Weathering the Storm
By Bob Skelding
Copyright 2009 by Bob Skelding- All Rights Reserved
Weathering the Storm
Working with the team of powerful Percheron draft horses was one of Sandy’s favorite chores on the ranch. When a blanket of thick snow covered the ground here in southwestern Colorado, they were hitched to a sleigh and used to haul cattle feed to outlying regions of the ranch. A snowmobile would bog down in the same snow drifts that their powerful limbs could plow through with little effort. Both Billie and Marti were jet black with small snippets of white on their faces. Gentle but very willing to work, every time they leaned into their collars, they demonstrated a love for their job.
While Billie quietly munched her oats, Sandy worked the brush over her neck and down her front lags. As the brush moved along her flank, the mare positioned her neck to the side and stuck out her tongue, as if saying, ‘that’s the spot’. Always willing to help out a friend, Sandy massaged the spot with a circular motion before moving on.
Though it was only mid November, tonight’s forecast was calling for the first good snow of the season. If more then a foot of snow fell during the night, Sandy would be making several trips a day hauling round bales of hay out to the cattle. Most of the cows on the ranch would be easy to feed as they wintered fairly close to the ranch headquarters. However, there were smaller groups up on the mesa and in the juniper and pinon forest halfway between the mesa and the valley floor. Feeding these cows would mean breaking a trail through deep snow up the side of the hill.
The first flakes started to fall when she was walking from the barn to her quarters. For their permanent employees, most modern ranches had done away with the bunkhouses of old. Having her own little house made life quite a bit easier. Pulling her boots off with the bootjack, Sandy didn’t waste anytime showering and getting ready for bed. ‘I wonder what the guys would say if they knew I had feet sewn in my pajamas?, she mused.
She awoke to find a world of white with her pickup truck buried under a foot and a half of fresh powder. A couple of hours later Marti and Billie were harnessed and hitched up with two round bales on the sleigh. She had to drive a few mile up the valley to feed the first group of cows. While Sandy was using the sleigh to feed outlying groups of cows, the majority of the ranch hands were moving hay to the bulk of the cattle in fields near the barn.
The snow wasn’t too deep and the ground was fairly flat, so the team made good time. By nine o’clock she had reached her first feeding station and began to unroll some hay. The end bale on the sleigh was set up on a cross spear and untied so it could be unrolled. The other bale was just pushed off and provided feed for later days.
Sandy hauled two more bales out to this group of cows before stopping for lunch. After unbridling and feeding the horses, she went in to eat.
After dinner she hitched up and began the difficult trek up the side of the mesa. Because she was going up hill and breaking a fresh trail, only one bale was in the back of the sleigh. The mares were refreshed from their lunch and made fairly good time. She stopped to give them a breather at the top of the trail, opposite the line cabin. After driving across the top of the mesa for about a mile, she came across a bunch of cow tracks heading into a hollow to the north. Following the sign, she drove up to a fairly large group of cattle, pawing for some grass in a small meadow. Wasting no time, she unloaded the hay bale and turned around and headed for the ranch. It was about mid afternoon before she got back to the ranch headquarters. Even though the team was getting tired, she knew that one bale of hay wasn’t going to last the group of cattle.
Loading another bale, she started back up the hill for the last trip of the day. Halfway up the hill, the mares spooked a bit when they kicked up a pair of mule deer that were foraging at a stand of small aspen trees. “Easy there Billie, go steady Marti”, she said to calm them. Settling down, they leaned back into their collars and started pulling again.
By the time she unloaded and started back towards the trail, Sandy decided she had enough time to stop and check out the line cabin. Chiseled into a log near the door was the date the cabin had been build - 1886. Walking into the cabin she saw that even though it needed a good cleaning, it was still weather tight and everything was in about the same condition it had been the last time she was here, during fall roundup. The cabin was a relic of days gone by, with the potbelly stove, old wooden bunk beds and cowboy artifacts from the previous hundred years. Up here on the mesa, being a cowboy was about the same as it was when the cabin was built. “But now there are cowgirls”, she mumbled to herself.
