Let “careful” be your watchword today and every day. It can help you get old.
Bighorn Country was published in Halfway Down The Stairs, December 2015 (halfwaydownthestairs.net).
Nellie’s hooves made a muffled “clop-clop, clop-clop” on the soft earth as she approached the low building that served as the local ranger station. Jack, his lean figure dressed in his tailored, dark green, ranger uniform, stood outside. Wisps of steam arose from the coffee mug in his hand as he breathed in the clean pine scent of crisp morning air. Jack nodded at Nellie’s rider, and smiled. “Good morning, Walt. Great day for a ride, isn’t it?”
“Mornin’, Jack. It sure is. Nellie here insisted on it, so what could I say?” Walt’s saddle creaked as he leaned forward to pat Nellie on her grey neck. “This cold air, warm sun, and a ride in bighorn country will cure whatever’s ailin’ you. You ought to come ridin’ with us sometime. The world looks a lot different from atop a horse.” Walter’s white hair and mutton-chop sideburns poked out from under the edges of his tan wide-brimmed hat. Mud-colored stains marked the sweatband. His brown leather jacket had a sheepskin collar and, worn and stretched in the all the right places, sat easily on his thick frame. He rested his gloved hands on the saddle horn.
“I’d sure like to. I’ll have to take a rain check this time, though.” He paused a moment. “How’s Kate? She should be the one riding with you.”
“Kate’s fine except the arthritis in her hands is actin’ up. Makes it hard for her to handle the reins. But I agree with you. She should be ridin’ with me.”
Jack nodded in agreement. “Tell her I send my best.” Jack wrinkled his brow. “Y’know, one of these days I want to go with you on one of your sheep shit collecting trips. Is this one of them?” Jack walked up to Nellie and gently rubbed her soft nose.
“Yep. It’s the best excuse I’ve got to take regular rides with Nellie. Only it’s not ‘sheep shit,’ it’s ‘bighorn sheep fecal specimens.’”
“Oh, right. Tell me again what this is for. Tom told me once, but he was short on the details. You know how some supervisors are.” Jack smiled a toothy grin and glanced over his shoulder. Then he pushed his park ranger hat back on his head and gently blew across the top of his coffee mug.
“This is my son Andrew’s project. He’s up for early tenure at the university and is busy gettin’ all his publications in order, so I said Nellie and I would be the field help on this one. We go up to a place that’s a major crossroads for bighorn paths and collect fresh droppin’s. Andrew went with us the first few times to make sure we’re all on the same page. But now it’s just Nellie an’ me.”
“And what does he do with the sheep shit … uh, fecal specimens?”
“He heats ’em in his lab in a special furnace, and treats ’em with acid to figure out how much grit’s in ’em. He figures the amount of grit changes by season, but we gotta get the samples to prove it. That’s why Nellie and I go every couple weeks. We’ll be done in another three or four trips.”
“Oh, I see. But why does he want to know the amount of grit in the specimens?” Jack rubbed Nellie’s nose again.
“It’s ’cuz chewin’ the grit may wear their teeth down somethin’ awful. If their teeth get so worn down that they can’t chew or eat … Well, life gets short. If that’s the case, and they eat grit to get the salt that’s with it, then providin’ salt licks for ’em will let ’em live longer and make bigger herds for you guys to worry about.”
“They eat the grit because they need salt?” Jack stopped rubbing Nellie’s nose, and looked up at Walter.
“That’s what Andrew says. He says the ground is salty in some places, so they lick it up when they need salt. And they need salt mostly in the spring. The plants are short on salt then, and the ewes need salt to make milk, so there should be more grit in their droppin’s in the spring.”
“Oh.” Jack nodded his head slowly. “But how does he know about tooth wear?” Jack took a step back and gingerly took a slurp of his coffee.
“Oh, he’s doing another study on some rancher’s sheep. He’s checkin’ the grit in their, uh, fecal material plus lookin’ at their tooth wear. Everythin’ is supposed to fit together in the end. He’s got a student helpin’ with that part. They don’t need a horse for it.” Walter leaned forward, and patted Nellie’s neck again.
“That sounds like you got the best part of this deal. I especially like the part about how just providing salt will increase herd sizes. When will he know the answer?” Jack blew across his coffee mug.
“Probably a few weeks after I get the last samples. You’re gonna have to wait a couple more months, Jack.” Nellie’s saddle creaked as Walter leaned back in it.
