022 Horseman of Mystery

Ramer Canyon is an enormous gouge in the earth, strewn with twisted pine forests, ravines, and ridges. But hazards to the sheep came far less from the ravines and ridges than from the forests and tangles of undergrowth, which swallowed up almost the entire herd from sight. Sometimes we could scarcely see a dozen sheep at once, out of the fifteen hundred.

After we got started down, the sheep moved fast. I knew from the sounds that Pablo was working one side of the herd and Rosalio the other insofar as anyone knew where the sides of the herd were. Certainly I didn’t. Usually a campero does not help with the herding. Now it was a necessity.

But in his endeavors to help with the sheep, Pablo had let his pack animals drift, and Chino — the burro carrying our two water kegs — was missing. Rosalio and I held the herd in a bunch while Pablo turned back on foot Immediately he was lost from our sight in that snarl of underbrush.

He was not gone long. Chino, still bearing the precious water, had been found standing in serenity back in the forest. “That damn burro didn’t even know he was lost,” Pablo mumbled. “He was just standing there. “

Through the forest we progressed, calls and shouts ringing out as Pablo and Rosalio endeavored to keep contact with one another.

They seldom shouted in the course of their everyday work. But they were shouting now — to each other — for only in this way could they hope to keep track of things.

I called occasionally too, and the forest was alive with echoes. The echoing, in fact, began to seem unnatural. Something was strange. Midst our own shouting, a fourth voice was making itself heard. It was coming from down below, and slightly ahead. It was some herder from another band. He was yelling to us — yelling a warning. Our herd was heading into a large canyon. This other herder’s sheep were coming up this same canyon, to a junction with ours. Surrounded by the impenetrable underbrush, it was as though we were traveling with blinders. Our two herds would mix, which meant they could not be unscrambled again until after topping out on the Mogollon. An awful possibility.

Rosalio sprang into action. Pablo and I did too. Down there ahead of us we knew that the other herder was acting also. We three flanked our sheep and headed them back. Then we scouted ahead and discovered Juan Estrella, with Gibson’s herd. He had turned his sheep back likewise. With the animals under control there was time to exchange experiences. Rosalio and Juan agreed on separate routes which they could follow, and we started on our ways. Thew; would not be enough feed for two bands to follow along the same trail.

Toward evening the lead sheep broke into frantic, almost pitiful basing. Almost at once every animal in the herd took it up. The soft volume swelled and filled all the space beneath the great trees. Pablo rode up on his horse. “It’s the dried-up spring by the old corral,” he explained.

It was almost dark, so Rosalio instructed Pablo to continue on to the corral and pitch camp. Pablo told me later that the corral had once served cattle rustlers as a place to contain their stolen herds. Rosalio and I followed the sheep until I saw the light of Pablo’s fire ahead. I left Rosalio to the task of bunching the herd for the night and started into camp.

A thickly-forested dark canyon led down into the flat on the side opposite camp, and as I approached the corral I saw a rider on a pinto horse come down this canyon and dismount. For a time he stood secluded by a group of great jack pines, peering out at Pablo. I waited silently, expecting the man to head into our camp. But, instead, he mounted his horse and galloped back up the draw.

Going on in, I recounted the episode to Pablo. It was completely dark now and soon Rosalio came in from the sheep. I could catch such words as “pinto” and “pronto,” as Pablo described to his companion what had happened. This area between the Naegelin and Mogollon Rims is one of the most remote in Arizona. It was, Pablo said, a hideout for criminals from the cities. No man, we felt — either acquaintance or stranger — would approach so closely to our camp and then turn back without at least a word of greeting. No one, that is, unless he had suspicious intentions.

While we were discussing the event, a small band of sheep —a quick count showed there were fourteen — came running out of the darkness from the canyon into which the man had disappeared. They bore the Dobson brand. Failing in an attempt to corral them, we drove them up to our own herd.

