Wednesday, April 29, 2009

High Country, Part V

*If you have not already done so, please first read the following:
"High Country, Part I"
"High Country, Part II"
"High Country, Part III"
"High Country, Part IV"

By dawn, after more than three hours of chasing cattle, screaming, and disorientation, the vast majority of the herd was restored to a single group along the riverside. While Carl and I continued to keep them in check, Diggy and Tim (who, curiously, I had not seen smoke in hours), searched for the few they knew to be missing. How they even counted what we had was beyond me.

Before he and Diggy had trotted off, he explained briefly what had sparked the nighttime stampede.

“Some cow was grazing just downstream of the herd with two of her calves. I knew about them, so I let ‘em be. On my next pass through that area, though, a couple of coyotes had one of the calves pinned against the bank and were getting ready to close in. I just fired into the air, since I couldn’t hardly see to shoot straight.”

“Spooked the whole herd” was all Diggy had to say about it.

“Well, either that or stand the chance of losing one. It was a gamble.”

“How many we missing?”

“Maybe a dozen, probably less.”

“How do you know when you have them all?” I dared ask.

“When we think we got ‘em all, spread ‘em a bit and start counting. Diggy already got a rough count.”

“Will they wander far?”

“Not unless they’re chased, and the coyotes are long gone. We’ll probably catch ‘em grazing upriver somewhere.”

An hour later they returned with seven, and with difficulty we spread the herd along the riverbank, all four of us riding their length and counting.

“I got 240” I announced.

“Same here,” replied Tim. “Carl?”

“242” he shrugged. “They keep moving.”

Diggy trotted up last. “We got ‘em all.”

“You sure?”

“No… Shit. Count again, I guess.”

Rather than try to count such a large group, we walked the horses into the herd, partitioned off mostly a quarter each, and counted our respective groups. Twice. To my pleasure, I arrived at the same number each time. Adding the figures a moment later, Diggy was indeed correct. We had them all. No calf was in a panic for a missing cow, no cow was frantic for a calf, and there were only a few steers in the first place, which made them easy to count.

“Well, we’ve successfully pissed away half the morning, worn out the horses, and deprived me of my beauty sleep.” Diggy spat out the last words in a way that suggested he was dead serious.

Tim lit his first cigarette, drawing for a seeming eternity before responding. “You’re ugly anyway, friend.” An exhalation of smoke oddly muffled his words. “Let’s get moving. Carl, you start in the back. Diggy’s too grumpy for now.”

We had a lot of ground to cover still, and already felt exhausted. My horse splashed through the blue water on the herd’s left as we started driving. It would be a long, long day.


To maximize on daylight, we drove them hard, switching out the rear with greater frequency. Even Tim, who felt reasonably confident Diggy knew how to aim south and ride, took a few turns in the back. I could hear him wracked with coughs between the dust and the smoking, but he yelled ferociously, and his horse seemed remarkably energetic despite her early exercise.

There were no halts throughout the day, no pauses to eat, and the only opportunity we had to even relieve ourselves was to trot a short distance from the herd, dismount, and hope the herd didn’t stray far in our absence. Arriving by dark wasn’t exactly the goal, but in the absence of a water source anywhere between the river behind us and the ranch to the south, stopping for another night wasn’t a viable option. Not only would the cattle need watering, but the horses would even more than them. The cows were walking all day, but the horses were actually working.

The threat of rain also posed a problem. After a long, rainless summer, more than a few minutes of showers would quickly transform the loose dust to mud, drastically increasing the likelihood of injury both to the cattle and to the horses (and therefore us). A serious rain would fill the washes and necessitate a change in route, too, which depending on the quantity of rainfall could be merely problematic or truly devastating. Silt buildups in the washes, possessing the consistency of quicksand, could swallow hoofed animals easily. Making haste was the only option.

Sometime mid afternoon, Diggy went silent in the rear, which was unusual. Turning back to check on him, I observed him trot into the herd, toss a rope and haul up a small calf into the saddle, and lash its feet effortlessly. Thus bound, it struggled little as he cradled it, though his horse didn’t welcome the extra weight. When I switched with him shortly after, I asked what was wrong with it.

“I’ve been watching it for awhile. Either it got trampled earlier, or it’s just lame. Either way, it’s slowing down everything. I’ll just carry it.”

“What do I do if I see one like that?”

“You won’t. I was watching the little ones pretty close. This here’s the only one havin’ problems.”

