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God’s cow country. The dunes covered in grass lend themselves to endless cattle grazing and ground water provides the cattle plenty to drink. In the 1930s it was touted as the richest place in America.
©Margaret Sibbitt

The ranch is located in the Sandhills of Nebraska near the small town of Hyannis. It was homesteaded, like many a Sandhills ranch, by an ambitious immigrant, in this case my great-grandfather Thomas R. Lynch. He found the geological wonder of the hills to be God’s cow country: the sand dunes covered in grass lent themselves to endless cattle grazing; the immediate ground water provided the cattle plenty to drink. If it were not God’s cow country, it definitely had God’s hand on it somewhere. Hyannis was blessed with notoriety for its prosperity in the 1930s and touted as the richest place in America. “More millionaires per capita than anywhere else in America,” stated the Omaha World Herald in 1931.

When I was a child visiting the ranch in summers the place held out hope of great adventure and activity. Such ideas usually faded after a day or two of riding in the hot sun during grueling marathon roundups. “The ranch” was both a dreamscape and hot, hard, slog.

Not like my life in Southern California, the coveted land of dreams, temperate climate and as many stars on land as in the night sky. Growing up in California, no one in my family honestly considered actually having to live at the ranch in Nebraska with the hot summers and harsh winters. Now, in the wake of Frank’s death, I found myself part owner of the Lynch Circle, along with my mother, father, and three brothers.

Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road

My situation paralleled the first transfer of the reins in the ranch’s history. In 1901, my great-aunt Helen Lynch traveled from Omaha to the Sandhills to oversee the ranch and settle her father’s estate when she and her three siblings inherited it. Her plan was to take an inventory, make the necessary legal decisions, and wind things up in six months. She stayed 60 years.

Now, in 1995, someone had to come out and take inventory again. In the wake of Frank’s death, the task fell to me the inveterate list maker, the darling of databases. A good list would take me a month, tops. I was immune to the phenomenon of what Sandhillers call “getting sand between your toes”: the salmon-like instinct to keep returning to the hills once you had lived there. I already had sand between my toes—from the beaches of Malibu.

I regarded my chore as a commando mission: in and out, nobody gets hurt. The trip of Dorothy from the “Wizard of Oz” in reverse. Instead of moving from black and white to color as Dorothy had, I left the lush land of technicolor for the duotones of beige on beige hills and azure skies with white clouds. Only cattle broke up the redundant landscape. The Black Angus looked like pepper shaken over the toasted hills, or sometimes like lines of ink spilled over a table. The cattle were guarded by barbed wire fences which stretched out for infinity. The fence posts appeared like drunken sentinels held standing by taut knotted strings.

The Windmills on my Mind

When I arrived at the Lynch Circle I found the ranch house, cobbled together in 1917, infested with mice and snakes. The corrals were rotting, with outbuildings and fences falling down, horses unbroken, and windmills failing to pump. It was difficult to be seduced by any beauty the serene rolling hills offered or appreciate natural wonders on the ranch like a sand volcano—a blowout that was eroding the entire guts of a hill and which I dubbed “the national debt” because it just kept growing without any chance of diminishing.

This was not my idea of heaven, or even a little bit of it. The cattle were a whole other story. The black baldies and Herefords were stuck in the 1940s in terms of body style and conformation: short and squatty. Dehorning was obviously not a priority. Calving was year round. The bulls were aged. One visit to the Ogallala Livestock Barn convinced me that black cattle were the breed of choice in this area. Someone had to get this ranch in the black in every way.

But my month was almost up. I tried to put my finger on someone who would want to take this on, but my fingers were already busy holding a clipboard with a list. So with list in hand, I waved goodbye to civilization as I knew it and said “howdy” to the hills and a crew that we inherited along with the ranch.

Don’t take it “Personnel”

“Personnel,” a neighboring rancher named Joe Minor said to me once, “ain’t it the sonofabitch of it?” He was referring to the one thing he thought takes all the fun out of ranching: hiring and firing.

