I don’t normally write pure fiction – sure, as my friend Lou Ann will attest, I might embellish a bit – but rarely do I write pure fiction. This story is based in historical Silver City Idaho. The buildings and many of the characters are real. My friend, Janine Townsend, has ancestral roots in Silver City. Janine took me to the historical ghost town late this fall and gave me a tour of the homes once owned by her family. The Townsend House was built by Janine’s Great Grandfather, Hank Townsend. Janine’s Grandfather, Harry Townsend, was born in the house. The Townsend House is amongst the buildings still standing and in use today. Janine and I (and a reluctant Lou Ann whether she likes it or not) are planning to pack in to Silver City in the spring as soon as the snow melts.
The character “Sadie Cattlebuyer” in this story is based on a poem I wrote when I was fairly young. So, while Sadie may not be real – she has always lived in my heart.
This story is dedicated to the Sadie “Joe” Cattlebuyer’s in all of us.
Posting old blog pieces instead of writing new ones sort of feels like cheating. Call it what you will, it is what I plan to do. Not only do I need to repopulate my new blog, I don’t have a whole lot of interesting adventures to blog about since being laid up with knee surgery.
Speaking of surgery –I seem to be recovering well. My knee feels better every day and other than some stiffness, feels better than it has in twenty years. Moving around is awkward due to muscle weakness. Exercise and climbing my gnarly staircase 20 times a day ought to remedy that soon enough.
Fall and early winter is my favorite time of year. Today would normally find me riding and/or camping in the high desert of the Owyhee’s if not for this whole leg thing. Yesterday – you would have found me hiking and chukar hunting with my faithful companion of 13 years…Spud.
I came across this blog piece in my archives. Living vicariously through my past writings will have to do for now.
A Desert Pause
Writers block. I’ve heard of it, but never gave it much thought until I wondered why I had not posted anything to my blog in awhile. I thought it was because of time constraints – busy at work – busy at home…basically busy with life in general. Time was not the issue. When I feel like writing – time is never the issue. Writing is as compelling to an author as sunlight to the sunflower; both driven by natural forces to act upon the creators plan. A sunflower follows the path of the sun because it must, the very same reason I write.
I thought I might stumble on a little motivation by going through some old photographs. While doing so, I came across this picture of Spud and my feet, with the Owyhee’s in the background. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one picture will forever speak volumes to me.
The picture was taken in 2005 or 2006. Not long before Spud was killed. The photograph means more to me than simply a photo of my dog. It is a snapshot of memories that encompass all that was right in my world at the time. I was doing what I loved, in the country I cherished, with the best dog ever to walk beside me.
Spud and I were chukar hunting in the Owyhee’s in early October. If you have never Chukar hunted before, then you cannot appreciate the amount of rough terrain a person must cover in search of the ever elusive bird. Chukar are literally everywhere until you purchase a bird stamp and pick up a shotgun; when suddenly, they become as scarce as truth in an political campaign. Oh, you know they are still there – you can hear them… laughing at you. Laughing and mocking from atop the rim-rock, mere inches out of range for a .20 gauge.
We had been hunting since sunrise up a long draw above our camp. Spud had done his part. He’d gotten up several covey’s, affording me plenty of opportunity to shoot. However, opportunity only knocks once while bird hunting and if you don’t answer the door on the first knock…forget it. I suppose I am not a very dedicated bird hunter. Frankly, I don’t care if I never get off a shot, as long as I have the opportunity to shoot, I’m good. I get more enjoyment wandering around in the desert, exploring the nooks and crannies of massive rock formations looking for arrow-heads, than I do blasting a bird out of the air. This day was no different. Spud would flush up a nice covey of chukar and I would inevitably have my eyes on my feet, kicking up dust looking for something, anything…that might resemble a Native American artifact.
Spud was patient with me. He would flush a handful of birds and turn to look at me. I’d look up from my feet at him and shamefully apologize for failing to hold up my end of the bargain. I could read Spud’s thoughts as easily as he could mine. He would forgive me.
We reached the top of the draw and Spud flushed a covey of birds from the bottom of a steep ravine. They were probably the same Chukar we had driven up the draw in front of us since we left camp. It was getting late in the afternoon and we would need to turn back. If I were going to redeem myself in the eyes of a soul searching German Wirehaired, I had better do it now. A line of Chukar ran up the ravine and broadside as I pulled up to shoot. I clicked off my safety and waited. The Chukar hunkered close to the ground, running parallel along the rim. I just needed one of the damn birds to lift both feet off the ground to count as an “in-flight” legal shot. Spud turned to look at me – there was that look again, masked in patience and understanding. Crap. I did what any red-blooded, all American great white hunter would do – I blasted two rounds of 6 shot into the bottom of the ravine, scattering chukar to the four winds and still, not one of the foul game took flight. “Wait…I think I see one with both feet off the ground. Yes! Look at that…both feet just left the ground. I believe it’s hopping. Does hopping count as flying?” I could not disappoint that dog again. Today, a hopping Chukar was a dead Chukar.
We agreed on an extravagant tale of expert marksmanship in the event we crossed paths with the local Fish and Game and headed back down the draw toward camp. Halfway down the draw we sat next to a large sagebrush to rest and split a can of Beanee Weanees. I didn’t care much for the Weanees and Spud felt likewise about the Beanees. It was a perfect compromise.
My backpack lay between Spud and I as we looked out over the golden grass and sage of the Owyhee desert. An ink-blue sky met a sprawling horizon of rim-rock and sandstone painted in ever-changing shadow by the artistic brush of the setting sun.
Once at home, I downloaded the week’s pictures to my computer. There were a lot of pictures of sand, sage, massive rock formations and interesting draws. None of them struck me more than this one. Framed, it looks like Spud and I are sitting in front of the television screen watching a movie about the beautiful panoramic desert. Every time I look at this picture I imagine that we are still there, enjoying the beauty and solitude of the desert. I can imagine that I reach over and place a hand on the head of a dog that will forever be by my side. I imagine that I can reach out and hit pause.
Don’t toss out that baby wipe, it could save your life!
I feel it safe to say that most of the really cool discoveries happen quite by accident. One such discovery presented itself during a four day pack trip into the Eagle Caps.
One of the items I like to carry in my saddlebags is a packet of baby wipes. They come in handy for washing up before lunch on the trail or as a bedtime sponge bath when you can’t quite make yourself jump in that cold mountain stream for a much needed bath.
The problem I’ve found with baby wipes is they dry out between trips. You might use a dozen or so out of a pack and the rest dry up like a popcorn fart, wasting product and money. Not anymore…
I pulled a dried up wipe out of the package and frowned; an almost full pack…useless. Cold frigid creek, here I come! I tossed the dried out sheet into the campfire on my way to the creek. I figured with as dry as it was, the wipe would spontaneously combust into a pile of ash. Not so. The wipe caught fire immediately and began to burn like a slow burning candle. Instead of ash, the wipe turned into a tar like substance that continued to burn. I picked up a twig and twirled the burning “tar” around the twig like a torch. Wow…that’s pretty cool. The now black goop clung to the twig and continued to burn for several minutes.
I used the dried up baby wipes to start the campfire the rest of the weekend. It never took more than one wipe and one match to get a fire going.
Upon arriving home, I had an idea. I wonder how easy it would be to start a fire using a baby wipe and flint and steel. I’m no Bear Grills. Starting a fire with flint and steel can be challenging. I’ve used all sorts of material from dryer lint to brittle pine needles soaked in pitch. Eventually I manage to get a flame going – but am often left staring longingly at the box of matches and can of lighter fluid nearby.
I sat cross legged in front of a baby wipe shredded into small squares – flint and steel in hand. One strike of flint on steel sent a spray of sparks over the pile of baby wipe and…instant combustion! The wipes immediately ignited and proceeded to burn into a flaming black goop akin to tar. I twirled the ooze around a twig and carried it to the burn barrel containing a week worth of personal documents and junk mail…because yes, I am that paranoid.
Bear would be proud, however, I’m left to ponder another question: What the heck are we putting on our baby’s bottoms?
Now I know what they mean by no good deed goes unpunished. I also may have figured out why it’s hard to find anybody to ride with me. Granted, it’s usually a spur of the moment thing for me – and frankly, I often prefer to ride alone. This time, however, I put the word out to a few of my riding buddies that I would be riding on the WRT after work. No takers. That’s fine…I loaded up my horse and dog and we set out for a quick evening ride along the river.
