That's How the West Was

Top Hand

That’s How the West Was



Bob Skelding



Copyright 2010 by Bob Skelding

All rights reserved



Dedicated to:


Debra Meek, Cowgirl and Horsewoman, from whom I drew inspiration for Sandy.


An old German Soldier, a multiple time winner of the Night’s Cross for bravery; who showed a group of young American soldiers how to maneuver under fire.  We learned more from him in two hours, than we had from the U.S. Army in two years!





That’s How the West Was


Sandy didn’t need to touch her spurs to Buck’s flank to get him hot in pursuit of the old roan cow.  This was the second time she had chased the same animal.  Two days earlier, Sandy had roped and tied her to a ponderosa pine with a non-slip neck tie. She figured that a few hours tied to a tree, ought to take the fight out of her.  Later, some “Do-gooder” had cut the neck tie and set her free.  So, here she was again, dodging spruce branches, as her horse dashed through the thick woods after the old roan.

She was splitting her concentration between the cow and dodging tree branches. She realized later, that what she should have been doing, was watching out for what is in her way, and leave the cow chasing to Buck.  Later, Sandy couldn’t remember the tree branch she collided with. She woke up with a soft muzzle in her face, and Buck standing over her. She tried to move and felt a pounding in her head and thought, ‘My god, if there ever was a Tylenol moment, this it is’.

As she painfully made her way back to camp, pursuing the old roan was the farthest thing from her mind.  What she needed right now was six aspirin, a cup of steaming black coffee, and her bedroll. Trying to turn her mind away from a rather large headache, she thought to the coming roundup.

Cowboys on most modern ranches rounded up cattle with a pickup truck that had a feeder or feed sacks stacked in the back. Cows quickly learn to follow a pickup, anticipating piles of corn that would appear magically on the ground. Sandy was glad she worked for a ranch that still did things the old fashioned way.  Every spring and fall, cattle were rounded up on horseback.

The primary purpose of the spring roundup was to brand, vaccinate, and castrate the young calves.  The herd was then sorted to ship barren cows and other culls off to market.  After roundup, the majority of the cattle would be trucked off for summer grazing, on land that was under long-term lease from the Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Service.

The fall roundup, which she was in the midst of, was for sorting out cattle to be shipped to the feed lots.  The year and a half old steers and most of the heifers that were heavy enough would be sold to a cattle buyer. Then, once they gained some weight in the feed lot, they were headed for the grocery store shelf.  Fall Roundup was also when the late season calves were branded and vaccinated. Before sorting began at the ranch, the stock had to be brought back home from summer grazing.

Pulling into camp, she saw a large group of cattle in the portable pens. She had little to show for her labors, while her partner, Steve, had obviously had a good day. After pulling the tack off Buck and turning him into a pen, she walked up to the fire and heard the first remark of the evening, “That’s a pretty colorful forehead you have there, Sandy.  Have you been putting on war paint to impress the cows?”

Ignoring his comment, she said, “Do you remember that old roan cow?  Well, her udder is all bagged out, but she doesn’t have a calf with her.”

“Oh, you’ve been chasing her again. I think that old girl has wintered over up here for the last couple of years. She’s not the only cow that should have had a calf at her side, and doesn’t.  There are a half dozen more in the pen just like her.”

“Do you think the coyotes or bears have been into them?” she asked.

“I doubt it. I haven’t seen any remains.  Besides, we’ve been running cows up here for years and haven’t had any problems.  No, I think someone has been rustling them.”

“Steve, why would someone be stealing calves?  Full grown cattle would be worth a lot more money, and they’re easier to move and care for.”

“Well”, he replied, “there are two reasons, first, the calves wouldn’t be carrying a brand, and once they’re in a gooseneck trailer, they could belong to anyone. Also, I found a track of a shod horse in some dried  mud, about 100 feet off the trail. Funny thing about that track, it was from a horse shod with a toe clip on the shoe.  There aren’t too many of those in this part of the country. Most folks around here have shoes with side clips.”

“So,” she replied, “all we have to do is find horse with toe clips and we got our man. It should be a piece of cake”.

Steve looked across the large basin of trees and meadows, hemmed in by the towering granite peaks, and replied, “That’s the way I see it. Are you going back out after that old roan cow, or can we load these cattle up and head for the ranch?”

Sandy slowly moved her aching head to the side and said, “No, she can stay up here until her hooves rot off. Let’s go home.”


It was after dark before Sandy and Steve finished transporting the cattle back to the ranch. The next morning, they reported their suspicions to the Ranch Owner.

The grizzled old man set his jaw and said, “I want you two to go round up the rest of the hands. We’re going to have a little meeting about this, right now.”


When the small group of employees was assembled in the ranch house kitchen, the old man gave his orders, “Screwball, I want you and John to hop in a truck and start visiting all the other ranches in the area.  Use any excuse you have to, like we’re looking to buy some saddle stock, this is a social call, whatever you have to, but I want you to locate all the horses in the area that are shod with toe clips.”

