006 Longest Night

At 4:00 P.M. , following the long midday stop, Rosalio started the sheep, which had to be yelled at lustily before they would move.

The movement of the herd along the trail follows a general pattern, which is upset constantly, however, by varying conditions of weather, feed, and water, and such unusual aspects as insects.
In hot weather the sheep, instinctively and without urging, are up and on the march an hour before sunrise — just as the gray dimness of early day seeps across the hills. Rising hour for the herders is between 4:15 and 5:30. At 9:00, on the desert, it has become hot, and by 10:00, often unbearably so. Sometime between those hours the herd begins to slow down. At the latter hour they have stopped — “shaded up” is the term, though it is a concession to the desert to call it so, where the thin web of an ocotillo or the pencil-line cast by a saguaro is usually the only shade. In hot weather it is 4:00 in the afternoon, sometimes later, before the animals will move again, and then they continue normally until 6:00 or 7:00 or 8:00, depending on circumstances of every sort. There are times when they go far into the night. This is the general pattern — resting in the heat of the day, traveling early and late — although it varies more often than it conforms, until on some days there is scarcely a pattern at all.

Rosalio follows the sheep but Pablo, the campero, must adhere to a different schedule. When the herd has departed in the gray of the morning, he washes the dishes, scrapes the leftover food to Boots, and stores the paraphernalia of cooking and camp into the pack boxes.

Then he goes to hunt for his horse and the burros, which may not have wandered more than a short distance from camp but which, even though hobbled, might be a mile away. If it is a quarter of a mile he can distinguish their bells, if farther, he often must track them as an Indian tracks a creature of the wilds. The burros retrieved, packing itself is half an hour of grueling labor. Then, marshaling his pack train, he goes to overtake Rosalio.

This morning meeting of herder and campero is an important one, for there the strategy of the day is planned. The campero must go on ahead to set up noon camp, prepare dinner (lunch to city folks), make bread, and do the cooking for the day. But he must locate that camp at a place which the sheep can conveniently reach by “shading up” time. At this morning meeting, Rosalio gives directions where the spot shall be.

The same procedure is followed at night, Rosalio leaving at 4:00 P.M. with the sheep, Pablo packing and following afterward, then meeting the herder somewhat later to get final instructions as to where the night camp will be placed. Here again Pablo goes on ahead to build the fire, unpack, and prepare supper.

After any difficult passage through areas where animals may have become lost, Rosalio makes an informal check of the herd by counting his markers — the black sheep, goats, some of the bell sheep, and others which he can easily identify. The few goats are taken along to act as leaders in difficult areas. The presence of all the markers indicates the probability that there has not been a loss, or cut. If even one marker is missing, a search is started at once.

After passage through the most severe terrain, a formal count is necessary, which can best be made in a dry riverbed, a barren canyon bottom, or similar natural passageway. After the sheep are bunched together, Rosalio and Pablo stand to form a gate, at the same time rousing the herd by tossing stones, so they will start running between the two men.

Rosalio does the actual counting, by twos, yelling out “cin-cuenta” when fifty pairs have passed, and Pablo registers each hundred by picking up a pebble or notching a stick with his knife. The herder’s staff which Rosalio carries — and which he loans to Pablo during the counts — is filled from crook to tip with notches.

On this afternoon of April 20, the sheep started, though with much urging, at 4:00 P.M. Chollas still infested the day, one canyon being nearly as bad a battleground as the cholla hill of the morning. The cactus are thickest on this first section of the trail, the first few days out from the sheep bridge.

The gnats, in the scheme of the herd’s movement, were worse than the cactus. Normally, Rosalio told me, insects are a slight problem on the trail but this was a bad year; it had brought them out. Rosalio pointed out a ridge a mile or two ahead, somewhere beyond which Pablo had already gone to establish night camp. The terrain was a jigsaw puzzle of ridges, dry washes, valleys and rounded hills — all strewn with cactus and cat’s-claw and palo verde — so I got careful directions as to where the camp could be found. Then, taking up a trail in a dry wash, I bypassed the herd and headed out.

Walking was hard. In the wash the gravel slid with each step, like walking on roughened marbles, and the cat’s-claw hugged the way and raked my clothes. On the ridges the sharp rocks and the cholla threw me back. By the time I had reached the ridge of Rosalio’s designation the sun had turned in its time for the day. My feet burned; my shoulders ached from the weight of the gear I was carrying.

Climbing upward to spot Pablo’s campfire, I let the glory of the sunset soothe my wounds as I waited the darkness which would make the fire easier to observe.

But no campfire was visible. There in the wash some distance back was the faint dust cloud of the herd but as I waited it seemed to come no closer. Nothing but semidarkness lay ahead.

It would soon be too dark for safe walking and on the ridge where I stood, with the blackness slipping in like a sea washing up, there were a thousand cholla. The suffering which they had caused the sheep had built up in me a fear of them. Rather than risk the uncertainty of hunting ahead for Pablo, in a blackness bedeviled with cholla, I beat a retreat back along the wash, slipping on the rocks and scratching myself on the cat’s-claw, until I was with the sheep once more. It was just after dark when I called to Rosalio and he heard me.

