Sad River Roundup

Ride along on a modern day cattle driveIt may be the longest cattle drive anyone does anymore. The cows have been on the mountain for four months or more, getting fat eating every blessed chewable thing they can reach. Just about every cattleman in the nation would truck their animals as far as these critters will have to walk to winter pasture. They are hamburger plants, not distance runners. You’d have to be crazy to trail a herd right down the main north-south corridor from Telluride to anywhere. The Switzers are that kind of ranching family though, a little different. They aren’t mountain people in that the fanatic spiritualism that runs in a streak through the clan is a product of dwelling for generations in an ascetic vacuum of empty desert. Great-grandfather Switzer had bought a piece of McElmo Canyon and the badlands beyond that was the size of a county in Vermont. He also locked up most of the grazing leases in West Fork of the Dolores River Valley. They say he had the same jihadi gleam in his eye as the current crop of Switzers, who are in close and immediate communication with the Lord and recognize a sinner by the look on his face. If you think you might have that look, head the other way.

The route takes the cows right through the middle of the town of Dolores. By then, the herd has been trailing for days, off and on. It used to be there were more places big enough to park a congregation of cattle that size and let them eat and rest, but most of those places have been carved up. Now you have to push the cows a little harder than cows would naturally go. It takes all fifty Switzers cowboying and every body they can find who can ride a horse to keep them grouped. A lot of people help willingly, as it is, after all, probably the longest cattle drive anyone does anymore and the authenticity of the experience is unquestionable.

The thing about herding cattle is to understand that one thing they do well is walk around. They don’t go fast, but they go willingly, for the most part, and would be going somewhere after a while even without your encouragement. Your job is to point them. A cowboy galloping around shouting “Yeeha” doesn’t speed up a herd one bit. It might just scatter them like a rack of billiard balls and you’d be the next two hours coaxing the calves out of the thickets. Just gently get them all going the same direction. Sit back and watch the parade. If you’ve got good dogs, you can just idle along in the truck if you’ve only got a few cows. The Switzers had hundreds.

They got to town about noon that year, spread out for half a mile. Railroad Avenue was pretty much solid cow from one end to the other, and the early crowd at the Hollywood Bar & Cafe drug off their stools to watch the longest cattle drive in the country troop buy.

Among the blurrier spectators, Dexter B. had found it was safer to drink early in the day, as the various agencies charged with enforcement of restraining orders and arrest warrants didn’t seem to get fired up till late afternoon. That’s when they had chased him into the alley and cuffed him the last two times anyway. Dexter is a flight risk the same way a homing pigeon is. If you need to drop a leaned-over tree that’s otherwise going get in bed with you some windy evening, Dexter is who you would call, only you wouldn’t call him, you’d just go down to the Hollywood and maybe knock back a couple of drafts while you talked it over. Dexter is a mountain person. He knew that the deputies couldn’t get around town any better than anyone else. Not when there were two dozen four-footed animals in town for every person, and that’s not factoring in the dogs. The cops wouldn’t be motoring by.

If you could get to the north-side streets, you could drive around the herd’s flank and proceed a couple of blocks toward or away from the center of town. Leaving the city limits was like going the wrong way at the Hajj. A lot of the locals were creeping down side streets trying to get to the bank, the market or the bar. One of these was Mark Morane in his flashy Jeep, running a little late. Mark leaves his Jeep in town on nice days and switches to his motorcycle, which he keeps in a garage on Fourth Street, for the last five miles in to his office. Born and raised nearby, Mark is a lawyer, which is not a well-represented population among mountain people. Mark is no exception to this generalization and, birthplace notwithstanding, would be a dense-atmosphere-sucking flatlander if he lived to be a thousand. He can’t help it.

Immobilized in the stream of steers that day were a number of automobiles that had encountered the bovine frontal system in the middle town and become embedded in its flow. Southbound vehicles could sustain a walking pace while watching a shifting vista of four-to-six shit-smeared cattle bottoms like a drive-in movie. Northbound wasn’t going much of anywhere, and this group included Victor, who was headed up to the West Fork in the strangest thing he had ever driven, and that included just about anything with wheels or tracks. It was a 1974 NATO military fire truck built on a German Unimog chassis. The Unimog was an internet purchase, kind of an impulse thing, bought by the owner of a resort that is so far from the nearest fire department you may as well not bother calling. The Unimog had been delivered “as is” on the back of a flatbed, from a shipyard in Baltimore.

Luckily, its driver was a genius of the physical. Last month, when somebody put his truck in the ditch and his equipment trailer like a barricade across the rest of the road, Victor loaded up a bunch of timbers and built a road right over the damn thing and got the valley’s commuting population home that night. This morning, he had poured a quart of Baltic seawater out of the fuel filter of the Unimog, purged the fuel system and rebuilt the throttle linkage with a piece of wire he found on the ground.

Born on a ranch in Chihuahua, his size put him in the position of jockey for the family’s race horses, till, still in his twenties, he was too old. He was fluent in Spanish, diesel and horse. A mountain person, he knew the Unimog had been mistreated. As it stood 37 hands at the shoulder and was skittish and ill-tempered, he wasn’t about to push it.

