On the Edge of the Mesa

On the Edge of the Mesa

JOE, the Navajo, sitting in the glow of the campfire, turned around and dug the pint of whiskey out of his saddle bags. He twisted off the cap and looked across the smoke and sparks of the fire at Dan. Dan looked up. Joe reached the bottle across to Dan, who took the bottle and tipped it into his coffee.

“Thanks,” he said. He held the bottle at the edge of the fire, looking back across at Joe.

“Pass it around,” Joe said.

Dan handed it to Lex, who drank straight from the bottle before passing it to Reno. Dan looked around the campfire at the five cowboys: Joe, Reno, Lex, Walt and Luther. They were good men, he thought. Tomorrow they would be put to the test.

He set his cup on a rock, stood, wiped the seat of his jeans, and walked to where the horses were picketed along the river. They stirred. He wondered if they had an inkling of tomorrow. It seemed to him that running the wild horses always aroused their keener instincts. Dan looked across the dark valley, straining to make out the black outline of the steep mesa. He had spent two weeks up there, watching the Taylor Mesa herd. Now it was time to go after them. He hated to, but it was necessary.

Dan had worked as the land and livestock manager for the Ute Tribe for over six years. He had had to prove himself time and time again. But they seemed to like him. When he first came to work for them, he showed patience. He realized that they looked at the world differently than he did. He was a guest here, so he moved slowly, watching and learning from them. He had more to learn from them than they had to learn from him. Now, however, it was time for him to teach them something.

He breathed in the sweet smell of the horses, and even though this smell seemed good and natural to him, even though to him this sweetness belonged here, his senses were overpowered by the sourness in the hard clay and the rank desert grass here along the river’s edge. He looked back toward the campfire. The cowboys laughed. The whiskey had warmed their bellies. He pulled up the collar of his coat and looked up at the billions of stars in the black night. This was hard, bitter country, he thought.

He walked back to the campfire and sat down. Joe passed the bottle across to him. He took a sip. He needed no more. They had already talked about what needed to happen tomorrow, nothing more needed to be said. Walt had taken the black pot down to the river to scrub out the remains of the stew. Dan poured out more coffee. When he set the pot back on the fire, sparks flared up. Dan watched them disappear in the dark night. They had become part of the billions of stars up there.


Long before sunup, the cowboys had already had their coffee, and had saddled and loaded their horses into the two horse trailers. Each one of them hoped in his own way that by the end of the day they would be loading wild horses into the trailers for the long trip back down off the mesa to Towaoc. Dan had told them that there were sixteen horses up on Taylor Mesa. This meant that they would have to make two trips down off the mesa with the two trailers, the first trip down with the captured horses, and then back up to load their saddle horses. It would be a long day. If everything went according to plan.

The pickup trucks, straining under the weight of the trailers, rattled up the steep road that had been blasted from the sheer rock face of the mesa. Dan drove the lead truck because he knew where to set the trap. The 10-foot steel panels, twenty of them, were tied to the sides of the two trailers. Dan knew that the herd would be out on the wide mesa in the early morning, away from the spring in the narrow gorge where they would set the trap. This was the only source of water on the mesa, and this is where the wild horses would go, once they were roused by the cowboys.

They parked the trucks and trailers as close as they could to the narrow gorge. They hauled the heavy steel panels from there, two cowboys on each panel, down the steep trail to the spring, which seeped from a sheer rock outcrop. In the pitch-black of morning two hours before sunup, they moved cautiously down the trail.

In his head, over and over again, Dan had considered the many ways that they might drive the wild horses off the mesa toward the wide river valley below, where it would be easier to load them, but he always came to the same conclusion: it just couldn’t be done because the herd would break over the edge of the road and scatter in the heavy brush of the steep slope. Setting the trap in the narrow gorge was their only hope of capturing the wild horses.

Straining against the weight of the steel panels, their heavy breath formed clouds of steam in the cold air. Their frequent trips back and forth from the trailers to the spring kicked up the sharp smell of ammonia and manure in the thick dust along the trail. The cowboys tried to work as quietly as possible, but the clanking of the steel panels echoed inside the hollow of the narrow canyon.

Dan whispered directions to the cowboys. He knew exactly how he wanted the trap set. He gave little thought to the fact that the horses, once they had been turned down the trail, would stay on the narrow trail down to the spring, but he had to make sure that they wouldn’t go out the other side of the narrow gorge. He had the cowboys fasten three of the panels together on the other side of the spring to form one of the wings of the trap. With the rest of the panels, they formed a semi-circle, with the end of the corral closest to the spring left open by swinging two panels out to form the other wing, tucked in tight against the thick brush of the narrow outcrop. It was an ideal spot. If everything went according to Dan’s plan, the panels across the trail would turn the horses into the corral right at the spring, before they had the chance to break out the other side of the narrow gorge.

