Thirty: Mumblings of Discontent
Saturday morning was a repeat of the previous one. Once more, my aunt was seated on her horse, aimlessly fiddling about the yard in front of the stables. Mackerel was tacked up, so all I had to do was thank Maida and mount. As soon as I did so, my aunt turned her horse and set off into the brisk morning breeze. A few clouds studded the sky, but the sun was bright.
I moved Mackerel up beside Zigzag, and said to my aunt, "Good morning. Did you sleep well?"
She looked at me through her sunglasses. "No, I didn't. I kept waking up and trying to figure out why Gabe wasn't on the bed. I miss my dog, Owen."
What could I say? We all missed him, but couldn't begin to approach Aunt Sully's loss. "He was so much fun."
"He was fun, and he was a mess -- constant shedding -- but he filled my house, even when you kids weren't there. With him gone, I feel like I'm living in a skeleton, feel like I did the first night I stayed there."
Remembering my conversation with Rachel, I asked, "Should you think about a puppy?"
"John asked me that, too. Maybe I will, in time. I don't know. I guess I wouldn't want to get another dog until I'm less sad ... it wouldn't be fair for a new dog to come to someone who was still grieving over his predecessor. Anyway, I work all day; I wouldn't have time."
"You could get one of those tiny fluffy dogs and take it to work with you in your purse," I suggested, knowing her aversion to accessory-dogs.
She glared at me over her sunglasses, then chortled. That was good to see; I loved making my aunt laugh. "Let's loop up this trail to the fire road, then out to the pasture and back. That'll give us a good two hours -- if you're up to it."
"Moi, Chere Tante? Yesterday morning you thought you would be enfeebled by our short ride."
"Well, I wasn't. I feel good this morning. In fact, my riding muscles feel so fine that I'm thinking about riding for a while every day, at least while John is asleep. He loves being able to sleep late on his vacations."
That was fine with me; I was no longer jealous of John -- at least not so much as I had been -- but I relished the prospect of time with Aunt Sully without the complications of the rest of the family. A monopoly, I believe that is what I wanted, for as long as I could wrangle it. That was why I hadn't told Michel and Kelsa that Aunt Sully and I were planning to ride again this morning, as a matter of fact.
We climbed the trail under the shadows of the trees. My aunt removed her sunglasses and put them in the pocket of her coat. The trail was blocked ahead of us, by a recently-uprooted tree.
"It's too rocky here for us to jump it," I observed maturely.
"I'm too old and out of shape to jump it," she rejoined, turning Zigzag uphill to pick his way around the roots. "Blasted box elders," she groused. "Bug-infested, brittle, shallow-rooted giant weeds! How in the name of heaven did it end up growing here? Those are creek-bottom trees ... oh, I see. There's a spring, blast it to hell," as her horse sunk into some muck up to his fetlocks.
Detouring even higher around the roots, I kept Mackerel clear of the moist earth.
She turned her horse around and frowned at the wet ground. "There's no creek lower down the slope. I wonder if this is an underground stream, and if it comes out somewhere down by the road."
"By the creek at the bottom of the back yard?" I posited.
"But that's off to the south. Remind me to mention this to Redell, see if we can have this water tested."
"Parasites. Chemicals. Everything. If it's clean, we ought to get a catch basin built."
I nodded. "In case of drought."
"In case of land and resource management."
She was terse enough that I didn't want to push my luck by asking more questions. We continued on up the hill through the trees, the horses snorting as though an uphill walk was a major affair. We struck the fire road not long after, and turned to the right. Again my aunt spoke. "What is this? I thought the city was yapping about the need to keep this fire road trimmed!"
Weeds and saplings had encroached upon the road, not so that we couldn't ride on them, but we had to ride closer together. Usually, if my brother rode with me, we went single file ahead of Kelsa, and let slim branches smack back at each other for fun. Aunt Sully seemed in a sensitive and irritable mood. I could only surmise that she was sore from riding the previous day and just didn't want to admit it, or was being grumpy to hide her grief over losing Gabe.
"Aunt Sully, it's beautiful with the brown oaks and the yellow birches and the evergreens," I prodded her, hoping to bring her back to her usual appreciation of nature.
She shook her head. "It's a fire hazard, Owen. You have two women at the house who are pregnant with twins, and a grandmother older than dirt. If a fire starts during a fall storm, what's to stop it? This is supposed to be a break in the woodlands so that emergency vehicles can get up here. Look at it! The last time we rode up here -- that I rode up here -- at least the city was chopping down the undergrowth for sixty feet on either side of the road. What are they thinking, letting it grow up this way?"
