SEPTEMBER MORNINGS can be frigid in the Blackwater country. Brian and I left the home corrals before eight, shoulders hunched against the morning cold. The horsesâ€™ breath swirled like blown smoke in front of us as we rode single-file down the narrow trail toward the Messue Crossing. Brian led Chuchi, the chunky black packhorse carrying the three-day supply of grub and our bedrolls. He had mounted a spirited protest at his new calling, but with some firm persuasion, we got him lined. Brian had a hard dally on the horn with Chuchiâ€™s lead rope, and I brought up the rear. The little black packhorse dug all four feet into the dirt and fought to escape. I gave him a sharp pop with the end of my lariat-rope and he jumped ahead, jostling Brianâ€™s horse. That big dun gelding didnâ€™t even waver. He just heaved a sigh and plodded up the trail, dragging the still fractious packhorse behind him. Chuchi wasnâ€™t the first young horse heâ€™d taught to mind their trail manners.
We followed the wagon track north and up to the long meadow until it intersected the ancient, westbound Indian Trail which ended at the far-off Pacific Ocean. We turned east, then skirted a few small, native grass meadows and dropped off the ridge, down to the Blackwater River. We rode without any talk, waiting for the weak warmth of the early morning sun. The brilliant, multicolored fall leaves of the poplar drooped with a heavy morning dew, while the starlings and sparrows chattered a noisy discourse. A beady-eyed Canada jay flitted from tree to tree, following our passage to the river, hoping for a handout. Overhead, a flock of Canada geese ka-ronked their way south, intent on reaching whatever sunny locale they searched for during the cold Canadian winters.
Cattle on the ranch spent the summer grazing the high plateau country, up against the Itcha Range. The pesky, bloodsucking black flies werenâ€™t as bad up there, but some of the younger cows always figured they didnâ€™t have to head for the lower pastures until too late in the fall. By November, the snow was so deep they couldnâ€™t get out, so they either starved or the wolves got them. Our job was to move them down out of the high country before the weather got bad.
Brian rode ahead of me on the narrow trail, with Chuchi holding to the middle. â€śYou know, Lonnie; you canâ€™t improve much on what God created.â€ť Chuchi must have decided his neck had been stretched enoughâ€”at least for the moment.
â€śYeah, itâ€™s a great morninâ€™, except I have to put a question mark on your God part.â€ť When it came to religion, there was never any doubt where Brian stood, and I loved to needle him. Brian had this simplistic belief that some cosmic giant had created the world and everything in it. I liked and respected him, maybe more than anybody Iâ€™d ever run across, but you could pitch a horseshoe through the holes in his science. Many times, Iâ€™d had this same discussion with Clarissa. Neither she nor Brian would ever convince me that some wing-nut Jewish legends about some sky-guy power ranger had the slightest validity. Christianity was to me the epitome of intellectual dishonesty.
That issue had been the beginning wedge in our marriage. One evening, Clarissa had announced the astonishing fact that she had â€śgiven her life to Jesus.â€ť I had never felt so betrayed, and our arguments had been protracted and bitter. Clarissa was intelligent. She flew all over the country solving big insurance claims. She sat in high-level board meetings with hotshot insurance executives. How could she have bought into that religious hocus-pocus? This person wasnâ€™t whom Iâ€™d married, and at the time, I considered it a deal-breaker. Just thinking about the subject brought all the old anger back.
I glared at the back of Brianâ€™s fleece-lined jacket.
â€śYour religion is based on total absurdities.â€ť The whole subject made me rabid.
Brian was quiet for several minutes while we both concentrated on Chuchi. Heâ€™d decided to throw another fit, again protesting the injustice of being a packhorse.
After we got Chuchi settled down and lined out on the trail, Brian scooted around in his saddle and grinned. â€śWhy do you say that?â€ť
â€śIt just is.â€ť
â€śWhat youâ€™re doing isnâ€™t really working that well either. You think nobody sees the guilt and pain youâ€™re going through? How would you rate your life right now?â€ť
I didnâ€™t care to answer that one. Chuchi laid his ears back and started another protest, which gave me enough reason to ignore Brianâ€™s questions. I rode closer and popped my chap-covered leg with my coiled rope. Chuchiâ€™s ears stayed flat against his neck, but he jumped ahead next to Brianâ€™s gelding.
Brian grinned at the now docile Chuchi. He reached over and rubbed his neck, and I hoped heâ€™d forgotten the whole morbid religion subject. He hadnâ€™t. â€śAll that stuff; Christianity and creation, evolution, the Big Bang theory and anything else that you believe or donâ€™t believe, just put it all in an oversized pair of saddlebags and ask God to sort it out. And you know something? He will.â€ť
I grimaced and shook my head. Brian was a great friend, but sometimes his fundamentalist, zealot theology got to me. I stared up at the cotton clouds and silently swore I was going to find a new traveling partner, but I knew I wouldnâ€™t.
We turned north off the Indian Trail and rode on down the deep-rutted wagon road. I halfheartedly sifted through Brianâ€™s words. Sometimes, what he said made sense, but mostly his religion speech gave me a big headache. I didnâ€™t want to deal with any of itâ€”ever.
The fresh wood smell of the wind-stirred pine mingled with the tart odor of wild cranberries as we descended into the swaying poplar and cottonwood along the river. Today, I wanted to forget the tension, the failure to winâ€”at anything, and just savor the feel of this cat-footed little bay gelding under me.
The trail leveled and opened to the shallow, tinkling waters of the Messue Crossing. We rode into the river and stopped in the middle of the stirrup-high stream to let our horses sip a few mouthfuls of glacier-cold water. When theyâ€™d finished, we splashed across the pebbled bottom to the gentle rise of the riverbank on the north side. The hillside, rich with native grass, opened up in front of us. For me, the Messue was a holy placeâ€”if there is such a thing, and we rode quiet, the telltale western breeze delivering the first biting chill of the coming winter. That early September morning, the gurgle of the water over the rocks, and the slight creak of saddle leather were the only sounds to break the silence, and even Chuchi showed some reverence.