Bum Count

Searching for lost sheep in the wilderness of Hells Canyon

Hells Canyon Hunting & Fishing by Nan Palmero / CC-BY-NC 2.0

"Once in everyone's life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half-asleep." —E.B. White

For two days we gathered sheep, and for two nights we salted the same bed ground. Using the natural topography of bluffs and rims, we set slatted fence panels in a wide V, and while Virgil stood to one side, making his mental tallies, we gently funneled the band down the draw and nudged them through the notch. The last time John's band had been counted was September at the tagging corrals when the lambs were separated and sent to market.
     Out here a shepherd's reputation depended on how well he or she carried out any number of tasks. For example, Charlie was known to be a hell of a herder, and Mac couldn't pack, but he could be trusted to take the roughest winter range on the Johnson allotment every winter and show up at shearing time with his ewes healthy and accounted for. And Virgil was not only a dependable packer and horse-shoer but also could be trusted in a pickle to perform whatever services Greg wanted or needed, from baking a cake to sewing up a cut hand or a rip in the tent to getting an accurate count. And John? Well, John, according to Greg, could be the best and worst at almost everything.
     "God, there were times if it had been legal to shoot a man, I would have shot John," Greg told us. He grinned tersely, recalling a still-galling memory. "One time, John was sent to Pleasant Valley to rendezvous with someone, Little Charley maybe, to bring the bucks in. This is something John had done before; it only took one man to do it. But when he got there, and before he made the handoff, he saw the mail boat coming. He unbridled and saddled Suzie and got on. Just like that. Rode it downriver to Lewiston." He paused, shaking his head. "The first inkling we had was when Suzie turned up at the Temperance Creek gate without him. We figured he was lying out there somewhere, hurt." Greg had organized a search party, sent a couple of men horseback into the hills, while he took his jet boat around to Pleasant Valley. "We found John's saddle and bridle under a tree by the river and the sheep scattered in and about the rims for miles. It took us two lousy weeks to gather those bucks."
     A couple of weeks later," Greg said, "John called me from Lewiston, Idaho, drunk and broke, wanting his job back. I went down with my boat and picked him up. Never said a word the whole way up the river; if I'd gotten started I wouldn't have been able to stop."

