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Brotherly Love

In my final year in college a girlfriend introduced me to a fellow ranch kid from the eastern part of the state and we became fast friends. And rather than terminate that friendship at the end of my final semester Tom and I plotted a plan where over the winter holidays I would travel to his home and meet his family.

So it was with much anticipation that I pointed my pickup up a county road on January 1st 1980 to meet his family and see a historical family ranch. Their place was situated on the Wyoming, Dakota boarder where the Black hills of South Dakota spill over onto the Thunder Basin National grasslands of Eastern Wyoming.

When one says the word “ranch “ varied mental images might be drawn. One might think of sheep, or maybe the midwestern farm belt or even a dude ranch in Out west America. What I found however, as I pulled into the home place was a” Ponderosa” look alike, straight out of the Bonanza series on TV. From the black long needle ponderosa pine covered hills to a sprawling log ranch house, right down to a historic looking old barn out of the last century. Tom's Dad looking more like a college professor wearing black rimmed glasses and smoking a scholarly pipe instantly welcomed me to their home. Tom's Mom reminded me of a doting “ Aunt Bee” from the Andy Griffith show. She could whip up a home cooked meal to kill for. And they must have been the first “earth first” family because they raised everything their selves, from home butchered beef and pork, to the canned garden goods, and eggs from their chicken coop, and that's not even mentioning the homemade pastries courtesy of ol' Bossy the family milk cow. They even raised and ground wheat. I tried to trade my friend families straight across but Tom was smarter than he looked and we didn't make the deal.
I would be remise if I didn't mention Tom's Grandma Lincoln with family linage to that President by the same name and an old bachelor Uncle lived with them, who if I remember, after coming home from war never stepped off the place the rest of his life: well except maybe to have a beer.
Tom had a younger brother Monte who was hell on wheels and Tom confided in me that Monty was his best friend. Such sibling closeness between these two was new to me. It might have been attributed to their rural way of life and how they depended upon each other in their daily jobs and also they had lost their only sister the year before to a tragic illness, and this may have drawn this family closer together. At any rate the whole atmosphere was like experiencing an evening with the Walton Family on TV. Well okay maybe the Walton's with an attitude as these folks were real and their daily life and struggles were more real.

Besides getting to see a historic family ranching operation I got included in helping that close knit family make a seasonal move of their cowherd sixty miles west out of the Black hills and onto the Plains of Eastern Wyoming.

The first day of our two day drive found us three boys and one cousin from a neighboring ranch, bunching 500 head of momma cows at the lower end of a snow covered meadow ringed by dark ponderosa pine forests.
Opening a frozen wire gate we kicked the cows onto a remote country road and headed west towards their new prairie home.
I had never seen a set of cattle line out and travel like a horse cavy, but this herd did. In no time at all the often unseen leaders were sometimes two miles ahead and viewing the procession from the rear, the red hided herd looked like a large black snake winding down sparkling snow whitened valleys, bordered by long dark green to black fingered ridges covered with those ponderosa pine. About the only sound to be heard was the crunching of the frozen snow by the passing animals and the occasional blowing of our frosty mounts. Because of the blood-pumping pace one hardly noticed the sub zero temperature unless viewing the frosty breath of horse, cow, or rider.
During our first day's thirty plus mile trek the terrain gradually changed into the treeless, brushless, rolling hill country of the Thunder basin grasslands. About sunset we crossed a northbound highway and bunched the livestock in the purple twilight of a cold winters eve.

Dawn the next morning found us lined out and traversing a seemingly endless road less long grass prairie, surrounded by rolling hills that could have been sea swells except for their brown grass color.
We were flanked by the last westward pointing dark ridges of the Black Hills and engulfed beyond and above by the blue pink sky of a new winter day.
The strung out herd of cattle seemed to wander up one gradual slope only to disappear down the other side. Often in the intervening low land we would cross-tiny frozen watercourses that could be viewed from afar as white ribbons of snow meandering down the broad brown valleys between the grassy hills.

Tom and Monte had rode ahead to pilot our direction and check for safe creek crossings. Their cousin and I trailed along beside the ever-plodding herd of cows. I felt like a drover from old following a herd of beef into an unknown frontier.

