Against the Spin of the World
by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
The K-Bar spread had never had a woman cook even in the big house, till Lionel Kendricks brought his stylish new ashen-blonde bride home from back East, with her jodhpurs and polished knee-high boots, her tight red hunting jacket, pancake English saddle and fuzzy black hard hat. Maybe to signal a changing of the guard, the dawn of a gentler era, Cynthia Mayweather Kendricks got to hire a new cook, which entailed a double surprise. Although Rosa’s English was a bit hesitant, her dark eyes watched and signaled a deft and sure understanding. A sturdy shapely woman with a cheery manner and touches of gray in her hair, Rosa’s cooking seemed effortless. She had a heartwarming way with spices, and her blend of border Tex-Mex and Indian cuisine was both stirring and comforting. She promptly took hold of the kitchen, and ran it as her own. With anyone asked to breakfast or supper on the spur of the moment, she was quick to set another place, offer coffee, a drink or iced tea. The other surprise arrived a week later, in the form of her daughter Estelle.
As ramrod I knew it was only a matter of time. I had seen women at rodeo events who could handle anything around a horse or cow a man could, short of lifting the injured beast on her shoulder to carry home. They just didn’t crave winning belt buckles half as bad as the men. And now here was Estelle. The boys told me she approached the bunkhouse that first morning, to ask could she borrow a horse. They said she was dressed just like they were, in jeans with scuffed boots, a flannel shirt and vest, a wide hat and neckerchief, and leather work gloves in one hip pocket. It took a few minutes to understood she didn’t really just want the loan of a horse for the morning. When they realized who she was and where she bunked, a couple of the boys volunteered to walk her around the big corral and show her which horses were and weren’t spoken for. She had clearly learned from her mother to watch Anglos closely, how they answered as she pointed to one horse then another. Them two are part of Pete’s string, one might say, or that’s Davey’s number one pony Blister. She took a step back and watched them both, sussing signals and body language, sharp as a runner on second base stealing the catcher’s signals. Finally she pointed to one that hadn’t been spoken for, which meant it was likely a wild one never ridden, used to avoiding attention, flowing with the herd. A rangy liver-colored young gelding with a ragged star on his forehead. When she clicked her tongue the young horse picked up his head. So she sidled alongside, stroked his shoulder and neck, offered a hand to his nose, then walked around him while she talked to him quietly, studying his feet and legs, his barrel and chest and hindquarters, and there must have been something she liked, because when she got back to the others she had only one question: Does he have a name? The answer? Not so as anybody knows.
She slipped a bridle on him, led him around, and he followed free and easy. She said she was taking the horse for a get-acquainted walk, went through the big gate out onto the open range, and was soon out of sight in the scrub and hills. She wasn’t back till Cooky was clanging the iron rim on the porch of the cook shack for supper, and here she came riding the horse bareback, not leading him. Whatever she had done, there wasn’t a mark on the gelding nor on her, and she had the horse’s complete attention. Ears up, alert and confident. She slid down, led him into the big corral, checked him all over, curried and brushed and petted him, then slipped off his bridle and set him free. Estelle told the loafers gathered there his name was Bromistar — Joker. When one of the boys wondered why, she gave a little smile and said, Because he makes me laugh. Then she waved, and in the gathering dark walked up the drive to the big house. I hadn’t yet laid eyes on Estelle, having gone to town early, spent most of what would be her first day running errands and ordering supplies. But I got an earful of the house cook’s daughter while I had a late supper of chicken enchiladas Cooky had been keeping warm. The younger boys were mighty curious, and the two who had showed her around, Russ and Pedro, had a proprietary air, talking about her skill with horses, which they hadn’t really seen, though what they saw might count as pretty fair hearsay.
Sure, the hands thought they knew all about broke horses, and green-broke horses, and those that had never felt a rope or bit. Being broke was mostly a deal the horse made with you, some easier than others. If you quit riding them, they got harder to ride till eventually you were back where you started, having to catch and subdue an animal who was far from curious, intent on just running away. Nobody could blame them, and there were only a few tricks — what else but patience to calm their fears, touches and treats to reward their curiosity, and for their ears a nonsense lullaby. It was either that or the hard old way, the rope and snubbing post in the round pen, getting a saddle on and riding the fight out of them.
