The Cowboy And The Critter


On one memorable occasion Holly and I were bringing a batch of recalcitrant heifers off the head of Reese River. The country is rough, precipitous, and the slopes of the steep canyons are strewn alternately with groves of mahogany and great patches of tightly matted quaking aspen. We wanted to bring them down into the relatively open stream bed of South Twin. Cattle under herd in mountainous terrain have a tendency to set a brisk pace directly along the contours of the ridges. They are difficult to control, because they are picking the game trails while the rider is bouncing about on his snorting horse, fighting brush and shale, trying to keep above and abreast of the leaders simultaneously. If a rider loses his bunch, they can skirt the side hills and slip over a divide into another drainage basin. If they ever emerge onto the flat, they can be forty miles from where he wanted them.


This bunch had made up its collective mind to elude us, but we had them outfoxed. We thought. Ahead was a mammoth talus slope about a quarter of a mile wide at the base and narrowing to a point at its apex. Between the peak of the talus and the foot of the cliff that rose sharply above it was a skirt of stunted aspen. If the leaders crashed this thicket before we headed them off, they could worm through and bust for Mexico. We could not have turned them, because there would have been no way to get in front of them. Hampered by the talus below and the cliff above, we could only helplessly have followed their tails. Cows make tunnels through thickets which afford them snug escape routes while horse and rider, their heads tangled in a network of branches, are effectively checked. The critters knew all this and were cunningly edging toward their little green gateway to freedom. But while they were reading our minds, we were reading theirs.

“Stay on their ass,” Holly shouted confidently. “I’ll scoot ahead. All we have to do is keep above ‘em. When they hit that there rockslide, they won’t have no place to go but down .”

I agreed. The talus slope was an effective barrier. It would have stopped a mountain goat.

Only it didn’t stop our critters. The leaders hit the slide, hesitated while they eyed Holly poised vigilantly above, cast a backward glance at me, and proceeded to stumble deliberately into the rock.

“Them dirty, festerin’, no-good, sonsabitching fodder-muckers … !” Holly cut loose a torrent of profanity that would stupefy the current generation that seems to suffer from the delusion that it discovered the four-letter word.

The critters reached the middle of the slide and came to a standstill. All we had to do was figure how to get them out. One thing for sure was that we didn’t want them to continue across onto the far shore. They had to be brought back . We had two advantages. Goaded by a man on foot behind them, they could scent their way over their own tracks. Also, they would be enticed by the horses stationed at the edge of the slide as decoys. Even had the horses been able to mince their way through the slide without crippling themselves, they would have been no use to us in the rocks.

Holly argued that one of us should stick with his horse to prevent the critters from bolting uphill and into the quakers if they decided to come out, so I worked around the stranded cattle on foot to get into position to haze them back. They wouldn’t budge. They let me push, poke, prod, and lather their rumps with my coiled rope. No go. After meditation and consultation (we hadn’t yet gotten around to prayer), we agreed that Holly’s presence on his horse was spooking them. So he climbed down and joined me, leaving Roany with dropped reins in a spot that he could get to fast should the critters suddenly plunge out. Everything had been calculated as fine as a snakeskin. Except that a half hour later when they began an unheralded exodus, they headed straight for us , ignoring our flailing ropes, our fanning hats, and our angry hollers. Right on past us they went, and out the far side as if we had been of no more account than a pair of juniper stumps. Off for the Mato Grosso. The Panama Canal wasn’t going to stop them. Holly squatted down and bawled . My delirious laughter was akin to his tears.

We limped back to the horses, who nickered with sympathy. When it concerns the critter, a cow horse shares its rider’s sentiments.

Hours later, as we neared camp, we met Jean descending another canyon with our runaways in tow. He’d spotted a plume of dust along the shoulder of a ridge where “it hadn’t orter had been.” He knew they were critters that had dodged some bedeviled rider and he cut their caper short. The way a top hand can appear from nowhere in time to stop the hanging is uncanny.