019 Heroes in Mud

Today I learned the stuff which makes a herder.

By 5:30 in the morning when breakfast was over, the rain had established itself into a dismal storm. And the air was swiftly chilling, turning cooler. There would be a cutting downpour for half an hour after which it would cease a few moments, then set in again.

The sheep this day, far from requiring less care, would be doubly hard to manage. Already we had spent a full day here and the surrounding forage was exhausted. Until we could move our quarters Rosalio would have to circle his herd far out and back, across the canyons, seeking feed. Not even the dismal, drenched shelter of the fireside would be his. Breakfast over, donning his worn-out slicker, whistling to the dogs and then to the sheep, staff in hand, he set out. The soaking hills and dripping trees, the fury of the driving rain, soon swallowed the herd and herder; they were in a woeful world.

Pablo’s lot was scarcely better. It was urgent to move camp if the rain slackened and even though this chance seemed remote, the burros must be ready. On went his slicker too, and he went out into the rain to find them.

I remained in camp and piled wood upon the fire. The weather, wicked now in its moods, held an exciting attraction. While the rain was pelting down, a grip of coldness clutched the mountains and the raindrops turned to hail. The stones bombarded the tent; they lit in the lids of the Dutch ovens, hot over the fire, and burst into pockets of steam; they danced sharply on the brown slick slabs of sandstone rock near the camp; it was a dance of bitterness, fast-rhythmed and striking a chord of pain.

Gradually the storm subsided but even though the rain slackened, the clouds began to push down upon our heads. Some of them were raking the mountain spur to the west and a thin finger of cloud, looking like fog, drifted into the valley adjoining us. Over above Potato Butte in Pleasant Valley the fog was playing blind-man’s buff, more blind than buff, for soon its cold white clamminess stole into our camp and for five minutes the world was gone. We were submerged, cut off, grayed out.

But that mood also passed and the rain began again, although now it was almost continuously hail which came at us like icicles. Our mountain slope became a rock-ribbed refrigerator. The tent became the coldest place of all, for its flaps were a foot above the ground and gusts, which nearly tore the whole tent down, started up and swirled the shelter full of icy air.

Pablo returned with the burros and his horse, and when the rain ceased a moment the horse began to steam, its brown flanks —streaked with wet — smoking as though on fire. The burros cut the sorriest scene of all. A burro is never happy, at least in appearance, and now each animal was a document of woe. Like silent statues, they stood there, wet and dripping, their ears hung back and down like the tails of whipped pups, and the water streaming off each eavetroughed ear. A burro’s ears are his only glory — the only flag of pride which he flies — and now these had gone to half-mast. When the rain got too unendurable the men swore, the dogs shook themselves, the sheep bleated. But the burros just stood, and let water run from their ears.

Rosalio returned at 10:30 in the morning and we tried to eat, although the rain made it a quick and soggy affair. Then Rosalio tried to dry out, for the slicker had leaked badly at the shoulders and his overalls were soaked from the knees down. He had been in mud and his shoes were both wet and clay-packed. He knelt by the fire to scrape off the mud with his knife.

After that, Rosalio and Pablo and the two dogs went into the tent to rest. The dog, Georges, was most depleted of all. He was chilled and couldn’t get warm, and shook violently for an hour. Pablo covered him with a pack blanket, then curled his own body close to the dog and they both slept.
A fury of wind and rain caught us in an instantaneous grip.

The dams and ditches which we had constructed about the tent began to break and Rosalio and I repaired them. Hail followed the rain and came with such volume that it bounced under the flaps into the tent and melted in large pools of water. This we could do nothing about. Pablo and the dog slept through it all; they were exhausted.

Rosalio and I, in a lull, sought the fire and piled more logs upon the diminishing flames. We had burned seven so far during the day; our one piece of luck was being close to good fuel.

Over along the mountain spur to the west we could see a storm — the worst of the day — lashing its way along like a Paul Bunyan gone mad in the forest. In this country you can see your enemies coming for many miles. To the east was another storm, less only by degree — Paul Bunyan, Jr. — traveling in the same direction. They both skirted our camp. We were happy in the thought they would miss us.

But the tapering ends slowly closed in. Ahead of those ends — a circular fury between the two storms —came wind. It tossed and swayed the tent; from my bed it lifted the tarps, stones and all, with which I had weighed them down, carrying them to the other side of the camp; it tossed fire embers up like crimson popcorn. Then the two ends of the storm met and fought it out with our camp as the field of honor. It was a family feud; a battle of incest. I do not know which one won, but we lost.

Rosalio had driven the sheep in close to camp but now, at 1:00 P.M., they became restless for feed.