This added strength to the suspicions which had been forming in our minds. The mysterious stranger, we felt, must be hiding down here to cut off small bands of sheep. This might be part of a large black market operation. Perhaps he had cut the small Dobson band and, discovering us, had been forced to let them get away. Rosalio had left our own herd a little distance up the mountain slope but he and Pablo, with flashlights, went out to drive the sheep right down to our camp. During the evening the dogs seemed to growl more than usual. None of us seemed anxious to sleep. It was midnight before we finally turned in, and I chose a spot about fifty feet from camp, out away from the circle of firelight where I could see anything that might happen. The sheep were restless throughout the night; three times they stampeded briefly but soon came to rest once more. But this often happens as a result of coyotes or other scares. When morning came the herd was intact.

The Mogollon Rim is one of Arizona’s dominant geographical and geological features — a natural barrier extending for 200 miles across the east-central section of the state, and rising in places a thousand feet above the land below. But to the sheep, after the struggle up the Naegelin Rim, and through the hazards of Ramer Canyon, it was just one more grueling day’s work, which they took in stride.

The emphasis would have to be on “stride.” Rosalio’s long stride carried him up a branch mountain slope where a dozen yearlings had taken a wrong direction. The old ewes did more than stride — they jumped, actually having to leap up to surmount a barrier, or reach a ledge.

It was each animal for itself — individual effort all the way —a strange, unbelievable, heroic sight. While the air was still filled with plaintive cries of the sheep and barking of the dogs, I suddenly realized that we had reached the top.

After topping out over the Mogollon we had time for only a few deep breaths of this purer more rarefied air — the altitude is 7,400 feet — before the Sitgreaves National Forest waved us welcome. On the dirt road a few miles to the east is an official Forest Service sign, but in the still pathways of the forest where we traveled, only the many-fingered pines gestured their pleasure at our approach. No boundary, except on maps, exists between Tonto National Forest which we had entered just before reaching the sheep bridge, near the start of the trek, and this Sitgreaves Forest through which we would now be traveling much of the time until we reached the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in the White Mountains.

Three miles farther on was the Mule Springs Corral, near the little-used dirt road leading from Pleasant Valley to Heber. This forested area surrounding Heber is the summer range for many of the sheep which are driven upward from the Salt River Valley; the corral has been built near the crest of the Rim, so that possible strays may be taken out and returned to their proper owners.

Rosalio and Pablo, driving their herd into the corral, did not find it difficult to remove the strays. Brands painted on the wool on the animals’ backs made identification easy. We had picked up fourteen strays from Dobson’s herd and a few sheep with other brands.

Three other herds came in on the day of our arrival, and herders, camperos, owners, and hangers-on had a sociable afternoon. The meeting at the sheep bridge, near the start of the trek nearly five weeks before, had been a time of pleasantries; this coming together at the corral above Mogollon Rim was the occasion for tales of adventure and woe.

We learned that one herder, climbing hand-over-hand up a rock-slabbed cliff, had been bitten on his hand by a rattler. He rode horseback into Pleasant Valley, where the ranger rushed him by car over a wicked road ninety miles into Holbrook and medical aid. The hand swelled, turned partially black, but the herder had recovered fully.

We heard the story of one of Gibson’s herders who, down in the vicious wilds of Ramer Canyon, had lost his campero who had recently joined the trek and was unfamiliar with the country. Five days later, hungry but unharmed, the man was found by a deputy sheriff.

Among the herds that arrived at the corral during the afternoon, there were a dozen or more sick sheep, and two sick horses. One of the Dobson herds had had a cut or loss of a hundred sheep, and one herder “sheepishly” admitted that he was nearly 200 short. At this meeting at the corral, nothing was related to equal the tragedy of four years ago, when one of the herd owners, taking the place on the trail of a herder who had become ill, had his eye put out by a cactus spine. I said that this gathering at the corral was a sociable occasion, but in some respects it was more like the waiting room of a hospital. Men and animals had been worn down by the tests and trials of the desert and the Sierra Ancha. Now the Naegelin Rim, Ramer Canyon, and the Mogollon had delivered the final punches.