I slowed Beau to a walk, not wanting to agitate the man’s horse and risk making his head hurt more. It took approaching quite near before I realized the man was Buck, our area brand inspector, who’d given me my early education in all things cow. I was very pleased to see him, as I never got to spend as much time with him as I would have liked. In my view, Buck was a cowboy down to the spurs on his boots, born in this country and knowing every inch of it like I never would.
I had the utmost respect for Buck, so it disturbed me not a little when I realized he was talking to himself. “Sun addled?” I wondered. But that couldn’t be. Not only was his sweat-stained cowboy hat shading his face and neck, he was as savvy a range rider as existed, not one to get heat stroke. I finally settled Beau to a stop beside him, nodded, said “How ye doin’?” in a neighborly fashion. He abruptly lifted a hand to shush me. That’s when I realized he was talking on a phone.
A few more seconds passed, punctuated by “Uh huh’s!” and “Yup’s!!” Flipping the phone closed, he dropped it in the pearl-snap breast pocket of his blue and white plaid shirt. Placing one hand over the other on his saddle pommel, he turned his pale blue eyes on me and said in his gravelly voice, “Only spot with cell phone reception in this part of the county.”
Buck got quiet, contemplating the peaceful draw with its hundred or so black and red baldies grazing. Then he said “Well, we have a helluva wreck up here. Our cows that should be up here are over yonder. Down there,” he said, pointing toward the other side of the hill with a finger decorated with cracks and a badly chipped nail. “And these cows here,” at which he pointed to the cows and calves lolling among the willows, “These cows are supposed to be down below. Where our cows are.” He squinted at me to make sure I got that. His shoulders shrugged with a raspy chuckle as he rubbed a rough hand over his eyes as if to clear away the nightmare in front of him. “Oh man, this is a helluva of a situation.”
I waited, not sure that I had anything to offer. “Is anyone able to come help?” I asked.
“Nah, they’re all busy. Before you showed up I was thinkin’ I could ride ‘round through your place and maybe get to those other cows faster.”
“But there’s a fence there, Buck,” I said, which felt like pointing out to a Saudi that he was surrounded by sand. “And the gate’s locked. “
“Don’t matter. I’ve got a key to every gate in the county.” And he turned to stare at me hard.
“You do? But,” and here I was so baffled I had to collect my thoughts for a minute. “But we just put a new lock on that gate.” I knew Buck was more capable than most, but divining lock combinations out of thin air? Didn’t seem possible. I frowned at him, gave him a meek smile, felt embarrassed and tongue-tied. Then I noticed his shoulders heaving.
“It’s right here,” he said, patting the saddle bag. “My fencing pliers.” He hunched over his horse, laughing so hard he had to rub his eyes and face again, this time to clear the tears from his cheeks. I blushed hotly, but laughed too, mainly with relief.
“I can give you a hand moving the cows,” I said, thinking that if Buck could play a joke on me, I could return the favor. Beau had never seen a cow, except over a long distance. I had never ridden a horse that had never seen a cow. So as I said those words I could imagine many things happening, none of them good. I could only hope we would acquit ourselves without me falling into a bog, or causing the herd to stampede, or Beau running off, adding me to the problems Buck was already dealing with. “You’ll have to tell me where you want me to go, though, because we’re not exactly skilled at this.” Buck eyed my English saddle and skin-tight riding britches. I could tell he was thinking: “This lady’s riding on a postage stamp!” but what he said was “I appreciate the offer.”
We rode out, me back to the other side of the draw, Buck straight ahead. Between us we pushed the cows slowly. I watched Buck and, generally, whatever he did, I did. Once some cows started to move others followed. Soon enough they were walking through the draw like disciplined circus animals. Up a slope they went, then along a long, forested, dirt road dappled with cow-shaped shadows, and down to the leased land where they belonged. It took over an hour and Beau spooked only once, when a cow, as startled by him as he was by her, sprang out of a willow so dense that we hadn’t even noticed her. Beau regained his wits quickly and I did not fall off.
Overall, I was pleased with our efforts. Before I left to ride home, I made sure Buck had our phone number in his cell phone, in case he ever needed my help again. I never did give him the combination to the gate.