Dave stood still as a tombstone in the middle of Moffat County 10, a gravel road traversing far northwestern Colorado north of the Yampa River. At fifty or so yards away, the weirdness of his body language didn’t immediately register. So for a couple of seconds, I remained immersed in the smell of sagebrush and sun-baked, cream-colored clay while searching the roadside above the broad, high desert valley below.
A subconscious nudge returned my attention to Dave’s odd stance. I stepped up my gait, walking about 20 yards toward him. Passing our jeep, I came close enough to see something on the ground between his legs. Whatever it was, it swayed rhythmically left and right, just like a rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike.
Slowing my pace so I wouldn’t alarm the agitated reptile, I kept edging forward for another 10 yards.
“Dave,” I said to his back, “Don’t move.”
He had already thought of that, of course. I was just letting him know the calvary was coming.
* * *
Dave and I were teenagers from Texas who traveled to Colorado the summers after my sophomore and junior years in high school to work as ranch hands. Craving adventure, we convinced our parents to let us take advantage of a fortuitous opportunity.
As soon as school let out, we hopped a Greyhound bus from Dallas to Denver, where we bought cheap tickets to travel by boxcar through the Rockies to Craig. Despite many stops, it took us through some magnificent scenery across the Continental Divide. Our main boss, known as Skipper due to his sea-going past, picked us up at the depot in Redbird, his pride and joy ton-and-a-half truck.
Skipper ran the Patjanella with his wife, Mary, and niece, Portia. The ranch was named for the wives of three Dallas lawyers who owned the 65,000-acre spread. They were the connection that landed us the gig.
Unlike the drugstore cowboys haunting Dallas suburbs in pretty Tony Lama’s and shiny Ford F-150s, we did the hard, dirty jobs traditionally left to real cowboys of the American West. We rounded up, branded, castrated and inoculated the cattle in our care. Then we pushed the herd up into the high country for the summer to fatten up on thick, snow-fed grass.
We also dipped sheep, cleaned out barns, burned trash, built hundreds of yards of barbed-wire fence, fixed what needed fixing, and at the Patjanella, drilled the same damn sandy well seven times.
For a six or seven day work week, we were paid 25 dollars plus room and board. We covered the cost of new jeans and replacing our often shredded shirts and work gloves. But we got our adventure, in the process turning brown and rugged as the bark of the ponderosa pine in the mountains above us.
A neighbor stopped by the Patjanella that warm Sunday to recruit help for working his cattle. Bobby owned the ranch next door that lay by the Little Snake River seven miles to our east. His next stop was the Petersons, over eight miles further up the valley.
Weaving the web of interdependency required a pot of coffee and a long chat. A phone call would not do. The kitchen table Bobby, Skipper, Mary, Portia, Dave and I shared sat 60 miles from Craig, the nearest town with a bank, laundromat, and grocery store. The ranchers of this valley needed their neighbors’ occasional assistance to survive, and they were, in turn, needed.
Bobby, who once rode the rodeo circuit under the monicker “Hondo Sheridan,” was known to be a little crazy, but in an entertaining, not dangerous way. Being tossed around by three-quarter-ton bulls can cause anyone’s brain to bend toward the haywire.
That day, his possibly credible story was about the giant rattlesnake he said he saw and killed on the way over.
“With upwards of 14 buttons!” he said, flashing his goofy, disarming smile.
Portia snorted. “Bullshit!”
Skipper and Mary just chuckled.
“Betcha 10-cents, there wasn’t more’n eight!” Portia added.
A single paltry dime was our standard wager for every outlandish thing we bet on in an attempt to relieve the boredom. We were young, broke, and hungry for off-hours diversion. I’m not kidding. We gambled on games of pick-up sticks.
Portia was 18 and pretty in a formidable way. A little hostile, too. Neither Dave nor I ever made a pass at her. Yet, the two of us joined her in the venture.
A confident Bobby accepted the bet.
Mary was entrusted with the stake, all 60 swanky cents of it. She held one dime each from Portia, Dave, and myself, plus the matching funds from Bobby. Since he needed to push on to the Petersons, Dave and I jumped into the jeep to drive about two miles towards his ranch to the spot on the road where he told us he had seen the rattlesnake.
