My first glimpse of him was from the distance. I paused on the rutted road to the main barn and stepped out of my truck to wave.
I could just make out three cowboy hats, pushed back on the heads of three people kicked back in the shade of the porch. They all stood and waved back. I recognized the lean, ungainly silhouette of K as he waved me on to the barn. They began to walk down a trail parallel to the road.
I unloaded the horses and took them to a deep, cool, cement watering tank. They buried their noses in the mossy green water and snorted and played while they drank deep. A breeze came down the valley and cooled the back of my neck.
The Big K walked around the corner, his big, welcoming grin was warm and his eyes matched. I was grabbed and hugged hard by his new bride, AKA. From over her shoulder, I could just see the shy grin from K's friend and all around ranch hand, Tyler.I made sure to take his hand and thank the newly returned war vet for his service.
K and I had an awkward moment, he stepped towards me like he thought he should do something.
"I haven't hugged you in all these years, I'm sure not starting now," I said.
The relief on his face was plain, "Oh, thank goodness, I'd hate to break procedure."
"Hi," I told him.
"Hey." We grinned at each other like a couple of gomers."I've got a lesson coming, so you'll have time to get settled in and then we'll go gather."
AKA stuck with me while K and Tyler saddled a couple colts and rode out to the outdoor arena pad to greet the students.
After the horses were settled I had time to admire the huge roomy box stalls and look through K's saddles and training gear. Lots of snaffle bits, a few complete bridles and hackamores and not much more adorned his wall. I admired a beautiful hand braided 1/4 inch bosal and hanger that I hadn't seen before.
"That was a gift," AKA explained, "it's so beautiful we had it hanging in the house, but it looks like it's part of the using equipment now."
She sighed and rubbed a finger on the beginnings of a sweat mark inside the nose piece.
"I think it's even prettier when it shows some use," I said.
"You and K both." She shook her head.
The afternoon sun was beginning to fade when I grabbed Madonna and tied her to the trailer. She screamed and fussed at being separated from her travelling buddy. Odin hollered just as loud and I could hear him causing a ruckus in his stall. The Big K and Tyler headed into the barn to switch horses.
"Buddy sour?" K looked over the back of his colt, nothing but innocent.
"Hey, I'm a non-pro now, so my horses are too, what can I say?"
"Do you need to round pen them before you can ride?" he asked sweetly.
I gave him my best dirty look, finished saddling my squalling brat and swung up. She evened right out and we headed across the road to the arena pad.
My dignity was restored when my mare rode off nice as could be. She was sure and quiet and I gave into the temptation to show off a little. K was riding his futurity colt and did a little showing off himself.
The colt was gorgeous, quiet and calm. He was also deadly talented. Heavily muscled, lean and fit, he flowed past me with an assurance I was never able to put on my three-year-olds. The horse had a confidence I couldn't remember seeing back in the dark old days of the split between me and K.
I settled in to watch as we headed up the mountain to find his herd of cattle. The smell of the trees and lightly sweated horses filled me with their heady aroma. I had missed the serious purpose of horses on the job and the room to relax and let them do their thing.
We pushed cattle out of hiding from thick brush and tree filled gullies, and headed back towards the round pen. K was fretting because we were missing four head, especially when he spotted them in the valley below us, nimbly hopping the cattle guard onto the neighbors property.
"Stinking longhorns," he muttered and then said, "me and Tyler will go after the escapees and you and AKA will have to get the rest penned. They'll try to head back up at the split in the road, but other than that you should be fine."
With that said the guys took off down the hill and left us to handle a group of grumpy heifers with no intention of being part of our cutting practice. It took them awhile to find the missing longhorns, which was a good thing, because it took us a while to convince the cattle we had to get themselves penned. My good little rat terrier, Charlie, remembered how to quietly move a herd of cattle and put himself on point across from me. AKA pushed from the back and they finally meandered their way into the holding pen.
"Should we go ahead and put them in the round pen?" AKA asked. "It would sure make us look good."
I agreed and while AKA held the gate I went to drive the mixed herd of black Angus and Longhorns down the hill and into the pine slab 100 foot round pen. It should have been easy, but one of the stupid (why do we always say stupid when we should be saying, 'smarter than me?') longhorns led the herd straight down the hill and hid in a line of pines butt up against the fence.
Madonna stood at the edge and focused on the cattle. The heifers sneered at us and crowded closer together, surely planning their next snide comments. My intent mare took a step over the side and flicked an ear at me.If she really wanted to play "Man From Snowy River" then I guess I couldn't play the chicken.
Madonna pinned her ears as we slid down the hill and Charlie ran around to stop them from scooting back behind us.With just a few slaps in the teeth from some low hanging branches we kicked the cows into the round pen.
K and Tyler came around the bend with the runaways just as I latched the gate.
"Look K, we penned 'em and are ready to go," AKA said with just a bit of pride showing through.
"No problems?" He asked me.
"Nope," I told him, we both ignored the sweat trickling down my temples and Madonna's flanks and went to cutting.
Later in the evening after stuffing ourselves on ribs and corn we shoved back our chairs and had our first real conversation of the trip.
There wasn't anything of real importance said, but the ease between us was clear, our friendship was back in place. Each of us had come a long way in acceptance and learning what to lay down and what to stand by. I began building the base of a new friendship with AKA, the newest and most important person in his life, and teased Tyler about his right wing leanings.
When dinner was done and we dragged off to bed, I curled up with Charlie and hoped the miles I had put on during the day would fight off my insomnia and give me some sleep. I thought about my friend, the calm and happy place he had found in his life, and the way it reflected in his horses and the people around him.
His barn was filled with well mannered, quiet, healthy horses. I had watched several go during my first day at the ranch and they were sound and solid, both in mind and body. It's so easy to become righteous in our anger and to refuse to allow a second chance. The Big K and I had come so close to losing something important because we are stiffed-necked and defensive people by nature.
When I saw the growth and serenity that had come to him, and therefore to the people and animals around him, I realized he had seen big changes in me too. Changes I wouldn't have known about if I had completely slammed shut the door between us.
I nodded off to the sounds of Montana, grateful for the coming sleep and eager to begin the next day.
We still have big differences. In our opinions and our horse training. If we hadn't given each other this opening we would have missed some serious, positive changes. We would have missed the influence we have on each other and the friendship we will continue to build in the years to come.
So enough of the mushy stuff, next post will be on the glitches in my riding K found and then I'll get the Mort post done and up...promise!