For three years, the young bay horse had run free on the ranch in central Colorado, moving with his herd through open grasslands and thickets of pinion and pine trees. His only contact with humans was when the herd was being chased by mounted cowboys, only to be penned up in a small corral. Most of his memories of those few occasions were associated with discomfort or pain. He remembered running hard in the midst of the herd, excited, but also uncertain of what was to happen. In spite of his nervousness, he drew strength from his herd mates, secure in their surroundings. The herd was everything. It was his basis for social interactions, communications, and life itself, but that was all about to change.
Early one morning, the young horse was chased into a small, round enclosure of vertically secured, split logs. Around the pen he ran, desperate to find a way out, frantic to return to the safety of the herd. He could smell and hear the herd on the opposite side of the fence. Hunger finally overcame panic and his eyes settled on the small pile of hay in the middle of the pen. For the next hour he split his attention between munching the hay and calling to his herd mates. Their answering neighs reassured the young horse and soon he was standing quietly against the log fence.
His peace was interrupted when a gated section of the fence opened and a human walked in to the pen. She wore faded denim shirts and jeans, full length leather chaps, a dusty cowboy hat and carried a coiled lariat in her left hand. With thick, brown hair, smooth skin and an ever-present grin, Sandy had a hard time disguising her beauty. But the colt only saw was a funny two legged horse that chased him and his herd mates.
The young bay nervously trotted to the far side of the pen as Sandy walked towards the remains of the hay pile. Soon she began moving towards him and he did what he always did - run away. But in the round pen, he couldn’t run far and there were no corners in which to hide. Never getting too close, the human always seemed to apply pressure behind him and his response was to run away. Suddenly, Sandy changed her angle and stepped in the direction he was running. He heard the word “whoa”, as he ground to a stop. When the colt turned and went the other direction, his ears picked up the sound “get up”.
On and on the human chased him around the pen. To him it seemed like forever. ‘Would she ever stop’? he wondered. As time went on, he kept his eye on the stranger, trying to anticipate when she would step towards his front, thus causing him to run in the other direction. After a while, even before Sandy had a chance to step towards his front, he would break to a stop when he heard the word “whoa”. Somewhere in the back of his mind, everything began to make sense. ‘This is just like what the mares do to me in the herd’, he thought. ‘When the mares are telling me that they outrank me, they chase me away!’ The more he thought on the subject, the more he licked his lips, an unconscious gesture that signaled the human that he now understood his lower ranking status in the new herd, which consisted of just him and her.
Suddenly, he knew it was time to assume his rank in the new herd. Coming to a stop, he assumed a submissive posture and slowly began walking towards the woman. ‘Will she accept me as part of the herd?’, he wondered. Approaching to within a couple a feet, he patiently awaited acceptance from his new lead mare.
Sandy was thrilled, but managed to maintain her composure. She had witnessed the same thing with dozens of different horses in the round pen, but the moment of ‘joining up’ with a horse is still very magical. After a moment, she reached out and rubbed the young horse on the side of the neck. There was a slight cringe when her hand first touched him, after which the colt was careful to stand very still. With her hands in her pockets, Sandy slowly walked around the bay, pretending not to watch him as he stoically put up with her presence. Moving around to his neck, she reached into her shirt pocket and pulled out a sugar cube. At first he tried to ignore her, but as Sandy’s hand got closer, his flaring nostrils picked up the tantalizing scent of the sugar. With the dexterity of elephant’s trunk, a pair of lips reached out to lift the cube from her hand.
Turing away from the bay, the young lady started slowly walking around the pen. She didn’t have to look behind her to know that the colt was only a foot or so to her rear. Every few feet Sandy would say “whoa” and come to a halt, knowing that her new found shadow was faithfully doing the same.
Approaching the gate the woman turned to the horse and said, “That’s enough for one day. Let’s end it on a good note.” Opening the gate, she walked into the other paddock, leaving it open for the young horse to rejoin his herd.
On the way from the corral to her little cabin, nestled under the cottonwood trees, she soaked in her surroundings. The ranch buildings were randomly scattered over several green acres, set in to a small valley. The backdrop for the ranch included lofty mesas that were covered with twenty foot high pinion and juniper trees. Small fingers of lofty ponderosa pines wound their way down from the top of the mesa on the northern and western slopes of the hillsides, contrasting sharply with the red sandstone of exposed rock faces. Interspersed between the trees, a thick layer of blue-green grass provided rich grazing for the ranch cattle.
