Winner of the Blanchan Award for nature writing.
If only I had recognized the severity of his coughing and wheezing.
I worked at a local guest ranch, the Rocking R, where part of my job was to turn out the horse herd. That summer evening, like all the others, I shoved open the corral gate and released the herd into the gathering darkness. Forty horses, eager to graze the buffalo grass on the bench section above the ranch, nickered and scurried out, raising dust that filtered through my nostrils and settled on my tongue with a hint of loam and manure. The flow went slowly at first, held back by the narrowness of the gate; and then, free, the churning throng fanned out and rumbled into the dusk.
Then came Patches. The little red and white paint horse trotted head-down out of the gate, phlegm oozing from his nose. He coughed. Wide-eyed, he watched the herd lope away. He tried to run but could not, so he lowered his head and shuffled after them. I thought about catching him and turning him back into the corral, but herd-run horses often get sick. The equine immune system is among the most effective of any species. I’d check Patches in the morning.
At dawn I rode out to gather the horses during that cool, still hour between night and day when the whole world pauses to breathe. The peaks etched their silhouettes against the sky. A burgundy sunrise slid over the Absarokas as if red plums had burst onto the horizon. The smell of fir and spruce hung moist in the air. Off in the distance a sand hill crane honked. Bands of horses, ghostly silhouettes, grazed quietly, grass-tearing and tail-swishing the only sounds in a land otherwise so silent that a cowboy could hear his own breath, could almost fall asleep a-horseback to the lullaby of horseshoes against sand, of chaps brushing through sage. About that morning I mostly remember the quiet, the kind that either calms a man or drives him insane.
I loved and loathed that type of morning that eased my mind and unsettled it, too, with thoughts of the future. Ten years earlier I had quit my profession and traded in my suburban existence to live and work as a cowboy. I’d grown up on a cattle farm in Alabama and had wanted to get back to my roots and move west to feel more purposeful and alive. Go west, young man. I worked for outfitters and ranchers and dude ranchers and, during the long winters, took whatever jobs I could find. Despite the financial struggle, I loved my life and did not want it to change.
But every dream has a dark side, and as I passed the age of forty and my body showed the first signs of aging; as the years accumulated and my finances fell to pot, a little voice began chirping. You can’t work these ranch jobs forever. You love your lifestyle, but the day is coming when old age will catch you and you’ll have nothing to show but a worn saddle and a collection of memories. Will they be enough to sustain you? The voice always ended with the same statement:You’re wasting yourself. But each fresh morning the life of a hand didn’t seem wasteful. It felt like roughout leather, looked like the Mount Moran, and smelled like ponderosa pine.
One by one I pushed each band into a loose herd in the middle of the main meadow and then triple counted the heads. One missing: Patches. He had not been with his friends in their normal hiding spot in the draw behind Roundtop Hill.
I needed to hurry, to bring in Patches before the rest of the herd drifted and dispersed. The morning grew brighter and made the animals easier to spot. I trotted my horse over the 640-acre section, riding a grid of coulees and draws and meadows and patches of timber, scanning for color differences and movement. Perched in a limber pine, a Clark’s nutcracker, a lookout, spotted me and squawked a warning to its flock. I rode closer, and a dozen swooped from different trees to perches at a safe distance. I trotted my horse back to the herd, hoping the animals had not scattered. On a hill a couple hundred yards out, I feathered back my reins and scanned the meadow, searching for clues in the terrain, the sky, the breeze. Where was Patches? The horses had scattered somewhat but still grazed in a loose group. Had I missed an area? Had I ridden by him? Had he fallen into a ravine? Was he lying dead in the sagebrush? A Red-tail hawk—supposedly a Shoshone sign for direction—screeched. Barely mowing its wings, it glided on the wind and angled off toward the ranch. I reined my gelding in the hawk’s direction and kicked him into a lope.
