My “wasband” Doug—for he was to have been my husband at one time— and I took the caretaker job on the Joder Arabian Ranch years ago before any number of things happened: before Bob Joder took a tumble from a grey stallion when he was cutting calves one afternoon, and had to learn to speak and walk again, before his wife Ellie who hired us, as we sat in a little trailer house cabled to sheer rock in the Boulder foothills, wind prying at the roof, had lost her fight with breast cancer.
Our year on the Joder came and went like a dream, before our yen for a piece of land of our own took us back to six acres just east of the stable where we had met, Doug sitting on his quarterhorse and me desperate to get my mare Majesty away from a proud-cut mustang gelding on my landlord’s pasture. I had seen him sitting on his pretty red mare and gone up to him to see if he had a horse trailer, had had to then find someone else, a ropin’ cowboy, who could bring her over to the little spot I had found with a trailer house not far from her pen and where Doug began to court and win me by first burying a kitten I had run over after I had gone to him with tears streaming down my face.
He continued to court me by fixing things, principally by making himself indispensable, by helping me paint my deck, and taking me out to dinner; by inviting me over to his place across the road with scarcely any furniture in it, reading to me from Don Quijote and feeding me green plums, and fastening his blue, discerning eyes upon me.
I was the one in fact who thought that we should, after all of two weeks together in an insanely joyous rutting frenzy, crazy about each other in a hurry, all pie in the sky about venturing out into the West together as teaching writers, take the Joder job as a base of operations.
I had gone to see the ranch, suppressing my agoraphobia enough to try the back roads behind Niwot, up Highway 36 out of Lyons, slowing down while wind shook my old Fairmont, to find the turn, a notch between two bluffs and a harsh, undulating rutted road that led to the nexus of the ranch—the barns, paddocks, the little trailers for the help on platforms of granite, the original Joder house on a hill behind us. I stood on the deck of the trailer that was to be ours if they liked us, and I could see Pike’s Peak far to the south. I could smell adventure on the wind.
The night that we packed the last of our secondhand things into a U-haul, Doug had second thoughts.
“I don’t think we should do this after all, “ he said.
I was floored. “Why? It’s perfect for us, to help us get on our feet. A salary and a place, a place to start out. We can’t turn back now.”
“I just have a feeling,” he said, meandering around our empty living room, as if he were about to begin unpacking everything..
And then we set off, early in the morning with our two mares, mine pregnant to a Polish bred Arabian stallion, Doug’s quarter horse Little Bit, and our dogs and cats.. We moved in to the little trailer and the next morning went out with Bob to be shown which of the dancing, impatient horses on the ranch got alfalfa, and which got grass hay, and how particular Ellie was about the stalls, that they should be cleaned a certain way, which I liked and made sense to me, and that Doug ultimately detested, finding us overly meticulous.
They showed us how to fire up the tractor to pull the rake and disc up the oiled sand of the indoor and outdoor arenas, and how to mix Valiant, and Amy, old Raffles-bred bay Arabians, direct descendants of the Crabbet stud in England, half of whose horses had been killed during the second World War, alfalfa pellets and water, all they were able to crush with their worn-down teeth.
We went up and down the rows of pens and memorized our routine and met the dynasty of small and exquisite white mares that had belonged to Anna Best Joder when the ranch was in its prime and the locus for the American Arabian Horse world.
We met Bob’s sister Pat and her partner Barbara, who lived in the house on the hill above us where Anna had published the Arabian Horse News. I poured through copies of the News, as I had as a child back in New Mexico, looking at the “foundation stallions”, their curved necks and huge eyes, starving for such a horse to carry me away from our adobe house in Albuquerque, over the blue Sandia mountains. I knew that such a horse could set me free, even if we were to die when we reached open water and went into it as one being.. .
In those days, as in these, I could never sleep. I ran on pure intention and at times, on desire for the eccentric and handsome man whose company I was keeping. I loved the blue gingham curtains in our trailer house on the Joder, and our little wood stove that Doug feared would ignite the whole place. I loved the two young Goldens we brought with us, Three Breezes Stetson and Three Breezes Katie, and my little terrier mix Duncan, my muse and surrogate child for nearly two decades, and I loved Moonlight and Holly, Doug’s cats, and of course I loved our mares and that we could keep them with us on the ranch.
