Mending fence

"You sons of bitches," W.T. boomed.

Long separated by a fence line, a pair of mighty Simmental bulls had reconnected. They tore into each other, heads clashing amidst the play of grunts, dust and instinct. They were also rapidly undoing that fence line, a 75-year-old defining line of wire and wood, a boundary we had repaired only a week earlier.

Marlboro dangling between weathered lips, W.T. slammed a dusty boot on the accelerator and jammed the powder-blue, beater Ford forward.

Wham !

The Ford rattled under the shock of impact. My head smacked the dash, and W.T.'s smoke was now dancing around on the floor mat. The bulls weren't fazed. Merely budged by the collision, they kept at it. A line of wire snapped, a post was uprooted, and staples were beginning to fly.

"Bastards," W.T. uttered, slamming the truck into reverse.

A second run had the desired effect. A ton of Ford buzzing at 40 mph smacked the Simmental with a pronounced thud . After briefly considering taking on the truck, the bull fled, tail between its legs. The other lost interest and returned to the realm of appetite, seeking sex and grass.

The fence would survive.

For obvious reasons, I had been somewhat hesitant to join W.T. at the Mexican Place.

A weathered, ancient ranch hand, W.T. had the distinction of being known as an unsavory character. He was a man who raised a goat to adulthood, treated the animal like a house pet and then ate him. He happily lived on hard work, cans of Budweiser and heavy women. Despite having ranched his whole life, W.T. remained a hand at the age of 54.

Equally unsavory, the Mexican Place, a mouse-infested, red, tar-paper shack high on the upper ranch outside Norwood, had the distinction of being the only building on Williams Ranches to be owned at one time by a Hispanic. It was an ideal spot for W.T. to hole up for five months.

I had little choice when my boss David Williams barked: "You're going up to the Mexican Place this summer. The fences up there are a mess, haven't been mended going on 10 years. Maybe you'll learn something about ranching this summer."

Armed with a tool belt, a pair of fencing pliers, a claw hammer and a 17-year-old's limited sensibilities, I set out cautiously.

Despite my apprehension, it wasn't long before I started to groove into W.T., the Mexican Place and the upper ranch. Rough appearances aside, W.T. was the master of many forgotten arts. The Mexican Place was a suitable hovel for cooking and crashing. And the upper ranch was an ideal climate to practice those forgotten arts.

Holding one's liquor was laboriously taught over glasses of Black Velvet and cans of Budweiser at the Hitching Post. We worked on the art of the story under epic Colorado skies on a makeshift bench in front of the Mexican Place. Whipping up a palatable spread from canned goods and a loaf of bread was a recurring theme. We dabbled in the handling of horses and the wooing of women. And, our focus was on our lifeblood, gaining a mastery of fencing, the craft of containing cattle.

At first, fencing seems basic, grunt work sink posts, stretch wire and connect the two with staples. The cunning of it is much more subtle, an acquired taste.

W.T. was an able master. He never worked too quickly, always polished the job and set fence that would last and withstand the undoing of cattle and the passage of years. He invoked pride in a simple keeping of boundaries, instilled passion in holding an operation together. His time on the line was time spent deep in thought. Words were rarely exchanged.

During the course of work on nearly a hundred miles of barbed wire, we frequently bumped into testimony of the Williams family's enduring legacy antique wire and weathered posts likely hung by the original homesteader. And W.T. and I had been invited to be the new stewards, welcomed to walk the same line and take the same swings. Day after day, we hit those fence lines and contributed our own brand of craftsmanship.

As the summer drew to an end and the first signs of fall hit, I shook hands with W.T. a final time and bid farewell to the Mexican Place. Departing, I could sink a staple with one swing, hand dig a post hole in a few minutes, easily splice and stretch wire, and place a stout and proud edge on any kind of acreage.

I also left with an understanding that time has no place along the fence line and a sense that long-standing work stands tallest. After those many months, I also finally realized that W.T. was no failure. The man had strong sense and remained a hand for a reason. He knew a comfortable simplicity. Truly, good story, cans of beer, an occasional taste of goat and slow but steady work along a fence line are fine ways to wile away the years.

-Will Sands




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