The ranch was large; encompassing over a hundred square miles of land, but that was only part of its value. In addition to the rich grazing on the ranch itself, there were tracts of federal land that could be used to provide spring, summer and fall pasture. These tracts or allotments on National Forrest and Bureau of Land Management land were historically passed down from generation to generation. The ranch had ‘grandfather’ rights to several hundred square miles of grazing in the Cimarron and Sneffels Mountain Ranges.
A few years back, Sandy decided to pursue her dream of being a cowgirl in the American West. So, with her quarter horse Buck loaded in the horse trailer, she left the home farm in Illinois and headed west. Through sheer audacity she secured a job on the ranch owned by the old cattleman. What followed was a lot of hard work and adventure. Try as she might, Sandy couldn’t think of anything she would rather be doing.
Approaching her cabin, she ran into a ranch hand named Miguel. “Hola Senorita”, he greeted her. “The boss man, asked me to help you get the team and the wagon ready for the big cattle drive”.
“When are we leaving?”, she asked him.
“The day after tomorrow we will gather the cattle at the Lazy R ranch. Then it will take three days to drive them up to the National Forrest in the Cimarron Mountains. It will be a grand time, much like it was in the old days when I took my sheep out for summer grazing”, he added. “I think the boss man did not want me to tell you, but I cannot keep a secret – for the first part of the summer, you and I will share the job of watching over the big herd. I will stay with them for half of the week, and then you will watch them for the other half”.
Looking a little confused, Sandy asked, “Why are we babysitting these cattle Miguel? All of the other herds fend for themselves on summer grazing”.
“There are two problems Senorita. The first one is that the cows keep drifting down the mountain, leaving the good grass in the higher meadows. It will be our job to keep pushing them up in to the higher parks where they will fatten. The second problem is a big one. There is a large bear in the Cimarron Mountains that likes to kill and eat young calves. But he is also growing bold in his old age. Only last year, a tourist saw this bear kill and eat one of the big ranch bulls.”
“Doesn’t the Department of Wildlife compensate ranchers that lose stock from predators?” she asked.
“Si Senorita, but it is not always easy to prove that it was a bear that killed the cow. Also, it takes much time to find and show them the kill. Then, they take even longer to pay the money. I think the boss wants the problem to quietly disappear. Do you know what I mean?” he asked.
“Yes Miguel, I know just what the boss wants. He wants someone to – Shoot, Shovel and Shut up.”
“Senorita, I think these were exactly the words he used.”
As they walked towards the barn, Sandy started picking Miguel’s brain on what it was like to summer over with a herd of cattle. As an old time Basque sheepherder, originally from northern Spain, Miguel had spent half of his life caring for animals high in the mountains.
He did his best to respond to all her questions, summarizing by saying, “It’s the best life that anyone could ask for. To live in the high mountains, surrounded by the grandest beauty that god has created, to live with the wild animals, the forest and the fields, to tend the cows and keep them healthy; all of these things are the finest in the world.”
Two days later, the cattle drive was underway. Stretched out for nearly a mile, 500 cow/calf pairs were making the long trek south, up a gravel road to forested pasture lands high in the Cimarron Mountains. Bunches of cows seemed to move in waves as they occasionally stopped to graze on the grass growing along the road. Up and down the line of travel, solitary cowhands worked hard to keep the cattle from breaking away and scattering into the surrounding brush. Although it was still early in the day, their mounts were already streaked in sweat, with small flecks of white foam appearing between the horses’ legs. Bring up the rear and keeping the cows moving down the road were the old ranch owner and his foreman Steve. Last in line, Billie and Marti, a pair of black Percheron draft mares, pulled a horse drawn wagon, behind which rolled a two wheeled trailer, loaded with supplies. Miguel sat on the front of the wagon, holding the leather lines which controlled the powerful team.
Up ahead, a ripple appeared in the wave of cattle as a bunch of cows headed down a small gully, choked with pinion and juniper trees. A cowgirl in a red checkered shirt put her heels to her horse and blasted after them, riding low in the saddle to avoid overhead branches. Swinging a coiled lariat into the face of the leading cow, she caused it to turn sharply and bolt back for the road. Hauling back on the reins, the cowgirl spun her mount in to a tight 180 degree turn and raced back to intercept other cattle that had followed the first into the trees. At this display of horsemanship, Steve turned to the old cattleman and said, “Sandy sure does get after them.”
“That she does”, was his only reply.