For Doug, I see now, we had landed in the midst of a situation that was purely and simply going to mean relentless physical work. Hard work, up in the night and in the morning, and no time to yourself because the boarders would come and want things, and he would be tired, and I would want to heal short words between us by making love—in those days still, in my forties, my answer to most problems between a man and a woman.
Our first months on the ranch flew by in a cascade of windy days and hard work. I had Majesty vetted out to be sure she hadn’t slipped her foal on the journey from Fort Collins to the ranch. And then, just before Thanksgiving, as we lay under our comforter, the phone rang.
It was Bob Joder. “Look out the window,” he said.
I jumped up and went to the window, and looked down-valley, toward Boulder. I saw something amazing: undulating orange ribbons of grass, iridescent banners of fire making their way up the valley, toward us. I ran back to the phone.
“Wake Doug, “ he said. “Meet me at the hay barn.”
I went to our bed, where he was sound asleep. As gently as I could, I said, “There’s a fire. Get up.”
He bounded out of bed and rushed to the window.
“My God,” he said, throwing on his shirt and jeans, and then his coveralls. He went to the door and pulled on it. The wind had come up, gale force, a band of mad Sioux women come down from the hills. He turned to me.
“Put everything you can into the truck. I’ll be out there.”
Suddenly I was alone in the trailer. My heart pounded. I thought about the meaning of “everything.”
My first act was to corral our cats Moonlight and Holly and put them in a crate together for perhaps the first time in their lives. Then, it seemed to me that only certain and very precious things should be packed. I let the Goldens out into the dawn, into the pen around the house; bitter smoke was carried in on the wind. I could hear the horses screaming at each other down in the paddocks.
I counted down from a hundred under my breath to stay calm, grabbing my manuscripts of poems and Doug’s of fiction and our teaching dossiers, a check book, credit cards. I put two dog crates and the cat crate into the back of the pick up and then somehow I put in the dogs, and their food and a jug of water. I grabbed a few changes of clothes for each of us, Doug’s photo of his daughter and my engagement ring, a small blue sapphire ring with tiny diamonds, and put these things in a zipper pouch in my briefcase.
I was on the verge of driving over to the barn when I remembered all of the things I had made the day before for Thanksgiving. I rushed back into the house and loaded up our thawing turkey and grabbed a pan of cornbread, and a frozen pumpkin pie. There was no room for anything else. I had Duncan jump in to the truck and I got in and drove down to the barns.
Boarders were arriving and milling around; some were frantically saddling their horses. I looked up on the ridge over the ranch and saw fire torching the trees, and deer running ahead of it. The wind was now at 80 mph. My words were torn out of my mouth as I called for Doug. Then I saw him, down spraying down the hay. I drove down.
“I don’t know.”
The horses were going crazy with fear of the fire. We had two huge paddocks and one paddock was too close to the trees and the draw down which I thought the fire might come.
“Let’s put them all together,” I shouted, pointing to the paddock on high ground with no sagebrush in it, about four acres surrounded by smooth wire. “They’ll be safe there.”
We turned all of the horses in together, horses who barely had a nodding acquaintance and were beset with panic. They raced together like one wheeling organism, one cluster of bird/dragon-like creatures over the hills, whinnying, tails up, calling to each other. Miraculously the fence held and the wing sang in our ears.
Suddenly Bob appeared, in his red truck.
“What are you doing,” he shouted.
I said, “We couldn’t find you. We did what we could to save the hay and put the horses together.”
He jumped out and came up to us. “We were driving around to see the parameters of the fire,” he said.
Completely oblivious to our exhaustion and frustration, he shouted, “We’re going to evacuate everyone to the Boulder County Fairgrounds. People are coming. You did a good job. Don’t worry.”
Suddenly I felt panic wash over me. Majesty was in her stall in the barn back near our house. She hated to be hauled in a trailer and at three months, I was sure she would slip her foal. I went to her and put on her halter. We loaded her, with Little Bit alongside, packing stock trailers with horses used to being together. Boulder County fire teams roared up to the ranch and positioned themselves and began blaring things we couldn’t hear clearly, on megaphones.
