“Two feet to the right, Jake,” I called. I straightened up from sighting down the small post I'd pushed into the ground. Each one of the hard, plastic posts was shaped like a pogo stick, with foot holds for pushing the metal tip into the ground. Jake shoved his fence post into the ground forty feet away from me. Next we stretched the electric wire, finishing up my first official paddock for grazing.
Soon, my cattle would be making their way around this pasture, paddock by paddock, puncturing the hard clay surface with their sharp hooves, allowing moisture to enter the ground. Meanwhile they'd be spreading fertilizer and trampling the inedible sage brush so that I wouldn't have to bring out a tractor and pull it up. The only equipment I needed was this electric fence. I set the solar panel facing southwest, more or less, and turned on the fence.
The faint hum of the electricity coursing through the wire made us both stand back from the fence and look at it in uneasy silence for a moment.
Someday I'll get myself some trained herd dogs.
“How do you know if it's enough to keep the cows in?” Jake asked.
I shook my head, checking the gauge on the voltage meter, and moved it down to 2,000 volts, the recommendation for most cattle.
I could see what was coming next; Jake's curiosity was getting the best of him. I had a hard time keeping my own face straight and serious when I looked up at my brother's laughing countenance. Jake has a grin so wide it leaves creases in his face at the corners of his smile. It's one of those impetuous and cantankerous grins that makes you laugh along with him, even if you disagree with the prank he's about to pull.
“Maybe you should touch it and find out,” Jake persisted. He moved teasingly into a position where he could shove me backward into the electric wire.
I puckered my eyebrows, and pulled down the corners of my mouth, which were twitching with the urge to laugh.
“Okay. . . I will if you'll hold my hand,” I said with the appearance of reluctance. I trustingly continued to fiddle with the meter.
“Why? What will that do?” Jake asked curiously. He straightened out of his threatening stance.
“Make me feel better—you know, moral support,” I answered. Jake frowned suspiciously and took a step backward, wincing and limping on one foot.
“Moral support! Are you for real?”
“No, man, I'm just joking,” I admitted, and Jake laughed, wincing again as he started to walk toward me. He sat down on the ground and pulled off one of his boots.
“Dang pine needles. One of us has got to touch it and find out how strong it is, you know,” he persisted, grinning up at me with mischief in his eyes.
I sighed, Jake was right. One or both of us was in for a shocking experience.
I watched him pull off his second boot and turn it upside down. Gravel and pine needles tumbled out and onto the ground.
Before he had the chance to put his boots back on, I reached out my hand toward him and said with firm resolution, “You're right, Jake. I'll touch the wire if you'll hold onto me and pull me away if it's too strong and I can't let go.” Jake's eyebrows were raised with respect as he reached out to grip my wrist.
“Sure,” he said. “Are you sure you want to do that?”
“You might feel some current through me,” I warned him.
He squared his shoulders in preparation for the trial of manhood ahead of us and crouched low in his socks, braced and ready to pull me away from the fence.
“What if it knocks you out or something?” he asked with last-minute concern. Then he gripped my wrist so hard my fingers tingled.
“It won't,” I answered, and reached out toward the wire. I touched the fence wire with the back of my hand.
The sharpest pang I felt was a small one of something resembling guilt, but not quite as morally compelling. This was the chance of lifetime.
“WOOOOAH—!” Jake shouted, jerking and fighting to get away from the fence. The electricity in the wire coursed harmlessly through my body and grounded through his bare feet. With the strength of pure adrenaline, he yanked on my arm and threw me away from the fence. I stumbled, caught my balance, and looked back at him. His eyes were as big and round as Sue's butter cookies.
“Holy crap!” he gasped. “That was crazy! Are you okay?”
“Oh, I didn't think it was that bad. Maybe you're allergic to electricity or something,” I suggested with innocent concern.
“Allergic to electricity!” Jake roared. “Didn't you feel that?”
“I felt you whipping around like laundry on a clothesline in March,” I admitted, fighting the growing urge to laugh.
“You didn't feel the electricity? It felt like getting hit with a hundred pound hay bale! Why didn't you feel it? Was that a trick?” Jake was rubbing the back of his neck and jumping around like he needed to pee. I couldn't hold back my laughter anymore, and moved safely away from the fence to explain what had happened.
“The electricity grounded through you because you were barefoot. It always follows the path of least resistance. I hardly felt it all. . . I told you that you might feel some current through me,” I added with a grin. I watched his reaction, ready to roll with his weight if he came at me. But Jake, true to nature, burst out laughing as well, impressed with my joke on him.
“We've got to do that to Mona!” he exclaimed. “The next time she comes out here—don't tell her—I'll get her to hold my hand—”
“No you won't. You don't do that kind of thing to girls.” I shook my head.
“But, what about Dad? Do you think he'd be mad?”
“He'd know better.”
“What about Grandpa?” Jake persisted, but this time with some self-doubt in evidence. “Nah. Bad idea,” he answered himself. “Besides, he'd never take off his boots.”