“The rest of you will start packing iron where ever you go; and nobody is to work alone. This isn’t the first incident of rustling in the area.  The VB connected has lost quite a few head. And, earlier this week, someone on the Bar M had their windshield shot out while they were checking fences.  I heard the poor guy wet himself over that one.”

The ranch owner’s expression became even more serious when he said, “With our operational costs, these rustled cattle could put the ranch in the red this year. The State Police and the Brand Inspector’s Office are well aware of cattle thieving in the area, and are keeping an eye out, but that’s not enough.  I want everybody to stay alert and be extra careful out there.  Now, get to work!”


Walking back to her house, Sandy reached into the bottom drawer of her dresser, and pulled out a holstered revolver.  Before she left Illinois to come out west, her father had presented her with the weapon, saying, “Sandy, this is a Dan Wesson, stainless steel, .357. It’s probably one of the best handguns ever made.  It doesn’t have the firepower of an automatic, nor is it fast on the reload; but, when everything else is clogged up and won’t fire, this gun will still be shooting. Not only that, but it has a great set of sights and even though it only has a six inch barrel, it’s accurate out to 100 yards. I know it’s not the wild, wild, west anymore, but I want you to take it with you. There might come a time when it will come in handy.”

As she accepted the gun, he added, “Before you run off with that, let’s go out back and let me show you a few things that I picked up while I served with the 75th Rangers.”

In the next two hours her dad showed Sandy how stay alive in a firefight and defeat an enemy force.  His wealth of knowledge on the subject was picked up during two tours in Southeast Asia with a Ranger Battalion. As he was finishing, he summarized what he had showed her. “Remember the differences between cover and concealment, and how important they are. Stay low and behind cover whenever you can. All firefights have a rhythm of fire.  Listen for the rhythm, and only maneuver when there is a lull in fire.  If you have to break cover to maneuver, only stay up for two and a half seconds, then hit the ground and roll.  Try to move to your left and the enemy’s right; it’s harder for a right handed enemy to track you with his weapon when you’re moving to his right.  If you have covering fire you’re much safer.  Finally, aim your shots, you only have six.”


As she belted the revolver around her hips, Sandy remembered the lessons her dad had imparted that day.  Grabbing her jacket, she walked outside and met Steve, who was loaded down with an automatic on each hip. “Have you got enough hardware there Steve?” she asked.

“Nope”, he replied, “I’ve also got a rifle and shotgun in the truck”. 


For the next two weeks, the ranch was a bee hive of activity as they finished fall roundup.  Just before they were done, a young Mennonite kid from New Mexico joined the group of cowboys working the cattle. ‘Beanpole’ was a lanky, blond haired youth with big spurs and an infectious grin.  He liked riding rough stock and was often seen with his butt six inches out of the saddle, as he settled into his mount for the day.


About this time, Screwball made his report to the Ranch Owner, “Boss, John and I checked out just about every place within 30 miles of here. We found five places that had horses shod with toe clips. There were two on the VB Connected, one on the WTC, two mounts on that small place, just south of where the Uncompahgre River crosses the road, all the horses at that Hollywood Actress’s place, up by Dallas Creek, and some at the riding stable near Ouray.

With a thoughtful look, the Ranch owner said, “Well we can cross off the VB, they’ve lost cattle too.  And the Hollywood Actress and riding stable are also doubtful. I’m going to go talk to John Clayton, on the WTC. But first, go find Sandy, Steve and the New Guy; I need to have a little powwow with them.”

When the three hands had reported to the Ranch Owner, he gave them their instructions, “I want you to keep an eye on that new outfit, north of Ridgeway State Park.  Stay on the other side of the river and out of sight.  Pack some grub, you might be there awhile.”


They made camp on the back side of a ridge, across the river from the new ranch. Beanpole, Steve and Sandy took turns surveying the place through the binoculars. Other than the fact that there was a lot of truck and car traffic for such a small place, they didn’t see anything that really looked out of place.  After four days, Sandy and Steve went back to the ranch for more food, leaving Beanpole to stand watch.

On their way back, Sandy was riding a little paint mare named Maddy, while she gave Buck a well deserved rest. Riding into camp, they saw Beanpole’s sorrel tied under a pinion tree, but he was not to be seen. Steve started up the ridge to look for the New Guy while Sandy sat on her mount, surveying the camp, and thinking, ‘There’s something not right here’.

She was about to turn for the ridge, when all of a sudden she came under fire. As multiple rounds passed over her head, they snapped like loud firecrackers.  Before she could gather in the reins, her mare leapt forward and started bucking. Sandy desperately attempted to haul her in, but she was not quite ready and was pitched from the saddle. She landed heavily on her back, near the base of a juniper tree. Staying low, Sandy rolled rapidly to the side as rounds smacked into the dirt to her side.  Her heart was in her throat as she leapt for cover behind the mound of dirt at the base of an old rotting stump.

Drawing her revolver, she snuck a glance from behind the stump to determine where the bad guys were shooting from. She almost dodged back behind the stump when Steve opened fire on her unseen assailants.  The dust from the strike of his rounds and the smoke of the return fire put them about 200 feet down the ridge from the advantage point they had used to spy on the ranch.

