Moon of Vanishing Stock Dams

When the writing comes difficult, sometimes exercises are helpful. I learned the MOON creative non-fiction exercise in college. A moon correlates to a season of life. Here is one of mine:

It was one of the driest and hardest summers for ranchers in South Dakota and it brought more trials and back-aching work than I’d ever experienced. I was nineteen and felt like I was fully grown. I had worked for a full year out of high school and, though I wasted most of the money I made on DVD’s, a Burton snowboard, and fast food, I felt like I owned the world. I knew everything then and no adult held any wisdom for me. It was impossible because I, too, was an adult. I suppose most kids feel that way straight out of high school. That summer I decided to spend one final summer on the ranch before heading to college and, old as I felt, I grew up more that summer than any other period in my life.

The ranch was not my family’s, but belonged to a close family friend. Larry ran the ranch along with a kid’s camp held during the summer. He knew a lot about ranch life, but it was not from him that I learned, though he played a good part. I worked alongside my best friend, Clint, and he also played a part, but he was there learning beside me.

No, I learned from the elements that summer. I learned from hours spent in the scorching one hundred-ten degree heat, from rising at four in the morning, from watching a horse die in my arms.

Clint and I awoke every morning at four, a can of Mountain Dew in each hand as we rolled out of bed and down to the barn. We had to bring the camp horses in to water because their dam had dried out the previous summer. The dry winter and years of drought left only two dams on the ranch. So we took the horses to their pasture to graze every night and brought them into the corrals early in the morning to water. After they’d drunk we brushed and saddled all twenty of them. Clint spent the day leading camp rides and I did everything else, depending on the day. I built fence, painted barns, moved cattle, drove tractor, led sporadic rides, trained horses. And every time I finished a job, Larry had three more ready for me. The days were long and extended into the nights. Clint and I would crash onto our bunks at eleven and wind down, talking and drinking Mountain Dew. The caffeine had no effect on us at night, because we were sound asleep by eleven-thirty.

It was not just a summer of hard work. It was also a summer of mountain lions. Several neighbors – which, in the country, includes anyone within forty miles – had spotted them, and when Clint and I found one-hundred yards of fence down while bringing in the camp string, we knew that it was a lion’s doing. The horses had trampled the fence after being spooked in the night. I’ll never forget the crimson stain on one of the fence posts. One of the horses did not clear the fence in his panic and impaled himself.

We rounded up all the horses and led them back to the corrals. The young injured horse, Eagle, hobbled in the back. He was not bleeding, but he had a clean one-inch gash in his left flank and dark stains down his entire leg. Eagle was frightened and probably in shock, but we thought he would be fine. When we reached the corrals, he started bleeding again. It gushed like water from a well, and hard as we tried we couldn’t get it to stop. Larry came out and told me to take Eagle to a smaller pen, while he called the vet. Eagle’s breaths were wheezy and he moved slowly. His eyes were wide and I feared he had bled out far more than we had thought during the night. I led him into a small pen that led into our cattle shoots, used during brandings and injections. I left Eagle and went to find Larry again.

When I came back minutes later, Larry close behind me, I found Eagle in the narrow shoots, collapsed in the dirt. I had forgotten to close the shoot gate. The next half hour was a blur of motion and anxiety as we tried to help Eagle out of the pen. But he had no strength left to move. I hurried with water, hoping to revive him. But it was useless. Soon he couldn’t even drink. I held his black head in my arms and poured water in his mouth and over his body, but as soon as I saw him in the pen I had left open, I knew it was over. Eagle let out his last desperate breath in my arms. And I cried.

Larry took me for ride in his John Deere and told me that Eagle probably would have died regardless, that he had lost too much blood during the night. He said it was a mistake and I would learn from it, but to never forget that horse. And I haven’t. I thought I had the situation under control that day. I thought I could save that horse. But I couldn’t. I left a gate open. And Eagle died. That day I learned that the littlest decisions can have large consequences. And there was much I had to learn, not just on the ranch, but in everything.

But I also learned that life moves on, and so did that summer. I was determined to work my hardest and to do my best. My horse that summer was Whispers in the Darkness. She was a Thoroughbred ex-racehorse with a white “6” emblazoned on her right flank. I rode her diligently every day for hours. I taught her how to turn a direction other than left. I introduced her to cattle for the first time, of which she was terrified. A week later she moved them like the best of the ranch horses. I broke my first horse that July, a yearling red roan. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more accomplished than when I climbed into the saddle in that round pen. Larry watched me silently and cheered when I got on. He called out his wife, Robin, and said what a good rider I was becoming. And I was proud, because I had worked hard and succeeded and Larry didn’t dish out compliments readily. He meant it. I was changing.

In August, Clint and I rode up to the gate of the East Pasture to find a group of muddied, panting mares and their colts. Our second dam had gone dry. We let the yearlings out and went to check the dam. It was all but dry, a pit of mud with a small puddle in the center. Within the mud lay a chestnut mare, sunk up to the middle of her chest in gumbo. We tied a rope around her neck and attached it to Clint’s saddle. His horse knew what to do and pulled with all his might as Clint and I, waist-deep in mud, tried to help her out. After minutes of pushing and pulling and yelling, the mare lost all strength. We nearly gave up, and I dreaded the thought of telling Larry that another one of his horses died. We gave one more exhaustive attempt, grunting and straining and screaming “Come on, girl! Come on! You can do it!” And that mare, with one final burst of adrenaline, stepped out of the mire that engulfed her and ran off to join the others who had reached water by then. Clint and I had a victory that day. In a way, it felt like it made up for the failure earlier that summer.

The rest of the summer flew by and I went off to college and have only been back to the ranch a couple, brief times. It was not my first summer on the ranch or my first experience with hard work, but it is the summer I remember most. I can see those muddied yearlings, the yards and yards of fence to be fixed, the rickety diesel tractor, clouds of dust coming off of horses’ hooves in the dehydrated pastures, that yearling red roan beneath me. I remember empty cans of Mountain Dew covering the floor of the bunkhouse and working beside my best friend. I remember my Thoroughbred as we flew through the plains on her legs built for speed. I remember Eagle’s dying eyes and that mare’s triumphant ones. I remember sweat and bloodied, calloused hands and determination. I remember making mistakes and doing things right. But most of all, I remember not being the same after that summer.

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