The Roundup, 2023 Third Place
By Nancy K. Camp
I set fly spray and saddle soap on the counter of the local tack store and was reaching for my wallet when I heard my name.
I turned to see a friend who worked on a nearby ranch. She waved a hand in the air and strolled toward me. Her name was Sam. I smiled, nodding my head to acknowledge her.
“I been thinkin’ about you. You know, if you’re gonna live in Idaho, you need to get out on the range. We’re gatherin’ a herd in the desert next week. Why don’t you come along?”
Cattle drive! Images of the Wild West flashed in my head. I grew up in Virginia, reading Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey; ranch life looked good to me. After moving to Idaho in 1980, I bought a Quarter Horse gelding, named him Levi, and trained him for dressage and jumping. Most of the people I hung around with were English riding enthusiasts, but Sam was one of the first people I’d met after I moved, and we hung out occasionally.
“It’ll be perfect for your horse,” Sam rocked back on the heels of her cowboy boots and grinned. “Get him outta that arena. Let him see some of the real world.” Sam teased, punching my arm. “Do you good too. I’ll loan ya a western saddle. Pick him up in my trailer.”
“Why, I’d love that.” I could almost hear the whooping and hollering of a cattle drive.
“Alright, then.” Sam shoved her hands in her pockets and chuckled. “You go tell that horse of yours he’s goin’ on a roundup.”
A week later, with horses in tow, I grabbed the tattered armrest of Sam’s pickup to steady myself when we dropped off the highway onto a dirt road. The morning chill belied the intense heat that would soon penetrate the thin air of southern Idaho’s high desert.
“Almost there. Gotta go slow. Horses need to balance.” Sam pointed across the dash. “Hey, look over there.”
Half a dozen antelope assessed our passing with raised heads; their statuesque stances charged for potential flight. In the crowded suburbs, where I’d lived, squirrels qualified as wildlife. The slow pace of Sam’s truck suited me as we cut across the sage encrusted landscape, studded with lava and basalt outcroppings. I breathed in the vast emptiness of these surroundings. It seemed the middle of nowhere, but when we crested a rise, a bunch of trucks, trailers, horses, dogs, and people appeared in a veil of dust. Sam swung her rig alongside a large aluminum stock trailer and parked.
I snatched my backpack and climbed out of the truck to help unload. Sam’s horse stepped out like a pro, but Levi, wide eyed and sweating, had to be coaxed. I led him around to settle down before heaving one of Sam’s western saddles onto his back. Sam came around the back of the trailer, fastening her chaps on heavyset thighs. Her cowboy hat covered short cropped hair.
“Be right back,” she said, stalking off to report to the cattle boss. Her voice carried over the hubbub as she walked away. It seemed she knew everybody. When she returned, she motioned me away from the trailer, saying, “Most of the herd’s gathered over by Highway 26.” She gestured across the landscape, leaving me with no clear idea of where that might be. “Our job is to pair up, fan out, and cover every inch of ground, lookin’ for strays. No tellin’ where they might hole up. Gotta find ‘em all by dusk.”
Dusk? Ugh. A trail ride for Levi and me was two hours max and on established trails. We’d never picked our way through brush and rock. “Sketchy” best described the way Sam had explained this outing.
She untied her horse and tossed her keys to a short, bearded guy in a plaid shirt, yelling, “Thanks. See you there.”
Apprehension squeezed my gut as I watched our ride disappear, there was no turning back.
“Levi,” I said, stroking his soft cheek, before I mounted, “not sure what I’ve gotten us into.”
I’d planned on a long visit with Sam to pass the time, but they paired me up with a young, lanky guy named Jake. In a gray cotton shirt, faded jeans, leather chaps, and worn, pointy-toed boots, he was the quintessential cowboy. The shadow of his felt-brimmed Stetson didn’t conceal his narrowing eyes when he watched me fasten my riding helmet in place. We hadn’t ridden fifty feet before his buckskin gelding, Dutch, flattened his ears at Levi as if to say: Keep your distance and everything will be fine. Half an hour into our ride, it seemed Dutch had spoken for them both. After a few attempts at conversation about the weather, I started counting the seconds to replies.
“So, Jake,” I ventured, “You married?” Thousand one, thousand two…. thousand nine.
“Got any kids?” Thousand one, thousand two… thousand eight.
Geez, this is going to be a long day. Visions of bawling herds, barking Border collies, and whooping cowboys milling about faded. Midday, we rode within earshot of Sam and her gathering partner. Never caught sight of them, but their ceaseless chatter filled me with longing. The creak of stiff leather and the occasional clink of a horseshoe striking a rock formed the soundtrack of my ride, because Jake treated finding strays like solving a mystery. He was prepared to go all day in silence, following every lead. He watched the ground and listened. A pricked ear or a widened nostril from Dutch often inspired an investigation.
Lost in a fantasy of sitting at the 5B Cafe, I dreamed of warm, moist, crumbly scrambled eggs, accompanied by the bouquet of crispy bacon, and sourdough toast. Instead, I munched a squashed, dried out peanut butter sandwich I’d brought along for lunch. Clearly, we would not be taking a break. I nearly choked when Jake checked Dutch and pointed to a large basalt boulder. A rattlesnake lay loosely coiled in its shadow.
“Oh, my god! Those are poisonous!”
