The wide trail wound through sparse country alongside a creek. A weak sun wore off the morning chill. As we rode by trees, brush and under low-hanging branches, my horse seemed to get me by almost unscathed. Almost. The resulting scrapes and scratches were feeding my annoyance with the beast. Jasper sort of raised up as we approached low branches; the same branches I had observed Deja and Saturn moving under with ease.
We rode for an hour and a half before stopping in a glade to rest. I climbed down and stood stiffly. My legs from the hips down were locked in soreness. I tried to walk off the sensation. The horses searched the ground for fodder and the pellets that Don threw out.
Don and Deja were attending to the animals. I took advantage and went behind a tree. I relieved myself on the stony ground, the stream splashing off sun-dappled rocks. One of the rocks moved. A rather irritated snake face appeared at the end of an eighteen inch tan and brown snake. “Don!” I called. I froze in place and stopped the stream. ‘Don!”
“You didn’t? Step away slowly. Careful like. He won’t hit at you. Just back away.”
I complied. I was terrified.
“You’ll have to find another tree,” Don laughed. Deja had walked away. “Should have mentioned the rattlers, but in this country they just aren’t that big a problem. Every once in awhile you’ll come across one. Tricky little devils. Scares the horses too.”
“Rattler? I didn’t hear a rattle.”
“Sometimes you don’t. He was probably soaking up some sun. You woke him up, helluva way to wake up.” Don was shaking with laughter. Deja reappeared in that magical way women have - you knew she had to go too.
“What happened?" she asked. Soon the three of us were convulsed. I drank cool spring water from a metal cup that she produced.
“You’re learning about the West all in a hurry,” Don said. “Usually the animals in the wild won’t bother with you. You have to step in their territory or threaten them somehow.”
I eyed Darcy. The horse’s deep brown skin was trimmed with a black mane and tail. Attached to her saddle were various implements and tools. There was a rope and a rifle holstered to her side. “I see you’re prepared for danger, even on a short ride like this.” Preparation, a good quality in a pilot, I thought.
“Preparation for sure, the wild can be unpredictable. Chance encounters like yours with the snake can happen sometimes. Better safe than sorry.”
“So there are similarities in what you do for a living and what you do here?”
“The similarities fall off when you work with the animals and nature. A pilot controls a machine and faces the whims of weather, wind and to some extent other pilots. But the machines are knowable, predictable. To control a machine you need only to learn its limitations. Animals are guided by emotions, needs and they take a deeper understanding.”
Deja spoke, “My work and life are like that too. I study and feel the spirits of the creatures on the ranch. I try to see their inner being and represent that in my art.” She smiled at her husband, “one reason I was attracted to Don is that we shared the same ideals. At 35,000 feet he told me we can mimic what nature does by flying a machine, but never fully experience it.” Laughing she said, “and I understood him completely.”
“Deja has her work displayed in a gallery in Cheyenne. You must see them some time, she’s too polite.” Deja smiled at the compliment.
She asked me, “so what have you been up to since high school?”
The dreaded question. I nibbled at a sandwich half. “I traveled a bit. Worked mostly. I was just out in San Francisco on a job.”
Fritz and the Husky came running into the makeshift camp. Maybe the dear black dog heard my unspoken plea. Fritz the champion. I pushed off the tree, real careful like. I peg-walked to the horses. I did not mean to be rude, but how could I explain what I had been through these last few months - a writer of menus and bullshit bible stories, a purveyor of dreams, a prisoner of The Process. My ass was chapped from the riding and that damn bottle of Jack digging into it. I switched the bottle to the top pocket of my flannel shirt. I buttoned the pocket.
Don and Deja had taken my cue. They fed the horses an apple each. The sun had cheered up even my reluctant steed. Jasper stood still as I clambered onto the saddle. The animals had drunk from a small stream.
Deja and Saturn sidled up next to me, “wait till you see the view beyond the stream. Really nice of you to be a sport and come on the ride. We’re delighted to have you along.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” I said insipidly. The ride was a nice diversion, the sights once in a lifetime. Seemed the horse had resigned himself to me.
We rode on for a half hour. There were some birds singing. A slight wind kicked up. The air bore a damp smell though the sun shone. The trail was flat with less obstacles as it meandered through meadows.