A big rattler lying in the road might have been an omen of things to come. I leaned out my window to get a better look at the slithering serpent. Somebody had taken his rattle and left him to bleed to death. I felt bad – I don’t see the necessity in such a thing. If something is a threat – eliminate the threat –don’t leave it alive to suffer a slow death. I ended its suffering and went on my way.
I doused Jack and myself from hoof to pony-tail in bug spray. It’s getting that time of year when the bugs get especially bad along the river. I hit my SPOT’s, hooked my camera over the horn and we were off.
“The Black” and his band whinnied and trotted to the fence in greeting. The old boy has to be getting up in years. I’ve been walking or riding the WRT for 14 years and I’ve seen him every one of those years. He’s a handsome, inky black stud horse with a nice head and kind eyes. He’s not a big horse, but he throws some nice colts. He seems to have a good mind, too. I’ve watched him run with the newborns every year and not once has he acted in aggression. I squeezed Jack into a quick lope and delighted in watching The Black and his band run alongside. He tossed his mane and nickered in farewell as Jack and I loped beyond the boundaries of his domain.
We rode another two miles before coming to a camp trailer parked alongside the trail. The barbed wire fence doubled as a clothes line. I’d never encountered the goat herd on this side of the river. I’ve seen them from a distance on the other side many times. The goats are used as weed abatement along the trail. I wondered how effective it really is – the trail seemed to have as much poison ivy and hemlock as ever.
I kept any eye out for the herd and continued on. A couple miles more and the trail became littered with fresh goat sign. We spotted them just beyond the first gate. 200 goats blocked the middle of the trail. It was as good a place as any to turn back. I waved at the man attending the herd and pointed Jack toward home.
I caught a flash of something on one of the islands. A deer jumped into the river and swam to the other side. Wonder what spooked it? We rode on. The trail made a slight bend about a quarter of a mile from the gate where we had left the herd. A tiny baby goat stood quivering on the edge of the trail. Jack was pretty sure it was a giant, horse eating baby goat with fangs and razor sharp claws. I dismounted and scooped him in my arms. He was covered in weeds and slightly damp. His mouth and nostrils were packed with dirt. It looked like he had been drug. If I had to guess, I would say he was dropped by whatever had him when we came around the corner. “Lucky for you we came along little guy. Let’s get you back to your momma.” Bad idea; in hindsight I should have stolen the damn goat.
Jack probably would have let me on with the baby goat but I was afraid I would hurt him by trying. He felt so frail. He snuggled into my neck and bleated weakly.
The goats were still just beyond the gate. The herder had moved to the far side of them. I waved. He waved back and turned the other direction. Great…now what do I do. I can’t take Jack and my dog into the middle of a bunch of goats. I didn’t have to think for long when they spotted us. Three very large and very angry Great Pyrenees parted a sea of goats like a pack of four-legged Moses with fangs! I’ve read the story. I know how this turns out. This was one Egyptian who wasn’t sticking around for the ending. Baby goat, you are on your own! I “gently” sat the goat on the road and gave it a nudge toward the rushing dogs.
In an ideal western, I would have swung onto the back of my mighty steed and galloped off…leaving danger behind in a cloud of dust. That might have worked for a heroin that didn’t have a bad leg and a tall horse that wouldn’t stand still. I ran for the gate. Maybe I can swing the gate shut on them. They might be too big to get through the gate fast enough and give me time to get on my damn horse. That didn’t work either. The gate wouldn’t swing shut fast enough. The dogs were on us. I was proud of Shade. Normally an aggressive dog, she seemed to know she was outmatched. She kept her head down and trotted straight forward. That’s it, don’t look ‘em in the eye girl! The dogs weren’t nearly as concerned with me as they were with Shade. You are not going to eat my dog! The guard dogs circled Jack and me trying to get at Shade. I positioned Jack between us and the dogs. “Kick them Jack!” Jack doesn’t kick – but he did lay his ears back and shake his head at them. That was helpful, thanks horse.
I’d had enough. We couldn’t outrun them and they appeared in no hurry to turn back. I swung around, got right in their slobbering faces and yelled: “GET HOME!” Wow…this is actually working. The dogs backed off – I kept straight at them like I meant to have fricasseed Pyrenees for dinner. Jack seemed to pick up on the ploy. He laid his ears back and wrung his head at them. That finally got the goat herders attention. He comes running toward us with a staff and half dozen more dogs. I must have looked psychotic in my plastic riding helmet and spurs yelling profanity recognizable in any language. He got within 20 feet of me – skid to a stop and started backing up, too! Sweet – we had them all on the run. We were on a roll!
The situation eventually decelerates to the point that I feel I can now explain myself to the goat herder. I started explaining how I found this baby goat on the trail – he was weak and possibly injured – I had carried him back to the herd. I ramble on for several minutes more: “You don’t understand a damn word I’m saying, do you?” He flashes a set of strong, white teeth and shakes his head: “Race Horse!” Now I was the one confused; Race Horse? “You mean Jack? Yeah, I guess he’s pretty fast, but he’s no race horse.” “Race Horse!” he says again with excitement.
I am no good at charades. I tried to explain myself using gestures. I’m pointing here and there- holding my arms as if cradling a baby while interjecting with clearly enunciated words (like that would help), “Baby goat…lost…bring back baby goat. Dogs…grrrrrr…drop baby goat…gotta run…” The man nodded this time, “baby goat…race Horse!” Whatever dude.
I climbed aboard Jack and whistled for my dog. I gathered the remains of any semblance of dignity I could possibly muster and galloped into the sunset. Come on race horse – let’s see if you got what it takes to outrun these damn mosquitoes.
(aka North Fork Wilderness Owyhee BLM Project Survey)
If one does not count getting lost, a flat tire, broken shocks, two tipped over horses, several impalements and a flyaway awning…one might consider the SBBCHI scouting trip into the Owyhee’s a success.
The objective: Meet with BLM staff at Current Creek to scout area for fence removal project in June. The project will involve the removal 6 miles of barbed-wire in the new wilderness area included in the Owyhee Initiative.
At least we had an objective. An accurate map would have been nice to go along with that objective. Janine and I met at I.O.N between Homedale and Marsing. Our plan was to haul in via the Jordan Valley route. We figured if anyone was going to get lost, it was best to get lost together. I had the GPS coordinates to the project site; however, past experience with “Dave” the GPS has left me with emotional scars likely to never heal. We were also unsure if the coordinates were to the camp spot or the actual fence. Our plan was to wing it.
Fifty plus miles out of Jordan valley and no sight of the Current Creek sign promised on the map. The map said Current Creek was 40 miles from Jordan Valley and 60 miles from Grand View. “Dave” informed me that my destination had been reached 15 miles back at a wide spot in the road with no signage, Current Creek or otherwise.
I had an idea. I flashed my lights at Janine and pulled over at a spot with a sweeping easterly view. I punched Grand View into Dave; 51 miles to Grand View. How does that work? According to the map, Grand View was 60 miles from the project. We had obviously overshot our destination. We studied the various maps we carried between the two of us and decided we must be missing a section. If we kept going we were going to end up in Grand View.
The map indicated the road we were on was called Mud Flat road. You couldn’t prove it by looking at it. It was neither flat nor muddy. The dusty, windy road full of washboards and potholes had covered the horses in a fine layer of dust. We decided to go back to where Dave had suggested was our destination. No, let me restate. Dave never suggests anything. Dave asserts. Pull over moron; you HAVE arrived at your destination. Sometimes Dave swears at me.
Robbin and Shelly were making their way over the Grand View route. “Here comes Robbin! We are saved! He will know where we need to go!” Robbin didn’t have a clue. What he had was a good size rip in his truck tire. I don’t know who they were or where they come from, but we were mighty glad to see two bikers pull up and promptly get to work changing the tire. They were like the mobile pit crew from heaven. All for the price of a no-bake oatmeal and chocolate-peanut butter bar. Even heavenly bodies appreciate gluten free.
I reconfigured Dave with the original coordinates to the project site. I won’t swear by it – but I’m pretty sure I heard Dave grumble, “I told you so.” The BLM truck flashed their lights for me to pull over. “Yeah, we followed you in here from JV and figured you were lost when you passed the camping spot over an hour ago. Oh, and by the way – we decided not to camp at Current Creek. You will see our trailer where we decided to make camp instead.” Thanks guys! Wait, what? They waited over an hour to come find us? Later we’d learn that if it hadn’t been for Linda Erickson suggesting they search for us, we might still be driving up and down the dust covered hills of Mud Flat Rd looking for a moot point on a map. No cookies for you BLM boys.