While I ate, Russ and Pedro recited their details back and forth, how Estelle knew right away not to pick anybody else’s horse, how she looked that horse over pretty good, so had been looking for something but they couldn’t tell what, in this Bromistar. As Pedro said in finale, So she has likely got an eye.
Then they quieted, waiting for me to say something, watching me fold a final tortilla to mop up the last of my plate. All I could say was You boys got the advantage of me. If she’s half as good as you say, I’ll have to look into this Estelle. Then I got up, washed my plate, and went out to the big corral to see could I find that horse in the twilight, but it was already too dark. All I saw was his star rising as the colt turned and shuffled away. First thing next morning I did get a look at Bromistar, saw he was well put together, had a nice easy motion, on my way to the kitchen up at the big house. I knocked gently at the back door, said Buenos Dias to Rosa and begged a cup of coffee por favor. Rosa pointed to the pot, the cups upside down on a towel. She was in the middle of stirring eggs in her biggest skillet, practically a yard across, so I let her be till she had scooped the eggs into a serving dish, covered them with cheese and salsa and a lid, and carried them through the swinging door into the dining room. When she returned she smiled, said Buenos Dias, and sat down at the kitchen table. She already knew me, knew what I did on the place, and held a comfortable silence. Then she raised her eyes.
It’s about your daughter, Estelle.
She has done nothing, is in no trouble.
I just wanted to talk with you about her plans, her schooling, that kind of thing.
You must ask her.
Of course. But it would help if I knew your wishes.
That is very kind of you, Señor Ben. What is it you wish to know?
I shrugged. Rosa looked down at her hands, wiped them on her apron. Then she said Estelle was one of those never easy with school. Bright, but I don’t know how she graduated this past spring. I don’t know what it could be. Something may have happened that I never got to hear. She may have lacked interest. She may have lacked guidance. She never met her father. He was never in her life.
Is anyone in your family a vaquero?
There is her uncle, my older brother Eduardo. He works on a place outside San Angelo.
Is that where your daughter learned to work horses?
There was a slight noise, and Rosa picked up her head. A dark-haired young woman stood at the foot of the back stairs. Rosa said You must ask her. Estelle, this is Señor Ben Wilder, who manages the ranch.
She stepped forward, looked me in the eye and shook my hand. She said Buenos Dias. What do they call you?
Mostly Ben. Or some go with Boss.
Estelle was in her late teens, tall, smart, strong, and easy on the eyes. She dressed and moved right, fit the boys’ description, and I could see how she might hold their attention. She pointed her long straight nose at whatever stirred her, and she wasn’t shy. A metal box of some kind had worn its pale outline in one hip pocket of her jeans. She wore her hair in a shining dark braid down her back, that when she talked switched gently to and fro. She had her mother’s fierce dark eyes, that could be mild one minute then flare up the next. Like many precocious young women these days, she seemed both serious and playful, elusive and direct.
So, Señor Ben—what must you ask me?
To start, where did you learn to work horses?
From my uncle Eduardo. He grew up on a hacienda near Matamoros, came north in his twenties. He showed me things.
How did you get that horse to accept you so quick?
Who knows? Horses pay attention, and know more than we think. Maybe he’s just never been around a girl.
I sat and studied her. Then said Whatever you did it sure worked. But I didn’t come to steal your secrets. Then I asked if she wanted coffee, but she beat me getting up, refilled my cup then served herself. Rosa went through the swinging door into the dining room to see what else the family might need.
Actually, I just wanted to see what you’re about. What do you know about cattle?
Not near enough. I spent two summers with Eduardo, and we doctored and tagged and that kind of thing.
Did you ever pull a calf?
Several. They all lived.
What are your plans for the future?
I have no plans. One day at a time. Finding that horse yesterday was a start.
What do you call him?
I complimented her on the name, then said if she wanted she might ride with us on the fall roundup in a couple weeks, maybe see how we did things.
Is that a job offer?
It might go that direction—who knows. Let’s just see how you do. You made a pretty good impression on the boys.
Bunch a chatterboxes. But don’t tell ‘em I said so. With that she rose and held up her hand in farewell, then headed up the back stairs, but not before I caught the ghost of a smile curving past.