Then he noticed my cautious stance and grinned, and I knew the joke was on me now. Jake rushed me, and I steeled myself for the blow of his hard body.
We went rolling in the dirt, each of us trying to get the other in a headlock. I couldn't believe my little brother was big enough to wrestle me down. It was that lack of caution on my part—the over-confidence that I would always win—that resulted in me finding myself pinned to the ground by my little brother. He grinned down at me and opened his mouth to gloat, but I swung my right leg up and around his neck and threw him off. He might have been as big as me, but he had less experience. We sat in the dirt facing each other and gasping for breath.
“I had you for a minute there,” Jake said at last.
“You did,” I admitted. “I'm going to have to stop wrestling you.”
“Not until I whip you good, at least once,” Jake asserted adamantly.
“Let's go get my herd,” I answered, reaching for my hat which lay in the dust nearby.
My herd was in the Big Pasture which lay a little north of the lake and Grandpa's cabin. My cows were separated from Dad's by a wire fence. Now it was time to move them up the valley and onto my own land. Between my forty-acres, and the main piece of our family land, lay a square mile of unused forest land.
We mounted our horses and rode down the wide watershed, heading south. It was a beautiful late spring day and the valley was busy with jackrabbits nibbling on the early foliage.
“Elk!” Jake whispered. Thirty yards away a herd of eight elk lifted their heads to look at us.
We pulled the horses to a stop and stood there in silence, watching the wild animals as they nervously tried to determine whether or not we were a threat. There were some newborns, long-legged and wide-eyed. Their ears were turning backwards and frontwards as they tried to keep track of every sound and signal. The elk cows moved the little ones to the middle of the herd while keeping an anxious eye on us. Elk are not afraid of horses and cows and will often graze along with them, but our horses seemed different, and the elk were apprehensive.
A large bull elk came out of the trees and stepped out in front of his harem, swinging his head from side to side with a slow and powerful grace. He still carried the wide rack that sported eleven dangerous points. Any day now those antlers would fall off, and a new pair would begin growing. By winter he'd have a brand new, impressive set of antlers.
The elk bull lifted his head and sniffed the air, gathering information about his surroundings. The muscles in his neck and chest rippled as he turned toward his cows as though to give instruction with just a glance and a snort.
“These horses have men with them,” I felt him say in that brief glance and gesture. The communication was sufficient; his cows and calves followed him up the western ridge and into the ponderosa, some of them pausing halfway up the incline to look back and watch us pass by.
Jake let out a sigh and smiled, but had nothing to say.
Last year's dry, dead grass was thigh-deep here, having never been grazed by cattle or sheep. Cattle, horses, and sheep are usually locked onto a piece of land with fencing until they graze it to death. The elk came and went, and the land didn't seem to mind them passing through from time to time.
I saw young mullein leaves nibbled back to the core. There were grass tops cropped down to the base clumps where new green was beginning to peek through the old covering. The grass was all flattened in a narrow area sheltered by trees. The elk had bedded down overnight there. Half circles in the grass outlined the places where the heavy bodies had rested.
Further on a jackrabbit jumped out right in front of us and startled Gray Lady, Jake's mount. She reared up on her hind legs and bolted down the valley. Jake threw me one flashing grin over his shoulder and then he was gone, galloping out of sight. Roy pranced a little, wanting to follow. But I kept him at a walk, my eyes searching ahead for new prairie dog holes. I'd checked before, a few weeks earlier, and I was pretty sure our path wasn't booby-trapped by the little marmot-like critters that have dug holes all over the southwest. However, they were known to spread out and dig new quarters in the spring. I continued to search for fresh piles of dirt, the tale-tell evidence of a prairie dog.
Jake was no where in sight when I rode up to the back fence of our big pasture, and I decided he must have gone up to the house for some reason. I rode down the fence, calling for the herd. In a few minutes, they came running out of a canyon further down the valley and came to a stop in the middle of the pasture, swinging their heads around, looking for me.
Squirt, my young herd bull saw me first. He'd been born three years earlier, on the day Daniel arrived. Ramona had been there to help Squirt make it into the world. He was short, stocky and shaggy like a bear, due to his Galloway sire. His black fur glistened in the sunshine and the white patch on his face gave him a clownish look. He came running over to me, fully expecting some kind of treat. Squirt had been raised with more human contact than the others and was fond of getting his head rubbed.
I dismounted near the gate and started to open it, talking quietly to Squirt.
“Hey you big baby, how's it going out here? Are you taking good care of the cows for me? Come over here and I'll give you a head rub you big, old baby. . .”
The young bull came right up to me and I rubbed his head between his eyes, let him lick my arm, and then rubbed under his chin. He stretched his neck out as far as he could, with his head up and his eyes rolled back with pure pleasure. I laughed aloud.
“You're still a cuddle-bug, aren't you Squirt? Big old boy like you still coming over to get some loving.” As if to deny my condescending comments, Squirt stepped back and butted my hand aggressively, ready to play - young bull style.
“No, you don't. I'm not playing that game. Why don't you come on through this gate. . . out here with me and Roy. . .” I coaxed and opened the gate a little wider.
