The howl of the wind was what woke me. I lay buried in my blankets and sleepily took stock of the morning.
My nose was cold.
Sometime during the night my husband had moved to my side of the bed. I might have ended up shoved to the floor but two dogs and a child had magically appeared under the covers on my other side creating a bolster between me and an icy wake up call.
They couldn’t have been there long, their frosty little noses and the popsicle toes poking me here and there proved it.
I crawled out of bed as carefully as I could and hobbled over to the thermometer.
The groan that escaped me must have been loaded down with the right amount of misery because Jim propped himself up on his elbow and said, “What’s the temp?”
“Five below. I just can’t wait,” I told him.
He didn’t answer. He hoped days like these would convince me it was time to reevaluate some of the choices I had made in my life.
I crawled into my sweater and staggered out to the kitchen to start the coffee. By the time I came into the family room Jim was building up a good fire in the woodburner.
I sipped my coffee slowly and let the heat seep through my bones.
It was hard to get moving. But the day wasn’t going to go away.
My car cranked over with little argument and I turned the heater on high before running into the house to add some more layers.
I double checked my bag, making sure it was filled with several pairs of Thorlo boot socks and an extra pair of wool ones for good measure. My Playtex gloves were still at the barn, but I threw in my two extra pairs of heavy fleece gloves still warm from the dryer. I grabbed a few tea bags and an orange for lunch.
“You should wear coveralls,” Jim said, “they’ll really make a difference.”
“Not when you’ve turned into Hot Flash Hannah and have to pee every thirty seconds,” I snapped. ”If the pipes are frozen in the tack room I’ll have to go in the stalls, I can’t be wrestling with tights and jeans and coveralls too.”
“I’d rethink that second cup of coffee then,” he smirked.
I shrugged into my jacket and laced up my heavy boots. When I left I took the comics and Sudoku.
Let him find them, I thought. The least I could do was ruin his morning constitutional.
The dogs didn’t even argue when I told them they couldn’t come with me.
The road crackled under my tires as I pulled out into the gray dawn. There was no movement in the neighborhood. A few lights shone in solitary windows here and there but everything was still except for the chug of my engine as I headed out.
Traffic picked up as I wove through town. Single, sour looking drivers sat in each car. It was hard not to wonder if carpooling was simply too hard to deal with on mornings like this one.
I headed east on Platte Ave. and picked up speed on my way out of town. The road was clear and dry, with gray, gritty drifts piled on the sides. The homeless and lost were beginning to move around, bundled up and trudging without purpose. They carried backpacks or pushed lifted Wal-Mart carts filled with their tenuous lives.
Moving out of town I sped through miles of gray, ugly suburbia. The crowded apartments turned to crowded, tall, cheap looking homes. Within miles the properties grew bigger and the houses smaller as the snow and ice began to reappear on the road. Three horses huddled beside a billboard on an overgrazed 5 acre pasture.
By the time I turned onto the Ellicott highway the land was open again. Still chopped into properties from 20 to 80 acres, the prairie seemed tired and broken. The wind had picked up and was blasting the sides of my car with frozen sparkly snow. It felt like driving through a sandstorm.
A cloud of snow whirled like a dust devil in July across the outdoor arena. The brief image of a running horse on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah crossed my mind as I pulled into the barnyard.
With my seat pushed back and my engine still running I geared up for the day ahead.
Hay first. Start in the show barn, then to the side barn, onto the garage barn and back to my own. Then feed the open pen, the buffs and the cattle.
Then I could start to water. They had taken six head with them to the World Show and three had gone home while they were gone, so the show barn wouldn’t be so bad.
So it would be 33 head of horses, six buff and 25 cattle. I’d only have to do 17 stalls. I could use the tractor to do the side barn when the weather was better.
I sat for another minute and then turned off my brain and the car. I pushed out of the door and the snot-freezing cold slapped me hello.
I started the water in the cattle tank before I began to feed. The trickle should start to melt the ice before I finished haying.
As I worked my way through the stalls the horses stood quiet with their ears pricked forward. I threw each their breakfast and then a third again. checked blankets and slid my hands underneath to make sure each horse was warm enough.
My fingers were already numb by the time I scooped up the cat food for the barn cats. They came running at the sound of their tub being opened, their ratty fur stood out straight from their sides. I rubbed the back of the big orange tom and felt the sharp points of his delicate bones. He crouched over the bowl and growled at the mama cats. They weaved around my legs, they’re tails wrapping around my calves with uncomfortable intimacy until I threw them more food.
The other two barns went quickly enough. The loose horses bucked and ran in their pen, the cold was sharp enough to make them goofy. I could see my yellow mare spinning and kicking in her stall, she was aching to run with the others.
By the time I was around back at the buffs I moved into a jog. My heavy boots made me clumsy and I tripped, landing with a thud on the ground. I jumped up and dusted the snow off my jeans as fast as I could. I didn’t need my knees to get wet with melting snow. The buffalo crowded around and stared at me as I forked big chunks of hay over the rail. Their solemn eyes peered from under shaggy, frozen clumps of hair. The icicles in their beards clattered as they tore into the hay.