“That’s ok. Just so we know by spring, so we can leave salt licks if we need to.” Then Jack nodded towards the saddlebags. “You got enough food and water for your trip?” Jack took another slurp of his coffee.
“Oh, yeah. We’ve got plenty. We’ll be back by dinner, so we don’t need much.”
“You be careful out there. It’s still rattlesnake season, y’know.”
“I know. You don’t get to be my age around here without knowin’ how to be careful.” Walter took off his hat and resettled it back on his head. “Besides, Nellie here takes good care of me.” Walter’s saddle creaked as he leaned forward and rubbed her neck. “She’s pretty smart.”
Looking Nellie in the eye, Jack said, “And you keep taking good care of him, Nellie. Don’t let him do anything foolish. Loan him some of your horse sense. We need old codgers like him to keep the rest of us on our toes.” He looked up and smiled at Walter.
Walter smiled back. He clucked to Nellie and shook the reins. Jack stepped back, and patted Nellie on her rump as they walked by. “Be careful out there,” he repeated. Walter waved without turning around.
Nellie took Walter down the now familiar trail through the forest to the edge of the lake. The tall trees and ground covered by leaves and pine needles muffled echoes before they started. He cocked his head at the sounds of a three-toed woodpecker working on a tree, storing food for the coming cold months. On some rides he caught glimpses of them, identifiable by the yellow head.
Nellie and Walter skirted the edge of the woods near the lake. The ground was soft, and Nellie left tidy impressions of her shoes. Walter breathed deeply of the clean air and listened to some argumentative Steller’s jays.
The green undergrowth got thinner as the ground sloped upward, and soon the soft soil turned to rocky granite. Nellie’s steps were no longer quiet. But the open landscape sucked away the sound, making her hoof beats sound far away. They picked their way up the mountain along a trail that generally ran along a dancing stream.
After a spell, they came upon the spot where Walter always stopped for a break. He slid off of Nellie and stretched his saddle muscles. He could see over the entire valley below. The different trees added variety to the landscape by their various shades of green and the textures of their canopies. On his left rose the mountains. The huge blocks of granite, sheer walls of grey, spoke of strength and eternity to him. Walter often said that it was clear to him why some Indians considered certain places spiritual.
Walter turned to Nellie. “You know, Nell, we oughta be sure to bring Jack up here next time. This view would be good for his soul.” Nell nodded her head. “His ranger station is just over there beyond those trees.” He waved his arm toward the place where a dirt road entered some trees. He patted Nell’s neck. “Then he could come up with us to help collect those droppin’s. Get a first-hand look at the dirty end of the project.”
He looked down on the valley to his left. “Right over there, Nell, where there’s a bend in that little stream, is where I took Andrew’s Boy Scout troop on a hike once. That’s the time I convinced them we were all lost. We got very serious about it. We inventoried our food and water and made plans for camping if we didn’t find our way out. We broke out the compasses and decided on the best direction to take to get back. When we started back we saw our own tracks. We looked at the bottoms of everyone’s boots, and decided whose tracks we were looking at. Then we did some tracking. Everyone got a chance. We tracked ourselves right back to where we started. By the time we got back, they were all pretty good trackers, and knew what kind of plans to make if they got lost.” He paused, and smiled. “Those kids had a great adventure.”
He rubbed Nellie’s nose. “Best view around, isn’t it, Nellie-girl?” Walter gathered the reins in his hands and swung into the saddle. “Don’t let me forget. Next time we bring Jack.”
He and Nellie continued up, picking their way along the rocky trail, until they came to a wide flat spot where the stream slowed. It was wider and shallower. Several bighorn paths crossed on their way to somewhere else.
“Well, Nellie, we’re back here again. We’ve been here so many times I think we should be considered honorary bighorn sheep, don’t you?” Nellie didn’t answer. “Do you remember the time we watched those two rams in a head-buttin’ contest? They went at it for over two hours before one of them gave up. My head hurt just watchin’ ’em. Let’s take a break before we collect our specimens.”
Walter eased himself off of Nellie and walked her over to the stream so she could drink. They were in kind of a bowl where rocks and boulders had rolled down the sides and were strewn about. They ranged in size from small gravel up to ankle-breakers, leg-breakers, and even bigger.
Walter unpacked his lunch from one of the saddlebags and sat on one of the larger rocks, leaning against the sunny side of a boulder. The heat from it and the sun counter-acted the chill of the air. It was quiet here. He relaxed against the boulder as he dug into his lunch.
