by J. H. Malone
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
The office at Hayes Ranch presented us with another denizen of the West, a tall young man who looked to be a university graduate with a degree in ranching. Smith and I introduced ourselves. The rancher was named Sam, and he seemed glad to see us. Welcoming. I asked about Miss Smith and the horse she stole Friday.
“She came in quiet,” Sam said. “I heard about her in advance from my neighbors. I asked her how I could help, and she made her pitch about not killing animals and farming instead of ranching. Calm and cool. I told her the same thing as all the others and offered her a ride back to Miles City or south to the Greyhound station in Broadus. I almost offered to buy her dinner in town, but she had a look in her eyes that caused me to keep my mouth shut.”
“Sounds like she had her anger under control,” I said.
“She thanked me for the offer of a ride and told me she’d hitchhike instead, and she walked out. Ten minutes later, my dad came in and asked me why a young woman was riding one of our horses off the premises. Out onto the prairie.”
“Did you go after her?” I said.
Smith was quiet beside me. Listening to the livestock again, by the distant look on his face.
“My dad and brother rode out and looked for her till sunset. Didn’t find her. Too many tracks this close to the pens. I called the sheriff and the Highway Patrol in Billings, and Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service, and asked them all to look out for her. I haven’t heard back from any of them.”
“Could we ride out and take a look?” Smith asked, surprising me.
Sam considered this.
“We need to find her,” I said. “We can use our rental. I also know how to ride a dirt bike.”
“I’d hate to see any harm come to the young lady,” Sam said. “She seemed reasonable except for her fixation. Also, my dad would like our horse back.”
“We’ll go look for her,” I said.
“It’s open range,” Sam said. “There’s a lot of room to get lost in.”
“We’ll stick to the roads.”
“There aren’t many of those. The best way to search is on a horse.”
“Can we rent two horses?” Smith said.
Sam looked us over. “You might be out there for days,” he said. “Are you experienced? Have you got the equipment you’ll need?”
“We could get it,” Smith said.
“Or maybe she rode over to another ranch, caught a ride, and isn’t even in the state anymore,” I said.
“I would have heard,” Sam said. “I’ll tell you what: if you’re up to it, I’ll equip you for a day or two. With a list of landmarks and a compass, you should be all right. I’ve got a couple of horses that won’t be any trouble. They know where the creeks and watering tubs are. If you get lost, they’ll know the way home. I rent them out to hunters.”
“Let me discuss this with my partner,” I said.
We stepped outside.
“When I was a kid, I rode horses at summer camp every year,” I said. “It’s been a while, but I think I’ll be fine. Like riding a bicycle. How about you?”
“I’ve ridden along with the Chamber of Commerce float in parades, and I did some clowning with the Eagles at the country fair’s rodeo. I’ll be OK if the horses are tame.”
“Good. Hang on while I check in with my manager. We’ll probably be out of service when we leave here.”
Again, Lou didn’t pick up. I left a brief summary of our progress, and we went back inside and thanked Sam for his offer, which we gladly accepted. Sam led us out to a stable and selected two horses for us.
“The sorrel mare is Molly,” he said, patting the brown one. He nodded at the gray one. “That’s Sally.”
I took Molly. Smith took Sally. Molly was heavy in the withers and looked nothing like the steeds I had seen performing at Santa Anita.
Sam demonstrated how to saddle and bridle the horses and helped us arrange and secure our camping equipment and rations on them.
“They’ll know what to do with you,” he said. He produced a pair of worn cowboy boots for each of us, which we pulled on.
“Do we need chaps?” I asked, seeing a pair hanging on a nail.
“Not where you’re headed,” Sam said, “but keep your eyes open. When you camp tonight, unsaddle the horses and exchange their bridles for the halters I stowed. No need for feed. They’ll graze.”
We led the horses out of the barn. The day was warm and, at four-thirty, the light was still strong. We had our caps and sunglasses ready.
“Follow the trail out toward that butte,” Sam said, pointing. “There’s a hunters’ campground on top. It’ll be empty tonight. You’ll reach it in two or three hours, depending on how often you stop and the trail you take. The sun doesn’t set till nine this far north. Scout around up there until dark. Stay the night. The last sign my dad and brother found of the young lady pointed south. You can go after her in the morning.