The trail dipped to a creek. Brown water bubbled over smooth stones. The creek was about twenty five yards across. The water divided and gurgled around a pile of rocks near the middle. Deja brought up her horse. The dogs cavorted at the edge of the water, dashing in and out.
The splashing of the dogs, whinnying of the horses and the modest rush of the water caused Don to raise his voice as we gathered by the creek. “Here’s where we cross. We’re going to the vista, believe me the sight is worth it. So we’ll cross, then check the view about five hundred or so feet in. I’m thinking the rain will hold up for an hour or so, that will give us enough time to get a good look and get back. Follow Saturn. There’s a little dip in the water out by that pile of rocks. Jasper knows the creek. Remember, I’m behind you.”
I needed the pep talk. I could hear the captain in him, “ladies and gentleman we are approaching Denver. To your left are the magnificent Rockies. Enjoy the view. We’ll be touching down in about five minutes. Thank you for flying...”
I watched Deja as she guided took Saturn into the water. Sunshine glinted off her flowing blonde hair. She struck a magnificent figure astride the pretty horse. The bright colors of her garb and the jet black horse stood in contrast to the muddied waters and brown, gray rocks.
My attention turned back to the ride. Jasper lowered his head as he followed. When Saturn neared the outcropping of rocks the water enveloped horse and rider up to the animal’s shoulders.
I was disconcerted and increasingly nervous since another of my many non-talents was an inability to swim. I saw the dogs had made it across. They gamboled and barked encouragement from the brown bank. I tensed as the water rose up Jasper’s legs.
Jasper balked. Up and stopped. I cast a nervous glance back to Don. I wasn’t about to yell Hee Yaa! and dig my heels into this cantankerous horse’s flanks.
Don came up next to me. He called quiet encouragement to his boyhood equine companion. “Come boy, come on now.” He took the reins. I grabbed a handful of coarse white mane. He brought Darcy ahead. He kept his head turned as he continued to speak softly.
“He’ll follow,” Don said to me.
Darcy must have hit a slippery rock. The horse pitched into the deeper water. Don was catapulted forward. His forehead slammed into one of the overhanging rocks of the pile. The excited horses stirred the water as Darcy scrambled backwards. Don instinctively grabbed a tree branch that had been caught in the rocks. There was no time for a reaction as nature entered the scene in an wild way.
A rumble, a low roar, was the only hint of the wall of water that crashed down from the mountains and crested at that precise place and time. Water trapped and pent up on the mountain had been loosed by the rain that Don had noticed on the horizon.
There is no cogent explanation for the events that unfolded milliseconds apart from each other, guided by an inexplicable force. An encyclopedia of events and coincidences brought that wall of water down from the mountain at the exact worst time for the humans in that water. I found out later that a flash flood of this type occurs maybe once a century.
What had been a brisk flowing creek was now an angry turgid river widening and roaring eastward. The water carried the branch out of the rock with Don attached. Darcy and Jasper, spooked by the events, dashed to the safety of the bank we had left from. I had been washed off the saddle but held onto its horn and was carried to shore by the panicked horse. I let go dropping to the ground. Jasper tore away to higher ground. On the other side of the creek Deja waved frantically. She trailed Don as he lolled on the branch holding onto it to keep above the water.
I was sore, soaked and felt like an idiot for causing Don’s accident. I stood helpless on the wet ground watching Deja and the dogs. Incongruously, the sun still shone. Above me on the high branch of a dead aspen a crow cawed. My stupid orange hat bobbed in the water.
I was once again ashamed. I took the whiskey bottle from my shirt. I threw the bottle at the mocking crow. That is when I saw Darcy stamping by the water’s edge on my side. I heard the insistent barking from the dogs. I thought I heard Deja’s cries. Guided by these calls and a desire to do something I ran to Darcy. I mounted the horse in full stride like the sleekest Hollywood cowboy. I held tight as the excited stallion streaked down the side of the roiling river.
Since the water had covered the trail the horse took me on a wild tear through brush, over rocky ground and through scraggly woods. His breath and thundering hooves rose in the choir of panicked noise. I sat forward on the saddle clinging to Darcy’s neck. We advanced to a spot where the stream narrowed some fifty yards ahead of Don who I could see behind. Darcy stopped at the edge of the water; he seemed to be following Deja’s commands though I hardly could hear her above the rush of sounds. Deja pointed frantically to her saddle.