Dan made sure that the trap was big enough to hold all sixteen of the wild horses. If they were to have any chance of turning them into the trap before they scattered and broke out the other side, he and Joe would have to bring them in fast and furious. At the trap, he reminded the cowboys, there would only be the two of them, Joe and him. Maybe Walt, if everything went just right. Reno and Lex, having come down the trail from the opposite side of the gorge, would be on the other side of the panels that formed the wing across the trail. Their presence alone would help turn the horses into the trap. Once the wild horses were corralled, Dan would have to jump clear of his saddle horse to swing the last two panels closed in behind them.

After the panels were set, they moved the trucks and trailers out of sight behind the long line of junipers and pinon pines at the edge of the trail down to the spring. In nervous anticipation in the chill of the early morning on the high mesa, the cowboys unloaded their saddle horses.

“Good luck,” Dan said.

In single file, the cowboys high-trotted out in the long light of early morning, riding west, away from the narrow gorge that held the trap, toward the herd of wild horses that grazed out on the wide expanse of mesa. Joe remained behind, hidden in the scrub of junipers and pinon pines. He would be there when it was necessary to turn the hard-charging wild horses down the steep trail that led to the spring and into the trap. Dan would be hard on their heels.

As they rode west in the dim light towards the expanse of scrub on the wide mesa, each cowboy thought only of what was expected of him, eagerly anticipating the gentle sun that would soon warm his back. This time of year, like an incoming tide, once the sunlight broke over the east rim of the mesa, it rapidly spread warmth across the broad expanse of sand and scrub. Out in front, Dan scanned the horizon, looking for any sign of the herd. The cowboys would keep to the rim of the mesa until they spotted the herd, wanting to stay between the herd and the narrow gorge. Once they spotted the herd, Reno would go out ahead to run the herd farther out on the mesa, farther away from the narrow gorge.

The wild horses would line out behind the lead mare, Dan knew, and they would stay behind her, as long as they weren’t pushed too hard. Reno just needed to keep them lined out and running smoothly away from the trap. In this way, in their adrenaline induced state of euphoria, the herd would stay together. If they ever scattered, all would be lost.

The other cowboys would take up their positions to relay the herd back toward the trap, once the herd had made the wide turn out on the edge of the mesa.

Lex would cut across the mesa to be in position to intercept the herd from Reno and turn the herd back toward the interior of the broad mesa where it would be picked up first by Luther and then by Walt. Dan would pick up the herd last, once Walt’s horse played out, and he would take it the last couple of miles. At the line of junipers and pinon pines at the edge of the narrow gorge, Dan would need Joe to help him turn the wild horses down the trail that led to the spring.

Once Reno passed the herd off to Lex, he would head back to the narrow gorge, riding down the narrow trail from the opposite side of the canyon to be in position at the spring to help turn the horses into the trap. Once Lex passed the wild horses off to Luther, he too would head back to the spring to join Reno. Walt and Luther, because their horses would be exhausted from the chase, would most likely remain behind on the broad mesa. Once their horses had been cooled down, they would make their way back to the trucks and trailers, where the real work of loading the wild horses would begin.

When Dan went over everything in his mind, he questioned if he had enough cowboys. It was a long mesa, and the wild horses could run forever without breaking stride. He knew their saddle horses were stronger and more athletic, and certainly better bred and better fed, than the wild horses that they would be chasing, but this was their provenance, and they knew every harsh ripple of it. But it was too late now, he had to make it work with the cowboys he had. It was important to Dan to show the Utes that he could do this. He just needed to trust his cowboys.

They spotted the herd, and Dan looked over his shoulder at Reno. Reno nodded and started out ahead. Lex pulled up along Dan.

“Wait until they see Reno before you cut across,” Dan said.

“Got it,” Lex said.

Dan told Luther to move farther out on the mesa where he would be in position to pick up the herd from Lex, once Lex turned them. Walt would wait here.

“You’ll need to anticipate the movement of the herd,” he told Walt. “Just make sure you turn them back along the trail here. When they hit the trail, they’ll head back toward the spring. They can’t get off anywhere. Just give them plenty of room. I’ll be up ahead to pick them up.” Walt nodded.