Closing the door behind her, she went to the waiting team and started back down the trail. Headed to the barn and a bin full of waiting oats, the girls picked up the pace, pulling in the yard fifteen minutes before sundown.
After chores Sandy headed up to the ranch house. Over supper, her saddle partner Steve asked, “We’ve got work about licked down here. Do you want some company on the sleigh tomorrow?”
“That would be great. As long as you got some new jokes. The old ones have a little dust on them”, she replied.
The next morning, Sandy was in a hurry to get on the trail at the crack of dawn. Not bothering to pull off her pajamas, she jumped into her jeans, wolfed down a bowl of cereal and headed for the barn. She was surprised to find Steve already there, feeding the mares.
“They’re calling for a chance of snow this afternoon, so I thought we should get an early start”, he said. “We ought to bring along a chainsaw too, incase the creek is iced over and needs to be opened for the cattle to drink.”
“While I harness up, why don’t you grab the saw and a shovel, then load a bale on the sleigh”, she said.
Thirty minutes later they were hitched up and headed for the trailhead. The sky was gray and the air was still and heavy, warning of more snow to come.
As Sandy was rolling off the bale of hay, Steve grabbed the chainsaw and headed for the creek in the tree line. She was cutting and pulling the strings on the bale when she heard Steve start up the saw. After a few minutes the sound of the chainsaw stopped and Sandy waited patiently for Steve’s return.
While Sandy was feeding out the round bale, Steve had checked out the creek. He found it open where the water ran through some rocks, but the path was blocked by a small stand of blown down poplar trees. Steve started the chainsaw and began cutting and pulling them out of the way. One fairly large poplar had it’s top caught in some other trees and was leaning into them. Where Steve was making his cut the eight inch wide butt of the log was about four feet off the ground. The first indication that the tree was hanging up under stress was seen when he had sawn about halfway through. Suddenly, the tree split up it’s length, the log separated and the sawn off piece swung out and smacked Steve in the chest. The tremendous blow smashed him backwards and knocked him unconscious.
After several minutes of silence, Sandy went to check on her partner. She saw the chainsaw lying in the path before she found Steve where he had been thrown back into the brush. Running to his side, her first thought was that he was dead. Putting her hand on his neck, she checked his pulse and found his heart beating rapidly. About this time she noticed that his chest was rising and falling as he breathed.
“Damn Steve, what happened to you?”, she asked herself.
About this time, his eyes cracked open and he croaked, “My chest - the log.”
“Don’t move, I’m going to get the sleigh.”
With considerable effort Sandy loaded the big man into the sleigh and started back across the mesa to the trailhead leading to the valley. Not long after she urged the team forward, wind driven snow began to fall. By the time they reached the line cabin, she could barely see the hand in front of her face. “Steve, I can’t get down the trail in these conditions. We’ll have to hole up in the line camp.”
She grabbed him under the arms and scooted him into the cabin. Leaving him laying on the floor with a blanket from a bunk, she went out to tend to the horses. Quickly, she unhitched and unharnessed them and turned them into the corral with some feed.
Back in the cabin, Sandy started the fire that was already laid out in the potbelly stove. Going over to Steve, she began to examine him to determine the extent of his injuries. A lifetime ago, in Illinois, Sandy was an EMT on the local volunteer fire department. Her old training kicked in as she began to look him over. The first thing she saw was that his lips were beginning to turn blue. She couldn’t tell if he was breathing, so she grabbed a mirror from the dry sink and held it over his mouth and nose. She then noticed that he was breathing rapidly, but not much condensation was forming on the mirror. Seeing some blood on the front of his denim shirt, she unbuttoned his shirt and saw a dime sized hole with wood and shirt fragments. The opening was located right in the middle of the left side of his chest. Placing her ear over the hole, she could hear air flow as he breathed. Running for the roll of duct tape on the counter, she muttered to herself, “I’ve got to get that hole covered before his lungs completely collapse.” With hole covered, Sandy checked him for more injuries. Other then a few minor lacerations, he seemed largely intact.