Patches stood huddled in an isolated draw near the ranch. It was as far as he’d traveled the previous evening. He stood still, head almost to his knees, his chest laboring for breath, his lungs rattling like a set of worn valves. He labored to draw in every possible gram of oxygen. I rode up, dismounted, kneeled next to his muzzle, and stroked his forehead. I considered trotting my horse to the ranch and retrieving my pistol just in case Patches couldn’t make it back to the ranch, but I needed to bring in the herd. I trotted off on my horse to retrieve the others, hoping the sight of their passing would motivate him to follow. When the herd roared by coating Patches in dust, not even his pals in the Hide-n-Seek Gang whinnied to him. I galloped behind, squinting through the cloud at Patches, waving my arms and whooping and slapping leather, hoping he’d find the energy to join in. He raised his head and watched the remuda flow past and downhill toward the ranch. The dust and the snorting and the rumbling and the hollering fell into freeze frame. In slow motion I floated past Patches, his expression so clear and humanlike—a mixture of sadness and resignation—as if he realized that his body and life were not his own anymore, that he no longer had a choice in this world. Patches hung his head, and something like acceptance washed over him.
His countenance so bothered me that I forgot about galloping across rough terrain. His expression felt familiar, though I could not place it. My stomach tightened. I thought, Why do I feel so unsettled? I’d come back for Patches later. I rode off downhill, punching the herd toward ranch.
Patches was what some hands referred to as a “Mexican” horse, a smaller-sized animal that picked his feet up high when he walked and bobbed his head like a chicken pecking corn. No one was sure about his color. A “paint” is what most called him, a collage of red on white. He didn’t look like a paint to me. His splotches were too small and random, like a shorthorn bull.
Patches was a dude horse. The personality mix of any dude string is similar to a group of people. Some are mischievous; some troublemakers; some flashy and attention-seeking; some quiet and unassuming; some humorous, businesslike, bold, or lazy. Many work without complaint or need for attention. Every day they roll out, go to work, and do their jobs. They do them the next day and the next until years pass and hardly anyone has noticed.
Like schoolteachers, we wranglers always focused our attention on the troublemakers. Patches was one of the good horses, a ten year-old who sat midway back in the class and never made a peep. He paid attention and did not act out. Did his best. Over the years he had hauled hundreds of guests, most with minimal riding ability, across some of the roughest and most scenic country in the lower forty-eight. Years later, guests who’d ridden Patches often forgot the names of wranglers and the ranch itself, but none forgot Patches’. They uttered his name with a mix of thankfulness and admiration for his role in their finest hours—moments of Levis against saddles; of green sage against blue sky; of possibilities recaptured and worries loped away.
One guest from New Mexico loved Patches so much that she drove twelve miles, several down a hollowed-out dirt road, to buy him carrots. An attorney said he felt invincible on Patches, that he wished he could ride Patches into court where he would never lose a case. And then there were the children. Patches understood them. The sweet, blue-eyed girl who begged her parents to let Patches sleep with her in their cabin. The smart-ass teenager who spewed vitriol at his parents and siblings but sat peaceful and relaxed on the top rail every afternoon sketching Patches on loose-leaf paper. His drawings depicted a strong but kind horse that arched its neck and looked forward, always forward.
Why had Patches’ expression spooked me? Sadness? No, I’d seen many ranch horses die. It’s part of the job. Galloping behind the herd, I had an epiphany: Patches’ expression reminded me of my own face in the bunkhouse mirror, the look of an individual who is beginning to understand that one phase is nearing its end, that no matter how much one loves his life—his location, work, friends, and family—he must consider moving on. This is what I thought I had seen in Patches: his certainty that he would never again lope across a country so vast. I had seen a creature that wanted to remain, but his life was galloping headlong away from him toward an infinite unknown.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my need to rescue him—and to project on him some of my human thoughts and emotions—was really an effort to save myself.
