Cowboys live each day giving thanks for the lives they’re blessed with. Right under that, they are devoted to the animals they spend every waking hour and many sleepless nights in care of.
Almost three years ago, we watched the ranching sons and daughters of South Dakota in sorrow as they stood heartbroken in the wake of the Atlas Blizzard. They counted their many dead horses, cattle and sheep while working courageously around the clock in snow up to their waists to try to save the living.
Tee Ridley had lost most of the herd of cattle he’d put together one at a time during his time as a brand inspector; some 80 head had suffocated under the freak, early fall avalanche of snow. Imagine your heart at seeing the massacre by mother nature of the animals you’d chosen, cared for, laughed at occasionally and put your hopes in for you and your family’s future.
In his profound way, Tee said simply, “This is harsh country”, his voice heavy with the brutality of what life can unexpectedly deal and the realization of the ultimate fragility of our plans. But as a son of the strong people who settled South Dakota, he was about to bear down harder than ever before.
In late August of this year, three generations of Ridley’s along with their friends and neighbors gathered to brand, vaccinate and do the minor surgical procedures calves need to keep a beef herd strong and healthy. About 180 fat, slick 2016 babies that looked for the world like hope. Hope and the relentless, hard work and determination of the North American ranchers that we rely on to feed us and keep our nation strong.
Afterward, they fed their crew cabrito and calf fries from chuckwagon that’s been in their family for generations. Guitars and banjos appeared and accompanied the voices of cowboys who sang into the night as the moon rose orange over the Black Hills, but it was the lone voice of Miah Shamblin at sundown who focused her heart on the heavens and sang Amazing Grace, the last verse in her Cherokee mother tongue that silenced and stopped everybody in their tracks, reminding them all that not even the next breath is guaranteed and to live this one, short, fragile life in beauty. In a way that honors all.