Monday, November 19, 2012

A Lesson in Chicken Legs

A Lesson in Chicken Legs
Hugh Reed
Lucky we were
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

             We were eating at the kitchen table at Ma Rice’s. Over there was the big wood cook stove that kept the room warm. I had just been reprimanded for not eating. Hugh was across the table observing the proceedings. He called to me in the aftermath.
             “Hey, Stevie,” he said. “You gotta’ eat chicken like this.” 
             He proceeded by biting the chicken leg in half and eating the whole thing … bone and all. He showed me his teeth as he ate smacking and sneering. He was four and I was still south of three. I remember, though, and his sneer remains in my memory. 
            We did a lot of things at Ma Rice’s. We swung off the hay stacks in the old barn. We drank the ditch water running into the garden. We rode Sam’s pigs on threats to our lives. We drank the coldest water imaginable out of the hand dug well from the communal well cup. We snuck out on the porch at night to scare ourselves with the grizzly skin rug laid across the bed out there. We climbed the yellow cherry tree and ate until we had the squirts. We worked unwillingly and played hard, but we worked enough to get the nod to go to the river.
            The river
            If Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer had the Mississippi, we had the Gila. To this day, the world beyond the fence against the river remains the nearest thing to heaven that we knew. The sun, the water, the freedom, the independence, the fish and the adventure all held us in utter fascination. We became sucker fishermen extraordinaire, but Hugh Reed was the best of the best. In fact, he was the best fisherman I ever saw.
            There were also sloughs along the river that were created as the levees were pushed up along the river channel. Who had planted them with bluegill, bass, and catfish we didn’t know, but we fished them like Banshee warriors attacking a British column.  New words came into our vocabulary. Hula Poppers and Zebco 33s were our newly discovered tools of the trade. There was nothing was more exciting than enticing a bass to run at a Hula Popper.
            Points beyond the river
             Our world wasn’t just the river, though. There was Sacaton Mesa!
            The mesa conjured up mystery and adventure just like the river. Even before we could pack a .30-.30 we were deer hunters. Those early mornings at Hugh’s grandparents on Sacaton Creek before sunup were real life fairy tales. There we would sit listening to our maternal grandfathers, two of the Rice brothers, tell us stories. They needed only to change the names, but the themes were always the same. They united us with their youth in those stories.
            The Trivio Pasture, the Cross H Pasture, Rain Creek Divide, Big Pat and Little Pat were all names that we came to know in fact and imagination. Big mule deer bucks prowled those points and magical places, and we engaged them! By the age of 11 or 12 we were certified deer hunters. If there was a deer in a pasture, the Rice grandsons would likely find him and embark on a duel of serious consequences. We loved it. 
            To the Mountains
            The summer after high school, Hugh got a job riding “Wilderness Patrol” in the Wilderness District of the Gila. I went along on one of the first rotations, and then, when I was old enough, I joined him for a time riding for the Forest Service as well.
            We spent the night before that first trip at the Double S. We got the first mule packed before she jerked loose and bucked around the horse trap. All along the big circle we picked up sleeping bags, pans, and canned goods. We double tied her before we repacked her and threw that diamond.
            That day was all that was expected … great names and greater places. We went off into Bud’s Hole and were at the Kemp Place well before noon. We found where the trail turned out of Mogollon Creek up Trail Canyon. 
            We had our supper in the cabin at White Creek that night. White Creek cabin would become a favorite place for Hugh and me over the years. Many memories ring from that place. 
            It was there that our fishing expertise would expand into Mitchell ultra light reels and Mepp’s spinners. We would go down the creek in the evening and fish back to the cabin alternating as we fished. Those times will remain in our memory forever.
            So would other of the mountain experiences. We filled our files with kicking mules, bucking horses, following blazes, fighting fires, packing butane, and interacting with an ever broadening, less innocent world. 
            Jingles, ER, SOB, Snooper, Hub, RRR, Socks, and Tuffy Nunn were all characters that would become entwined in our memories. It was Socks that kicked a lens out of Hugh’s new sunglasses one day at Gila Center as he tried to shoe her.
            “Am I okay?” he had asked, cockeyed and wobbly.
            “Are you asking about yourself or your new monocular?” was the reply.
            From that day forward we threw her to shoe her. We both think that she just missed him because she could kick a fly off the fence. 
            Another time Hugh had to ride her from somewhere. We had been told she was a good riding mule if you could get on her. He was by himself and he said he tore up a half acre of timber getting on her. He was sure glad to get to wherever he was going because he needed to relieve himself and he wasn’t about to get off. He didn’t think he could get back on!
            Snakes and Lightning
            Everybody who has spent time in the Mogollons will have a snake and a lightning story. One of each took place the same summer. 
            The snake was on the Middle Fork one evening when we were fishing. Hugh had crossed a log lying across the trail. It was big enough to have to put weight on it as you straddled it to get across. I remember looking at it and the rotting depression that lay across the top side and thinking that would be a heck of a place for a snake. Just as I cleared the other side having put my weight down across that depression sure enough   … that snake rattled.
            The lightning strike took place right on top of the Diablos on another afternoon. We were coming across the top knowing it wasn’t a good place to be with a storm building right over us. Hugh was in the front leading several mules and I was coming behind them with some more. I watched that big strike split a towering ponderosa pine not 45 yards in front and just to left of Hugh.
Kaboom! Through the mushroom of dust and the splinters, we struck a lope and got off that mountain!
            The Turkey Feather Experience
            On a late summer circle, we left White Creek and spent the night at the Trotter Place. We had ridden up the Middle Fork from there and had turned up Iron Creek to go to Turkey Feather Pass. In the park just after we left the pass and dropped back into the West Fork drainage, Hugh swung off Snooper, threw his hat, and laid in the shade under the pines. 
             “I am sick and tired of breaking brush,” he lamented.
            Now, 44 years later, I know he would trade many things to ride that bay horse and his then new Garrett Allen made Chuck Shepard roper down that trail once more. He would love to feel the strength of youth and the opportunity to address life in a renewed manner. We both would.
            I see Hugh several times a year and each time it is always good for us. His kids are the cousins that remained cousins to my daughters. They text each other and they, too, now share lives of broadening, less innocent worlds. There is something timeless and reassuring in that relationship.
            Regardless where life and health now take us, we are blessed. We had wonderful grandfathers who understood the world through the eyes of their grandsons. They didn’t necessarily teach us everything, but they created the opportunity for us to teach ourselves. We survived just as they survived.
             If we had it to do all over, there are things that we would not change an iota. We would work harder at other things, but … we will always eat chicken legs with a smile and a sneer!

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico.  “We buried Hugh’s dad, Sam, last Monday. I thought about how to remember Sam. I came to the conclusion that it was only appropriate to do so through his son … who remains.”

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