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Top Hand

JOCK STAYED IN A RED CEDAR-SIDED HOUSE. It was planted on land where he and Louise had settled decades earlier in the 1950s. The house was modest, with a roomy basement for Louise’s quilting, and bedrooms down there for when grandchildren came to visit. The ranch bordered the town of Brooks, and now, in my Los Angeles house, I can still see the long gravel road towards his property. The town pavement stopped, and his rumbly cattle guard began, separating town and country. Looking out at palm trees now, I can remember the gopher holes on his desert-prairie half-section, the road he must have built, and the tremendous willow trees that stood in a proud line in front of his house. This was the forest that irrigation built.

I read some of Alice Munro’s stories today up in an empty lot near my home. It was especially windy, and walking back I felt the enormous weight of her book, all those stories in my hands, and I felt my right shoulder pulled down a bit.

Grandad Jock liked heavy things. Jock had his son weld steel corral panels that took at least two people to heave and lock into place. I used to sit on the passenger side of his orange Chevy Blazer, as he pulled out a .22 long-barreled pistol and shot gophers from the side window.

He must have noticed my eyes widen, my breath held.

“These gophers dig holes that hurt my cows. Can’t have the cows getting broken legs, catch me?” he said.

“The boys used to snare the gophers and sell their tails for bounty,” he continued.

I nodded, “Yes, Grandad Jock.”

He took me into the shop at the end of a day, and pulled out leather for a pair of riding chaps, pointing to his big old industrial 1907 Pearson sewing machine. Wide needles and he could make it sing a tune. His other project that day: a weighty piece of steel, ground into a knife blade, and then a woven braided rawhide handle. Lost cowboy art.

Jock was a determined man. His wiry body and wisps of grey hair were not to be confused with this burning force of nature, the savvy in his scarred hands.

Crossing onto his property and over the Texas gate, it was baffling to me that a few buried bars of steel spaced inches apart were enough of a deterrent to the cows. No free-standing gate was necessary. No getting the gate. The black Angus cows and Longhorn crosses would never step on the parallel piped lines of a Texas gate.

I leaped out of the passenger side of my parents’ sunburned Cadillac as it came to a gravel stop. Mother let me drive the thousand feet from cattle guard to the mammoth willows, practice for a learner’s license. I peered over the glossy steering wheel, into the vanishing point just beyond the willows. That road seemed to go forever, as I slipped the shifter into drive, pumping the brakes as the tires rolled over the washboards. Irrigation country.

After Jock lost his wife, my grandmother, he was in his eighties and decided he would no longer live in the Red House he had shared with her all those years. He gathered the clan and pointed to a stack of old cedar power poles he had stored for decades. They were peeled and stacked into a new cowboy cabin, grandad’s spin on a retirement home. He went out of this world in that cabin, in his nineties. A traveling nurse would check on him from time to time.

In his quiet cabin moments, my father once said to Jock,“What would you most like to be remembered for?”

Jock grit his teeth. “Well, I think we’ve said it all, son,” he said.

And then the quiet, again, always the quiet.

“As a good hand,” Jock said. “That folks could always rely on me in a pinch.”

“You aren’t just a good hand,” my dad’s tearless pale blue eyes sparkled.

“You are a top hand.”

And so as I sit here in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles, it is no surprise that there is a tattoo of a cedar cabin on my left arm, flanked by willow trees. Top hand, Granddad, on the other side of the Texas gate.

Ian Clay Sewall is based in Los Angeles. He is an MFA candidate at Antioch University, and serves on the Lunch Ticket Journal. His current short film “Man and the Motorcycle” can be seen at Landmark and Laemmle Theatres across the US.

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