Lou Ann pulled into camp dragging a right rear shock. “Am I going to need that and can I get home without it?” Don’t worry Lou; we’ll have that removed before you head home. Who needs Les Schwab when you have Bruce the BLM guy? Bruce expertly removed the hanging shock before the weekend was over. I would have offered him no-bake cookie for his trouble if I weren’t saving it for Chick on “non-gluten free” dessert night. I don’t know what happens to Chick if he eats gluten – but I imagine his head swelling up like a pumpkin. Chick with a big old pumpkin head wouldn’t make for very good photography so I try to have gluten-free dessert on hand whenever possible.
The camping area soon filled to capacity with rigs adorned with BLM and BCHA insignia. You could not have squeezed another rig in if it were a child’s Tonka Truck. Some high-lined while others secured their stock in portable panels and solar powered electric fencing. The sun was setting on the day while dinner baked in the cast iron. Janine and I whipped up a large batch of chicken pot pie for the main course. For dessert, I handed out the remainder of the no-bake oatmeal chocolate-peanut butter bars (minus the one I stashed for Chick) to everyone, including our BLM boys… and all was forgiven.
Saturday morning came way too early. I blame it on the Bacardi and rum Linda forced me to drink the night before. I rubbed my eyes and struggled to pull on my lace-up boots. Tequila might make your clothes fall off, but evidently Bacardi makes your feet swell up. I stumbled outside, crawled up the ladder of Rob’s trailer and threw off a bale of hay. “Good morning Laurie…” Rob yawned. Sorry Rob. It’s hard to be quiet when you’re stomping around on top a steel trailer at 5:00 AM with swollen feet.
The troops began to stir as Rob and I prepared breakfast of bacon and farm fresh eggs. Lou Ann was the last one up. She made her way from my camper and shuffled over to the breakfast table. “Good morning Laurie…can I have my damn boots back now?” She grumbled. Sure enough, I’d mistaken Lou’s size seven boots for my size nines. I blame that on the Bacardi, too.
After breakfast, 16 humans, 17 horses and a mule headed north in search of a six mile stretch of fence. David with BLM must be in charge. He was the only one carrying a clipboard. He was also the only one without a horse. There are some things that don’t settle right with a backcountry horseman and a guy on foot when there are three extra horses to ride is plain disturbing. Nobody tried harder to talk him into riding one of our spares than Linda. David wasn’t yet comfortable with riding and politely declined. From the gleam in Linda’s eye I knew she would get that boy on a horse before day’s end.
The trail leading to the beginning of the fence ends at a creek crossing. We followed the fence line when the terrain allowed and four-wheeled cross country when it didn’t. The stock picked their way up and down steep, rocky terrain. If the tree limbs couldn’t reach out and snatch the hat off your head, they would poke you in any accessible body part. Rob attended to one such impalement by removing a sliver of wood that ran from Chick’s elbow to mid fore-arm. I was a little disappointed that Rob had him cleaned up before I could get a good picture of blood and gore. Sometimes I think Rob hopes for the chance to break out the chapters’ first-aid kit; “Anybody bleeding? I got sutures!” Wrapped in blue vet-wrap and smiling from ear-to-ear, Chick went about his gluten-free lunch.
The six mile stretch of fence ended at the top of a Juniper strewn ridge. 360° panoramic views of deep cut gorges and ornate rock formations showcased stunning high desert country. Bruce pointed out the different flora scattered throughout the hillsides paying particular interest to the death camas and delicate beauty of the bitterroot in bloom.
Either David’s feet gave in or he merely gave in to Linda’s convincing testimony to ride a horse. He climbed aboard Linda’s gentle bay, Rocky. Linda borrowed Jon Seals extra horse, a big Tennessee walker named Scout. David did pretty well, for a greenhorn, and later said he had a new appreciation for the difficulty of the rocky terrain those horses carry us through. We might make a backcountry horseman out of him yet.
I had my fill of the limbs skewering my bad knee. Not one of them came close to my good knee. Oh no, they would aim right for the hole in my knee brace, jab me in the knee cap and wedge between my leg and brace. The handful of Aleve Janine gave me had worn off 2 hours earlier. I tore off the brace and stuffed it in my saddle bag. It wasn’t helping anyway. Pretty sure I’m not making it until November for my knee replacement if things keep going like this. Why can’t a person wait until winter to fall apart?
The last mile toward camp stretched over a four wheeler road through a meadow littered with cattle darting in and out of the trees like four legged ninja! Jack wasn’t the only horse uncomfortable with the situation. He snorted and jigged is way through ½ mile of bovine ninja-like activity. When things finally calmed a bit, up comes the grandmaster of horse-eating terror – bulls. Not one bull TWO bulls vying for the attentions of one apparently irresistible heifer. Anybody that has ridden long enough can feel when their horse is about to blow. Every muscle in their body tenses up and they become a massive coil of tendons ready to explode – and that’s nothing compared to what the horse is feeling! Jacks head shot up in my face –he kept one wide-eye on the trio and the other searching for an escape route. Still suffering from my own case of bovine phobia, I assisted in an escape route that made a wide birth around the love triangle. Jack could not get to camp fast enough.
Most of the cuisine on our projects could fill an entire blog on its own. Saturday’s dinner was one of our best yet. Fruit, pasta and vegetable salads accompanied a main dish of beef brisket. I tried out a new dessert recipe I’d converted to Dutch Oven: Apple Dumplings made by rolling apple slices in crescents’ drizzled with a brown-sugar and butter glaze. Not exactly gluten free. Chick looked a little sad when I handed him his last square of no-bake oatmeal chocolate-peanut butter.
I snapped a few pictures of the boys sitting around the table playing cards while the girls washed dishes. It makes for fun photography, but in reality, everyone pulls their own weight. Everyone takes their turn at cooking, dishes and various other camp chores. If anyone needs anything – somebody is right there to accommodate.
I took my dog for a walk after dinner. I hadn’t gotten far when someone opened the gates of chaos. Amongst the yelling I heard segments of “It’s Janine’s horse! NO! Oh NO!” Whatever had happened sounded serious enough to forget my knee and make a run back to camp. By the time I got there it was over. Kiger, Janine’s mustang, had gotten himself tangled in the rope and managed to flip ass over teakettle in a perfectly executed summersault. Rob cut him loose from the line no worse for wear. We gave him a dose of bute for good measure and made sure he was tracking properly. Janine, on the other hand, looked as if she could use a swig of Coconut Cowboy.
I shared my camper with Janine and Lou Ann. My knee was throbbing worse than usual and I was afraid I’d keep the girls awake with my tossing and turning. I turned in early in hopes I’d fall asleep before them. It might have worked, too – if not for Lou Ann’s tendency for evening chatter. Lou is not a morning person. She prefers to stay up half the night and sleep until noon. The conversation went something like this: “Blah blah blah…am I keeping you awake? Blah blah blah, do I talk too much? Blah blah blah – were you sleeping? Blah blah blah.” “Lou…shut the hell up and go to sleep!”
If you’re still snoozing when the sky lights up with the dawn, you’re burning daylight; life according to John Wayne. I tried to sleep in but failed. I lay in bed fidgeting. Jack paced nervously in a circle and pawed the ground. That’s not normal. He must be hungry, thirsty or bored. By the time my bare feet hit the camper floor, my horse was upside down with all four legs straight in the air. I grabbed a knife and jumped out of the camper on the run. The rope had pulled tight but I was able to release it without the knife by pulling on the tail end of the quick-release. I pulled on his head. “Get up!” He was just laying their upside down with his eyes rolled back and his hooves in the air. “Get up!” He made very little effort to move. I yanked on the rope again and swatted him on the butt. “Get UP Jack!” With his head free, he was able to lunge himself to his feet. He jumped up and immediately put his head down to eat. “Thank God!” Lou Ann said. “He looked like a bloated cow lying on the side of the road!” Lou can be descriptive at times but that was exactly what he looked like. I checked him all over for injuries and signs of colic. It appears he tried to roll and got high centered between sagebrush and a large rock. Whatever it was, we didn’t take any chances. Janine gave him 10 cc’s of liquid Banamine and I took him for a long walk. My heart wouldn’t stop pounding for two days.
Dark clouds loomed above us as we gathered beneath Rob’s awning for breakfast. Breaking camp required a systematic approach. One person had to pull out before the next person and so forth. I was blocked in by just about every rig and would have to be one of the last out. Wind gusts kept me company while I walked around camp picking up garbage and scattering horse poop.