“If you keep to the ridges, you’ll have the best chance of catching sight of her. You’re kitted out for three days but plan on two. Circle out and back. Pay attention to your compasses. If you head south, by noon tomorrow you’ll find flat mixed-grass prairie with patches of sagebrush steppe and sand prairie.”
I got a foot in Molly’s left stirrup, appreciating my new boots’ pointed toes. I hoisted myself up and hugged the horse with my knees. Apart from flicking her ears and whisking away flies with her tail, she stood unmoving.
Sam gave us a quick how-to refresher on guiding a horse: holding the reins, keeping shoulders over hips, looking where you want to go, steering with your hips. He opened a gate behind the barn, and we faced miles of broken land between us and the distant butte.
“Is all this fenced in?” Smith said.
“No. Montana is a free-range state,” Sam said. “If you don’t want cattle grazing on your rangeland, you fence them out. We don’t.”
“What about highways?” I said.
“Even though we’re fence-out, there are a lot more fences now than there used to be. Before, if you hit a cow with your car, you paid for the cow. Now the courts are taking the motorist’s side when there’s an accident on the bigger roads, and the Interstates are all fenced.”
He gave a little salute and walked back to the barn. The horses started forward. Instantly alone, we followed a track through gray-brown grass drying out in the summer heat. A dozen different yellow flowers bloomed around us. The horses’ hooves clacked on stony ground.
Birds sang out of sight in the brush. A jackrabbit sprang out to our left and loped alongside us for a hundred yards before veering off.
“Are you listening to the horses?” I said to Smith.
“I don’t talk horse any better than cow, dog, or bird, but I get a sense. These two are agreeable. Civilized, you might say.”
“What about Miss Smith?”
“Can you shout at her?”
“Do we want to do that? She might head in the opposite direction. I’d also have to stop and rest after I did it.”
“Never mind,” I said. “Please let me know if you hear anything.”
Two and a half hours later, we arrived at the base of the butte and followed a trail to the top. There we found a cleared area containing a watering tub, hitching posts and a fire ring. Two hours remained before sunset. We used it to cast about, south and west, inexpertly searching for any sign of Miss Smith.
When the sun began its final descent through a washed-out sky, we gave it up for the evening and dismounted by the watering tub, which was full, me by leaning forward over Molly’s neck and sliding sideways to drop to the ground.
We tethered the horses and unloaded tarps, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, and food for two, which was all mine to eat. I got a fire started using my rusty Boy Scout skills, wood collected by previous campers and a box of matches from our supplies.
Once the fire had produced sufficient coals, I pulled enough aside to accommodate a sauce pan and coffee pot. I added water from one of my quart canteens to the coffee pot and set it on the coals. Once the water came to a boil, I added coffee. After a couple of minutes, I took the pot off the fire, poured a little cold water down the spout to settle the grounds and set the pot aside. Adding water to the saucepan, I warmed it and dumped in the contents of one of my campfire dinner packets.
As the light failed, and I drank my coffee and ate my reconstituted homestyle turkey casserole, nighthawks kited in the dusk, feathers booming when they pulled out of their dives. Coyotes yipped in the distance, a sound familiar from the Los Angeles canyons.
As the sun set, the moon rose. Its orange face wore a quizzical expression. Stars appeared. I thought about asking Smith to point out the Vernernusian sun, but I didn’t. Wormholes being wormholes, the star probably wasn’t local to our galaxy, if in fact it was a star and Vernernusia was a planet.
When the moon had climbed high enough to serve as our nightlight, we turned in. Presently I heard Smith’s cloak begin to snore. I asked him to turn it off since he wasn’t asleep and wasn’t going to be. Miles City cast a glow to the north. The last sound I heard before sleep came for me was a duet of stereophonic owls.
We got an early start in the morning. The land was less pristine than I expected. We followed a range of hills south, each terraced by decades of cattle carving horizontal paths along the grassy slopes with their cloven hooves. The grass was heavy with seed in the summer heat. More stony ground. A pillar of smoke rose to the west where a brush fire burned.
We rode along the ridges, stopping to mount the occasional knoll for a wider view. Meadowlarks sang, inverted black-on-yellow chevrons displayed as they clung to bush tops. Ground squirrels scattered at the hiss and buzz of a rattlesnake, which Molly and Sally seemed not to hear and which turned out to be not a snake but the warning cry of a small owl standing in its burrow.