I was relieved. I hadn’t even a rope, and no knowledge of what to do with it if I did.

By early evening, driving the herd was becoming a significant challenge. They, too, felt the drain of an early awakening, the investment of energy running in panic, and now nearly a full day of walking. It wasn’t just the calves, either, but the entire herd. They were fat, lumbering, and increasingly uncooperative. Whomever was driving had to intensify yelling even further. We would all be hoarse by our arrival. And thoroughly disgruntled.

As the sun set and the clouds moved in from the east, they were illuminated magnificently well after the sun had dropped out of sight below the horizon. A dazzling array of orange and pink glowed in the western edge and to the east a deepening purple. Despite its beauty, it still signified trouble. We were racing the weather, the hour, exhaustion, an uncooperative herd, and all on horses that had been too long on their feet. They were slowing, too, and the wind was picking up, pulling cool air hard to the east into what presumably would be a storm. I tried not to think about lightning. We, high in the saddles, were the tallest objects out here besides the occasional rock outcropping or cactus. We were incredibly vulnerable. In the shadows of dusk, the thunder began rumbling in the distance and the breeze stiffened noticeably.

Without warning or explanation, the herd stopped directly in front of me. Immediately I doubled my screaming, mixing in more epithets. In a moment, however, I observed in the distant half light that they had nowhere to go. Tim’s horse was empty, and he was unlatching a gate. We had arrived, dry, with all our numbers, and not a moment too soon. A heavy drizzle was preceding the coming storm. God it was cold…

Riding back towards me, Carl wore an enormous grin.

“Damn fine timing on the rain” he croaked. “My ass is killing me. And I’m hungry, too. And hoarse.”

We all were. With only marginal coaxing, the herd swelled through the gate and began a racket around the water trough. The mud was already churning the holding pen into a disaster. If they wanted out of it, they’d have to go into the barn. Diggy deposited the lame calf in the pen, identified the mother, and we moved them into a separate partition to keep the calf protected from any further injury.

“She should be fine. Got so used to riding in the saddle that she actually fell asleep for a time. Y’all hungry? I half starved. I wanna steak.”

As Diggy went inside to start supper, Tim showed me how to rub down the horses, who didn’t much care what we did, so long as they were permitted to eat and drink uninterrupted.

“The thing you gotta do is make sure they don’t get chilled from the sweat or cool off quickly. You gotta cool them slowly, wipe ‘em down, walk ‘em around a bit and then rub ‘em again. Always check their legs for heat. This cold, wet weather ain’t much fun for them neither.”

Over steaks, green beans and potatoes, Tim mulled through the morning’s events.

“In hindsight, I should have just chased off those damn things. Firing might be okay if the herd’s awake, but not when they’re laying down. They panic, and they just see the others running. I guess that was my fault.”

Diggy had his own thoughts. “Shit, I still think we did okay with it. We didn’t lose none, and ‘cept for the lame calf, they’re all fine. Hell, even fasto here and the writer did well. What was your name again?”


“Yeah, that’s it. Ben. You wanna learn to rope sometime? I think you got potential. In fact, you learn roping, you could work out here. We could use another for our drives. God knows Tim’s ranch could, too.”

“Yeah, we’d hire you – you’re an ace on the horse out there. You sure you never done this before?”

“Never. I only rode a few times as a kid.”

“Well, you did great. Hell, everybody did. ‘Cept for Carl near killing his horse by being a big ‘un.”

“Hey, least I wasn’t giving my horse cancer with second hand smoke!”

“No just a swayback. Anyway, we did good. If you gents are free in the spring, wanna move ‘em north with me?”

We all agreed to it. Carl would take a long weekend. Diggy would ride over from the neighboring ranch, and I’d be the only suburbanite in Phoenix practicing lassoing in his back yard all winter. But I had a purpose. There were techniques that needed learning, skills that needed refining, and in the spring there would be cattle that would need moving. I wanted to be ready. I could get used to this life, I thought. It was savory.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. So then?? Why are you a witer in Virginia? Why not herd cattle in Arizona? Better yet, why not do both!! The way you write about it it sounds too exciting to miss out on. Whoever thought I'd be siting at my computer waiting for the next episode of "Cow Junkie"... I loved it!!

  2. The poor calf.

    "croak" is a good verb.

    Regarding reader reactions, I feel settled now that they all got to where they were going.