen Dad ride. He was mounted on Clementine, our herd mule.
Clementine has the usual mule disposition.The problem with a mule is that it's smarter than a horse and particular about who can ride it, touch it, and even be around it. Because of this, you have to be pretty smart and ornery yourself or the mule will end up in charge. Dad was doing alright, but he looked completely preoccupied, trying to keep Clementine under control. As soon as they arrived, he slid out of the saddle and heaved a sigh of relief.
Clementine was glad to see me, being of the opinion that I was her real owner. Easy-going Roy was competition for my affections, so Clementine showed him her teeth to let him know he was outmatched.
“Hey, Dad. Is everything okay?” I asked, taking Clementine's reins from him.
He laughed and nodded breathlessly beneath his boonie hat. Dad never could bring himself to wear a cowboy hat or boots. He was more of a geek than a rancher. A short beard, (“I take after my Mom” he says when Navajo cousins ask how he grows a beard) covered the lower half of his face, and round wire-rimmed glasses hid the dark eyes that spent too much time looking at a computer screen. Dad's web work makes the money we need to keep the farm going, but he's always aiming for a day when the farm will be self-sustaining enough for him to join me and Jake outside.
“Uncle Lonnie called in a panic,” Dad said when he'd caught his breath. “He says there's a mountain lion out back of their hogan1 watching Aunt Eulalia's sheep. He's pawned his gun and doesn't know what to do. He wants us to come over and shoot it.” Dad laughed and gestured at the 30.06 in it's leather case, strapped to the back of the saddle on Clementine.
“It'll be gone by the time we get there,” I said, but I was already mounting Clementine. A chance to shoot a mountain lion wasn't something I wanted to miss. “You ride Roy, Dad. He'll be easier for you to handle.”
“I was hoping you'd say that.” He mounted Roy, and we started off toward Uncle Lonnie's at a slow gallop.
“How big was it?” I asked, keeping Clementine's reins tight and low.
“Well, by Lonnie's description it's as big as a horse, but I've never heard of one over 190 pounds out in this area.”
“That's bigger than me,” I commented. “I can't imagine a cat that big.”
Coming off of the narrow trail that leads to my land, we began to follow the main dirt road toward Lonnie's place. The snows had been melting and the road was muddy in the low spots.
People joke about reservation roads. We have more potholes than a golf ball has texture. When I was a kid, I always wanted to ride in the back of the truck and sing, so the washboard surface of the road would give me an exaggerated vibrato. Grandpa told me that's why Indians sing the way they do. Huh-ya-ya-ya. . .
“Your place looks great, Will,” Dad said as he and Roy pulled up along side Clementine. She laid back her ears and tried to turn her head to nip at Roy, but I straightened her head even as the thought crossed her mind.
“Yeah, but all that grass seed I planted isn't coming up,” I answered, shaking my head and letting the frustration catch up with me. “Just bare seed laying everywhere on the ground.”
“Really?” Dad was clearly surprised. “The seeds aren't even opening?”
I shook my head. “Nope. And it's not going to get any wetter than it is.”
“Don't let it get you down, son,” Dad said, over his shoulder as Roy lunged ahead of me. “It's just something we don't understand yet.”
“There's a lot I don't understand,” I agreed, thinking over my situation.
“What else don't you understand?” Dad asked, suddenly pulling Roy into a walk. I guess Dad figured Lonnie and the lion could wait.
I grinned ruefully and shook my head.
“Come on, what are you moaning about?” Dad persisted, laughing.
“How did you find Mom?” I threw my pride aside with the wave of one hand. “How do you find a girl that wants to live this way? A girl that will stay with you and not leave you?”
Dad didn't laugh at me. He didn't even smile or chuckle, but I could see he was thinking. Sometimes it takes Dad a long time to answer a question. Mom says it's because he doesn't make small talk, only real talk. When I was a kid I'd lose focus and run off before he responded to my questions. In time, I learned to wait, knowing I'd eventually get an answer.
“I don't know if you can find a girl like that,” he answered at last, heaving a deep sigh. “You can look for a girl that's happy. And you want a woman that's comfortable with being a woman. But in the end, it's about you. It's about living your life without fear.”
“Without fear?” I asked, shaking my head at his unexpected conclusion.
“Yeah,” Dad answered with more assurance, as he turned to look at me. “Yeah. You either live life with fear, or with love. If you're afraid of what might happen, you've lost before you've even gotten started. But, if when you run into trouble, you stand back and say, ‘Now how does this work?' and enjoy the time you have for figuring it out . . then you've won even when things aren't going as planned.”
“What does that have to do with a woman?” I asked, doubting my Dad's reasoning.
