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Thursday, 29 September 2011

I am starting to dash around from task to task, one eye on the calendar, one on the weather, a third on – well, I don’t have a third, and that’s the problem. My desk is a disaster area, the floor here is dotted with sand-burs, and outside there are a signs of the changing season that I’d like to see, absorb and record. But I only have five days left and quite a list of things to do..

Yesterday morning I ran into Kitty’s dad, for the first time in an age. I was walking down the hill to the red house, my laptop slung over my shoulder, my camera, as ever, in my left hand, when he came by on his ATV, stopped and had a short chat. He talked about my recent researches into the history of the red house, and I asked him about the Wrights, who took it on after the Arents left. It seems that they were struck by tragedy. I wouldn’t really want to dwell on the details, even if I had them to hand. Briefly, it seems that Mr Wright was taking his to young daughter up the hill, on the old road that preceded this one – the scar of it is still there, in the hillside – when he had a problem with the vehicle, stopped to jack it up and managed to roll it over. By the time help was summoned he was dead.

Following this, the property passed to another Wright family, not related. I don’t know whether these people lived in the red house, but am assuming that the first Wrights would have done. (It seems that my attempt at a history of the red house is destined to be re-written every time I get into a conversation about it.) On a lighter note, Kitty’s dad told me that when the place was up for sale in 1961 another party was all set to buy, but couldn’t agree over a couple of hay-stacks that were on the land. The prospective purchasers wanted them included, the vendors didn’t. Negotiations stalled, and that’s how the land ended up in Matt & Kitty’s family’s hands.

In the afternoon I went to Gordon with the intention of seeing Caroline Sandoz.  I met Jeanne Walter up at the residential care home, she having kindly agreed to accompany me. She has known Caroline for many years. Caroline was in fact asleep when we got there, and although she seemed to waken after a few minutes she wasn’t really focused. When we went to find a member of staff we found Tanya, the Ukrainian woman I’d met a few weeks ago, the one who had suggested I call in. I have to say I was tremendously impressed by the way she communicated with Caroline: in no way condescending, in every way solicitous, gentle, even affectionate. Caroline did perk up when we showed her the books I’d brought, the ones she’d produced about Mari’s life and signed for me, 15 years ago. But Tanya’s opinion was that it might be better for me to call by one day before lunch. So I’ve made an appointment for Saturday.

On the way home I paused at the crossroads in Merriman, then swung north. Among the ranchers whose acquaintance I’ve made these past few months was a guy who lives just outside of town and had told me to call in some time. When I asked him what sort of time would be convenient he just said, ‘Surprise me.’ So I did. I encountered a familiar scene as I drove into the yard: sheets of tin lying about the place, a ladder against the side of the house, and a guy on his knees with a pair of cutters in one hand and a pencil in the other. A second guy, my rancher friend, was walking towards me, clearly trying to figure out who the hell he knew with Montana plates on his car.

We sat for a good hour, more like two, drinking beer and chewing that fat. I wasn’t surprised at the way the conversation ranged from the economics of ranching to near-death experiences, from women-folk to foreign travel, from the people he met on streets of New York to the Native rainmaker he knew as a youngster, growing up on this spread. I think that’s why I’d called in: this guy is always good for a provocative view on life, and a story. And he paid me a compliment, one I will always value. Told me he was real sorry to see me going home, because he admired me for what I was doing. What, I said, lazing around in a hunting lodge all summer? No, he said, for coming out to the Sandhills. You don’t want a ranch, you don’t want a cow, you don’t want a fence, you just seem to like being here. I think I saw what he meant. And then he gave me a warning. Some time after you get back home, he said, you’ll hear them calling to you, and you’ll wish you could be back. Matt has hinted at the same thing. We shall see. As I’ve said before, I am more than  ready to be home, but I know, as surely as I know anything, that I am going to miss this place hugely. It's been a landmark experience. 

I drove home with a couple of books he has loaned me. ‘Drop `em off at the station before you go,’ he said. (He meant the gas station) They’re a collection of ranching reminiscences written by his grandfather. I also had on the seat beside me a bag of corn-cobs I’d bought on the roadside in Gordon, and a bag of fat, ripe tomatoes, a gift from Jeanne Walter. Had one with my supper, and it tasted every bit as good as it looked

Time for breakfast.