I had no answer for her, and well, was frankly intimidated by her fury. Dodging her anger by eavesdropping and spying and evading was much more comfortable than seeing the blaze first hand.
We continued northwest on the trail, not speaking.
Zigzag and Mackerel both snorted loudly in the same three seconds that they took to stop stiffly in their walks and stare ahead, ears pricked, bodies tensed.
Far ahead of us, out from under the trees, the pastureland began, but the fences were apparently breached, for there was a cow standing on the track, eating the grass that had grown up between the wheel ruts.
"Ah, crap," my aunt said, shaking her head. "Owen, set Mackerel across the trail. He'll be a fence, but be prepared for him to jump if one of the steers rush him." She gave her puffing horse a thump with her heels, and he took a step or two forward. The cow looked up with surprise, then turned away and ambled toward the broken fence, calling with a moany voice. Another one clambered up the hillside to the left, following the other.
Aunt Sully moved her horse briskly on about fifty feet, then paused to look down the hillside. "Stay there!" she shouted, and urged Zigzag down the rocky slope slowly.
As she did, cows began scrambling up to rejoin their brethren in the pasture. Some of them looked at me on Mackerel, but flipped their ears back in alarm and made for the broken stretch of fence instead of our road.
After a few minutes, my aunt reappeared on her horse, moving slowly. She approached me and said, "I don't see any more of them down there. Hold Zigzag and let me see if I can jury-rig that fence." With that, she dismounted, and began hauling at the fallen bits that lay half connected and half on the ground.
"That won't hold them for long," she admitted, coming back to me, "but if we can get someone out here to fix that fence soon, you won't lose any more cattle."
"Should I add 'herding' to my future book about your storied past?"
"No. Turn your head away, I'm going to do an Old Ladies' Mount." She yanked on the stirrup leather and lowered the stirrup to its lowest setting, then re-mounted with a grunt, and pulled the leather back to its original length. "I used to help my friend Madeleine move her cattle from one pasture to another."
"Wait. I thought the pasture was just rented out to someone to put cows in."
"No, my dear nephew, those are some of your future dinners. And they're not cows."
"Bulls, then," I said, to tease her.
She didn't reply, continuing to stare at the fence as we rode, frowning behind her sunglasses. Trying to see what she was seeing, I followed her gaze along the weathered gray wood.
"The fence wood looks old," I offered.
"It is, but the sun and rain weather it quickly. This is the problem, though," she said, edging her horse closer to the fence. "See here? The post connections are shot. All a steer would have to do is rub his face on it, and down it would come. I'm concerned that no one has noticed this lately."
"When Michel and Kelsa and I've been up here, we didn't know what to look for. We just went past." My face grew hot as I realized how ignorant I -- well, we -- had been.
Aunt Sully heard the tension in my voice and looked at me. "And tell me, who has told you what to look for? Did anyone say to you, 'While you're out, inspect the fence lines, make sure the trails and roads are in good order, and take note of whether or not any wheel marks show that the road has been used?"
Immediately I looked at the dirt road. She was right, the only tracks were those of horses' hooves, and the last time I had ridden this road was over a month before. No one had been up here since. Even the heavy rains hadn't completely erased the old hoofprints; and come to think of it, the saplings in the road would have been bent and broken under a truck's progress.
When we returned to the stable an hour later, my aunt began to laboriously dismount. Maida was at the horse's head in an instant, holding the bridle, and Gary tried to help her down from the saddle. "Get off me," she snarled grouchily. "When I can't get off a horse by myself, I'll quit riding."
"Fine," he replied, laughing. "I'll just be here to pick you up off the floor, how about that?"
"Hey, we were up on the fire road, and it's all overgrown, and the farm pasture fences look like crap. What's up with that? Don't you guys use that track for exercising the horses?" She undid the girth, while Maida snatched the saddle from the other side so that she wouldn't carry it herself.
"Thank you, Morton," I said as he pulled Mackerel's saddle from the horse's back.
Gary scowled. "Yeah, we're up there regularly. I stopped by the farm to tell that damned Carwin that he needed to check the fences and her told me to go mind my own business."
Not at all helpfully, Maida put in, "I have done this, too, and was called a 'nosy nigger' for my efforts."
The blood drained from my face and I wanted to run and hide in a bunker -- I knew instantly what was coming next.
"WHAT??" bellowed my aunt.
So much for a peaceful Saturday.