Saturday, June 21, 2014

Death on the Brazos

The thunderstorm was pushing through Palo Pinto Canyon, and while the rain hadn't hit the ranch yet, it was only a matter of time.  Already, the lightning flashes and the rolling thunder were almost constant.  After so many years of drought, it seemed like all the prayers for rain were about to be answered at the same time.

"Damn it," Mike said.  The old cowboy was worried about getting all the horses back from the pasture and safely into the barn before the storm hit.  "Damn fool horses have scattered as far apart as they can get."

"I don't know anything about rounding up horses," said his wife, Barbara.  "But I can tell you how to get a hundred cows into a barn."

"How the hell do you do that?" asked Mike.  This was a strange statement from his wife, as one of the reasons he had married her was that she knew almost nothing about ranching--he had been ready for something different.

Keeping her eyes on the dirt trail as she drove the pickup, Barbara answered, "Easy!  Just hang a sign on the barn that says 'BINGO'."

The old cowboy couldn't help but smile.  When Matt, his son, had asked him why he had remarried a woman half his age, he had replied, "At my age, boy, I prefer the smell of perfume to that of liniment."   While this had satisfied his son, the real reason the cowboy had married the fiery redhead was simply that he was pretty sure the beauty was smarter than him.

The rain was just starting as he got the last of the three horses safely into their stalls in the barn.     Perhaps the drought had influenced his judgment, but the heavy rain sounded like music on the tin roof of the barn to him.  That music almost, but not quite, drowned out the sound of his cell phone.

"Damn," Mike muttered as he dug the phone out of his pocket.  He really hated the damn phone, but it was the second one his wife had bought him in the last three months.  He was pretty sure she wouldn't believe another story about one's accidental death.  Looking at the display, he saw the call was from Kent, his neighboring rancher and close friend.

"Mike," Kent said.  "I just talked to Cathy over in Santo.  Lightning just killed her mare and its colt.  She's pretty upset, and wants to know if we could help bury the horses.  She sounds almost hysterical."

"Aw, that's terrible.  I know how much she loved that horse.  Of course, I'll help.  If the rain lets up, we could do it first thing in the morning."

"Uh..well, she was screaming into the phone," Kent said.

Mike stood still in the barn, his eyes shut.  Cathy was one of those people who didn't just like horses, she loved them.  She lived in a little community of what the locals called horse nuts--people who had moved farther out from the city in order to own a dozen acres or so, in order to indulge their hobby horses.  Mike rode horses, he used them, he respected them--but he did not trust them and he damn sure didn't love them.  In general, he considered them reliable four-wheel drive vehicles that--in an emergency--you could eat.  As often as accidents took horses, Mike was amazed that no one yet had started marketing a line of Horsey-Helper. 

Even though he already knew the answer, Mike asked the question, "What did you tell her?"

"I told her that we would bring your backhoe over tonight and bury the horses," Kent said.

"That Case isn't street legal and the trailer is in the shop getting a new axle."

"I'll come over and drive my pickup ahead of you with the flashers on," Kent answered.  "We'll go slow."

It was a very long drive into town.  The backhoe wasn't designed to drive the ten miles into town, and between the big shovel on the front end and the backhoe behind, every time the vehicle got over about ten miles an hour, the heavy machine would begin rocking back and forth on the twisting road coming down off of Chesnut Mountain to the small town of Santo, built along the Brazos River.  It took over an hour to drive the dozen miles through the town to the two dozen homes of the small community where Cathy lived, and most of the way, Mike thought the backend of the Case was trying to pass itself on the curves.

Kent got out of his truck and opened the gate into the corral as Mike drove the backhoe over to  where the two dead horses lay, the smaller one just a dozen feet from the larger body of the mare.  In the frequent lightning flashes, Mike could see that surrounding the horses were a dozen or so raincoat-clad people from the community, standing reverently in the steady downpour.  These were the horse nuts, collectively they couldn't tell dung from wild honey.

While Kent went into the house to confer with Cathy, Mike sat in the Case's cab, wondering just how he had got involved in all this stupidity.  As far as he could tell, he was sitting in the largest hunk of metal in the area, with the tall arm of the backhoe stuck straight into the air--like a lightning rod--in the middle of an electrical storm.  Contrary to popular opinion, lightning did strike twice--or more--in the same area.  Whatever the conditions were that made lightning strike at this point, they were now improved by the addition of several tons of steel.

Shortly, Kent walked back to the backhoe.  "She wants them buried here in the corral," he said. 

Not bothering to reply, Mike started to use the backhoe to dig the hole.  He would need a hole about eight feet deep and just as wide to bury the two horses.  Even in the soft sand of the corral, this would likely take hours.

As Mike worked the backhoe, moving the dirt to the side of the hole, it seemed the rain was working equally hard to refill the hole with water.  The small community of mourners stood around the impromptu grave, shining their flashlights into the hole.  Mike's mind really wasn't on the work--he kept thinking, "Well, I guess the only way you make this backhoe a better lightning rod would be to bury the bucket deep into the muddy ground.  Like, I'm doing now."

