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Howard Frank Mosher
From North Country
(Houghton Mifflin, 1997)

A North Country Love Story

Like so many of the modern-day frontiersmen I'd met on my trip, he was the last of a breed: a working cowboy, a drifter who rode a fifty-by-twenty mile swath of high-altitude range in the upper Cascades from mid-June to mid-September, living alone in a log cabin with three cow dogs, two painted horses, and an unamiable pair of red pack mules for company. During the winter, after driving the cows back down to the home ranch sixty miles away, he worked as a trail guide on dude ranches in New Mexico, wrangled stock for movie studios making westerns, worked in the woods whatever he could scout up to do.

His first name was Cash, and though he must have had a last name, he never told me what it was and I never asked. There was a kind of professional anonymity about him that I recognized immediately and respected. When he put on his cowboy hat and vest and riding boots and chaps, he was a cowboy named Cash. The first name was enough.

His cabin was at the very end of a bad mountain road west of Osoyoos, British Columbia, on the Washington side of the border, that I just barely managed to get up without four-wheel drive. From his corral you could look north toward the border and see ten snowy peaks and three hanging glaciers. An icy trout stream lazied down through the meadow past his place, but I hadn't come here primarily to fish. The home rancher, who owned the cattle and leased the range from the National Forest Service, had told me that Cash was going up into the high peaks by the border on a two-day trip to bring the last of the herd down from their summer range and that if I asked him, he'd probably let me tag along.

I arrived just after sunrise, the day after visiting Frank Western Smith, and found Cash saddling his horse and mules. He planned to stay overnight in an outpost camp for elk hunters, and the mules would be toting in camp supplies for the hunters to use later that fall. I told him who I was and that I'd love to come alone, then waited for an answer that he seemed in no hurry to give.

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See other excerpts from North Country:
  • "Flying the Border With Ti René"
  • "Notes From the Upper Peninsul"
  • Quietly speaking the mules' names, Cash continued to load them with camping gear, nonperishable food, sleeping bags, a Coleman stove. "This one's kind of snuffy," he said. "Once he's packed, he's okay. But if he takes it in his head to pitch a fit and roll over on the packs while you're loading, you can't stop him for love or money."

    He talked on as he worked, as much to calm his mules, I thought, as to be sociable. He told me that he'd first come up to the High Meadows cow camp ten years ago, when he was just nineteen. He'd driven up to see the cowboy who worked here then, a friend of his from Colorado. While Cash was visiting, his friend abruptly decided to light out for Alaska. The home rancher asked Cash if he could ride. "Some," he replied. That was enough for the rancher, who had told me the night before that Cash was the best hand he'd had at the High Meadows camp in thirty years.

    In a typical season in that thousand square miles of wilderness range, protecting his cows from summer blizzards, lightning storms, grizzly bears, mountain lions, coyotes, golden eagles, rustlers, and their own tendency to wander deep into the trackless forest, Cash lost three or at most four animals. Today, he said, he was going after five hundred cow-calf pairs in meadow fingers up near the glaciers. "Did I ever tell you the story about the dudes I took fishing up there back five, six years ago? " he said, and was off and running, though I hadn't been there ten minutes and we'd never met before in our lives. And I didn't know what his answer to my request to go with him was until he began saddling up his second horse. All he said was, "This is a good one. He's never gotten snuffy on a rider once in his life."

    It was a beautiful fall morning, clear as a bell, with the snowy mountains and the distant glaciers sparkling in the sunshine. Cash went first on his big paint, leading the two red mules behind him on a long rope. Now that we were on the move, they seemed fine. Except for a tendency to lollygag behind and put its head down to graze, then break into a jolting trot to catch up, my horse did fine, too. "He does that a-purpose," Cash said. "He likes to trot. Actually, he's Sylvie's horse. Did I ever tell you how she galloped him after a bull elk and nailed that elk dead with one shot from the saddle?"

    Sylvie? I was curious but said nothing. As my brush-selling mentor, Bernie the Great, had taught me many years ago, the thing to do now was to keep still and listen to what Cash had to say, whenever he was ready to say it.

    In the meantime I listened to the brook rippling down through the long natural meadows, to the easy morning breeze in the tall lodgepole pines and Douglas firs that crowded right up next to both sides of the trail, to the bawling of the red-and-white Hereford cows that Cash had brought down to the lower meadows earlier that month, to the occasional splash of a trout taking a live grasshopper that the horses scared into the brook, to the steady, soothing clop of the animals' hoofs on the packed trail. This was gorgeous country, as spectacular as any I'd seen since starting out on my trip. The grazing meadows were half a mile to a mile long and about a quarter of a mile wide, scattered at irregular intervals through the deep forest. Each time we came out of the woods into another pasture, we could see more snow peaks ahead and more glaciers.