I realized she wanted me to look at my saddle. I grabbed the rope that Don had brought. I slithered from the saddle. I went as far into the water as I dared. I swung the rope over my head as I had seen in the movies and flung it over to the other side.
Deja caught and cinched the rope to Saturn’s saddle. I found a tree and wrapped my end several times. There was no time for a Boy Scout knot.
You only went to three Cub Scout meetings. You barely know how to tie your shoes.
Deja yelled Don’s name repeatedly. I joined with her and the dogs. We hoped that he would hear us and see the rope. We watched from either side of the bank as the foaming water with Don and the branch flowed under the rope we held tight.
As the branch went under the rope and seemingly at the last possible moment, Don let go of the limb. He reached one hand high and hooked the rope under his arm. With great effort he struggled to my side of the creek. Saturn kept the tension on the rope. Don clearly suffering from the fall and blow to the head made slow progress. I waded in with a grip on the rope and assisted the pilot for the last few steps to shore.
Rain began to pelt down, the sun obscured by the eastward moving clouds. Don had a vile looking wound to his forehead. He muttered about getting pounded by the rocks, his side ached. I helped to the base of a tree that offered some shelter. The creek had lost some of its intensity and the water was receding. The water now covered only half of the horse trail. I heard the dogs and saw Deja coming up on our side. She must have been able to cross downstream with the lessening swell.
She rode in hard on Saturn. Her actions were measured and swift as she rushed to her husband’s side. I hovered behind as she administered to him with a first-aid kit she had taken from Darcy’s saddle. Rain slipped from the brim of her black hat as she bent to him.
When she stood I stammered, “I’m so sorry, I think I spooked the horse.”
She leaned into me, “there’s not a lot of time. I have to take Don into Cheyenne. Don’t worry. You certainly didn’t cause the gullywasher.” She regarded me intently, her blue eyes framed by the black cloth hat and her sweat-matted blonde hair.
When she leaned into me a story unfolded in my head. She was checking my breath. We don’t carry resumes around with us to tell our life stories. Our expressions, our tone of voice, choice of words and demeanor give our story. Impressions carry weight. That she would look for that sign; often the first tell-tale to a child, spoke in volume to me. The kindness and grace were constructed from a symphony of experience and impressions. I understood. The caretaking, the serenity, the need to please.
“I threw the bottle away,” I said.
Her face softened briefly, she had another wounded soul to attend to. “Help me get Don up on his horse. We don’t have any choice here. You will have to walk back. Take the dogs with you.”
We hoisted the lanky pilot onto Darcy. He went in and out of consciousness. Deja secured him on the saddle with some of the rope. Again her actions were quick and certain. No time wasted.
She gave me Don’s keys. “I have to rush. Jasper will probably be in the trailer on his own. If not, leave anyway. I’ll send someone for the horse.”
“Bye, Danny. Stay in the bunkhouse if you like.” She turned her jet black horse to the trail and snatched Darcy’s reins.
“Thanks,” I said. We both knew better.
The adrenaline of the rescue had eased the soreness of my legs. The walk was strange, but the rain provided a security blanket of sorts. The dogs fanned out in front of me. I walked a brisk clip knowing the adrenaline would wear off.
Jasper had indeed ensconced himself in the trailer. I flipped up the rear gate and locked it. The dogs and I piled into the cab. I turned over the old motor. I could smell the smoky exhaust - running rich. The steering was grooved by the strong hand of the pilot. I drove away jerking the clutch, bouncing the trailer - two can play at this game.
With the dogs’ help I managed to get the old truck back to the ranch. The buildings there were dark and barely outlined in the drizzle and dim light. I retrieved my sack from the bunkhouse.
I made a decision: since I was unable to offer anything of substance to Don and Deja, I thought leaving Fritz would be of some value. A ranch can always use an extra hand. Fritz was not opposed to the idea. The atmosphere at the ranch seemed suited to his unique abilities. He could assist in aiding any of the wayward creatures that found their way to the ranch - in the same manner that he had aided me. The weeks that were ahead for me would be a cramped experience for him riding in the backseat.
The dogs followed the Aspen to the end of the drive. I planned to call or write. Someday.