(Let me set this up for you. Every summer, outfitters in the back country tended to hire young men fresh out of high school to do all the grunt work for them. Most of these kids just wanted to be cowboys -- especially the one written about here. Let's see what happens when "Craig" tries out a horse that has just a little... too...much...power...CW)
Some boys tried harder than others to be horsemen. At least they took instruction from a female who'd had a heckofa lot more experience in the saddle. Craig, from small town Wisconsin, was one of those few. But I doubt that neither he nor anyone who witnessed it will ever forget the wild ride he took on my personal Quarter horse, Clay — regardless of any hours already spent in the saddle.
It happened a few years after I’d moved to the guest ranch. Frequently, loose cattle turned out to graze in the surrounding forest wandered onto the property in search of the salt block. This was always a huge deal because they tended to leave patties all over the airstrip, which then hardened and made the mail plane bounce when the pilot tried to land.
Clay and I could herd those cows back where they belonged single-handedly; he was quick, cow-savvy, and so “push-button” it was like dancing with the perfect partner. Squeeze him lightly and he increased speed accordingly. Touch one rein and he’d turn on a dime. Duck alongside his neck and he’d pick his way under branches with barely a nick. Sit back in the saddle and he’d slide to a stop. But the thing he was best at was going from zero to blaze with a simple trick I’d learned from the movie, “Man from Snowy River.” All you had to do was make a hissing sound and hang on.
One morning when the ranch was crammed with guests and I was hustling about the kitchen fixing breakfast, a good-sized bunch of cow and calf pairs was spotted grazing at the edge of the meadow. The guys all quickly gathered the horses and saddled up to go after them. I wanted to join in the fun but couldn’t; there was far too much to do.
The lodge’s screen door banged and boots clomped across the floor while I was turning bacon on the wood stove. “Carolyn, can I take Clay?” Craig called out, breathless with anticipation.
Craig was what they called a dude hire — someone right out of guide school who hadn’t yet gotten his guide's license. Mostly, he split and stacked firewood in addition to other odd chores. “Please? Can I take Clay?” he repeated, clumsily blocking my way as I moved towards the counter. I can still see him standing before me in his brand-new cowboy hat with the stampede straps pulled tight under his chin. He was lanky, about 6’2”, with large brown eyes framed by roundish, John Denver-style, gold-rimmed glasses. There were pimples on his chin.
“No way,” I said immediately. “He’s too high-powered….”
“Pleeeeeaaaaasssssseee?” He begged, clasping both hands together. “He came up to the corral with the other horses. He’s just standing there! We need him! He’s the best!” When I hesitated, focused on breaking eggs into a bowl, he persisted. “C’mon! I know I can handle him! I’ve ridden lots of the horses here already and you said I was improving! C’mon! I know I can do it. Pleeeeaaaaaassssseee?”
Vigorously whipping the eggs with a whisk, I stifled a smile. It was no secret Craig was sweet on a dark-haired teen girl who was visiting with her family. Along with the other guests, they had gathered at the corral with their coffee mugs to watch as the crew prepared to go. This would be his turn to shine. Feeling a bit like I was handing Ferrari keys over to a newly-licensed driver, I finally stopped, looked up, and sighed, “Well, all right.”
The kid gave a brief fist-pump, burst out with “Yes!” and abruptly turned to leave but I grabbed for his sleeve. “Whoa, boy,” I warned. “Be careful. Ease the cattle out, don’t push them. You can trot and canter but don’t go full out. Clay might well jump out from underneath you.”
Craig nodded but I know he barely heard me. He bolted toward the screen door and let it bang again. I winced and returned to the wood stove, occasionally glancing out the wide picture window to watch them going by.
They never did.
For ten minutes I restlessly wandered back and forth, sometimes with one hand cupped under dripping utensils. Suddenly, there came the sound of running footsteps.
The door flew open again and the rest of the crew members literally fell onto the linoleum, howling like hyenas. One went to his knees, holding his stomach. The others leaned against the walls or each other for support. The noise was practically deafening. “What on earth happened?” I asked, nervously wiping both hands on my apron, hurrying over and bracing myself for the worst. It took a while, but one of them finally managed to gasp out the story.
With every guest lined elbow-to-elbow at the railings — some with cameras poised — Craig had stepped up onto Clay and gallantly tipped his hat in the direction of his teen crush. She had beamed back. Then, simply because he’d witnessed me do it a couple of times before, he hissed.
The gelding, which had been standing quietly before the open gate, dug in and took off from a standstill. So powerful was the motion of his hindquarters that Craig instantly lost his balance, dropped the reins, and slid behind the saddle. Downhill towards the meadow Clay flew, ears back and tail level with his spine. “And there was Craig with a death-grip on the cantle,” one of the guys hooted, straightening and wiping at his eyes, “yell…yelling…” he paused to laugh again, “whooooooaaaaaaaaaa all the way until we heard him thud as he hit the ground!”
When Craig finally showed up at breakfast, we immediately noticed he had grass stains on one side of his shirt and jeans and his glasses were bent. Guides and guests hunkered down and gave each other subtle grins as they passed the platters, milk and pancake syrup towards him. The conversations kept going, but he didn't join in. I could tell he was deflated.
I briefly touched Craig’s shoulder when I poured his coffee. Images of my own past, spectacular falls came to mind while moving around the table, refilling other mugs. There had been plenty. When Craig forlornly followed the rest of the crew out after breakfast, I caught his arm again. “It’s okay,” I whispered. “Every good horseman hits the ground along the way.” His large brown eyes settled on mine and he smiled a little. Ever so slightly, in the manner of a real cowboy, he lifted his chin in acknowledgement while settling his hat down on his head — this time with the stampede straps hanging down in back.
