The difference between a cowboy and a ‘dude’
I gripped Mike’s hand, looked him in the eye and told him not to quit. “Mike, I know there are assholes out there, but I promise you, you’ve just had a bad run lately,” I said.
Mike was discouraged. He had just led a pack trip out of the high country a day early. The mules had been balky, the clients finicky and high-maintenance, and his helper wasn’t worth a tinker’s damn. He was ready to quit.
Though I’ve seen a couple dozen wranglers, packers and guides come and go, Mike was worth keeping. In cowboy parlance, Mike is a top hand, which is the highest praise you can give a hard-working, conscientious, capable man. He can ride and shoot, but the dudes were getting him down. Imagine having a mule wreck on a narrow trail, and four elderly real estate developers from Chicago who don’t know a thing about horses, mules or the high country all chiming in with their two bits’ worth.
As my friend Matt Shane would say, “Have another cup of shutthef**kup.”
Mike just wasn’t used to people who can’t carry their own water. Welcome to the dude business, Mike. He was used to people who can build fence, doctor a horse, hitch a 24-foot trailer to a gooseneck ball and haul horses across the country. He could look at a horse with a broken jaw and figure out how to wire it together without a $2,000 vet bill. But he couldn’t handle these know-nothing, whiny dudes who literally couldn’t lace their own shoes, much less saddle their own horses.
I smiled as I consoled him, thinking about a day that Doris and I spent recently on the Uncompahgre Plateau. Our neighbor, Larry Jensen, had called late in the evening. “We’re riding tomorrow,” he said. “Wanna come? We’re leaving at 6:15.”
“You bet,” I said. “We’ll ride.”
Doris and I had our horses caught early. We drove past Delta and up a long incline of pinyons and junipers, canyons and rimrock, until we met the cool aspens and dark timber of the high country. We jostled down a two-track jeep road with a 16-foot trailer behind us, the horses keeping their feet on the bumpy road because they had no choice.
When we parked, two other rigs were already there and the horses were saddled and stood tied, waiting. I already knew Kester and Mike from riding a month ago, when we first brought the cows up to the national forest from the lower pastures on Bureau of Land Management ground. Mary, Mike’s wife, was riding a big gray gelding, and Wanda would join us later.
The job that day was to herd the cows from the middle pasture to the high pasture ” “pasture” meaning 12,000 acres of high-country range, more than 18 square miles of oak brush, aspen, sagebrush, and dark timber. There were 800 cow-calf pairs scattered out somewhere in the thickets. We were seven riders, seven horses and six dogs.
I was riding my big paint gelding, a 5-year-old tank of a horse with a butter-soft gait and a wild eye. Doris went against type and rode an Arabian, and a young one at that, but he needed some miles.
We set out in groups of twos and threes, spaced a hundred yards or so apart, calling out to the cattle and forcing them to get up and move. “Heyyyyup! Come on, now! Let’s go!” At first we found only a few pairs and a couple of bulls, then the group gathered steam. The bulls decided to fight, a total of 4,000 pounds of low-slung testosterone pushing each other around in a cloud of dust. One of the blue heelers decided to break it up, a 40-pound snarling, snapping maelstrom slashing at their noses. They broke it up.
Everyone could ride. If anything, Doris and I were the rookies on the crew. Other than cursory instructions as to the next phase of the job, no one spoke much. No one corrected anyone else on riding technique or anything else.
It took two hours to work the first bunch of cows up to the gate and a lightning storm came in while we waited for the last riders to come with their cattle. Thunder boomed and lightning sparked the air and it began to rain, but no one moved, because there was no place to go. We put on our slickers, and though we all hated the lightning, no one complained. It was what it was.
The storm passed, we pushed the cows through the gate to the high pasture, and we moved on to the next mesa. We got below a draw full of cattle, and Doris and I somehow got split up. I ended up pushing a big bunch of cows ahead of me through a tangle of young aspens, oak brush, and willows in the creek bottom. The cows kept trying to go out around me, and my paint was more than willing to charge after them and turn them around. I was encouraged to know how much he enjoyed the job. The brush almost ripped my shirt right off and scraped my chaps, but my horse wended his way through the thickets, bringing the cows into the herd. I was all alone, and it felt good.
An hour later, I heard the first whoops of other riders, and after a while Mike came walking up, leading his paint, 15 pairs of cows and calves in front of him. “My horse is played out,” he said, dropping to his knees and drinking from the creek where the cows had just passed. I didn’t know what to say. The horse drank and seemed to recover, because soon Mike was chasing cows again.
Toward the afternoon, we had a big bunch of cows milling at the gate to the upper pasture, and we watched them stream through into the high meadow, bald-faced, black, red and brown. It was four miles back to the truck and it was late. My horse had lost a shoe, so I walked him up and down the rocky draws, while the other riders patiently waited for me.
When you’re cowboying, you are your own man, or woman. You ride your horse the way you want to. You choose your gear, your horse and your methods, and you live with the consequences. As long as you can get the job done, no one will tell you how to do it. You are truly free, and you are truly independent ” except when you need help, and it will be there in spades, no matter how difficult the circumstances.
You certainly won’t have four know-nothing, whiny, pushy, selfish, egocentric dudes who can’t even saddle a horse yapping nonstop nonsense at you.
Back at the truck, Kester pulled some cold beers from his cooler. After we loaded the horses, a lashing rain came in and torrents gushed down the narrow muddy road. We barely made it back to town, and 14 hours after we started, we turned the horses loose into their pasture. It was a great, glorious, superb, exhausting day. It was the cowboy way ” something certain dudes will never understand.
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