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The Fence That Won the West

BY late afternoon, when the shadow of the mountain was on my house in the field, I stood in the sun and admired the spider-work of my tightened fence. Strands glowed as if they grew out of the shining wheat-grass and Colorado-mix flowers. I had stretched wire all day with the metal wire-stretchers, clamping wire to belt-high cedar posts, elbowing it tight, pulling up sagging posts. I fumbled a U-staple into the wood and hammered it with the other hand. I was a cowboy on the ground: I had mastered the whip of barbed wire diligently and had my sleeves rolled up. The nicks on my wrists and arms and torn pants were yesterday's.

Where the old barbs were clamped to the fence, so the new strands wouldn't slide too perfectly through the staples, I simply spidered one strand to another, up and down; and that created the marvelous effect I was now admiring. This was no Stockman Supply fence whose straight posts and straight wire would send a tourist into sleep for miles; this fence had character, and it would do. Tomorrow I could get my cows, all 13 of them, from the high mountains.

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I stepped down into the river, where it flows through a culvert, the bridge under the county road, and decided to repair that part last. I had an idea how to lay it, three strands of fence a foot off the water, banking it with weights for tightness. (They say livestock won't butt a weak fence if it's tight; but a sturdy loose fence is asking for a testing bull).

The river dip was something different and would break my rhythm of ``artwork,'' stretching and spidering. So I left it till last. The cooling water felt like peace on earth, soaking the canvas of my hot Bean canoe shoes. I had ordered these shoes in the spring, in this high desert, for $17, in hopes I'd get ahead enough that a canoe would soon follow after. But instead I coined a new spring proverb, ``One pair of L.L. Bean canoe shoes doesn't mean a canoe.''

Still, the shoes had served me perfectly hiking in the hot earth between yucca and bluebells and pines, quick-drying after a dip in icy stream pebbles.

On the far side of the river, where dusty cars passed, I attracted visitors in my work among snapping crickets and pink rock and an occasional clipping of 1889 barbed wire and a soldered tin can sticking out of the sand. A man and his daughter seeking Sand Dunes National Park over the mountain; a real estate agent looking for a HUD farm checked a map with me.

They both began with, ``Do you live around here?'' Looking at my storm-shuttered house in the field, with the pride of surviving winter in this place, I thought to answer, ``No. I'm just cutting myself on the barbed wire so I can go back East to my father's stock brokerage, with some real summer experience.'' But I didn't. I was pleased to be doing double duty at home and on the tourist range.

The Sheriff's white Bronco pulled over and inside it was a new deputy. Lo and behold, it was the '60s pacifist who still finds time to lie down on railroad tracks to stop plutonium shipments out of Rocky Flats. ``What are you doing in that badge?'' I asked. He had a short, short-for-sweat haircut.

``Well, Hallett ... an adopted baby and carrying a .357 magnum changes a lot of things.''

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Yeah, I agreed; so does working your fences and putting deprived land back to work again. I mused that in the former days we'd based philosophies on too much of nothing; but some precepts, with a deal of elbow grease, had held up. But babies really changed the world. That was funny, there must be a funny proverb about that.

My friend, in his new disguise for his adopted baby, talked awhile and watched me in the hot sun, with his door open and the country radio crackling. Then he got a call, and was polite dust down the road.

I WAS up to my last corner of the fence when Bud, a waterless neighbor, drove up with his water tank to get water for his sheep from the river. ``Think that'll do, Bud?'' I asked him, looking at my shining networks. ``Oh, sure. I'll help you.'' He backed down to the river to start his pump.

When I got to the corner gate and went back to talk, Bud was bent over with a pair of dimestore pliers building my route across the river. It was the meanest tangle I'd ever seen: cottonwood branches twisted in the wire to make it stand up, an old tire from in his truck tied on with baling wire to weight it down. Bud was doing a 15-minute wreck tied into my meticulous work. He said proudly, ``Once I had a fence, 350 miles of this stuff. You don't need much to keep the cows in.'' Then he threw down a rotten log to fill a hole. I figured I'd go back and undo his junk when he left.

But it was sundown. And the next day, after a rare day on horseback to get the cows, I was sore enough to let Bud's contribution go. It was no sight to behold - but by gum, the old codger knew something practical. Not one cow has ventured even near that dangerous place Bud threw in for me. I was able to coin a new proverb, ``It's not important if it's beautiful or ugly, cows just want you to be convinced of it.'' My part of the fence miraculously held too.

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