The first night on the road the cowhands made camp at a local ranch, while the cattle were bedded down in a large corral alongside the road. Everyone was bone tired, but managed to rally for an evening campfire. The first night on the trail was traditionally a festive occasion and everyone did their best to whoop it up and have a great time. Families and friends showed up and it soon became quite an affair. Later in the evening, someone talked Miguel in to telling the story of the bull and the bear.
“All summer long, I was losing calves. Sometimes I would go two weeks before losing one; other weeks I would find three dead calves in a week. One day, a camper told me that a bull had been killed over on the West Fork of the Cimarron River and that a tourist had seen the bear kill the animal. I rode over to look at the dead bull and to talk to the tourist. The man said that the bear ran out of the trees and attacked the bull from the side. The initial rush just knocked him down. Then the bear grabbed the bull by the neck and held on to him until he has stopped kicking. But the strangest thing is what the bear did next. Instead of eating the dead animal, the bear started burying the animal with dirt, pine needles and sticks. It’s like he wanted to save him for a later meal.”
“Now that’s creepy”, one of the cowboys added.
With a serious look on his face, Miguel continued, “Amigo, I don’t go anywhere in the Cimarron’s without a gun. All the time I was looking at the dead bull, I kept getting a weird feeling, like something was watching me, waiting for the right moment to jump out of the brush and tear me apart.”
Just then, Miguel leapt towards the cowboy, roaring and waving his arms. In his haste to escape from ‘Miguel, the Mad Bear’, the cowhand collided with several other people sitting around the fire. The stunned onlookers slowly caught on as Miguel started laughing, until everyone was caught up in the hilarity. Sandy laughed so hard her belly hurt and she could feel tears forming on the corner of her eyes.
Later that night, Miguel pulled Sandy aside and said, “Senorita, I wasn’t kidding about everything. When you go into the mountains, carry a gun.”
About halfway through the second day on the trail, the road began winding through aspen and pine trees. As the trees closed in, the soft green was pleasant to the eyes. The jagged rock formations of the mountains were occasionally obscured by the lofty forest, but closer up they were even more spectacular. The edge of the National Forest was marked by a cattle guard, stretching across the road. Off to the side, a wire ‘go-around gate’ was open, allowing the cattle a way to get by the cattle guard. Just after pushing the cows over the Cimarron River Bridge, the cowboys spread the herd out along the river for a drink of water. On the opposite side of the road, was another set of corrals, where the cattle would spend their second night on the trail.
The last day of the drive started bright and sunny, but by midmorning the sky started to darken with the promise of an afternoon rain shower. The objective was to get the cattle as high as possible. A wet spring had left an abundance of grass, but there was still snow on the higher peaks and valleys. A few miles into the day’s journey, a couple of cowhands gathered 200 head and started driving them to the meadow around the Silverjack reservoir. Other groups of cattle were herded up the Middle and West Forks of the Cimarron River, while Sandy and Miguel took the remaining cows up the East Fork of the river.
Sandy and Miguel set up their cow camp in a large meadow on the East Fork of the Cimarron River. Using some portable electric fencing, they built a large pasture for the draft and riding horses. A small stream meandered through the grass, providing abundant water for the stock. The rock formations in the Cimarron Mountains are some of the most spectacular anywhere, with lofty granite spires interspaced between the peaks and valleys. With roaring rivers, vast meadows and thick stands of spruce and aspen, it was a storybook setting.
When the trucks and trailers showed up to transport the cowhands back to the ranch, Miguel left as well, promising to relieve her in a few days. Remembering some beaver ponds, located about a mile down the valley, Sandy picked up her fly rod and went looking for supper.
With the skies darkening and the first stars winking into night sky, Sandy leaned back in her chair beside the wagon and gave thanks for everything. ‘What a wonderful place and what a wonderful job I have’, she thought. By the time the fire died into a bed of red coals and the night was beginning to cool, she took comfort from the warm cup of coffee in her hand Soon, the brilliant bands of the Milky Way galaxy were painted across the heavens and with a sigh of contentment, she doused the fire and climbed into the wagon. She fell asleep with coyotes yelping to each other, the sound reverberating through the valleys and off the mountainsides.
The sun was still below the surrounding peaks when Sandy climbed into the saddle and turned her horse, Buck, up the trail, eager to see how the cattle were faring. Everywhere she went; small groups of cattle were drifting down the mountains. She started Buck after the first group. He caught on quickly and without any coaching, started pushing the cows back up the road.
