Rough Breaks: A Wyoming High Country Memoir

Rough Breaks: A Wyoming High Country Memoir

by Laurie Wagner Buyer


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When twenty-eight-year-old Laurie Wagner hired on at the O Bar Y Ranch in western Wyoming, she was a novice to ranching life but no stranger to isolated locations. As revealed in her celebrated memoir When I Came West, Laurie had already spent years living in a rustic cabin in the Montana wilderness with a troubled Vietnam veteran. Rough Breaks recounts the next chapter in her life, beginning with her painful break from Bill Atkinson, and unfolding into a modern-day saga of life on a remote cattle ranch.

Written in the author’s trademark lyrical style, Rough Breaks is based on the diaries Laurie kept for nearly six years as she lived and worked on the O Bar Y. Central to the story is Mick Buyer, a cowman stubbornly committed to holding onto his beautiful piece of land in the Wyoming high country and continuing the way of life he learned from his father and grandfather. As his marriage begins to fail, Mick and Laurie develop an increasing affection for each other, even as she also becomes close to his wife, their children, and neighboring ranchers.

With grace and wit, Buyer evokes the joys and travails of life on a ranch—cutting and baling hay, repairing old vehicles and machinery, fixing fences, birthing calves, tending to beaver dams and elk herds, and struggling to pay the mortgage and endless veterinary bills. In the spirited tradition of Teresa Jordan and Mary Clearman Blew, Rough Breaks is a uniquely honest and heartfelt contribution to the realm of memoir by contemporary women ranchers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806143750
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 08/02/2013
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

Laurie Wagner Buyer, an award-winning poet, memoirist, and novelist, spent more than thirty years living in the backwoods and working on remote ranches in the Rocky Mountain West. The author of When I Came West, Across the High Divide, Side Canyons, and Spring’s Edge, she currently resides in Llano, Texas.

Read an Excerpt

Rough Breaks

A Wyoming High Country Memoir

By Laurie Wagner Buyer


Copyright © 2013 Laurie Jameson writing as Laurie Wagner Buyer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4375-0


Rough Breaks

A cardinal calls, repeating her fluted notes in a rehearsed pattern. I open my eyes. She perches high on a delicate twig, one barely big enough to support her weight at the top of the reddish-gray plum tree outside my window. In a cupped crook of thin limbs sits an empty nest of tightly woven sticks and dried grasses. The winter wind roughs up her dull feathers. She shakes and waits, calls once more. The brighter male appears, darting across the sky like a tiny Christmas-colored kite, and settles on the nearby stone wall.

The mated pair have returned to their humble abode, one that has remained intact through months of drought, 110 degree heat, fierce winds that whipped up wildfires, and pounding bouts of prayed-for rain. With avian tenacity they have survived the tests of time and weather here in my current home, the hill country of Texas, a landscape where snow rarely makes an appearance.

I close my eyes to listen more deeply. Wind chimes on the porch next door tinkle angelic notes. Not far off, someone mows still-green grass. Beyond that, I think I hear the Llano River, but that must be my imagination, since the wide stream pours over a man-made dam a half-mile away.

Maybe, though, it is another river I hear. The Green. In the high country of Wyoming. Far away, deep down in memory, buried beneath a burden of ice and snow, of struggle against hidden obstacles, lies the miracle of release when spring comes. The log cabin I once called home a half-mile from the Green is now gone, but just as the cardinals built their nest in the safety of the plum tree, I hired on at a Wyoming cattle ranch with the hope that I would find shelter from storms and be safe from predators. What were the chances that a girl raised on Air Force bases and in midwestern suburbs might make it as a ranch hand? Slim to none, but since no one had warned me about hardheaded agricultural attitudes, environmental warfare, or the difficulty of loving a man twenty-three years my senior, I attempted to build a warm home on shifting drifts of snow.

How are we ever supposed to know whether the people and places we come to love will heal us or harm us?

Thirty years ago, when I was twenty-eight, I sulked in front of a frost-rimmed window in a playhouse-size log cabin on the O Bar Y Ranch. First light had coated the bare smoke-stained panes with silver satin. I created a mental note to sew some curtains. I had left the last ones, made from flour-sack dishtowels, tacked to rough-board frames in a cabin up at Snook Moore's ranch on Tosi Creek, where I had lived from 1981 to 1982. The big picture windows at the Flying A, a lodge upcountry from the O Bar Y, where I had spent the previous winter, had not needed drapes because there were no neighbors for miles.

