Late summer has its many faces here in the Wet Mountains, from the blustery days when you first notice the edges of the aspens turning, to the clear blue days that seem to never end as summer becomes fall. But they will. Eventually the leaves will fall and usually some whopper of a snowstorm will bring it all to an end sometime around Halloween.
Last Thursday was one of those blustery days. I hauled two horses from the ranch I caretake out to Mission Wolf, where they will fulfill their final missions in the circle of life. Star was chronically lame from an old injury (shattered coffin bone) and painfully blind in one eye. Ciao, was elderly and his body was bumpy with tumors from head to tail; recent winters have been very tough on this kind old soul. It was particularly painful for me to load Ciao for this journey, but Star caused me more emotional turmoil by not loading easily.
It’s an 80-mile round trip, much of it on bad road, from here to the wolf sanctuary. The landscape of the western flanks of the southern Wet Mountains has a much different feel, with rolling tan hills of grass and clumps of aspens. It’s backdropped by a spectacular view of the southern Sangre de Cristos, from Tijeras Peak to Mount Lindsey. With these jagged peaks shredding the dark gray clouds the scene was fittingly melancholy.
The folks at the wolf sanctuary were very gracious and helpful in unloading. As much as I favor the idea of these animals not going to waste, it was still one of the most difficult tasks I have ever undertaken. But dead is dead, and the wolves need to eat too. Before I drove away I was caught off-guard when handed a receipt made out to the ranch for a sizable charitable donation.
It was perhaps a mistake to glance back from the ridge overlooking the wolf sanctuary as I drove up the washboarded Ophir Creek Road. I could see the small figures of Star and Ciao grazing peacefully with two other horses awaiting their fates, and the scene cast a pall over the next couple days especially with the weather turning gloomy.
Saturday morning, some levity. I had received a call the previous evening from Dave over at Bear Basin Ranch, the local dude outfit. Three of their cattle have been mixed in with ours for some time. Dave had a Cowboy Weekend group coming in and needed to retrieve his three beasts for their team sorting activities.
I went over with one of my saddle donkeys, Ace, and found all the cattle — our nine head and their three — in some thick brush and timber. It wasn’t much work to get the herd moving, and Ace kept them pinned against a fence and trailed them all the way across the school section pasture to the corral.
I heard some voices off in the trees, and soon Justin, one of the Bear Basin wranglers, showed up on his horse. Pretty quickly the two of us had the three white-faced Bear Basin cattle sorted and penned in a corral. Meanwhile, the rest of the cattle meandered on up the hill.
Dave and the rest of the group showed up shortly and we devised a plan to get the three white-faced beeves on their way back to Bear Basin. All these cowboys had to do was block about 100 feet of an opening to the corral so the cattle would move out the gate and onto the road.
But it didn’t work that way.
I watched as Justin let the cattle out of the pen. Two of them started to go the way we planned, but the third decided to break away and go with the herd, resulting in a rodeo. The last thing I saw Dave and Justin were chasing the three renegades up the hill and trying to haze them back toward the corral.
As rode off on Ace I joked with one of the dudes about how one guy on a donkey could round up the whole herd, but it took eight guys on horseback to let three of them get away.
Here in the high country life does, indeed, go on.