020 Shots in the Night

We camped under a large juniper near a rocky cairn, between Charcoal Mountain and Spring Creek, on a high plateau of the Sierra Ancha. Rosalio roused us at 4:30. The sun topped the mountains, and the sheep voluntarily started at 5:45.

Rosalio has just left with the sheep and Pablo has gone to look for his burros. He didn’t know whether they went in the direction of the ridge ahead or down into the canyon at our right, so had to track them. He apparently found them on the ridge, and now I hear their bells approaching. I am here guarding our supplies, for that is one aid I can render. Otherwise one burro might come in ahead and start eating up everything in sight. When Pablo is alone he has to pack and cover things well.

Juniper makes good firewood and the smoke is incense —although Pablo claims that pinyon is better.

Rosalio spent a full ten minutes this morning covering the fire with rocks and dirt — and it was hard shoveling dirt in this rocky land. He not only wanted to put out the fire but douse all smoke. I wondered at the caution —far beyond ordinary needs. He explained: “Don’t want Pleasant Valley ranger to see smoke. Then he come and see my sheep tracks outside of line.”

He was referring to the fact that last night he had driven his sheep outside the established boundaries of this Heber-Reno Stock Trail. I asked what the penalty would be. “Jail, maybe,” Rosalio responded.

Although I doubt if the penalty would have reached any such proportions, he had been willing to take risks so his sheep could feed properly while stalled by other herds ahead.

Now the burros are here; the thump of their feet as they jump in their hobbles is mixing with the sound of the bells.

Starting out, Rosalio and I soon met our caporal, Crescencio, whom we had not seen recently, and found that the trouble in Manuel’s camp is worsening. He and his campero — Eduardo —have been fighting, and Eduardo is going to quit at Pleasant Valley.

At noontime Rosalio went to eat in Manuel’s camp and Pablo and I ate alone. After our simple meal, Pablo cleaned up, put some beans to cook, then saddled his horse to ride over and see the men in the other camp. He has left me here alone to watch the fire, to add water to the beans when they need it, and to keep the burros away.

I sit here, the whole forested meadow to myself, the vast mountain range to myself, the whole world to myself for all I know or anyone else knows and for all anyone can do about it. Few times do I find myself in a situation just like this; I am lord not only of the sheep camp but of all the Sierra Ancha.

Suddenly I realize I have stumbled on a reason why many men become herders of sheep, or camperos.

Every day he is alone in camp Pablo would have this same feeling that I have now. It could never come to a worker at a lathe in a factory, to a clerk in a dry goods store, to an employee anywhere with fellow workers about and with the boss up front. It could not even come to a sailor working under his mate at sea. But here — even though he is employed — Pablo is not only his own boss but he is lord of all he surveys and king of the hills. Freedom! He is not a little man. He amounts to something.

The beans were bubbling merrily. They were our entree for supper when Pablo and Rosalio returned.
In the night we heard two shots — obviously from Crescencio’s rifle, for it was the only one around — off in the direction of Manuel’s camp. During the evening we had been discussing Manuel, and both Pablo and Rosalio agreed that he had been on the trail too long — the stress was too great — which was the reason for his surliness and the fights with Eduardo. The desire for Eduardo to leave was the fear that Manuel might harm him. And now these shots — two of them in the night; I half imagined, half dreamed, that Manuel had gotten Crescencio’s rifle and used it on both the campero and caporal.
I didn’t sleep too well.

After Rosalio and I had started out in the morning with the sheep, Crescencio came along and told us the cause of the shots. In the night, the sheep had become frightened — and the burros and horses as well — either at a bear or a coyote, and started stampeding. Crescencio had fired into the air, either to frighten the wild beast, whatever it may have been, or to stop the sheep. I am not sure which. I doubt if Crescencio is sure either. Rosalio, with no weapon at all, controls his herd much better.

Crescencio as caporal, or foreman, receives higher wages than a herder or campero. Pablo is envious neither of the caporal nor the herder. A caporal, he says, may not have to work quite as hard as a campero does, although there is much to do — aiding in counting the sheep, riding ahead in search of feed and water, helping in other ways. “But he has to deal with the men in all three camps and I don’t like that,” Pablo explained. Here was one worker who realized that the person above him had a job of responsibility and, because of that fact, was entitled to more pay.

Pablo likewise knew that Gunnar Thude, the owner, and his associates would make a handsome profit from the lambs this year, but he also knew, not only the expenses involved, but the risks. “You got to have a gold mine to go in sheep business,” he elaborated, “and if you not careful, you go broke sure as hell.”

For several days the talk has been about Spring Creek, as though it were some ogre vaguely looming ahead. Although there has been talk about it, we arrived at Spring Creek Canyon with no immediate warning at all, so far as I was concerned.

In terms of beauty it is a Garden of the Gods; in terms that the herders use it is Hell’s Half Acre, though they call it by other words. Actually it is hundreds of acres of rock-strewn, canyon-scarred tumbled madness.

I myself am not a swearing man; I would not blaspheme the burros as Pablo does — though I certainly don’t object to his doing it, and think it actually lubricates the packing. I would not swear at the sheep, as Rosalio does on rare occasions and with just cause, when their true sheepishness comes to the fore. Neither would I damn the weather, as all herders do, though I have been chilled by it, soaked by it, baked by it, stung by it, so much already on this trail, that I might be excused for some original words in its regard. Nothing ordinary can raise me to profanity — or lower me to it, depending on one’s slant and frame of mind — though I who seldom swear like to think that there is a language of abuse somewhere beyond the ordinary tongue, to be drawn on for special occasions. Those who curse at the scratching of a fingernail, or profane the slightest annoyance, are not getting the true essence out of pungent words; they are cheapening what might be glowing terms. If one saved the vocabulary of profanity for those memorable times when it really should be used, then I think it would become an honored language.

In all the days and in all the trials of this journey so far, I have used but one full-flushed oath. As I crossed Spring Creek and turned back to look at the whole area in its viciousness, I gave vent to almost reverent profanity. “It certainly is a !-*-#-@-*-@-*-?-!-!,” I exclaimed. At the time, there was no other way to describe it.

Spring Creek is simply a series of canyons whose rock-ribbed walls rise grandly in towers standing against the sky. At a casual glance it is not impressive at all. But to one who goes through it with fifteen hundred sheep he finds that it has just that roughness, that sheerness of trail, that confusion which causes all but the best to get lost, which makes it worth an oath. In terms of hazards, it is the climax of the Sierra Ancha.

Also, it is the gateway to Pleasant Valley.