Home on the Ranch, A Christmas Story

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gary s. whitfordThe problem with a big spread is that a black bull calf could be anywhere, and it’s a very big anywhere. It’s cold, a front moved across on Christmas Eve, catching Juana out in 40 degree winds without a jacket.

She’s taken the old ranch truck all along the high rise, pulling a small trailer as she searches the pass, going slow, checking every cranny. Gulf plains are flat, but ditches, dry holes and other small depressions dot the pastures. A calf can get stuck, and couldn’t come home if it wanted to. A 9-month-old bull calf has an indecipherable mind of its own, and won’t necessarily follow the rest of the herd back to the inner fences.

Juana’s cellphone rings a Taylor Swift song. It’s Alfred, her big brother. “Sam Alban says the calf is up there along the wildlife refuge fence. Only God knows why.” Alfred was supposed to bring the herd in earlier in the day, and somehow missed the obvious fact the calf, intended to sire a new generation, was not among the others. Sam is a local helicopter pilot, and it was getting late for him to be in the air.

“Tell Sam I’ll drive up there – he needs to go home.” Juana said. It was going to be another 40 minutes on farm roads to get to that fence, dragging a trailer across the pasture. Juana pulled the duty because she “had the morning off” to finish her Christmas shopping. There are four siblings, two in-laws, three nieces, a nephew, mom and dad and some of the coworkers to shop for. Juana is truly a middle child, number three out of five. Her mother wanted her to become a teacher, and she went through Prairie View A&M, but her heart is on the ranch, doing exactly this, driving the pastures.

The stores were murder – she got there at 7 a.m. hoping to beat the crowds, but Christmas Eve is not the best time to finish your shopping. Her younger sisters were busy with mama and Linze, the German cook, getting tamales and beans ready, marinating the giant briskets, watching the kids. Without a girlfriend or sibling to help make last minute decisions and remember who likes what color, Juana slogged through retail chaos totally alone in a swarm of strangers. She got home with just enough time to hide the presents before meeting the rest of the family and cowboys for lunch. Alfred and a couple of the others arrived at about the same time, shutting in the herd, taking inventory and discovering that missing calf.

Juana turns off FM1234 onto the hard stubble grass. She’s tired, and it’s getting dark. She drives the old truck – her big brother Alejandro got a new truck as a graduation present when he finally completed his veterinary degree. “Her” F150 was “only” 10 years old. “Barely broken in,” Papa said when he handed her the keys. The only thing that makes it hers is the collection of CDs in the pockets of the visor. She downshifts for traction – a drizzle has started. She’s a safe driver, keeping the speed low. It would not be good for anyone to have to drive out here to rescue her and the calf.

She finally sees the calf, grazing quietly against the fence. She pulls the truck and trailer up a few yards away and gets out into a steady drizzle. She’s got a bucket of oats and a fresh hay bale as bait, but the calf is pretending disinterest. “C’mon, boy,” she says, “It’s cold out here – we need to get back to the house.” The calf looks up, and walks away a little, then puts his head back to the grass.

“Don’t be this way – my hay is better than anything you have there,” Juana says. She casually walks past him, then whirls around, drawing her arms wide around her body and yelling, “HHHHHHhuuuuuuuaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!” It’s an amazing effect that makes a 5 foot 7 inch 140 pound woman look like a giant chupacabra. The calf startles, but not too much, and takes the encouragement to step onto the trailer. Juana shuts and secures the trailer gate. Soaked, she climbs back into the truck.

It’s warmer in the cab, and the Mountain View Girls Bluegrass Band is picking real fine on the CD player. All Juana has to do is get across the fields back to the ranch house. Alfred will handle the unloading, but she still has 30 minutes of slow trekking across a wet pasture to drive.

Darkness is fully settled on the land as Juana pulls off the main road into the front gate. The house, a mile away, is decorated and glowing. Even from a distance, she can see the huge nativity Papa made for Mama 20 years ago. Juana was only four at the time, but she’ll never forget the scene. Mama had been away for a month, taking care of Abuela Beatriz in San Antonio. She stepped out of Uncle Enrique’s car to see the magnificent array of plaster camels and Wise Men, sheep and stars, all handmade by her husband, brightly lit with a special spotlight casting a circle around the holy family. Papa gets it all out again every Friday after Thanksgiving and assembles it in the front yard, refusing all help as he unwraps each piece, cleans and positions it in the diorama.

The nativity lights her way now, driving up the driveway after a long hard day. She knows the family is inside, waiting for her and the young bull calf. “At the end of the day,” the Mountain View Girls sing, “Wherever you go, wherever you go, you come home.”

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford usually writes about the craft of writing in the digital age. This is a little Christmas present for our readers. We hope you enjoy. You can read more of gary’s writing on his company website, Extraordinary Words, or personal blog. You can also find him on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter (@garyswhitford).

One thought on “Home on the Ranch, A Christmas Story

  1. That’s a good story. My cousin looked out the kitchen window a few years ago and saw four feet sticking up in the pasture. He investigated to find that a yearling had fallen on its back into an old tractor tire and was unable to get out. He wasn’t able to get it out either until he cranked up the tractor and pulled it to its feet. Then he dragged the tire out of the pasture before it happened again.

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