Partly my uncle runs a ranch and partly he plays at running a ranch. If you are very lucky you get to be his niece and fly to Arizona to watch him do both.

Breakfast is always good at a long rough wooden table inside, dawn or before, small me jumbled in with the huge and silent ranchhands. My aunt never stops moving and her hands are never without plates, full, empty. She only has one stove but never mentions putting in another. Needless expense, she likes to mutter. Her mad kitchen skilz surpass any ordinary mortal's need for adequate burners or counter space. I always wonder if he had to place an ad to find her.

Graying cowboy SWM, bossy but kind, seeks sweet, dimpled SWF with excellent culinary skills. Must be able/willing to cook delicious foods in enormous quantities for 8-10 men every day of married life. Must not mind that, while official books say ranch is funded by cattle sales/breeding, real money comes from immense cash crop of excellent weed.

After enough eggs and toast and steak (I normally do not eat steak but when all the ranchhands are eating steak, by god you eat steak too) to clog anyone who isn't about to ride it off, we go out "inspecting." Which to any other ranch owner probably means, I don't know, keeping an eye on erosion, whacking rattlesnakes, checking the springs to see if they are still bubbling up for thirsty cows. Uncle John just wants to show off his ranch, his giant toy ranch that delights him every day, though he is quiet about it. And he wants to show off beloved Eliza, he gives all his burros the names of spaghetti-western burros, because he has always wanted to do these things, and now he is doing them.

John rides Eliza and I ride her daughter Clementine. Females are the best. More stubborn, he grinning under his hat. He means it - a female burro who smells danger will absolutely not move forward, which can be a pain in the ass if the "danger" is a spooky-looking rock, but if the danger is a rattlesnake or quicksand, you're glad you picked the girl burro and not dumb old Chet who will plod you right over a cliff without flapping an ear, and who these days is mostly good for weed control in the front yard. Sometimes, John says, he will start out over a perfectly flat stretch, no scrub brush to hide snakes, too solid for quicksand or sinkholes, and Eliza will refuse to cross it, and he never forces the issue, just takes the long way around.

Eliza has been around for a while, she was gray to start with and now she is grizzled around the chin, droopy white eyebrows sleepifying her liquid eyes. Her eyes are my favorite and I take her heavy chin to stare into them but she shakes her head away, shy or embarrassed or some animal emotion I cannot name. Anyway she does not want me to look into those lovely brown pools for more than an instant, which is ok because I'd rather save that moment for when I see them on a human face, at which time I am prepared to fall in love with them immediately.

We do not go down in the big gulch but we ride right to the edge. John always takes me here in case I have forgotten how deep and impossible and painfully red it is, this merciless slash in the earth. I have not forgotten but I am always impressed and, truth, frightened. Too big to understand with my eyes, here is harsh proof that my general assumptions about the earth are wrong. The ground is not constant, there are thousands of feet of possible plummet beneath you, wherever you stand. Step once in the wrong direction, you would bounce, crash, crunch, and die. He takes Eliza down to the bottom once in a while, wisely doesn't ever tell his wife, but he tells me. He says getting back up is the easy part because a burro knows how to buck against gravity, but on the way down, gravity works too much in your favor and you're liable to tip right out of the saddle and over your burro's head. Partway down he always has to get off and inch down, rock by rock. Eliza goes on ahead like a mountain goat and waits for him by the stream, laughing cause it took him so long.

I wonder how many secrets old burros know, Eliza must know all of John's. He tells me he talks to her. Keeps you human, keeps you thinking. He goes out with the ranchhands sometimes, when comes time to move a herd, and at night they camp together but during the day they all ride out alone, no one to talk to but the bobbing gray head of your burro. Telling me this he smiles downward, a smile not for me. Rubs her soft ear between his fingers, she kicks her head back, she likes it. Of course you talk to her, he says. Have to.

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