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Roller takes a swim


Merv snaked the bay colt down the rocky, brush-choked trail through what is called Bare Pass on USGS topo maps. Everybody around here calls it Bare-Ass Pass, because that’s how it makes you feel. The grizzled Irish cowboy worked the colt down the headwall ridge, through the pine, mountain mahogany and aspens to the quiet lake. He stepped off in a grassy place under a black pine and carefully slipped the hobbles around the colt’s hocks, then stretched and walked a few steps to the shore.

The high lake was left by glaciers. Lightning-blackened trees rimmed the cirque’s headwall ridge, falling away to

Tim Findley photo
Photo by Linda Dufurrena

slopes thickly masked by pine and aspen, to granite boulders sunk in fine sand at the lake’s edge. A skiff of long pine needles covers the narrow beach. The lake was dark green at midday. Light brocaded the sandy bottom. Swifts skimmed the wavelets, hunting the afternoon hatch. The wind freshened. The cowboy lifted the terrible old used-to-be-white hat off his forehead.

A couple of fishermen eyed him curiously, a figure out of a western novel riding into the twentieth century. One of them came over.

“How’s the fishin’?” Merv inquired politely, fishing his own can of Copenhagen out of a blue shirt pocket. They discussed the merits of angling in the middle of the day, dubious at best up here, and shot the breeze for a while. The fisherman said he’d better work his way around the back side. The colt was

half asleep in the warm sun. As the fisherman passed, he smacked the colt on the rump. “Nice horse,” he commented.

The horse came to with a snort. Merv’s eyes widened as the colt, still hobbled, took first one, then two sideways jumps toward the lake. He moved as carefully as he could toward the colt’s head, but the horse was panicked, and too quick. Next thing he knew, Roller had bucked himself, saddle, bridle and all, into the cold green water.

The glaciers have carved a steep profile into the basin, and the water was deep close to shore, the lake’s margins boulder-strewn and irregular. The hobbles on the colt kept his front hocks close together: handcuffed. It would be easy enough for him to tip over and drown. The terrified horse lunged, struggling for his life. Waves surged from his shoulders as he heaved against the weight of the soaked saddle and blankets, the split reins tangling around his feet. Merv could only stand helplessly on the shore, watching.

The colt’s eyes showed white. He snorted and coughed, kicked and kicked at the hobbles that kept his feet chained together. Finally, somehow, he broke free. Power doubled, he clawed his way up through the big, smooth round boulders. One final desperate heave and the colt stood, dripping and quivering on the grassy patch by the lake’s edge. Merv reached out slowly, took the reins, eased off the cinch and slid the sopping saddle to the ground.

He didn’t say anything for a minute or two. “Goddam, Roller,” he said finally. “Let’s just take a little siesta while these blankets dry, and then ease on home.”

He looked at the trail leading up the headwall ridge and sighed. Roller shook his massive shoulders like a dog and sighed too. He dropped his head to the grass and started to eat. He was hungry.

Merv shook his head when he told the story. “That old Roller. I thought I was gonna lose him, by God. Colt’s got some heart to him, doesn’t he?”

Ranches raised cattle all around the Pine Forest Range until the 1980s. The place where this day passed in 1984 is now a Wilderness Study Area, and there are no cattle any more. Fishermen from all over flock here in the summer and fall. There will be no more opportunities for cowboys riding colts to meet fly fishermen at Blue Lake. It was a passing moment, two cultures just touching, before one passed into history. n

“50 Miles from Home,” written by Carolyn Dufurrena and photographed by Linda Dufurrena, is published by the University of Nevada Press.

Winter 2002 Contents | Git Home!

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