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Life on the ranch

by Marie Johnson

There was a cowboy, Shawn, who lived across the yard in the foreman’s old house. He lived here, but worked for another man’s outfit. Now he’s moved to another camp. I appreciated his help when he was around, but I think when he saw me in the fields he wanted to go into his house, drag his recliner to the window and watch, “What Is She Doing Now?”

Like the other day, I was driving through fields showing a fence repairman sections the cows had torn up. I was pointing out the worst holes so he wouldn’t stop at our front gate and start there. I left him and his supplies at the biggest hold and started backing over a culvert spanning a ditch, when the truck’s front passenger wheel literally lost ground.The tire spun in the air. I could not move.

To irrigate our uneven fields there is a mad pattern of earthen ditches trenched throughout the ranch, selectively plugged, causing water to flood over the ditches’ banks. The channel I was teetering over was a major artery in our lifeline of ditches. Gingerly, I got out of the pick-up. The fence man kept fencing and Shawn kept riding through the neighbor’s cows. A truck balancing in the air is a sensitive project and, unless you are asked to look at it, you pretend you don’t see it.

Knowing I can’t leave the truck for the cows to rub on and push into the ditch, I walk a quarter mile back to the shop yard to get Brown Betty, a 1956, 2-ton, rusty flat bed with broken gauges and missing glass in the back window. She’s parked facing into the wind so snow and leaves don’t pile up in her cab. At Betty’s age, she starts only when she wants to, and after numerous tries, as the battery fades, she starts. I drive Betty to the truck floating in the field.

I get stuck so often that attaching a tow chain is like bending my elbow to put food in my mouth – no problem. Climbing back into Betty, I angle cautiously back. The pick-up gets a little more precarious as more of it hangs over the edge of the culvert. Then Betty stalls, hopefully, out of gas; any other problem I can’t fix. Again, I walk back to the shop, fill a 5-gallon gas can, making it too heavy to carry. Looking around I see the small, ’64 International tractor which won’t start without a jump from one of the trucks in the field, so I walk to the house and get my compact car. Gas can in the trunk, I drive to within 10 feet of Brown Betty before getting high centered on a furrow running parallel to the ditch. Now I have three vehicles lined up like a parade.

I lug the gas can to Betty. After a few false sputters, she starts. With the pick-up still attached, I back Betty until I am just a few inches from sending her flat bed through the front windshield of my car. I unchain the pick-up and drive it around the edge of the field to avoid the culvert ditch and maneuver behind the car. The pick-up easily tows the car off its high center. I drive the pick-up back to the shop and park it. Walk back to the car; drive it to the house. Walk back in the field again to get Betty. I finish my chores just before the kids need to be picked up at the bus stop.

Shawn never refused to help me if I’d ask. Most he’d say was, “Saw you out there, was wondering what you were doing.” I hope he’s enjoying his new camp.

– Marie Johnson is a Fredericksburg, Calif., resident and is married to Kent Neddenriep. They have two sons, Kyle, 9, and Bradley, 6. Her column, “Fence lines,” appears once a month.