Vagneur: You can’t buy a better day any better than that
We rode along, my horse Billy and I, just taking in the cobalt sky that went from horizon to horizon, a perfect midwinter day unfolding before us. Off to the left, Niki and John were beginning to push the cows out of what had been their winter pasture, and Matt, another wrangler, and I, were hurrying down an adjacent trail, getting ready to take our position as point men and lead them home.
I hadn’t ridden Billy since early December, and he’s usually up for a good buck or two after a few days off, so I gently nudged him up into a fast trot and then asked for his smooth lope, ready for any steam he wanted to blow off. Surprisingly, Billy, who has had to step up to take Drifter’s place, has apparently become a settled horse, and with what seemed like Billy’s enthusiastic acceptance, we cantered along a dry creek bed, rapidly gaining ground on our position.
We led the procession, Matt and I, the long, serpentine line of black cattle snaking along behind us, 300 head or more in number as we wound out of the large pasture they’d been in the past couple of months, headed to the spring calving grounds.
Off to our right was a wide driveway going to several big houses. Should one of us stay and block the road, or would the cattle follow us down the trail? It was unfamiliar range for the cattle, so we couldn’t really hedge our bets. About then, a stone mason came along on his way to his job at one of the big houses.
“Would you like to pull down the road 20 or 30 yards and stop your truck, making sure no cows go that direction?”
“Senor, for you, si, it would be an honor.” You don’t find polite like that every day. In passing, Matt said, “You just gave that man a job.”
“Well, hell yes, everybody wants to be a cowboy, don’t they?”
People have a propensity to brag about the memory of elephants, not realizing that animals in our midst have excellent memories, as well. Cattle know where home is, and they know where the calving grounds are that make them the most comfortable. If two or three cows get through a fence dividing properties or cattle ranges, they have a primordial sense that they’re in the wrong spot, and when the time comes to move the majority of the herd, those two or three (or more) will hang back, knowing they should be with a different herd. That’s true for the most part, anyway.
I know, I know, you’re going to bring up the cows at Conundrum, those cows that got stranded at the hot springs several years ago because they didn’t know where home was and no one came to get them. Unfortunately, and out of character for cattle, they had wandered over a high mountain pass to get to the Conundrum drainage, which was fine as long as the weather held, but when the snow came, it triggered an instinct in the cows to be going down in altitude to home. Alas, the Conundrum trail was utterly unfamiliar, and it was unthinkable for them to go higher and retrace their steps in the cold weather, so the cows, inescapably bewildered by their predicament, starved to death at the springs, victims of their usually infallible instincts and memories. It was a tragic story and a dirty trick of nature on the cows.
Billy and I pulled out of the lead to block a road going around the huge hay barn, and by the time we got around the barn and back to the main trail, the herd had passed us by. John had moved up to the middle of the herd to keep them going and Niki was bringing up the rear. About then, the cattle hit the asphalt of the main trail and picked up the pace, knowing they were headed for home. Niki pushed on ahead, leaving me to ride drag.
My dog, Topper, who hadn’t seen much action this past summer, was in cow dog heaven, pushing the beasts up the road. Unlike many cow dogs, Topper doesn’t attack; he stays in the back, coolly nudging the cattle along, occasionally taking a nip at the most recalcitrant of the bunch, but generally just letting his presence and attitude move the cows along. I’m pretty sure I could stop for lunch and by the time I caught up again, Topper would have pushed the cows up the trail a mile or two, wondering where the hell I’d been.
And before it even seemed like work, we reached the calving grounds and were done. Billy, Topper and I headed for home and lunch. You can’t buy a day any better than that.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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