One Last Roundup

By Jack Rizzo

"I must be crazy to live like this," I thought to myself. This was not a new revelation, but rather an ongoing discussion I've had with myself for years.

I shook my head and got my mind back on to things that mattered. Like paying attention to where the hell I was, and more importantly, where I needed to go.

The wind was blowing out of the north and the snow was coming down hard enough to make it difficult to see where I was headed.

I kicked my horse in the flank and continued on up the mesa. Socks, was a gelding, and like me, was getting a bit long in the tooth. He'd been a good horse; better than most I'd ever owned. But also like me, age was catching up with him. I'm sure he wasn't taking this weather any better than I was.

A strong burst of wind caught my attention and brought my thoughts back to my immediate surroundings. I reined the old Appaloosa towards a draw I could barely see to my left. Maybe we'd find the calf down there. As cold as it was, maybe the damn critter had enough sense to get out of the weather.

We made the draw, and once out of the wind, without the snow blowing in my eyes, I could see much better. No sign of the calf though.

"Maybe," I thought, "the calf is further down the draw. After all, it hadn't been snowing all that long and maybe he'd come this way before the snow started falling."

For sure, I couldn't see any tracks in the three inches or so of snow on the ground.

For the next half hour I worked my way to the end of the gulley without any sign of the missing calf. I turned Socks around and headed back up the draw. Not much else I could do; for sure, there was no way the old horse, or I for that matter, was in any shape to try and make it up the steep incline to the top of the small canyon.

When you spend most of your time alone, like most range cowboys, a large portion of it is spent thinking. Well, at least that's what I did. I suspect most others that worked the open range weren't all that much different either. It kind of comes with the job. Talking to your self is just about a job prerequisite, and after all this time, I was pretty good at answering myself too.

As I worked my way back up the draw my mind started drifting. "Damn," I thought to myself, "had I really been doing this for fifty some years?"

It's strange. When you spend a lot of time alone, you find you're talking back to what you were thinking. "Yep", I answered my own question, "it's been that long; maybe even longer."

When I reached high ground, the wind was howling like a banshee. Despite all the layers of clothes I was wearing, I could feel the cold creep in and settle on my bones. I had the gout hit me a few years back, and the cold just seemed to settle into my knee and elbow joints. "No sense in worrying about it; there ain't much I can do about it now," I thought as I turned Socks across the wind, blowing over the top of the mesa.

Actually, it wasn't really a mesa, but they called these mountains 'Flat Tops' here in Colorado, but that's how I thought of them. Guess that comes from spending so much time down in New Mexico when I was younger.

I chuckled, thinking back to the kid I was growing up in St. Louis. Who would have thought a city kid would end up spending his life as a cowboy. It ain't like I planned it that way. I'd more or less just fell into it.

After the war was over, I ended up being mustered out of the Marines in Oakland. Guess that was about 1946 or so. Anyway, one of the guys in my platoon was from a small town in New Mexico. With nothing better to do, I found myself on a bus with him, headed for Santa Fe. One thing led to another and it seems like before I knew it, I was learning to ride fence and work cattle. It's funny how a fellow just falls into life like that.

The wind picked up some, and I could see that the snow was falling much harder now. I cursed Jameson and his decision to wait another two weeks before rounding up the herd from the high country. Now days, it seems that most of the ranches are big corporations. Gone are the ramrods that knew how to run a cattle ranch. They'd been replaced by managers and accountants. I'm sure that a couple of extra weeks of not having to feed the herd played into the decision to wait until now. Sure they had a lot of book learning, but sometimes I wondered if they had enough sense to pour piss out of a boot with the instructions written on the heel? Anyone with a half ounce of sense would have had the herd back in pasture a couple of weeks ago.

"No sense in worrying about what is," I said out loud. I guess Socks didn't have any comments, as I didn't hear him so much as snort.

The snow was coming down pretty hard now. I could barely see ten feet. Socks was having a hard time as well; he was moving pretty gingerly, stepping lightly as we moved across the somewhat level ground.

I finally decided that enough was enough. I hated to lose a calf, but with the way it was snowing, I'd have a hard enough time getting back to camp as it was. I turned Socks head into the wind and started the trip back to camp.

I guess it was fate. One never knows about things like that. But, you play the cards that are dealt you. As luck, or lack of it, Socks found a hole in the ground with his right front leg. He stumbled, and I had time to jump from the saddle before he went down. I cursed as I brushed the snow off me and then made my way to where the horse was trying to stand up. As I got close enough, I got a sick feeling in my stomach. I could see that the horse's leg was broken. There wasn't much I could do. Hell, it'd been a few years since I'd carried a gun. These new fangled corporate ranches wouldn't let you carry one. Said it was too dangerous. Actually, I think it probably had more to do with them paying more in insurance.

