Zack and I were sitting on the porch of the Bar-Diamond Ranch with a cold bottle of Budweiser and our feet stretched out over the railing. It was the end of our last day of the season. My black felt cowgirl hat was pulled down over my far head, enough to keep the setting sun from scorching my eyes. I had discovered a new meaning of filth, sweat, and exhaustion. My hands were swollen and bore new calluses. My lower back was burning on fire from the old injuries of my bookstore days in Vermont. I blamed Harry Potter and all those boxes of hardcover books!
We had been working for two months setting up hunting camps, packing in hunters eager to kill an elk, packing them and the elk they shot out and then breaking down the camps to pack out before winter moved in on the West Elk Wilderness Area. All this packing was done with mules and horses. It’s called Outfitting! We were in the Gunninson National Forest near Somerset, Colorado. There are one million, seven hundred thousand acres in the Gunninson National Forest with four designated Wilderness Areas within it. We rode and worked in the West Elks Wilderness Area.
Zack was in his early forties and an amazing horseman. I was in my late fifties, a woman and struggled to keep up with him. He would laugh at my inexperience and lack of strength. I would laugh along with him because what else could I do? He taught me how to pack the mules and horses and how to lead a string of two to six animals. Most of all he kept me safe. His wife, Julie and their six-year-old daughter, Lacie would sometimes ride with us. Julie was the daughter of Delis and Linda Ferrier who we worked for. They all made me feel like part of their family.
“Whats ya doing tomorrow?” Zack asked.
“ I’m going to sleep in. In fact, I may sleep all day. Right now, I think I could sleep for a week.”
“ Oh, I was going to ask if you wanted to ride.”
“ What are you crazy?”
“I don’t mean here! We’re moving cows off the mountain.”
As the words sunk into my exhausted pea-brain, my legs hit the wooden planks of the porch, almost spilling my beer, I turned towards him, looking him in the eye. “Really? Oh my God, could I really go with you?”
“ Well yeah, I wouldn’t have asked you if you couldn’t go.”
“ I would love too! I don’t know anything about moving cows!”
As soon as the words came out of my mouth, we both started laughing!
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “But we can always use another rider and you can ride well enough. I’ll let you know what to do.”
We made a plan on where and when to meet as I tried to control my excitement! I don’t know where the exhaustion went but it was gone!
“I gotta go. I have to get rested up and ready for tomorrow.” I headed down to the corrals where the horses and my trailer were.
“Don’t you want another beer? Zack yelled behind me. “Linda and Delis will be here soon with supper and our pay.”
“ I’m too excited I won’t be able to sit still. Tell them I’ll catch up with them. Thanks, Zack, I’ll see you tomorrow!”
I caught Willow, my black and white paint and loaded her in my trailer. “Willow, you are going to be a cow pony tomorrow!” I knew she would do good because I had bought her from Zack and Julie the year before. Zack had trained her on cows.
I met Zack at the cutting corrals the next morning. There were horse trailers, pick up trucks and cattle trucks backed up to the loading chutes. The riders had already left. We headed up the mountain, riding through stands of cottonwoods and oak brush. We rode through open meadows and on National Forest roads. We were in the Gunninson National forest on the opposite side of the West Elk Mountains where we had been Outfitting for Delis and Linda. Once again, I felt like I was in a western movie. I knew John Wayne would come riding over the next hill, packing his six-shooter and 30-30 any minute!
We stopped to eat our lunch and let the horses graze. We hadn’t seen any riders or cows yet. Zack explained that there were twelve different ranchers with permits to graze their cows on the National Forest in this area. They pooled together and hired pool riders to move the cows during the summer from pasture to pasture. The pool riders kept an eye on any sicknesses and doctored the cows or calves accordingly. In dry years they had to make sure the cows had water. Some years the springs would dry up. Ninety percent of the cows had to be off the forestland by October 15th. The permit holders all helped when time allowed from other ranch duties. This was the big fall round-up I heard about in the movies!