When Dan saw that the herd of wild horses had spotted Reno and were already strung out, heading west, he headed back along the trail to position himself within a couple of miles of the narrow gorge. Once he picked the herd up from Walt, he would run them hard to Joe, staying close on their heels. He wouldn’t give them a chance to break. His horse was fast and strong, and Dan was confident. He knew what he needed to do.

He glanced back over his shoulder. In the orange spread of sunrise, he could see the dark cloud of dust spreading out behind the line of wild horses as they headed toward the hard edge of the mesa. They would soon begin their wide turn back to the south where Lex was waiting for them. He pulled up and stepped out of the saddle. The sunlight was brighter now.

“What do you think?” he asked the big sorrel. His horse stamped the ground when Dan stroked the sticky, course hair along his neck. The smell of horse sweat always reminded him of his childhood, and the hot, sticky summer days along McElmo Creek below the small, broken house where he grew up. Looking back across the wide mesa, he thought of how far he had come. To a different world, really. And to a different understanding.

The dust rose farther out now, close to the rim. The herd, along the south rim of the mesa, would begin its wide turn now, back to the east where Lex waited. And then Lex would take them to Luther, and Luther would take them to Walt, and then back here to him. He would be ready. He climbed back into the saddle and moved a little ways off the trail, far enough off so that the herd wouldn’t be alerted, but close enough so that he would be on them immediately.

He followed the dust cloud along the long southern edge of the mesa. Reno had done exactly what he needed to do, and as his horse began to lag, Lex took the herd, turning them away from the rim of the mesa back toward its wide interior. Running hard, the lead mare’s nostrils flared, and her sleek coat had been darkened by sweat. Lex pulled back on his saddle horse, falling in behind the black stallion running a hundred yards off the back of the herd. When he spotted Lex, the sleek stallion charged ahead to catch up to the herd. A couple of two-year-olds had fallen back, but the menacing stallion, in his desire to keep the herd together, urged them on, biting a chunk of flesh out of the tight haunches of the youngest mare.

Before he’d even gone a mile, with the herd still out in front of him, still running in unison in a long line across the expanse of scrub, Lex’s blue roan pulled up lame.

“Shit,” Lex yelled. He looked frantically over his shoulder. Out on the edge of the mesa, he could just barely make out Reno, who was standing next to the big bay. Lex knew in his heart that Reno had gotten everything he could out of his horse. He couldn’t get any more. Disheartened, he pulled up, watching the wild horses move away from him across the hard interior of the mesa. He was done, there wasn’t any more he could do now, except hope that the herd would continue to move away from him, continue on their journey which would lead them to Luther, who, waiting patiently in the sparse cover of juniper to pick them up from him, would take them to Walt, who, in turn, would take them to the trail that ran along the north rim of the mesa to Dan. As he stepped out of the saddle, he knew with certainty that he wouldn’t be with Reno at the spring to help turn the wild horses into the trap.

Behind a narrow cluster of junipers out on the broad scrub of the mesa, Luther watched the oncoming cloud of dust. His horse stamped its feet and tossed its head excitedly. Everything seemed to be going according to Dan’s plan. With the gentle stroke of his callused hand, he tried to calm his horse. He knew that he would need all of his strength.

On the north edge of the mesa, Dan had moved to a spot along the trail that he’d picked out earlier. It was a good spot, where he wouldn’t be easily spotted by the herd. He felt confident that the wild horses would be sufficiently worn-out that he’d be able to maneuver them down the steep trail and into the steel panel corral. He trusted Joe, the Navajo. Of all the cowboys, Joe had the most experience in the capture of wild horses. Dan knew that he would do what he needed him to do. His only fear was that Luther and Walt, both of them young Utes, wouldn’t be up to the challenge.

When the wild horses came into sight, Luther circled in behind them. His horse was fast and strong and he pulled up alongside the black stallion who, stretching out his neck toward Luther, bared his teeth. Wanting to avoid the stallion’s ferocious bite, Luther moved off the back. He needed only to guide them back toward the rim of the canyon, where he knew Walt was waiting. He glanced over his shoulder, wondering for an instant what had happened to Lex, but he didn’t have time to worry about that now. He needed to stay focused on the line of horses stretched out ahead of him.

Up ahead, in the line of junipers and pinon pines that led down into the narrow gorge, Joe, sitting next to his horse, looked up at the high sky. He had run wild horses before. Sometimes he had been successful. Sometimes not. One never could be sure how things would turn out. He’d seen things before that defied explanation. When running wild horses, he had learned to accept whatever happened. The horses had been here on the mesa for a long, long time, and that is the way it should be, but he also knew the necessity in running them now. Besides, it was what he was being paid to do. Already this morning, as the sun moved higher up in the sky, the heat grew more intense. He stood up and reached into his saddlebags for the pint of whiskey. He took a long drink, wiping away the sweat that had trickled down his face from underneath his headband. The flies whirring about his head were a nuisance, and the pungent smell of urine and manure from the narrow ravine overcame him. The wild horses spent a lot of time there, he thought. In the cool serenity of the spring, they found refuge.

