011 Shepherd of the Trail

Rosalio never carries a gun. Hundreds of bears and other wild animals roam this area. If they threaten his sheep, he gathers the herd closer into the camp at night. He has no fear of wildlife.

In making his bed at night in desert areas he carefully removes scorpions or tarantulas that may be in the way, brushing them gently aside but never killing them.

Rattlesnakes live along the length of the sheep trail by the thousands. If one is found in camp, occasionally Rosalio will kill it, but seldom otherwise. “They no hurt me,” he told me, “so I no hurt them.” “A rattlesnake is a gentleman,” Pablo once said. “He gives a warning.”

Rattlers are seldom a problem to the sheep. The normal movement of a herd will trample any snake to death, so they take for cover. One of our lambs was bitten by a rattler. Its nose swelled and turned black. Rosalio tried to catch it to give treatment, but was never able to do so. Eventually the swelling went down and all was well.

Rosalio’s unassuming fearlessness and Schweitzer-like regard for all living creatures was, I realized, beginning to rub off on me in various ways, which made this wilderness experience exhilarating to me, rather than fearsome.

My discovery that his last name meant “Morning Star” in Spanish, seemed to strengthen the bond of understanding and friendship between us. As we started our morning progress over the calloused hills together he reached farther and farther back into the springtime of his life and etched its pattern for me.

He told of his grandfather who had helped drive cattle along the old Chisholm Trail through the wastes of Texas, up to railhead in Kansas. I remembered the Kansas state motto: “To the stars through difficulties,” and realized that some of Rosalio’s heritage was involved with that saying.

He had an endearing way of speaking of his grandparents. “My papa’s mamma,” he said, or “after my papa’s papa drove cattle, he drove oxen carrying freight from Albuquerque to Kansas City. “

Rosalio’s first experiences with sheep came when he was eleven. His father was a herder near Albuquerque and the boss, taking a liking to the boy, suggested that he go along to help, at ten dollars a month. At fourteen, he herded sheep near Acoma. “Sand knee deep on south side, getting down from Acoma,” he told me.

The accidental turning of a saw in a New Mexican mill when he was fifteen, diverted Rosalio permanently to herding. To my questions as to whether he had ever married, his simple reply comes (and the reply is a biography of his life): “I wanted to marry sometime, but when I had sawmill accident, I could no get regular job anymore.”

The accident had partially destroyed the use of one hand, and he had turned to the thing he knew best. Steered into his life course by the literal wheel of chance, he started devoting all he had to the thing he was doing.

The sheep trail has drawn men to it for a multitude of reasons. Some come just for the job, but these do not return a second year. Pablo’s glorious manifesto that “here at least you work in the sun; in the city you are always in the shade,” is for many of them a strong reason. The life on the trail, though hard, is a life that one can love — the everyday pitting of oneself against the harshness and grandeur of nature.

For a campero, the work is stern. For just an average herder in charge of sheep it is even harder. For a deeply conscientious man like Rosalio, the task of shepherding a herd of his “children” over one of the cruelest trails in the land, is a responsibility equal to some of the more critical jobs in American life.

With Rosalio, sheepherding is not really a job. It is craftmanship — an art which has settled almost into an inherited instinct in handling the animals. Though he says no, I have a feeling that Rosalio has some of the blood of the New Mexican Indians fortifying the blood of his more dominant Mexican and Spanish ancestors. I believe that the instinct with which he tends the herd goes back not solely to his Mexican father watching his sheep on the hills surrounding Albuquerque but stems, too, from Indians tending flocks outside the walls of their mud villages in the days which followed the introduction of sheep from Spain. Back along separate routes of blood and tradition, Rosalio’s craft as a herder extends to the hills of Old Spain. Those Spanish flocks also trekked each spring from lowlands to mountains, along given trails, as in Arizona today. This man’s profession is ancient and through the ages has been among the world’s important occupations.

Late in the afternoon, Rosalio had an unusually frustrating tussle with the herd. After it was over, he spoke to me slowly, revealing his age as he did so: “Sixty years too old for this trail,” he said softly. “I may have to leave the sheepsies some day.”

When he quits for good he plans to go back to his New Mexico where he started herding, to retire and rest, and dream about the days and nights and joys and hardships with his sheep.

He told me that once he owned a little house in Old Albuquerque and rented it out. “But I have much trouble. Once the people no pay rent. So I sold the house. Less trouble that way. More better, don’t you think?”

Rosalio’s watch steadily loses time. This afternoon, shaking it gently, he said: “It goes all right in the daytime, but it sleeps at night. “

The episode which caused Rosalio to lament his age had not been so much a test of his physical strength as it had of his inner emotions. Remorse, not exhaustion, had triggered his reaction.
There had been time-consuming difficulty again starting the sheep, when the hour arrived for afternoon departure. Down and around a hill, and up again, Rosalio ran, working a small band into motion, only to have them circle back and stop. Obstinacy seemed to possess them. He called on the aid of Boots and he himself barked like a dog. Nothing availed.

In many countries, on many trails, if a herd does not travel it means inconveniences. On this trail it could be more critical. Sycamore Creek was two days behind; the next water was still more than a day ahead. Even now some of the animals were fretting for it. A schedule of some sort — a water schedule — had to be maintained.

Necessity demanded action. Slowly, as though it seeped out of the ground or was transmitted by the herd itself, a flame of temper rose within Rosalio. His face revealed it clearly. Here was a case of real anger. He rushed into the herd and slid his staff over the backs of the animals. Then he struck the most obstinate ones several times. Not alone the blows, but the fire and energy of his rage, transmitted to the sheep and they started. The spark which had set off his anger had been transmitted to him from the herd; now his anger created something of an electric impulse in the air and went back to the animals. It is the only time that I had ever seen Rosalio lose his temper.
The animals moved. In a close mass they crawled into a ravine, on the far side they came out on a score of rocky trails, and fanned out over fifty acres of hillside, working gradually toward the top.
Rosalio — tired, exhausted, but having got the herd into motion — sat down to watch and to rest. I was with him. His dark face had the look of the sea in it — shiny with sweat, and slowly settling back from the darkness of fury to his usual calm.

“I never had such a herd in forty years,” he said. “I like my sheep to go slow. It is good for them. But these just make circles.”

At the far end of the ravine the sheep were discharging frantic and pitiful cries into the air, filling this whole section of mountain with their bleating.

“What’s their trouble now?” I asked, not comprehending.

In his answer I saw that Rosalio was thinking deeply about what had occurred. It was evident that all anger was gone. It hurt him — injured him greatly — to realize that he had lost patience with his “children. “

“They baaing for water,” he explained. “Water was down there early in spring and maybe the ground still wet. They smell it.” Giving a close ear to their pleading, he continued: “I get mad with the sheep. Maybe they get mad with me now that I can’t take them to water. “

With his red bandana, Rosalio had wiped the wet from his face. His hat was pushed back, revealing his black hair, and letting the mountain air flow across his forehead. Now his brown features were calm; his deep quiet eyes were farseeing and gentle again. Once more he was the shepherd of the trail.