Montana December 1994
I tossed and turned and after an eternity of fit-full half sleep I woke up. The darkness lay quiet about me and there was no outside sound. My breath blew gusts of steam into the cold air as I lay there, trying to gather my senses and remember where I was.
I was alone in the Gateway Camp waiting for Chip to come in. This time, by myself, was valuable to me. There were no hunters to worry about, and a person could slow down and just really enjoy the Wilderness.
Without looking at the clock I hurriedly dressed, and headed for the corrals. It was cold, but not unbearable. In fact the weather had been very pleasant up until a few days ago. At that point it dumped about eight inches of snow on us. Over the last few days , the snow had thawed and then froze again at night. This left a somewhat treacherous plate of ice on top of the ground in places. On this ice I crunched my way over to catch my little bay wrangle pony.
Bud: is a solid, good, using horse with just enough bronc in him to make him interesting. He also occassionally has a mind of his own, but he and I have only ever had one serious disagreement. Tonight, he pinned his ears and stamped a hind foot as I saddled him, but I mostly ignore such behaviour in teenagers or horses. He took the bit readily enough and I swung aboard.
There was no moonlight, but the brilliance of the stars, and the clear mountain sky guided us up the trail and through the trees. The brisk sharpness of the cold air bit at my cheeks, and breathing deeply I filled my lungs with the invigorating, high mountain atmosphere, feeling more alive than I had for a long time. Breaking out into the horse pasture I was greeted by the vision of a silvery white sea of snow, running up to the mountain tops and over. Above the peaks the e stars glowed in such abundance it seemed as if some old miner had thrown pan full after pan full of gold nuggets into the sky. Where they could hang, and tease us with their richness and beauty. Our pack string stood mid way up the pasture and jangled their bells at me, but tonight I passed them by and headed for Crystal Ridge.
The trail up the ridge was an ice path. My pony slipped, and going to his knees, I stepped off, and led him the rest of the way up. This required me to stop and catch my breath at least twice before the top was attained. once on top we both stood, breathing deeply, and peered into the Northern sky. My mounts' ears were pricked as if he knew what I was looking for and then I remembered that he had made this trip before.
Instead of waiting at the North End of the ridge, an irrestible notion caused me to mount up and head towards the Southern cliffs. Off these cliffs I could look down and practically make out the tents of camp. Looking upward I searched the magnitude of stars for a constellation to recognize. Sadly I realized it was too late to see the Summer Triangle. This contained my favorite star, DENEB, which is the tail of the Swan. It takes practically no imagination to see the great bird, as it flies Southward down the Milky Way. A person knows that they are looking directly into Heaven when they look at it, and I wonder if the time will come when the magnificent creature will carry me home to Texas. Having no luck with the Summer Triangle, I went in search of Orion, 'The Hunter'. Yet, after long moments I came to the conclusion, I'd never make much of an astronomer. Easing my concentration, I just stood there, looking up, with my mouth hanging open like a big dummy.
Bud had stood attentively, tied under a tree, watching me go temporarily brain dead. Now he snorted, stamped a foot at me, and then looked Northward.
"He" was there. Distantly I heard the jangle of the bells. In only a few seconds he was nearer and was approaching us from the North end of Crystal Ridge. Then I could see him, but he was coming towards us much too fast. Suddenly I could hear him and fear struck me as I realized what was happening. He was hauling on his lines, bellering "whoall at the top of his lungs and his whole outfit was skidding across the ice at about ninety miles an hour. They were headed straight for us, and the only thing I could do was jerk the knot on Bud's lead rope, and head up that tree. Right about that time his rig and team got all jumbled together, turned side ways, and in a second slammed into the tree I was perched in. The force of the collision durn near rattled me out of them branches, and it knocked the remaining snow from the limbs into a heap upon the wreck below.
For long moments I sat there. None of his famous team appeared to be dead, but they sure looked addled, Slowly, one by one, they stood and shook the snow from their luxurious hides. Patiently, they waited for someone to untangle their traces. About that time I heard some terrible bad language coming from beneath the overturned ice buggy.
With great relief I busted out laughing and then heard the old familiar voice order brusquely "Herman, get your damn butt down here, and get this thing off of me!". To my surprise, as I lifted the sleigh, a miniature elf crawled out first ahead of my dear friend. Then the Christmas legend ordered the elf to go fetch my horse, as he, and I, righted his vehicle and began straightening out his harnesses. The old boy didn't seem much worse for the wear, and actually just had that bewildered look about him that can come from such an incident. His hair was mussed up, and he had a little bit of a limp. I suppose his stocking cap was lying back down the ridge aways. All this got me giggling again and he just glanced my direction and said "Aw shut-up"
"You ought to carry you some weight in that thing when you go running around," I says.
"I ought to either fix the damn brakes or quit visiting Texas cowboys in the middle of nowhere-by-God-Montana" was his reply.