I don't know how long I rode along lost in thought but I was snapped back into reality by the drumming sound of a horse running full out just beyond the horizon. Instinctively I spurred onward to meet the still unseen rider and soon I had my own horse on a dead run, as I knew both brothers were riding colts and they wouldn't be running them over hard frozen ground unless something was wrong. The moment Tom appeared on the skyline he gave a frantic wave and wheeled his horse back the way he had come. In no time I had over taken him and we were racing flat out down a gradual valley towards one of those white snowy ribbons that marked an iced over creek winding down a gentle valley.

From a distance it looked like there were two dark basketballs on the snow covered creek but as we drew nearer I could recognize they were actually heads, one of horse and one of rider. My blood ran cold as Tom forced out in gasped breath that Monty's horse had broke through crossing the snow covered creek and his brother was pinned under his horse. To compound things when his horse had busted through the six foot wide and shallow but boggy creek horse and rider had fallen over backwards pinning the rider beneath his mount. Monty's neck and shoulder were pinned between the ragged four-inch thick edge of the ice hole, and the backside of the struggling horse that lay on top of the rest of him.
. The horse was lying in a watery hole no bigger than a kitchen table and on his side. The animals feet were slightly elevated on the creek bank which caused him to tend to slide down and backward towards the center of the creek and which could result in either breaking Monty's neck or pushing him under the ice to the muddy grave below. The only parts not mostly submersed in mud and water was Monty's head and one arm, which being jammed between horse and ice edge was the only things keeping him from being pushed under the icy edge by the back of the horse. As we approached Monty was struggling to hold His horse's nose above water. Our only chance was to rope the colt by the head and maybe drag both to safety.

Tom's voice cracked as he said “rope him I can't get near him on this colt.”
I wasn't anything if not scared but the old rope horse I was riding knew his business and sensed the urgency in our action. I unlimbered my rope as orv (the horse I was riding) one jumped the six foot creek and it wouldn't have happened again in a million years but I dropped a loop neatly around that trapped colt's head. But the gradual bank was frozen and slick and orv 's feet slipped out from under him as the slack in the rope drew tight. Determined he lunged forward again and then again, each time falling and being pulled backward into a sitting position. Tom screamed” turn orv” as he jumped beside his brother to help hold the floundering horse away from his brothers pinned head and neck. I spun my horse easily into a backing and half setting position drawing my rope tight between the colt's head and my saddle horn. This action relieved just enough pressure off man and horse that all struggling stopped.

Raising off the ice Tom said “dam you Monty don't you dare do this to Mom “ and with that Tom gave me a fleeting glance as if to say you got to hold on to them that's my brother, and away he sped on a seven mile run on a three year old colt in search of his dad. No one needed to tell me Monty was living on borrowed time.

Minutes seemed like hours as I sat helpless on a straining horse, knowing that to much pressure would choke the colt causing struggle which could break Monty's neck and not enough pressure would allow both to slip beneath the ice surface. Except for an occasional tremble orv stood stock-still. Time passed, and you could see and smell the stem off both sweating horse and rider, and it had to be close to ten below.
An hour seemed like eternity as one rider trapped on a straining horse stared into the eyes of another rider pinned under a trapped horse.
Monty and his horse lay ear to ear and at one point I think I heard him whisper to his colt “hang on buddy Tom is coming”.

I sat helpless and trapped in a state of limbo of” dammed if you do and dammed if you don't”. And as I watched the spark of life flicker and fade from a stranger's living eyes, I think shock started to set in on me. It was like my mind was refusing to comprehend what the eye was seeing.

How long were we there? To this day I don't know. I didn't move or hear the truck as it roared up behind me, I seen but didn't hear the log chain or move as it whipped down from the bank behind me. But I did see Tom dive onto the ice and I did see him wrap the chain around the colts neck and I did hear him yell, “we got you brother” and “gun it Dad “ and then I felt orv step forward pivot and pull.

No big deal was ever made nor much ever said about events of that day now gone long ago. And I guess alls well that ends well,as that was just their way of dealing with life.

But somehow for me it is a little different and I sometimes think; isn't it curious what triggers some folks memory … as I still think back upon those brothers and that family from time to time…especially when I read or hear that sentiment used too lightly … that one about “brotherly love”
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