For a while then things seemed to change at the K-Bar. Estelle brought a new feeling to the place. As most attractive young women will, she brought promise and luster, a gleaming sense that anything was possible. Her attention and intelligence were like a spotlight that lit up whatever she turned to. Pretty soon there was a line of young cow hands hanging around her, ready with their offerings. The wildest was a shoebox piglet with red ribbon that she laughed and hugged, then handed back.
Even I wasn’t immune, though I reined myself in, took the role of uncle protector. It appeared what I had was something she needed, since she sought me out, wanted to compare notes and see what I thought about things that mattered. I knew she was missing a father. For a while I even thought she might be trying to play matchmaker with her mother and me, though Rosa like her daughter also said One day at a time, which one sleepless night I recalled as the motto for Alcoholics Anonymous. But then I could never seem to work it into polite conversation with either mother or daughter.
Then came the fall roundup, with its planning all set for the push. I had the boys pull the chuck wagon out of the barn, sweep the mice and chickens out of the bed, grease the axles and stitch a couple spots on the canvas cover, check that all the nuts and pins were tight, then let Bixler our Cooky direct them to load in the usual supplies, fill the water barrel, and with the grub safely stowed, load the boys’ bedrolls in behind the seat. I gave Estelle a partner for the drive, Rusty, a seasoned hand with a little red in his beard but his hair mostly gray.
The morning we rode out, fog had settled in the lowlands, that made for a landscape of dreams. We could hardly see one another, and the fog muffled sounds, the creak and jingling, the click of hooves against stone. Then hills heaved up out of nowhere, menacing until the mist burned off.
The plan was to make eighteen miles the first day, then set up camp, so we could start herding first thing next morning. But for the morning fog the ride was mostly a picnic, starting jackrabbits and mule deer and other wildlife now and then as we climbed into the foothills, the boys playful, in high spirits. Someone spotted a small burrowing owl that flared up at our approach, and a couple of the boys gave chase till they lost it in some scrub along the creek.
Estelle couldn’t help but be the center of the ride, with her Bromistar well-behaved, his head high. She had been working him with a saddle and blanket ever since that first day, an ancient patched Mexican rig with a horn big around as a fence post, that the boys studied but never said a word. A hand’s gear was his own, not open for discussion except by invitation. And she never mentioned it.
We pushed hard, stopped half an hour for Cooky to pass around sandwiches, fruit and corn dodgers. With no problems we pressed on, and by nightfall were settled into the hands’ favorite camp site, one called The Lookout. We got the fire going for Cooky, strung out a line for the horses, fed and watered them, then dug out our bedrolls. It was a level patch of high ground, and in the fading light we could see mists far off settling into the valleys. Tomorrow would come early, and fall nights up here could be cold.
Cooky woke me with coffee at first light. Before that cup was gone everybody else was up rolling their bedding, some well into the dance of getting fed. I recruited a couple of good hands and set them up to ride fence at that end of the place, a couple miles further on. I gave them tools, spare wire and a plat map to mark any bad spots they couldn’t fix on their own, so we could go back with reinforcements and finish the job. I told them to find the far southwest corner, and work north. With eighty-nine miles of fence around the K-Bar we had to take every chance in good weather we might get.
Then it was flapjacks and sausage, and on with the drive. I set the hands up in groups of three with a trail boss, and gave the usual speech before we saddled up, every year the same. Try not to run the cattle. Don’t run them just for fun. Keep mamas and calves together. Be calm. Dig them out of the scrub and arroyos where they like to hide. Keep them ahead of you, don’t let any sneak by. We’re gonna round them up at Adobe Flats a mile to the east. If your horse comes up lame, get a buddy to ride back and fetch you another from the string. Tie your lame one and pick it up at the end of the day. Remember, the more we get done now, the less to do later on.
And with that we were off. I was on Jericho, a big sweet paint gelding that had been my number one pony since Apache. He was surefooted, good at cutting cows, with no bad habits to speak of. I worked him pretty hard but treated him right, and he came up shining. By the end of a day I didn’t mind stepping down to let us both climb the hill and catch our breath.