The cattle had started to holler when they saw me at the buffs. I picked up my jog again and headed over to the berm. There was plenty of hay pushed out of reach from the night before, so I walked along the cement apron, kicking the heavy alfalfa up to the edge of the fence.
Standing on at the corner of the cattle pen the wind crept up my jacket and wrapped icy fingers around my sweat soaked ribs. The low hanging clouds turned the prairie to an ocean of gray, waving grass.
I’d been out for an hour and a half, my feet were still pretty good, but my hands were freezing, I couldn’t feel my face and I really needed to pee. I broke back into my jog and headed around the cattle pens to the tack room.
I warmed my hands under the blanket of one of the horses in the show barn. Once I had feeling in them again I went out to the car and got my extra gloves. I put on a pair of fleece gloves and then my heavy winter ones. I got out my Playtex gloves and jammed them over the whole clumsy mess.
I walked back to the cattle pen. The ice had broken free of the tank and floated, three inches high at the top of water, which was spilling down the sides of the tank and creating an ice rink on the ground below.
I picked up the four foot piece of pipe that leaned against the barn wall. I held the pipe over my head and let its own weight carry it, wham, vertically onto the ice. A few chips skittered off the surface. I lifted and released the pipe again and again, chips flying everywhere. Finally a crack appeared across the surface. A few more whacks and it broke into pieces I could pull out of the tank. I pulled the ice out, chunk by chunk and threw it outside the fence.
Each pen took a different approach. It became a game to see what the most efficient way to pull the ice from each tank was. The huge tire with the cement bottom in the pen with the loose horses was a bear. It took the pipe, an ax, a lot of muscle, and then a manure fork to pull the ice to me so I could drag it over the lip and dump it on the ground.
“”Hear that lonesome whippoorwill,” I bellowed, “he sounds too blue to fly…”
My breath fogged my glasses as I sang and immediately froze solid. I pulled them off and shoved them in my pocket.
“Blue, blue, blue suede shoes,” I danced a little as I tossed the chunks of ice. The horses snorted and sniffed at the chunks. I was going to have to hurry, I could feel the ice crystals sticking to my cheeks and I was having trouble hanging up the hose to drain, my fingers refused to hang on to the coils.
“These boots are made for walkin’” I segued as I entered the garage barn. I tipped and rolled each water barrel out into the yard. I had only filled them by a third, so I could whack them on the bottom with the back of my ax and empty the whole tub.
I uncoiled the next hose. Hooked it up to the pump and turned it on. The water raced through the hose and stopped. Nothing.
Damn, the hose was frozen.
I walked on the hose, rolling it under my feet as I went. The ice crackled and crunched, but the water still didn’t break through.
I gave up and turned the water off. I dragged the hose into the tack room and hung it on the wall. Tomorrow I’d fire up the stove and thaw it out. I took the hose from the show barn and hoisted it over my shoulder. Its weight slowed my steps and the cold from the rubber hose seeped through the many layers.
The horses drank greedily from their barrels. I made the rounds with the hose twice so they could drink their fill and still have plenty left.
The front of my coat and my legs were covered with ice and it broke off in sheets as I worked my way, only to reform at the next barrel.
When I got to my barn the horses were getting impatient. They pushed at me and nickered as I wrestled with the barrels. Their ears and butts were covered with frost and their whiskers froze as they raised their muzzles dripping with water.
The wind was picking up. The buffs raked at each other’s sides as they fought for position at the tank. The ice flew as I leaned through the iron bars of the fence and chopped the ice. I watched them carefully as they pushed their hairy faces into the water, so close I could see my reflection in their eyes and feel the heat coming off them. Steam rose off their humped backs as they crowded around me.
I hurried to my car and stripped off my gloves and sweaty hat. I turned the ignition and took off around the perimeter to speed up the heater. Once I had enough heat to unzip my Carhart I called the Big K.
“Hello?” he answered with his usual greeting.
“Hey,” I said, “everything’s watered and fed. I’m about to start stalls.”
“The cattle all right?”
“They’re good,” I answered.
“They losing weight?” he pressed.
“No, but you’re going to be about out of hay when you get back.”
“That’s all right, just keep them eating.”
“So how are you doing?” I asked.
“OK, I got two in the finals and it looks to me like we have the Youth about sewn up.,” he told me.
“Well, good deal, talk to you tomorrow.”
“Yep.” He hung up.
I went back into the tack room and nuked a cup of tea. I loaded it with honey and carried the steaming mug out to my car. I drank my tea and ate my orange while the car ran.
The radio announced it was 2:12 in the afternoon. More weather was coming in and the roads were icing over.
I changed my socks before I pulled on my second set of dry gloves and stuck the Playtex ones in my pocket.
If I got a move on I could have the stalls done by dark and still be able to see well enough to pull ice again before it was time to feed.
The big orange Tom trotted across the frozen lot and into the tack room. He carried something big and furry in his mouth. A few of the momma cats followed him, hesitating and mewing every few strides. They stopped at the door and looked back at me. Their round eyes stared straight into mine until another gust of wind sent them slinking after the Tom.