The boy’s stood on top of Rob’s trailer wrestling with the awning. Well, that’s a different approach to awning removal. Rob must be trying something new. I don’t think its working. “Hey Rob – why is the awning on top your trailer? Wouldn’t it have been easier to take it apart first?” I got the look that could only mean I’m not nearly as funny as I think I am. Rob said they were putting the kitchen away one second and the next; the wind picked the awning up and flipped it upside down onto the top of the trailer. Old brother wind was just trying to be helpful.
We said our goodbyes as trailers pulled onto the gravel road; some heading west…some heading east. Janine, Lou Ann and I would head east toward Grand View.
The wind had picked up enough that Lou Ann, Janine and I weren’t sure if we would make a day ride. I planned to drive out through Grand View for comparison of the two routes. I had spotted an old homestead on Deep Creek on the way in Friday that needed exploring. We decided to haul the horses to Deep Creek and play it by ear.
A locked gate settled the decision to ride or not to ride. We crawled under the gate with cameras in hand. An old dirt road led to a dilapidated log cabin with a sod roof. I could live here. The cabin sat at the mouth of a deep canyon begging to be explored. We shot pictures of the cabin and what appear to be an old sheep barn and a corral.
In the distance an iron fence encloses a small grave overlooking the homestead and canyon.
A two year old baby girl kept watch over her family’s ranch. How did she die? Where would life have taken her if death had not snatched her from the living?
We walked back to our rigs more solemn than we had arrived. Janine quietly uttered: “Elizabeth. Her name was Ina Elizabeth.”
Everyone and everything has a story. Every plant, rock, bird and critter that crawls, swims or walks on the earth has a story. What would Ina’s story have been? The formations of Ina’s story began to flow through my veins with the rushing current of Deep Creek. She was born Ina Elizabeth McCoy. Her daddy called her Dandelion. She was born with a mass of yellow hair that stuck out in cowlicks from every direction resembling that of a dandelion bloom.
I barely remember the drive home. It ended up 6 miles longer for me to go through Grand View than Jordan Valley, but faster. It didn’t matter that the drive out was not as scenic as coming in from Jordan Valley. My mind was occupied with a yellow haired spitfire of a girl with a splattering of freckles across cheeks kissed by the desert sun. She pushed her daddy’s floppy felt hat further down on her head and scanned the horizon with deep brown eyes that flashed hues of lilac in the sun. They called her the Dandelion of Deep Creek…and she too, has a story to tell.
I might as well give it up. Life as I know it is over. I’m going to lie on this couch all day with a box of Pop-Tarts watching Days of Our Sorry Ass Lives. In the three weeks it takes my horse to heal, I’ll be too fat to get in the saddle. I bet Pop-Tarts and Pendleton go great together.
It is hard to watch my rugged, burly horse hop around on three legs. I don’t understand what happened. He never limps. Jack offered his left front hoof without being asked. He was hurting and wanted help. I dug out a hoof full of packed mud and walked him out. Better. He was still gimping a little, but not hobbling.
The next morning was worse than before. Another hoof cleaning and a shot of Bute mixed with molasses seemed to do the trick. Getting Bute down that horse is a feat all in itself. I’ve tried every imaginable means of disguising the taste. He can pick out a milligram of the stuff in a gallon of grain. I resorted to mixing it in molasses and shooting it down his throat with a syringe. Did you know horses can give dirty looks?
Day three and things went south. His front legs crossed in front of each other as he stumbled clumsily about the pasture. He could barely stand. He nearly fell over when I picked up his rear hoof. My heart sank. My horse had West Nile. I was sure of it. I called the Weiser Vet clinic and tried my darndest to recite his symptoms with as little drama as I could muster. “OH MY GOD – my horse is dying! He can barely walk. I think he’s going to fall over. A black cat just ran in front of us and I’m pretty sure the sky is falling!” A calm voice on the other end of the phone interrupted my dramatic production of equine diagnostics:” I see…has he had his West Nile?” I knew it! He DID have West Nile! “YES! He has had all his shots! I am a good horse owner! He’s been vaccinated against everything from small pox to a tooth ache. Can they still get it? They can still get it, can’t they? I’ll bring him in right now. I’ll load him in the trailer before he falls over! I’ll be right there!” The calm voice interjected again: “Can you bring him in at four O’clock?” I fumbled for the phone in my pocket; 12:49PM: “But…that’s like three hours from now! He might be dead by then! Can I bring him in right now?” I could feel eyes rolling through my cell phone.”Yes, you can bring him in now if you want, but there won’t be anybody to look at him until four O’clock.” The next three hours were spent wiping tears on my buckskins neck and praying.
We pulled into the clinic at 3:54PM – PM as in Panic Mode. I paced back and forth like an overprotective parent in an emergency room whose four year old had a bead stuck up their nose. (That actually happened to my daughter when she was little – I’ll let you ask her about that one.) At 4:20PM I unloaded Jack and met Dr. Coleman halfway across the clinic parking lot. Jack barley missed a step. Just like taking your car to the mechanic. All the way to the shop it’s a tin bucket of smoke spewing bolts. The mechanic fires it up and it purrs like a kitten with a belly full of milk. Jack gimped a little, but nothing like earlier in the day. I again reiterated my professional and highly esteemed diagnostics. It looks like West Nile to me, Dr. Frank assured me that it was very rare for a horse to contract West Nile once they have been vaccinated. He’d seen it happen twice in his career and Jack didn’t look to be neurological. I’m sure he was thinking that wasn’t the case for Jack’s owner, however.
Jack flinched against the hoof testers nearly equal on both front hooves. His soles were soft, much softer than usual, and wore thin. A combination of wet pastures and rough terrain over the last few months had taken its toll. He was stone bruised on both feet about as bad as it gets. It was my fault. I was a terrible horse owner and didn’t deserve to put a quarter in a merry-go-round, let alone be responsible for a real live horse.
With a bottle of pain killers, hoof hardener solution and instructions to soak his hooves in Epson Salt for 10 minutes, Jack’s visit to the ER came to an end. I resisted the urge to give Dr. Frank an emotional thank you hug for saving my horses life. After all, it could have been West Nile. Frank had seen it happen in vaccinated horses…twice in 30 years even!
The Epson Salt soak was to draw out any abscessing that was likely to occur. If I suspected an abscess, I was to take him back in Monday morning and have it cut out. Good hell. Jack stood with both front feet in buckets of Epson Salt while I Googled the treatment and recovery of hoof abscesses. Never do that. Never Google anything remotely related to symptoms, diagnostics or treatments of any kind. Well, he wasn’t going to die of West Nile – but he would need half his hooves dug out to remove the festering abscess and likely be crippled for life. Jack’s patience ran out about 5 minutes into the Epson Salt soak and he dumped both tubs of solution. Luckily my Smartphone is water resistant.
Monday afternoon I noticed liquid seeping out of his left front sole. I made up another batch of Epson Salt and vowed to keep his hoof in there a full 10 minutes. I managed to get 8. Good enough. I applied the hoof hardener, gave him his happy pill and sent him to bed.
5:00AM Tuesday morning the dim light from the headlamp strapped to my ball-cap barely traced the outline of a horse hopping on three legs. Damn it. I positioned the light to where I could almost see what I was doing. I placed a thumb on each side of the softest section of sole along his inside hoof and pressed lightly. Liquid seeped out of a small opening in his sole; an abscess. Damn it again.
Another three hours before the vet clinic opened. I decided not to give Jack his pain killers. I wanted to make sure they could see how gimpy he really was. I spent most of the three hour wait brushing his coat to a glisten. If he was going to be a crippled pasture-pet the rest of his days, he was going to look good doing it.
“Can you be here by 9:00AM?” You know it lady. I loaded Jack and headed for the clinic. Jack pulled away from Frank’s prodding. A dose of ACE and 5 minutes later Jack didn’t care if they cut his hoof off starting at his neck. I cared. I fretted and watched as Dr. Frank pared away precious sole with medieval instruments of sharp, curved edges. The Dr. asked his assistant for a flashlight. Good hell – he was going to go spelunking into my horses hoof. A few agonizing moments (for me, not the horse) and Dr. Frank presented his work. “This doesn’t look too bad. It looks pretty fresh and not much puss.” He said. I peered around for a better view and stared into the dark abyss of a hole about the size of a dime and no deeper than ¼ inch. That’s it? Take that, Google!
