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Ranching in ranchette country

Essay by Chris Frasier

Agriculture – December 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

FROM MY PERCH in the saddle I could see that he was angry, even before the last heifer filed past his mangled wire gate. He paced along the road ditch like he needed to guard his territory from the trailing herd. The half-finished house that he’d been working on all summer loomed over his shoulder like an empty cage, as if a tornado from the land of Oz had dropped it on the hilltop here, where just a few months ago nothing but empty prairie had extended to the horizon.

“Did you close my gate?” he demanded. With his hands clenched at his sides he stepped a little closer, then stopped at what he must have thought to be a safe distance from a half-ton of horseflesh.

“Yes.” I waited to see if he wanted more explanation.

“Scratched the hell out of my car hood.” He glared at me, then at the flimsy barb-wire gate that lay broken across his car. That’s when I noticed his dusty Thunderbird stalled at the dirt path leading to his new house, rusted strands of barbed wire stretched across its cherry-red hood.

“I’m moving cattle,” I offered flatly. Just like we always do, I thought, just like we’ve done for years, and all of your neighbors have done for practically a century, long before you bought your little slice of range-grass horizon. “Didn’t want our heifers on your property, did you?”

“Well, it’s just that I didn’t expect it to be closed, that’s all.” He backed off a step. “And I was looking at my house when I pulled in the drive, so I couldn’t stop in time. That’s all.” Relaxing his craned neck, he glanced down at the hoof-pocked road where he’d smashed a fresh manure pile under his white tennis shoe. He pulled the foot away as if it were on fire.

I leaned silently across the saddle horn and stroked Ditto’s neck as I thought of what I’d like to say. It’s your gate. Hadn’t it dawned on you that it might be closed? Maybe you should follow the speed limit, you and the rest of you 60-acre yahoos who come screaming down this gravel road like it belongs to you. You people don’t understand us. We need access to our land, we need to walk our heifers up this road. We need space.

But then I looked at his car again and I thought of him tearing down the road in his usual rush, skidding around the corner, and bursting through his own gate. I swallowed hard, but my smile leaked out before I could duck beneath the shade of my hat brim. His face draining, the neighbor hem-hawed a request that we tell him the next time we move cattle down the road.

“Sure,” I said, leaving him unraveling the busted gate.

I roused Ditto to a trot and caught up with the road-weary heifers for the final stretch to headquarters. Four more driveways to go.

Chris Frasier ranches in Elbert County.