“Because a woman needs a man that's not afraid. A man that's loving life and loving her without fear of losing her. If she leaves, she leaves. If she dies, she dies. It's going to hurt like hell. But you know what—fearing it ahead of time isn't going to stop it or fix it. Enjoying every moment to the fullest is the best you can do. The very best.”
“And not being afraid will keep a woman from leaving you?” I was trying to pin down a rule that might reassure me. Uncle Lonnie's place was in sight, and I felt a little desperate to get ahold of whatever Dad was saying before we got there.
“Nope. If she's a real, living being, that possibility will always exist. You want a girl that will stay forever, but you can only control yourself—not her. So let go of her at the very beginning. Love her, and do what is right by her, but don't make your life dependent on her staying. If she leaves or dies, grieve, but don't let it destroy you. Let it grow you and teach you. But. . .” he added, and paused a few seconds before continuing, “I would say that if you can do that, you're more likely to get a woman that will stay and be happy with you.”
“So. . . expect her to leave and she'll be more likely to stay?” I asked, still wanting an absolute I could put faith in, even if it was grim. Dad laughed and Roy broke into a trot.
“No!” he answered firmly. “That's living by fear again. Live by love. Love what you have this very minute. Love the land you're building on, the ornery character of a mule you're riding, the breeze that smells like melting snow and wet dirt, and the fact that you're not grieving for a wife that died or left you, but still looking forward to one that might stay forever.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling sheepish. Then I laughed at my own morbid outlook, which now seemed preposterous and gloomy. It was like turning around and seeing a completely different point of view, one with a much wider scope of possibilities.
“You see?” Dad asked, as we rode up to Lonnie's hogan. Like all traditional Navajo homes, the door faced east, so Lonnie's octagonal house was backlit by the western sun. Smoke was pouring through the chimney and a couple of half-starved dogs stuck their heads out of the plastic doghouse and whined.
“Yes. I see. But I still don't know how to find a good wife,” I added, unwilling to concede his response an answer to my question.
“Now that you can see, you might find her,” Dad answered, winking at me.
He exclaimed in surprise as the front door suddenly flung open and Lonnie came rushing out, his eyes as round as silver dollars. Aunt Eulalia stood in the doorway behind him, wringing her hands and shaking her head in mute distress.
“It's eating one of the lambs!” Uncle Lonnie cried in terror. “Behind the house! It jumped into the corral and dragged one out. Hurry, you gotta kill it. Be careful. It ain't scared of nothing!”
I started to dismount, but Clementine suddenly lunged forward with her nose in the air. My rump hit the saddle with a thud, and my right foot hurriedly found the stirrup again. Clementine headed around to the backside of Lonnie's hogan, her dense muscles quivering beneath the saddle.
I'd seen her look like that before, right after we brought her home, when she was just a long-legged yearling. When we opened the trailer for her, she jumped out and took one look at the herd of miniature cattle we'd brought her to guard, and then promptly took off running straight at them. She swung her backside around and before we knew what she was up to, she proceeded to kick every one of them until they were all running in terror. I was mad and ready to go rope her and put her right back in the trailer, but Dad laughed until tears ran down his face.
“She won't really hurt them,” he explained. “She's just telling them that she's the boss now.”
And she was. Clementine ruled the herd with a rod of iron, but she also kept them safe. Every now and then we'd find a dead coyote or wild dog in the pasture, trampled to smithereens by Oh-My-Darlin'.
I was trying to turn her head and keep her from following the mountain lion's scent. A full grown lion is a whole different story than a skinny coyote. But Clementine's neck and mouth were made of iron and without a backward glance at me she continued forward on stiff, cautious legs, going exactly as fast as she meant to go. Dad dismounted Roy, leaving him standing in front of the hogan, and ran after me on foot pleading with me all the way to stop Clementine.
“I'm trying!” I yelled, hauling on the left rein. Then we rounded the corner and my blood ran cold. I let go of the reins and turned in the saddle, desperately trying to get the rifle untied. That lion was the biggest, most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. It scared the living daylights out of me to be sitting there, thirty feet from it and completely unarmed. The tawny muscular form glittered like gold in the light and the heavy muscles rippled beneath the lion's fur as it turned to face us. Clementine lunged forward and then jerked to a sudden halt with her legs all spread apart like a rocking horse. I had to turn and grab the saddle horn to keep my balance. The gun fell to the ground with a dull thud.
The lion's lips drew upward and away from her sharp, white teeth as she snarled and crouched, unwilling to leave her prey. There was blood on her face from the dead lamb beneath her paws. For a split second, the lion locked eyes with me as she gathered her muscular form, ready to spring into action. Then suddenly she turned away in a last second decision to escape. This was the moment Clementine had been waiting for. I held on for dear life as that crazy mule charged into battle.
