“High Country, Part I ”
“High Country, Part II”
“High Country, Part III”
In preparation for their relocation, the cattle had already been herded from the hillsides and staged in holding pens near the farmhouse. Thus spared this laborious task, there was little to do in the morning but open the gates and start moving, which we did soon after sunrise. The din was already annoying, and were it not for the aptitude of my horse being superior to my own, a few clever animals would have quickly slipped away from the herd and slowed us appreciably.
Forgetting what Carl had said about wide, indirect movements, I had spurred my ride directly towards the cattle that seemed hellbent on wandering far from the remainder of the herd. I imagine a dumber horse would have obeyed me, but mine appropriately swung wide, cutting off their escape, and let his size simply intimidate the recalcitrant back into the herd. As intelligent as he may have been, I anticipated a long day. In the rear, Diggy was already hollering epithets much louder than the cattle ruckus. For such a quiet man, he had the eloquence of one well acquainted with elaborate obscenities. Maybe that’s what cattle did to you.
With Diggy in the rear, Carl to the far side of me on the left, I on the right, and Tim in the lead, we pushed the herd into the river and stopped them there deliberately. This was their last chance to drink until probably the end of the day. They’d need every last drop. While our trip up had been a long but manageable day, the return, complicated with exactly 243 head of cattle (to be precise), would be painstaking and roughly half the speed we’d traveled yesterday. Our target for the night was the sulfurous river, which stood approximately between here and our southern destination. It wasn’t a preference, it was a necessity. There was no other water.
While the ride north had been a constant intake of gorgeous scenery and untouched landscape, preoccupation with cattle caused me to miss the vast majority of it now. The reminder, unfortunately, was trampled beneath the undulating herd. It was demanding (at least for me) because I was unaccustomed to watching animals wander and habitually responding with a tug to the reins to intervene. My horse, again proving he was smarter than me, simply took what was often an erroneous order, ignored the wrong direction, and did what he knew needed to be done. I found myself thinking of him more as a border collie than a horse. I did at least make an effort to improve, since I knew my lack of skill was causing him to trot more than necessary. An hour into the morning’s ride, steam was rising from his shoulders and hips. He’d need the water more than the cattle.
As we continued, I watched the others. Tim always rode a good 100 meters in front of the herd while Carl held fairly close to the rear left. I mimicked on my side, quickly realizing that it allowed the side riders to see the lead and effectively steer the herd in Tim’s direction. They weren’t being led, either. Cows don’t follow horse-mounted riders. Instead, Diggy’s endless hollering was actually driving them forward. He drove and we steered in Tim’s direction. Though it would bring choking dust and parched throats, I found myself looking forward to the trees and other vegetation diminishing. It was hard to not lose cattle in the short brush, and no doubt any that were lost would be blamed on me. After galloping hard to redirect a couple steers that were lured by greenery, I backed off the herd a bit. I felt sorry for my horse. All the same, he seemed to be enjoying this. He wasn’t a show animal; his scars, the brand on his haunch, and the unkempt mane all served as reminders that he was a work horse.
Mid-morning, Carl dropped to the rear and Diggy took up the far side in his place. Sure enough, just as suddenly as Diggy had gone silent, I heard Carl unleash a wave of yelling and rants unsuited for repeating. I guess that’s what you do when you ride in the rear. You yell at the cattle and keep them moving. I suspected that by noon I’d have my turn at it. Tim was the only one that knew this route intimately, so his position as lead remained unchanging. We would be doing the herding. He was just guiding. Overhead, buzzards circled, as if presuming something here would soon die. I didn’t like it.
Preoccupied as we were, time flew quickly, so Carl’s sudden appearance behind me was startling.
“Alright, bud. I’m all yelled out. And I smell like shit. Your turn. Just keep them moving, got it?”
“I think so.”
“Then get out of here.”
Turning abruptly, I trotted to the rear and found myself at a loss for words. Curse at them? Yell at them? Wave a stick? What do you say to cattle? When they started to lag after only a moment, the words came quickly. None of them were nice. At was undoubtedly comical to watch a man who had never herded cattle try to speak in complete sentences and use proper grammar. After one failed attempt with that, out came whooping, hollering, short phrases laced with profanity, and all uttered with an accent I was unaware I had. This was the consequence of watching too many westerns, I suppose. I tried to sound like Diggy, who I doubt watched many westerns since he more or less lived one. At least I was copying the real thing, not a spaghetti western.
As best I can describe it, running the rear involves pacing close to the herd and keeping them moving at something other than a stroll. Those closest to the back pushed forward, and so it went all the way to the front, and all amid the racket of bovine discontent, the stench of endless defecation, and the flies and dust. Had I been smarter, I would have brought a bandana to put over my face, but then I’d have to yell even louder to be heard through the muffle of fabric. As is, I just swallowed a lot of dust. Despite the reek, I was still hungry.
To my great relief, not an hour after Diggy replaced me in the rear, we arrived at the sulfurous river. Confident that the cattle would head for the water and not wander off (there was also little in the way of vegetation nearby to distract them), the four of us gathered a short distance upstream of the herd and let the horses drink their fill. Only Tim’s looked in the least bit refreshed. Carl’s looked the worst, no doubt because of the extra weight.