In my first year, I went through a motley crew with names that ranged from Twink to Roadkill. Some were bikers, former gas station attendants, drifters and one, a cowboy, deaf from birth. He pantomined everything and was considered the most talkative man in the Sandhills. Each time he drank my “city-fied stout” Starbucks coffee he pretended he was having a heart attack. (Sandhillers brew their coffee so that it is almost clear with only brownish hues. They call it coffee, I call it broth.) One day while faking a heart attack, the man did not spring back to life. I found out later that he had epilepsy and was prone to seizures. (He’s all right and has moved on. I am still drinking my coffee.)

Such episodes were the type of things that led me to realize that I was in a strange place with a whole different language.

No Contraception

“No contraception,” one of the men pontificated as we returned from a long roundup. “City people just have no contraception of how people live out here.” I responded that we could not condom them for that. Seeing no pun, he said in a wistful tone, “Guess not.”

Each day I confronted one of my own “mis-contraceptions” in a place where none of my city-honed skills applied. Even the most elementary task divulged my ineptitude. When the men brought in a part from a tractor, they asked me to call the repair shop and get another one.

“What is it?” the repairman asked over the telephone.

“I don’t know,” I answered.

“Describe it,” he said.

This was my chance. I knew I could describe that part with engineering precision. I cleared my throat and began. “It’s a round flat piece, approximately two inches in diameter. It resembles a nut…” I could hear frustrated breathing on the other end of the line. As I waxed eloquent in my description the exhalations seemed more annoyed.

“Are you getting this?” I asked.

There was a short, “Um…,” then silence broken by more frustrated exhalations.

One of the cowboys walked in. I handed him the phone. “Here, see if you can get him to order this part for us.”

The cowboy picked up the phone and said, “Hey, Ray? Yeah, it’s a red sonofabitch.… Thursday? O.K.” He hung up and walked out.

The language of the Sandhills is unique. It has its own rules. Words are used as sparsely as coffee beans. Then there is the question of irony. Like conjugating the subjunctive in French, you have to know when to apply the irony rule and when not. For example, you don’t say, “In the meadow is some irrigation pipe. Don’t drive over it with your tractor.” If you say this you are insulting a man’s intelligence. In the Sandhills, the proper phrasing is: “In the meadow is some pipe. Make sure you run right into it.” When the other party answers, “Don’t worry, we’ll mash the shit out of it,” the message is successfully conveyed.

Wheat & Chaff

According to the 2000 census, the population of Hyannis is 280. But when I came to town I never saw more than 10. That is because they were all at the ranch.

As word of the arrival of Frank’s niece spread, I found myself inundated with visitors. Once they had made my acquaintance, their faces all had the same expression: “We’ve got a live one.” Time and again each visitor extolled the people out here. The highest compliment they could bestow was that they were not like city people. Good people lived out here. Be careful, they each warned, some might try to cheat you. But not them, of course. Each of them had been my uncle’s best friend. All claimed that Frank had promised them some part of the ranch: a horse, a tractor, a magneto off a tractor, an old harness, and on and on. Not knowing the wheat from the chaff, I just listened to the droning stories that ended as inconsequentially as they started.

One day out of the caravan of pickups which pulled up outside the ranch house came a horse trader. He was the very definition of what a “horse trader” can mean. He could lie more in one breath than most people can in two tax returns. (“I’ve lived in the Sandhills all my life, and I am 52 years old. When I was 14 we moved here, and now that I am 65, I’m going to retire here.”)

In exchange for a little mare for me, I traded him two lame horses with nasty habits that he could sell to the killers. (I could not bring myself to sell horses to the killers yet.) We each believed we got the better of the other.

“I hear you’re very educated. Your uncle said you went to school back east and then to England?”

“That’s right,” I answered.

“Oxnard, that it?”

“Yeah, close enough.”

“Well, my brother went to college and got his master’s degree. Matter of fact, he wrote his feces on the Sandhills.”

“How appropriate,” I said.