A Marshall came up to us. “You all know, don’t you, that airplane fuel is stored down in the old Beechcraft plant a few miles from here? Everyone needs to leave now, Stat..”
Suddenly we were in the truck. I looked back at our little house, where I had left many things of import to each of us.
It was a short drive to the Fairgrounds and people from other ranches with trailers-full of horses were all pulling in at the same time. The stables were all constructed of steel pipe; many of the horses were shod so that it sounded as though we had all plummeted into hell. We all led our prized possessions into stalls, people rushing everywhere to bring shavings and straw for bedding.I put Majesty into an end stall where she stood, ears up, shaking all over.
“Easy girl,” I said. “It’s all o.k.” I put Stetson and Katie and the crateful of cats in the stall next to her. Suddenly, I remembered the turkey; determined, I lugged it down to the fairgrounds kitchen where people were making coffee and setting up command central. They all laughed when I came in with a raw turkey the size of a newborn baby saying that it had cost good American money and that I hadn’t wanted to leave it behind. We put it in the fridge, with the thawing pie and my cornbread, sprinkled with alfalfa and ashes.
Finally, Doug and Duncan and I went to a little motel n the outskirts of Longmont. I lay next to him, my mind burning with the imagery of the day, my ears filled with the Valhalla of the move and the scene we had left, of the infernal clanging of shod hooves on steel pipe. I lay in the dark until darkness gave way to a cold motel room dawn. I held Duncan to me, who was forever content to be as close as we could possibly be.
The motel light shown in, with a half moon with the haze of smoke from the fire ringing it. I woke Doug and we had some instant coffee and some rolls I’d brought. He, having slept, smiled at me. “Let’s go see what’s up,” he said, gently.
I was in the agony of never resting I was inured to, the primary consequence of which has been to live in a faithless state despite coping, keeping on. I began to cry. He took me into his arms. “Just another day on the Joder,” he said.
We went back to the Fairgrounds and were told that the slurry bombers had put out the fire just before it got to the ranch, and that we still had a home.
I loaded up the animals again, and at the last minute, retrieved the turkey; we meandered up the road to the ranch. Reborn as veterans of an ordeal, we made a fire in our wood stove and I picked up where I had left off; I stuffed the turkey and basted it throughout the afternoon. We had been more than lucky, as some of the big wood-framed homes in the canyons had been devoured by the fire.
On the ranch, daily life was all-consuming, all about survival. Winter was grueling, a cascade of frozen and windy days de-icing buckets, eating sawdust set aloft by icy wind, utterly at the mercy of the needs of the horses, of the weather. In our cabin fever we had harsh words at times, and scant forgiveness at others. This siege did give way to a warmer February and beautiful windy March on the ranch.
One day a little boy brought me a young pigeon that had fallen out of the eaves of the indoor arena. The bird was only a bit fledged, and seemed confused. “I think a horse got him,” the boy said.
I took the pigeon in and made him a cornmeal gruel.
“I don’t think that he got out of the way of one of the horses in time,” the little boy said again, helping me and watching me.
“Well then, “ I said. “Let’s call him Slow Eddy, and you watch and see if his mother comes down to feed him and we’ll keep him in a box the rest of the time.”
Eventually Eddy became a real pigeon and flew up into the eaves to be with his kind. This same boy, after his ride on his well-schooled little horse, would bring me fallen baby barn swallows with no feathers at all; he would find the sad little gaping things in the dust where the horses were tacked up, their pendulous nests having fallen and shattered..
“But you saved Slow Eddy,” he would say, when I said I didn’t think they would make it.
“I can’t save these,” I would say gently, ushering him back toward his mother.
Majesty grew fat on the mash I made for her every day. I loved to make this mash, with corn and molasses and oats and bran. I loved to flake the carefully selected sun-cured leafy alfalfa off the bales I had set aside for her.
At night I would go down to her stall when Doug was at work, having taken a night time spot in an adult education program in Longmont. I would brush Majesty, and put my head against her flank and see if I could feel her foal move. She would nuzzle me, and we would stand together for hours, shifting our weight from one foot to the other. I think perhaps if I had been born a horse I could have slept.
One day I decided to ride her up a draw that had been beckoning me from the north end of the ranch. I too was teaching, at the University of Colorado, but my heart was solely full of our adventures and I could never wait to get home.
