Rivers have always been boundary lines, marking changes which are either political or geographic or commercial. Seldom are two sides of any great river the same, and in some instances the change is compelling. The Salt River at the sheep crossing is such a type.
As we left the bridge, the sound of voices, the confusion of the crossing, the blasphemy which had spurred the burros to their efforts, all slipped away as easily as though a dirty jacket were being removed from this part of the world. The river itself dropped from view and a scar-faced mountain ahead became our new horizon.
The dust remained. As the white glare of afternoon dissolved into the quiet yellow of evening, then shifted to orange, the dust cloud absorbed each new tint, clutching and holding it for several moments, as though jealous of every different hue. Then we slipped into a narrowing canyon which, without any warning, squeezed all the color in an instant from the dust cloud. It was evening.
Generally only the ewes (or sometimes yearlings which will be mothers by winter) make the Heber-Reno journey. Lambs, born in the winter pastures, are sold before the spring trek commences, except for a few which may be taken along so they can learn the trail for future years.
No bucks (the term used by Arizona herders) undertake the arduous trek. These pampered creatures — some sixty-five of them for each 2,000 ewes — are transported hundreds of miles by truck and by rail, reaching summer pasturage in the north by a long circuitous route which leaves them fresh and rested. If breeding took place en route, lambing would occur under undesirable conditions before the herd returned to winter pasture in the fall. But another reason is that the bucks, because of their breeding equipment, cannot endure the hardships and hazards of the trail. That is left to the ewes.
In the corral back at the bridge, Gunnar Thude had caught several sick or lame ewes and lambs, to be returned to the ranch. But one lame lamb had somehow evaded detection.
It was the last sheep into the darkening canyon. Frightened at its rear position and endeavoring in a frantic run to catch up, it tried to take a shortcut course between two boulders. The space was too narrow; the creature wedged.
Circling constantly, flanking one side and then the other, dropping back to retrieve stragglers, Rosalio even in the semidarkness discovered the stranded animal quickly. With stout jerks he set it free.
Fifteen minutes later the lamb, still behind, lay down and refused to move at all in spite of Rosalio’s urgings. The herd, braced by the cool air which the inflowing darkness had released into the canyon, was traveling fast. The herder administered everything at his command but the lamb lay back. To leave it was the only choice. The creature’s breath came fast and its eyes showed fright as it watched us follow on behind the herd into the shadows ahead. The canyon walls soon cut off its cries. “It’s bad,” Rosalio explained to me in broken English. “The lambsie no should have come. “
Twilight was already upon us. Rosalio began touching fire to the cholla cactus. I wondered why, but the occasion for an explanation did not present itself until next day. Each cholla roared into flame like an isolated candle and the effect in the still, vast desert was ghoulish but beautiful.
There was no feed and the sheep maintained their swift pace. But this herd which Gunnar Thude had put into Rosalio’s charge was a mixed congregation. Most of them were old ewes which had been this way before, two, three, and four times; some had made as many as seven pilgrimages back and forth to the mountain Mecca. Sheep remember well. The old ewes knew the trail. But the rest — the yearlings raised in the valley — had never passed this way.
Thrown together, the two age groups concocted for Rosalio a problem as old as civilization. Youth must lead but does not know how. The ewes, naturally the leaders, were slowed by weight and age. The yearlings, strangers to the desert and to the trail, snatched the head position and wandered away into unfavorable canyons. Rosalio pursued. I saw his flapping faded jacket making a climb out of a ravine to the left. A few minutes later it was flapping off there to the right, as he chased after a band of yearlings.
When next Rosalio came my way he pointed out a dark hill ahead where Pablo — gone on with the burros — would be making camp. Leaving the herd, I headed toward the hill, and soon came upon the campero.
Pablo was clearing the brush for a suitable campsite. Quickly and skillfully his burros were unpacked and hobbled, the kyack or pack boxes arranged methodically. Two pack boxes covered with an old square of canvas made a work table. It was dark and he asked me to build a fire as a beacon for Rosalio.
As preparations for supper were started, we heard bells toward the southwest. Some of the sheep wear bells to help Rosalio keep track of the herd and make sure none is lost. By the time I had gathered a great loose pile of wood — mainly ocotillo skeletons, for other kinds were scarce — Rosalio and the sheep came up.
Pablo had picked his camp to take advantage of a wood supply and a breeze. The desert sloped away toward the river and a fresh wind flowed up toward us from Granite Reef, which was sawed out of the sky-glow where the sun had set. The wind blew the world clean, carrying with it the heat pockets, the stale air, the dust of the day. It was late, so some canned corn, warmed-up frijoles, and the remaining biscuits from noontime — all washed down with coffee — made our meal. For dessert there was sorghum syrup which the herders ate “as is” but which I poured over the biscuits.
But there was no supper for the sheep — only scattered bunches of wild grass which had dried down to its roots. The herd, coming up to the camp, had split on either side of us and slowly drifted on past, up a long low hill to the east. They are loathe to stop at night when forage fails.
Rosalio had time to roll out his bed and make a start with his supper then, taking a flashlight, he followed the sheep, for they must be stopped and bedded down before the day for him could close. Pablo and I waited for half an hour, watching the beam of the flashlight bob along the low borders of the hill, then in the darkness zigzag far away toward the top. It was rough up there. “He can’t stop them,” said Pablo. “He’s trying to bed them down. He’ll be a long time coming. ” He was a long time coming — more than an hour after darkness had settled. It was 8:30 when Rosalio returned to supper.
I did not wait to lend a hand with the dishes — my usual chore. This first real sampling of the trail had battered my feet even through heavy shoes, for this desert floor is a grindstone set sideways. As I was slipping to sleep there came a sharp bay of coyotes back along the trail, and their call told clearly what had happened there. The little lamb, left alone in the black night of the canyon, would never be afraid any more.
A pair of coyotes echoed from the north with a series of confused and peculiar yelps. “That means rain,” Pablo observed. “I been on this trail a long time and the coyotes always right. We have a change of weather tomorrow. You see. “