The way parents search the instant they realize they’ve lost sight of their five-year-old in a crowded mall that’s how I scanned the steers gathered at the Tivio spring that evening. Dancer, ears peaked, nostrils flared seemed to be scouting for him too. The dogie steer had been hanging around the Tivio for the last two days, but no sign of him this time. Caught up in the lost child scenario, I made hurried casts about for fresh clues lest the trail turn cold; at the same time stifling that nagging fear I’d lost him for good. Looking back the little guy never had much of a chance. Hal said they’d found his mother dead at a stock tank back on the home place when he was pretty young. There was no nurse cow handy, so he had to make it on his own. He managed, learning to graze early, along with the odd stealth theft of milk from the other cows. Hal said as a calf he was pretty determined. Still the stress of being motherless had taken its toll and he had come down with a bout of pneumonia that first summer. Even then he fought his way back, the antibiotics helping. But the ordeal of early life on his own had left him stunted, his head too large for his body, ears floppy and drooping.
The wind had died, and the sun rested on the North shoulder of Pikes Peak to the West. I reined Dancer South towards a windmill sheltered by a half circle of corrugated metal panels. There would still be enough light for a while to look for him. Though what could I do if found him?
When he first came in to the Latigo even mixed in with the rest of the steers he stood out. I could tell by his looks that something had gone wrong. He couldn’t keep up with the others, his way of traveling more labored, so he was always a little way off by himself. Yet how he reveled in being in his new place, binging on the greening palate of spring meadow grasses. The times I would ride by and catch him resting content, his cinnamon coat shining in the sun, bearing the rake marks of grooming from his sandpaper tongue. And I would think yeah pard if anyone has earned a place in this slice of paradise you surely have. I couldn’t put a finger on it, but I was sure I saw in him a deeper appreciation for all that he came to know in his time there. The way he went about his day, a certain poise. Fussy in his choice of the grasses that he deemed superior and clearly partial to the springs with the sweetest waters, it was as if he had the inside track on the real world, impassive, rid of verdict or story.
Why is it just when you allow yourself to relax, let your guard down, then here comes the sucker punch? That’s what I asked myself on that day when I found him humped up, knee deep in the Lone Tree spring, panting and snotty nosed. The pneumonia again. I gave him the full treatment from my saddle bag right then, antibiotic injections, sulfa pills. He was too weak to struggle. I just pushed him out of the water to the shoreline with Dancer then dismounted and treated him there on foot. No need to rope him. Had I caught this relapse early enough? At least he was right there close to water. Maybe it would remind him to keep drinking.
By the time I finished doctoring the dogie steer that day the sun was balanced on the horizon, a molten disk fronting a backdrop curtain of ashen gray cloud. Somewhere overhead the sonic boom of a nighthawk’s dive pierced the sky, the rush of air through feathered wings whining like an Indy race car streaking by. I eased Dancer down the middle of the sandy arroyo that meandered toward my camp. She volunteered a trot, anticipating home and supper but I checked her back down to a walk. I didn’t feel like the lilt of Dancer’s saucy gait right then. Her signature resolute walk suited the mood. How much did it matter to the dogie steer whether it ended for him there in the Latigo by a spring or as an entre on the menu at the In-N-Out Burger? After all wasn’t that the whole purpose of this enterprise? There it was again. The what am I doing out here question. My high-minded riffs, the esthetics of place, songs of the drover’s life. All the while taking care of my charges for nefarious purposes. Aiding and abetting their fate to lay it on the line. To reconcile the irreconcilable who am I kidding? Dancer made a feint for a trot, but I felt it coming and checked her back down again. Those times to come upon a spring, the far skyline a twilight ribbon of rose fading in gradients to gray, and there scattered about several pairs of steers jousting playfully, egged on by the first flush of cool night air. Then sometimes to even say it out loud, “Well boys I know how it ends but at least you’ve got this.” Did I have anything to do with making that so? Maybe, maybe not. I pitched Dancer some slack in the reins. She thanked me for the release with a high-end lope. Was she sprinting toward or away from something? The dogie steer wasn’t sprinting anywhere. I squeezed Dancer up into the next gear. We were skimming right along now into the intruding dusk, the staccato drumming of the mare’s stride bouncing echoes off the arroyo banks like so many missed chances. It’s the little lives, they’re the ones that stay with you.