Zack was a talker with a quick wit and an easy smile. He was tall with dark hair and handsome. He was the real deal, sporting cowboy hat, spurs, chinks and a wild rag (scarf) around his neck to stop the chill of the wind. He and Julie had cows on this permit along with his parents who had been ranching all their lives. Zack had lots of stories and I was constantly drilling him about cows and horses.
“I’d like to meet someone like you that was about 30 years older,” I said as we were mounting our horses after lunch.
“Thirty years? How old do you think I am? That would make him over seventy. You want a guy that old?” Zack had his mischievous grin going on. I could tell he was going to have fun with this.
“Okay, twenty years older then.”
“Well good luck with that. The only guys around here are red-necks, ranchers and druggies.”
“Okay, I’ll take a tall, handsome, rich rancher who will let me ride and work with him. I don’t want to spend my days in the kitchen. I want to be out here!” We both had a good laugh!
“Well, first of all, there are no rich ranchers and if there are it’s because they made their money somewhere else and they ranch to lose it! The thought of you in the kitchen with an apron on cracks me up!”
“ How about a poor, handsome rancher who is good with horses?”
“You’re getting closer but I still don’t know any. But then again I haven’t been looking.”
“Just keep an eye out for me.”
Zack couldn’t stop grinning and shaking his head. “You’re dreaming!”
I smiled and said, “Everything starts with a dream!”
We rode through a grove of Aspens, weaving our way around and over the blowdowns, coming out on another Forest Service road. Zack was concerned that we hadn’t found any cows yet. “We’ll cross this road and head down to a water tank to see if there are any fresh cow tracks.”
After crossing the road and traveling down a steep bank we found a dead calf. Zack didn’t think it had been dead very long because there were no signs of coyotes or a bear eating it. He knew the brand on the calf and whom it belonged too.
“Why do you suppose it died?” I asked.
“Don’t know,” was all I got for an answer.
There were no fresh tracks by the water so we headed back down towards the cutting corrals. It wasn’t long after that we ran into a group of riders and maybe twenty cows with calves in a big meadow. The riders were all over the place, hooting, hollering and whistling to move the cows down a narrow path to the corrals. There were dogs running, barking and nipping at the cows heals. Every now and then a new rider would appear loping out of the woods with a lone cow and calf, moving them toward the group.
Zack instructed me to stay in the back. “Don’t move them too fast. They’re moving at a good pace and they know where they’re going. Ruth is in the back there. Stay with her. I’m going up ahead. I’ll see you at the corrals. Before I could say okay, Zak was on a dead run, leaving a wide girth around the cows until I lost sight of him in the front.
I trotted up to who I thought was Ruth. I introduced myself and told her I was riding with Zack. Ruth and her husband, Larry were the pool riders. She was around my age and a real cowgirl! We hit it off right away. We had a nice visit and a leisurely ride back to the corrals.
When I got to the corrals there was nothing for me to do so I tied Willow to my trailer and went to watch the cowboys cut out the different rancher’s cows into their own designated pens. Some of the ranchers would be hauling the cows home that day and others would be moving them down the road to pastures where they would drive them home the next day. Julie and Lacie were there with their truck and trailer waiting to haul their cows home.
Julie was on her phone standing next to her truck that was parked close to the corrals. Lacie was in the back of the pick up playing with a toy horse with a long mane and tail. She had a comb running through the toy’s mane. I climbed in the back of the pick up with Lacie.
“Wow, you have a good view up here.”
“Yup, I seen it all before,” she said in her authoritative six-year-old voice. Julie overheard Lacie, rolling her eyes and smiling as she talked on her phone.
“I bet you have, “ I laughed.
“This is a good spot for me to take pictures and videos of them cutting out the cows and calves. Maybe I can get some good ones of your Dad.”
Lacie looked for Zack in the corrals, “Dad on that yellow horse over there.”