"Well" I says "Whatever, but you better quit cussing before it comes time to see all them children this year."
He gives me a wise look, reaches under the seat of his sleigh, and extracts a full bottle of Canadian Whiskey. Together we moseyed around, pulling on that jug, and had a good visit. Looking me in the eye he eloquently remarked, "Speaking of children, that's a mighty fine daughter you got down there in Dallas she sortof reminds me a lot of you, when you was that size". Noting my suddenly sad expression, he added "Don't worry, son, you keep handling affairs the way you have been, things got to get better, you'll get to see her more often". Then trying to be jovial he put a hand on my shoulder, and laughed, "Hell, you've made it a year without getting throwed in jail, things got to be looking up". Seeing I wasn't completely relieved, he finished making his point by explaining, "You know son, you cowboys do don;t really ever grow up. Y'all just take your lumps, and learn your lessons." Then smiling once more he poked me and said, "That thick head of yours probably saved your life a few times, but it sure is hard to soak anything through it".
We fetched his cap and drifted back to his waiting reindeer, visiting about lighter subjects the whole way. Upon reaching his rig, he crawled in, and I asked, "Well, Santa, what am I getting this year for
Christmas'?" He grabs my buckle, jerks me towards him, and stuffs that half-empty whiskey bottle down the front of my pants. Then with grave seriousness he looks me in the eye and tells me, "your getting that, and another lesson!". Then he sat back, took up his lines, gave me a wink and a nod and then he was gone.
After his departure, I turned and headed to get Bud. The old bird had me wondering. Also, curiously, I noted that I had my riding boots, and spurs on. I thought I distinctly remembered lacing up my snow boots. Then I pulled up short. Tied in place of Bud was one of the ugliest Broncs I'd ever seen, he was wearing my bronc-riding outfit. What kind of joke was that rascally little elf pulling?
Well, I looked this hammer-head over. He was an ugly dirty dun color. His ears perched high on his head almost touching at the tips. He had little pig eyes and a wide forehead. His jaws were those of a stud and he had a parrot mouth. He was somewhat u-necked, and yet seemed high headed. His chest was great and broad, but down from it were knobby bowed knees, which descended into platter-like, split-up pigeon toes. Behind my saddle canted a thin hatchet type rear end, with a tail that straggled probably four inches onto the ground. All in all, he stood at least sixteen hands, and had the look of a pure demon in them little pig eyes.
Doing the only thing I know how to do, I screw my hat down and go to him. His first trick is to turn his rear to me, and try to kick at my approach. Turning a strong club into splinters assures him his first trick ain't gonna work. As I reach for the lead he stabs a bite at my ribs, but a hard thrown elbow settles that. Then as I reach for the stirrup he cow-kicks, but I've got hold of the cheek piece and saddle horn and he misses. Instantly, he rears and lunges skyward, but in the same motion I step aboard. Well, there ain't nothing left for him to do but settle down, and crank out some serious pitching, and boy, is he good at it. He can drop out from under you, duck, and dive, throw in an ocassional sunfish, and even reach around and try to bite you. He's doing it all mighty hard and fast, surprisingly I'm hanging in there. Swaying and raking a tune across his ribs with my spurs. We were tearing up a great portion of ice and rocks up on that ridge, when all at once that old devil just- bogged his head and lined out jumping and kicking in great leaps straight away. Now, I went to enjoy- the ride and giving him a thrashing. My fun suddenly turned to horror as I realized what was happening. With an eerie scream he catapulted off the cliff, hurling us into space. Desperately, I reached and grabbed for anything, but I just kept falling. Panic had a hold of me, my thoughts were of my daughter, but I just kept falling and falling.
Then I hit. Clutching great fistfuls of bedsheets in both hands I lay there drenched in sweat. My breath was coming to me in ragged gasps, and my heart beat a thousand miles an hour. Just before my consciousness started to realize my surroundings a familiar voice spoke to me from a distance far away.
"Son, you may have all the kindness of 'the world in your heart, but you go forking the wrong bronc and even if you can ride him it can lead to a disastrous end. Take care cowboy".
Then I was full awake. This was ridiculous, I'd been home in Texas for a month and a half. It had been shirt sleeve weather all day, but now in the wee hours of the morning I was cold. I clammered out of bed and found my way to the gas heater, lit it. My breath blew gusts of steam into the chilled room and my throat was dry. The dream had left me somewhat upset, I was pondering it as I reached for the glass of water I keep on my dresser. Backing up to the heat of the stove, I was still deep in thought as I pulled the cork from the bottle. What the Hell ... ? My nerves tensed, I looked down in astonishment at the half empty bottle of Canadian Whiskey in my hand. Then slowly my hackles settled, my gaze dropped to my boots as the last remnants of snow melted away.
Till Next Time Take Care
The Lost Rider of Yaupon Creek