Noon found her overlooking a high mountain park, sitting on a rock and eating her lunch. Near the head of the meadow, she watched several elk walk out of the tree line, searching for sweet, green shoots of spring grass. The elk cows were heavy, for calving time was not far away.
In the afternoon, she checked on the last group of cattle. Before returning to camp Sandy decided to search the river bank for any recent bear sign. Turning her mount into the trees, she made sure the 44-40 caliber, lever action rifle was seated firmly in the scabbard under her leg. Recalling Miguel’s words of caution, she also checked to ensure that the leather holster strap, holding her .357 revolver was still fastened. For two hours, she carefully made her way up the Middle Fork of the river, casting her eyes about for any bear sign.
Near a pile of old driftwood, she found a solitary track where a bear had climbed away from the river. Her pulse quickened and the hair stood up on the back of her neck, as she saw the size of the print. Made from one of his front paws, the indentation in the mud was longer than the foot of a full grown man. She had an empty feeling in her stomach and for one of the few times in her life; Sandy knew the meaning of fear.
That night, and for the next few days that followed, the easy, relaxed setting of her first evening in the wilderness was replaced with an uneasiness. But, slowly she began to calm down, learning to trust the sharper senses of the horses to detect any threats.
In the middle of the week, Miguel showed up to relieve her. Sandy took the truck back to the ranch, grateful for a few days to unwind. Much of the time she spent working with the young bay horse and every day she saw a remarkable improvement in his training.
After a couple more ‘join-up’ sessions in the round pen, Sandy started ‘desensitizing’ him. This began as a normal join-up, but as he ran around in a circle, she used the lariat to lasso him around the neck. Instead of pulling the noose tight, Sandy left it slack, until he actually stepped through the noose, letting it slip behind his front legs. The colt was initially frightened, but accepted it as he was learning to trust his new lead mare. Sandy then started snaking the rope around, using her wrist to allow a coil to settle over his neck, withers or hindquarters. As he grew used to each variation of the rope’s position, she would add another twist. All the time, the young horse was getting used to the feeling of things touching different portions of his body. After the first session desensitizing the colt, Sandy had no difficulty haltering him. The bay horse even lowered his head so she didn’t have to reach up to place the halter behind his ears.
Before heading back to the mountains, Sandy had one more training session with the young horse. Her goal this time was to saddle and bridle him for the first time.
When the rope sailed around his neck, the horse wasn’t scared. ’This is familiar and doesn’t hurt me’, he thought. ’My new lead mare is teaching me things, just like the mares in my herd have taught me all my life. There are things I must accept in the life of the herd. I trust her.’ Soon, she lowered the hand that was holding the rope and stood still. The colt knew it was now okay to walk up to his ‘mare’ and be accepted.
Removing the coil of rope from around his neck, the human snapped a lead rope to the halter and let the other end drop to the ground. As she walked around him, he knew he was supposed to stand still until the mare told him to move. Walking over to the fence the mare picked up a saddle blanket and walked slowly towards his head. As she positioned the blanket by his nose, he smelled it and thought, ‘I don’t smell any danger in this new thing’. Then, she started rubbing her hand on his neck. Soon, she replaced her hand on his neck with the saddle blanket and began rubbing his neck the blanket. ‘This doesn’t feel dangerous’, he thought. By the time the saddle blanket made it onto his back, he wasn’t worried at all.
Soon, he was saddled and bridled as well. He had a couple of tense moments when the saddle girth was tightened and when the bit was placed in his mouth, but her gentle hands and soothing voice relaxed him, as he knew she wasn’t going to hurt him. Unsnapping the lead rope, the mare told him to “get up”, and he obediently followed, a pace behind her as she walked in front of him around the pen.
Snapping on his lead rope, Sandy began unsaddling and unbridling the young horse. As she worked, she talked to him in a calm voice, “Boy, you remind me of an old dog that I used to have. You’re both smart and kind. I think I’ll call you Buster.”
Returning to the mountains, she found that Miguel had moved the camp down the meadow, providing fresh grazing for their small herd of horses. With a new supply of groceries, Sandy prepared breakfast over the campfire as she listened to Miguel recall his time spent with the cattle.
With the tantalizing smell of bacon simmering in the pan, her partner sipped a cup of coffee and told his story, “Until this morning, there was nothing unusual; but, just after sunrise I walked to the top of the small knoll behind us to look the country over. Everything seemed fine, until I looked to the south. Three or four miles away, on the middle fork of the river, I saw vultures circling above the tree line. It’s probably nothing, but I think you and I should check it out.”
