Summary: More of Scott’s musings on Life at Lancer
21st, the winter solstice, the time of the year when the Christmas holiday
is upon us. I’m thinking about this morning when Johnny and I rode
out to go hunting.
A thick gray fog settled over the landscape, making it hard to see more that twenty feet ahead of us. The grass has turned a honey color and crackles under the hooves of our horses. We knew where we we’re going, across the meadow behind the ranch and up toward the hills.
After the fall roundup and the subsequent drives time seemed to slow down. The short help was let go and we were down to just the full-time ranch hands. You can only eat beefsteak so many nights in a row. So we went out hunting to bring in other meat.
As the morning wore on, the fog burned off. The sky overhead never cleared as long dark fingers threatened the earth with rain, but it was an idle threat.
There is a stillness to the winter air that isn’t present the rest of the year. The usual singing of the birds is quieter as most of them have headed south to warmer climes. I sometimes wonder if those warmer climates are just over the hills and down in the Sacramento Delta, but it doesn’t matter. There is almost a solemnity to the landscape.
As soon as we leave the road and head into the backcountry I can see Johnny sitting a little taller in the saddle. Long honed instincts of being in the wild have started to make themselves apparent. We set off in a mile-eating trot, headed for a water hole at the base of the hills.
I could see in the distance a line where brown tipped willow trees hug the twisted path of a hidden creek. We made a small camp on a hill that overlooked the waterway. There were some wide marshy areas below us that hosted a few dozen geese and a few handfuls of ducks.
Johnny broke out our lunch as I made a small fire just long enough to heat a pot of coffee and then we put out the fire, using dirt to keep the smoke to a minimum. Teresa has packed beef sandwiches and pumpkin pie wrapped in cheesecloth and oilskin, which we eat quickly, licking our fingers clean.
We settled in for a wait. With the gray skies the deer were more active during the day instead of just coming out at dusk and dawn.
Johnny pulled up the collar of his winter coat and settled his rifle across his knees. Looking at my brother I studied him openly. Today he is a contradiction to me. Dark hair, dark hat, dark jacket and dark clothes but totally offset by a bright disposition.
I would have thought that the holidays would be hard for him, but it seems just the opposite. He’s carefree and happy.
“Explain something to me,” I started, wondering if he’ll answer my questions.
“You want to know about the birds or the bees?”
“Sometimes, you are almost amusing.” I wrap my hands around my coffee cup and turn to look at the meadow below. “Tell me why you go to dances, but you don’t like to dance.”
“I like the music, but I never learned the steps,” he said simply. “Answer me something.”
“Why do the swallows always come back to Capistrano on the same day?”
I’m was so baffled by the question I can’t think of an answer. He tipped his hat back and his face was open to the pale sunlight, as if soaking up what little warmth there was. I saw when he perked up, his eyes locking on something down in the meadow. I followed his gaze to see a coyote as it trotted across the expanse below us.
Its soft brown coat is only a little darker than the winter grass. It ran with its head even with its body, ears perked up, its swift feet quickly taking it down into the brush near the creek and out of our sight.
Johnny looked over at me with a grin. “I like coyotes,” he said with a shake of his head. We both knew of many ranchers in the area that shot them as pests. “They’re stubborn cusses. You can find ‘em everywhere between Mexico and Canada.”
“Long after we’re gone, they’ll still be here,” I agreed.
“And what’ll be here after we’re gone, do you think?” Johnny plucked a tall stem of dry grass and let it float away on the wind.
“Hopefully, your children and mine will be here, looking after the place, just as we would. Maybe, even better.”
“How many you want?”
“Children?” He nods. “I’d like a big family. You?”
He nods again. “I’d like a half dozen each of boys and girls.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Don’t you think twelve is a little much?”
He seemed to consider this for a moment. “I’ll settle for ten.”
“Your wife will be so happy.”
I looked to the west. The sky was getting darker and I worry about rain and having to go back wet and cold. I looked down and something catches my eye. A buck had crested a hill below us. I nudged Johnny with my elbow even as I brought my rifle to bear.
He was a magnificent creature. I big beauty, with a brown coat just turning to its winter gray. Large cream colored ears edged in black, searched for any stray sound that might signal danger. On his head is a wide spread rack with at least eight points over a dark patch on its face. I could see patches of white on his chest and legs through the tall grass. I can feel my finger on the trigger, but I can’t squeeze.
“Don’t,” I hear whispered in my ear. At first I’m not sure if it’s Johnny or just wishful thinking, but the tip of my rifle dips.
We watch as a small herd moves from over that little hill and heads toward the water. Five does and a few yearlings followed the buck. Their over large ears listening for any sound are what give them the name of Mule deer.
“That was supposed to be dinner,” I mutter with a shake of my head, but I have no regrets.
“Just look at him. He’s magnificent.” We watched the buck, his quick, elegant and powerful movements took him down under the wispy branches of the willow and out of our sight.
“We never saw any game, right?” I insisted, not wanting to admit I’d been too softhearted to bring home food.
Johnny stood and shoved his rifle back in the scabbard. “I have a taste for duck. What about you?”
A warm, crackling fire is brightly warming a hearth covered with pine boughs and cedar branches. Standing at the French doors I look out into night. Tomorrow the days will start getting longer.
I’m almost startled when I feel a nudge at my shoulder and I see a snifter of brandy being offered to me. I look over to see Johnny smile that conspiratorial smile he has had plastered to his face all afternoon. He is absolutely terrible at hiding his emotions. Some days I wonder how he ever wins at poker. But he does, more often than not, so perhaps it’s just that I’ve learned to read him so well.
“Murdoch’s gonna light something called a Yule Log.”
I look over my shoulder to see him scraping embers from the fireplace into a small brazier. I like our mix of traditions for this holiday season. Old World and new making a curious blend that I find I rather enjoy.
Johnny and I move back into the living room. There is a childlike glee in his eyes and he watches this new ritual, asking questions at every turn, which Murdoch answers with an amazing patience.
After the Yule Log is lit, Teresa lights a taper from it and with that she lights a single fat candle and sets it in the window as a welcome for any travelers that might pass by.
I am content, a feeling that comes easier to me with each passing day. Murdoch has taken his seat on the end of the couch closest to the fire and the blue lamp. He waits patiently as we all settle down so he can tell us a story. An evening ritual I have come to love more and more during the long winter nights.
The nights will start getting shorter now. In a few short months we will be out among the green grasses and working hard at the daily chores required of a working ranch. But for now, we are all together. I silently wonder how many children Murdoch had planned to fill the many rooms up stairs.
Johnny’s sudden bark of a laugh brings me back to the present and makes me smile. Murdoch is in the midst of a good tale and I’m back to thinking about the solstice. A time of beginnings. When the old year ends and the new begins. When we make plans for what is to come and how to do things better this year than last.
It would seem a far stretch that anything can be better next year than this one has been. This year that brought us all together as a family after so much time apart. Perhaps next year will bring Johnny a bride to start on his ten children. Or maybe, as older brother, I should marry first. But one thing is certain. We will start the new year as this old one ends. Together.