Riding the Range

Worked Over, by Charles Marion Russell, 1925.

Tales of Little Morongo

Chapter 3: Riding the Range

One day I was in my Air Force blues. A few days later I was in blue Wranglers, riding the range as a cowboy.

I got 30 days of paid leave per year, which was the thing I loved best about the military. I always hated working. And now my vacation time had arrived, so I gleefully hopped a plane for California, for some R&R.

This would be my third vacation spent with River, my favorite sister, since I’d joined the military. River and I had been close since childhood. Everyone knew this, including River’s friends. They knew that the way to be on her good side, was to be on my good side, also.

One friend who was very keen on this was a cowboy whom I call Huckleberry Hound. My sister had just been divorced from her husband, whom I call Deputy Dawg, after he left her for another woman. That made her available, and Huckleberry really liked River.

But a man whom I’ll call Snidely Whiplash, beat Huckleberry to her. By the way, I’m using these cartoon aliases because some of these characters may still be alive, and I’m trying to protect myself from lawyers. I just hope the cartoonists don’t sue me.

Snidely owned five acres near Little Morongo Canyon, and half of it was flat enough to start a good-sized horse ranch. So before you could say, “Giddyup!” River and Snidely were running their own equine center, for trail horses.

I kind of liked Snidely, but hadn’t made my mind up entirely, about him. There were things that seemed off. Like how he’d tease my sister mercilessly. Or how he’d lecture and belittle his 10-year-old son. Or his apparent lazy streak. Hell, he was lazier than me, and that’s pretty damned lazy.

But sometimes when heavy work around the ranch needed to be done, he’d get off his lazy ass and do it. After a few months of procrastinating. It left him in a foul mood, but at least he’d get the job done. Or, mostly done. Or maybe halfway done.

My first day on the ranch, and my sister says to me, “Huckleberry Hound called me the other day and needs some help with his cattle, or something. He wants to know if you’d like to spend a day riding with him in Little Morongo Canyon. Should be a lot of fun. Wanna do it?”

Hmm. I’d fantasized about being a cowboy when I was a little kid, but never thought it was actually possible. I felt intrigued. “Sure, what the hell.”

Next morning I was up before first light. River had already loaded one of her finest, trail-broke horses in the trailer, and we rumbled off in the darkness to Pierson Ranch. That’s where Huckleberry awaited us.

He didn’t own Pierson Ranch, he was just friends with the owners. And it’s a good thing, too. He held a lease on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, in upper Little Morongo Canyon, where he ran cattle. And the only easy way in there was through a gate on the Pierson Ranch.

This ranch commands a prime, strategic spot in Morongo Valley. Little Morongo Canyon bottlenecks at this point, with steep walls on each side. If you didn’t want to bust your ass and risk your neck going up and around, you’d need permission from the Pierson’s to pass through their gate.

I know, because I’ve busted my ass, and nearly broken my neck several times, gaining entry into the prized upper Little Morongo. And so have a few others. Mainly marijuana growers. This upper canyon is pincushioned with a variety of seeps and streams, that pop out of the ground in odd places. Its remoteness, difficult access, and abundant water, made it prime country for illegal grows.

“I gotta run off the marijuana growers and repair my water troughs they keep messing with, for my cattle,” Huckleberry cast his head at me, as Pierson’s gate disappeared behind us. “That’s why you’re here. I need help scarin’ ‘em off. Strength in numbers. Don’t worry, I’m packin’.” He patted a holster on his hip, and flashed his usual bucktoothed grin.

I worried. I hadn’t counted on gunplay. But then I thought, isn’t this what cowboys do? Cowboys and guns go together like brands on cattle. Nonetheless my mouth went dry, and I felt a little shaky inside.

All day, we busted through thick stands of chaparral while inspecting fence lines, springs, and water troughs, and checking up on the general health of the herd. And during all this bushwhacking, hard riding, and cattle checking, Huckleberry kept up a constant monologue. A jeremiad about how poor River was being mistreated by Snidely.

Soon it dawned on me that this wasn’t about marijuana growers at all. Huckleberry appeared to have a crush on River, and was trying to recruit my assistance. He knew how close I was to my sister, and how seriously she’d consider anything I might say to her. So it seemed he was trying to butter me up and put a bug in my ear.

I think he resented the fact that Snidely Whiplash had gotten the jump on him, when romancing her. Indeed, it had only been a few weeks after the big split-up with Deputy Dawg, that Snidely starting sniffing around my sister. He’d caught her on the rebound and recognized a potential gold mine. River knew horses, and knew them damned well. And Snidely had enough land to start a ranch. River could make some good money for him.

Now to complicate matters, Huckleberry was currently living with a lady whom I’ll call Nell Fenwick. And Nell was Snidely Whiplash’s ex-wife. So if Huckleberry somehow managed to win River from his rival, he’d have to break up with his rival’s ex.

But I got the sense he was fully prepared to do this. Apparently, theirs was a fairly new relationship, with no deep love yet cultivated between them.

Mr. Hound expressed contempt for Mr. Whiplash. And in spite of all of Huckleberry’s faults, of which there were many, he was ultimately a fair man. So I figured he wouldn’t be carrying on so much about Snidely if he didn’t believe the awful things he was saying were true. And no doubt, much of his information had come from a reliable source. Nell.

Huckleberry had a mission for me. He laid it all out as he repaired some errant, black hoses that fed a water trough from a nearby spring. I was to convince River that Snidely was a no-good-for-nothin’ varmint, who would ruin her life. That way, she’d leave the bastard and be available for a much better man to romance.

And if that happened, I got the sense that Huckleberry planned to make his move fast. He’d break up with Nell, and invite River to move in with him.

I reflected on this, and realized that these two would be a perfect match. Both Huckleberry and River loved the outdoors. They both rode horses, and rode them well, and were no strangers to the strenuous physical labor required in ranching. They both had a great sense of humor. And they both seemed to have good chemistry when they were together.

So I promised I’d give it a try. He acted pleased to hear this. It seemed his mission for the day had been accomplished.

The sun was stampeding toward the horizon when my one and only day of living the life of a cowboy drew to an end. We loaded our horses, coats and manes befouled with dried sweat and lather, into Huckleberry’s trailer, and headed to my sister’s ranch. There, I and my sister’s horse were dropped off. Then Huckleberry drove off into the sunset to his own ranch, to spend another evening with the woman he apparently wasn’t much in love with.

The next day I blurted it all out to River. I told her Huckleberry had a crush on her, and relayed his suspicions that Snidely was going to treat her badly, if she stuck with him. She knew it was true. In fact, she didn’t admit it to me at the time, but Whiplash had already been showing his darker side.

“I hear what you’re saying, and thank you Tippy,” River finally replied. “But Huckleberry’s not my type. It just wouldn’t work out. I’ll be okay with Snidely. I can handle him. Don’t worry.”

She wouldn’t be okay. A year later they married, and eleven years after that they divorced, after she had to run for her life to escape from him. And he got the lion’s share of the divorce settlement. Almost all her hard work over those years went into his pocket.

Life presents us with many forks in the trails we ride. Sometimes it matters little, which fork we choose. Other times it matters the world. My sister was, and still is, a renowned expert at trail riding. But on the trail of romance, she’s always had a hard time determining the best fork.

Maybe she was born wearing blinders.

This is the latest installation of my six-part series, Tales of Little Morongo. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 4: Dead Battery Hike, Part 1 . Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

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