For the Love of Buck
By Bob Skelding
Copyright 2009 by Bob Skelding
All Rights Reserved
For the Love of Buck
The trail wound down the side of the canyon like a rusty red serpent. High desert scrub clung to dirt between rocks, stained by ancient flows of water. Sandy marveled at how her Quarter Horse Buck maintained his footing while his front feet absorbed their combined weight as he traveled down the steep path.
High overhead a golden eagle soared on air heated by the early afternoon sun, bringing promise of intense heat for the afternoon hours. Shimmering heat wave could already be seen moving off the face of the rock.
The stream bed at the bottom, like many here in southeastern Utah appeared to be dry; however, a couple of miles to the north, at a bend in the canyon Sandy saw a smudge of green vegetation which might indicate the presence of water. Nearly two days had passed since she had last discovered water and Sandy was anxious for an opportunity to refill her half empty canteens and the large water bag hanging from her saddle horn. Last night, she had burned the spines off some prickly pear cactus. The cactus pulp had provided Buck with some much needed moisture.
Winding down the switchbacks in the trail, Sandy kept her eye on the green smudge of the creek bottom, anxious for more details that might provide her with support for her theory about the presence of water. She was half way down the wall of the canyon before the sun had risen sufficiently to cause a sparkling reflection next to the canyon wall above the green smudge. ‘Even out here, mankind has left his trash’, she thought.
Nearing the bottom of the canyon, Sandy lost sight of the dry river bed. It wasn’t until the trail neared the bend in the river that she again spotted the copse of trees at the point where the river was forced by sheer rock walls to turn towards the west. Walking Buck along the edge, she was disappointed to find no pool of water in the bottom of the gorge. A movement of Buck’s ears caused her to glance up, revealing the wreckage of a light airplane. “What did you hear boy”? she asked her horse. “Is there somebody up there”?
Tying Buck to a mesquite tree, Sandy worked her way across the gorge to the wreckage strewn across the rock face. Wings and other pieces of bent and broken aluminum lay between her and the largely intact fuselage. She was about to look in the fuselage, when she spied a pair of legs protruding from under a broken door. Pulling the wreckage free, she beheld a bearded man is his mid thirties. She was about to check for a pulse when he moved his cracked lips and said, “The kids - how are the kids”?
“I’ll check,” she mumbled as she poked her head through the missing pilot’s door and began surveying the interior of the plane. A dead man in the copilot’s seat stared at her through unseeing eyes. Curled together in the back of the plane she saw a small group of kids huddled together.
Looking up, one said to her, “I want my mommy”.
“You wait dear, we’ll get you to your mommy”, she replied. With her words, all three kids began moving around.
Walking back to the injured man, Sandy asked, “Are there just three kids”?
“Yeah, two boys and a girl, he replied.
“They seem to be okay”, she said. “But the other guy in the front seat is gone”.
“That was my brother. I was afraid he didn’t make it. I tried calling out to him, but he wouldn’t answer”, the man sobbed.
The next few minutes were busy ones. First, Sandy splinted the wounded man’s leg and tried to make him comfortable. It then took several minutes to get the children out of the plane’s wreckage. After checking them over and finding them relatively free from injury, she sat them by her father while she went to rig a travois to transport him.
Using rawhide strings, poles and her poncho, she rigged a travois and scooted the man on to it. Since she couldn’t lead Buck up to the man, she used her lasso and a lot of coxing to her gelding to work him across the gorge. Once across, she led the kids and the horse to a camping spot in the lee of some boulders.
A supply of water was foremost on Sandy’s mind as she went back to inspect the gorge filled with trees. ‘Maybe, there’s water under the sand still feeding the trees’, she thought. Picking a likely spot, she put the kids to work scraping at the sand using pieces of wreckage from the plane. While the kids were busy, she went downstream and scraped a shallow grave for the dead man in the plane. When she had finished, she checked on the kids and found the hole about three feet deep and they were starting to dig into wet sand. Grabbing a piece of wreckage, she helped dig the hole deeper until water began to collect in the bottom. When water was filling a small sump fairly quickly, she stopped and went to collect her water containers. It took quite a while before everyone, including Buck had drunk deeply and all the containers were full.
She used the kids as much as possibly to help prepare camp for the five of them. Bough beds were constructed to keep everybody off the hard, cold ground. Her blankets, poncho and the saddle pad was used as bedding. While the kids were helping set up camp, she found out there names and ages. Jeremy was 11, his sister Ashley was 9 and Dillon was 6. The father’s name was Michael. They were flying from Phoenix to Orem, Utah when the plane’s engine seized up and began blowing oil over the windshield. Forced into a hasty landing site, Michael had attempted to put down in the bottom of the canyon.
