J.C. Mattingly: A Socratic Rancher 8-8-11
People told me Mattie Belle could whip her weight in wildcats.
I put one cautious foot up onto her porch step.
“If you’re selling somethin, I don’t want it,” she snapped.
I identified myself, mentioning the friend who had suggested I come talk to her. “I’m soliciting jackass stories,” I said.
“You look the part,” she said. “Siddown. I got one.”
Mattie Belle had grown up on a mountain ranch, second generation from homesteaders. Her family shared a milk cow with another family who lived some two miles away, over a patch of terrain with several rock slides and a lot of fallen timber.
Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday Mattie Belle rode her family’s jackass over to the neighbors and milked the cow, bringing home the bounty for cheese and drinking. “I always took a set of panniers,” she said, “but the day Earl and I started sparking, I forgot ’em. Rode over, milked the beast in a rush to get back to m’ hunny. I strained the milk into two gallon jars – glass jars, of course. That’s when I realized I had a problem without my panniers. Well, I wasn’t about to walk the jack back carrying two gallon jars, I’ll tell ya that much.”
What she did was coax the jack to the side of a stump and mount up with a gallon jar tucked firmly under each arm. “The jack knew the way home through that horrible maze of rock and timber, so all I had to do was give him a couple side-kicks and off we went.”
Everthing went well until she rode through her home gate. A swarm of bees decided to leave the groin of a large cottonwood tree as she rode in, and once the jack heard them, he broke into a fast trot. The yard was fenced, but that didn’t stop the jack from running around every bit of it.
Mattie Belle’s father, and Earl, were on the front porch. Seeing the situation, and being ornery and helpless in approximately equal measure, they stood, watching, as Matie Belle rambled around the yard, holding tight to the two gallon jars with her arms, and holding on equally tight with her legs to a scared and honking jack.
“It took those two strong fellers way too long to come out and quiet my ride,” she said with a sly smile. “When they finally stopped the jack, it happened with such a jolt that I fell off the back end on my you-know-what. Saved the milk. ‘Course, Earl and me got married later that summer. For 52 years he reminded me of that day, and claimed it was the day he fell in love with me.”
She got a little misty when she finished the story. “Earl claimed he knew I had a good head on m’ shoulders, and when I fell off that jack, he said I bounced a little bit when I hit the ground. That’s when he knew I’d bounce back from the hard times we’d have to go through, which we did. Earl’s buried under that tree yonder, the same tree where the bees came out who chased my jack and rattled my jugs.”
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This the first in a six-part series of articles covering basic water law in the United States, predominately in the western part of the country, and how it affects this finite resource.