Jack deftly backed out of the trailer sporting a boot made of duct-tape and vet wrap. If I could keep the boot intact until the pair of easy boots I ordered arrived, we should be good. There was some discussion as to whether Jack should be in a very small pen or a larger area until he heals. I know my horse. The smaller the area the more likely he is to paw and pace around. I decided on turning him out in the larger dry lot during the night and letting him graze on un-irrigated pasture part of the day. Each time I bring him in to doctor, I reinforce the toe of his “boot” with strips of camo gorilla tape, because camo makes everything better.
I am beyond thankful that my horse does not have a life-threatening condition like West Nile or the Buckskin Bird flu. There is no such thing as the later, but it does demonstrate how far an over-active imagination can carry a person when faced with the possible demise of their beloved steed. I love my horse. I love my dog and my goats and even my chickens. I am quite fond of most animals actually; except for raccoons… those nasty chicken killing vermin can burn in hell.
I have it on highest authority that humans were placed on this earth to look after one another, the earth and the animals that live on it. It is our responsibility and God given duty to look after each and every one. In return, they were placed here for our use. No one should take such a responsibility lightly. The animals we have chosen to domesticate are especially at our mercy. Our domesticated friends count on humans for every aspect of their wellbeing – physical and emotional. Yes – I believe animals are capable of emotion. Anybody who does not agree has never felt the love of a loyal dog or the heart of a noble horse.
I know that most everything that happens to one of the animals in my care, good or bad, is a direct result of my actions. Had Jack been a wild mustang, it is unlikely he would have put himself in the environment that resulted in his temporary lameness. I am the one that over-watered my pasture. I am the one who did not responsibly rotate my horses between irrigated pastures. I am the one who asks my horse to carry me over rough, rocky terrain without complaint, unaware of the conditions of his softened soles. Jack is laid-up because I dropped the ball.
As always, I beat myself up pretty good when something negative happens to one of my critters. Eventually, I lay off myself long enough to ask God to bail me out…just one more time. Someone asked me if I really thought praying did any good. It certainly does. It is the only thing that does. I prayed for the obvious – to cure my horse and make him sound and strong. I prayed for a complete and speedy recovery. Afterwards, I sat back and asked myself – what if he doesn’t get better? Would I lose my faith? Would I transfer the blame from myself to God? I certainly hope not – so I pray for that too. I pray that no matter what happens that I retain my faith and that God give me the understanding and strength to get through anything that may come…and He did, as He always does. A peace comes over me and I KNOW that I can handle whatever may come because no matter what happens on this earth, He will not forsake me. I stop looking at the what-if’s and what I should have or shouldn’t have done. Instead, I start to see the lessons. I see what I can do to prevent this type of thing in the future. I see a strong, vibrant horse able to carry me thousands of miles for many years to come because God has granted me the gift of learning from my mistakes.
With that said, I still found myself walking around in a self–induced grey cloud of gloom. The vet said it could take three weeks for him to heal well enough to ride. Three weeks was a long time. I’ll probably get a lot done in those three weeks. I’ve gotten most of my wood in for the winter. I’ve fixed the roof on the goat shed and installed some new gates and built a little fence – all in the first 2 days. It was going to be a long three weeks.
It is not that I don’t appreciate the folks who have come out of the woodwork offering horses for me to ride; green horses and horses that “could use a few miles put on them.” It’s just the older I get, the least excited I am about jumping on just anybody’s horse. I prefer to ride my own. If I’m going to get bucked off – I’d prefer to get bucked off my own horse. I politely decline the offers to put a few miles on a strange horse and figure the house could use a fresh coat of sealant.
I moped around for a few days in a mild depression wondering if I’d ever be content to ride another horse should something tragic happen to Jack. About the time I figured I’d never ride again, I got an offer from two friends to ride their horses. These were not spare horses or horses that needed miles put on them. These were horses that are as dear to their riders as Jack is to me. Neither person would offer their horse to just anyone. For me there was no greater compliment.
Several months ago I joined a drill team. We are called the 2 River Wranglers. The four of us are a rag-tag little bunch being led by drill team leader, Joanie B. We have an exhibition coming up the end of the month. I felt terrible that I would let them down again. I’d missed the first event due to a previous engagement. There was no way my horse would be sound by the exhibition. Enter a big black Morgan called Honor.
Joanie responded to my email update on Jack: “I still have your sweatshirt; we’ll bring it tonight if you’re coming to watch – or ride… You are more than welcome to try a spin on the Morgan. Don’t ever offer him, but I like your skills/hands/seat. Keep me posted! Joanie”
Wow – how could I turn that down! I knew what it meant to let someone ride your favorite horse. I’ve let very few people ride Jack and when I do it makes me nervous as hell.
It felt weird showing up at practice in my Pontiac Sunfire without a horse. Honor was saddled and waiting. I climbed aboard. The stirrups needed no adjustment. The saddle felt different from my own – but fit well enough. I was raised on the back of a Morgan. The powerful neck and big motor took me back to the happiest times of my childhood. The frump I’d been in for the last week melted away with each stride as Honor, so adequately named, carried me through the pattern; an honor indeed.
Jack can never be replaced. There will never be another horse like him. Just as there will never be another Popcorn, another Gypsy or another Spud. The animals that come into our lives and take hold of our hearts become part of our soul. There are no replacements. There is hope. God has provided a way for us to cope with their loss. In His Grace, he has created us with hearts of unlimited capacity to hold them all. Thank goodness for that too, because Pop-Tarts and Pendleton … really don’t go so well together.
I never imagined myself undertaking a shopping experience of this nature and yet here I am, scrolling through online pages of justwalkers.com, perusing the latest fashion in clip on walker baskets. Here’s a cool one, I wonder if the plastic flower comes in camo?
The events leading to the root cause of this sudden interest in therapeutic medical devices yanks me back to the past approximately twenty years ago. To a time when I was young and likely thought myself invincible. I would learn that invincible meant one thing and breakable something altogether different.
I had won him fair and square. He was beautifully wild and untouched by human hands. I named him Keystone after my ex husbands beer of choice and the manner in which I won the bet. I bet Dirk that he could not quit drinking for six months. Six days into the bet and I laid claim to a blue roan stud colt. He was not a mustang. He was a well bred quarter horse with papered sire and dam. An old rancher had turned a small herd of horses loose on a BLM reclamation permit. After the old man had died, the BLM threatened to shoot the remaining herd. Thus began my debut in wild horse wrangling.
I crouched low and downwind from the small band of horses standing alert on a sage covered knoll forty yards above me. The young horse colt searched the wind for scent of danger. His small black nostrils flared with each telltale intake of air. He hadn’t seen me, but he knew I was there. I was likely the first person to have seen him and surely the only to get this close. He was magnificent. He flicked his alert black tipped ears in search of minute sounds of danger. He was a true blue roan that would not lighten with age. I crept backwards down the hill and jogged breathlessly back to report my findings to Dirk and Fred Esplin, a family friend. “They are just over that swale on a knoll – there are four of them: two mares, a filly and a horse colt! I got dibs on the blue!”
The plan was to run the herd down the canyon and into a dilapidated corral situated at its base. We split up and circled behind the small band. The chase was on. There is nothing that compares to sitting astride one thousand pounds of thundering speed; hooves pounding out the rhythm of raw power. Racing across that desert at break neck speed after a band of wild brumbies was exhilarating beyond words.
Dirks horse gave out halfway through the chase. Sweat dripped down the big palomino’s trembling legs. My colt, Cruiser, was young and barely 3 months under saddle. Cruise, carrying half the weight, had hardly broken a sweat. He had miles of run left in him. I swapped horses with Dirk and my part of the chase came to an end. I led Fever over the sand and sage as Dirk and Fred disappeared into the boxed canyon.
Fever had cooled down and his trembling had stopped. I was tired of walking. I debated about getting on a horse that got his name after coming down with a high fever that made him half goofy and often unpredictable. The last time I had seen Dirk ride Fever, the horse put two feet of daylight between his belly and the top rail of a 6 foot round pen. I’d never seen a horse buck that high for that long.
“Well horse – are you going to try and kill me or are we going to get out of this desert intact?” Fever’s soft eyes held no hint of crazy girl killing equine. I stuck my foot in the stirrup and swung a leg over. We came out of the canyon at a flat footed walk that three months later would win us the Adrian Fourth Of July walking horse race; One hundred thirty eight dollars and a leather halter. If I’d have won Fever in that bet instead of Keystone, I’d have been money ahead.
It was months before anyone could get close to the blue roan. He stood at the far end of the arena and sulked. I can’t say as I blamed him. After it was all said and done, I wish we would have turned him back out and let him take his chances as the wild desert animal he would always be.