There’s not a lot of foot traffic when the herd is coming through and it’s best to watch your step for a couple of days afterward. This day, one of the scarce pedestrians was Patricia the Yoga Instructor, tall and lovely beyond words, to whom cows may carry some sort of bleed-over sanctity from a geographic proximity to Hinduism of the “sacred cow” type, which has some kind of vague association with Yoga. At least their outfits are the same. You might think she was walking among the herd because they are a natural thing, like a mayfly hatch, which is to be neither applauded nor decried, but simply lived through, endured. Patricia seemed to be, at times, only lightly tethered to the earth. Bright fires of health shown out through her skin and blobs of inadvertently jellified males bobbed in her wake. She didn’t seem to notice, but despite her ethereal aspect, Patricia, a mountain person, was actually strong as an ox and quick as a snake. She was also well used to walking through cow shit and simply didn’t want to be late for her class. Among the herefords, Patricia stood out like a statue of Madonna on the backs of the Penitents.

It all might have played out peaceably but for the Lady in the Burgundy Escalade. The car shined like a new penny except where it was streaked with fresh cow excrement to the tops of the windows. She must have been doing ninety down the stretch of 145 that had served as the herd’s latrine for the last couple of days. There was nobody else in the car, but if you don’t think the situation was explosive, it had Texas plates.

There are pockets of a toxic gas that chemists refer to as nobium-bromine-butane, nobrotane or nobrane for short, which leak from depleted oil wells and gather in invisible bubbles across the state of Texas. Though mostly concentrated around Crawford, hazardous nobrane enrichments occur randomly statewide and many, if not most, of the states residents have suffered the effects of nobrane poisoning. Loss of brain tissue is immediate and dramatic and the resulting voids are often inflated with an indelible sense of self-worth. In its end stages, nobrane poisoning can result in “Texas Vertigo,” the chronic sensation that the world is revolving around you. The lady in the Caddy weaved right then left, gunning the ponderous, careening burgundy tank around one group of cattle and another, gaining a cow length each time till she came up short against a solid wall of shitty rumps. This was ridiculous. She gave a tap on the horn.

She gave another tap, then two more solid honks, then, with a fury that was palpable through the grape-colored skin of the preposterous auto, she mercilessly straight-armed the horn button, lurching the car forward while screaming noiselessly at the windshield.

The effect was spectacular. Cows scattered from the epicenter as if launched by catapult. A dozen turned left up Fourth Street toward the bridge and a similar number did a complete about face and were galloping upstream, creating havoc among the following herd. Cows in front of the Escalade were climbing over one another and one big calf went down in the rush. When it scrambled to its feet, it was under the Unimog, which presented the calf with a situation for which there was no behavioral precedent. It began to bawl at terrific volume and throw its 50-pound head-bone against the empty 200-gallon water storage tank on the underbelly of the Unimog, making a noise that was not of this world. The lady was still leaning on the horn, perhaps frozen there by the magnitude of the reaction, but the call of the Escalade was now lost in the din.

In the vicinity of Eighth Street and still gaining speed southward now flew Jacob Switzer at full gallop on a horse the size of a locomotive. Sparks flew off the pavement where the giant’s hooves touched down and, passing Seventh, Jacob grabbed his coiled lariat, stiff as a cable by design, from where it hung next to the saddle horn and began to whip the flying steed across its flanks. He wrenched his mount’s head up when he was fifty feet from the Escalade and set it back on its haunches where it slid to a stop directly adjacent the Caddy’s left front tire. Raising the coiled lariat over his head, he smote the hood of the car with the terrible strength a just and all-powerful God had given him. It left, the first time, a crescent-shaped dent that would hold a gallon of water. “You.” “Stupid.” “Stupid.” “Stupid.” “Bitch.”  Jacob intoned, beating on the hood with every word. Then, considerably calmed, he headed up after the group of cattle that had taken off toward Mancos.

Forty head of stampeding cattle were southbound at a high rate of speed along First North. It looked for a moment as if it might be the end of Patricia, trampled two blocks from her house, but she turned to meet them and raised her hands in front of her, palms out, as if delivering a blessing on the multitude. She floated a couple of feet to the right or left as the circumstances dictated and the thundering pack flowed around her like water.

Mark wasn’t so lucky. Oblivious to the ruckus, he had just opened the door of his Jeep and had one foot on the ground when 980 pounds of terrified beef smacked into the door two inches from the handle. The impact flattened the door against the body of the Jeep and jerked Mark out of it. He was deposited face up and perfectly centered for an instant across the backbone of the rampaging steer. There he stayed for four or five seconds, certainly not long enough to make the buzzer, but adequate time to carry him to the reviewing platform in front of the Hollywood Bar & Cafe.

“This your first rodeo?” asked Dexter.

“That was a tough draw, Mark,” said another.

Victor got out of the Unimog fire truck and was amazed to find he could not extricate the calf from under his rig. It was totally blinded and beating itself slowly to death repeating the opening bars of the Dirge for Martian Gong. The racket was making it hard to think. Victor had the inspiration then that he might motor slowly to the park, where the bar ditch was three feet deep and drive right down the ditch with wheels on either side, effectively raising the Unimog off the calf. His path took him and the stumbling calf right in front of the gallery outside the Hollywood.

“Hey Victor,” shouted Dexter, “I hope you’re not expecting that little calf to pack yer goofy rig all the way to Dunton.”

Cooper lives near Dolores, Colorado, in a state of disgruntled bemusement. He lists his occupation as “fabricator,” which just about covers it. His last story for the Gazette was “High Water,” which appeared in #178. 

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