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Top Hand



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Top Hand


By Bob Skelding




Copyright 2008 by Bob Skelding

All rights Reserved





Top Hand



 The mountains rising above her were breathtaking in raw beauty and power.  The deep gray of the towering peaks contrast sharply with the brilliant green of high summer vegetation before blending with the darker green cover of spruce and aspen lower on the mountains. The energy of the early afternoon sun was already forming small puffy white clouds over the top of the peaks, which disappeared before the onslaught of wind from above.


 Standing by the side of the stock trailer, before unloading her horse, Sandy marveled at the majesty of it all. Seen from a distance, the mountains of Southwest Colorado looked like watercolors splashed on an artist’s canvass.  Here up close, the vista filled her with a sense of wonder , but also left feeling small in the shadow of it’s greatness. Her trance was broken by the crashing sound of the trailer gate as it fell to the ground.  “The boss says there should be twenty two head of young stock running loose up there somewhere”, said her partner.  “With that cold front moving in, he wants to pull them all out.  A couple of years back, we lost a half dozen head up here when one of the creek beds flooded”.


 “Steve, how are we ever going to find all of those cows in that huge wilderness?  They could be anywhere, or scattered all over mountain sides”, she replied.


 “Generally, they’ll bunch up and stay together. All we have to do is cut sideways and search for sign.  If you see any tracks, follow them to find the cows, then start pushing them down the mountain.”


 “Sounds like a piece of cake”, she skeptically stated.


 Casting a thoughtful eye at the slim girl with sandy hair and faded denim, he said, “Don’t forget to bring your jacket.  The weather up here changes mighty quick. Well start up the trail together, then I’ll split off and start working the ridges and draws to the south while you head north.  Make sure you leave yourself enough time to get out before dark.”


 A couple of hours later, with clouds beginning to pile up over the peaks, she discovered a muddy row of tracks snaking up the side of ridge. Without any urging, Buck, her large chestnut gelding turned and started on the trail of the cows.  A gray mist was rolling down the side of the mountain and her hopes fading fast.  Then, the wind carried the faint sound of a mooing cow up from the draw above.


 Following a dim game trail snaking down the side of the hill, she carefully maneuvered her horse through a tangle of deadfall trees before reaching the mountain stream. Preferring the stream bed to the thick underbrush, she let Buck pick his way up the rocky creek bed as she moved up searching for the cows.  Climbing alongside an abandoned beaver dam, she spied the small herd spread out on the marshy grass of a dried out beaver pond.


 With the threat of an impending storm worsening by the moment, Sandy made her gather and started the cows up a thin path to the ridge above. With a sudden crash, a bolt of lightning struck near the edge of the tree line, a few hundred feet above her, causing Buck to snort and crow-hop sharply to the side.  The smell of ozone was heavy in the air and her heart was thumping in her chest.  She calmed the frightened gelding and continued to push the cows ahead.


 Topping the ridge, she saw the cows already moving rapidly down the trail to the heavy forest below. A sharp fresh breeze announced the coming rain. In seconds, a few large fat raindrops became a solid sheet of water.  Her vision obscured by the heavy, wind driven rain and darkening skies, she was forced to trust Buck’s sharper senses to keep them pointed down the trail.  With her chin tucked against her chest and crouched low over the saddle, she was barely aware of the shadowy figures of the larger trees of the forest moving by.


 Above the din created by the heavy wind and falling rain she heard the roar of the now swollen stream below.  ‘My god, the trail crosses the stream a little ways below here’, she remembered.  ‘I’ve got to cut off the cows before they plunge into the creek’.


 Urging her mount into a hard run, Sandy barreled down the mountain side, taking advantage of every wide spot in the trail to pass cattle, already crazy with the fury of the storm crashing about them.  Time after time she risked life and limb to pull ahead of the small herd running down the trail. With the roar of the flooded stream loud in her ears, she grabbed her rope, quickly shook out a noose and dabbed it over the neck of the lead steer. She made a quick dally around the saddle horn as Buck settled onto his haunches to absorb the impact of the steer hitting the end of the rope. Caught off guard, Sandy was almost unseated by the sharp deceleration, saved only by the weight of the steer pulling Buck forward as he toppled the steer from a dead run. The melee of horse, rider and kicking steer caused the herd to swerve into the surrounding underbrush, the weight of vegetation cushioning and breaking up the stampeding cattle before they fell into the swollen stream.


 What followed was the longest night of Sandy’s life, gathering the scattered cattle and pushing them into a small glade near a meadow.  Finally, with the early dawn sky showing the first hint of light, she kindled a small fire and dug a couple of soggy sandwiches out of her saddle bags. The sun was climbing well into the sky when she finally got the cattle moving down the trail.  Fording the now gently flowing stream, she marveled at the height of debris marking the high water mark from the flood.


 It was nearly noon before she trailed the cows into the meadow at the road head. In the clearing was a circus of men, trucks, trailers and horses.  As she passed a group of cowboys, they could only stare at the sight of the mud covered, sweat stained girl with disheveled hair astride the worn out chestnut. 


 Walking Buck past them, she tipped her hat as she heard one of them mutter, “We were sending out a search …”


 Seeing the ranch owner standing next to a pickup, she rode up to him and said, “Boss, I found your cows.  What’s for lunch?”


 Shaking his head, the tough old, grizzled man remembered the time he first met her a few months ago. A pretty girl standing on his porch and saying, “I heard you need a ranch hand.  Well, I’m your gal.”


 Walking up to the owner, her partner Steve said, “Boss, looks like you got a Top Hand”.


 Still shaking his head he could only mutter, “Well, I‘ll be.”