I can’t think about that horse without remembering an incident that often causes me to contemplate the inner workings of an equines mind. Keystone had been with us for three weeks and still untouchable. My youngest son, Blake, was not quite a year old. I happen to glance out the kitchen window at Keystone grazing in my front yard. I do not know how he got out, but there he stood – as big and blue as ever. I started for the kitchen door. The closer I got, the more of the horse came into view. I froze. Blake, in nothing but his diaper and straw cowboy hat, stood between the horses front legs – a forearm hooked around each cannon bone. Chortling merrily, he swayed back and forth beneath the animal’s powerful neck. “Horrrseeee!” I was afraid to move. If I spooked the horse he would trample my baby. I managed to catch Blake’s eye as he peered at me from between the horse’s legs, “Step away from the horse…just one more step. Come on…that’s it.” Two more steps and I was able to reach around the kitchen door and snatch him to safety.
I’ve heard it said there is a person for every horse. Over the years I have wondered if the timing had been different – if Keystone had come to us when Blake was older, could Blake have been that person for Keystone? Blake had no fear of that horse and neither did Keystone fear the little boy. Would he have been a different horse? I believe so.
Keystone grew into a well muscled animal. At two years of age he was ready to break to ride. Dirk had started him for me and I had ridden him a few times in the round pen. The fact that he was a little cinchy didn’t bother me as much as the look in his eye. He didn’t have a kind eye – a soft eye like you hear people talk about. It’s not something you can accurately describe to a person. A horse either has it, or they don’t. Keystone didn’t. Still, I had won him fair and square and could barely contain my excitement to finally ride him outside the corral. Dirk’s brother Don and his wife Beth would be there later to ride. For some reason, I wanted to make this first ride alone; in hindsight, probably not a good idea.
We skirted the old apple orchard and climbed a gradual slope toward the canal. I talked to Keystone as we rode. I told him I understood how he felt about being captured and no longer free to run the desert as a wild stallion. I told him I would be good to him and he would have a great life – that we would spend many long rides in the desert. Maybe I’d learn to rope and he’d become a famous roping horse. Yes, it was all going to be so grand – a girl and her horse. Life was good.
Keystone had a nice, brisk walk that covered a lot of ground quickly. Rather too quickly as it turned out. I will never know what happened – one minute we were clipping along – the next he had bolted up the steep incline leading to the canal. Whoever said horses can’t buck going uphill are out of their ever loving mind. If he wasn’t bucking – he was making a pretty good imitation of it. By the time we got to the top of the canal, we were both out of breath, confused and more than a bit excited. What the hell just happened? I thought briefly I should get off. There was nobody around to yell at me if I did. What would John Wayne do? Nope, I could do this. Something just spooked him. We’re good. We were not good. In the split second it took me to decide to stay in the saddle or not, it was too late. Keystone spun hard before breaking in half and vaulting back down the canal bank – slamming his front-end in the dirt and kicking his heels straight over my head – if he couldn’t buck me off, kicking me in the head seemed to be plan B. If I would just fall off it had to hurt less than riding this blue tornado. My body slamming with every jump felt like it shook my insides loose and put them in places they ought not to be. I stuck it four jumps before he ejected me from the saddle. Literally – it was like someone hit the emergency eject button in a military fighter plane. I shot straight up. I could see my feet above his dappled blue butt. I was coming down inches from those flying hooves. Great – I might have survived the landing only to be kicked in the face. I closed my eyes and turned my head to the side. When I opened them – I was sitting on my butt overlooking the valley below watching a streak of blue bucking his way toward the Vale foothills – the opposite direction of my house. Good plan, horse. Not only was nobody going to know I was out here – the stupid horse was probably going to lose my nice new custom made saddle somewhere between here and the Vale dump!
I knew it was broke. I had come down with my legs straight under me and landed with full impact on my right heel. My leg jerked uncontrollably, contorted in the most unnatural way. It would hurt less if it would just stop jerking. I took deep breaths and tried to keep from throwing up. It really didn’t hurt as much as the thought of the whole thing. I kept thinking I must be going into shock – I needed to relax – take deep breaths – *inhale…exhale*. I had this. I couldn’t be more than a mile or so from home. I couldn’t stand, but maybe I could scoot. Any movement started the leg twitching and jerking bringing back the pain and waves of nausea.
About the time I figured the coyotes would take care of my remains, a blue streak dashed across the valley floor at a dead run – bucking and kicking his way toward home. My first thought was sweet; he still has my saddle, followed by: now they will know something went wrong and come look for me, followed again by: I hope that piece of blue shit breaks his leg off in a gofer hole and he better not scratch up my saddle doing it!
Jack Cummings came at a dead run, over and undering his little bald-face mare. I waved with both arms: “Hey! I’m over here!” Jack galloped up the hill toward me. I was comforted by the knowledge that a horse will not run over you if they can help it. The mare slid to a stop. Jack was a cranky old coot, but he could be funny. He said something about biting down on a stick while he yanked my leg back in place. I told him to shut the hell up and go back for real help. This was my western and there was no way we were doing this John Wayne style.
Old Orange bounced over gofer mounds – tossing its occupants to and fro; Dirk and Dave Maddox to the rescue. Dirk and Dave poured themselves out of the beat up old hunting truck we lovingly called “Old Orange.” I couldn’t think of anything profound to say to the three men looking down at me. “My legs broke.” Dirk shook his head: “No shit?” No shit Dirk…
Dirk lifted from under my arms and Dave took my feet. This was as far ahead as they had planned. Dirk went one way and Dave the opposite. I think I said the F word for the first time in my life. “You have got to make up your minds which way you are going or put me down and I’ll crawl in on my own!” They eventually folded me into Old Orange and we were off to the emergency room.
I begged to be driven to Boise. Dirk wasn’t comfortable driving in Boise and insisted on taking me to what use to be known as Holy Rip-Off (aka Holy Rosary. “Pull over and let me drive! I am not going to Holy Rip-Off!” Dirk won the argument only because I couldn’t have operated the gas or break pedals. Dirk kept glancing over at me. A man of few words, I was surprised when he did speak: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but man…better you than me, huh?” I knew what he meant. Dirk made his living shoeing horses and working construction. An accident like this would have put him out of work long enough for us to all starve to death.
The nurse operating the x-ray table at the emergency room informed us she had been up all night and was tired and cranky. There was no debating the cranky part. She slammed the film down and yelled at me, “I cannot get a good picture if you don’t straighten out that leg!” I wanted to laugh only because I couldn’t jump off that table and hit her in the mouth. “Lady, not only does it hurt, but I cannot physically make my leg do anything it doesn’t want to do.” She stormed off in a huff and disappeared behind the black curtain where no pregnant person is allowed entrance.
When the nurse returned with the developed film, her expression had taken on an entirely different demeanor. “I am so sorry…so, so sorry. No wonder you can’t straighten your leg – you don’t have a knee.” I thought she was going to cry. It can’t be all that bad, surely. “Ok, well– slap a cast on there, send me home and all will be forgiven.” She paled: “Your injury can’t be cast. You need surgery to put that back together. Who is your doctor?”
Dirk and I looked at one another; a doctor? We didn’t have insurance let alone a doctor. The only doctor I had was an OBGYN. “Hello, Dr. Keys…I know this isn’t exactly your area – but I’m over here in the emergency room at Holy Rosary….” Dr. Keys suggested I make them take me to Boise. I explained they wouldn’t take me to Boise and asked if he knew of any bone surgeons here in Ontario. He stressed again that I should be taken to Boise. Unfortunately he could not recommend a doctor in Ontario. I hung up the phone more freaked out than before. What did Dr. Keys know about the Ontario hospital? He’s been my doctor for more than half my life and I trusted him.
There were two orthopedic surgeons available to do the surgery. Dr. Drug Dealer, who got my grandma hooked on pain killers and another doctor I’d never heard of. I took my chances with the unknown. I never saw him before the surgery. I was never told what the surgery would entail or what to expect afterwards. The only contact I had with anyone was the nurses and the anesthesiologist who was a God send. He did everything he could do calm my jitters. I’d never been put under before and wasn’t thrilled with the idea. What if I didn’t wake up? Worse yet, what if I woke up in the middle of them sawing my leg in half? What if I could feel it but couldn’t move or talk to let them know? I’d seen the movie about the “special” hospital room they wheel you into and steal your organs to sell to rich people. What was the room number again?