As for Estelle, I smiled in her direction, though we hadn’t spoken in days. I’d put her with Rusty and one other hand but mostly let her be, to see what she’d do with all the work going on. If her effect on the boys would prove a help or hindrance. If she would find her place. The cows were going to take our full attention, and she didn’t need an earful of expectations before the show even started.
That first day was hard, with more bruises and spills than we commonly get. One horse slipped off a steep trail, down a rocky gulch backwards, broke a hind leg and had to be put down. The rider got banged up, and needed help to get his rig off the dead horse, then walked back to camp for another mount, but a couple hours later was back at it and fine. Nobody wanted to take time off for lunch, even though Cooky came out to find us with more sandwiches and fruit and thermoses of coffee, and made us stop a minute.
As for Estelle, she was already showing more cowboy than most of them. Her horse was still a little green and rough, but willing, and would likely be fine. She knew not to lead cattle, but move alongside, nudge, give them time to react and accept. She had a calm about her, and made no startling moves.
By sundown we had rounded up roughly 200 head. I made night assignments to keep the cattle together on the Flats, in four-hour shifts. Then we left three hands riding herd, and picked our way in the dark back to camp.
Cooky was fixing steak and biscuits and beans. In short order the boys slipped their saddles off, fed and watered their ponies, then got in the grub line. They were so hungry supper didn’t take long. Then around the fire the boys got into their blankets and bags, for all their exhaustion too wound up to sleep. We had brought tents, but hadn’t pitched any, since the night was clear, the rains still a month off.
Pretty soon a handful started clanking their coffee cups on the rocks, chanting my name. Ben Ben Ben Ben. I stepped into the firelight and said What’s all the ruckus?
One of them shouted
Tell us a story!
You sure that’s what you want?
When they answered with cheers, I said
Well okay then.
So I told them the story no one but Len Dawes had ever heard. Once upon a time out in Fresno was a boy. With a father run down by a train on the way home to the boy’s eleventh birthday, with a new bike in the trunk. How I was farmed out to relatives, got into it with a cousin-in-law in San Angelo when I was seventeen. Throwing punches. How I run off but got lucky, got onto a ranch, then another, then found my way onto this one. How I got my legs under me as a cowboy. The couple good horses I’d had. My love life, such as it was, and how that worked out. About the little ranch I’d bought from a sweet old couple and still have, most of an hour’s drive away. How it had been twenty-five years since I’d gotten serious about any woman, how I’d moved back into the bunkhouse here for a little noise after nightfall, what folks like to call company. Every now and again I’d say Stop me if you heard this. But by now the silence was like velvet. It felt like we could hear the whippoorwills and crickets out along the Milky Way. No one was asleep, no one even looked sleepy.
Then I had a thought, stepped back from the fire to pull a full bottle out of my saddle bag, uncorked and poured myself a splash, handed it to the nearest cowboy and said Pass it around. Make sure everybody gets a taste.
But there was practically nothing left to the story, no real end. How Len Dawes the best cowboy I’d ever known stepped down as boss a few years back, who’d be here today if he wasn’t nursing his dying sister, how the Kendricks family asked me to step in. So here we are, and the reason why we’re here will come around to bite us pretty soon. So I bid you all good night. Remember, shake out your boots before you step in ‘em. And with that I tipped up my cup, and so did the rest. Then stepped out of the firelight, sat down and pulled off my boots. As I lay back to spread myself around, Estelle bent over, squeezed my arm and whispered Gracias. Though she didn’t say for what.
Next morning arrived in a hurry. First to be fed were two boys that took the day shift with the herd on the Flats, who rode out to spell the night riders come in for a breakfast and nap. Then while some were still eating, we gathered around the map, and talked about where the rest of the cattle might be. I shuffled up the groups from yesterday, and sent each out to scout a likely canyon. I took charge of one myself, saddled up Jericho and headed out. Estelle wound up riding with a different group, heading north, that I didn’t expect to see back until dark.
The second day was harder than the first. Climbing into higher, rougher country, with more scrub and rock outcroppings, more hidey-holes. We dug out a few big old animals missed last spring, that didn’t care to be driven, that we had to work in pairs. By the end of the day, the hands and their horses were shambling and stumbling. But no one had gotten hurt, and as we worked our way back to Adobe Flats, spirits were high. The total herd seemed huge, and must have been near 600 as the boys wheeled them in the dusty twilight, to stir the newcomers in, calm them down. Watching them now felt like prayer.