Squirt stepped into the break, curiously sniffing the air the same way the bull elk had done. Then he suddenly kicked up his heels and went bucking and kicking back to the herd. One of the young heifers followed Squirt's example and they went around the herd whipping their hips from side to side as they kicked for sheer joy and excitement.
How did he know I was up to something? I wondered.
“Will!” I heard Jake shout, and looked up to see him riding down the ridge that leads to our house, with Ramona and Susanna on horses coming after him.“Got some help,” he called.
I raised my arm to acknowledge his plan was a good one. The girls looked happy to be riding to the rescue, and I'd never seen a prettier pair of cowgirls. Susanna had left her hat at home. Her honey-blonde braid lay over one shoulder and her blue eyes sparkled with excitement. Ramona was dark and colorful with her black hair flowing behind her, and her smile wide above the scarlet of her blouse.
“Sue, you work the gate and open it when I tell you,” Jake commanded as they approached. “And Ramona, you keep the cows together after we drive them through.”
Sue dismounted and her horse, Cricket, began to graze nearby. Ramona rode Caramel through the gate and waited for us to send some cows through. Jake and I pushed them toward the gate in the fence but Squirt bounded away, taking a couple of cows with him. When Squirt realized he'd lost most of his herd, he circled back around to watch and shake his head in disapproval. The two young heifers stayed close beside him. Once we'd pushed his little herd through the gap, Squirt decided the change of pasture was his idea all along and came through the gate to join them.
The girls came with us back up the valley to my land. We rode lazily behind the little herd, talking and letting them snatch a mouthful of grass from time to time. Ramona waited until Susanna and Jake were talking, and then spoke to me quietly.
“Will, Molly called earlier today. She said the university is closing a couple of weeks early due to sickness—some flu that's going around.”
“Huh, I wonder if it's the same one that's killing people in Texas?”
“She didn't say. But she wants to know if they can come out now. I said I'd call her back tonight.” Ramona's face was expressionless, which usually means she's hiding her feelings about something.
“What do you think?” I asked. “Is there some reason why they shouldn't come now?”
“No,” she admitted. “It's as good a time as any. Dad said it's fine with him, but to ask you.”
I didn't want to make Ramona unhappy, but at the same time, I was excited at the thought of seeing Molly again. I wanted to “get it over with” as they say. I needed to know what Molly was made of so I could stop thinking about her. Or—
“I guess it's fine with me,” I said. “Is Jeremy coming too?”
Ramona nodded, and then suddenly laughed. “Molly said Jeremy is going to take the bus to Gallup and wants her to pick him up when he gets here. He won't drive with her from Albuquerque.”
“He's probably right,” I sighed. “There's so much trouble lately. Everyone is mad about something or at somebody.”
“Why?” Susanna asked, joining our conversation belatedly. “Who's mad?”
“The whole world,” I replied. “It doesn't effect us much out here, but a lot of people in cities don't have enough money to pay the bills and buy groceries. There's a lot of fear right now, and when people get scared, they get crazy.”
“Is Jeremy afraid of Molly?” Jake asked, amazed.
“No, of course not. It's just that there's some bad stuff going on, and if cops pass a car with a big, black guy and a little white woman in it together, they might pull the car over to make sure everything's okay. They might assume Jeremy is a bad guy. And, if one of the cops has had some kind of bad experience—and some of them have recently—he's likely to take it out on Jeremy.”
“That's crappy,” Jake commented sourly.
“Yeah, it's lame. But Jeremy is playing it smart. If he takes the bus, once he gets to Gallup it won't be any problem to be seen with Molly. Our town is so multi-racial it's not a big deal here.”
“I wouldn't expect it to be a big deal in Albuquerque,” Ramona said.
“Not nearly as much as it is elsewhere, that's for sure,” I agreed. “But a lot of things have started going down hill recently, and it's hitting the poorest people first.”
“I'm glad we live out here!” Susanna exclaimed, throwing her arms out as though to embrace the whole valley ahead of us. “Why would anyone live in a city!?”
“It's easier—most of the time,” I answered. “The way we live is hard work.”
“Yeah, but it's FUN work!” Susanna insisted.
“I guess,” I said, thinking about her statement. I did enjoy working on my land. But sometimes I feel the stress of whether or not I can make it work, without Dad.
What if I can't feed my animals and they starve? What if I can't feed myself? How can I have a family with that insecurity of livelihood? I wondered.
“Wow, look at the grass!” Ramona pointed out as we passed through the area the elk had been grazing. “You could just put up an electric fence here.”
I looked around at the wealth of the forest and mountains.
“This is forest land,” I said aloud. In my mind I was thinking, If I couldn't buy hay, I could just move the cattle here for a couple of days, and then over there. . . and then down a little further. . .
As I looked around me, I saw a wealth of food for the animals, which in turn meant plenty of food for me as well. The elk never starve in the mountains.
“I'm glad to live out here too,” I replied to Susanna, belatedly, but with conviction. “The forest won't stop giving when the grocery stores are empty.”