With a concerned look on her face, Sandy said, “Miguel, it’s your day off. I can ride over there by myself.”
“No Senorita, I think it is better that we both go see what the vultures have found.”
For the morning ride, Sandy threw a saddle on ‘Rick’, a stout little paint that was often used on hunting trips as a pack horse. She rarely rode the same horse two days in a row, giving Buck a day off. With a smile, she recalled the words of ‘Beanpole’, a young cowboy on the ranch, “The only time I ride a horse for two days in a row, is when I want to punish him“.
Reaching the area of interest, it didn’t take long for the two of them to find what interested the buzzards. Hidden just inside a line of spruce trees were the half eaten remains of a calf. Whatever had made the kill had started chewing the underside, before moving on to the back and one of the hindquarters. From the sign, the calf had been killed in the meadow, before the carcass had been pulled into the trees, and then partially covered with dirt and pine needles.
Dismounting, Miguel tied his mare and started casting around the area for sign.
About to dismount herself, Sandy heard Miguel call to her with an excited voice. Shucking her rifle from the scabbard, she tied the paint and headed into the forest, following his voice.
Following the direction of his eyes, Sandy saw the huge tracks of a bear painted across a small clearing that was free of pine needles.
“Madre de Dios”, he muttered. “This is truly, a very large bear.”
Sandy got a queasy, empty feeling in her stomach when she thought of what they must do.
While she went to tie their horses on the other side of the clearing, upwind of the kill, Miguel started working out the spoor. She caught up with him before long. Together, they silently walked through the trees, following the sign. The tracks were easy to follow and for a half hour they kept a good pace. Coming to the edge of a large, talus slope made of broken rock, the trail disappeared. They spent another fifteen minutes looking for where the bear had left the rock, but the spoor had run cold and they couldn’t find it.
While Miguel voiced his disappointment, deep inside, Sandy felt a wave of relief. Even though her duty was clear, she had no desire to meet up with this huge creature in the tight confines of the forest. Making their way back through the woods, Miguel and Sandy kept up a light banter, both feeling an inner relief at putting off an encounter with the bear.
Walking into the meadow where they tied the horses, both of them shouted with surprise when they saw that they were missing. Where the horses had been tied, the earth was torn up from their hooves. Back at the remains of the calf, they found fresh bear sign.
“While we were tracking him, he circled back around to his kill”, Miguel uttered.
“Did the horse run away when they saw him?”, asked Sandy.
“No Sandy, it was not the sight of the bear that frightened them; it was the smell. A bear smells much like a pig. The scent will always frighten a horse. Even now, you can smell that he was here. He smells very strong, but later in the summer when he starts eating berries, his odor is much stronger.”
“You’re right Miguel, I can smell him.”
Walking back to camp, both of them carried their rifles at the ready, not sure if they were being shadowed by the great beast. At camp, they found their mounts, standing outside the electric fence, seeking comfort from their herd mates.
As Miguel was getting ready to leave for his time off, he gave Sandy some parting advice, “Don’t take any chances with this bear, Senorita. He is big, strong and cunning. He has ruled these mountains for years, afraid of nothing. Most bears would spend the summer eating berries or looking for grubs and ants to eat. Not him, he has developed a taste for meat and knows how to kill.”
“Don’t worry Miguel, I’ll be careful. Have a good time with your family and enjoy your time off”.
“Si, tomorrow I am taking my boys fishing. There is nothing they like more than going fishing with their Papa”!
The next few days passed quickly as Sandy followed the retreating snowline and pushed the cattle ever higher in the mountains. Nature was in a hurry in the high alpine country. It seemed that as soon as the snow left the ground the green grass sprouted and grew to abundance. The high quality grazing was extremely nutritious, providing a two to three pound weight gain each day in the young cattle. To keep them in good shape, she was constantly busy, pushing the cows as high on the mountains as she could.
The day after relieving her partner, a Department of Wildlife Officer showed up to see the dead calf and gather facts for his report. Until Sandy showed him the bear’s sign, he was a little skeptical that a bear had made the kill. When he saw the size of the tracks, he quickly filled in all the blanks and retreated to his truck.
‘Wow’, Sandy thought. ‘I bet the boss doesn’t have a hard time convincing them to pay for that dead calf’!