There was no doubt I was in a real fix here. Socks wasn't going anywhere, and I couldn't even put the horse out of his misery.

I thought about just leaving the old horse, but it didn't seem right. We'd been partners for the past twelve years or so and I couldn't see letting him just freeze to death all alone.

I cursed again and then grabbed hold of his reins and settled him down. Once I had the horse on the ground, I sat down next to him.

Now I'm not dumb. I knew it was cold enough to freeze to death. Somehow, it just didn't seem to matter. I ran my arm around Socks neck and then lay down across his back. The warmth from the horse's body felt good on my chest, but I knew it wouldn't last all that long.

As I lay there, I couldn't help but thinking. My mind was a whorl of memories; both past and present. Somewhere in there, I remembered the few women I'd known. Some of them were good, others not so. None of them were crazy enough to get hooked up with a cowboy that worked the open range—too many negatives.

I pondered my life and what it meant to me. I didn't get any real answers and to be honest, didn't expect any. All in all, I guess I'd been happy. There was something to be said about living a life out in the mountains. Not many people could do it. The isolation and time spent alone would be a real problem for most people. Not to mention the blistering hot summers, or winters so cold that you don't know if you'll ever get warm again.

I don't know how long I laid there. But, I did hear Socks' last gasp for air. I didn't move, there was no sense in doing so. No sense in going back to a life that was changing faster than I was. Oh, there'd still be a need for people like me. All the helicopters and airplanes in the world couldn't move a herd of cattle through the mountains. Land was not plentiful anymore. I couldn't see these big outfits buying enough land to support the huge herds of cattle. At least not as long as the government let them lease open range at such a cheap price. No, cowboys would still be needed; at least for the foreseeable future.

But, it wouldn't be the same. Everything now was a business. I don't think I could just reduce it to dollars and cents. And that's what it was becoming. Price and cost were the driving factors anymore and I just didn't see my place in it.

My feet were starting to get numb, so I stood up and shook the snow off me. I wondered if I should try and walk back to the camp. "No," I thought, "it's a good five miles or so. No, it's better to stay right here."

I sat back down next to Socks and lay back against his cold frame. The snow was coming down hard now and accumulating at a good clip. At this rate, we'd get a couple of foot. It was unusual for this time of year, but not unheard of.

I was expecting to feel cold, but that wasn't the case. No, numb was a better description. Numb to the cold and numb to what would follow. I was also getting sleepy. I guess my body was shutting down. I shook my head, chuckled and then just closed my eyes.

"Hey, Jimmy, take a look over there."

"Yeah, it looks mighty peculiar. Let's take a look."

The two men nudged their horses in the direction of the mound of snow that looked out of place on the flat, level ground. The two pack horses they were leading followed behind. When they got close, one of them dismounted and brushed away some of the snow; revealing the hind end of a horse.

"Harry, looks like we found Carl's horse," said the one called Slim.

Jimmy edged his mount closer and moved around to the other side of the downed horse.

"Slim, move that snow there. I think we might a found Carl too."

The other man walked around the horse and started brushing the snow away from the front of the horse. After a few strokes, he stood and then stepped back.

"Looks like you're right."

He went back to moving the snow and slowly uncovered the frozen body of the cowboy.

Jimmy dismounted and after the body had been uncovered, Slim stood and the two men stared at the dead horse and rider for a few minutes.

"Wonder why he's laying up next to the horse?" Jimmy asked.

Slim uncovered more snow from the front of the horse, then announced, "Looks like the damn horse broke a leg."

"Wonder why Carl stayed with him?" The other unconsciously remarked.

Slim just shook his head, "Ain't no way of telling. I guess he just didn't want to leave the horse."

"Hell, looks like he died smiling, anyway. Wonder what that was all about."

"Don't have a clue," answered Slim.

The two men worked the frozen body of the dead cowboy away from the horse and managed to tie the corpse to one of the pack horses. It was a real chore, as the body was frozen solid. Fortunately the cowboy had been sitting up, leaning against the dead horse. The two men forked the frozen body over one of the pack horses and quickly tied it off to the pack frame.

"Guess we'd better get back and let Jamison know we found Carl."

Slim nodded and both men mounted up.

As they headed out, Jimmy paused for a moment, looked out over the snow laden ground and then said, "You know, he was one hell of a cowboy."

Slim nodded and answered, "I hear yah. "Don't think you'll find many like him any more."

The two kicked their mounts and started back down the trail towards the base camp.