"High Country, Part I,"
"High Country, Part II."
By the time our shadows fell long on the scrub vegetation, I had returned to warming my hands under the horse blanket. So long as I kept them there it was fine, but removing them only made it more painful. The horse’s back and blanket were still wet with perspiration, and being cold and damp wasn’t an experience I much enjoyed. If I was smarter, I would have used my pockets.
In front, Tim still smoked, which in the cooler air lingered long and low behind us. Diggy was characteristically silent, but his agitation with the hour was evident by his sullen hunch in the saddle. I expected he’d fuss at Tim before too long.
Carl, though no stranger to riding backcountry, was growing weary of it. Years of riding a desk instead had taken its toll with both his toleration for the discomfort of a western saddle and a number of extra pounds that only ground him more forcefully into the saddle itself. Oddly, I was more sympathetic for his horse than for him. He fidgeted frequently, which visibly annoyed his ride. He and I had ridden in the rear as he recalled techniques for moving cattle that he hadn’t considered in well over a decade.
“The secret to herding cattle is wide, indirect movements. If a calf strays out somewhat to the right, slowly start walking to the far right. That way he doesn’t feel like he’s being chased. Usually, he’ll just move back to his mother and you just keep at it. Basically, you just walk the perimeter; that’s all. It’s the guy in back that has it the worst. He just eats dust, can’t hardly see, his horse gets pissy, and it stinks back there. If he’s not inhaling dust, he’s breathing manure or flies. The way I always did it was that the back guy rotates out more quickly than anybody.”
“What about stampedes? What do I do then?”
“This isn’t the movies, man. Yeah, I haven’t done this in a good fifteen years, but I never remember a stampede. Something has to spook them badly, and since you’re already on the perimeter, you just move out of the way. The only way you’ll get hurt, and that’s just a maybe, is if you’re in a chute between some sort of obstacles and the horse spooks and throws you. But again, these guys are trained fairly well. Nah, the worst thing about a stampede is the aftermath – trying to find all the strays and get them back together. If that happens, you have to rope a lot of the stupid ones.”
“Carl, I’ve never roped anything before. I’ll probably end up making a fool of myself.”
He laughed. “Yes. Which is why in the unlikely event that this happens, we’ll leave you with the remnants of the herd and go get them ourselves. Hell man, I haven’t done it in years, either. I’ll probably volunteer to take the furthest strays so nobody sees me screw it up. If you don’t practice the skill, you lose it. I can type up a fantastic home sale contract these days, but roping? I doubt I still can. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Diggy turned around in front of us with a scowl. “The more y’all talk about it, the dumber you both sound.”
“Perhaps,” retorted Carl. “I grew up doing this.” Diggy muttered again. I was uncertain if he was always this sour, or if our presence was what particularly bothered him – and the quickly diminishing light.
It was cause for some concern, actually. Not so much because of the temperatures, but because of the reduced visibility. We had started out with no landmarks at all around us (save for the slowly approaching peaks now directly in front of us). Tim, presumably knowing the route, had simply struck out confidently. The shortcut he had planned, as well as the river, so I trusted he knew his location. But the notion of stumbling on horseback through rocks, bushes and now an increasing number of small trees was unappealing. The only sunlight remaining was touching the mountains to the north. After riding towards them all day, I presumed our destination was proximal to them. However, asking Tim would probably invite a reprimand for not trusting him. I elected to remain quiet. Carl seemed unconcerned – just fidgety in his saddle. Diggy was always grumpy, so it was hard to say. Tim, mostly silent, just kept leading and smoking. Maybe he enjoyed keeping us in the dark – literally.
Smelling wood smoke was the first indication that the four of us were not alone in wilderness. It was faint, but pleasant, and I wondered if there was food being cooked over it. Our destination ranch? A cabin? A cook fire for other riders? Before I had much time to consider it, we were ejected from the scrub, rocks and trees of wilderness into an enormous pasture (mostly dirt this time of year), and the rolling foothills of the mountains in the background. At the base of the hills there was light, too, albeit faint in the near-darkness. I heard cattle now, too.
At the end of the field lay a river, slow moving, and beyond it: short fields and the beginnings of hills. Also on the far side was a small ranch house, which seemed almost an adulteration to the landscape after a day without any sign of civilization. Drawing nearer, the interior was well-lit, smoke rolled gently from the chimney, and a profusion of barns, pickup trucks, and farm equipment littered the fields. Either this was our destination or we were blatantly trespassing. I assumed the former.
A dog barked and irritated the horses, commencing a litany of soothing remarks and reassuring pats from all of us. After riding all day through washes, basins and loose rocks, I had no desire to be bucked because a dog was underfoot. Tim dismounted and we all followed suit. I suppose his smoke-immune horse still had her limits. Handing her reins to Diggy, he strode off to subdue the barking. This was definitely our destination.
Five minutes later he returned. “They got supper on the table if you’re hungry. Roast chicken, gravy, and greens. Carl, don’t eat all of it, okay?”
“Thanks. Waddya think I am? A pig?”
“You really want me to answer that? Look at your horse. She’s a swayback now.”
Diggy spoke more eloquently than I’d heard all day. “Y’all can keep fightin’ like girls, but I’m gonna eat. Tim, here’s your horse.” He led his own off briskly.
Amid the pleasant aroma of dewed grass and cows and sweaty horses, I smelled food. Walking to the stable, we quickly pulled saddles, drew water, put out feed, and went inside for our own. Tomorrow would be an even longer day.
To Be Continued…
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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