The gnats were driving the sheep in mad circles; their progress was slow. Counting on that precious hour of travel just before sunset, Rosalio had ordered the camp too far ahead. Yet the distance had to be accomplished, for Sycamore Creek — the next water — lay far distant and it had to be reached before the herd was frantic with thirst.

Rosalio and I together wrung a bit of motion from the herd. Then, with full darkness definitely established, the animals began to travel better. The herder came up to me.

“I wish you with Pablo,” he said, in his broken English. “Once, when I work for Mr. Kister, I no get to camp on a time like this and had to sleep all night with the sheepsies. “

I assured him against worrying about me. Coming again to the cholla ridge which I had climbed at sunset, we started another ascent in hopes of spotting camp.

I would almost as soon have scaled a hill littered with hot coals. Ordinarily the stars would have candled our path to some extent but an overcast sky dimmed even the brightest planets. For a while we worked around the cholla but the suspense of each step was nearly as cruel as the bite. Then Rosalio got a cholla into his hand, which pained severely. And, though less painful, I was struck from behind by one in my leg.

We touched fire to a dried cholla. It seized the flame and, feeding it with a hidden grease, wrapped itself instantly in an ascending spiral of fire. The brilliance from that one guided us easily for thirty or more feet, where we ignited another. From the top we failed to see our campfire, but we made a flaming path up the hill, then down again at right angles. Looking back at it from the wash below, our course was like a candle path to some shrine on the hilltop. We had made a pilgrimage along a path of flame.

But we hadn’t spotted camp. It was decided that Rosalio should stay with the sheep — all night if need be — and I would go ahead (this time with a fresh set of directions) in search of Pablo. Striking a match — for down in the wash there were no more cholla to burn — Rosalio, with his staff, drew a crude map of the area in the sand of the dry water bed. But the sketch, designating some branch washes here and some ridges another place, was nearly as vague to me as hieroglyphics and I realized how inadequate for my purposes was the English with which the directions were given. Before starting me off, Rosalio lit some matches and stooped to examine various scuffings in the trail.

“Here,” he said at last, “the tracks of Pablo’s burros and horse. Fresh. Follow these.”

There were marks of burros and horses and sheep of other outfits along with those to which he pointed — all in a faintly visible confusion. So he added: “Pablo’s horse is the one with shoesies on. You follow that. ” Even in the sober circumstances, I burst into laughter. The tracks were plain to the herder but, even in the daylight, I had scarcely been able to distinguish between the marks left by Pablo and those of other camperos. Now at night . . . with matches.

But, I started out.

Little gullies etched out by water of flash floods and bordered with desert growth traced their way here and there. At any single time, several such paths were open to me. The wash branched and other washes led in. The tracks of some burros went one way and some another. I didn’t bother striking matches to locate the marks of the “horse with shoesies.”

The greasewood, or creosote bush, stretched its slender fingers across my way in the darkness and slapped me as I passed. The cat’s-claw shrubs, living up to their names, gleefully dug their fingernails into my shirt and jeans.

It was impossible to see where I stepped, and rocks punched a nail in one of my shoes up into my foot. I was progressing poorly, and debated the idea of sleeping where I was without food or cover — casting in with the lizards for the night, as it were — when a light danced and bobbed into view ahead. It was Pablo with two flashlights.

Camp was still more than a mile away. While I squatted on the desert floor, Pablo made his way back to Rosalio, leaving him a flashlight, and returned to me in half an hour. The two of us then made it into camp but, even with a light to guide us, it was a wicked trail at night.

I refreshed myself with two tomato cans full of water and ate a supper which had now cooled for the second time, then tumbled into bed with all my clothes still on. Cactus spines and prickers were penetrating everywhere — in my bedroll, blankets, clothes. In the morning they would be decorating our frijoles and floating in our coffee.

Rosalio stumbled in at 10:15 P.M., having left the sheep still some distance back. He was too tired to eat but he drank water until he was nearly ill. For a few minutes before spreading out his bedroll he sat by the fire, head in his hands, and coughed a number of times. In all my experiences with him I had never heard him cough this way before. Then he slept.

An hour later there came a disturbance which wakened us all. Through the day the sheep would not travel because of the gnats; now at night, urged on by hunger and thirst, they would not stop. The whole herd, blatting and crying, their bells jangling, had kept moving after Rosalio left them, and now swarmed like an army of giant ants in and through our camp.

Rosalio was up and dressed by the time I was awake. Grabbing the flashlight, he rushed out into the darkness ahead of the sheep. He spent half an hour out there in the night, rounding them up, getting them stopped and bedded down at last. It was midnight when he sought rest in his bed once more. Barring further trouble, he would be free to sleep until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning.

As I was drifting back into slumber I thought about the nearly twenty hours since we had started the day — hours beset with cholla, rocks, gnats, confused dry washes cloaked in darkness, and a dozen other hazards. “How does Rosalio do it?” I mused groggily, then dropped into sleep.