Mid-morning, I couldn’t help myself and asked Smith again if he had picked up Miss Smith. He hadn’t. We saw a variety of cattle. I asked Smith if the animals had anything on their minds. They hadn’t.
The sun grew hot in a sky of faded denim. We navigated a shallow coulee with ash trees at the bottom, leaves the brightest green in the landscape. The coulee’s slopes fell away as we moved south through the trees. We emerged into prairie, although by then I was questioning whether there was any original prairie left, between the farms and subdivisions we had seen, and the large domestic herbivores ranging about. There were so many cuts of track that we decided to follow, by default, whichever headed closest to due south.
In less than a mile, we passed bison and cattle grazing in a prairie dog village, signaling hope for the wilderness after all.
“Stock prefers to graze here,” Smith said. “Something about rodents tunneling in the earth makes the grass taste better.”
“You sense that?”
“That they’re liking the grass, yes.”
“Don’t they step in the holes and break their legs?”
“Nope. Got those noses to the ground. I need to get out in the country more. This is great.”
An hour later we encountered a lone steer that Smith said had vague images of an individual on horseback in its head, amongst the usual closeups of rangeland grass and dirt clods. This got my hopes up until we twice saw singleton cowboys in the distance, driving a few cows before them. Both ignored us. Probably thought we were hunters. We rode along, not as alone in the prairie as I had imagined. Contrails crisscrossed the sky.
I snacked onboard. Overhead, vultures drew Zen circles on blue cloth. Smith sensed antelope and mule deer, which he pointed out. Hard to spot otherwise. Also a rat. I checked my compass once an hour.
Ten or fifteen miles beyond the prairie dogs, late in the afternoon, Smith sat a little straighter.
“Miss Smith is coming to us,” he said.
“You’re talking to her?”
“No. She won’t talk, but she’s coming.”
We rode on. Ahead, heat pooled in layers on the flat land. A rider approached, alternately visible and obscured by nonexistent water. Closer, Miss Smith emerged into clear air. She rode a white paint splotched with black. Smith and I pulled up.
She sat her horse bareback, one hand loose in its mane. She was wearing a straw sombrero, bib overalls over her Butcher shirt, and moccasins. She came to a halt facing us. She wasn’t smiling.
“Miss Smith,” I said, deepening my voice into command register. “I work for EarthTours. First of all, please turn on your chip.”
She pointed at Smith. “What’s he doing here?” she said.
“Mr. Smith helped me find you.”
“He’s a criminal,” she said. “He’s mentally ill.”
Smith’s cloak rolled his eyes.
“You know him?” I said.
“I know about him. I checked with your agency for countrymen when I arrived in Seattle.”
“I’m sure they didn’t tell you he was a criminal,” I said, “or mentally ill.”
“He’s spent twenty years cleaning out sewers. For what, fun?”
I looked at Smith.
“It is fun,” he said. “I told you. Using the hands.”
“Miss Smith,” I said, “turn on your chip. That’s all I ask.”
“I do not want my tour interrupted before I’m finished.”
“Why would anyone interrupt you?” I said. “Never mind. I don’t care. EarthTours is obligated to keep track of you, that’s all. You cannot drop off the grid. Enable your chip, and we’ll be on our way.”
“I’ll enable it when I’m done,” she said.
“Done with what?”
Insects buzzed in the grass.
“Whose lives?” I said.
“Friends of mine.”
“None of your business.”
“Any ideas?” I said to Smith.
His cloak cleared his throat for him. “She needs time to adjust. I did.”
“Adjust like you? Never!” Miss Smith said, her voice rising. “You haven’t changed anything in twenty years. I’ve got a conscience. I’m already making a difference.”
Smith remained calm. “Turn on your chip, and we’ll leave,” he said.
“I’m going to clean up the planet or at least a little part of it, and I’m not talking about sewers,” Miss Smith said.
I slipped off my horse, stepped over to her, and held out my hand. “Let me help you down.”
“I’m leaving,” she said. “Tell EarthTours I’ll turn on my chip when I’ve finished my current project.”
“Miss Smith,” I said. “We will follow you if you ride off, and I will report your location to my manager when we’re back in service. Turn on your chip or come sit and talk. I’m here to help. That’s my job.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2020 by J. H. Malone