Jake put a finger to his lips to hush my outburst.
“Venomous,” he said, motioning to me to swing wide. But there was another one at the edge of a growth of sage. I looked at Jake with alarm. He held his hands, one in front of the other, signaling single file, and put Dutch in the lead. I followed, willing Levi to step with care.
My horse made me proud. He quit fussing every time Jake rode off to check on something. Perhaps he was just as worn-out as me, but tired or not, being left alone, even for a moment, made me edgy. So many things could go badly. A stumble on lava might cut a leg or pull a shoe. The margin for error was slim. Though he’d not said ten words, I grew secure in Jake’s competence. I knew I was a proverbial fifth wheel, and that he felt saddled with me, but I appreciated being with Mr. Silence.
I shifted in the saddle and stretched my feet into the stirrups, seeking relief for my blood-starved sit bones, certain they would have visible bruises if I could see them. Suddenly, Dutch pricked his ears and snorted. Jake pulled him to a halt and threw his arm out in front of me.
Two words. Things are looking up. He disappeared at a brisk trot.
I didn’t want to disobey a direct order, but, after four endless minutes, I feared getting separated, so I nudged Levi in the direction Jake had vanished. Over a rocky knoll, I spotted Dutch standing near a ravine, his reins dangling to the ground. Sharp, angular boulders tumbled down the narrow end of a deep, steep-sided pit. Jake was nowhere in sight. Rattlesnakes were fresh in my mind. I imagined hundreds of them in that pile of rocks. I leaned out and grabbed Dutch’s reins without dismounting and led him toward the wider part of the hole, keeping my distance from the edge. Still no sign of Jake.
My stomach rose in my throat. I could barely breathe, let alone speak, but I screeched Jake’s name at the horizon. No answer. Is he in that hole? I shrieked again and started counting seconds. Fifteen.
“Down here.” Jake’s voice rose out of the steep-sided pit.
I picked my way to its edge and discovered Jake slicing the ear tag off a dead cow. He motioned me to follow as he made his way back toward the tumble of boulders. A large calf had a leg stuck in the rocks. The calf startled when Jake approached, and, in what looked like a huge mistake to me, Jake rushed it. In a flurry, he covered its eyes, and ran a rope around its nose and behind its ears. Then he hugged it tight. Calmed, the calf sighed and stopped struggling.
“Bring my lariat,” Jake said, nodding toward the end of the ravine.
Lordy! I’ll have to climb down there. I won’t be able to toss it. Where do I tie Levi? I would never secure a horse by its bridle, but during drastic times… I looped Levi’s reins around a branch of sage and unbuckled the throatlatch so the headstall would slip off if he pulled back. I had to use my collapsible pocket hoof pick to loosen the knot that secured Jake’s rope to his saddle. With the stiff lariat over my shoulder, I surveyed the tumble of rocks. I don’t see any snakes, but… No way could I walk upright, so half-crawling, I backed down. Recoiling with every move, I fumbled my way to Jake and the exhausted calf.
When I reached him, Jake took the lariat and ran the rope around the calf’s body like a girth, fastening it to the makeshift halter. After handing it back to me, he pointed up and out of the ravine.
“Dally this tight ‘round the saddle horn with Dutch facin’ me. Holler when you’re ready. I’ll move this rock.” His face grew stern, his words short. “Back Dutch up slow.”
Climbing out was like clawing my way out of hell over sunbaked rocks that scorched my bare hands. Teary-eyed, I fed the stiff line out behind me and struggled to the top.
Rope dallied. Dutch in position. I yelled.
Amidst the sound of toppling rocks, the slack went out of the rope. I pressed on the big gelding’s chest, but Dutch paid no attention to me. He kept the rope taut by feel, taking full or half steps back, sometimes moving a tad forward, until the heifer emerged onto flat ground.
I breathed for the first time in an hour. She staggered and quivered; blood trickled down her left rear leg. Jake opened a canteen and poured water into her mouth. After he removed the ropes and reattached the lariat to his saddle, he gave Dutch a single slap on the neck.
“Leg’s not broke. She’ll be okay if we go slow.” As he put his foot into the stirrup to remount, he nodded at me. “Ya done good.”
Best three words of the day and the last. I felt a little taller as we followed the weak, limping calf, the remaining two miles to the highway. By the time Jake turned in the dead cow’s ear tag, it was dusk. Most of the cattle were gone. The few that remained milled about in a corral, ready to be pushed up the narrow ramp into the last stock trailer.
I surveyed the jumble of trucks and trailers by the corrals. Sam’s rig was nowhere in sight, and I cursed her under my breath for leaving without me. Levi balked at the high step-up of the stock trailer. I was stroking his face to calm him, when three cowboys stormed us. One swiped the lead rope and pulled him forward while the other two locked arms behind his butt, lifted and shoved. These men wanted to get home.
When everyone was ready, I collapsed in the truck that towed my horse. Talk of a successful day and tomorrow’s chores filled the cab. I closed my dry, burning eyes. The borrowed saddle had sored Levi’s back and my ass. Best leave range work to the professionals. I’ll enjoy the desert at my leisure. Visions of sage and rock and big sky faded as I dozed off, making a note to myself. Next time Sam asks if I want to go on a roundup, I’ll draw a breath, count about eight seconds, and mutter, “Nope.”