Childhood Lost 19
Ice and Fire
Adair knocked on the bunkhouse door, milk pail in hand, and we walked on down to the one acre barn. His milk cows were gentle creatures, even to strangers and, although my wrists ached from not having milked for several years, I was finished and eating breakfast within forty-five minutes.
Following breakfast and a conversational smoke, Johnny and I hopped in his truck and headed out to feed the first herd pastured to the south. After loading the truck from the alfalfa stack, he drove along very slowly while I cut the green bales and tipped them off by quarters. We then checked the huge stock tanks, making sure they were full and that the propane heaters were keeping them free of ice. By the time we returned to headquarters, it was lunch time.
Bernice had fried chicken, masked potatoes and gravy, and chocolate cake waiting for us. After lunch, she motioned to several large bundles mysteriously swathed in brown paper, lying just behind the half open kitchen door. "These are for you," she informed me. "I'll take them out of your wages a little each month." Inside the bundles were several pairs of jeans, two changes of long underwear, a fleece lined Levi jacket, a pair of heavily lined leather gloves, and a down filled cap.
"Thank you, ma'am," I said. "I really appreciate this."
She nodded curtly in my general direction, then turned her attention to the kitchen stove.
By the time each day was over with, we'd have fed over one thousand head of Hereford, I'd have milked the Brown Swiss twice and if, by that time, evening hadn't fallen, it was hard on our heels.
Winter was the slow time, so I'd been told. There were no cows calving, no hay to cut, bale, or stack; no calves to dock or brand. Temperatures ranged from a high of ten to a low of minus thirty-five and stayed that way for weeks. In conditions such as those, I had been cautioned not to touch anything metal with my bare hands. Like most lessons, I learned it the hard way.
I was feeding the south herd by myself one bright winter's day and, after checking the stock tank heater, had discovered that the burner had recently gone out. I pulled off my gloves and reached for a match to re-light it. I grabbed the face plate of the burner with my free hand and it welded instantly to the subzero metal. I couldn't budge it without tearing off all the skin on my fingers and palm. After about five abortive efforts it occurred to me that I was in one hell of a fix, welded as I was to an icy stock tank in the middle of nowhere. What I needed was a pint of warm water, that would have set things right in seconds. After a several minutes of desperate thought, however, a solution presented itself.
Moments later, as I fired up the truck and drove off with most of my skin intact, I realized that I had several things to be thankful for that morning. One, that I was in the habit of drinking three or four cups of coffee for breakfast and, two, that I hadn't been born a girl.
Winter lingered on well into March across the eastern high plains and it would not be until late April that the last iceberg sized snowdrift had finally melted in the light spring rains. Ranch work was constant. Rounding up cattle on horseback; branding and vaccinating, building fence; tilling the wheat and alfalfa fields. But there was playtime, too. I'd saved up a few months wages and bought a Honda ninety. It wouldn't do much above fifty, but that was plenty fast for the topography of the ranch.
Before I knew it, another November slipped away, and then another. I might have stayed on forever if it hadn't been for a porcupine.
Spring rolled in early the start of my third year there, welcome mild, but unseasonably dry. By mid April, cool prairie rains had all but ceased. Winter grasses and last year's weeds stood knee high, brown and parched.
May twenty-third started out like any other Montana weekday. I was up at six to milk, eating flapjacks and bacon by seven, then Johnny and I were on our way south to feed the herd. When we came to the eagle tree, we both noticed a strange shape moving around in the nest. Since I had a lot more experience climbing trees, I volunteered to climb up and investigate. It was an easy climb. I reached the nest within five minutes, peered over the edge, and found myself eye ball to eye ball with a startled young porcupine. Face to face, porkies are cute. They have beaver shaped faces and brown inquisitive eyes. If they have a fault, it is their inherent lack of trust in anything or anyone. True to its upbringing, this one whirled swiftly. If I hadn't ducked, it would have slapped me in the face with a thoroughly nasty looking barb-quilled tail.
