His palms were crisscrossed with deep weathered lines like the cow trails leading to water. These gnarled hands of my grandfather. Scarred, wrinkled, and thick. Sparse grey hairs here and there. The palms calloused from opening and closing cedar post gates for seven decades. Smooth from the lasso that streaked through them like lightning when suddenly attached to the double hocks of a heavy spring calf.
The tops were mountain ranges of tendons and wide dark grey veins pushing through the wrinkled skin, always inked with numbers and figures that meant something to him. The ink flowing over the thick ridges that crisscrossed between the raw knuckles and up under the sleeves. Sometimes the scribbling would flow over onto the heel of his thumb where the skin was smooth and shiny. There were more numbers during shipping time, and they would fade away over and over again through the years.
I remember flanking kicking calves or giving shots with all the dust and smoke suffocating my throat and eyes, aggravating my embarrassing allergies. Through squinted eyes I would always find his blood-streaked hands at work next to my shit-caked boot cutting the scrotum from the bull calves followed by castration. The thin layer of blood and sweat mixed with fine dust clung to his cracked dry skin.
One thing I don’t remember was him ever wearing gloves. When the snow was blowing sideways, and every tank was frozen, he would march out of the warm feed truck with me sitting shotgun in my dirty, high water, hand-me-down coveralls. He’d take the double bitted ax and start busting the ice while the herd slowly but willingly plodded into the feed grounds along ancient trails. Me blowing the horn to hurry them along. He’d warm up for a minute while telling me stories and jokes.
Then he’d be out into the gale once more, gloveless, to bust open the 50-pound feed sacks as the heavy bovines and their calves would jockey for a space at the trough for a meal. Steam pouring out of their noses. He would holler and cuss them trying not to get run over. “God Dammit! Get outa here you ole biddy!”
We’d swing around in the truck and he’d wave his hand at their swishing afterbirth caked tails taking count. He’d jot down more numbers on the back of a bank envelope and hop out one more time while I took the wheel geared down to 4-low, 1st gear. I’d drive straight while he threw square bales off the flat bed, hay swirling in the wind mixed with the dust and snow. I’d sneeze.
Pulling the wire pliers out of his overalls pocket he’d cut the two wires while standing atop the pyramid of bales on the back of the flatbed. His bare hands would scatter the bales across the planes in a line with gritted teeth while the dirt and snow peppered his face like bird shot. By the time he hollered at me to stop, he would have a tight bundle of wire which would be tossed behind the seat as he hopped in. Always smiling with mouth full of missing teeth.
I’m wondering now if his father, Lloyd Gates, was much of a cowboy. I never have seen a photo of him horseback or in typical cowboy attire. Seems like he worked in an office for the county, but my memory escapes me. I don’t remember his hands as he died when I was around four, but the photos I have seen, his mitts looked hearty.
Those photos always portrayed him with a nylon stringer intertwined between the fingers cutting off the circulation due to the large batch of fish hanging on the line running through their mouth and gills. I look at my hands a lot these days.
There are scars that remind me of my history. The finger that will be forever numb on one side due to a chop saw slip. The crescent moon scar from my little sister slicing me with mom’s razor when we still took baths together as very small children. And the writing on my left hand reminding me of things I need to do that I trace over when it starts to fade after a couple days of procrastination, so I won’t forget.