I pushed up from the metal-framed single bed with its sagging mattress and tiptoed across the cold plank floor to the refrigerator to get a pair of socks and a clean shirt. Yesterday's dirty jeans over my long johns would have to do. How funny that my new abode on the O Bar Y had an ancient refrigerator but no electricity. Maybe I could move the musty Frigidaire out to the storage shed by sliding the bulky beast on a piece of cardboard, but first I needed a dresser for my clothes. I cussed myself, using an array of despicable words learned from spending eight years in the wilderness with a Vietnam vet turned mountain man. I had forgotten my mud-caked boots outside the door, and now they would be frozen stiff. Though the feed store calendar on the wall next to the handcrafted pine table under the window said June 1983, the high country had not yet relinquished winter's demeanor. Snow still clung to the deep ravines on the Sawtooth Mountains and the Wind River Range, the creeks only now beginning to rise with spring melt, and the roads in and out of the ranch barely passable.

A pair of resident skunks roused to my footsteps over their heads and began to fuss. Piteous mews escalated to more intense cries. I crumpled several pages of the Pinedale Roundup with a couple from the Livestock Journal and built a fire with just enough kindling and dried pine slabs to take off the chill of the room and thaw out my boots. A crescendo of screams accompanied by a stomach-wrenching odor seeped up through the uneven floorboards from an earthy burrow. Were the skunks mating or trying to kill each other?

"Cool it!" I said and stomped my foot like an agitated mare. I closed the stove door on the roar of flames and opened the cabin door to a welcome burst of fresh, frigid air. A swirl of returning swallows accompanied dawn's lemon-colored light. Soon the swift, acrobatic birds would begin collecting mud to daub under the eaves to build nests. A chortling chorus of sandhill cranes sounded farther away, down along the curving channel near the first bridge built across the historic Green River.

I shrugged on my chore coat, then kneaded one boot at a time in the warmth rising from the stove. Over at the main house, my new boss, Margie Buyer, would be worrying about how she would be able to pay me a monthly wage, while her husband, Mick, would be pacing the length of the living room, looking out the big windows, anxious to get going. The older blue pickup waited in the front yard, loaded with spools of barbed wire, coils of splice wire, stretchers, pliers, staples, a posthole digger, and a heavy iron tamping bar. Before he could turn out the cattle for the summer, Mick had twenty-two miles of fence to fix, and I had hired on to help.

What had made me think that I had the strength to take on such a job? The thirty-four moves of my military childhood and young adulthood had taken their toll, as had the hand-to-mouth existence I had lived with that mountain man, William F. Atkinson, who called himself "Makwi Witco," Crazy Wolf. At age twenty, when I had come west to live with Bill, I longed to be married and have children, to settle down, to be in one place for the rest of my life, to have one man to love. I wanted some degree of emotional and financial security, along with the surety of belonging that could come with staying in the same place long enough to know the calls of the birds, the tracks of the animals, the names of the wildflowers, and the shifts of the seasons.

Why hadn't I been smart enough to know that the idea of being a cowgirl on the O Bar Y was as naïve and foolish as the dream of the Garden of Eden paradise that I had wished for with Bill on the Northfork of the Flathead River in Montana? And had I learned nothing in the fourteen schools I had attended in the Philippines, North Dakota, Arkansas, Texas, Hawaii, and Illinois, not to mention the trio of years I spent at a private liberal arts college outside Chicago, and a degree in English completed at Montana State University?

Yes, I had realized that I could never return to an 8-to-5 job, or live on a military base or in a city or a suburb or even a small town. I needed the land—wide expanses of open space—to survive, and the Buyers ran Hereford-cross cattle on 11,000 acres of deeded and public lease land north of Cora, Wyoming, a town with a post office and a population of three. When they offered me the job, I jumped at the chance to learn about cattle and horses, grass and sky. If nothing else, I would have a paying job for the summer and the hope of saving enough money to buy a much-longed-for gelding.

