“How much do you think it weighed?” I asked Dad as we rode home in the half light of evening.
“Maybe a 150 pounds,” Dad answered. “She was smaller than some—but still more than any coyote or wild dog would be. What a sight that was! I wish you could have seen it from where I was standing.”
“I wish I could have seen it from there too,” I agreed, laughing. “I can't wait to tell Jake. I'll have to call Daniel and tell him about it too—he'll wish he'd been riding Clementine.”
My thoughts wandered toward Daniel, and a mental image of his face on the day he'd won the horse race came to mind. As I watched him holding back Cricket while the dust cleared around him, I had thought, I'll always remember Daniel the way he is today—a winner against all odds.
Have you heard from Daniel recently?” I asked Dad after a moment of silence.
“No, I need to email him again,” Dad answered, as we left the short cut and followed the dirt road that leads to the farm. “I think he's probably getting ready to graduate high school and thinking about college.”
I laughed and said, “He started college a year ago. Don't you remember the graduation photo he sent us?” Clementine broke into a trot, recognizing the road home and eager to get the sweet feed she knew was waiting at the end of it.
“Oh, right,” Dad answered, shaking his head. “I'm starting to sound like Grandpa.”
I heard the drum of hoof beats before I saw the other horses coming around the bend of the forest road. The first rider was Jake, fifteen years old and full of strength and energy. He was going to be taller than me before the year was out. His dark eyes flashed in his face like obsidian stones as he reined in his newest horse-in-training, Gray Lady. Coming behind him on Caramel was Ramona. Her wide mouth parted in a smile as she spotted us on the trail ahead and she lifted one arm to wave at us.
The horses greeted each other, alternately laying back their ears, and reaching out to smell or nip at each other. Clementine was excited to be part of the equine crowd. Usually she spends her days with the cattle and sheep.
“Hey guys!” Jake greeted us, turning Gray Lady in a tight circle to remind her to pay attention.
“Did you see the mountain lion?” he asked, “I can't believe I missed it. I wish I could have seen it. Was it still there when you got to Uncle Lonnie's place?”
“Let's wait till we get to the house so Will can tell the story to everyone at the same time,” Dad recommended. “Otherwise, we'll be telling it over and over.”
“Oh, man! Come on!” Jake begged, sensing an exciting story behind Dad's response.
“We were coming to call you guys for dinner,” Ramona announced, preempting Jake's further pleading. Her cheeks were flushed rose red above the black denim of her jacket. “How was Clementine? Did you have any trouble with her?” she added.
I knew that Ramona was guessing what details might be in the forthcoming story. Getting a guard mule for the herd had been Ramona's idea.
Susanna was waiting for us at the gate. Mom says Sue got her yellow hair from Papa Welling, my Mom's dad. Her hair isn't pure yellow, it's more like afternoon sunshine, a mixture of dark shadows and golden streaks. Susanna was thirteen years old and just starting to look like a young lady. She still floated around on her tiptoes most of the time, but at the last rodeo we went to I saw more than one cowboy eyeing her.
She opened the gate for us with laughing eyes and gave it a hard push once we were through. It swung closed while she turned to run along side of me and Clementine.
“Mom made roast lamb2 for dinner!” she announced breathlessly.
“Why? Is it some special occasion?”
“Yes. Silly! Don't you remember?” she asked, laughing.
“Uh. I guess not. Is it somebody's birthday?”
“Grandpa's! He's ninety today. I made him a cake!”
“Oh, that's awesome. What kind of cake did you make?” I asked.
“Chocolate Almond Cake3! It's his favorite. I think.”
We all worked together, feeding the horses and rubbing them down, while Susanna talked a blue streak about the cake she'd made and Mom's dinner.
Clementine was pleased with her extra fare, but anxious to check on the new calves. Before she'd even finished her oats she went over to stick her head into a stall that held a couple of calves. Then she turned her head and blew at me, demanding that I turn the calves over to her. The milking mothers of the calves were in adjacent stalls and they mooed in return, arguing over Clementine's claim. I laughed at the dispute, and led Clementine out through the back of the barn and shut the door. She'd have to wait a few months for those calves to be weaned. Then they could join her herd.
Grandpa was on the front porch with Mom when we climbed the steps. Instead of asking about the lion, which was on everybody else's mind, Mom looked up at me and asked,
“How's the grass, Will?”
“No grass,” I admitted. “I don't know why, I reseeded right before the first snow, but it's not coming up. Oh. . . and Happy Birthday, Grandpa.”
Grandpa nodded at me, bored with birthdays. I guess when you've had ninety of them, they aren't quite as exciting as when you first started collecting them. Ramona, Jake and I were crowded around the porch utility sink, washing our hands. Dad sat down beside Grandpa.
“The mountain lion story!” Jake insisted, and looked pleading at Mom, “Come on—who cares about grass? He's going to tell us what happened at Lonnie's!” Mom laughed and nodded.
“Okay. What happened at Lonnie's?”
I looked over at Dad, who was grinning from ear to ear, and he nodded at me.
“You should tell it,” I said. “You had a better view than I did.”