After what seemed like an eternity in the rain and lightning, one of the mourners walked over to the cab and shouted up at Mike, "See if you can put the two horses into the grave gently, and we can ask Cathy to come out while we say a few words before you cover them up."

"Right," Mike thought.  "And if we stand close enough to the hole, when the lightning strikes, we can all just fall in."

Feeling a little guilty at what he was thinking, Mike tried to change the subject by innocently asking, "What was the mare's name?"

"Lucky," the man replied.

Mike didn't even bother to reply, but thought to himself, "If the colt was named Lightning, this would just about be perfect."

Finally, the hole was finished, though there was at least a foot of water in the bottom.  Mike thought hard about how to put the horse into the hole.  Neither the large bucket of the front end loader or the backhoe's bucket was exactly designed to do delicate work   The result of using either could not exactly be called "gently."

Mike tried to slide the bucket of the front end loader under the mare, but succeeded only in shoving the horse along the soft mud.  Finally, in desperation, he moved back several yards and moving forward rapidly, scooped up the mare in the bucket.  Raising the bucket several feet, he moved the Case over to the hole and pulled the lever that allowed the bucket to drop its load.

The mare executed almost three quarters of a complete revolution, landing with a great splash on its legs--at least for the briefest of seconds before the horse collapsed into the mud and water, its legs splaying out to the sides or folding up alongside the horse.  The effect, was horrible and even over the roar of the engine, Mike could hear the collective gasp of the mourners.

Before the mourners could voice any criticism, Mike roared off with the Case and repeated the procedure with the colt.  Perhaps the bucket was raised higher, or maybe it was because the younger horse weighed less than its parent, but the colt did a complete revolution and landed in the pit on its back--legs in the air--directly beside the other horse.

Mike couldn't help himself, he started giggling.  The flashlights of the mourners didn't reveal the contents of the bottom of the pit, but the periodic lightning flashes certainly did.  The two horses, with their legs pointing in opposite directions, were ghastly to look at. 

"That looks good," Mike yelled to the mourners,  "Bring her out!"  Mike was on the edge of hysteria--he knew that if he started laughing, he wouldn't be able to stop.

Two hours later, Mike was back at home.  Cathy had not, after all, come to view the horses in the grave.  Mike had simply pushed the accumulated muddy dirt back into the hole and followed Kent's truck back to his house. 

"So, how did it go? asked Barbara as she met him at the door."

"Oh, not bad," answered Mike.  "Not everyday you get to do a burial at sea."


  1. Great story. Had a couple of horses die on me when I was an equestrian therapist. We got old gentle donated horses, so they didn't last long. A friend buried one with a backhoe that way. It wasn't graceful, but it was an effective way to bury the dead. I almost got away with having the guy that does that sort of thing come and get Smokey. Then some asshole on our staff at the mental facility decided to tell the kids what the knackerman was going to do with Smokey's body and I had to go back to burying our retiring horses and I was not allowed to use glue in the children's presence for over a year before the memory faded. Of course, the biggest problem was that I got attached to my horses. Never was able to see livestock as food and transportation. I like being a vegetarian. It's free of guilt for the most part.

  2. Your stories are easy reading, enjoyable, laced with bits of obscure knowledge. Horses hit by lightening usually have their feet blown off, by the way, due to their hooves having been the point of contact with the ground. Probably more country wisdom than you needed but true. By the way, I would have done just as in the story if a neighbor called in the middle of the night. People in grief aren't rational and it's usually better to placate than judge, as we can all be crazy at times.

    1. As most of the story is a retelling of an actual event, I have to agree with you. They called, I went, and I was there. As for lightning blowing the feet off of livestock, I have heard this, but these two (and yes, the mare was named Lucky) didn't have a mark on them. Nor did the Arabian my wife lost to lightning a few years later.

      Lightning is weird. Years ago, a Cessna I was flying got hit. The noise and bright flash was incredible. For a few seconds, I wondered if the plane was still intact as I blinked and tried to get my eyes to focus. Eventually, even though most of what I could see was just a bright orange ball, I realized the plane was fine. I hadn't lost the radio, no circuit breakers were popped, and amazingly, both wings and the tail were still there. I won't go into the condition of my seat.

      After I landed, a close inspection found the point of impact. There was a quarter inch round burnt spot with a pin prick black hole through the tail. I never found the exit point. I guess I was just a lot luckier than a mare I know.

  3. I can't seem to figure out how to make comments...Trying again so if you get two you will know why. A few weeks ago Karen introduced me to your blog, and I love it! I was a little unsure about this story, but reading the comments helped a lot. I do have two questions: Was there a special reason that certain words were highlighted, and do cows/horses really go into a barn which has a sign with BINGO on it? I am not a city girl, but I didn't grow up around USA ranches.

  4. Thank you. As to the highlighted words, that is as close as print will allow me to write with a Texas accent. You will have to imagine the rest. As to the Bingo, you weren't the only one who didn't quite grasp the meaning. Let's just say that technique only works with two-legged heifers.