I slowed my horse, peeled off, and circled back uphill. If I got Patches to the ranch, he might have a chance. I thought, We can doctor him and call the vet. Shit! I should’ve treated him last night. If only…
Patches did not look up. He stood there rigid like a Remington bronze but then coughing and heaving and staring off into the sage with a slack face. I had never seen him like that in the way of old horses and old people who know their time is coming. But Patches was not old. He was like me, a middle-aged male with the rest of his life before him. I rode by and nudged him in the ribs with the toe of my boot, and he weakly looked up at me. “Let’s go, Patches,” I said. “We’ve got to get you some medicine.”
Patches didn’t want to move. I slipped my hand down the reins to the last foot of leather, slapped him on the rear, and screamed, “Hey-ya. Get up!” Patches’ eyes widened. He flinched and then raised his head and looked at me. I popped him harder. “I said ‘Get up!’” Patches tucked his butt and scooted off, and I rode behind, whirling my rope above him.
I let him stop fifty feet before reaching the corral, where he conked like a stalled pickup. The wranglers were already catching and tacking the day’s horses. On their hips they carried blankets and saddles trudging back and forth from tack room to hitch rails, glancing at Patches and realizing he was sick. The ranch owner, Mr. Hansen, walked over, looked at Patches, and shook his head.
The area’s only vet was out of town, so we quarantined Patches in the round pen and doctored him ourselves with medicines on hand. In two days he began to breathe easier and his eyes showed life, but after several more days he stopped eating and he struggled to stay on his feet. Before nightfall, while sounds of conversation and laughter wafted from the lodge, Patches wobbled and then dropped to the ground, wheezing, and congestion overtook his lungs. At one a.m. his eyes turned milky and dull. He lay heaving, head up with his front legs folded underneath. The dew froze on his back, and I covered him with saddle blankets to conserve his body heat. At two a.m. he began rocking like a mother in a chair and periodically he rocked harder and surged to stand. Then he fell flat and convulsed. The sign every horseman dreads.
Mr. Hansen slept in his office chair, a .38 on his desk. I touched his shoulder and startled him awake. “He’s suffering,” I said. He nodded like any rancher accustomed to bucking up and doing what he dreads, and then he slipped the pistol into his coat pocket and trudged with me outside.
Mr. Hansen’s eyes passed over Patches as if he was, in tribute, remembering every moment in the horse’s life, how he owed his family’s livelihood to such animals. He stood there for a long time, seemingly acknowledging what, at times like this, every rancher admits: He hates horses and loves them with all his heart. Patches raised his head a bit, and Mr. Hansen kneeled and placed one hand on Patches’ forehead as if anointing him. I focused the flashlight beam on the imaginary crisscross between ear and eye, ear and eye. Focusing on the center of the x and not daring to lose the mark, Mr. Hansen extended his arm, cocked the hammer, and winced.
The muzzle flashed, and Patches fell. He shuddered and then suddenly, wide-eyed, raised his head, folded his legs underneath, and rocked as if trying to stand. Mr. Hansen and I stared open-mouthed. He drew the hammer back again, and then Patches plopped over, seized, and then went slack. Under his head, a stream of crimson flowed out and pooled around my boot, steaming like a warm lake.
Patches was one of many ranch horses I saw die in its prime. Farmers and ranchers, people who live close to the land, tend not to sentimentalize these passings, for they are too common and doing so exacts too high a toll. But any rancher who tells you that the deaths or his or her animals do not have an affect is a ball-faced liar. Sometimes, only in the most private of places, hardened men and women cover their faces with their hands and skink to their knees. But to me Patches’ death felt more like weight than sadness, like carrying a bag of sweet feed on each shoulder. Something about his passing felt personal. If only I had noticed him sooner and had acted when I first had the chance.
Mr. Hansen directed another hand to chain up Patches to the tractor and drag his body through the sage into a coulee in the lower meadow. The wrangler wrapped a chain around Patches’ back legs, looped it around the three-point hitch, and dragged him bobbing through the sage. A swath of disturbed dirt extended behind like the wake from a boat.
