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Separated by distance, bound by wire

I can't look at a barbed-wire fence without in my mind's eye seeing a pair of supple and sturdy leather work gloves - the sine qua non of stringing wire. Fencing is one of the least enjoyable chores attendant on stock farming, but it has to be done - and, at regular intervals, redone - if you want your animals safely enclosed in a designated space, whether it's a Midwestern barn paddock or a few hundred acres of Western range.

I've often helped string barbed wire on our Indiana farm, about 60 acres of which is enclosed pasture for our retired dairy cows and draft horses. It pays to wear long sleeves, heavy pants, and some kind of boots (leather gloves may be assumed) to uncoil, stretch, and nail from post to post what naturally tends to recoil, snarl, and generally make a mess of itself. I don't always emerge from the chore unscathed, but my hands are safe enough in their thick leather fencing gloves.

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On a recent trip to southeastern Colorado to visit my friends Bonnie and David, I silently commiserated with a fellow working his way down a seemingly endless stretch of barbed-wire fence along a graveled county road. We passed him on our way to the little town of La Veta as he worked tightening, filling in gaps, and replacing rusted strands with new - all with the stoic complaisance that, like gloves, the job requires.

Instinctively, we waved to him from our vehicle, and after a moment a thick leather glove automatically rose and fell. Its owner looked contentedly focused on his task under wide blue sky, his back to a magnificent vista of the Spanish peaks. But I'd have bet my soft canvas vacation sneakers that he'd rather have been doing any of a dozen other things in that spectacular setting than stretching wire.

Bonnie and David, though not ranchers themselves, know most of the area stockholders as neighbors. Back in the days when she kept and rode her own horse, Sonja, Bonnie willingly helped area cattle owners with roundups. Now that she no longer rides, and Sonja has settled in a quieter home out east, their own barbed-wire fencing serves not to keep the horse in, but to keep free-range cattle out.

Soon after my arrival, I noticed a bull on his side of the gleaming strands moving about with a pronounced limp. "Shouldn't we call his owner to let him know?" I asked. But Bonnie, who'd learned a thing or two from her years of working with ranchers, nixed that chummy little Midwestern impulse in no uncertain terms.

"We'd never do that," she said. "He knows about that bull; the cattle are checked every day." She went on to assure me that Bubba (as I had taken to calling the big fellow standing Buddha-like below the peaks) would be well tended to if he hadn't been already. To call up a rancher and tell him about his own stock - well, it just wasn't done, barring a real emergency, which a bum leg was not.

Before she herself had understood the delicate protocols and gutsy rhythms of life in the Cuchara valley - "the spoon" as many residents call it - she'd asked a local rancher to check on Sonja while she and David went on a short trip. The horse had plenty to graze on and access to fresh water, but she wanted this fellow just to glance the mare's way as he drove past, to see if all was well.

He'd looked at her somewhat blankly and said, "Why, we all do that anyway - whether you're here or not."

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If I now understand how things work in the spoon, anyone would have braked for a crisis - but they also would have correctly assumed that Bonnie already knew if her own horse was limping.

The next day, I saw that Bubba was alone - the group of younger bullocks and heifers he'd been pastured with now grazed in a separate enclosure across the gravel road. I hadn't seen it happen, but someone had done the deed, and I know from first-hand experience that you don't separate a bull from heifers without noticing if he limps. In fact, Bubba's temporarily compromised condition probably had led to the new arrangement.

Later that morning, I took a walk along the road to town, and saw that the fencing project was near completion; it looked to be an admirably straight and taut piece of work. The previous night's rain had muddied th gravel, but it had also revived the roadside sunflowers and chicory.

As I bent to admire the vibrant colors, there, under my nose, lay a pair of soaked and muddied leather gloves. Maybe their owner had stripped them off as he'd climbed into his pickup to drive home, and inadvertently dropped them in the process. In any case, he'd surely miss them. I picked them up, clapped them together to shake off the caked mud, and fit them over the tops of two metal fenceposts, where they'd be easy to spot from the road.

I felt certain they'd be reclaimed, with a nod to the anonymous someone who'd picked them up. I was equally confident that no one but the owner would even think of pulling them off those fenceposts. I may not understand all of the nuances of life in the West, but I suspect that we who deal with cattle and barbed wire share something that transcends the different geographies, scales, and customs of farm and ranch life. Sure, it's our slavish dependence on good leather gloves, but more important, it's the sense of camaraderie that the very sight and heft of them can ignite. I feel almost as if I'll shake the hands that will pull them back on - and thereby make a new friend in the spoon.


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