Tim spoke first. “I’d say we have about an hour before we can’t see much. Diggy, you cooking?”
“Always. Might be an awfully small fire out here though. Ain’t much in the way of wood here. Just brush on the bank.”
Tim lit another cigarette from the butt burning low in his hands. Coughing, he continued. “We’ll figure it out. These cattle aren’t going to go far. They’ll drink too much, get out of the river, and that’s the last we’re going to get out of them today. I figure two hour shifts tonight, just one of us on at a time. I’ll take the first one and the last one though, regardless of how the cards fall. I know you guys ate dust all day.”
“Do we do this on foot or horseback?” I asked, which drew a laugh from Carl.
“You wanna get run over by cows?” he asked, smiling. “You’re mounted. Always. And armed. These things are trained for saddle shooting.”
Tim piped up. “Yeah, BUT, make sure they see the rifle first, and make sure you obviously cock it if you’re about to fire. If you just shoot, they’ll throw you faster than hell. Only thing we got to worry about out here is coyotes anyway. And they’re usually pretty skittish.”
An hour later, after Tim grabbed a plate of beans, bacon and cornbread and returned to the herd, we sat around the small fire. It was going to be cold that night, sufficiently so that we’d all done what we could to gather enough wood to keep the fire all night. Tim, plate in one hand and reins in the other, was attempting to move some of the smaller calves into the center of the herd, many of whom were already laying down and terribly disinterested in moving. He met with only marginal success.
Diggy, was remarkably agreeable after a day chewing dust. Turning to me, he cheerfully asked, “so, you learn anything today?”
I explained that I had, though I still didn’t know the first thing about roping, which bothered me.
“I could teach you, but there ain’t no use in it out here. You could practice all night and still not be good at it in the morning. It takes a long time, and you gotta stick with it, too. You did alright, though, from what I saw. You sure you never done this before?”
I assured him I had not. My only experience with herding had been that day, or whatever I’d read in books or watched in westerns. I was a writer, not a cowboy.
“That’s a dumb word for it, anyway. Sounds like we’re supposed to be wearing chaps and huge hats and gunslinging. We don’t anymore. I just tell people I’m in the cattle industry and they figure it out quick. They don’t see no fancy suit, so they know I actually do work.”
“Hey now,” Carl defended, “I HAVE to wear a suit. And I still do work, too.”
“Yeah, but it ain’t work like this. This wears you out awful young. How old you think I am?”
“Forty?” Carl ventured a guess.
“Man, I’m thirty. It’s the sun and the long hours. “
I was astonished. Not only was he grizzled, but walked slightly hunched and limped when he got out of the saddle. With his beard, he looked more like a mountaineer.
“Why do you do it then?”
“Cause I love it. I’ll be moving to our northern farm in a couple of years. They just work the cattle in the summers up there, which ain’t bad, and in the winter, they fix a few fences and relax.”
“How is that different from here?”
“Well, we work these guys all winter, keep them fed and warm, birth ‘em in the spring, then divide ‘em either for the market or for the farm up north. We do the work, really. Up there, they just graze ‘em.”
Carl heaved himself up and hobbled towards his horse. Diggy started chortling quietly to himself.
“Something wrong, Carl?”
“Yeah, my ass hurts.”
“So does your horse’s, I’d say.” He laughed at his own joke and started gathering dishes.
At ten, I began my first shift on watch, gingerly mounting (I was sore, too), and took the lever-action 30-06 from Diggy.
“If you got any questions, just wake us up. I’d rather get woke up than lose cattle in the dark; got it?”
For two hours I sat in the saddle, listened to coyotes howl in the distance, and paced from one end of the herd to the other, stopping briefly to stoke the fire a couple times. It was cold, but beautiful. Miles from any well-lit city, the sky was spectacularly clear, revealing constellations usually too dim to make out. Even the Milky Way belt was visible. Several times, large meteors cut across the sky. Thankfully, the cattle didn’t move an inch. Waking Carl, I gave him the update that there was no update and turned in again, rolling as tightly as I could in the single wool blanket we’d all carried tied behind our saddles. The fire offered only minimal warmth.
As I was jolted awake by the sharp report of a rifle, as Diggy sat bolt upright muttering, “shit” Carl, next to him, was already on his feet. As he untangled himself from his blanket he turned to me.
“Get on your horse NOW. The cattle are gonna move for sure.” I could already hear them stirring behind us.
I barely had both feet in the saddle when a steer thundered by, swerved to avoid the fire, and galloped into the river.
Diggy had somehow almost ridden out of earshot already, but he called back, “spread out and go upriver a ways. That’s where they’re moving.” He disappeared into the darkness yelling at his horse.
Either the coyotes had attempted to grab a calf, or Tim had spotted something else that threatened the herd. Between the crack of a rifle and the approach of a predator, the cattle were startled, confused, and running blindly away from the noise and commotion. Yet none of that mattered right now. They were moving towards us. As I galloped upriver I couldn’t help but think, “this sure is a shitty way to learn about stampedes.” I had to get in front of the stragglers. Swing wide…
To Be Continued…
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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