“Oh yeah, I see him.” I wanted to give Lacie the power of finding her Dad.
It wasn’t long before the battery died on my phone. Giving in to no-more pictures, I turned to the back of the truck leaning against the cab. I noticed there were two guys untying their horses from a nearby trailer. They stood out to me because they had baseball caps on not cowboy hats. As they mounted their horses I could tell the first guy had spent a lot of hours in the saddle. As he mounted, his long leg gracefully draped over his horse’s back. He then leaned forward cueing his horse to move into a walk. He was headed towards Julie’s truck. He came around the back to the passenger side where I was standing in the bed.
“If you want to look important, you can come stand over there on your horse with us.” He was grinning.
I wasn’t sure how to take what he had said to me. But he was grinning so it had to have been a joke of some kind.
“ I wouldn’t want to show you up, “I said smiling.
He was riding off still grinning before I was finished talking!
Julie came around the front of the truck obviously aware of the conversation and said, “ He wants you to ride with him!”
“What? Is that what that was?”
“Yes, go get your horse!”
I saw there were other riders gathered where the Mystery Man had pointed too. I hopped out of the truck, half running to my trailer and Willow. I managed to get Willow’s bridal on, my chinks on and mounted before I was needed to do anything!
I trotted over to Mystery Man and his sidekick. They were both riding Chestnuts. Were these the rednecks that Zack talked about? Where was Zack when I needed him?
Mystery Man and sidekick’s horses were quietly eating grass. I started to pick up that the sidekick wasn’t the same quality rider, as Mystery Man. The sidekick seemed nervous.
Willow would not stand still and relax. I had only had her for a year and we were still figuring each other out. I didn’t completely trust her and she didn’t me. She was getting anxious will all the activity around her.
“ She’s kind of wormy,” Mystery Man says to me.
“Yeah, “ is all I could say.
“ You seem okay with it though.”
“Yeah.” I was embarrassed that my horse would not stand still.
Mystery Man explained to me that the riders were going to let a bunch of cows out of the corrals and it was our job to stop them from going down the road. We want them to head off to the right where they will be driven to another pasture.
“Will we be driving them to the pasture?” I asked.
“ No, there will be plenty of other riders to do that. They’re going to let mine and Jay’s cows out next. I need you and Mike to help me move them down this road to a different pasture.”
I looked over to sidekick, Mike and he waved. “ Hi, I’m Mike.”
“Hi Mike, I’m Stacy.”
I looked back towards Mystery Man hoping for an introduction but he was looking at the corrals. “Here they come, get ready,” he said to Mike and me.
The cows came out of the corrals at a trot. They were pretty worked up after being driven around in the corrals. Some were mooing as they searched for their calves in the chaos. There was dust everywhere! It became really loud and western but the cows headed in the right direction with the other riders falling in behind them.
Mystery Man said, “Okay we’re next. We want to keep them in the road. They are going to want to go in the oak brush. It’s real thick in places so be careful.”
The next group came out of the corrals on a run! Some cows heading to the right of the road into the oak brush! Mystery Man hollers, “ Mike stay behind them! You come with me!”
Mystery man takes off at a fast trot with me right behind him. As we flew past Mike, his horse started twirling in circles. His horse wanted to go with us and Mike looked terrified as he tried to get him under control. I felt bad for him but knew I needed to keep up with the cows to turn them out of the brush!
There were a group of cows between the road and me so I bore to the left to push them into the road.
“ Don’t go in there it’s too thick! Stay up here, it’s open all the way down to the pasture! There is a fence to your right that will help you. I’m going ahead to make sure they go in the gate!” Mystery Man takes off at a fast lope and leaves me alone. I knew the road was the one that I had driven in on that morning but I still had no idea how far this pasture was. I caught sight of the fence to my right and the cows were still to my left. I hoped I was doing what I was supposed to be doing!