I don't know what Skip and I expected, but we were flabbergasted when Virgil told us we were two hundred ewes short.
     "How could that be?" Skip questioned Virgil. "We've been in and out of the draws all week gathering. I mean, there's no way we could miss a bunch that size." Virgil took a black plastic comb from his back pocket and ran it straight back through his hair with short, jerky movements.
     "Look," Skip added, glancing at the scowl on Virgil's face and holding both hands up, palms out. "I'm not questioning your count, but are you sure?"
     "Well, I got a good count, and you're two hundred short," Virgil snapped, turning stiffly to walk toward his horse, his felt cowboy hat cocked at a non-negotiable angle.
     "Damn," Skip replied.
     We got out our dog-eared topographical map and traced possible side draws that might have escaped our notice. Maybe the sheep had gone high, under the rims, or were even now over the top of Summit Ridge trailing down the Imnaha side of the drainage. After Virgil's shocking announcement, we split up to save time and divided between us the draws we might have overlooked. Virgil was leaving to supply up Mac's camp in Battle Creek and would return in about a week to take another count.
     You couldn't dignify the country we covered that week as having a trail system. The paths we followed hardly qualified as sheep tracks. Too steep for horses. We set out each morning afoot after stomach-swelling bacon, sourdough cake, and syrup breakfasts. With plenty of fresh, cold water in the side creeks that time of year, I slung only a small hand-sewn cloth sack around my neck containing a sourdough biscuit, ham and cheese, and not much more. Some matches maybe. The dogs followed Skip. I travelled alone. If I found sheep, I was to hightail it back to camp and wait for Skip before attempting to move them.
     Each day we set out this way. We covered Big Creek, Log Creek, and Two Buck. Each evening we returned before the last light left the sky, empty-handed. Nothing. No tracks, no bits of wool snagged in the brush, no bleating, and not so much as a fresh turd. I was, and still am, a poor navigator in the backcountry, and if it wasn't for the Snake River running due north and south, I might have perished. But I knew if I got turned around, I could head for the river, intersect the Saddle Creek trail, and find my way back to camp. We took nightly baths standing naked in the washbasin to scrub the salt-crusted sweat from our bodies and fell into bed weary and grateful for the night.
     After about the fourth day out, I was feeling discouraged. My knees began protesting the steep pulls up and down the canyon walls. They ached during the night and were sore and tender the next morning. Warming myself before the woodstove that evening, I said, "What do you think? Have they gone over the top? Mixed with Mac's band before he left? Maybe Virgil got a bad count."
     Skip glanced up from the camp box where he sat greasing his boots. "I don't know, we still have a couple more draws I'd like to search before we give up. If Virgil comes back and we still haven't found them, we'll ask for a recount."
"The fog was so thick today," I said, studying his boots, half wore-out, the leather uppers separating from the soles, thinking how Skip was hard on boots, hard on clothes in general. "Maybe we should just wait for Virgil. My knees are about to give out."
     "Hell, let's give it a couple more days. We'll find them. You're just getting in shape."
     I didn't know whether to be encouraged by his unwavering faith in me or annoyed by his lack of empathy. It would have helped if he'd displayed more interest when I pointed to my aching kneecaps, genetically engineered for something less demanding. Dancing perhaps. But I found myself unwilling to press any womanly advantage and perhaps forfeit my precious equality.
     "Get out the cards, Pam, and I'll whip you at Rummy."
Cards were one of our chief amusements during the long winter evenings. Skip favored Rummy and checkers, neither of which did I understand the strategies for. Stupid, pointless games. I pretended indifference to his legions of runs, fanned out before him on the camp bed, and how he swooped, vulturelike, to snatch the discard pile, sort, lay down, and count his points while I still held the seven cards I started with. Frankly, it was unendurable. There is nothing more odious than living in a small tent with a man who never loses. Trust me on this.
     And I am not proud to admit that, on occasion, I resorted to accidentally bumping the checker board before a crucial move, and that once or twice I got caught peeking at his hand during mid-game time-outs when he'd vanish to listen for the horse bell, to roll a smoke, to gaze at the moon. I could beat him at Pitch and Hearts, which we rotated through to avoid hurting one another. We generally played for who had to do dishes, who started the morning fire, who saddled the horses . . . Who got to tell Greg we had lost two hundred of his pregnant sheep.

It had snowed during the night and was cold enough the next morning to stick. I'd considered throwing my riding saddle on one of the mules to rest my knees, but one look at the snow-covered ground outside the tent flaps decided me. "Too slick to ride," I said, pulling on the same woolen underwear I had worn and sweated in every day the past week.
     "You could take Candy, I sharp-shod her, but you'd have trouble with the snow balling up under the shoes," Skip said, lacing on his boots, still damp from the previous day.
      Another one of Virgil's specialties was sharp-shoeing, or forging corks or iron knobs at three points on the bottom of a horseshoe, giving a horse a way to keep his or her footings on any icy trail, much like an athlete wearing cleats. We sharp-shod most any horse or mule we rode in the winter.
     "Yeah, but Candy scares me on dry ground, and if I'm going to worry about her lumbering around all day with one foot on the trail and one off, I'd just as soon walk." I knew it would be a long walk today. We'd covered all the places near our camp first, ranging further and further afield.
     "Make sure you turn around in time to get back before dark," Skip advised that morning before we separated. "And don't get rimmed up."
     One of life's small luxuries left behind with my flashlight, pillow, and bedroom slippers was my watch. "We will use the sun," Skip explained patiently when I enquired of the necessity of leaving it. This had worked fine during the summer months, but now it was a little harder to judge two from three, which meant the difference between turning around "in time" or leaving too late and stumbling along home in the half-light.
     Our parting endearment, "See you in the fall if I see you at all," just didn't seem amusing that morning. It lacked a lover's concern--it was just something Little Charley had said when Skip and I left the ranch that spring. Why did we say it, and why were we still saying it? I began the steep pull up the draw, thinking about the work before me. Walking these canyons all day with only sparrows and chickadees for company. But I couldn't think of what else I'd rather be doing, so I walked in harmony, singing a little, watching the ground, looking up occasionally for the sheep I'd began to expect I wouldn't see.