Dad didn't need any coaxing. He was a natural story teller, just like Grandpa, and I enjoyed the tale as much as anyone else on the porch. Even five year old Anna was wide-eyed and quiet, listening to Dad's hissing and roaring sound-effects.
“Clementine was all teeth and hooves,” Dad told his riveted crowd. “She had that lion by the tail and kept whipping it around and around. Every time the lion sailed past Will's head, claws out, frantically searching for something to hang on to, I'd cringe and cry, ‘Oh God, save him!'
“But Will kept his head low and stuck to the saddle like a cocklebur. Clementine seemed to think she was defending him. Finally, she dropped the cat, and when it made a move to get away, she reached down and bit it right behind the head and broke it's neck.”
“Why didn't it take off running for the trees when you first came around the corner?” Jake asked, with an envious glance at Will.
“For some reason it was pretty bold,” Dad answered. “It had been around for a while and had learned the dogs were nothing to fear. Then it learned Lonnie was nothing to fear. I think at first it just wasn't afraid, and then, it was too late.”
“It's too bad the hide was so trampled,” Ramona commented. “I'd like to cure a lion pelt. What a rug that would make!”
Jake had more questions, and Grandpa wondered if we ought to go back and check on Lonnie and Eulalia again, just to make sure they were alright. Dad said he'd go after dinner, and everyone paused in the conversation for a moment.
“Well, thank God you're safe,” Mom said at last, standing up to heave a deep sigh and run her fingers through my hair. “As for our crazy mule, Clementine, she might be ornery, but I think I understand her wild impulse to protect her family.”
One of my earliest memories was Mom taking a shovel after a rooster that spurred me in the chest when I was just a toddler. She sympathetically doctored the scratch, and then headed out toward the chicken yard, picking up a shovel on the way. I followed her, wondering if she was going to bury the rooster.
He was still full of himself, and came running and flapping his wings in a threatening manner as we approached. I felt fear rising up in me and opened my mouth to scream, but a loud whack stopped me short. Before he knew what happened to him, Mom dealt the rooster a blow that left him staggering around sideways.
“That'll teach you not to spur my baby!” she told him. The rooster retreated to the far corner of the fence in full agreement with her prediction.
After that, whenever I saw the rooster, I kept my distance, but I also felt safer knowing that Mom was tougher than my worst enemy. Her fearless approach to living, along with her compassion, shaped me as I grew older—maybe more than any other influence in my life. Dad taught me to make peace inside of myself. Mom taught me how to pick up a shovel and be tougher than my foes.
She squeezed my shoulder briefly, bringing me back to the present, and then said, “I've got something for you. Wait a minute and I'll get it.”
Mom disappeared into the house and I looked questioningly at Ramona. She shrugged and guessed, “Maybe it's an herbal lion repellent.”
“There may be such a thing,” Mom answered, coming back through the screen door with a paper in her hand. “Osha root repels snakes. But here, look at this.”
She handed me an Albuquerque Journal and pointed to a small advertisement in a corner of the paper.
“Holistic Resource Management4,” I read aloud. “Learn how to recover over-grazed pastures, and barren desert areas. . . I bet that costs a fortune—” I broke off, shaking my head.
“ - using nothing but animals and fencing,” Mom continued reading, pointing again at the paper. I looked down at it again.
“Oh yeah. . . I remember seeing that,” Dad said, leaning forward to look at me. “When is the workshop?”
“Next week,” Mom answered, rubbing a homemade salve5 between her palms to soften the dry skin. She looked at Dad and went on, “I looked it up on the internet. The pictures are amazing. This guy that's doing the class—he turned huge desert areas into grasslands again, using herds of animals. I don't know how, but he says it's ‘the way Nature does it.'”
“The way Nature does it,” Grandpa repeated. “You should go listen to him. You know, large herds of buffalo used to roam Arizona. When they were still around, the grasses on the plains were sufficient to feed them. Since they've been gone, the grasslands have turned to desert.”
“Why?” Ramona asked.
Grandpa shrugged and answered, “They said it was the buffalo that ruined the land. But that doesn't make sense. The grass and the buffalo were here a long time before there were people around to pass the blame.”
“How much is the class?” Dad asked.
“Eight hundred dollars,” I answered, thinking about what else I could do with that money, and how hard it was to come by.
“For two people,” Mom added, and offered, “I have some money.”
“I have some money too,” Grandpa interjected, wiggling his eyebrows up and down. “What better way to spend government money? Besides, I don't want you to ruin the land.”
Mom laughed at Grandpa's joke, but Dad and I were quiet. Because Grandpa is Native American, he was given a land lease by the United States government. That land will stay in the family and cannot be sold. It is more to us than just a piece of earth; it's part of our family identity. It's where we're from, and where we're going.
“I'll pay for it,” Dad asserted. “Will and Ramona will go. Ramona will take notes.”
“I'll pay for it,” Grandpa contradicted. “It's my land. And you're my son. And Will is my grandson. And. . . it's my birthday.”
“So it is,” Dad answered, smiling. “Let's go eat the birthday dinner!”