By this time she was fat and sleek, due to foal in about three months, gestation being eleven. She loved to be ridden; as we set off she would lift her head and walk in that proud, long Arabian way, her eyes great, dark, and glistening, her ears pricked for all that she could hear. She, like many Arabians, was “neurasthenic,” sensitive to the least sound, the smallest ripple of breeze in the grass. Riding her was always unpredictable, as she would suddenly stop, pretend to bolt, and immediately settle herself down, quickly deciding that a dog rushing a fence, or a plastic bag caught by the wind, taking on its own life out of a trail-head trash can, was nothing to worry about. Meanwhile my heart would be pounding out of my chest, but I would always feel victorious about staying on her and with her in such a moment..
On this particular day, both of us feeling confident, we climbed the gentle draw on the north end of the ranch. We were climbing and climbing; suddenly the trail narrowed and there was just a foot on either side. I consciously relaxed and kept my heels down to stay in balance in the saddle.
Suddenly, she froze in her tracks, one ear cocked back. We were on the incline. She began to breathe quickly. Then her whole body tensed and I could feel that she could care less that she had a rider on her back. She turned her beautiful, chiseled head, seeing something, and her nostrils flared.
When she began to tremble, I knew that I would have to find a way to get off instantly. There would be a wreck if I tried either to rein her in or to stay on. I looked down to the tiny ledge next to me, knotted the reins around her neck, and vaulted off, and crouched, clinging to some tufts of grass.
Majesty reared, pivoted on her back legs, and dashed down the trail. I looked up, and saw, coming up the valley, an enormous translucent hang glider sans its pilot; it looked like a giant prehistoric dragonfly as it drifted up the draw toward us. I caught my breath as it floated up over the spruce-covered hills and disappeared.
My legs were rubbery as I walked back down the trail. I could see that it was several miles back to the ranch and my heart sank. I thought as I walked of another ride on another horse, several years earlier, when we had become stranded on a rock field near Horsetooth Reservoir outside Fort Collins. At that time those with me, also stranded, had said, “You need to learn to trust your horse.” My mare had picked her way down through the rocks like a mountain goat, even though she was shod. Such is the prowess of the Arabian.
I rounded a bend in the path and a large lichen-covered boulder that obscured my view. I saw a horse, head down, grazing, on a level patch of meadow just off the trail. The horse lifted its head and turned toward me, and called. It was Majesty, waiting for me. Her eyes said, “Where have you been?”
“You’re a load of trouble, horse,” I said, walking up to her, putting her reins back over her head and climbing aboard. We headed down the path to the buildings clustered below us, the Joder glistening in the afternoon sun, light glancing off the aluminum roof of the hay barn, woman and horse compassed to the familiar.
As we neared the ranch on that day of my ride I saw to my surprise that Doug had not yet left for work. Worried, I put Majesty away and ran to the house. He was in the bathroom, shirt off, shaving.
“What is it. Why are you still here?”
“You missed it, “ he said.. “Go look in the ash can.”
I ran outside, and took the cover off the aluminum can in which we kept the ashes from the wood stove.
There, to my astonishment, was a great matriarch rattler, coiling and uncoiling. Her head lay in the ashes next to her, gaping, her fangs dripping venom, hideously angry in death.
Doug then said that he had heard a commotion in the yard and gone out, to see the dogs standing around something. When that something, brown and sinister, undulated back against its tawny trunk, when he saw the tongue flickering out of its mouth, when he heard something like a gourd of pumpkin seeds being shaken by a Hopi dancer and a hissing like someone pouring out cold coffee over a campfire, he knew the fabled Enemy had come and that the dogs were in mortal danger. He had gone to the door in his jockey shorts, shouting up the way to the women tacking up their horses.
Per usual the wind was at fifty knots and his words were torn away from them; all they saw was a thin man in the doorway in his underwear, his mouth making barely discernible shapes, gesturing. They had smiled to themselves and turned away; perhaps he had been drinking.. In desperation then he had pulled on his boots and grabbed the shovel and gone out, dispatching the snake by chopping off her head.
I got versions of the story from girls and from women and to this day laugh when I think of the scene and how he must have appeared. I gave the rattler’s head to a little boy scout; perhaps he has kept it among his own memorabilia of the West.