Part 2, The Back country
Rosie and her Suitors
Hurried boot steps clomped along the porch towards the heavy wooden door. Opening it, Pat stuck his head inside the lodge and grunted, “Rosie’s in heat!”
I skidded halfway down the rough wooden staircase from the second floor, where I’d been making beds, and leaned over the railing. “Thanks. Gimme ten. Find Clay.”
Pat nodded and backed out swiftly.
Rosie had started bellowing, more and more incessantly, before the sun came up that morning. Milking her had been rough. Same as always, I’d dumped grain in her bucket, settled myself onto the milking stool, rubbed some balm onto my palms, and gently massaged it into her udder, but she wouldn’t stand still. She kept stamping sideways, making me jump out of the way, or whacking me in the face with a dirty tail. I was finally forced to lure her into the stanchions and lock her head in so she’d quit being such a pain.
Since it was far too much hassle to haul a cow into town to be serviced, each time Rosie went into season we did the next best thing: a bull was brought to her. In a nutshell, we borrowed one for the day.
It was easy enough to do. Every summer, local ranchers leased land from the Forest Service and turned their herds — complete with a bull or two — loose to fatten up on mountain grass. They were easy to spot thanks to the fresh, fly-covered patties they left along the road, the broken trails they blazed between trees, and the ripe, sun-baked cowhide smell that wafted through the truck windows whenever one drove by them. Often, we’d get glimpses of the cattle through the branches, bedded down in open meadows. From there it was just a simple matter of surrounding the herd on horseback, isolating our guy, cutting him out, pushing him back to the guest ranch, shutting him in the corral with Rosie for the day — and before the sun went down — sending him back out to his ladies.
Most bulls followed direction without problems. Having already completed duties with their own cows, they were surprisingly docile. They ambled ahead of us down the wagon path, occasionally pausing to grab a few mouthfuls of grass. Hearing Rosie’s bellows as we came within earshot of the ranch, they tended to raise their heads and pick up the pace a little. After brief introductions (which involved the new couple sniffing and snorting at each other’s flanks for a few minutes) the bull got down to business and we left them, filling a bucket with water and and tossing some hay over the fence before returning to our chores.
But one memorable bull, a huge, ginger-colored Gelbvieh, decided he didn’t want to leave Rosie. The morning after we herded him back to his cow and calf pairs, he showed up again, standing on one side of the split-rail fence, nuzzling Rosie through the rails. When we mounted our horses to push him back out, she trotted anxiously along the fence line, calling after him pitifully. The feeling must have been mutual with the bull for that evening, as we all were sitting on the porch enjoying the stars, there came a deep and rumbling “MMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.”
“What was that?” One of the newly-arrived guests sat up abruptly, his head spinning around.
“Sounds like that bull is back,” one of the wranglers responded laconically.
"The bull? You mean a moose...? Another guest asked excitedly.
"No. A bull. As in moooomoooooooo," the wrangler responded with amusement.
A loud crack followed as the Gelbvieh shoved his massive chest against the railing and effortlessly snapped it. "I'll catch the horses first thing in the morning," the wrangler murmured to the foreman..
THE METHODS OF MINDY
New Year’s Day, 1980
The thudding sounds were loud enough to be heard over the Creedence Clearwater Revival tape that was blasting through Mindy’s car stereo. “What’s that?” I asked, twisting my head around.
Mindy leaned forward, turned down the knob and replied, “What did you say?”
“That strange sound…hear it?” The rhythmic kerthumpkerthumpkerthumpkerthump came through loud and clear now, so I added uneasily, “I think you have a flat!”
Mindy scowled, straightened in the driver’s seat, and exclaimed, “Oh shit, I think it is!”
With skill that was surprising for a nineteen-year old, she whipped her giant Oldsmobile — nicknamed “The Green Goose” by a cousin who’ d previously owned it — off the road onto a grassy shoulder. Stunned, we stared into the blackness that surrounded us, broken only by two headlights — one of them being quite dim. Despite the vigorous scraping Mindy had given the windshield before we left the party, ice had re-formed around the edges of it and even with the heater on full blast, the inside of the car felt like an igloo.
I’d ridden in that old beater enough times already to know things wouldn’t start warming up until we’d pulled into the driveway of Mindy’s apartment, which was still several miles away.
There were no other drivers on the road. Partying hard, we’d left the New Year’s Eve gathering around 2:00 am. We had no cell phones, and didn’t even know what they were. There were no streetlights, and no nearby houses. Worse, it was downright cold — the bone-chilling, teeth-freezing, lip-numbing kind of cold that is known only to people who live by two rivers. And, we were wearing dress coats (which aren’t made to be warm), fancy clothes (also not made to be warm) and ridiculous, high-heeled shoes: Mindy, in fact, was in open-toed Candies.
My feet already felt like ice blocks.
Walking home was not an option – but neither was spending the night by the road. “Man, this totally sucks!” she said irritably.
“Yeah, it does,” I agreed. “I hope you know how to change a flat.”
“Yes,I know how to change a friggin’ flat!” she snapped. “I’m just not sure if I have a jack!” Impatiently, she groped for the door handle in the dark and missed it completely, flopping against the green vinyl siding. Pulling herself upright with the help of the steering wheel, she groped again, cursed, and then abruptly leaned close to the dashboard. After intently studying her hand by its light for a few moments, she held her middle finger up at me and said ceremoniously, “Oh, darn, I broke a fingernail!” before bursting into raucous laughter.
I joined her, because there was nothing else two teenage girls could do when they were stranded, poorly-dressed, in grave danger of freezing to death, sitting in front of a heater blowing semi-cool air…and totally, shamelessly, and outrageously drunk.