As we rode up to The Lookout, I could hear Cooky off in the dark somewhere fussing, clanging pans, and soon knew why. There were a couple fancy new horses in camp, tied at the end of the string, and there were the newlywed owners, Lionel and Cynthia Kendricks, warming their hands by the fire. Which was a smoky mess, with Cooky barbecuing ribs, slathering on the sauce, and stirring four big dutch ovens, two with chilis, beans and rice, the other two with potato, onion and cheese casseroles. I hopped down to greet them, said What a pleasure, too bad we can’t show you the herd right now, but you’ll see in the morning. I knew Lionel had never ridden a roundup since he went off to college, but kept mum, just made them welcome. We had no folding chairs, but we could offer them supper and shelter for the night, and I could see they had brought bedrolls. So I had a couple of the boys pitch them a tent, and gave them each a flashlight and a roll of toilet paper, and shined them the way to the outhouse. And slipped Lionel that other bottle I had planned to share with the hands.
The barbecue proved to be a real treat. Cooky was actually blushing in the firelight from the compliments. And I was proud how well the hands behaved. We dug out several lanterns to string overhead so we could see what we were eating, which made things kind of festive. There could have been an awkward moment when Cynthia saw Estelle in line for supper, but Estelle stepped up to shake her hand, asked about her ride, and admired her new Western saddle.
After supper a couple of the boys played some tunes on banjo and harmonica. First some slow mournful ones, like “The Streets of Laredo.” But when they started in on “Buffalo Gal Won’t You Come Out Tonight,” Lionel jumped up and two-stepped his lady round the fire, and the boys sang along in their raggedy way, and at the end gave a thunderous ovation, whooping till the canyons rang. After that I watched several of the boys try to pull Estelle up to dance, but she wisely refused. There should be only one belle at this ball.
It was a high old time, but quickly simmered down. Cooky passed around some cookies he’d baked, then the hands got into their bedrolls. Lionel and Cynthia bid us all good night, and went to their tent, and next thing anybody knew Cooky was handing me coffee, and there was blood on the rim of the world.
After breakfast I shuffled up the trail groups again but this time left myself out, figured I needed to spend time with Lionel and Cynthia. The drive to come would likely be more nightmare than dream, a slow messy noisy thing that would take all our attention.
Cynthia got up first, came out to the fire, stepped close and warmed her hands. She seemed in fine spirits even before the coffee, full of questions and comments. She said she’d ridden to hounds and competed in jumping and dressage, but had never herded cattle, and was astonished at how smart these working horses were. I told her about an old friend who’d worked hay fields in Arizona, where on account of the heat they had to mow in the dark, and the teams of horses pulled their mowers around the fields without anyone driving them. Teamsters waited at all four corners to guide them through the turns, but the teams mowed in from the outer edges and stopped at the center, waiting for teamsters to unhitch and lead them in.
Then Lionel was with us, set for the day in his big white Stetson. We freshened our coffee, while Cooky fried us some flapjacks and sausage and eggs. I described where the hands were, and what they’d be doing, and suggested we ride over and see the herd. While we were finishing breakfast, I told them a little about the spot where we were, The Lookout. It was the best view off the ranch to an ancient migration trail heading south, and the only archaeological site so far found on the place. This flat spot with its grand outlook had been a campsite long before the ranch, and a university researcher doing some kind of survey gathered up a heap of bones and shards, and said this fire pit had likely been in continuous use for eleven or twelve thousand years. There was a good spring hidden at a shady spot in the rocks just to the east, that was always full spring and fall, never known to go dry. The spring was boxed in by sandstone building blocks like those used in Anasazi pueblos. The ranch had always maintained three campsites, each with a wood pile and an outhouse, here at its far end, for roundups. Adobe Flats had been an early Spanish homestead, the biggest clearing this end of the spread. It was abandoned before Texans and their railroads reached this far west. There were only a couple low adobe walls left, that we’d fenced into a stock pen.
