“There’s something does not like a fence,” Jody muttered. Old Brains, the appaloosa gelding, shifted under him, looked back, shook, and took a step to let Jody know it was an idiot idea to stop now with horse trailer, barn, and saddle-off-the-back was just a mile or two down the way. Jody held him and explained, “That goddamned Dwight McTrent has finally built a fence to USG specs. Right where nobody needs it any more.”
It was late in the day, with the sun a chilly, white blank squinting over the shoulder of the ridge. The snow had mostly stopped falling, and it had turned cold with the north breeze beginning to toss the dark firs and rattle in the leaf-empty aspen branches. Jody’s breath was a smoke that seemed to crystalize when it touched the air.
In Jody’s previous sixty-seven years of riding these mountains, his mountains, this shining barb wire fence across the old Indian trail had existed only symbolically as a drift fence of three strands of rusted wire, sagging off misaligned posts and vagrant aspen trees and firs. In those days a drift fence was meant to bluff a cow, more than it was meant to stop them. And for Lenny Bisque, whose ranch had been on one side of the fence and who used the USG Forest Service grazing allotment on the other side of it for summer pasture, that bluff was acknowledge as much in its breach as for its security. Most days the gate was open, and if it was closed you could be sure that the last person through it was the USG Forest Service Range Manager. And if it did happen to be closed, few bothered to dismount to open it, because it was easier to ride a hundred yards into the fir trees and around the end of the bluff fence. Lenny often spoke the natural creed of his neighbors when he said, “If the govment elk’re gonna eat my hay and cow pasture, by god my cows’re gonna eat govment grass when they need it.” This was not a sentiment that appealed to USG Forest Service Range Managers.
But Lenny had sold out to McTrent, the Minneapolis banker; and now, there it was— blocking Jody’s ride to a warm fire, a good Chardonnay, and supper—a shining, five strand, barb wire barrier straight as a ruler, punctuated every ten feet by a brand-new, hardware-store post, across the draw, up both hillsides, into a lane cut through the fir and pine, and right over the ridge, the last post on the ridge, like a sharp, up-thrust finger against the sky. “A fence against nature,” Jody thought. McTrent didn’t have any cows to keep in, and elk didn’t bluff at a fence. All McTrent had was a trail across his newly acquired property that he wanted to put out of business. The long and short of it was McTrent did not much care for riff-raff crossing his property to get to hunt, hike, or ride on public lands. To make this clear McTrent had placed a combination padlock on the gate.
Jody, crossed his hands on the saddle horn and considered his options. Old Brains shifted under him, nodded to take his head from Jody’s hold. Jody lifted the reins to check him.
“Doesn’t like a fence at all,” he said. He was paraphrasing and extrapolating from one of the many poems he had amassed to dissuade the boredom of long days following cows, moving irrigating dams, fixing fences, and birthing calves. It was one of Robert Frost’s poems that he often recited while he was putting up a hay yard wall to keep deer and elk out of his hay, or repairing a fence to keep Lenny’s cows out of his alfalfa. And when the last wire was stretched and the last staple tapped home, he’d look down the line of the fence, Lenny’s pasture on one side, his alfalfa on the other, and think how so true the poem was.
With the trail blocked—a trail that belonged by rights and nature, so far as Jody and most of his neighbors were concerned, to every human being on the face of the earth—his options were pretty bleak. He could turn around and ride eight miles back the way he had come. Or he could follow the line of the fence straight up over the ridge, then try to find his way down into Trap Canyon. Both would sharply delay barn, Chardonnay, and toasty fire. Both would be in the dark, and the drop into Trap Canyon in the dark with snow and ice on the rocks was not a pleasant thought. Old Brains would not be pleased with either since he had lived most of his life with a full appreciation of Indian trails and Lenny Bisque’s range management and fence maintenance practices.
Jody dismounted and led Old Brains toward the fence. He pulled on the tight, top wire of the gate with his mittened hand. He lifted the padlock and regretted that he had never picked up the lockpicking trade in his wilder days.
“Good neighbors, good fences don’t make,” he muttered. He was of course the only one present who gathered the irony of his paraphrase.
“Well, ole boy,” he said to Old Brains, “I guess I got the key to this little problem.” He took off a mitten and placed it on the saddle, he fumbled in the saddle bag to find his Multi-tool. It was heavy and cold in his hand. His first thought was to clip the wires of the gate. This would be the least destructive and simplest to repair when the time came to heal the injury to the fence. He placed the wire cutter on the top wire of the gate, then looked both ways, trying perhaps to find a reason for why cutting the gate did not make sense.
His eye fell again on the dark, ridgeline post finger, fierce, blatant and obscene, against the pale evening sky.
“Fuket,” he said. He opened the wire cutter released the gate wire. He walked with great neighborly determination past the gate brace to where the fence began its rigid angle up the ridge to the finger-post. He could feel the wire, almost humming with tension in the cold. The Multi-tool was not made for heavy, double-strand barb wire, and he had to twist and wrench it. The first wire pinged, snapped, and then slumped in the snow. He cut all five wires. When the bottom one snapped, it whipped a fluff of snow and dried grass.
He lifted the ends of the wires and walked them in an arc and dropped them beside the fence. It seemed a neighborly thing to do, dragging the wire out of the way so the next pilgrim of nature who came through here, whether elk or rider, would not be wire snagged.
He dropped the Multi-tool in the saddle bag, took his mitten from the saddle, put it on, swung into the saddle and let Old Brains find his natural way home.
“Well,” he said. “Before I built a fence. . . . I’d ask who I was giving ‘a fence’ to.”