I grabbed a Winchester 30-30 and a box of ammunition on the way out the door. Dave strapped on his gun belt.
Out here, you needed a weapon nearby. This was a land occupied by creatures that would eat you and your horse if they caught you unwary. Rustlers were even meaner and much more brazen.
Yes, cattle rustlers. Once Bobby invited us to shoot at a semi that some bad guys were trying to fill with his stock. We were across the river about a mile off, but they got our message. Cussedly, by the time we drove several miles to Bobby’s front gate, the rustlers had high-tailed it. The only clue to their presence was a cloud of dust on the horizon as they roared away from us toward Maybell where they could get on a paved two-lane highway.
Like rustlers, this remote land was lousy with rattlesnakes. Green ones! An odd sight for a Texan, but I learned that prairie, or plains, rattlesnakes sometimes came in varied shades of pale green. A hue very similar to the sagebrush plants that covered the valley floor.
Among the lesser-known dangers of rattlesnakes was that they often slithered up into these sagebrush branches to cool off. I learned hopping off of one’s mount to take a quick leak could be an unexpected gamble when I let loose on a snoozing rattler.
Such close calls abounded.
During the first leg of a cattle drive initiated to take the herd up into the mountains, I was charged with searching for strays and a missing slick that probably had been nosed down by its mother. Like a fawn, this newborn calf knew to stay put until mama returned.
Because trained stock horses work hard, sometimes with little human intervention, we monitor them closely and swap them out with rested ones when they tire. At that moment, I was riding a relief horse, Beans, a one-eyed, black and white pinto.
Following a narrow gully around a barren mesa toward the pasture where we began the push that morning, I came upon the biggest rattlesnake I had ever or would ever see in my 70 years. It was stretched across a large flat rock at saddle height, soaking in the sun. On Beans’ blind side, thank goodness.
I held my breath and gripped the saddle horn tight while we passed. A horse startled by a rattler will turn and buck its extra weight, you the rider, toward the threat.
We were so close to the monster, I could have leaned out and touched its back. Beans snorted and shook her head at the smell of a snake, but didn’t panic. I, on the other hand, felt a chill of fear as a ripple of muscle movement traveled the length of the rattler. However, it didn’t coil up in preparation to strike. I guess it was too was just too warm and comfortable to exhibit a more strenuous objection to our presence.
Although scary, it was a worthwhile foray. Up a draw on the mesa, I found two stray heifers and, after a great deal of searching, the lost slick. I hoisted the very young, but still 125-pound, calf onto my saddle and pushed the heifers toward the next watering hole. We caught up with the main herd ensconced there for the night just after sundown.
* * *
Thirty yards up Moffat County 10, Dave stood with his back to me, facing one very angry rattlesnake mere inches away.
Bobby claimed that he found a stick and killed the snake with it. Bobby was mistaken.
Dave had approached the rattler presuming it to be dead. Without double-checking for signs of life, he bent over to count its buttons. The snake coiled in nothing flat while my friend straightened up and froze.
A suddenly much more thoughtful Dave did not reach for his pistol.
Faced with this standoff, I slowly sat down on the gravel to use my butt and feet like a tripod. I levered a round into the Winchester’s chamber and rested my elbows on my knees. Taking aim at the oscillating snake just beyond Dave’s legs, I wished that he had assumed a wider stance.
After a deep breath, I exhaled and squeezed the trigger.
The rattler’s head flew from its body. At the same time, Dave sprang backward like a gymnast and crab-walked away from trouble, raising a cloud of pale dust.
“Between my legs?” he howled.
I let out a nervous laugh of relief as I jumped to my feet. Then I had to ask: “How many buttons?”
Dave stood up, brushed himself off, and met me at the unlucky snake’s body. The sizable reptile brandished eleven buttons in its rattle. More than Portia’s skeptical eight but fewer than Bobby’s improbable 14.
Still, the crazy dude got our 30 cents.
After hearing the story, Mary asked Dave if it was worth it to risk his life for a dime. He looked at me with a grin and winked.
“Hell, yes!” he said.