As I described the place and its history, Lionel kept a hard eye on me, that I couldn’t read. Had I got something wrong? He’d kept his distance from ranch operations for years, so might not have heard all of this. Or might not like hearing it now, in front of his new wife. Or maybe he had other fish to fry.
Then we saddled up and headed out to see the herd. I noticed that they packed everything they brought, so were probably heading straight home. Then over a rise ahead of me Cynthia and Lionel reined up, and in a moment I drew even. And there it was, a vast slow wheel of bawling cattle a mile across, milling clockwise, by now a thousand head or more. Hard to say with the dust. There were a few hands rounding them, and several more driving cattle down out of the hills. I had that prayer feeling again. Cynthia’s eyes were sparkling. I asked what she thought, and she said it was grand, like nothing she’d ever seen. Lionel was still distracted, not really enjoying the spectacle, all the work and skills in motion. Here was the K-Bar’s whole reason for existing, at a glance. Then all at once Estelle flashed by on her pony, and Lionel grumbled What’s she doing here?
Maybe he just forgot he’d seen her last night around camp. Maybe he’d never even noticed her. But something was wrong, that I needed to get hold of. I waited until they’d seen enough and turned to go, then we picked our way down to lower country. When we were on a level, I stopped in a little grove, climbed down and tied Jericho to a branch, made as if to tighten his cinch, and offered to check theirs as well. While we were stretching our legs, Cynthia said When I saw that girl Estelle, I couldn’t help but think that’s what I’d love to do. Help out on roundups, if you thought I’d be of use. I told her You’d surely be welcome, and you could pick it up in no time. Half the work is a good willing horse that knows cattle. At that Lionel practically let out a moan.
I asked him Was there something wrong? Avoiding my eyes, he looked off and blurted out, To tell you the truth, we’ve been thinking of selling the place. Thought we oughta ride out and see it while it’s still like this.
What do you mean?
Before it all changes.
I stepped around to look him full in the face, couldn’t help it. It felt like the ground had just opened up. I always thought I knew what his problem was, but didn’t really. It wasn’t my place, and wasn’t my say-so. Not about what mattered, who stayed and went. I might be ramrod, but had been fooling myself.
Before what changes?
Ben, you know good an’ well what I mean. This whole ranch has been a dream, livin’ in the past for fifty years, dyin’ for as long as you and I been alive. Hell, you still got Cooky drivin’ a chuck wagon team on these windy little trails.
Pays for itself, don’t it.
Just barely. We can’t be runnin’ a rest home for broken-down cowboys.
I had to set him straight. Said That herd up there would bring upwards of a million and a half just as it stands. A million in good breeding stock, the finest hereabouts. And the yearlings there now that were last winter’s calves will bring their half a million at market. When the heifers we breed calve in the spring that’ll be another half a million to market next fall. It’s not like the wages are eatin’ us up. Or expenses. We’ve still got another cutting of hay set to bale by first frost.
I know it runs good, thanks to you, and it’s what the boys all think they want, but maybe not what we need. Ben, I’m grateful for your work and your thoughts. But Cynthia and I need to figure how we want to live, and what we want to do. This may be our one chance to make a change before it’s too late. It may turn out we’ll find someone to buy the place, who sees eye to eye with you. But the way the ranching business is these days, more likely not.
And with that, he swung up into the saddle. Cynthia avoided my eye, and climbed up too. So I mounted Jericho and said I’d ride with them a little further on, till they were on the trail for home. Lionel started to say they’d find their way, but didn’t fight me, even seemed relieved, especially since I had no more to say. The starch had gone completely out of me.
An hour later we got to the fork that met the main trail. As we were saying goodbye, Lionel said By the way, tell that gal, Rosa’s daughter, I don’t want her hanging round the boys. Distracting ‘em. I tried not to stare, said I’d invited her along on this roundup to see could she make it as a cow hand, maybe offer her a job. And what’s your opinion, he said. I said She’s a hell of a hand with the horses, and has worked cows as much as most of the boys. There’s no doubt they’ve accepted her. And she more than holds her own. I really been thinkin’ how the place needs her more than she needs us, how she’d be the first regular woman cowhand in these parts. She might kinda be the future. That we can either offer a hand to, or ignore.
