When to panic?


Quarter to six.  Thirteen degrees and falling.  Long past dark.  I periodically look at the window, hoping to see his headlights coming up the county road.

Where is he?  He should be here by now.  Should I go looking for him?

It is the curse of the ranch wife to be continually waiting for a husband who has little use for a clock and who could be anywhere in 60+ sections of zero-cell-phone-service.

I am well-accustomed to the lifestyle.  The daughter of a man who would work 24 hours a day if it was socially acceptable and a woman who worries, I grew up watching her pace and fret as she wondered what fate had befallen him as he worked a potentially dangerous job:  he was horseback, he was driving a tractor without lights after dark, he was climbing a windmill… often long after the other ranch employees had gone home for the night.  And there was no way to reach him:  those were the days before cell phones.  But the ranch vehicles were equipped with two-way radios, as was our home.  She would call him:  “This is KOF474 calling Car 40… Harold, are you on the air?”

The silence of the airwaves filled our home with questions.  Was he okay?  Why was it taking so long?  Should she go looking for him?

Thankfully, every time we thought Dad might never come home again… he always came home.

Either because of or in spite of my upbringing, I have taken a fairly relaxed approach to my expectations of when Beau, also a ranch employee on his own program, will be home.  My worry-free philosophy has served me well:  though he is often late, he always comes home.

I never went looking for him until this past Wednesday night.

It got to be six o’clock.  Temperature still falling.  I dreaded a rescue operation, because it would involve taking the kids out in the cold (and no mom in her right mind has the energy to bundle the kids up once again)… but I knew Beau should’ve been home long before.  He’d headed out about 2 o’clock to check the length of a pipeline that carries water to a series of stock tanks.  He was driving the Polaris Ranger and dressed warm, but his journey would take him over 10 miles from home.

I stepped outside in the darkness with the baby, closing the chaos of our preschooler-filled home behind the door.  I listened for the hum of the Ranger’s motor.  Only silence.  I searched the horizon for the glint of a headlight coming from a long ways off.  Sloping prairie for miles and miles, but no headlights.

I started his work pickup to warm up, then realized it was still hooked to the cake trailer we’d used to feed cows earlier in the day.  I didn’t want to be dragging the trailer around the countryside as I searched for my husband in the dark.  Sigh.  First step, balancing the baby on my hip:  releasing the leg of the jack on the cake trailer.

Whomp!  I slipped on packed snow as I jimmied the jack down, landing harder on my butt than I have in a long time.  Thankfully the baby didn’t hit the pickup or trailer on our way down, but the fall scared her and her wails filled the darkness.

Back inside, I rounded up a flashlight and hammer to aid in the un-hooking of a cake trailer that was testing my patience, then clapped the bigger kids into compliance.  A coat and boots for each of them.  Our always-at-the-ready bag of snow pants, hats, and mittens to throw into the cab just in case.  A snowsuit and extra blanket for the baby.  A water bottle.  Then a call to my parents, at ranch headquarters 40 miles to the south, to tell them I was headed out with the children to look for Beau and that they should come looking if I didn’t call back within the hour.

I figured someone ought to know all us Blakes were headed off-grid.

Then the loading of kids into the pickup and a lively round of “I Spy” as I tried hard not to worry them over the whereabouts of Daddy.

It’s always scary to go looking not knowing what you might find… trying hard not to imagine the worst.  The Ranger is a very safe vehicle to drive over rough ground, so I didn’t figure it had flipped on him.  More likely, it’d had broke down, in which case Beau would be walking.  He always dresses appropriately for the weather and has very good bearings on the country we manage here at the VX.  And truthfully, the guy loves a good hike.  My best guess was that he would walk to the county road that cuts through the heart of the VX pastures from the scene of his bad luck.  My job, then, was easy:  to drive up the county road.

Sure enough, four miles up the otherwise-deserted gravel, he was shining his flashlight at us as we drove up.  Turns out the Ranger had plowed into a snowdrift, then lost a tire.  As in, the tire came off the Ranger.  Beau said he estimated he’d already walked seven miles when he saw us coming.

He was glad we came looking, saving him four miles of walking.  I was glad he was found.  But in truth, I never had worried that he wasn’t okay.  Broke down, yes.  Hurt, no.  And thank God that was the case this time.

Today he is footsore from walking.  My butt hurts from my fall.  As far as the kids are concerned, nothing unusual happened.  And Grandma is making plans to equip the VX with a 12-parallel-channel GPS 22-channel GMRS/FRS radio from the Cabela’s catalog.

© Tami Blake

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