Frank stood on the height of the cliff, silently watching the moving steer below. The cold knife edge of winter was gone, and spring had again returned to the highlands. The bulls moved their heads over the lush green grass. The newborn calves nursed from their mothers, while mindfully watching the bulls.
Beneath him, his horse stirred. Flick pulled against the prison confines of the bridle, eager to join the other horses below. He threw his golden head, stopping before the reins would pull tight – most of the time, at least, much to Frank’s annoyance.
The early morning light of sunrise struck through the thin mist that permeated the bright green hills. The mist turned everything to a bright cloud, surrounding the hills with soft, unspoiled white light. Yet, as quickly as it came, it was gone. THe hills at once were brighter and scent of newborn flowers floated upon a soft breeze.
“Frank,” his father yelled, “we need to go if we plan to arrive by nightfall.” His father’s heavy Scottish accent was muffled beneath the dust bandana that he wore. Yet, even at the distance, Frank could hear the impatience and irritation that his father felt. Frank’s father was a tall, hard man with broad shoulders. He had been bronzed and worn by his work in the outdoors and looked at least twice his real age. The hands of Frank’s father were old and worn from his years of working cattle, leather, and rawhide, but his eyes sparkled.
“Aye Pa,” Frank answered. Feeling the reins slacken, Flick sprang to life. Frank followed his father down the hill, silently.
Deer watched them as they rode, curiously pricking their ears forward and standing in their path until the horses passed within a few feet. They would then duck their heads and run into the surrounding brush, stirring leaves and twigs in an explosion of green and brown.
Thecoming of spring marked an important time in the Frodsham home. The herd had to be moved from the winter pastures to the spring grazing lands. It was also the time of the branding of the newborn calves.
The Branding was always a community event and a major social gathering unequaled by anything except for the town Christmas dance. Families from all of the neighbor barns would gather, brining their cattle with them, and the community would spend several days roping, branding, doctoring, and sorting. There would also be dancing, games, and prizes.
At nightfall, Frank and his father arrived at the ranch house. Small pockets of light illuminated the yard. From inside, bubbling laughter could be heard. From outside, moos and chewing could be heard from the somewhat placid herd. The cows moved among the paddocks.
Carrying his heavy saddle and bridle, Frank stumbled through the door into the parlor of his home. It was two storiesofwood panneling, bee’s wax, and home. Everything was brightly illuminated with the new “electric” candles that his mother was so proud of. His mother was at the antique grand piano that had been hauled across the wind-swept plains of Wyoming by his grandfather. She was playing something beautiful, it would of sounded impressionist if Frank had an ear for music – which he didn’t. These details were simply lost to him. He was simply too tired to care.
Each trudging step and painful growl of his stomach seemed to last an eternity. He could smell the baking turkey and the freshly prepared yams with cream. There was also homemade apple pie and several other marvelous aromas which he didn’t recognize.
The rooms were filled to the brim with smiling and laughing people, all there to help with the branding and doctoring in the morning. The men placed bets on who would make the cleanest brand, ro who would best separate the herd and who would win at the obligatory horseshoe tournament. The women gossiped about local events, catching up on where Mary Kay’s daughter had ended up and what Barbara Mae’s loafer husband wasn’t getting accomplished. Frank ignored the beckoning of his friends and the desperate pleas of his stomach. He landed with a soft thud on his bed, and the world sank into welcome, blissful darkness.
The morning dawned with an explosion of color: crimson, gold and royal streaked through the sky as though the Master Artist had planned each stroke of His grand brash and created the broad, blue canvas only for this majestic masterpiece. When Frank awoke, there was already the low babble of voices floating up from the pasture. With so many people present, they were indecipherable. Horses were moving among the outbuildings, snorting and whinnying. The horses were clearly disgusted with their human partners, it was feed time, not work time. The need to leave the comfort and companionships of their stalls was clearly unfair.
Panic was rampant among the cattle. The bulls were being driven apart from the heifers by men on horseback and wildly barking dogs that snapped and darted amongst their hooves. Calves were pulled away by the teenagers and young men, prompting panicked screams from heifers and calves alike.
In the main paddock, the branding itself was taking place. Each calf was brought forward by the head, eyes wide in fear. They flopped and struggled against the ropes and men who handled them. The calf was then held in place as a single hot iron was drawn across the right buttock. Liquid brown eyes opened wide as flesh disappeared in a sick vapor that reeked of burnt hair. After an eternity which lasted no more than instant, the hot iron was removed. In its place was the small black horse’s head that marked each of them as a member of the Frodsham herd.
Frank immediately pulled on his clothes, switching out the dirt encrusted shirt he had worn the previous day for a new one, but settling on the same pants. He did a little bit of work to smooth the wrinkles, as he knew his mother would express concern about his lack of clean clothes. He made a small effort with his hair, but decided that it wasn’t worth it and donned his hat instead.
“Frank,” his father called to him as he exited the back door of the ranch house, “I’ve got someone I want you to meet.” He was standing next to a tall, scruffy man with the eyes the color of the darkest forest and hair the color of mahogany wood. The man was smiling quietely. “This is Tom,”his father said. “He came from the next ranch over to help us look at the horses. I’d like for you to watch him work.”
The man’s smile widened a touch, and he nodded. “It’s nice to meet you Frank,” he said in a soft, quiet voice. “Shall we get started?”
Frank nodded and started walking toward the horse paddock. As Tom passed the fence of one of the cow paddocks, he retrieved a 60 foot coil of braided leather and began knotting one ned of it. He spoke as he walked, “Frank, everything you do with horses should be quiet and spaced. To put it another way, they didn’t give one fig how much you know if they don’t know how much you care.” As they arrived at the horse paddocks, Tom ducked through the fence. He clucked to one of the colts that bolted to the paddock’s far end. Tom stopped and stood in the center of the pen and waited. After reaching the corner of the paddock, the colt turned and watched him for a moment; not understanding what the new human invader wanted.
Tom clucked again and waited with his body relaxed. After a moment, the colt turned and started to groom a year old baby who had sought refuge with it in the corner. In one movement, Tom brought his arm back and then forward, tossing thirty feet of the once coiled reata toward the horse. In a panic, the horse bolted across the rocky paddock, over fallen logs and through the small knot of herd members.
Tom relaxed and allowed the horse to move around the paddock. As he did, he turned to Frank, “That horse chose to ignore me when I asked him to come. For that, he gets to move and be uncomfortable for a time. Horses like to be comfortable and safe. When you make ‘em uncomfortable, the will start looking for a way to be comfortable real quick.” The horse made nearly a full lap before returning to the same corner. “What’s real interesting, though, is that they make themselves comfortable through habit. If you want to get them to do new things, you make new habits.”
Tom swished his rope toward the colt again, this time instead of running he brought his ears forward and looked at Tom. “That,” Tom said, “was much better.” Tom relaxed again and hunched his shoulders a bit. After a few seconds, the horse again turned to chew on the mane of his year-old companion.
Tom brought his lariat up and shook it. The horse’s head swung to look at him and trained its ears on him almost immediately. Again, Tom beckoned. After a few seconds, the horse turned to him and came. It had its head low and ear forward while it made loud snuffling sounds. “Why did he do that?” Frank asked, “You were just chasing him. When my pa chases ‘em around, they just get bothered, which gets him annoyed.”
Tom turned to face him, scratching hte horses ears quietly. “He chose to. Horses need to have a choice.” There was no fight or panic and the colt was content. Tom nodded to the cow paddock, “Sometimes a little choice can save you a lot of work.”
- April 28, 1999