When Walter finished he walked over to Nellie. “Well, girl, it’s time we got to work.” He reached in a saddlebag and pulled out a bunch of resealable plastic bags. He walked over to where one of the sheep trails left the stream and started up the mountain. When he saw fresh droppings, he cupped his left hand over the bag and folded its edge over the tips of his fingers in a motion now done automatically. He scooped up the pellets and sealed the bag. Andrew said he wanted ten to fifteen bags of fresh samples for each trip. Walter collected fifteen. Andrew could throw away any extras, but he couldn’t make up for any shortages. Usually lunch and sample collecting took about an hour. Then he and Nellie headed home.
He was just about done with his collecting when he reached down for some pellets lying next to a leg-breaker-size rock. In one smooth motion he wrapped his fingers around them and flicked his wrist to scoop them upward, letting them fall into his palm and into the bag. With alarm in his eyes, he jerked his arm back. A rattlesnake hung from his arm, its mouth clamped on his wrist.
The rattler let go, dropped to the ground, and slithered off between the rocks. Walter examined his wrist closely and between the top of his glove and his watchband he saw two fang marks almost two finger widths apart.
“That was a big one,” he muttered. Walter walked over to Nellie and dug out his snakebite kit from one of his saddlebags.
“Nellie, I got stung by a big rattler. He must have been sunnin’ himself on the other side of that rock, and I startled him when I reached for those pellets. He didn’t even have time to rattle at me. I should have checked first. Damn!” Walter looked at his wrist again and pursed his lips. “I shoulda been more careful. Damn it all!”
He sat down on a rock and opened the kit. He picked the right-sized suction cup, and fitted it on the end of the extractor syringe. Blood was starting to flow from the fang bites. He applied the cup and syringe to one and started the suction by pulling on the syringe. The cup filled with blood and whatever venom it held. He kept loading it, and emptying it. He did the same for the other fang bite. Red splashes appeared on the white granite at his feet.
After a few minutes, he put the kit away and bandaged his wrist from the supplies in his first-aid kit. “Nellie-girl, I think I’ve gotten out all the poison I can with that thing. I know a tourniquet may cause more harm than good after a rattler bite, but I’m gonna put one on anyway just ’cause we’re so far from a hospital. Now don’t give me a hard time about it. The best thing now is for you to get us back to Jack’s station as fast as you can.” Walter pulled a strap intended for an arm sling from his first aid kit, and cinched it around his left arm. Then he swung into the saddle and pointed Nellie toward home. “Come on, Girl, let’s go.” He kicked her into a gallop.
They rode away from the stream and up to the trail they came in on. In some places the trail was so narrow and the terrain so rocky, Nellie had to pick her way along at a walk. But whenever the going was smooth, she shifted to a run as if she understood the special importance of speed. Walter let his left arm hang straight down, slowing the return blood flow, but not dulling the pain. The bleeding had become a constant ooze.
Walter was now oblivious to the clear skies and crisp air, the soaring majesty of the mountains, and the naked strength of the slabs of granite. He checked his watch every now and then, and he kept encouraging Nellie. Their descent was painfully slow.
At his regular lookout point Walter loosened the tourniquet, but kept Nellie moving. Five minutes later he tightened it up again. The view of the forest and lake below was an invitation for a full gallop, but not yet. Nellie’s hooves clattered on the rocks. Finally, down on the flatter part, she broke into a full gallop. Her smooth gait made it easier for Walter to hang on with his one good arm. He slumped forward over the saddle. The cool air rushed by him. He encouraged Nellie and himself. “Hang on,” he told himself. “Just hang on, and Nellie will get us back.”
Nellie arrived home at sundown. Kate, Walter’s wife of many years, heard her hooves outside and went out to greet the two. But Nellie was alone. Kate spun around, calling for Walter. There was no response. His saddle was cool. She checked his saddlebags.
She noted that he had eaten his lunch and collected his samples. When she saw that he had used his snakebite kit, she murmured, “O Lord, no.”
Frantically, Kate telephoned Jack. He reassured her that Walter’s snakebite “could be one of those that injected little or no poison. Startled rattlers, especially the larger ones,” he said, “often give just a warning bite, so there is still plenty of room for hope.” But because time was valuable in any case, Jack called the sheriff’s department. Their helicopter could be very useful now. Kate started making lots of coffee.