Lionel turned in his saddle to look at me close. So did Cynthia. They didn’t look at each other, but both nodded to me. Lionel raised his hand, said Later, and they rode on.
I climbed back up to Adobe Flats, watched the cattle wheel a few minutes, felt their quiet power in motion, then headed north to find cows. Work is about the only medicine for a heavy heart. An ornery wild cow or steer won’t let you be, and a cow pony will soon set you straight.
That night would be our last at The Lookout. Maybe our last ever. Tomorrow we’d move the herd north to The Box, a dead-end canyon where decades back we’d strung fence and a gate across the mouth, that would let the boys get some sleep till we started the long drive home.
Turned out we found more cows than we bargained for, on a tight mountain trail with a steep dropoff to the north. I heard their distant thunder before I saw a thing, crowded Jericho to the inside wall, and reined in with only seconds to wait. Here they came, twenty-two head, big, rank and wild, clattering down the trail. And behind them, right on their heels, was that girl’s rangy liver-colored horse Bromistar. I whirled Jericho around, snatched my lariat, snapped a loop at the horse’s head and missed, tossed again and caught him. Then we slowed to a stop. I stepped down and approached Bromistar, looked him over. He still had Estelle’s Mexican saddle on, but was missing one of his reins, maybe torn away when he stepped on it coming down the mountain. Or maybe it broke and startled her. I talked to him, touched and calmed him. He didn’t limp, and seemed to have escaped without a scratch.
Then we rode on up the trail, pushed up through gathering clouds, picking our way, calling her name now and then. I didn’t want to look over the edge but forced myself, and saw nothing. Then around a tight bend near the top there she was, sitting in the trail in sunlight with one boot and sock off, her long foot red and swollen. I couldn’t see her face. Her hair was loose, a shining tent around her shoulders. I stepped down, tied Jericho to a rock, and knelt to feel if her ankle was broken. Luckily it didn’t seem to be. So I took off my neckerchief, rolled it up and showed her how to tie her ankle, to immobilize the sprain. So far Estelle hadn’t said a thing, just shook her hair back and tucked it under her collar, that let me see a fat tear welling in one eye.
I dug through my saddlebags for the hank of cotton clothesline I keep for emergencies, cut and tied a length onto Bromistar’s bridle. When we’d worked her boot on, I pulled her to her feet and lifted her into the saddle. I didn’t bother to ask could she ride, or say anything else till we got turned around, and were heading down the mountain, with me in the lead to catch anything busted loose.
As we dropped down through the clouds, at last she spoke. Said I didn’t want you to see me like that. I said Let’s just be glad you’re all right. You know that old saying, There’s never a horse that couldn’t be rode, never a cowboy that couldn’t be throwed. Just then Bromistar snorted, shook his head, and she laughed.
Then she said He was just doing what I wanted, heading those cows. One turn he just ran out from under me. I said That’s how it is with no room to work. But that’s a nice bunch, and we’ll catch ‘em down on the level. A little herd all to themselves, they won’t scatter.
Then the talk moved on to other things. On impulse I told her what the owners had said, then swore her to secrecy. As cowhands will, I told her what made sense and what didn’t, how Cynthia had suddenly opened up to what the ranch was about, wanted to help herd cattle, just as Lionel was pulling away, thinking this was his chance to escape. Then I told Estelle what I’d told them, how she fit in, how she’d make a good hand, the first real cowgirl in these parts. Then said Things at the K-Bar are wobbly just now. But know you got a job with me.
Then behind me she said,
You wanta see something? If you never tell a soul.
I slowed and turned. She took that tin out of her hip pocket, grinned and said
Here’s my secret, one of ‘em anyhow, and handed me a warm mint. Bromistar nosed after her hand, so she leaned down to give him one too.
We soon caught up with that rank bunch and rounded them toward the herd. As we drove those cows down into that huge wheel of cattle turning clockwise in the sun, its dusty prayer swirling up, I recalled something I’d meant to tell Cynthia and Lionel. How merry-go-rounds mostly go counterclockwise—like the faithful at Mecca. You know why? She turned to smile at me, as if she was born knowing. I said ‘Cause we love how it feels to go faster, against the spin of the world.