By the time Miguel relieved her once again, Sandy’s spirits were lifted and she looked forward to working with the young horse - Buster.
Walking into the round pen, Sandy decided to right away advance to the next step in his training. In addition to the saddle and bridle, she also brought a set of long driving lines, much like those used to control the big draft horses. After saddling him up, she fastened the ends to his bridle, and ran the leather through the dangling stirrups. Stepping behind the horse, Sandy told him to “Get up”.
As the young horse walked off, he thought, ‘What is this? My lead mare is now walking behind and telling me to go. Oh, I can do this. Now, I feel pressure on the right corner of my mouth. If I turn my head and body towards the pressure, it goes away. And when the pressure is on the left corner of my mouth, I have only to turn my head in that direction and it goes away. I can do this’! When the pressure was on both sides of his mouth and he heard the word “whoa”, he knew that he had to stop and stand very still.
As he was doing so well, Sandy knew she could go right to the next step in his training. Leaving him tied to a fence, she went back to the barn for a fifty pound sack of oats. Before walking into the pen, she took the sack off her shoulder and held it in her arm. Hoisting the oats up to the saddle, she slowly let its weight come to rest on his back. Buster continued to stand still, so she walked up and fed him a sugar cube, then, using a piece of rope, she tied the oats to the saddle. Picking up the driving lines, Sandy once more began driving him around the pen. As he mastered being driven, she introduced a few variations. First she moved over and started driving him from the side. Then, she picked up the pace a little and taught him how to drive at a trot. He quickly learned that the word “easy” meant to slow from a trot to a walk.
Some people believed that to prevent a horse from getting a ‘hard mouth’, a trainer should never start a him with a bit. Over the years Sandy had figured out that it was okay to use a bit, she just had to go easy on the lines, careful not to overdo the amount of pressure. To ensure she didn’t yank on him too hard, Sandy learned to ‘feel’ the horse’s mouth through the lines.
The next day, Sandy decided to take the next step - she was going to ride Buster. After saddling and bridling him, she led him to the center of the pen. Walking to his side, she reached up and grabbed the saddle horn. Hanging from the horn, she let more and more of her weight rest on the horse’s back. At first he was a little hesitant, shuffling slightly to the side, but her soothing voice reassured him and he stood for the increased weight. Before he could think too hard on the subject, she gathered the reins in her hand, reached up and put her left boot in the stirrup.
As she threw her right leg over the saddle and settled her full weight on his back, the young horse felt just a moment of fear. ‘What is this’, he thought. But as her hand reached up to stroke his neck and she softly spoke to him, he calmed down. As a measure of calm returned, his previous training helped it all make sense. ‘This is my lead mare. Even though her weight is on my back and her legs on my sides, I know that weight is not a problem, nor are things that touch me on my sides’.
And as she told him to “get up”, he knew that she was driving him, just as she had before. The only difference was that instead of driving me from behind or off to the side, she was driving him while sitting on his back. ‘I can do this’, he thought. ‘It’s all familiar’.
For Sandy, a horse’s first ride was a magical thing. With just a little bit of the right training, a powerful animal could be taught to do her bidding without any stress or bucking. ‘If only everything in life was this simple’, she thought.
For the next couple of weeks, everything ran like clockwork. As the snow retreated above timberline, large parks of rich grass were exposed and the cattle were content to remain in the high country. She never went anywhere without a gun, but neither her nor Miguel found any more dead cattle or bear sign.
On her off days, she continued to work with Buster, first in the round pen, then, as his training advanced, with rides around the ranch. First she used a ‘sliding check’ to teach him how to neck rein. As his abilities grew, she also taught him how to respond to knee pressure.
During her fourth week in the mountains, Sandy discovered another bear kill. This time it was a full grown cow, lying half in a small stream caused by the melting snow. As the kill was still fresh, she decided that it was time to do something about the situation. Choosing a spot on a knoll, several hundred feet downwind, she gathered up some brush and built a blind, from which she had a clear shot at the dead cow.
It was late in the day, so she rode back to camp for the night. Early the next morning, long before sunup, she left the horses in their pen and started the long walk back to the dead cow. The sun was just cresting the ridgeline when she settled into the blind. All day long she patiently waited for the bear to return to his kill. The only visitors it received were a couple of gray foxes and a small flock of ravens.
A couple of hours short of sunset, Sandy had run out of both patience and time. Picking up her rifle, she started the long trek back to camp.