When Kate fretted about the difficulty of finding him in the dark, Jack reassured her without sugar-coating the situation, “Searching at night doesn’t have good odds of finding him, but not searching at all has no odds.” Kate’s eyes welled with tears as she wrung her hands. Jack grasped both of her hands with both of his. “We’ll find him, Kate. We’ll find him.”
Andrew arrived at the house shortly after the sheriff’s crew. He laid out the route his dad usually took for these collections, and volunteered to ride in the helicopter. Jack would ride with the horsemen backtracking Walter’s route. A neighbor came over to stay with Kate.
Before he left, Andrew, still the outdoorsman and experienced tracker, checked Nellie’s shoes. Sure enough, one was clearly unique. It had a beveled inside corner; it would leave a distinctive imprint. Then he went inside and wrapped his arms around Kate. “We’ll find him, Mom. He’ll be a little scuffed up, but he’ll be okay. You know Dad. He’s so careful and such a tough guy, he’s as invincible as they come. He’ll have a great story to tell after this.” Kate nodded but didn’t say anything.
The helicopter crew and the horsemen stayed in constant touch by radio. The horsemen spread out wide on both sides of Nellie’s tracks. When the helicopter crew, using its powerful search light, informed them that there was no sign of Walter in the open area, they moved quickly to the areas more difficult for the helicopter to search. The wooded area lay ahead.
Andrew directed the helicopter to land in the open space between the mountains and the woods around the lake, in a space where the ground was more soft than rocky. After a few minutes of searching he found some horse tracks going both ways. From her unique shoe, it was clear they were Nellie’s. He examined the tracks she left when heading home. “She was galloping here,” he mumbled to himself. “She wouldn’t be galloping if she had been alone, so Dad must have been still riding her at this point.” The helicopter crew radioed the news to the horse team. Walter was somewhere between the two search groups.
Andrew followed Nellie’s tracks at a quick pace, almost a run. While the pilot remained with the helicopter, the emergency medical technician hopped out with his bag and went with Andrew. Their flashlights washed away the shadows on both sides of Nellie’s prints as they hustled along under the trees. Andrew wore a determined expression and hardly spoke.
From the time they landed the helicopter, over an hour passed before they found Walter. After falling off Nellie, he had hauled himself to a nearby tree and waited. When Andrew and the deputy first caught sight of him leaning back against the tree, off in the distance they also saw the lights from the approaching horse riders.
Andrew flashed his light and called to him, “Dad! Dad, we’re here! Everything’s going to be okay.” The rescuers had finally arrived, but they were too late.
* * *
It was a week after Walter’s services. Nellie’s hooves made a muffled “clop-clop, clop-clop” on the soft earth as she approached the local ranger station. Jack, his ranger uniform hidden under a heavy winter coat, stood outside with a steaming cup of coffee. Jack nodded at Nellie’s rider and smiled. “Good morning, Andrew. It’s a good day for a ride if you were riding for any other reason.”
“Yes. Thank you.” They were both quiet for a moment as Jack stepped forward and rubbed Nellie’s nose. “You know, Jack, I just find it difficult to believe he let himself get stung like that. Dad’s always so careful, especially about rattlers.” Andrew shook his head.
“I know. I don’t know anyone more careful about rattlers than your dad. But rattlers aren’t forgiving. Just let your guard down one time and you can be sure it will be the wrong time.” Jack looked Andrew in the eye. “The rattlers are all tucked away for the season, but there’s still plenty of reasons for you to be careful up there. Don’t get careless.” Andrew nodded.
Then Jack patted the saddlebag that held Walter’s ashes and said his own quiet goodbye. As Andrew and Nellie rode off, Jack called, “I’ll be here at the station until you and Nellie knock on the door.”
Andrew turned in his saddle and said, “Thank you.”
Nellie carried Andrew past the lake and up the mountains. She stopped at the place where Walter always stretched his saddle muscles, and Andrew slid off Nell to stretch his. He took a long look over to his left at a bend in a little stream. Then they continued up to those great slabs of granite. They came to the bowl area with the stream and numerous paths of bighorn sheep running through it, but they kept climbing. They went as far as a horse could go up the highest peak in the area. There, with his scarf pulled tight around his neck and his hands nestled inside fur-lined gloves, Andrew said a short prayer. Nellie watched quietly as Andrew, standing well back from the edge, opened the urn containing his father’s ashes. Then, among the great grey blocks that spoke of strength and eternity to Walter, Andrew cast his father’s ashes into the winds that blow over bighorn country.