I'd got a good enough split second look at the nest to inform Johnny there were no eggs and, other than the porky, no sign of occupants. He yelled up at me that eagles would probably reject a nest a porcupine had camped out in, and especially one that humans had been near. The best thing, he said, would be to burn it out and give them fresh space to build a new one.
I fished out my vue lighter and, after a couple of abortive windblown attempts, set fire to the bottom of the nest. Old and dry, as it was, it took off at once, burning fiercely in the gathering breeze. The porcupine, its suspicions about human beings now fully confirmed, barreled out of the nest as if its butt depended on it. It landed with a heavy 'plop,' right on top my head. I could dimly hear Johnny laughing himself silly down below, but there was nothing I could do except hug the tree and (for the first time in months) pray. Apparently concerned only with survival, the frightened animal clawed its way down my neck, across my back, and out onto the long end of a nearby branch where it sat as if petrified. A shower of flaming twigs and brands began dropping all around me. In the interest of postponing premature hair loss I began a hasty decent.
From forty feet below, the strains of raucous laughter suddenly ceased, ominously replaced by an explosive "OH, SHIT!" I glanced down at once and promptly echoed my partner's earthy sentiments. A small segment of nest had fallen away. It hit the ground still burning. The knee high grass, dead and dry as it was, erupted. Pushed by the wind, it was up and over the top of the thirty foot high draw before I was back on the ground. Once there, it spread in all directions. We never had a chance.
I hit the ground running and piled into the truck. Foot to the floor, Johnny took off careening madly down the road hoping to, perhaps, get ahead of the flames and either backfire them or stop them, some way, anyway. We cut down a draw, raced up on top where the land ran flat for several miles before abutting the Milk River, and saw to our chagrin that there was no way. The fire was now approaching us on a front over half a mile wide, expanding every second. We got back in the truck, drove out of its way and, for a few moments, sat and watched, stunned.
In such times, my first reaction was always to light up a smoke and think things over, which I promptly did. No matter, nothing came to mind. Johnny also appeared to be deep in thought. After a few minutes it became hopelessly apparent that he too was fresh out of possibilities.
"Got any good ideas, Deke?" he inquired, quite calmly.
"Canada's nice this time of year." I suggested half jokingly.
He regarded me stolidly for a half a moment, then wearily rubbed his eyes with the back of one hand, while fervently querying no one in particular. "What in hell was I thinking of? What the f__king hell!?" He shook his head in resignation and, speaking to himself as much as to me, said. "Well, we're going to have to call for help on this one."
I chuckled...In my mind, I could clearly see that porcupine, sitting high and tight on its tree branch, giving us the middle paw while it laughed itself sick. "F__k with me will ya?"...I just had to chuckle.
"Damn it, Deke, this isn't funny," he said angrily.
"You don't know what I'm laughing at." I returned, ironically
"Do I want to?" he retorted.
"Probably not." I coolly replied.
He gave me a irate look and reached for the mike on his two way radio.
"KFJ 2356, unit two calling base, unit two to base, over."
The response was almost immediate. "2356 unit two, this is unit one, I hear you."
"Dad," Johnny began, "We got one hell of a grass fire burning south of the eagle tree, it's at least a hundred acres and spreading. We'll need the fire department from Saco and a couple of cats to stop it. You got a copy on that?"
"Got it," came the terse reply. "Where will you and Deke be?"
"We're going to try to get out in front and do what we can to slow it down."
"Good enough, I'll make the calls and be right down. Unit one clear."
"Clear on two" Johnny responded. He turned to me and, in an obviously irritated tone of voice said, "If this was your land, a fire wouldn't seem so funny"
"Is that what you think?"
"That's it" he said, then added, "I've watched you over the past two years and there was always something strange about you. You're a loner, you never mixed in and you never joined in, and I couldn't figure that out before, but now I know, you really don't give a damn do you...about anyone or anything?"
I kept him waiting for a reply while I tapped out a Lucky and fired it up. If I'd learned anything at all in dealings with my species, it was 'never bother enlightening the deliberately obtuse.' His assessment of my clockwork was too outrageous to dignify with denial, and too deliciously provocative to slander with the truth. I took a long, resigned, nerve settling pull, looked him squarely in the eye and, in the most unprepossessing of neutral tones said, "No."