Reno walked his horse along the south rim of the broad mesa, looking out at the broken country to the south. This is hardscrabble country, he thought. Looking back toward the broad expanse of the mesa’s interior, across the scrub, he was able to see that something had happened to Lex’s horse. He asked himself: should he ride out to help Lex? Or should he follow his instructions and ride to the spring? He just couldn’t leave Lex out there alone. In either case, he still had some time to think about it, since his horse needed more time to cool down. He had rode him hard.

Luther stayed just off the back of the herd of wild horses, directing them back toward the north rim. Up ahead, he knew Walt was waiting to take the herd from him and drive them toward the edge of the mesa to where Dan waited, trying to calm his nerves by constantly stepping out of and back into his saddle, looking anxiously out at broad mesa toward the oncoming cloud of dust. Luther was doing what he needed to do. And Dan believed that Walt, likewise, would do what he needed to do. He just hoped that he was prepared to do what he needed to do.

After running the herd for more than a mile, caught up in the frenzy of the pursuit, Luther was reluctant to pull up, but he could feel that his horse, having given him everything it had, was beginning to waver underneath him. Walt moved in alongside Luther, and Luther pulled his horse to a stop. There was nothing more for him to do. With a heavy heart, he watched the heavy cloud of dust move away from him. It was up to Walt now.

Dan could see the cloud of dust rising higher in the sky as the herd got closer. For the last time, he stepped up into the saddle and backed his horse in tight against the pinon tree. For one brief moment he allowed himself to breathe in the deep spirit of the high desert. But only for an instant. Turning away from his reverie, he trained his focus back on the task at hand. The herd would be here soon.

He had run horses only once before, up on Longview Mesa. Nothing went right. Early in the chase, the wild horses scattered and escaped into the heavy underbrush. With this futility, he realized afterwards, the wild horses had gained something other than just their freedom. They had gained knowledge. And the cowboys, well, they had lost something, at least the good ones had. They had lost their bravado. It was a precarious thing, running wild horses. Dan understood that it required an honesty and humility unlike anything else in life.

As the herd came closer, Dan’s anticipation reached a feverish pitch. All Walt needed to do now was keep them coming in this direction, to make sure they didn’t turn back now, back to the southwest and away from the narrow gorge where the trap was set. Once Dan spotted the lead mare, he spurred his horse away from the bite of the pinon pine. Since there was no way off the narrow trail that ran along the rimrock of the high mesa, he made the decision to flank them on the mesa side. This gave him the best chance to keep them from turning back to the southwest.

And all of a sudden they were on him. Caught up in the flurry of suffocating dust, breathless sweat, and pounding hooves, his saddle horse sprang against the smooth snaffle bit, raging to join the hard-charging herd of wild horses. The herd belonged to him now. He felt the power of his horse beneath him as he raced alongside the herd, which had been running for over an hour already. Their nostrils flaring wildly and their tongues hanging out the sides of their mouths, the wild horses, undaunted, ran for their lives.

Dan pulled back on his reins, trying to stay at the rear of the herd. When the time was exactly right, he would give his horse its head to move quickly to the inside to turn the wild horses down the steep trail. Joe would be there, just out of sight in the line of junipers and pinon pines, right where Dan would need him. Timing was key. It all had to happen at the exact moment, that one moment when they would turn, not before, certainly not after. Timing was everything, if Dan had any chance to turn the sixteen hard-charging horses down the steep trail that led down to the spring in the hollow outcrop at the bottom of the narrow gorge, and into the semi-circle of steel panels that had been set in just the right way to accommodate them. This is what the plan called for, and this is what needed to happen.

Once the initial rush was behind him, Dan eased off, showing patience. He felt the easy stride of his horse beneath him. He saw the line of junipers and pinon pines up ahead where Joe waited. It was time to make his move. He quickly spurred his horse to the rim of the mesa, pulling ahead of the stallion. Dan didn’t worry about dumping the stallion. Even if the stallion pulled up, he wouldn’t go far. The other horses, he knew, would stay behind the lead mare. He needed to focus all his efforts on her.