A mile down the trail, she stopped and drew a deep breath. There, superimposed over her own tracks, made when she walked up this morning, was a large bear track. Jacking a shell into the chamber of her rifle, she looked in all directions, hoping she wouldn’t discover the large bruin standing behind her. With her pulse rate exploding and an uneasy feeling she started down the trail, seeing a neat line of tracks overlaying her own. The bear had backtracked over her previous sign and was heading towards her camp. Not wishing to come face to face with this creature on the trail, she quickly turned off and selected an alternative route.
It was close to dark when she finally walked into camp. Before preparing supper, she tied Buck to the side of the wagon, trusting his keen senses to detect and warn her of any visitors during the night.
All night long Sandy slept with her revolver close at hand, several times, rising from her slumber, gun in hand, to check on the horses.
The next morning, when Miguel showed up, it was a very tired lady that told him the story. “Miguel, this creature is absolutely creepy. It’s like he’s watching me all the time, just waiting for the right moment. Even around camp I find myself continuously looking over my shoulder”.
“Senorita, he is only a bear. He is old and smart, but sometime soon he will make a mistake and then he will be a problem no longer. With my gun, I will see to that!”
The next few days flew by. Buster had now progressed to the stage when she could start working him with cattle. Thanks to the early desensitizing training, he quickly adjusted to the sound and sight of a twirling lasso over his head. As for working with cattle; well, impressed in his genes were a hundred years of quarter horse breeding. He didn’t have to be taught how to move cows, it just came to him naturally.
Sandy returned to the mountains refreshed and determined to do her best while looking after the cattle. The first day, she saddled Buck and climbed a snake-like trail to the top of a ridgeline. Walking her mount down a thin trail on the top, she used her binoculars to check on several groups of cattle, grazing above tree line, in the open hollows below her.
The second day of her shift started out well. Throwing a saddle on Rick, she rode the paint back to the northwest, anxious to see how the cattle were making out over by the reservoir. After ensuring the cows on the south side of the lake were fine, she turned north, aiming for the Fox Creek drainage. Passing the dam on the north side of the lake, Sandy turned into the aspen and wound her way north for another mile. As the steep hillside on her left half way to a low saddle, she turned her mount to the west and rode towards the creek.
It was tough going up the creek valley with alternating thick stand of spruce and aspen, but Rick was a good trail horse and did a great job winding his way through the timber, nimbly stepping over, or going around a maze of deadfalls.
Later, she would remember hearing a raven’s cry, shortly before she felt a large blow to her side, followed by her head colliding with a tree. Then, there was nothing, only blackness.
She awoke to a strange scratching sound and the feeling of being pushed around. Consciousness returned slowly and it wasn’t until she smelled a fetid odor, that she became fully awake and her thoughts cleared. With a heart-stopping revulsion, she instantly recognized the smell, the same one she had first sensed long ago during the trip to the zoo with her family. The bear was standing over her. As she realized that he was burying her in a pile of forest refuse, her heart seemed to stand still and the bile rose in her throat. It took all of her will power to keep from vomiting the contents of her stomach. She knew that as soon as showed any sign of life, the creature above her would turn on her and she would be dead.
As often happens in moments of extreme terror, her mind drifted off to a faraway place, a safer location, one that didn’t have a creature from hell burying her alive.
When she opened her eyes again, the bear was gone. A deep pain in her hip and side helped clear the fog as she took in her predicament. Without moving a muscle, she listened carefully for sign of the beast as her eyes tried to pierce a thin layer of old leaves. Several terrified minutes later, she came to the conclusion that he was no longer close by. Moving up her left hand, she wiped the rotting leaves from her face, but as she tried to lift her head, a deep throbbing there revealed that her injuries were not limited to her right side.
For all her pain and terror, there was one thing Sandy knew; she had to move, she had to leave this place before the bear returned for his supper. With every bit of willpower she had, Sandy forced herself to roll out of the debris. As she came over on her right side, she nearly cried aloud with pain.
With every bit of determination that her fear and pain racked body could muster, she began to crawl, heading down hill, back towards the river. Every so often she either passed out or just faded off. But, all through the long night she crawled on. Later, Sandy wouldn’t know what it was that kept her going. Every time she felt like giving up, the horror of what she had been through and terror of what could be, gave her the strength to keep going.
