The Way the Old Timers Lived
On a drive, it doesn't take much of an imagination to transport yourself back to the old days, when the world didn't have today's conveniences. Most of the first fifteen or twenty miles of this drive are along a jeep trail through wide-open country consisting of high benches and plains, and surrounded by the heavily forested peaks and half-open ridges of the Ruby Range. We see all of three vehicles the first day and a half, all of them ranchers', one of them Richard's. What we do, we do by horse.
For moving cattle, horses are better than machines. As Dale says, the horse is the ultimate all-terrain vehicle. They will go where two- or four-wheel conveyances won't. They don't take that much feed or water, and will procure much of what they need from the fields and streams. Of course, given the opportunity we will feed them hay and grain when we stop for the night. A well-trained and conditioned horse will trot damn near all day long. And, most importantly, they have an instinct for herding cattle and the cattle know it. A cowboy on a good horse can get a lot of unwilling cattle to do exactly what he wants them to do.
It's a thing of beauty to watch a professional cowboy cutting back and forth, of one mind with his horse. When a cowboy and his horse have an agreement, the horse gets to know what the cowboy wants, with barely a command being given. They ride as a unit, a modern minotaur, the man getting to do things with speed and agility that without the horse he could only dream of. It's a thing of beauty.
And then there's the case of a cowboy who rides his horse ten days a year, it's not his horse, and their agreement is tenuous at best. Throw in the fact that Nutmeg's stablemate is Dale's gelding Black, who rides at the front of the herd, and we can have some serious disagreements. Now, for my pride and Nutmeg's reputation, I must say that for the most part we work the cattle just fine, and we both get to participate full-tilt-boogie in the trail rodeo. She's usually pretty accommodating, has only blown up on me once, and is a fine cutting horse. But at other times, she pines for Black, winnies for him, and gets downright cranky and bitchy. She can tell me, in no uncertain horse terms, to stick it when I ask her to do something, backing up and turning circles, shaking her head, yanking on the reins and chewing crankily on the bit. Some of it is undoubtedly complaining about carrying my two-hundred pound carcass all over the countryside, when she usually gets to hang out in the pasture. There are also the times when I give her two conflicting commands. But she also pines for Black. At times like these, Brian calls Nutmeg and Black "Ding and Dong." And sometimes I have to rein her in to get her to do what must be done.
They're not machines. They're not always predictable.
And that says something about the old timers. Partly because of their dependence on horses, their lives weren't anywhere near as predictable as our own. We stop for the first night at the old abandoned Smith Ranch, on a broad plain high above and between the Beaverhead and Ruby Valleys. It must have been homesteaded in the early years of the 1900's. Somebody other than the BLM or Forest Service owns it now, maybe the Bradley Ranch just down the trail, but it really belongs to the antelope, elk, and coyotes. The little house is trashed, some of the corral gates and fences are broken down, and the barn our horses are in is leaning and infested with mice. We have to hang the saddles by string from the rafters for the night. As we relax in the late afternoon outside Richard's trailer, soaking up the warmth and scanning the high plain for coyotes, we muse about how long it must have taken the ranchers to get to Dillon by buckboard. Though they would need to go there pretty often for provisions, equipment, cattle sales, and entertainment, it couldn't have been that often.
The afternoon slowly turns into evening, with a fine dinner from Richard. The meals on the drive are rich in beef and potatoes and homemade delectables like Sherry Nyhart's pickles and sauerkraut and the Coad Brother's almond roca, which Richard and his brother sell under the label "Bunz and Bro." Richard is in perennial good humor, always gets our trailer to where it's supposed to be, and has a delivery like Mickey Rooney. As Bill says, "The cook writes the Bible in the camp."
Accommodations on the Cattle Drive
'Course, he says it just before giving Richard some guff. They compete in storytelling and practical jokes, and as we eat all of us cackle at their efforts to out-josh one another.
The meal's followed by a penny-annie poker game in which eyebrows are raised if you bet more than two cents. No television or radio, just the entertainment afforded by Bill's and Richard's tales, Brian's rejoinders, and Dale's continuing soliloquy about Brian's expectations about fatherhood.
"I recognize, Brian," Dale says in all the seriousness he can muster, "that Claire will be different. After the baby is born, she will continue to treat you with the same high level of love and respect that she has always treated you with. You will continue to be able to do exactly what you want to do."
Brian doesn't say anything, but behind his steady expression and laconic grin, we all hear him thinking that Dale should clamp it. The rest of us chuckle, knowing that even though Brian is at least 250 pounds, with an iron set of shoulders on him, and that he could squash any of us tall, lean types like a bug on a windshield—we know that he's too nice a guy to actually do it.