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My Patch of Dirt

I arrived at my cousin's ranch early Friday afternoon. I'd never been to a working ranch before and didn't know what to expect. All I knew about these cousins was from a visit back east, letters and occasional phone calls. The ranch was about 200 yards off Route 191N in Garnneil MT. The barren beauty of the brown March landscape mesermized me. I'd never seen anything like it before. I stopped a couple of times and got out. I could see for miles. The Snowy mountains to the west were fifty miles away. Even the air felt different and had a touch of sage and of land waiting for spring. How could I not be under the spell of the Big Sky country. Across the road from my cousin's was a large grain elevator and railroad tracks. A dirt road I passed had a post with several signs with names, some as much as forty miles away.

I turned into my cousin's driveway. There were no trees, a lot of sage, a small herd of cattle, a red farm house, barn, land as flat as any I'd ever seen and a sky that went on forever. I stopped, opened the door of my car and climbed out. I was greeted warmly. Then shown my room. I put my bag on the bed and joined them for coffee in the kitchen, after which Clarence showed me his ranch 440 acres of wheat, three dozen cows, then worth about 300 a head which he had as insurance. Then back to the ranchhouse where I had my first of six cups of black coffee. The urn in the kitchen seemed to be bottomless. Tomorrow I'd help him with the morning chores which meant I had to be ready to get up early.

At 5:30AM there was the flush of a toilet, Clarence's way of making sure I was up. I was already awake and ready to go. I showered quickly dressed and headed for the kitchen. Ham, eggs and more coffee this one sweetened with apricot brandy.

At 6:30 the sun was just peeking above the horizon as we headed for the pickup followed by their two shepherd mix dogs. Both leaped into the cab then a short drive to the closest haystack. We loaded the truck with hay under the supervision of the two dogs who stared at us through the back window of the truck. The first load completed we started for the nearest field. Clarence put the truck into its lowest gear and we climbed into the back ready to spread the hay. One of the dogs sat behind the steering wheel. "He likes to drive," was all Clarence said. The cows meandered over when they saw the truck approach. Five more trips and the feeding was over. Then it was time to clean the barn and do a quick patrol of the ranch, stopping now and then to examine the fencing for any breaks or damage. It was after eleven when we returned to the house for more coffee. No apricot brandy this time.

After lunch Clarence suggested we hunt sage hens. He asked me if I could shoot. I told him I could. I liked to shoot pigeons and an ocassional squirrel. He gave me an old .22 rifle and told me sage hens weren't pigeons. We then headed out into the fields. The sage hens weren't easy to find. After two hours I'd shot one and Clarence two. He showed me how to clean the feathers off by placing them into boiling water. Then cut their heads off and gut them. The smell of the boiling feathers and the sight of the guts almost did me in, but I knew I couldn't show any emotion. Afterwards, Clarence said I did good job for an Easterner and had earned myself a dinner of sage hen, which was a speciality of his wife. He was right. The roasted sage hens with a touch of lemon and pepper was one of the best meals I ever had. With my stomach full and feeling woderfully tired I slept better than I had in years and through the morning's toilet flush.

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