So I traded handmade buckskin pants and moccasins for Wranglers and boots, wilderness for agrarian life, homesteading for ranching, mountain man for cowman, and I prayed that when the smoke cleared and the dust settled, I would have found a way to remain on the land.

It would not be so. In the end, I became a turncoat to an earlier hard-won lifestyle—eschewing beef and elk in favor of vegetarianism, no longer voting Republican, wearing a western hat and cowboy boots only when a special occasion calls for them. Yet my worn low-cantle saddle, split-eared bridle, and tarnished spurs still sit on a stand in a corner of the room, all that I have left of the years when I rode the high country of Wyoming, searching for a home in the rough breaks of the heart of nowhere.


Mule Secrets

On a bright, cold early winter morning in 1982, I snowshoed four miles from the Flying A Ranch on Little Twin Creek to see my new neighbor, Mick Buyer, on his O Bar Y Ranch. With my notebook and camera in hand, I joined Mick to accompany him on his livestock-feeding rounds and interview him for Western Horseman magazine. Though he owned a matched pair of Clydesdale geldings and two teams of black Percherons, Mick had added a brace of draft mules to his herd. They presented him with a new challenge in the face of his daily routine because working with mules was not the same as working with horses. Standing over sixteen hands, coal black with white stockings, the mules, Tom and Molly, minced around the corral and played hard to catch. Mick's patience paid off, and he tied them in separate barn stalls for their ration of grain. The mules tap-danced on the plank floor and tossed their heads.

"Nervous," Mick said, "because a stranger is here." I stood out of the way and listened as Mick told me the secrets to working with mules. "First, you have to accept a mule's basic nature and work with it. Second, you have to think like a mule in order to be one step ahead of it. Third, never trust a mule and never turn your back on a mule. Fourth, the old 'two-by-four between the eyes' routine for getting a mule's attention is not sound stock management. Fifth, mules love treats like alfalfa cubes, and a little bribing goes a long way."

Mick harnessed while Tom and Molly stayed busy with their grain. When he bridled Molly, he tied her up very short and crooned in her ear, "Miss Molly, will you marry me?"

Before she knew it, the bit was in her mouth and the headstall behind her long and touchy ears. Tom was given the same considerate treatment, the pair was hooked together, and Mick drove them out of the barn to the sled.

While we glided on top of the packed-snow road to the hay lot, Mick told me about the time Tom jumped a six-pole fence, grabbed a newborn calf by the neck, and tossed it ten feet in the air. He then lunged after the frantic cow but changed his course of action to attack Mick's son, who had tried to intervene. Johnny escaped through the deep snow, and Mick finally ran down the errant mule.

"Most mules have a mixed-up mother instinct," Mick said. "They'll attack and sometimes kill anything small—in other words, mules do not mix well with calves, colts, or kids." The calf died, and Tom spent a day in hobbles until Mick could add more poles to the fence. "Some people told me I should get rid of these 'good-for-nothing' mules, but it wasn't the mule's fault. He was only doing something that came natural to him. Might as well blame me for not building the fence high enough."

Feeding the cattle looked like a complicated venture. I had worked on a big livestock outfit, the IX Ranch, during the summer of 1980. There, in the wind-scoured breaks of the Bear Paw Mountains, I had learned to ride well enough to help gather cattle, but I had never done more than feed and milk a recalcitrant Jersey cow named Penny. Up at the Moore ranch, I had jumped at the chance to help Snook with the daily round of chores on his quarter-section of land. While Bill holed up in our borrowed cabin to tan hides or carve elk ivory, Snook and I hitched Nugget and Bally, loaded the sled with some hay from the crib, forked it out to his herd of seventeen palomino horses, fed a pair of rangy milk cows, split wood, hauled water, shoveled snow off rooftops, parceled out kitchen scraps for the chickens, and chopped frozen beaver carcasses for his trio of faithful dogs. Snook had taught me the value of getting by on what we had, to pace myself when working in the high-altitude air, to avoid the sullen fight-prone moose that skulked in the willows, and how to keep worry away by humming a happy tune. But a huge difference existed between Snook's 160-acre homestead place and the enormous workload of the O Bar Y's hundreds of cattle and thousands of acres.