With the cabin beginning to warm she put a few larger pieces of wood in the stove. After several minutes, Steve didn’t appear any better. His breathing was still labored and shallow and his lips were still blue. “Of course, I’ve got to get the air out of his chest.” In the hospital they inserted a chest tube and connected it up to a vacuum pump, but what could she do?
Sandy started rummaging through the cupboards, looking for anything she could use. Finally she found a large box of syringes that were left over when they gave the cattle their shots last fall. “That’s it, I’ll draw out the air with a large syringe. Selecting a 25ml syringe with a large needle, she ran back over to Steve. Having only seen a chest tube put in once, she had a hard time remembering the procedure. ‘If I put him with his bad lung up, it will collapse back towards the center of the chest, leaving me room to insert the needle without hitting the lung‘, she speculated. When she saw the chest tube put in, she remembered that it was a couple inches below the armpit.
Cutting off his shirt, she rolled Steve up on to his good side and gritted her teeth as she inserted the needle between his ribs. He made small choking sounds as she drew back the plunger. Drawing out the syringe, she expelled the air from it and tried again. This time the syringe started drawing hard before she was half finished. ‘I hope that’s it’, she thought.
After several minutes of choking, he appeared to be resting peacefully. Several minutes later the blue coloration was gone and he looked like he was breathing normally.
Knowing she had to get him to a hospital, she was taken back by the seen outside the cabin window. Through the driving snow she couldn’t even see the sleigh parked fifteen feet away. Knowing they were going to be stranded for a while, Sandy made Steve comfortable, then began searching for something to eat. The food in the cabin had been picked over pretty good by hungry cowboys and didn’t have a lot to offer. She had her choice of lima beans, canned okra or oatmeal. Taking down the oatmeal she put a pan of water on the stove and began to prepare her meal.
Kicking back on one the bunks, Sandy rested for a couple of hours before getting up to check Steve and the horses. Steve was still resting comfortably and the horses were snug in their three sided shelter. Pulling off her boots and jeans, she crawled into a bunk and tried to get some sleep. Sometime in the night, she awoke to a large noise that sounded like a freight train passing at high speed. Everything seemed all right so she got up to check on Steve.
He opened his eyes as she approached, looked at her, tried to laugh and said, “Oh it hurts when I laugh.”
“Why are you laughing then. What’s so funny?”
“You sure look cute with those feet in your pajamas.” he replied.
“Steve, if you say one word about that, I’ll roll you outside and leave you for the buzzards”, she exclaimed.
The sun came up to clearing skies with a light wind blowing out of the northwest. About three feet of fresh snow had fallen during the night and it looked like it had drifted real bad. After feeding the mares, Sandy went in to fix them some oatmeal.
Back outside, she harnessed up the mares and hitched them to the sleigh. They weren’t half a mile down the trail when she found the source of the loud noise from the night before. At a point where the trail crossed a steep ravine, there was a ten foot high piles of snow and broken trees. “It was the avalanche I heard last night”, she said.
“Is that when you were modeling your cute P.J.s”, Steve replied.
“Okay, that’s it. You’re out of the sleigh buster”, she exclaimed with a furor.
“Are you really going to abandon me just because you have cute little feet in your pajamas”? he asked with a chuckle.
“No, but I should. We have to leave the sleigh and ride the mares. There’s no way to take it around this slide.”
Sandy had to lead Marti around to the back of the sleigh and helped Steve mount. She then climbed up on Billie, taking Marti’s lead and started angling down the slope, hoping to work around the bottom edge of the slide.
The mares had a tough time plodding through the deep snow. Occasionally, one or the other would step off into a deep drift and struggle to regain solid footing. Several times she thought they were stuck, only to have the horses buck their way clear. Sandy marveled at how their powerful legs could thrash their way through the deepest drifts. ‘They ought to call them drift horses, not draft horses’, she thought.
It was several hours before she finally saw smoke curling up from the chimney of the ranch house.
As they were putting Steve in the ambulance, he turned to her and said, “Sandy, thank you very much. And I won’t tell anyone about your pajamas.”
As the ambulance pulled away, she muttered, “At least not until you’ve had a couple of beers”.