A Texas Ranching Adventure: 107˚ in the Shade
“Are you ready to search for the blue heron?” I asked my daughter.
Thekla narrowed her eyes and looked warily out the open garage door. It was 9 o’clock of an August morning and the air was thick and hot and smelled of dust.
In the yard, there wasn’t the whisper of a breeze, nor the call of an animal. Just the aggressive leap of a grasshopper, the angry buzz of a big black fly.
Thekla turned to me and pointed out. That meant yes.
Since her skin was the color of white paper, she needed to cover up. Because I didn’t want to be sun-burned anymore, I covered up. We put on long pants and long-sleeved shirts. I wore boots; she wore socks. I lifted her into the baby carriage: a sturdy 1960’s model with a big square roof and solid rubber wheels, which were resilient when pricked by one-inch mesquite tree thorns or cactus. Thekla’s godparents had loaned this model to us for use in the Texas wilds.
Next we had to protect our heads: I got a towel and draped it over the carriage roof, clipping it on with clothespins so it hung down on the sides and blocked the sun from Thekla. Then I worked on my head dress: I draped a clean, homemade diaper over my head in the Arab sheik style, then put my hat on over it.
I handed Thekla a bag for our finds: the mail, rocks and other treasures.
We rolled out of the dim garage into the bright oven. The shock made us dizzy. We tried to breathe and carried on through the yard. There was no sign of the chickens—they must have already retreated to the shade of the oak tree in the back corner. When we reached the fence around the yard, I opened the gate and pushed the carriage out, then fastened it behind us. This was important: otherwise our goats could get in and would eat the young fruit trees, and the entire garden.
“Keep your eyes open for the heron,” I reminded Thekla. Sweat beaded her brow but she held onto the bar in front of the seat and nodded, her eyes on the alert, just as they had been the day she was born. As the mid-wife had said, “Some of them are in their bodies from the first minute, others take a few months to come to roost.” Thekla didn’t miss a beat.
I pushed the carriage ahead of me down the curving road through the Home Pasture. There was a group of goats over near the brush along the dry creek bed. They were grazing where the woods made shade, but soon they’d be heading down into the creek bed itself, stretching out and taking a siesta through the swelter of the day, only daring to come out in evening.
Thekla and I watched the trees, the shade, the sky.
The fierce sun bore down on us as we rattled along the rocky road towards the crossing over the empty creek bed. In the middle of the crossing, we stopped and gazed down at the dirt bottom and into the bushes and trees along the banks. I got Thekla out and we crouched and peered first in one direction, then in the other. “Do you see a turtle?” I said to Thekla. She studied the brown surface below. Once after a rain, we’d seen a big turtle and some frogs. Further on down the creek at a limestone-bottomed spot, we’d seen catfish lurk in the depths. But here, today, the surface was stubborn-looking and hard-baked.
We pushed further down the dusty road into another open pasture. A hundred yards to our left stood our two work horses standing statue-still, their pale backs stained dark with sweat, heads bowed, enduring. Ahead and to our right was a huge pecan tree, about 300 hundred years old. It was already standing tall when Comanche and Apache hunted the area. When we came abreast of the tree at the road, we turned towards it bumping over rocks and rough grass, around prickly pear cactus and lacy-looking mesquite trees. My husband Jay had put an old-fashioned wooden swing in the tree. Thekla was still very young so I sat in the swing and held her. We swayed gently to and fro and felt the strength of the tree, its patience, its protection from the sun.
We got off the swing and looked up into the wide spreading branches. I asked the tree, “Do you know where the blue heron is?”
Thekla listened for the answer. I listened.
The wise old tree kept its secrets.
We resumed rolling along, and looked further towards the west, where a stand of trees shielded the heron’s pond. Now we drove towards the front gate at the public road. We saw one car pass. The first. We didn’t know the driver, but we knew rural courtesy: he waved, we waved. We arrived at the gate with heat heavy in our chests, making sweat run down our stomachs and our backs.
I unlocked the gate, pushed the stroller through, and then pulled the gate closed. The mail box was close by and Thekla waited while I collected a utility bill and the most recent edition of the Small Farmer’s Journal, full of ideas and dreams that always gave us hope.
Thekla held out her hand and took the mail into her lap.
I faced down the country road in one direction, studying the black top. One day, we had found a dead beaver not far from our mail box. He’d obviously been hit by a car. Still, he was huge and spectacular. What an incredible tail he had! We’d hurried back to tell my husband Jay, who followed us back to admire the fine animal. Jay was amazed there were any beavers in that region. He guessed the beaver must have come up from the bayou through the little creeks, and he honored the creature by putting him in a wheelbarrow, carrying him back to the house, and saving the fur. At least that part of the magnificent animal didn’t go to waste.
Biting my lip at that memory, I gazed out at someone else’s pastures on the other side of the road. They rose to a low ridge.
Then something caught my eye. Something much closer.
Just on the other side of the road, high up on a metal post, was a fluttering. I pushed Thekla across to that side. And I stared up at the signs which announced the road’s number to both directions. The signs were constructed of two metal panels mounted together and bolted back-to-back to a metal bar in a ‘u-shape’. At the base of the u-shape, was the thing that was moving. A feather.
I put my face up close and peered through the narrow slits between the metal panels and the mounting bar.
Lots of bones. Tiny, perfect, clean, white.
I stared, wondering what and how. I pulled the feather loose and studied it.
I squinted again at the skeletons. Suddenly, somehow, I knew—these were the remains of baby owls. I counted six sets. The owlets had sat in that space, on the bottom of the metal ‘u’, and were fed by the mother. I saw that the only entrance to that roost was from above, from the top of the u-shaped bar. But the little owls obviously couldn’t—in that narrow space—open their wings and propel themselves out, even when they’d grown some. They were trapped. I held Thekla up to see, explained about owlets and crooned, “who-whooo.” I thought about trying to take a bone set home to save. But something stopped me. “We have to leave their bones here,” I said. Thekla grimaced and nodded. She understood. Sometimes you need to save a beaver fur; sometimes you need to let owl bones lie.
We pushed on back through the gate, and down the pasture road, stopping briefly to gaze at the bare creek bed. We licked our salty lips and thought of water. Then we pressed determinedly on through the hot haze gathering in our valley.
After I closed the gate to our yard, we looked once more towards the milky air over the distant heron’s pond. No heron in sight.
But the bones had given us ideas. We would dream of owls that night.
Photo credit: Marilyn Ackley
For the beginning of the Texas Ranching Adventure series, click here.