We fought the fire alone that morning. Adair showed up around ten with a D-6 Cat and disc. The Saco wild fire unit responded and was on the scene by noon. By that time, Adair had disked a sixty foot wide fire break along the front the fire was approaching on. By two p.m., having burned over seven hundred acres, it was out. Johnny and I had wielded shovels most of that time and for the first time I could remember, at the end of a long hard day, the last thing I wanted was a smoke.
We drove back to the house in silence. As we got out of the truck, Johnny invited me in for a drink and mentioned that we were probably going to need one because, as soon as his Dad rolled in, he was going to want to know about the fire.
"What are you going to tell him, Johnny?" I asked.
"The truth," he replied, determinedly.
"In that case, you better let me tell it," I suggested, wryly, "After all, you have to live here, I don't."
Adair stumped in before we'd finished our second beer, sat down, reached for a brew himself and asked, "How in hell did that fire get started?"
"I saw something in the eagle's nest and climbed up to see what it was." I responded, quickly. "When I saw a porky had moved in, I figured the eagles would never nest there again, so I lit it on fire thinking that maybe they'd build a new one in its place. It burned like a torch. Unfortunately, bits and pieces of it fell to the ground still flaming and set the grass on fire. It was up the hill and over the draw before we had a chance to stop it," I finished quietly.
Adair looked at Johnny and asked, "That what happened?"
"Pretty much, except he left out a few details."
"Like what, son?"
"Like the whole thing was my idea and I told him to do it."
"That so, Deke?"
"Sort of," I conceded.
He nodded thoughtfully, then spoke slowly, as if weighing his words.
"I appreciate your help down there in putting the fire out, and all the work you've done for me past few years, but you should have told me the truth about this," he asserted quietly.
"What I told you was the truth."
"No. What you told me was true; but it wasn't the truth."
He fell silent again, then finally asked, "Why?"
"Johnny has to live here, I don't."
"And you thought I'd kick my own son off the ranch for making a mistake?" Adair laughed, incredulously.
"I've seen it happen," I retorted.
"Loyalty to a friend, Deke, is a noble attribute, but it's got to be tempered with honesty. One without the other is worthless."
"From what I've seen of life, loyalty and honesty are seldom bunkmates." I countered.
"I don't know where you came from, but it must have been one hell hole of a place," he responded. After another moment of strained silence, he addressed both Johnny and me.
We'll talk more about this later, in the meantime let's take the rest of the day off, get cleaned up, and ready for tomorrow. I don't know what I'm going to do about you yet, Deke. Maybe tomorrow you better ride with me while I figure it out."
I walked down to the bunkhouse feeling as rootless as I had when I first set foot in that state. I wasn't sorry for what I'd done and wouldn't have changed it if I could. In the course of the last few years, I'd adopted a simple code. I required people to leave me alone. I did not insist that they live by my laws and in my estimation they had no right to demand I live by theirs. I would do anything in my power to help a friend, or anyone else in need for that matter, and if that required a strategic restructuring the truth (whatever that was), so be it.
After years of exposure to it, however, there was one thing I had no tolerance at all for and that was the employment of hackneyed psychological warfare techniques by those envisioning themselves to be in positions of power over me. Power existed, I had determined, only as long as peasants paid homage to it.
I tucked my clothes and what gear I could in a small canvas pack, retrieved the four hundred dollars I'd saved out of my wages and, at two a.m., strapped the pack to my motorbike. I pushed it down the lane, past the corrals and barn, then along the road leading out of the ranch for about half mile. Confident no one would hear, I kicked down on the starter, turned on the headlight and drove away. I hit the main gravel road sometime later and, contrary to practice, killed the engine looking wistfully (and defiantly) back. "No great loss," I told myself, "if you people think I'm going to hang around for even one hour while you shoot craps with my fate, you got the wrong boy." I cranked up and headed west. I had no idea where I was going, but at the moment it didn't matter, I was moving on; that was the main thing.
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