    At noon we stopped, and while I caught half a dozen trout, Cash built a neat, economical fire. He cooked the fish with bacon, and we ate them in bread-and-butter sandwiches and drank three cups of cowboy coffee apiece. Over the third cup of coffee, Butch began talking about Sylvie.

    "I don't know if she's coming back or not, but I sure hope so," he said. "At least to pick up her horse, and so's I can see the little girl again."

    He paused.

    "Sylvie lived up here with me for four years," he continued after a minute. "She and her girl. Come south with me winters, too. She'd run away from a bad husband, you know, a mean old man old enough to be her father. He had money but he didn't treat her or the little girl good a-tall."

    Cash shook his head. "That Sylvie. She could ride, rope, fish, track an elk through snow and shoot it and butcher it and fry you up the best elk steak in the world. She could fight, too, when I got snuffy. She'd had to, to keep the old man from hurting her and the girl. Once I come home from elk camp so drunk I couldn't hardly sit my horse, and Sylvie near to kilt me, she fought me so hard. Said if I ever did such a thing as that again she'd leave me. Right there was the end of my drinking days. But I reckon she got tired of being alone up here, nobody for the girl to play with, and drifting around from pillar to post in the wintertime. 'Cause when the old man showed up with his big old Cadillac car and his big pocketbook and a lot of big talk about how he was reformed and going to take good care of her and the gal, she went back with him. She let that old son of a bitch waltz her back east with nary a goodbye to me a-tall. I believe she might come back yet, though. I hope so anyway."

    "I hope so, too," I said, and we headed out again.

    Later, high in the mountains near the border, Cash and I unloaded the mules and hitched them to two trees. Then we went up into the meadow fingers and I watched him and his three mongrel dogs round up the last of the cows, yelling and barking and galloping hard to head off wayward calves, exactly as cowboys have done from here to Mexico for the past hundred and fifty years and more. "Hup, hip, ho!" Cash yelled. "Hup, hip, ho!" By late afternoon he'd gathered all five hundred pairs of bellowing, bawling red-and-white beef cattle and had driven them down past the elk camp into a gated meadow, where we'd pick them up on our way out in the morning.

    Then a near disaster. Just before we quit for the day, in a thickly forested area, my saddle worked loose. Before I knew what had happened, I'd slipped underneath the horse. As I slid, I had the sensation of hitting black ice in my car, having no control at all. There wasn't a thing I could do. Worse yet, my left foot got caught in the stirrup, and when I jerked it free, the horse reared up and the big blue sky above the Cascades was suddenly full of bucking horse. He came down on my right leg with both front feet, and I was sure it was broken in at least ten places. I crawfished out from under the rearing horse and willed myself to jump up and take a step, then another. Nothing broken after all, but I was so lightheaded from the pain and shock, I had to kneel again. My head was swimming and I was sure I was going to be sick.

    "You okay?" Cash said as he calmed down the horse and tightened the saddle.

    "I guess so."

    "Good. You want to climb back on, then, and ride over by that big red boulder so's the cows don't head up that side finger? I'll get the gate."

    That night at the outpost camp, while I nursed my bruised leg now fast turning black and blue from ankle to groin with aspirin and a coffee mug full of the whiskey we'd brought in for the elk hunters, Cash told me the story of Sylvie again. He felt terrible, and listening to him, so did I. He was as broken-hearted as poor Dill, the lovelorn young cowpuncher in Lonesome Dove. He spoke of finding something steady to do in the winter, maybe even giving up cowboying altogether. Somehow he'd find a way to take better care of Sylvie and her little girl.

    From up in the fingers, near the glaciers, we heard two bull elks bugling to each other, a high, clear, piercing sound like no other I'd ever heard. And though my leg throbbed some despite the aspirin and booze, I was relieved that it wasn't broken, and oddly pleased that at fifty I could still have what amounted to a close call and survive it with relatively little to-do. But that wouldn't solve Cash's problem.

    After a while the fire got low. From down the trail past the gate, a mile and more away, the half-wild range cattle had stopped lowing. It was getting late. Still, Cash talked on and on about Sylvie, hoping against hope that she'd show up before he drove the cattle back to the home ranch later that month and shut down the High Meadow cow camp for another winter.

    I started to doze off. Just before I fell asleep, though, a question occurred to me, the only one I asked Cash about Sylvie: how long had she been gone?

    There was a long pause. Then Cash said in a voice that was just audible, "Three years this month."

    After that neither of us spoke again until morning.

    Copyright © 1997 by Howard Frank Mosher. All rights reserved.
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