Winter finally left the Joder, loosening its sallow fingers, so that for a time all was awash in muddy, rank water. Then, glorious foothills spring. Lilacs around the barn, and chittering swallows swooping back and forth to feed their fledging babies. Clouds moving in low constancy, releasing rain and moving on into the forest.
Now I was watching videos of foaling mares and preparing myself to go on duty at any time of day or night. Majesty was enormous; my vet came to check her.
“How do you think she looks?”
“You could eat breakfast off her back,” she said.
In fact, Majesty was dripping first milk; not good. I was to collect this substance, the colostral milk with antibodies in it, and freeze it, to feed back to the foal.
On her due date, the eleventh of June, I was bathing her and braiding her tail when the clouds came in. Suddenly a hail storm began pelting the tin roof under which she stood. At once, she began streaming milk, tap dancing and nickering.
I took her in to the stall I had meticulously layered with shavings and fresh straw. I checked my kit: coveralls, rubber gloves, twine, a baby’s nasal bulb, a bucket of fresh water, a Fleet enema for the foal..
Mares are legendary for their secrecy; they can keep the foal in for the whole first stage of labor and I thought that she would do this. I went in and out quietly to the barn, peering through a knothole. She was restless, pawing at the straw, getting up and down.
I went out at nine; all was quiet. Suddenly, I heard the sound of water. I looked through the knothole; she was down. She was looking toward her tail; I saw a pair of hooves there. She was breathing heavily. I stepped around, speaking to her quietly. She instantly got up. I talked to her while I put on Doug’s coveralls. Then I heard his truck coming up the driveway.
I raced out. “Run!” I shouted.
He dropped his briefcase and came into the barn. She was down again, straining. It seemed to me that the foal was out of position; I was to see the front hooves pointing downward, but they were pointing up.
“Hurry. We have to get her up,” I said. We clipped on the lead rope and got her on her feet. I saw the feet flip as she went down again. Now I sat down behind her and she began intense, moaning contractions. In seconds the sack broke; I was bathed in fluid; I took the foal’s forelegs, pulling downward with the contractions, eased its shoulders free, and cleared the membrane from its nose as it slid into my lap. Majesty nickered and lay still. The foal lifted and shook his head, his ears wet and down.
“Look at him. Look at him,” I said. “Hello beautiful baby. Welcome to the world.”
We toweled him off and Majesty got up. We stood back, and she nuzzled and licked him as the vet pulled in.
“Heat the colostrum,” she said. There he lay, black and beautiful, with a white star. We were admiring him when he suddenly whinnied in a high, thin voice to his mother, and tried to climb to his feet, falling back into the straw.
We were so rapt that I forgot that the stove was on. I rushed in but it was too late; I had boiled the milk and it had separated.
We capitulated to the anxiety of our vet, I see now, as we were dispatched to go from farm to farm in search of mare’s first milk. Finally, I found myself down on all fours collecting milk from an enormous mare whose huge chestnut foal lay in the straw; she was as placid as a cow although she didn’t know who I was. We fed this rich, redolent milk back to our beautiful foal.
In the morning we went out with our coffee. All of the horses on the ranch came to the fences and called to the foal. Majesty stood over him, and he nursed, and cantered around and around, gaining ever more confidence.
That night we lay in our bed on the Joder Ranch, in our exhaustion and star-crossed state, two come together over longing and the love of horses, two who had thrown their lot in together and gone for broke when it seemed that there was a clear path up a formidable mountain.
The colt instantly became the centerpiece of our life together. On the second morning, we had gone in from the house after watching him. We sipped our coffee. Doug kissed me, smelling of the alfalfa and dust of the Joder Ranch. “That was a dusty kiss,” he said. Dusty Kiss aka D.K. became our foal’s name.
The place that we built later that year when we left the Joder surrenders to time; the corral rots with each winter and spring; animals are born, age and die; feral cats multiply and foxes carry off the kittens. Down along the creek by the apple tree, graves proliferate.
So it is that attrition has befallen us and we do not know how many acts are left in the play. But I still cherish the line he used whenever things happened—“It’s just another day on the Joder,” the man who spoke that line– and that we lived all of this together.
Jenne’ R. Andrews
January 22, 2008