That next morning, I went out to look for the dogie steer right after breakfast. As I topped a final low rise the Lone Tree spring came into full view. A stiff breeze had come up early and the morning sunlight teased the rippling water into a crosshatch of diamond shimmers. The wind weathered ponderosa pine kept its solitary purpose on the open plain near the far shoreline, the remnants of its story revealed in its gnarled canopy, defiant and covert. And there, under what limited shade the grizzled elder could offer, stood the dogie steer. From the far side of the spring, maybe fifty yards he didn’t look that worse for the wear given his condition the night before. I circled the shoreline and stopped a stone’s cast from him. He was just standing there at ease, as if waiting for the next thing to pique his fancy. His breathing seemed regular; the frothiness gone from his muzzle. He dropped his head and gave a tuft of gramma grass a halfhearted sniff. Probably too drained from the hammering he took the day before to summon much of an appetite. Still he had somehow managed to fend off the acute phase of the pneumonia. No doubt the meds had their effect, but I was betting the source of this turnaround came from a place that only he knew. I studied him for some time. If I stay still, wait long enough might I luck out a clue? Some tell of how this battered waif coped another ace in the hole. But no chance. Or, if there was a tip-off, I missed it. I’d have to be content with making the rest of that morning circle tripping on the little gray’s magic carpet ride and wondering what else the dogie steer could teach me.
But miracles ply a charlatan’s trade, improbable, unburdened by duty. The dogie steer’s upturn at the Lone Tree that day was a false promise. In the days that followed he would graze less and rest more. The weight he had put on in those first flush weeks melted away like dreams banished to another world. Whatever he had summoned to fight off the initial attack wasn’t going to be enough to beat the damage it had left. I considered another round of treatment, but antibiotics are for infections not their aftermath of scarred lungs. There were no options left. Day by day I saw him, felt him slipping away. Now it was just down to checking on him daily. I owed him that. To visit for a few minutes each day that he might come to sense, perhaps by cast of some ancient prairie spell, that someone was out there in that Big Open who was not giving up on him until he did. Truth be told even finding him at the Tivio spring these last two days was a mild surprise. Now he had managed to wander off. But where?
I found him there on the other side of the metal panels at the windmill. As I eased Dancer around the end of the windbreak, I could just make him out in the tall grasses near the pool made by the windmill tank’s overflow. He was lying down forelegs tucked under, his head drooped, chin resting on the ground. I dismounted and walked over and knelt next to him. He made no move to resist. His breathing was shallow with long pauses between each cycle. I rested a hand on his neck and told him that, while he certainly didn’t need my say-so, for what it’s worth, it’s okay to go now if you need to. Then I just waited there, a moonless full dark upon us, listening to the broken cadence of his breathing until there came the one pause, the stillness of anticipation suspended for the next breath that would not come. I stayed there next to him for a while, letting the new quiet of his absence sink in. The dogie steer had try. How well was he served by it? I had to wonder. It couldn’t save him though it defined him. To witness that try firsthand? Well, privilege was the word that came to mind. To have been granted nature’s VIP status, like the time that mother swift fox dragged her pups out of her den, lined them up on the dirt bank and then sat there, tongue lolling, proudly showing them off to me as I rode by. Down the road whenever I chanced to take try’s measure again, the dogie steer would be my touchstone. I felt a chill steal into the night air right then, or did I just imagine it? That the star-studded sky was beaming a light years away bent warp speed zephyr homage to the dogie steer, to the taking of best shots. I turned my shirt collar up as if to give credence to the notion. It was time to go.
I’d forgotten about Dancer, my thoughts fixed on the dogie steer. I would need her to finish up before heading home. She was easy to track down in the pitch dark by the squeaky ripping crunches her bites made severing the soggy grasses saturated by the windmill tank overflow. I lead Dancer over to the dogie steer and slipped the loop of my rope over his hocks and snugged it tight. Then I mounted up, took a dally on the saddle horn and dragged his body about fifty yards from the windmill to a slight, oval depression rimmed along one side with a thicket of Apache Plume, the shrub’s small white rose like flowers in evidence. I got down and loosened my rope from the dogie steer, then coiling it up as I remounted, pointed Dancer to cross the wide flat stretch that was the way back to my camp. The dim glow of the pre-moonrise on the Eastern horizon gave off just enough light to see.
As a journalist Bruce Hoppe is a multiple winner of The New Mexico Press Association’s E.A. Shaffer award for writing. He is the author of two novels “Don’t Let All the Pretty Days Get By” and “The Thomas Ladies Club.” His recent work has appeared in the Sinking City Review and The Scarlet Leaf Review. He has taught writing at Colorado State University and New Mexico Highlands University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University-Los Angeles. When not at his writing desk he can usually be found horseback prowling Colorado pastures.
Note: This is a self-contained chapter excerpted from my narrative nonficiton work-in-progress entitled Notes from the Latigo Pasture: A Summer on the Colorado Steppe. Other portions have been published in The Sinking City Review and the Scarlet Leaf Review.