He picked up his staff, put his wet slicker over his clothes which hadn’t yet dried, and started out again. For six hours he would drive the herd in great circles through the mud and hail and hell. I watched him go; under similar circumstances I question if I could have done the same. As the figure of the sixty year old man headed out toward the sheep, another figure slipped from under the tent flap and dashed along behind. Rosalio had not whistled. But Georges — still shivering, still wet — would be out there too.

It rained and hailed, with short letups, all day long. I pulled in five more logs from the forest. With slabs of slate rock pried from the ledges, I constructed sidewalks about the camp, for the pools of water and mud now made walking a chore. When the rain slackened enough so that the prospect of drying out was a little greater than that of getting wetter, I stood by the fire. The denim of Levis in some respects resembles sheet iron; my pants would get too hot to touch and then, in stepping away, I would bring them in contact with my legs. There would be a stinging burn.

During the worst storms I lay in the tent, watching the raindrops race along the bottom flaps, then drip to form pools where the beds would be. Across on the far hills I could hear the bells of the sheep. Rosalio was out in it all.

Pablo had cooking to do. Worst of all we were nearly out of bread. Half an hour before, he and I had eaten the last soggy slab, throwing it first down into the ashes to drive out some of the dampness. We only succeeded in burning it; it was still soggy.

With a hope that the weather would change, Pablo delayed his baking as long as possible. But the rain continued, so he got out his pans and his flour.

I don’t know that I have seen a sight like that, ever; this Mexican-American campero, swathed in his black slicker, his hat dripping, mud clinging to his feet as he sloshed about the camp, mixing his dough in the rain and the hail. His partner was over on that forested mud-sloughed hill, drenched now through and through, miserably cold, yet tending the sheep. That was Rosalio’s job. Pablo’s job was to have bread ready when his partner came to supper. He wasn’t going to shirk it.

It was bread being mixed in that pan and being baked on that fire. But as I saw the brown loaves coming out, the very sight of the bread told me it was more than baking dough; I realized here was real proof that people do not live by bread alone. They can rise to great heights even in a sheep camp.

Now it is 5:00 P.M. I am in the tent, watching the rivulets of water break the dikes and run farther and farther in. I have just remembered that four of Dobson’s herds as well as Mulatto’s and Manuel’s are out in this same storm. The men of those camps are suffering as much as we are. Manuel and Eduardo, his campero, are probably suffering even more. They are fighting not only the weather, but themselves. A storm within can always beat the fury of a storm without. (We learned later that it snowed in their camp.) Tonight will be bad, I fear. Last night’s rain was light by comparison and the weather was still mild; now it is clawing, cold, and windy. Cold and wind are foul handmaidens of rain.

Last night’s rain had some poetry in it, at least a stanza or so; tonight’s, I’m afraid, will be all prose.
The trials of this day have been much on my mind. To me it has been hard, but I will be through with it soon. Rains like this, however, occur all summer in the range of the White Mountains where the sheep are headed. The herders will be wet through them all.

There are other workers who must labor in rain, who are soaked through and through. Police on their beats, and lumberjacks, those who deliver the mails, and farmers sometimes, and the miners “working wet” in dripping stopes underground. I did that for three months once. But all such persons labor for eight hours, or twelve at most, then have quits. There is large comfort in the thoughts of the fire and home which await them. Rosalio, over there in the drenching hell on that hillside will, at nighttime — just an hour or so from now — have to exchange that particular hell for one nearly like it in camp. More cold, more wind, and a sodden bed. The only fire is out in the rain. Any warmth he can enjoy will be at the cost of a soaking. And through the night the sheep must be constantly on his mind. It is nearly as bad for Pablo.

I am wondering this day that sheep tenders can be hired at all. Not eight hours, not twelve, but twenty-four, and each one sixty minutes of torment in times like these. Not five days, nor six, but seven including holidays. It is marvelous what men will face and bear up under. And I have heard people call sheepherders lazy.

Now it is nearly night. At supper time the rain slackened a bit and for half an hour there were signs of clearing. The coyotes yelped and Pablo took it gleefully as a prophecy.

“See, they over on the hill yelping. They are happy and make big dance. It happens every time. When they yelp it means a change of weather. “

I was becoming quite taken with Pablo’s coyote theory until, just a moment ago after it had started raining some more, the coyotes bayed forth anew and Pablo said: “It cleared a little but now it changing again, back to rain. The coyotes yelping means another change.” He was hedging like a true prophet.

The Spanish almanac said “dry, with dusty winds” for today. It was only two-thirds wrong. It was windy, I can’t deny.