We got onto the horses. Little Leo was actually bigger than I had expected, taller than his sire. He was smooth in his gate, confident in his march as we rode out into the field. He held his head high, fighting against the reins, snorting. He wanted to run, to break out; but he maintained pace with the others. He was a handful, not the type of horse a novice should ride. And although I had grown up around the rodeo, around horses, I had my hands full. It had been a long time since I had ridden; and he was aware of my uneasiness as we started out riding along in a group, following a trail along the river.
We crossed a stream, belly deep. The water came up over my feet as Little Leo leapt through it; jumping over the bank; down into the water; and leaping upward and climbing out on the other side; water draining off his sleek coat. It was exhilarating, the power of this animal, capable and surefooted as he crossed that stream with ease; and I rode upon his back, holding on, hoping I didn’t fall off.
Pop laughed at me as he made the crossing, his horse making it easy for him, taking into consideration the rider as he walked up and out without creating such a fuss. Little Leo is young, and he is a stud, so he’s more aggressive than Pop’s old gelding, I told myself. Clay crossed, his hat pulled down tight over his brow. He climbed up and out; and without hesitation, he bolted into a quick gallop and we followed.
We continued the gallop for a few minutes until we reached a gate. Leaning down, Clay released the chain and swung it open with ease. Then we all entered, leaving the gate open. We cleared over a small ridgeline, which revealed to our front a nice herd of cattle. Clay pulled up and stopped; and we sat there in a line, Pop, Clay, then me, looking out over the herd of Polled Herefords to our front.
They were fat, most with calves, as they grazed under the watchful eye of two large bulls. Their hair was short and bright red, except for the white hair on the tip of their tails, their feet, and their faces.
“Well, they are all yours, Mike,” said Pop. “We’ve been building this herd for you since you left the last time you came for a visit.”
Then Clay said, “We started with ten cows about six months after you left, and we’ve built the herd up to a little over a hundred cows over the last few years by using the money from the steers to buy more cows and by keeping the heifers that showed promise.”
I was taken off guard by their generosity and their ability to keep a secret for so long. I was completely flabbergasted by their gesture of kindness, knowing full well that I had doubted my place in the family, knowing full well that I had thought that I wouldn’t be welcome; and now here they were, showing me how much effort they had gone through to demonstrate the exact opposite of what I had imagined.
Speechless, I sat there for a moment, scanning the scene as Pop said, “This is the old place, and it is yours, the entire section along with the cows, barns, and house. We just want you to come home, son.”
This is incredible, I thought to myself as feelings of guilt swept over me, guilt for having been gone for so long, for not writing letters, for not calling. “How could I ever repay you guys for this?” I asked them. “This is just absolutely unbelievable!” I said as I sat there with my mouth open, my eyes filling with tears that I couldn’t and didn’t dare shed. I just sat there, looking the old place over—as did they—with a feeling of satisfaction, my faith in my family more than restored. I was home.
After a while, I finally commented, “You know, Pop, that I’ve got two more years before I can retire from the army?”
He nodded, smiling; and then he declared, “You just do what you’ve gotta do and then come home safe and sound. We’ll all be here waiting for you when you do.”
Then Clay slapped me on the back and said, “Come on, you big puss. Let’s take a look at the ole place and then call it a day.”
I barely kept from choking up with tears as we galloped off, Clay, and then Pop, and then me. I watched them as they rode, sitting tall in their saddle, scanning the land with their eyes, making comments, pointing out specifics to me as we checked the entire section, all six hundred and forty acres of it. We checked the fences, every post; the barns; the stables; and the cattle pens and working facility. I was surprised to see that they had modernized it with electricity and hydraulic pumps that allowed a man to work cattle day or night with ease and minimal help.
We spent the entire morning looking the old place over and talking about the good old days, grandpa and great-granddad. The decisions they had made had affected us all. They had given us all everything we needed to survive and thrive for generations. The importance of those decisions hadn’t escaped our thought process, and we all hoped to be able to have that same impact on the lives of our own families someday.
I wonder if my efforts overseas had any sort of positive impact on the lives of people there. Had it been worth it? I thought to myself as I dismounted from Little Leo and handed the reins over to Clay.
Without a word, they turned; and I watched them as they rode off over the hill and out of sight.