Sleep came slowly to Sandy and when it did it was filled with very vivid dreams. First, were the memories of how she had gotten to this remote canyon in Southeast Utah. This was suppose to be a vacation from her normal job as a cowhand on a ranch in Southwestern Colorado. It was an opportunity for her and her chestnut quarter horse to explore some wild country and see new places. Twenty seven years old, Sandy had spent most of her life raising Herefords on her farm in Illinois. It wasn’t until last year when she accepted the riding job on the ranch , did she realize her true lot in life. Now, she knew she had bitten off more than she could chew. Even with his great strength, there was no way that Buck could carry the five of them back to the truck, thirty miles away. It was with this thought that Sandy finally faded off to sleep.
Sometime in the wee hours, she awoke to find little Dillon curled up next to her. “I was cold he said.”
Snuggling up next to him, she said, “It’s all right dear, you go to sleep now.”
At the first hint of gray in the morning sky, Sandy was up preparing breakfast from her meager supplies. After breakfast, she collected water to give to Buck and top off their containers.
In order to save as much as Buck’s strength as possible, she was going to have him pull the travois with Michael, while little Dillon sat in the saddle. The two older kids would walk as far as possible. The sun was just coming up when she began to retrace her route into the canyon.
The older kids kept up fine on the flat, but began lagging behind once they started up the side of the canyon. Sandy was torn between letting the kids ride or conserving Buck’s strength. She found a temporary solution by putting them ahead of herself on the trail. The pace was slower then she would have liked, but they were making progress. Suddenly, she yelled out, “Jeremy don’t move”. What at first looked like a pile of manure on the trail, turned out to be a coiled up snake. “Back away real slowly, If I tell you to freeze, do it”, she instructed him.
Jeremy back slowly away from the snake. When he was safely out of reach, he asked her, “What was is it Sandy”?
“A Mohave Rattlesnake . It’s probably laying there in the sun to catch the warmth from the early morning sun”, she replied. “I have to hold Buck, so I need you to do something really brave. Pick up a handful of sand and throw it at the snake. I he moves towards you, back up really quick. Can you do that”?
“I can try, but I might get really scared.” Having said that, Jeremy picked up a handful of sand and threw it at the snake. The snake quickly uncoiled and slithered under some rocks, several yards off the trail,
“Very good Jeremy, you’re a brave boy. Okay everyone, let’s get moving”, she said.
It was late in the morning before the group finally made it to the mesa at the top of the canyon. No longer having to pull the travois up the hill, she sat the other kids up on Buck to give them a rest. It was another hour before Sandy halted the little group near some overhanging rocks with shade for a short break. Buck was working up a good sweat, so Sandy gave him a couple of pans of precious water over the next half hour. With the sun high in the sky, she decided to extend their break for an extra hour.
It was late afternoon before they reach the trail down in to the next canyon. Buck was having a hard time with the load, so she helped the two oldest children down. She spent some extra time petting and soothing the big gelding, asking him to give just a little bit more. Buck looked at her with those big brown eyes and put his muzzle up against her arm. With that, she started down the steep trail. She hadn’t gone far when she realized she would have to carry the little girl. Hoisting her on to her back, they continued on. Every few minutes she would stop and check the condition of her horse, Michael and the children, The children were tired, but Michael’s condition continued to worsen and he was rolling in and out of consciousness. Looking at Buck with his head hanging low, Sandy could only guess where he was finding the strength to carry on.
By the time they reached the bottom, Sandy was as worn out as Buck. Before heading out, she gave everybody a rest. She used the time to give Michael and the kids a drink of water as she sponged out Buck’s mouth. She would have liked to give him more, but she didn’t know of any other water in the next twenty miles.
It was late in the afternoon before she finally got everyone moving. She had taken a lower trail on the way in, but opted for a trail higher on the side of the canyon to go out on. They traveled for about an hour and a half before she spotted the old pueblo ruins on the wall of the canyon. There appeared to be three or four individual ruins built into the cliff face below an overhanging section of rock. Even through there was no water, there was some grass for Buck, so Sandy called a halt for the day. After picketing Buck on some grass and providing a meager meal to the kids, Sandy walked off to explore the Anasazi ruins.
There didn’t appear to be a way to climb up into the ruins until she spied the notched log laying down below. Leaning against the fifteen foot precipice below the ruins, the end of the log just cleared to top of a low stone wall. Taking a deep breath, Sandy slowly began to climb the log. At the top she carefully stepped over the low stone wall and found herself in a Kiva - a circular open structure used to conduct religious ceremonies. Catching her breath, she looked down over the campsite and saw that all appeared well.