I'd ridden a bucking horse before, but that had a rhythm to it that was faintly predictable. Staying on Clementine while she alternately kicked, lunged, and reared up on her back legs was a new experience all together. With unabashed terror, I clung to the saddle horn and gave all my attention to staying on board. Large cat snarls and mule screams filled the air.
Behind me Lonnie was shouting nonsensical encouragement at the top of his voice. Dad was praying at the top of his. One of them was holding the gun, waiting for a clear shot, but Clementine wouldn't stop fighting long enough for me to see who it was. She was full of rage and determination to kill the biggest coyote of her career. At one point, I remember seeing her fling the lion over her head, around and around, with the tail in her teeth. Finding it difficult to absorb the extremity of my situation, I made a mundane mental note that the saddle was loose and I'd need to tighten it before we headed home.
Then, as suddenly as it began, it was over. Clementine stood quivering from head to foot like a leaf in the wind. But where was the lion? I looked around and into the distance, expecting to see her running for the trees. The silence was deafening after the uproar I'd just been through. Then I heard Dad whisper from somewhere behind me.
“She killed it. Oh-My-Darlin' killed a lion!”
I looked straight down through blurry vision and realized that Clementine was standing on the battered remains of the cougar. She turned her head to look at me and there was gold-colored fur in her teeth.
“I killed the varmint,” her glance said. “You're safe now.”
Uncle Lonnie's lips were pursed as though he were holding back a scream. Suddenly his eyes rolled back and he fainted dead away. Dad caught him by the left wrist before he hit the ground, and stood there holding the gun in one hand and Uncle Lonnie's arm in the other as though they were of equal value and a pair of some sort. Uncle Lonnie's prone body lay on the ground beside him, the large round of his belly still heaving rapidly from the adrenaline rush. Dad stared at me with startled eyes from behind his wire rimmed glasses. His boonie hat had fallen off and lay in the dust near mine some distance behind him.
“Are you alright, Will?” he asked with a shaking voice.
“I think so,” I said, reaching for Clementine's reins, which were laying halfway up her neck. She quietly turned around and walked back toward Dad, standing there as placid as I'd ever seen her. Even her trembling had stopped, and except for the yellow fur on her lips, I'd suspect myself of having dreamt the whole thing.
“Now that's a rodeo event I've never seen before,” Dad commented at last. We both laughed, nervously at first, and then with real mirth.
Aunt Eulalia peeked timidly around the corner and then screamed at the sight of Uncle Lonnie laying unconscious on the ground.
“Is he dead?” she moaned, covering her face with her hands. Lonnie stirred and looked up at Dad, who was still holding him by the wrist.
“Am I dead?” he repeated. I wasn't sure if he was pressing for an answer or marveling at the question.
“No,” Dad answered with a short laugh. “And neither is Will. But that cat sure is. You won't get a nice cougar hide to go with this story.”
“I don't want a cougar hide,” Uncle Lonnie protested weakly. “I don't want a dead cougar either.”
“We'll drag the bodies into the arroyo,” Dad reassured him, finally letting go of Lonnie's arm to walk around Clementine.
“Not a scratch on her,” he said with wonder. “But look at that claw mark on the saddle, right behind you. It's a good thing you were riding high and tight. That could have been your back laid open.”
I shuddered as I examined the furrow in the rawhide of the saddle seat, only inches from my lower back. Then I noticed a long tear in my heavy canvas jacket. The she-lion must have reached out a paw as she sailed over me with her tail in Clementine's teeth.
“That was too close for comfort,” I agreed, fingering the eight-inch opening.
“I've heard of mules killing lions before,” Dad went on, leaning down to look under Clementine and check her undersides. “But never with a rider. That was a sight to see. Mom's going to faint away like Lonnie.”
“I didn't faint,” Uncle Lonnie denied, finally sitting up. He shielded his eyes with his hand to avoid the sight of the dead lion and lamb. “I just felt a little lightheaded is all.”
He got up and went over to Aunt Lali, who was still crying and shaking all over. They went back into the hogan and closed the door without saying another word.
Dad and I didn't laugh at their fear. I knew a dead lion was about as bad as a live one in Navajo culture. It was bad luck to be near an animal that had died of misfortune, while butchering or hunting was just fine. Dad was different than his Navajo cousins. His mom, Grandma May, had been Dutch and didn't approve of “superstitions.”
“It might be bad luck,” Dad commented as we dragged the bodies of the dead animals toward the arroyo in the distance. “But in my experience, luck favors Morgans and mules.”