Three mornings later I herded horses high along a ridge overlooking the lower meadow. A bird chortled, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” I breathed in the musk of sage and peered downhill toward the coulee two hundred yards away. Buzzards circled. Was Patches’ body visible among the sagebrush?
The hint of his silhouette showed through. Ravens cawed several yards away from the carcass, creeping closer like a platoon toward the enemy. Suddenly they scattered, flying in every direction. I pulled my field glasses from my saddlebag and scanned the carcass. The ravens flapped their wings, fussed, and reorganized. Movement stirred behind the silhouette, and a grizzly appeared and charged the ravens, scattering them again. The bruin returned to the carcass and buried its crimson snout. The bear tore pieces of Patches’ flesh. Then more movement near the carcass.
Covered in blood, two cubs waddled beside their mother, feeding, stripping pieces of muscle and swallowing as if playing rather than eating. One of the babies climbed atop Patches as if scaling a slide in a park, and then slid to the ground. The little ones ate and frolicked. Play and survival intertwined.
The breeze picked up, and soon the mother caught our scent. She stood on her hinds and though she was downhill and away, she seemed to rise to my level and gaze into my eyes. She stretched and craned her cinnamon neck to get a better view, but we were too far for a bear’s poor eyesight. She didn’t need her eyes. She pointed into the air one of nature’s most sensitive noses, one able to smell a dead carcass for miles. Once she had us in her nose, she dropped back down, her nostrils flaring, taking us in and gauging our identity, the distance, the threat. And then she wheeled and bound down the draw and out of sight, the two cubs ambling behind. Until the bears returned, the ravens and buzzards and coyotes could have their fill.
Across the meadow and far down in the valley, cattle, black specs in a sea of green, grazed and digested grass into meat and manure. The creek ribboned down valley, searching for its river. Later in the day, the temperature would rise and a portion of the water would evaporate into the clouds, gathering and falling again as rain.
Before long, the country would brown like a biscuit in a Dutch oven and the aspens would turn the color of cornbread. Then the snows would paint the entire world white. Spring would bloom green, followed by another summer and another fall and winter, until, lost on the continuum, I would awaken one day a hollowed-out cowboy with nothing to show for my life but a prattling of stories that no one cared to hear. I knew my choice: continue on my path and die destitute and happy, or leave in search of financial stability.
A red-tailed hawk surfed east on the currents. The real opportunities were in that direction beyond the clear water and across the Winds and the Big Horns in the kinds of places where people outnumber cattle and the sky might as well be the ground because they both look the same.
How does a person know if he should stay or go? How does he leave while his heart begs him to stay?
I thought about Patches, and that’s when it hit me, his place in the cycle of endings and beginnings. I needed to move on from the life of a hand and make something of myself, but the thought filled me with unspeakable sadness. I wanted to live out my days near Riphorn Peak, Hiawatha Pass, and the North Fork. I wanted to dip my toes in Horse Creek at the end of each hot day and finally come face to face with that monster bull elk hiding up on Colter Pass. I wanted to sight him with my scope, watch him until just the right moment, and then whistle at him to run.
Slowly, I wheeled my horse 360 degrees and took in the scenery, trying to brand it into my memory so that as an old man I could tell myself the stories. The mountains stood between me and the whirling world. The hawk grew faint. I held my face to the wind and inhaled, holding the air in my lungs as long as I could, and then I let out a deep sigh, squeezed my horse, and then trotted him east.
Story Behind the Story...
The essay says almost everything except what happened next. Before leaving Wyoming to begin a new career back East, I took a very long horseback ride (2,000+ miles) and then drove to Nashville to start a new job. But things didn't go well, and my grand plans crashed. Wyoming kept calling, so I returned. During several years of hardship I cursed myself for moving back, and then gradually began to find my footing in the region I love. (See The Direction of Water.)