There was little room between the trail and the sheer rim of the mesa. For an instant, Dan worried that his horse might tumble over the edge. But in the fury of the moment, he didn’t have time to embrace his fears. He pulled up alongside the lead mare. Her head rocked in a steady rhythm with her gait, her breathing hard but smooth. Dan reached out and touched her salt-soaked haunches. He moved into her, trying to get her to turn away from the rim and toward the steep trail that led down to the spring, but in her rugged determination, she pushed straight ahead.

Where the hell was Joe? He rammed into the lead mare with his horse, harder this time. Suddenly, she pulled up. Oh shit, he screamed. If she turned now, all would be lost. “Joe!” he yelled. The mare whirled, heading back toward the broad expanse of the mesa. Walt was coming up hard now from behind.

In disarray, the lead mare turned back again. The line of horses was broken now. Dan, twirling his rope overhead, slammed into the mare, screaming at the top of his lungs inside the thick, smothering dust, trying desperately to get her to turn down the trail. She didn’t. In headstrong flight, in spite of Dan’s valiant efforts, she crashed through the long line of junipers and pinon pines with five of the other horses right behind her.

The other horses of the herd hesitated, but when they gathered and broke, Dan moved with fierce instincts and turned them down the steep trail. He was hard on their heels as they flew down the steep trail. At the spring, the mare in the lead, frantic in her desire to escape, never even slowed down, crashing head on into the heavy steel panels that had been set across the trail to turn the horses into the trap. The other horses piled up behind her, and the panels collapsed in a tangled pile. In their panic, two of the horses turned back up the trail, running over the top of Dan. Walt was charging down the trail now, but his attempts to turn the two horses were futile. Chasing the chaos of his frustration, he turned quickly in the trail and charged after the horses as they moved back up the trail toward the line of junipers and pinon pines.

In the meantime, the eight horses that remained in the narrow gorge, including the stallion, had cleared the twisted panels and were running out the other side. Dan charged after them. In the chaos, he wondered what had become of Reno and Lex. As he chased the wild horses up the trail that led away from the spring and out the other side of the narrow gorge, his only hope now was that they’d run into Reno and Lex up ahead. But they didn’t. Reno had chosen to stay with Lex. And Joe, having drunk too much whiskey, slept inside the quiet coolness of the junipers and pinon pines. Everything was lost.

When Dan reached the other side of the narrow gorge, his horse soaked in sweat, he knew it was over. With a quiet sadness, he looked out at the trail of dust left behind by the wild horses as they moved away toward the south rim of the mesa. The black stallion pulled up. He came back toward the narrow gorge, his head held high. Dan sat in silence. Locked in time, he and the proud stallion stared at one another. Finally, recognizing that the challenge was over, the stallion threw his head into the wind, wheeled around, and in a thunderous flurry of hooves and dust, raced to catch up to the rest of the herd.

Dan watched him until he disappeared over a long rise. He looked to the west. Way out on the great expanse of scrub, he could scarcely make out Reno and Lex, walking slowly toward the gorge. He looked back into the bright sunlight. The dust from the two head of horses that had split from the herd at the spring moved steadily away from the narrow gorge. The lead mare was long gone, but by sundown, the herd would be together again, grazing out on the wide expanse of sand and scrub.

He had failed. When he got down off the mesa, back to the lowlands, he would have to explain to the tribal leaders why he had failed. But he knew that they would understand. Life doesn’t proceed with any certainty. Catching wild horses was like catching the wind and sky. Next time, he would have to be smarter. The Taylor Mesa herd of wild horses, running on the wind of their existence, had gained invaluable knowledge.

  1. David I just finished reading your post. The photo of the wild horses captured my attention. I was completely engaged with On the Edge of the Mesa. I am very visual, and could see this happening in my imagination. I couldn’t stop reading it. I had to know what finally happened. The entire time I was secretly saying run and fight for your freedom. Great post!

    • Hi, Dyanna,

      Thank you so much. I truly appreciated your wonderful comment. The wild horses on the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation were so majestic! I enjoyed all the time that I was able to spend with them. We adopted a policy of trying to move them into areas less utilized so that they wouldn’t have to be removed. There are always solutions to supposed problems, if one looks closely enough at the problem, and genuinely seeks a solutuon. Unfortunately, in the case of wild horses on public lands, the BLM usually leans towards removal instead of management. Thanks again! Hopefully, one day our paths will cross. I would enjoy that.

  2. David,
    Really great story. Captivating. In my mind while reading I could vividly see all the action happening.
    Great job.

    • Good morning, Donnie,

      Thank you so much for your kind comments, they mean so much to me. I truly appreciated hearing from you. I hope all is well with you.

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