I didn’t get off to the best of starts. I’d been up to the ranch HQ to get some sporting news online, and found that my team were losing to the one team above all others that we loathe, the team about which we allow ourselves to say the otherwise unsayable. (It starts with ‘Die, you red scum!’ and degenerates into epithets we don’t generally use on the Sabbath).
I set off back to the red house telling myself that it was only a game, and that I was an adult. Worse things happen at sea, and all that. (No - I don’t believe it either. One of the British game’s most successful managers, the late great Bill Shankly, once said, ‘Some people think football’s a matter of life and death. That’s nonsense. It’s far more important than that.’)
As I approached the place where the trail dips sharply between eroded banks of sand, I was distracted by the sight of Oscar, silhouetted picturesquely against a clear blue sky. I had the camera on the seat beside me. I am making a point of always having it to hand; you never know what you’ll see next. I stopped, and snapped those two fine shots you see above. Then I set off down the incline. And there was Chief, standing right in front of me.
I slowed, he remained rooted to the spot. I was down to a crawl, but still he wouldn’t move; so I stopped. Big mistake.
After an exchange of pleasantries, Chief ambled off in search of better grazing and I put my foot on the gas pedal. Somehow Mercy had slipped into two-wheel drive, and before I realised it I’d dug myself in – deep. Both horses were watching, from barely fifteen feet away, as I got down on all fours and scrabbled away with my bare hands, then got back in, gave it another try, and dug myself even deeper.
By now, not only were the rear wheels embedded axle-deep, but the exhaust was buried too.
I trudged back to the house – about two-thirds of a mile – put on my boots, shouldered the spade and the trenching tool, and set off up the hill. As I plodded through the deep, fine sand I could see the car, in outline, at a crazy angle to the trail, and there were the two culprits, standing guard, looking as guilty as sin. What a picture. And what a shame my camera was on the front seat. But maybe… no, by the time I got up there and pulled it out they’d ‘lit out for the Territory’, as Mark Twain would have it.
All’s well that ends well, I suppose. I excavated about a cubic yard of damp sand, got the car moving, then went back and made the road good again. I now have a spade in the back seat, and it’s staying there.
By this time it was and the day had heated up. 86 degrees when I checked the thermometer. So after lunch I slung my boots around my neck, put on my sandals and waded across the river. Ninety minutes in this heat was enough. I described a sort of circle to the north and east, re-crossed the river and made my way home, pausing only to take note of a few clumps of wild plums for future reference and snap these flowers on - well, what tree is it? I must investigate.
Later, after cooling off in the river, I sat in the living-room and read a superb short piece by Mari Sandoz, published five years before she found fame and literary freedom with Old Jules.
In “The Kinkaider Comes and Goes” she visits old haunts in the sandhills and comes across a faded wooden sign, “Pleasant Home”, attached to a fence-post by a single nail. There’s precious little to indicate that a home had ever stood on the spot, just an old cookstove abandoned in a clump of ragged sunflowers. And that triggers her recollection of a woman who had lived there when she was a kid, a spinster music teacher from
who loaned Mari poetry books, and the novels of Joseph Conrad, until the dreadful winter of 1910-11 made her so ill that she decided to quit. Chicago
As so often with Mari’s early work, the setting is no more than a device to allow her to reminisce about her own childhood, and the time Old Jules took up a Kinkaid** claim and sent her and her brother, aged 14 and 10 respectively, to watch over it from May to September.
It’s a beautiful piece, elegiac in tone. Reading it now, after being here a full month, I found that it touched me in ways that it hadn’t before, and her superb evocations of landscape already mean that much more to me.
I won’t go on about it, but I strongly recommend it. And I must add that it’s made me think that now is a good time – and this is a good place - for me to re-read Old Jules. It’s probably my favourite book, not just of hers, not just of the West, but in all of literature.
Tomorrow I am required at the ranch for 0730, for branding. Watch this space.
** In 1904 Senator Moses P Kinkaid got a bill through the Senate that allowed for homesteads of 640 acres in 17 Sandhill counties where it was clear that nobody could make a living on the traditional quarter section (160 acres). Most Kinkaiders failed, or sold out – generally to cattlemen.