True to his word, I didn’t feel a thing…until I woke up. Groggy from the effects of the anesthesia, my first thought was my fears of waking up in the middle of the operation had come true. It felt like my leg was being hacked in two. It took several minutes for my head to clear and my eyes to focus on what was going on. The sadistic bastards had strapped my leg to a barbaric device that forced my leg to move back and forth. A few more seconds and a stubborn Velcro strap and I would have freed myself from the torturous contraption if it weren’t for a vigilant nurse. She explained that if I wanted to walk again, I best keep my leg in the “CPM” machine. So, the evil one had a name. Continuous Passive Motion device – could they not have filled me in on this little detail beforehand?
I spent close to a week in the hospital. The nurses and staff more than made up for the lack of attention from the doctor. If he ever checked on me, I was asleep or in the bathroom. They told me I could go home as soon as I could go to the bathroom on my own. I spent a lot of time in that bathroom…I wanted to go home.
I met, possibly for the first time that I was aware, the surgeon on a follow up appointment several weeks later. He had a thick Swedish accent and an ego the size of Texas. He explained his handy work. I had a tibial plateau fracture that shoved through and dissolved my knee. I had a plate and five screws securing the leg. The broken bones in my foot and bruised heel would take care of themselves. He rebuilt my knee using an organic coral substance. Only the second one done in this area and a mighty fine job he did of it too if he could say so himself…which he did, several times. No doubt he was a skilled surgeon. I didn’t have to like him.
On one of my few follow up visits, I asked Dr. Ego if my leg was ever going to be any better than this. I could walk, but not without pain and limited mobility. His exact words to me were: “What do you expect? It’s not like your Nancy Kerrigan or a famous football player. If you were, rehabilitation might be more promising.” I see…
So that was how it was to be. Because I had no insurance, I was to receive the basic services only. There would be no physical therapy, no follow up and certainly no compassion. I was lucky they hadn’t slapped me together with duct tape and PVC pipe and kicked me out the door.
I spent months on crutches and a brace that went from my upper thigh to just above my ankle. It was hot, itchy and reminded me of Robocop. I don’t play well with crutches and rarely used them. Instead, I’d hop around on my left leg most everywhere I went. I am now “left legged” and could probably kick through a concrete wall.
It is true what they say: getting right back on when a horse throws you is always best. I was told if I got bucked off again, the chances of repairing my leg were slim. My leg wasn’t the only thing shattered on the canal that day, my confidence had taken a beating as well.
It was a year before I healed enough to ride again. My first day back in the saddle would be my last for many years. Dirk assured me that the horse I would be riding was broke enough that even “Mike Kurtz” could ride him. I’m still not sure what that meant, Mike seemed like more than a competent rider to me.
Fred, Dirk and I headed back out to the desert for my first ride in over a year. Within the hour, the horse I was on blew up on a hillside and flipped over backwards with me. Fred stood over me – half of him missing from the waist down. It was the weirdest thing ever – I couldn’t see anything from waist height down. My first trip back on a horse cost me a broken arm and a pretty good bump on the head. I’d later learn the horse had bucked off everyone who got on him, including Mike Kurtz. I informed Dirk there were cheaper ways to get rid of me. Two years later, the divorce was final.
I was able to work around the limitations imposed by my leg for the most part. I could hike all day as long as it wasn’t on concrete. Driving was the worse. Over the years the pain continued to worsen. I was told I’d eventually need a knee replacement.
About eight years ago, I had occasion to wear high heels in my daughter’s wedding. It was excruciating and embarrassing. I could barely get down the aisle and looked pretty sad doing it. One day my knee would feel ok, the next I could barely walk. I figured it was time to see if there was something that could be done and went in search of an orthopedic specialist – preferably one without a Swedish accent.
I walked in to Dr. Peterson’s office on the defense. “I know I’m not Nancy Kerrigan or anything….but I do have insurance.” Dr. Peterson listened as I recited the saga of the broken leg and Dr. Ego. I’ve noticed that most doctors will not speak badly of another doctor. While Dr. Peterson was no exception to this rule, he would, with a mischievous grin, refer to me as Nancy in the years to come.
I was still young enough, in knee years anyway, that I would likely outlive several knee replacements. We started out with a smaller version of the Robocop knee brace. I wore it long enough to determine it to be useless. It kept me from bending what little I could and within the first 30 minutes of use, fell to my ankle. I didn’t need ankle support.
The next attempt was removing the plate and screws. Dr. Peterson removed the hardware and did some needed cleanup while he was at it. Like killing two birds with one surgery I guess. The procedure offered more relief than I had since the accident.
Over the next eight years, my leg has had good days, bad days and damn near intolerable days. I’d go weeks thinking I couldn’t stand it anymore. By the time I made up my mind to see Dr. Peterson, the knee would mysteriously improve; much like taking your car into the mechanic.
By mid 2014, I was making more frequent visits to see Dr. Peterson. I asked him: “Is this going to hurt?” “Nah,” he replied. “We deaden it first.” He lied. The needle used to inject the cortisone into my knee joint was at least 14” long and as big around as my forearm. I swore – and not under my breath. There was that mischievous grin again, “If I’d a told you the truth, you wouldn’t have let me do it!” He was my kind of doctor – just get’er done.
I asked him when you knew it was time for a new knee. He said I would know. One day I would stroll into his office and proclaim I’d had enough. That day came three months after the first injection of cortisone.
I strolled – or rather gimped – into his office the first part of October. The injection had lasted a good three months. When it wore off, it did so with a vengeance. I could no longer get a good night’s sleep and the last time I had to walk out of the mountains about did me in. I was tired of this thing affecting my life – I’d had enough.
My original intent was to try and hold off until November after the riding season. It didn’t make sense to wait. My horse was still recovering from his own injury and it was likely I’d have to be feeding hay by November. Hobbling around with a walker trying to throw hay to 9 goats and 2 horses didn’t appeal to me anymore than worrying about frozen pipes and tank heaters. I got another cortisone injection to hold me over for two weeks – October 14th, knee day.
If the government took half the precautions our physicians take, this country would have the most secure borders in the world. I had to be checked out and cleared by my dentist, an MD, and a cardiologist. I had blood drawn no less than three different times, 2 urine samples, a chest x-ray and an EKG. Bad leg aside, I’d bring a pretty fair price at any auction.
I stocked up on dog food, cat food, and chicken food. I split enough wood for 3 weeks and filled the freezer with ready cook meals and lined the pantry shelves with Beanee Weanees. Hunker down and bring it on.
My daughter could not handle the idea of my neighbor driving me to the hospital. She tossed in a suitcase and my grandbabies and drove 14 hours from Casper Wyoming to stay with me until she felt comfortable leaving me in the hands of friends and neighbors. Bright and early Tuesday morning, we arrived at the Weiser Memorial Hospital. Some folks expressed concern about undergoing major surgery in a small town hospital. 1. I trusted my doctor. 2. it’s not that size of the hospital that counts, it’s the skill and compassion of the staff that run it. 3. So far, Ebola was confined to the metropolitan hospitals.
I was relieved to learn I would not be going under general anesthesia. I freak out when I come to and immediately throw up afterwards. I can’t explain it exactly – I get the feeling like I am drowning. It’s not painful – it is the sensation that is disturbing – like I’m breathing in but it’s not doing me any good. Airplanes make me feel the same way. I prefer to avoid both. James, the anesthesiologist, assured me that he would not be giving me general anesthesia. He explained in great detail that I would be undergoing a spinal block and a local block at my right leg. I blocked out the details and went with it.
They wheeled me into the surgery room for what was to become a bizarre experience. James kindly asked if I was ready. Boy am I ever James. He smiled behind his surgical mask and told me to pick out a good dream. No going back now.
I figured I’d go right under, wake up and be the proud owner of a shiny new knee. Instead – the operating room took on a surreal appearance. Half dozen surgical masks peered down at me. I tried to make out the faces. I recognized one nurse and James. Where was Dr. Peterson? Had he forgot today was “knee day?” I heard his voice from across the room. “She does cowboy mounted shooting.” A nurse told me later that I started babbling about old westerns. I remember trying to say, “The Rifleman” over and over, but I don’t know why. I think I was trying to correct someone regarding old western movie trivia. Or maybe that was the dream I’d picked out. I turned my head toward the voice. Sort of looks like Dr. Peterson – about the same height. I wonder what he’s doing clear across the room. I decided he must be waiting for me to fall asleep. I’ll count backwards from 10 until I fall asleep; 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5…That didn’t work. Now I’m sitting on the edge of the table leaning against a very comfortable nurse. I must have tried to escape and she caught me! This must be what it is like to be on LSD. I hope they don’t get tired of waiting for me to fall asleep and start sawing! If I hear a chainsaw start up, comfortable nurse or not, I’m out of here. I wonder if they wear chainsaw chaps. Why can’t I just fall asleep and this will whole thing will be over …and it was.