With keen interest, I soaked up the details of Mick's fine-tuned operation. His leather-gloved hands were in constant motion as he guided the mules through numerous gates, alongside sixteen-foot-high haystacks, and around several large corrals in which heifers, pairs, bulls, yearlings, saddle horses, and teams were separated. He held the lines in one hand and cut and held baling twine in the other. He kicked hay off the sled as he moved through the stock, eyeballing the cattle and saying, "That steer's got the brisket disease; that black-baldy heifer's pretty springy—she'll calve tonight; that calf's got the scours." His eyes, shadowed from the snow glare by dark glasses, looked everywhere, searching for any ailing animal.

When we stopped at the barn to check on a heavy heifer, Mick used a double-sure method of making certain that the mules stood still while he was off the sled. He tightened and wrapped the long lines on the sled's center brace; then he snugged down a special "mule brake"—a rope that ran from Tom's halter to the sled's side brace. Then he tied Molly's halter rope to a fence pole.

"It's easier to use a bit of caution now," he said, "than to spend all afternoon repairing the sled."

The huge log barn, bedded thick with wild grass hay, was warm. A red-necked heifer's still-damp baby was up and sucking when we stepped inside. Mick put the pair in a pole pen, glanced out to check on the mules, then forked the heifer some hay. When we returned to the sled, the mules both pawed the ground, restless to move on. Mick gave them each an alfalfa cube with his singsong words of praise: "Aren't you the best mules ever made!"

On the way to the Black Butte feedground, two miles from the main ranch, Mick eased up on the lines and allowed Tom and Molly to stretch out into a trot. The sled pulled smoothly behind their long-legged, sure-footed gait. Day after day of travel had packed the sled trail as evenly as a graded road.

"It's not always this easy to travel," Mick said. "More often than not midwinter, heavy new snow and bad winds wipe out the trail, and though they can pull some deep snow, I try to save them by keeping the road plowed open."

The elk were nowhere to be seen when we approached the large fenced haystacks beneath the thickly timbered ridges of Black Butte. Mick pulled the mules alongside a stack, put on the mule brake, and began to load bales.

"I feed forty-eight bales a day to the 450 head of elk that winter here," he said. "I make two trips with twenty-four bales around the feedground. That helps save the mules as well." As he finished stacking the first load of hay, the elk began to appear from the groves of leafless aspen that flanked the butte.

One by one, single file, the elk trooped down the mountainside, some trotting with their heads thrown back, some hanging behind with caution. The cows and calves, golden with pale ivory rumps, strung out along the feed line, jostling for position. The bulls were the last to come out of the timber for their share of the fine green hay.

The elk, like the mules, acted nervous with a stranger around. As long as I remained on the sled, they moved around grabbing mouthfuls of hay, watching with curiosity while they chewed. The moment I stepped down onto the snow's crust to snap photos, they broke and fled like frightened rabbits. Mick laughed and gave me a hand up on the sled again.

"They're spooky," he said. "It's strange how they learn to trust only one person. The first five years I fed here, I never saw an elk. Now they know me and accept me. Routine, doing things the same slow and certain way each day, builds trust and confidence. Like the mules, the elk have their own nature. I accept and respect that."

As we pulled away from the feedground, the elk returned to their feed. Mick's hands played the lines with certainty, keeping the mules on a steady homebound course. "See how nice and gentle they are," he said. "You just have to know how to handle them."

Would Mick harbor that much patience for a greenhorn, hardheaded young woman who desperately needed a job that paid cash? At fifty-two, alone on his ranch, Mick looked like a man who could use a hand with the chores.


Excerpted from Rough Breaks by Laurie Wagner Buyer. Copyright © 2013 Laurie Jameson writing as Laurie Wagner Buyer. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Rough Breaks,
Mule Secrets,
The Boss,
One More Wreck,
Miss Melo,
Learning the Ropes,
Contrary Moose and Ever-Present Elk,
The Kid,
Spring Cleaning,
Night Walk,
Summer Work,
Hard Work Never Hurt Anyone,
Baler Time,
The O Bar Y,
The Fall,
Easing into Winter,
Going Out,
An Attempt at Christmas,
Little Evalyn,
The Second Summer,
Mick's Demons,
A Night Out,
Snook's Birthday,
Desperate to Get Home,
Blizzard Journal,
The Storm That Would Not Quit,
Spring, Come She Will,
Left Behind in the Dust,
Additional Reading,

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