Today the bulls get a surprise. They are going to the prairie to be reunited with the cow herd. At this moment, they are lounging in the shade of the willow trees out by the corral, their bellies full of lush green valley pasture grass. It is a pretty good day already, but it’s going to get better and they don’t even know it.
Mike could get a surprise today too. I made a super delicious sour cream fudge cake late last night and now I’m picturing a picnic to surround that cake, on the breaks of the canyon, overlooking the deep-cut tributaries of the lower Imnaha River. It could be a Sam Loftus memorial kind of day.
Sam was our first cow boss when we came into Hells Canyon nearly thirty years ago. I remember the first time I met him. We had recently moved into the cow camp at Tully Creek, a long ways from anybody and five miles up a dirt driveway that was ten miles down a cliff-hanging dirt road. The cabin was well worn, with a rich history of pioneering souls and packrat invasions, an unreliable spring, and an equally unreliable toilet that somebody had installed on the front porch.
It was early in the morning on a wet April day and I was trying to get a garden plot started below the cabin. I had two kids under the age of two and Mike had already left for the day’s work, so I snuck out while the kids were sleeping. The view out across the wide canyon benches at Tully Creek was stark and soothing. It’s one of those rare open places in what is otherwise an up and down landscape.
As I squatted in the damp dirt among my scraggly beds of seedlings, I suddenly heard the thump of hooves and the hard breath of a horse climbing the draw. I turned and stood as an older cowboy galloped up on a huge dapple grey gelding that he slid to a stop practically on top of me. “Where’s your man?” he barked, towering over me while his horse blew, spraying me with slobber. “What are you doing out here? You’ll never get a garden to grow. Too hot and not enough water.”
His orneriness could have been intimidating, except for his impish grin and his eyes that twinkled out from under the brim of his hat. I knew there was a sense of humor under his loud, bossy demeanor and I knew I had to be just as tough as he was if we were going to get along.
Sam’s been gone a couple years now and the memories of all the seasons and places we worked together fill most of my life so far. The big ancient log summer house at the Steen Place, the tiny winter cabin at the Litch Place, Indian Village, School Flat, Vance Knoll, Square Mountain. And even when we weren’t working for Sam, we still relied on his knowledge of where to trail from one range to another, where to water, how to deal with a sick animal.
One of the last pictures I have of Sam is at Buckhorn. He’s sitting in a wheel chair at the edge of the fire look-out. The breaks of the canyon fall away right behind him, where he looks down at the trail from summer to winter range. And over his shoulder are the dusky clefts of the drainages, Horse Creek, Lighting, Cow, Corral, Thorn, Tulley. And on the horizon, the high red hogback ridges, Haas, Grizzly, Windy, Summit.
So that’s what I’m thinking. A picnic at Buckhorn after we drop off the bulls. A few good stories, some of that awesome chocolate cake, and a look into the canyon that has shaped our work, our lives and our friendships all these years.