The Great Escape

By the end of 1996, I was tired. I had performed too many tasks for which I was ill prepared: cooking for the men; putting out cake (a feed supplement), salt, and mineral for the cows; planting trees; overseeing the rebuilding of the barn; acquiring new tractors and vehicles; doing multifarious menial chores; and trying to improve and update the herd.

There still was a lot to learn, and hired men are the worst teachers. First, they have no time for it. Second, they have nothing to gain by teaching the boss how something “should” be done. I knew I was not getting the full story. I needed to find someone under whom I could apprentice, someone experienced, with an operation I would strive to emulate.

Out of a Western

When I first met John Sibbitt he was in the post office glancing through his mail. He wore his cowboy hat at a tilt and a silk bandanna around his neck. He was clad in jeans, chaps, cowboy boots and spurs. When he looked up from his mail, I could not help but say, “You look like you just stepped out of a western.”

He squinted his eyes, as if this were an insult. He cocked his head, and said, “Ma’am, I am a western.” Then he walked away. Just like...well, just like a hero in a western movie.

I had been warned by my band of merry men to stay away from Sibbitt. He was a successful rancher and shrewd. Too shrewd for the likes of me, they warned. He was also a notorious prankster and it was no picnic getting caught on the wrong end of his antics.

At the Auction

I spent three hours in the freezing wind waiting for a set of portable fence panels to come up for bidding. The panels would be useful for setting up makeshift pens and corrals and if I could buy them at auction it might save me some money. Finally, my chance arrived. I stood close to the panels and made no bones about opening up the bidding. I put my hand up to start the bidding and immediately two guys hoisted me from the ground, my hand still extended in mid-bid. I started to yell but no one paid heed as they carried me away from the center of action to the parking area. My legs were kicking and flaying in the air until I landed in front of John Sibbitt’s pickup.

“Put her down, boys,” John kindly ordered.

“What are you doing?” I demanded. “I was in the middle of bidding. You can’t make me lose the panels I came for.” I started to walk away just as I heard the distant voice of the auctioneer shout, “Sold!”

Sibbitt shrugged his shoulders, “Hey, look, you lost them anyway. Why don’t you get in, warm up and sip on some Peppermint Schnapps?”

I could barely speak for anger and incredulity. “You just wasted my day, sir. Thank you very much.” In Hyannis there is a famous saying, “You can get back at John Sibbitt, but you can’t get even.” I didn’t even know how to get back at him or what constituted “even” in this case.

Thus, to pay a visit to Sibbitt was going to be another humiliation. But, hey, I was used to it by now and I was leaving. But I couldn’t leave without understanding why some things had gone really wrong at the ranch.

The Meeting

“What took you so long to come and talk to me?” John Sibbitt asked as I took a seat in his kitchen.

“Well, sir, I frankly have heard that you are out to outwit me out of....”

“Out of what?” he quickly asked.

“Come to think of it, I don’t know, but they say you are so shrewd that you will steal something from me.”

He looked at me and smiled. “What have you got that I want?”

“Nothing you don’t already have.”

“Then, why should I steal it?”

I had nothing to lose any more. I just laid my situation on the line as John listened intently. His demeanor was not at all what I thought it would be. I thought he would make fun of me, but instead he was compassionate. He winced when I told him of some of my cattle disasters. He shook his head at the advice I had received from people trying to buy my cattle. And he nodded knowingly as I told him of everyone who tried to rob me that first year. Mind you, I was not going to take any of his advice too easily and I remained wary of everything he said. But then he made indisputable sense about something. He cut to the chase: “What do you need to know?”

“Everything,” I said. I took out my list which by now had only a few things crossed off. I read: “Castrate, rope, pull a calf, build a box corner, string a gate....”

“No,” he said. “You don’t need to learn that.”

“Oh yes, I do,” I insisted. I pointed to my authoritative list.

“No,” he reiterated. “What you need to do is know cattle and how to market them. Most ranchers do just what you said. They build fences, fix equipment, and work hard all year and right when they have to sell their product, they choke. They don’t know how to market their cattle. They just assume that they should take them to the sale barn. They don’t investigate, they just fall into the same pattern. They seldom even think of altering their operations a little bit to take advantages in the market.”

