Of Life and Death

Getting ready to lead the parade. With my friend, Janice in the background.
One lives very close to nature on a ranch.
Close enough to get the wind in your eyes.
The dust in your hair.
Or a hoof in the teeth.
The short, sometimes tragic lives of the animals under one’s care are very much the core about which the ranch world revolves.
Case in point . . .
Dad had purchased a tall, rangy, slimly-built black horse to add to the family string.
Who was immediately tagged ‘Slim’ or ‘Ranger’.
Okay, so imaginative, we weren’t.
He was beautiful.
Coal black with just a couple of touches of white about the head.
He was also gentle and a good worker, with long legs that could really stretch out and cover the ground.
And important selling point when the average pasture was more than a mile square.
There was only one draw-back to the beautiful new member of our cattle-working team.
Somewhere in his past, he had been abused.
Probably by a man.
Because it was nearly impossible for a man to get close to him.
Oh, once he was properly haltered, he was gentle and compliant.
It was just getting to that point that was the problem.
We kids could walk up to him anywhere and slip a halter over that magnificent head.
But one of the men . . .?
Usually, Dad simply handed me the halter and let me go into the corral to slip it on. Then he would take the lead from me and proceed to tack up.
But if I wasn’t there, only the lariat made catching this horse possible.
This went on for years.
I don’t know what he had against men.
But it went deep.
One Saturday morning, when the horses were brought in, Ranger wasn’t with them. I looked the herd over carefully as they milled about, blowing hard and pretending to be nervous and skittish.
It was my first time in the corral for several days, so I wasn’t sure if he had simply been kept in the barn for some reason.
I shrugged and, slipping a halter over one shoulder, climbed the fence and dropped down inside.
Immediately, the horses turned to look at me.
Now, a neophyte might imagine that it would dangerous to enter a corral with several horses still prancing about, but the truth is, horses are very careful of their feet and legs. And they really, reallydon’t like stepping on anything squishy.
Like humans.
Oh, they’ll snag the occasional foot with (ouch) star-sparking results.
And sometimes, they’ll let fly with a couple of hooves, especially if startled.
But if they know you’re there, a well-behaved horse will pretty much mind their manners. I slipped my halter over Peanuts’ head and led him toward the gate.
“Where’s Ranger?” I asked Dad as he moved past me with his own halter in hand.
“He’s gone,” Dad said.
I frowned, but let the remark pass as we led our respective horses to the barn.
Then, later as we headed out toward our day’s goal, I turned to him.
I should note, here, that there was usually a lot of land between us and whatever herd we were expecting to work that day.
It left room for a lot of conversation.
“So, what happened to Ranger?” I asked, fully expecting the ‘I sold him’ response.
It’s a funny thing about animals on the ranch. You get attached, but you don’t get sentimental. It’s a fine line, but it protects you somewhat.
Dad sighed. “We had to work cattle a couple of days ago and you were in school,” he began.
Hmmm. Why did the alarm bells begin to ring?
Dad went on, “I had to rope him.” He paused. Then sighed again. “He went down.”
Uh-oh. Not good.
Dad shook his head regretfully. “When he came back up, his leg had obviously been broken.”
I felt a tingle go up my back. A broken leg on a working horse? That’s a death knell for sure.
Horses are heavy. And their lives depend on their legs. Thus their skittishness about endangering them in any way. Immobilizing a horse long enough for those heavy bones to knit properly? Very nearly impossible. The animal is usually only good for breeding afterwards.
And a gelding? (A male with the ‘man’ parts removed.) Really of no practical use whatsoever.
“What did you do?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“We had to put him down,” Dad said. There was the regret of ‘if only’ in his voice. If only he had done things differently. If only one of the kids had been around. If only . . .
We kept riding while I turned this over in my mind. I knew there was really no other practical solution, but when one is considering one’s friends, it’s not quite that simple.
The horse string on the Stringam ranch changed throughout the years. As horses aged or became unsuitable, they were sold off to perform some other practical use and new horses were brought in to replace them.
But I’ve never forgotten that magnificent, black gelding.
The one that had a history.
The one that was so hard to catch.
He personified the hard, ultimately practical spirit of the ranching life.
Definitely not a life for the faint of heart.

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