By the time the sun hit the frost on the fence rails, we were already tightening the saddles and buckling the bridles. The horse’s snorts jetted fast tendrils of fog in the cold. Though they didn’t particularly like this long ride, they, too, were eager to not be stamping around in the cold. Breakfast had been cooked, the fires extinguished and the house shut tightly. We had at least twenty miles to go before quitting, and that was only as the crow flies. Between the buttes, the washes, and deeper basins, it may have been as many as thirty. We’d need every ray of daylight we could manage.
To complicate matters, nor was there any trail. Our path was the one we would make as we steered the horses over rocks that would all day pull at their shoes and slow our progress. It was amazing that, despite the modern world, moving a herd of cattle was still more efficient on horseback than by trailer. But, winter was coming soon, and they needed to be rounded out of the high country and fenced for the winter. At least here, sparse as the grass may be, they wouldn’t get lost in the snow, and they could find moderate shelter from the elements in the barns amongst companions.
Tim, who had done this run through at least a dozen late autumns, unconsciously scratched at his horse’s neck and smoked. His mount had to be the only one in the group that felt more comfortable with a rider that smoked like a chimney. The rest would spend the day behind him laying their ears flat and being bratty and uncooperative. To anybody’s recollection, his horse had known no other rider. She liked her smoker.
The rest of us: Carl, Diggy (I didn’t even know his real name), and myself, were all new to this. It wasn’t a dude ranch by any means, but something he needed help doing, and had enlisted the help of a few friends for the three day weekend necessary to bring back 250 head of cattle from the hills down to the low country. Carl had done this as a teenager working with his father before running off to college and landing a job in real estate – much to the frustrations of his father. I presumed Carl and Tim had met as teenagers, but neither talked about it much. Knowing I’d wanted to someday doing this, Carl had invited me of his own accord, and only with the begrudging permission of Tim. Diggy intimately knew this life, but from the perspective of a neighboring farm. They had brought their herd down the week prior, with Tim’s assistance. Just as farmers used to pool their resources for large equipment, they also pooled their people. They weren’t in competition these days; they were only trying to survive the razor thin beef market profit margin and rising operation costs. Horses and manpower, however, still came relatively cheap.
Diggy had already ridden from next door, and was impatient for the rest of us to mount up and leave, remarking at least three times that, “we’re burnin’ daylight, folks.” We knew this, but it was cold out, and early, and after a breakfast with far more fat and calories than I typically eat in a day, Carl and I, at least, were ready for naps, not a day of riding. We moved as quickly as we could. We were moving by 7AM, which I hoped wouldn’t be too late.
At least there wasn’t any wind that morning. As it was, my fingers, frigid in stiff leather gloves, felt encased in ice. I shoved them between the horse’s back and the blanket under the saddle. He didn’t need any directing with the reins at any rate. Unlike most of us, he’d done this trail before and knew the drill: follow the leader: Smoking Tim and his horse.
“Diggy, you wanna lead for a moment? I’m going to see if that washout down to the right is still open. If it’s no worse than last time, it’ll cut a good thirty minutes off getting to the bottom of this cut.” He rode off at a trot without waiting for Diggy’s answer, which from what I heard of it centered around bullshit and piss poor planning. The horses, free from the constant trail of smoke from the front, seemed to quicken their pace slightly.
We heard him whistle a minute later and adjust our route accordingly. Pushing down a terribly narrow path that ran diagonal to the slope of a deep basin, I found myself imagining what a fall would look like. If the horse lost his footing against the slope, I’d be pinned in the stirrup against a bunch of rocks (and in pain). If he lost is step the other way, I had at least a 50 foot slide/tumble through large rocks into even larger rocks. If he pitched forward, it would just hurt. Now I understood why people wore helmets. I, of course, had none. Tim would probably say that if I fell and hurt myself, it was clearly my fault for being a a novice. I admonished my horse to be careful, and I suppose he listened.
As we approached the bottom, the path’s angle decreased and soon opened into what they called basins but I always thought were just dirt canyons. The far side, a good quarter mile away, looked even more vertical and imposing, but Tim walked directly towards it. Diggy seemed unconcerned, so I pretended it was all good. Carl also remained silent. I was the only one here completely new to back country navigation.
An hour later, the basin behind us, after walking the horses up the slope, we could see the distant green of the mountains through the clear morning air. It was beautiful out here, and between the walking and the slow-rising sun, the temperature was cool, but pleasant. They call it God’s country out here, and I can certainly see why (until it snows). Nobody talked; it might have ruined the view. They lived with this scenery, but I wished dearly for a camera. This land was breathtaking.
To Be Continued…
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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