An amusing memoir from my high school years. Those who know me as a citified new media artist, or more recently as a soft, old, bald guy may not recognize the Scooter revealed here. And yet, sometimes the improbable is true. To keep the story moving, I had to trim a few anecdotes and some fascinating history about the families mentioned in the story who settled this area. Maybe later. The photo of the dime comes courtesy NCG Coin Explorer. The Yampa valley photo in the background courtesy The Unknown Real Estate Agent of Maybell, Colorado. Compositing by yours truly.
Dave stood still as a tombstone in the middle of Moffat County 10, a graded dirt 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 skirting the broad, high desert valley.
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.
Then I noticed it swayed rhythmically left and right. You know, just like a rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike.
Slowing my pace so I wouldn’t alarm the agitated reptile, I edged forward 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. Once there, 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.
A wiry, old cowboy known as Skipper picked us up at the Craig train depot in Redbird, his at-one-time red, pride-and-joy, ton-and-a-half Ford truck. He ran the Patjanella with his wife, Mary Akin, 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 immaculately clean pick-ups, 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. An unbelievably hard job.
We also dipped sheep, cleaned out barns, burned trash, built hundreds of yards of barbed-wire fence, fixed what needed fixing, and drilled the same damn sandy well seven times.
For a six or seven-day work week, Skipper paid us 25 dollars, fifteen dollars of which went to Mary for room and board. We also covered the cost of replacing our shirts and work gloves that were worn and torn all too soon. But we got our adventure, in the process turning brown and rugged as the bark of the ponderosa pine in the mountains above us.
The day my friend had his standoff with the rattlesnake, a neighbor stopped by the Patjanella recruiting help to work his cattle. Bobby Sheridan owned the ranch next door. That is, it lay just beyond the Little Snake River about seven miles to our east. His next stop would be at the Peterson place, 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 in a kitchen 60 miles from Craig, the nearest town with a bank, laundromat, or grocery store. The first third of that distance was dirt road. So, the ranchers of this valley needed their neighbors’ occasional assistance to survive, and they were, in turn, needed.
We volunteered to help, of course.
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 killed on the way over.
“With upwards of 14 buttons!” he said, flashing his goofy, yet endearing smile.
Portia snorted. “Bullshit!”
Skipper and Mary just chuckled.
“Betcha 10-cents, there wasn’t more’n eight!” Portia added.
A single, slender 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. We even gambled on games of pick-up sticks.
Portia was 18 and pretty in a formidable way. A little hostile, though. Dave and I feared her too much to make a pass at her. Yet, as always, the two of us went along with her latest speculative venture.
A confident Bobby took the wager.
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 head 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.
Yep, cattle rustlers. Once Bobby invited us to shoot at the cab of a semi that some bad guys were trying to fill with his stock. We were about a mile off across the river, but they got our message. Cussedly, by the time we drove a couple of miles up to the bridge and then a couple back 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 paved 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, versions of these reptiles often came in a hue that matched the sagebrush plants that covered the valley floor.
Among the unknown-to-me dangers of rattlesnakes was that they slithered up into sagebrush branches to cool off. I learned this after hopping off my horse to take a quick leak and 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 good cattle 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, pinto mustang.
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 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 touched it on the way by.
Beans snorted and shook her head at the smell of a snake, but didn’t panic. I, on the other hand, felt the 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 just too warm and comfortable to exhibit a more strenuous objection to our presence.
Although scary, it was a worthwhile foray. Up a ravine in the mesa, I found two stray heifers and, after a long search, the lost slick. I hoisted the very young, but still 125-pound, calf onto my saddle and pushed the girls toward the next watering hole. Just after sundown, we caught up with the main herd settled there for the night.
* * *
Thirty yards up the road, Dave stood with his back to me, facing one very angry rattlesnake mere inches away.
Bobby claimed that he found some sticks and killed the snake with them. Any sticks laying around were most likely sagebrush. Not exactly sturdy stuff.
“No sense in wasting a bullet,” he had said.
Dave 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 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 to calm my nerves, I inhaled again, 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 where the unlucky snake lay. 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 gave me a sly grin and winked. “Hell, yes!” he said.