It was almost morning when she had a dream. In one of her brief spells of unconsciousness, she dreamt that she was taking a nap in a field. In her dreams she awoke to the feeling of old Buck licking her face. Opening her eyes, Sandy thought she was being delusional, for there before he eyes was her horse. “Good ‘Ol Buck”, she said, her voice scarcely more than a throaty whisper.
Knowing this was her only hope for salvation, Sandy tried to stand, but could only rise to one knee. She couldn’t get her right leg to bend and fell heavily to her side, passing out with the pain.
When she awoke, it was to the sight of Buck lying down on his chest beside her. He lay perfectly still as she crawled past his powerful legs and on to his back. Wincing with pain, she pulled her right leg across his back, grasped his mane with all her strength and croaked, “Get up there Buck”.
Sandy almost fell off when he threw his forelegs out, gathered his hind legs under him, and lurched to his feet. Somehow she managed to keep her precarious seat across his back as he started walking east, toward the river. With all her might, she held on as he forded the river and began winding his way up the hillside, towards the road.
As Buck gave a lurch to top a small rise, at the edge of the road, Sandy fell off; and that was the last she could recall.
The next thing Sandy remembered was when she awoke in a hospital bed, the strange surroundings, harsh and white, were unpleasant to the eye. Seated in a chair next to the bed was her boss, the old cattleman.
“The bear”, she exclaimed in a frightened voice. “How did I get here”, she asked.
“Calm down Sandy. That bear is a long way from here. When your paint horse showed up at a ranch down at the flats, all covered with blood, we thought you were a goner. We searched high and low. Then, we when driving down the road below the reservoir, we saw your horse Buck, standing over you like a guardian angel.”
“But the bear, he’ll come back”, she whispered.
“Sandy, you’re the closest thing I ever had to a daughter, so I’m going to tell you something. I’m ninety six years old and I’ve about seen it all, but what I’m going to tell you about was when I was only ten years old.”
“It was during the last of the range wars fought in Colorado that my brother was killed; shot in back by a no-good gunman hired by a ranch in the area. They called us nesters and did everything they could to force us off the land. When my brother was lying in his coffin, my mother, sisters and baby brother were all standing over his body weeping. My daddy was down south, working the mines, trying to make a living for his family. Right then, I got scared, real scared. I was terrified that those bad men were going to come and shoot down me and my family. I went home that night and kept waking up, thinking that every noise was someone coming to get us.”
“What did you do”, she asked.
“I got mad”, he replied. “Not all at once, but it built up in me over a few days. And the madder I got, the less scared I was. Finally, I got so mad, I picked up my daddy’s revolver and headed down to the store, where I knew that riff-raff were drinking and talking it up. They never noticed a snot-nosed kid coming in the door. Not ‘til I shucked my gun and shot that no-account gunman that killed by brother. Crippled him for life, I did. That’s one thing I’ll never regret.”
“So, I say this to you Sandy - get mad; then get even. Sandy, you need to Cowgirl Up!
“Yes Sir”, she replied.
Three days later, Miguel stopped in to see her.
“Senorita”, he said. “It is a very sad thing that has happened to you. I am sorry that it was you and not me that was injured. In my country the matadors who fight the bulls in the ring have on old saying - Sometime the Bull Wins!”
With a hard set to her jaw, Sandy looked him in the eye and growled, “Like Hell, they do!”
It was late September and the cattle were back on the road, being driven by a bunch of cowhands. Up ahead, a cowgirl slid her bay quarter horse down a steep bank and into a thick stand of willow trees that were growing along river’s edge. The willow branches seem to explode as the horse and rider pursued a couple of cows that were making a dash for the thick cover. “Get ‘em Buster”, she hollered, as they hit the wall of thick brush. With branches nearly knocking the girl out of the saddle, they rounded up cattle and pushed them back on to the gravel surface.
As the young bay horse climbed back on to the road, a cowhand turned to the old cattleman and said, “Boss, that Sandy sure does Cowgirl Up”.
“I know that”, was his only reply.
A month later, an old bear had just finished digging out a new winter den at the base of an old spruce tree. For twelve years he had ruled over these mountains, strong and cunning in the ways of nature and men. He was a proud bear and feared little in this world.
As he prepared to curl up in the hole and began his long winter sleep, he thought back with relish to the fine meals of deep, red cow flesh he ate this year. Even though he was rolling in fat and growing sleepy, the thought of sinking his head in a calf’s belly gave him comfort.
He believed he was wise in the ways of men; but, if he could have seen the fiery look in the eyes of a certain cowgirl, he would have tossed and turned all winter long.