We’d been out all that July day, Nana and Tom and I. We’d met the branding crew up on
top fifteen miles away, Nana driving the battered blue-and-silver Power Wagon up the
roughest road on the ranch, the “Long Long Trail”. Cowboys had gathered a couple of
hundred head of Angus. We kids watched from the back of the Power Wagon while they
worked in the dusty corral, sorting calves from the cows which they turned out to stand
bawling nearby all afternoon. That was finished about noon; somewhere nearby there was
a tree with some shade, and Nana set out the lunch she had brought: beans, pot roast,
deviled eggs, sandwiches of homemade bread and homemade butter, sliced tomatoes
from John Funk’s garden, iced tea from a squat red-&-white gallon thermos, peach pie.
After a brief nap on the ground – hats make fine pillows – all hands turned to the
afternoons work: branding, castrating and vaccinating a hundred calves. Tom’s job was to
paint the raw brands and the cuts with a black glop that smelled like creosote. My job as a
5-year-old was to tally marking the count of heifers and steers, in two columns: four short
vertical lines, with every fifth a very satisfying diagonal.
The Long Long Trail was even longer and rougher going down, and it was about sunset
when we got back to Dog Canyon. I was too tired for any supper but a peanut-butter-and-
jelly sandwich and milk in a thin-waisted blue Mexican glass. I settled into my bed, an
iron cot on the screened porch where I loved to watch the long summer twilight fade and
Scorpio make its brilliant way just above the round mesa.
That evening, though, I found myself crying. Nana heard me and stopped putting away
the remains of lunch and preparing for the next day’s branding. She sat quietly with me
for a moment, then went to the medicine cabinet and came back with a cobalt-blue jar of
Noxema. The smell of menthol swept over me as she rubbed slippery ointment on the
forearms I hadn’t realized were sunburned. Instant cool, sudden comfort, total peace.