From the kiva, notches set in the rock face led to an opening the bottom of one of the pueblos. Sandy climbed up into the dwelling and was amazed at what she found. Lined up in neat rows were shards of pottery, tools, arrowheads and even whole pots. The pots were painted with a distinct black paint on a white clay. The scenes were Kachina like and similar to those she had seen at modern trading posts on the Hopi reservation. What amazed Sandy was that this treasure still existed. Even with stiff federal penalties, the prices paid for pre-Colombian art usually resulted in most of these ruins being completely potted out. After admiring the collection, she carefully backed out of the dwelling and back down the row of niches to the floor of the kiva.
Exhausted, Sandy sat down on the floor of the kiva to take a break before climbing back down to the camp below. Through closed eyes, she had a very distinct vision of an old gray haired man. The man was dressed in a robe of white skin, inlayed with brightly colored quills. The man looked at her, smiled and turned away. Quickly she opened her eyes to make sure she wasn’t seeing something that was real. Feeling uneasy, she made her way back to the leaning log and started climbing back down, anxious to return to the camp.
“Where were you Sandy, I was worried”, asked Dillon upon her return.
“Don’t worry honey, I was just checking out those old Indian ruins. I’m back now.”
Sandy was worried though. She was worried about Michael’s leg, but she was especially worried about Buck. This was the second dry camp in three days. Between pulling the travois and providing lifts for the kids, Buck had been pulling extra duty, with little food and water. She walked over to him stroked his neck and wondered where he was finding the strength to carry on. Then, she looked in his eyes and remembered an old saying about horses:
Big hindquarters gets them out of the gate quick. A deep chest keeps them running when others would quit. Strong limbs and good feet keeps them sound. Close coupled and they turn on a dime. A pretty mane and tail are flashy in a show. But ...
A big heart can make them your friend, make them trustworthy, keep them going through thick or thin. The pathway to the heart is through the eyes.
She knew that what kept Buck going was his love for her. With that thought on her mind she curled up next to the kids and went to sleep. No sooner had she started to drift off, then the vision of the old Indian returned. On the back of his hand sat a big bumblebee. She seemed to see through the bee’s eyes as he flew from the old man’s hand and flew off to the north. After flying for a few minutes, the bee and Sandy flew through some rocks and landed next to a pool of water. It was then that Sandy drifted off into a deep sleep.
In the morning, each of them got one sip of water, while Buck had a couple of cups in the bottom of the frying pan. Sandy wanted to give him more, but the containers were nearly empty. As she was getting ready to hitch up the travois, Ashley cried out “Go away yucky bee”.
Sandy was about to carry on with her work, when she remembered the dream from the night before. “Of course, bees need water too”, she mumbled. “Ashley, where is the bee”? she asked.
“Over on that flower”, she replied.
“Okay everyone, we’re going to play a game called follow the bee. Without disturbing it, I want everyone to keep an eye on where that bee flies and we’re going to follow it. I think he wants to lead us to water”.
It was nearly half an hour, but eventually the bee led them to a big pile of rocks in a draw about a quarter mile to the north. Climbing up into the rocks, Sandy saw where ancient floods had carved a channel through the rocks. A little farther up she came upon the first of three deep rock tanks. Narrow and sheltered from direct sunlight, each stone tank held several hundred gallons of clear fresh water. The lower tank had a dead kangaroo rat in it, but the upper two appeared to be clean and fresh. By bracing her feet sideways Sandy was able to work her way upstream to all three tanks.
Leading Buck to the water source, Sandy went about the chore of watering him, boiling water for human consumption and filling the water containers. When everyone’s thirst was slated and the containers were full, Sandy knew she had one more thing to do before they pulled out. Turning towards the ancient ruins, she closed her eyes, envisioned the old man and said, “Thank you”.
It was about three or four hours of steady travel up the canyon before they came to the road bridge. Refreshed by the water, Buck held in there for a couple of hours until his strength began to wane. The last few miles were made with Ashley riding on Sandy’s back and Jeremy walking alongside. Her truck and trailer were only about five miles up the road, but Sandy knew better than to try and take the party any further. Tying Buck to a steel truss, she left them in the shade of the bridge while she carried forward on foot. Taking one of the canteens, she left the remainder of the water with her party while she walked the rest of the way alone. “I should be back in two or three hours with the truck. Don’t move from this spot.”
The trek to the truck seemed long and arduous. When she spied it, the first thing she did was to start digging madly for the keys in her pocket. With a sigh of relief she pulled out the keys, inserted them into the ignition and prayed it would start. She quickly downed two colas from the cooler, put into gear and started driving back to the bridge.
After loading everyone aboard, Sandy drove straight to the hospital in Monticello.
Every year, on the anniversary of this date, Sandy would receive four cards, three of them were hand drawn cards with pictures of her and Buck on them. In the cards would be the words: “Thank You Sandy, Thank You Buck!