Finally, I saw Mystery Man standing in the road on his horse, blocking the cows from going down the road farther. He was tall and lean looking like Clint Eastwood on his horse. The cows were walking through the gate to the grass inside. He was counting them as they walked through the gate, pointing to each cow as it passed him with his crooked index finger.
The oak brush thinned out and I made way down to the road. Mike was coming up behind me. There was a horse trailer parked on the side of the road headed back up to the corrals. A big guy got out with a big grin and a deep voice, “That oak brush didn’t get you did it?”
I assumed he was talking to me. “ No, I ran into a few braches but nothing serious.”
“Well at least you didn’t lose your hat!” he said with a big laugh. He had the kind of laugh that was contagious.
Mike caught up and said, “Well hello Mr. Cunningham!”
“Hi Mike, I thought I’d give you guys a ride back up to the corrals and your trailers.”
“Mr. Cunningham?” I thought to myself. That’s Zack’s last name. This must be his Dad.
Mystery Man closed the gate as the last cow walked into the pasture and rode up to the trailer. “Well Jay, I started out just counting mine but got some of yours, so my count ain’t that great!”
Mr. Cunninham laughed and said, “Oh well we can worry about that tomorrow. Did we pick up any others besides ours that you saw?”
“I may have seen one of Palmers’ but I can’t be sure,” says Mystery Man as he gets off his horse.
I guess we’re putting the horses in the trailer and I’m wondering how Willow is going to do with this. Mystery Man wraps his reins around his horse’s neck and ties them in a loose knot so I do the same thing, acting like I know what I’m doing. He leads his horse to the back of the trailer as Mr. Cunningham opens the trailer door. His horse jumps in and goes to the front of the trailer. I lead Willow up next hoping she doesn’t make a scene by backing up and not jumping in. Willow jumps in like a pro! At this point, Mike is fumbling with his reigns and his horse balks a little and then jumps in.
Mike and I get in the back seat of the truck. Mystery man is in the passenger seat. I say to Mr. Cunninham, “Are you Zack’s dad?”
“Yes I am,” he replies.
“I love working with Zack. He’s so capable and such a gentleman. I really feel like he looks after me.”
“Well he should, that’s how he was brought up!” He says ending with a big laugh.
I look at Mystery Man. “Who are you?”
“I’m Monty, Monty Todd,” Mystery Man declares!
“Hi, I’m Stacy.”
“Yeah, I know. Zack told me about you.”
We get to the corrals, unload the horses and I started to un-tack Willow at my trailer. Monty came over to me.
“Well, thanks for your help. I hope you had fun.”
“I did. Thanks for letting me tag along.”
“Oh sure, we can always use an extra rider this time of year. You have a nice truck and trailer. Do you ever haul horses for people?”
“ I did in Vermont. I’m not sure what I would charge here.”
“Well, I have to get two horses down to Cortez. I thought I’d give someone a hundred bucks and another hundred for fuel.”
“I guess I could do it for that,” I said.
“Let me get out my red book so I can get your phone number.” He reached into his front pocket. “I don’t have a little black book, just a red one,” he said with a smile. I smiled back and gave him my number. He didn’t seem so mysterious now that he was talking to me.
“I’ll let you know what I’m doing after I figure it out,” he said with a giggle.
“Okay, I’ll talk to you then.”
I said my good-byes to Julie, Zack, Lacie and Jay Cunninham. I drove home thinking about how fun the day was and most of all about Monty Todd. I never did move the horses for him but he did call a few days later. He said he ended up moving the horses with his daughter. He asked if I wanted to ride with him back on Black Mesa to look for more cows and maybe do some elk hunting. I rode with him three or four times before I thought he just might like me.
That was over two years ago and I feel just as twitterpated as I did the second time I rode with Monty. He’s a lot like Zack. He’s a tall, handsome, rancher, cowboy dude. Everything starts with a dream! Oh yeah, and he’s not rich!