I woke up long enough to see someone lifting a pasty white leg. I felt nothing. I had to ask, “Is that mine?” Yes, the nurse answered. “Is it attached?” I asked, and fell back asleep.
When I woke again, my leg was wrapped in sheepskin and strapped securely into a CPM device. I felt nothing from the waist down. Nothing would move – not my toes – not my calves and most disturbing of all, not my butt cheeks! Why the hell did they have to numb my butt cheeks!
I recognized the nurse that had prevented my escape from the surgery table. I asked her what happened. She smiled and said I had not tried to escape. James was doing the spinal and you have to be sitting up for that. Normally, nobody remembers it but apparently I fought the sedative pretty hard. I asked what the whole “Rifleman” thing was about and she merely chuckled. I asked every hospital staff employed in that place and their response was the same. I’ll never know and maybe that is a good thing.
Look at that! I can move my toe! An hour later and I could squeeze my calf and another hour, my upper thigh. Several hours later and I could almost squeeze my butt cheeks. As far as I was concerned, the surgery was a success.
A nurse went over the procedure for injecting Lovenox into the abdomen. I’d have to give myself 14 injections when I got home. I made a reasonable attempt at pretending it didn’t bother me to jab the small needle of blood thinner two inches from my belly button. Why the belly, I asked. The nurse said it was important for the injections to go into the fatty tissue and not into the muscle. In that case, my butt would have been a more appropriate injection site.
The drill hadn’t changed. You were allowed to go home as soon as you could walk on your own and poop. By the next morning, I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and was introduced to my first experience with a walker. My walker had two color coded bands. One said, “Allergies” (I’m allergic to sulfa) and the other said, “Fall risk.” Escape risk was more like it – I wasn’t planning on falling anytime soon.
Over the next two days, I pondered how things had changed. Yes, the “evil CPM” device was the same; neither had the compression socks nor the electric compression boots changed in twenty years. What had changed was the compassion and overall care provided. I was visited by a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, James the anesthesiologist, the guy that gave me the EKG, another that had taken my blood, the X-ray lab technician that had done my chest X-rays and even the doctor that sawed my leg in half. I asked him what the deal was with “The Rifleman” and like the others; a shake of the head and a chuckle was my only answer.
I motated up and down the halls between visits from friends and family. Athena brought my grandbabies, Emmett and Sophia, to visit twice a day. Sophia sat on the bed with me for a photo shoot of our feet. Emmett kept me up to date on the happenings around the farm. Athena proudly proclaimed she had managed to pick out Jack’s hooves; an impressive feat for the simple fact that Athena is not a horse person. I should not have been surprised. She has always possessed the grit to buck up and do anything she puts her mind too. She knows how important my animals are too me and dove right in and did what needed doing. I asked her how she managed to get him caught. I am normally the only one who can catch him without any degree of difficulty. “Oh, I don’t catch him. He just stands there and lets me pick up his feet.” Very impressive indeed!
Friday morning I sent Athena a text: “I’m flying this coop – come get me!” I had already gotten myself dressed. The occupational therapist watched me pull on the constricting compression socks. It’s like squeezing a Sumo wrestler into a pair of ballerina tights. She remarked if I can do that, I didn’t need her and cleared me for takeoff.
Loaded down with discharge instructions and half a dozen prescriptions, I left the hospital the proud owner of a shiny new titanium coated kryptonite and spaceship grade plastic knee. I really have no idea what materials the thing is made of, but it sounds better than duct tape and PVC pipe.
It felt good to sleep in my own bed…or at least lay in my own bed. Sleeping was sporadic at best. It’s not so much the pain as I have to get up every two hours and head for the bathroom. I think its nature’s way of forcing me to stay mobile without the CPM device. Sort of like ants at a picnic. It’s against some sadistic rule of nature for a person to get comfortable in one spot for too long.
Athena and the kids left me to my own devices a little longer each day. One week and two days after surgery we determined I could manage on my own. Athena felt comfortable knowing my neighbor would check on me as well as friends that lived close by. I was sad to see them go but if she didn’t leave soon I was going to have no trouble finding enough belly fat for those injections. Athena is an excellent cook. I tried hard not to cry as my daughter and grandbabies pulled out of my driveway toward home. It would almost be worth having an annual joint replacement just to see them more often. I’ve decided to make a bigger effort to visit them. I have no intentions of going through this type of thing again. What original body parts I have left, I intend to keep.
Jack and Shade have taken over where Athena left off. Shade, ever protective and loyal, stays between me and whoever/whatever she deems might cause me harm. Let them leave the food before you try and bite them, dog. Jack, too, has taken on the role of nursemaid. He walks beside me as close as the walker will allow with his neck bent around me and his head at my chest. He matches my slow stride step for step; much like a boy scout helping an old lady across the street. König, who appears to be scared of the walker, can’t get close without Jack pinning his ears at him. K has gotten more comfortable since I started making an effort to pet him and coax him closer to the walker.
Dustin, the physical therapist, comes out three times a week and puts me through a series of exercises. He’s reprimanded me once for not using my walker. The thing just gets in my way – but I use it when he’s around to keep the peace. I always use it when I’m in the pasture with the animals. I’m determined, not stupid.
I take daily walks to the mailbox and back. Normally that wouldn’t seem like much – but my mailbox is a good 100 yards from my house. The first time I did it, I’d wished I’d had my walker about halfway back. Now I a can easily walk down and back with the aid of a magical walking stick. The walking stick is one my son Dillon picked up in the Eagle Caps on our last pack trip. It may or may not possess magical powers, but it does give me incentive to work hard. I look forward to many pain free packing trips with my son in the future.
My first real accomplishment was cleaning out Jack’s hooves. Following Athena’s lead, there is no need to catch him. He stands patiently – practically puts his hoof in my hand and allows me to clean them thoroughly and apply a thick coat of Desitin to his soles. When we are done, he walks me back to the gate in Boy Scout fashion. I give him a treat of horse cookies or an apple from the trees in my yard.
Concerned friends and family lit into me from every direction. What was I doing out there in that germ infested environment? Was I asking for an infection? Did they remove my brain as well as my old knee? Panic set in. My leg was crawling with infectious bacteria. What had I done…at best I would lose my leg within the week. I could be dead in two. I immediately drenched my leg in Betadine and waited nervously for gang green to set in.
Two weeks after surgery, the nurse meticulously removed the 25 staples that made up the 6” incision down the center of my knee. The removal processes by far the most painful part of this ordeal, but not nearly as bad as I anticipated. For peace of mind, I decided to come clean. I told the nurse what I had done in regards to puttering around the barnyard and picking Jacks’ hooves. She asked if I laid the hoof on my knee. Good hell, no. I couldn’t if I wanted to. She assured me that although infection is a huge concern with joint surgery, what I had done held very little risk. The incision was adequately covered and I had taken extra precaution to keep it free from contact with cooties. She said to be on the safe side, wipe the incision down with alcohol after working around the animals. In reality, a person comes into contact with more germs in a grocery store than a farm.
My leg continues to improve every day. Each trip to the mailbox is easier than the one before. I no longer need walking aids of any kind. As I walked down this afternoon I was overcome with a wave of emotion. I choked backed tears and had to stop and think what the hell had gotten into me. I realized as I trod down the gravel driveway stiff legged and a little awkward – I was doing so with less pain than I had in over 20 years.
Jack nickered when I return with the mail. I pick an apple from the tree for him and stroke the swirl between his eyes; soft eyes – kind eyes. I could not wait to be back in the saddle. Quite different from twenty years ago when I feared I might never regain the confidence I’d lost on that canal bank.
I often wonder what became of Keystone. I’d heard he broke two more legs and a man’s back before he was put down. I sincerely hope that is not true. I don’t believe he was a mean horse. I believe he was a scared horse. Back then we didn’t use “natural horsemanship.” I don’t really understand the term. There is nothing natural about ripping an animal from their natural habitat, shoving a metal apparatus in their mouth and expecting them to allow a natural predator to ride around on their back. Back then we called it breaking a horse. Maybe that was it. For a horse like Keystone who had a taste of true freedom as a wild desert animal, being broken just wasn’t an option.