I knew I did not fully grasp what he was saying, but I got the gist of it. “How do you get good at marketing?” I asked.

“You have to know cattle. You have to be able to look at what you have and know what they’ll bring and when. Do you know how much your steers weigh, right now?”

“No,” I said.

“That’s what you have to learn. You have to know every month how much they weigh and how they look. Take some time and come around with me and I’ll show you what I mean.”

“O.K., but I would still like to learn how to castrate,” I said. At least I could leave the Sandhills with one useful skill.

For the next few months John and I became inseparable. We hit a sale every day of the week. Lunch was always at the barns’ cafés: places like the Chat N Chew, Lazy E-terry (the cook’s name was Terry), Bite and Bid, etc. My nose became inured to the pungent odors of sales barns (I could even distinguish between grain-fed and grass-fed cattle). My body grew accustomed to the hard benches and long hours of the auction. My ear learned to decipher the auctioneers’ cries. And, finally, my eye got better on what made one critter sell for a dollar more a hundred than the next one.

When we were not at sales or in the air, we were out at the ranch. Sibbitt patiently pointed out what to be looking for in a cow’s behavior.
©Linda Norman.

At every auction it was the same ceremony. John would enter as if announced by trumpets. Before he sat down he would shake as many hands and slap as many backs as he could and happily call as many men as possible an “old sonofabitch.” Then he would proudly plant himself near Herb Hruska, a longtime friend, a well-respected cattle feeder and John’s “inside” man on the market.

Herb was famous for two things other than just being a good cowman: his finger and his shoulders. His finger was famous because it was Herb’s way of bidding. He just barely lifted his right index finger from his cradled arms. Every auctioneer in Western Nebraska knew to watch for Herb’s finger. His big powerful shoulders were famous because of Herb’s silent laugh. You knew Herb was laughing when his shoulders moved up and back and a grin came on his face. John made it a point to try to get those shoulders moving as much as he could during a long auction.

When we weren’t at the sale barns, we were up in the air in John’s Cessna 185. Getting into John’s plane was the most courageous thing I did in the Sandhills. I had to seriously pray that I would be able to withstand his flying. He was a great pilot, a natural, everyone said. But the stories of how he rolled the wheels of the plane on the roofs of buildings or how the hired hand had fallen out of it while hunting coyotes were legendary.

“I heard you landed on a boxcar of a moving train and told a man to get out and you would pick him up in the next town,” I said. “Did you really do that?”

“Oh, I landed on the boxcar, all right, but the man decided he wouldn’t get out. He said to me, ‘Dang you. If I get out, you won’t pick me up and you’ll let me go clear to Wyoming.’”

“Oh, but you wouldn’t do that,” I said reassuringly.

“That was my plan all along,” Sibbitt said.

When we were not at sales or in the air, we were out at the ranch. There Sibbitt pointed out patiently what to be looking for in a cow’s behavior. We would walk around the corrals and he would point out certain traits to look for in a bull. Once as we examined a nice set of bulls the wind came up and I found myself shivering. Without a word, Sibbitt found the direction of the windmill’s tail and shielded me from the wind and gave me his jacket. He quickly finished his statement and ushered me back into the warmth of the nearby vehicle.

He’s a windbreaker, I thought. Isn’t that what we all search for? Someone who will unhesitatingly protect us from the wind, take the brunt of it and guide us to shelter.

So it was that a profound friendship developed between John Sibbitt and I. On one fateful day in 1999 we decided it was time to make the situation permanent.

“It’s April first,” John said. “Let’s get married and if you don’t want to be married, you can just say it was an April Fools’ Day joke.”

We married.

The next year someone asked us when our anniversary was. “April first,” John said and added slyly, “and she still thinks we’re married.”

Yep. I do. It’s one of the best things I have ever done. I finally got back and I finally got even.

Summer 2002 Contents | Git Home!

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