She braced herself and waited for Steve to draw their attention again. As soon as he opened up, Sandy launched herself erect and ran to her left for a count of ‘I’m up, he sees me, and I’m down’.  Hitting the ground, she rolled rapidly to her left, coming to rest behind a large ponderosa pine.  Remembering the rounds passing above and behind her as she had maneuvered, she thought, ‘damn Dad, this stuff really works’.  Waiting for Steve to open fire again, she ran both forward and to the left this time, ending up about eight yards closer, at the base of another pine tree.  Quickly she crawled up a small wash, positioning herself 25 yards closer to the enemy. 

Chancing a glance over the top of the draw, Sandy saw that a small outcropping of rock shielding her from the bad guys.  Darting forward, she cocked the Dan Wesson, than brought it up along the right side of the rock, sighting in on exposed portion of a blue denim shirt.  Holding her breath, she slowly exhaled as she squeezed the trigger.  Sandy scarcely noticed the viscous kick of the gun as it discharged, her eyes were glued on the sight of a man staggering half erect, then falling down the small rock face.

Figuring there’s no time like the present; Sandy launched herself up the hill. Nearing the top she yelled, “Steve, watch your fire, here I come”. As she reached the top, she was just in time to see a tall man, with a dark pony tail, clad in an army type coat, disappear into the wood line. Just before the man dodged into the woods, he half turned, revealing some kind of tattoo on his right cheek.

Hearing her partner running down the ridge, she called out, “Steve, hold your fire, the last of the bad guys has bugged out”.

As he crashed down the ridge and reached Sandy’s position, she noticed the red stain covering much of his left arm and chest.  “My god Steve, are you hurt bad?” she asked. 

“No”, he replied, “I caught one in the meaty part of the arm; but, that’s not important. We’ve got to get back up to Beanpole. He’s hurt real bad.”

As Sandy started treating the wounded man, Steve was reaching for his cell phone and said, “They just snuck up on him and shot him. Low down like, so he would go slow and hurt a lot. Hell, he didn’t even carry a gun. He wouldn’t, said his religion wouldn’t allow him to.”


Later, there was a large crowd gathered in the hospital waiting room.  Sandy and Steve patiently answered questions from a variety of Law Enforcement Officials.

Shortly before midnight, a doctor came out and addressed the ranch hands, “We think he’s going to make it, but we won’t know for sure until tomorrow”.

The ranch owner, clad in a sheepskin jacket, with a relieved look on his face, turned to Sandy, Steve and two other ranch hands and said one word, “Outside”.

As they gathered around his pickup, he addressed the group and asked, “Do you ride for the brand?”

As each of the four nodded, he said, “Nobody, Nobody”, he emphasized, “shoots my riders. This is going to end right now.  I’ve got Jerry Drinkwater, from the reservation tracking that man’s horse.  Go home and saddle up; and pack a few days worth of grub.  Steve, with that bad wing, you’re in charge at the ranch. If anyone bothers to ask, tell them we’re hunting strays.”


It was still dark when four riders left the ranch. Each of them was loading down with guns, but more importantly, each was armed with the determination revealed by the hard set of their jaws.


In the high mountainous region between the cities of Telluride and Ouray, tons of precious ‘Telluride’ gold was once mined.  Originally discarded as low grade silver, it was soon discovered to be a white gold, or gold with a high silver content. Soon, mine shafts covered the region as miners sought the riches buried within the mountain. As the strike petered out, the head gear for many of these mine shafts rotted away, leaving nothing but very deep holes in the ground to remind everyone of the riches that were once removed from the mountain. Locals knew of the abandoned mines and carefully marked and fenced them so no one would accidentally fall in, leaving a person dead, severely injured, and trapped far below the ground.

High on the mountainside, an old roan cow grazed alone in a meadow.  Every so often she would cock an ear towards one of abandoned mine shafts.  From within, she occasionally heard a weak wail from a croaking voice.  As the day passed, the voice grew more distant, and weaker, and finally was silent. Soon, snow would come to the high Rockies, and she would descend to the shelter of the juniper and pinion forest for winter grazing.


The next spring, Sandy was headed out of the house to join a work crew, going out to fix fences. As she walked into the living room, her eyes darted past the holstered revolver, covered with dust and lying on the bench in the corner. She thought to herself, ‘Boy, Dad sure would be upset if he saw how I’ve neglected that piece.’ Then, she remembered finding the picture of her farther in the old trunk upstairs. It showed a young man, clad in a camouflaged boonie hat, with an M-16 rifle cradled casually in his arms.  Her father’s face was covered in old camouflage paint, streaked with stains of dirt and powder smoke, and prematurely aged from the misery of battle. 

‘No’, Sandy thought as she headed outside, ‘if anyone would understand, it would be Dad.’

As she climbed into the back seat of the pickup, Beanpole leaned back from behind the steering wheel and asked, “Were you fixing your makeup Sandy?”


Just below snow line, a little calf gambled through the grass behind his mother. Born into this world less than a week ago, he was a miniature replica of his red roan mother.


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