Last week, we left Joe, the husband of the woman in the green rabbit hat stranded fifty yards down a mountainside in the Gros Ventre Wilderness. Buck, our head outfitter, tied a rope around a big tree limb and plucked a second from one of the packhorses. He put the other rope around his neck and under one arm.
He yelled for me to keep the horses calm as he semi- rappelled down to his customer (after stopping to retrieve Joe’s boot). Buck looped the extra rope under Joe’s arms, and then climbed back up. Buck’s stock went up as I watched his calm and skillful descent and ascent.
He led the big roan I was riding forward a few feet and dallied the rope around the horn. I pulled the rope about chest high against a tree and he gently coaxed the roan forward. Joe was unsteady as the horse pulled him to his feet.
Joe tried to keep his feet, but fell several times on the way up. He suffered more from scratches when the rope dragged him along the ground than he had from the fall. I watched the rope steadily rub a trail through the tree trunk, hoping it would not fray and break.
Bruised-but-not-broken, Joe reluctantly remounted less than an hour after his fall (with both boots on). He said he had panicked as he stared down the deep slope, pulled a rein hard enough to cause his horse to fall and dump him down the mountain.
At the main campsite, Buck kept his promise and assigned me to a private tent several yards up the mountain and close to the cook tent. I liked the location, but the tent sagged with the weight of accumulated water.
I found the stragglers and discovered that they were behind schedule because the owner of the packhorses and mules (an experienced rider) had been thrown. They had to take him back to the trailhead to be treated for a sprained ankle.
It was well past dark when we rode into camp, but Patty had steak and potatoes ready in less than two hours. We ate together in the cook tent. The stove warmth felt good.
I learned that Phil was called Buck because he had broken his back and both knees riding broncs (I had a great deal more respect for his rapelling down a mountain when I heard this), his brother Randy was called Rangey, and brother George was called Stanley (no reason was given). They had children with names like Snow Ann, Wolf and Whiz.
And they took turns drinking. One brother stayed sober each night in order to handle any emergency that might arise while the others got roaring drunk.
The next morning, Buck awakened me well before daylight to help wrangle the horses. My bedroll was cozy and the water on top of my tent had turned to ice. I started to rethink my desire to be treated as a member of the crew.
They tied bells on the horses each night and turned them loose to forage for themselves because they could not pack enough feed up the mountain. We managed to find them easily by listening for the bells (every morning except one).
At sunrise, Buck pointed toward a herd of elks in the distance, said he would be back during season with hunters. I asked about hunting for bears and he said he could get away with shooting me easier than he could a grizzly.
Unshaved and un-bathed after four days of riding and camping, I was beginning to feel like Jeremiah Johnson. I was sleeping like a baby in the wee hours when two mounted riders leading two packhorses complete with banging pans rode by my tent and stopped at the cook tent.
I rolled out of my bedroll in my longhandles, pulled back the tent flap, and watched. A dying campfire by the cook tent revealed Buck and Stanley asleep on bare ground with only a light blanket for cover and their hats for pillows in freezing temps. It had been their turn to drink the night before.
I had come to like and enjoy the brothers, but one could never accuse them of proper cowboy etiquette or attire like most ranch cowboys adhere to in Texas. Their hats were bent out of shape, their boots worn over on the heels, their shirts and jeans torn. By starlight, the two new arrivals looked like something out of a Gary Cooper western when compared to the brothers.
Lights came on in the cook tent and Patty shouted loud enough to wake us all that “The Old Hag” had finally arrived. Much laughter as Patty hugged one of the riders and Rangey shook the hand of the other.
When we gathered for breakfast, we all knew Julie Hagen (the Old Hag) and her companion Jimmy before we took our first bite. Both made the rounds and introduced themselves. Julie was a ranch manager who had worked on ranches in Arizona, Colorado and Montana, and the Little Jennie in Wyoming.
Jimmy was an outfitter who led safaris in Wyoming, Montana, Alaska and Africa. Julie and Jimmy had been friends since high school and possessed that kind of free spirit that most of us long for but rarely achieve.
Jimmy and I were close to the same size. As we rode together the next few days, I tried to buy his chaps, his hunting knife, his pistol, even his boots. He wouldn’t sell a thing. They all looked like something the first People might have used before Columbus discovered America. I had never seen any like them, before or since.
Jimmy and Buck told me that Julie was also a painter and poet, that her brother was an Olympic skier, her father a biologist, her mother a professional flutist. Not your usual resume for a ranch manager or horsepacker. I also learned that she had met famous photographer Jay Dusard in college and that they had remained close friends.
One of his photos of her when she had been ranch manager for Wagstaff Land and Cattle Co. had become famous and had been included in his book, The North American Cowboy: A Portrait. She was definitely more than an old hag as can be seen from this.
The trip down the mountain on the final day was not as pleasant as the one going up. It was warm and dusty; the horses knew we were near the end and fought their bits, finally taking off with the inexperienced riders, drowning us in a sea of dust.
We had started to sweat, so the dust formed a dark cover on our faces. I held the big roan back and stayed with the brothers. I glanced at Jimmy and Julie as Buck and Rangey calmly watched the string of horses run full speed down the mountain, their riders (their responsibility) hanging on for dear life. Jimmy and Julie seemed neither surprised nor perturbed. They had apparently witnessed similar spectacles before.
Rangey pointed at the riders. “We did these folks a lot of good in a short time. Not a single one fell off. Last week at this time, we woulda lost at least three or four.”
Buck asked me if I still wanted my money back as he reached for a billfold I knew was empty (“I never carry money in the mountains. Ain’t no place to spend it.”) I laughed and said no. It had not been the Magnificent Seven, but it still ranked as a great experience.
As we said goodbye at the trailhead, The Old Hag told me where I could buy some of her greeting cards in Jackson.
When I walked into the lobby of the little cabin court back in Jackson, I saw a reflection of a stranger in a full-length mirror and briefly wondered who he was. The bearded, dust-covered man’s face was about three shades darker than my own—he wore spurs and saddlebags were slung casually over his shoulder. He appeared to have stepped out of a time capsule from a century earlier. Then I knew that, for a second or two, he was the man a certain boy had dreamed of becoming long, long ago.
I dropped by the store Julie told me about and bought some of her greeting cards and the framed photograph I later learned had appeared not only in Dusard’s book but in American Cowboy, Cowboys and Indians, and many other magazines. I have seen it in publications many times since. The store promised to get it signed before shipping to me. Julie signed it, “to Jim, till our trails cross again”. It hangs in my office today.
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