The slanted light, diffused by high cloud cover, splayed across the canyon walls, golden. I was craving the ham and sourdough biscuit in my shoulder bag, thinking how good it was going to feel to sit down, and trying to remember the lyrics of a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song while preoccupied by the itch I couldn't reach and the hassle/necessity of peeling off enough outerwear to pee.
     Choosing a large rock, on a southern-facing exposure, I sat down and ate my lunch. By crude estimation of the sun's position, I knew I should be heading back. I tidied up, emptied my bladder, and tightened my belt. My leather boots had absorbed a lot of moisture, and a chill was working its way up through my sweaty woolen under-layers. I was getting stiff. It was time to move.
     Conditioned to be perpetually scanning the rims and the ground in summer, when I watched for arrowheads and rattlesnakes, today I watched for animal tracks, and at all times, for sheep. Now I retraced my footprints, intent upon keeping my footing in the rocks, occasionally glancing at the rims.
I stopped suddenly when I saw tracks over the top of mine.
     Big tracks. Four toes and a pad.
     "Oh, how cool," I breathed, the hair on my forearms standing on end. "Cougar tracks." Lifting my head, I searched the hillside. No doubt it was nearby, had probably watched me eat my lunch while I was enjoying the view. I felt a pinprick of fear.
     You are alone. You are weaponless. You should probably be a little more concerned.
     I straightened, shaking off my unease. Curious to know how long it had tracked me, I wondered at what point our paths had intersected. Tempted as I was to follow the tracks, in an uncharacteristic show of common sense, I turned instead toward home, reminding myself it was getting late, the light going grey. As I walked, I speculated about her reaction--should we see each other--then I remembered the bobcat on the Minam. She hadn't been afraid. Adjusting my bag, I turned from the bench trail to scramble down a lonely, rocky draw grown tangled with sumac, poison ivy, and ninebark. I had a hard time seeing myself as prey. Animal attacks didn't happen to people who liked animals, did they? I suppressed the urge to hurry.
     Running was probably just what the mountain lion was hoping for.
     I switchbacked down through the grey sage and bunchgrass ravines, carelessly imitating the movements of large prey--lurching jumps, arm-swinging strides, stooping, then springing. Vaguely aware I should be holding a tall stick, standing erect, moving slowly, and making loud noises, I began to sing. Loudly, I ripped a mullein stalk out of the ground and held it high. Because chances were, I was still being stalked.
     There'd been so much grace in my life. Grace for driving drunk, getting in cars with drunk drivers, thumbing rides, experimenting with drugs, hooky-bobbing on the fenders of strange cars at stop signs on icy streets, never wearing helmets or seatbelts. Grace and optimism that there would always be another chance, another ride, another day.
     "Lordy, Pam," Skip said that evening after I told him the story. "That was no time to fool around. You need to be alert. By the time you hear them, it's too late. You need a dog. Take Puss tomorrow, put her on a lead until you get away from camp, and she'll stay with you. You know what the old-timers say?"
     His show of concern filled me with such tenderness I'd forgotten to listen.
     "What did you say about the old-timers?"
     "I said, the old-timers say either carry a pistol or hike with someone slower than you."
     "Then maybe you should come with me tomorrow."
     "Hah!" Skip chortled. "I could outrun you with my ankles tied together. It'll mean we won't cover as much ground, take twice as long to find them, you know."
     "I don't think we're going to find them anyway," I said morosely, trying to imagine the consequences of losing two hundred sheep.

When Virgil arrived a day or two later, we ran the sheep back between the bluff and drift fence, somehow coming out with the right number this time and confirming our worst suspicions.
"You've got to be kidding me," I said to Skip. "All those grueling miles over a miscount?"
     Virgil diplomatically left immediately after the count, taking most of the mules, with the exception of Hinny, plus Candy, Bonnie, and Peg (to be turned loose on Homestead for a well-deserved break), and leaving us Morris's old horse, Lucky. I held onto Pearl, neighing inconsolably as her friends disappeared down the draw and out of sight.

"Bum Count," by Pamela Royes, copyright © 2016 by Pamela Royes, from Temperance Creek. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.


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