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Ridin' in the New Year
by Jim Taylor
It was just breaking daylight when I pulled out of the corral. I had gotten up in the dark, caught the mare and screwed the saddle down as she was finishing her breakfast. I tossed a few things in the saddlebags and hung the rifle scabbard on the rigging, cinched down my spurs and climbed aboard. As we came up over the south ridge the sun was just breaking over the mountains to the east and it looked to be a beautiful day.
We rimmed out the high peak about a mile from the house and I stopped to let her blow. Setting there on an early morning with the chill still in the high thin air, looking out across God's Creation for 70 to 100 miles... it just took your breath away. Movement down below caught my eye and there, about a half mile below me was a herd of deer feeding across a clearing. Man it just felt good to be alive!
I worked my way across the ridges and down the slopes, heading back into the hills. The place I had in mind was an old windmill and stock tank, hidden up a sand wash deep in the mountains. The well was a good one, producing good water even in dry times. The stock tank was a metal one hauled in years before by some unknown cowhand. There was a "road" into it down on the other side of the mountains. However I was coming in from the back side, from up the mountain above the tank. This way was only accessible on foot or horseback. Since folks rarely came through this part of the country you were able to see a lot of game. Sometimes the critters were not spooked by the horse and you could ride up fairly close. Sometimes. Not always.
Those of us who rode these hills kept an eye on the tank. Ever since the advent of 4-Wheelers there had been a lot more traffic in the mountains. Those little things could get in and out of places no jeep could go, and the "road", such as it was, got used quite a bit. The people that rode them were not always back-country folks. One day coming into the area I was passed by 4 people on some of them. When I got to the stock tank it had been freshly shot full of holes. Since cattle, deer, coyotes and many of the other critters watered at this spot I considered what had been done criminal. If I could have caught the ones who did this I would have read to them out of the book about it.
I reported it to the rancher who ran cows in there and then went out with him and helped plug all the holes. Several years later it was still holding, but we kept a pretty constant eye on it. Just to make sure nothing like that happened again.. or hopefully we could catch whoever tried it.
The cowboys who rode this back country always went armed. All of us did. The armament varied quite a bit. The ranch Foreman carried a bolt-action Remington in .222 in his scabbard. One of the Mexican hands had an old H&R .22 revolver on his belt. Model 94 Winchester's were seen a lot. The .30-30 is a back-country rifle. If I had a rifle along it was usually the Model 1894CL Marlin in .32-20. Loaded with the Speer 100 gr. JHP at 1900 fps it worked pretty well on anything I used it on.
I had the Marlin levergun tucked into the scabbard, carrying it in a modified NW style. The rifle was on the left side of the horse, butt forward, barrel under the stirrup skirt. I had the butt elevated so the rifle rode at about a 45 degree angle to the ground. This carry works well in all but thick timber. You can lean over and pull the rifle out easily whether setting in the saddle or standing on the ground. It rides back far enough the horse can swing it's head freely around to the side without hitting the stock.
I have seen people carry them on the right side, level with the ground, butt to the rear. It works OK if you tie the gun in. If you don't tie it in, the first little ditch you jump the rifle will hit the dirt. I found a nice Model 94 .30-30 laying by a ditch one day. I picked it up, laid it across the saddle and rode on down the trail. In about a half hour I came up on several horsemen. One was the local Baptist preacher. I noticed his rifle scabbard was empty. We set there and talked a bit and finally I said, "Look at this nice .30-30 the Lord gave me." He said, "How exactly did He accomplish that?" and I said, "Well, about a half hour ago I was riding along and there it was, laying on the ground. I knew God had left it for me." Of course he checked his scabbard and I was set straight about who left what for whom right quick!
Anyhow, I had the Marlin tied on board with me this particular morning and as I came up across a small hill I saw movement in the canyon below. I figured it was a coyote and decided to call him up. I got off the horse and tied her to a tree. Then I slipped the rifle out of it's nest and made my way down the hill for a little ways. Standing next to a juniper tree I began to blow the call. After a bit here came the prettiest little fox you ever saw, just running up the wash below me. I stopped calling and when it was about 20 yards from me I smacked it through the shoulders with the .32-20. That was all it needed. The exit wound on the offside was about the size of a quarter. I took the fox back and tucked it in the saddlebags so I could take it home.
The next hour went by quickly. Making my way across the mountain using deer trails and cattle trails I worked my way toward the tank. I saw probably 30 deer that morning. The first herd was Mule Deer. As I got deeper and higher into the hills it was Coues Whitetail. The little deer are thick in that part of Arizona. They are usually wary even of a man on horseback, though I have killed several while sitting in the saddle. I also saw several herds of Javelina. Sometimes these spook seemingly at nothing. I have killed some while horseback, but it is much easier to get up close to them on foot. If a person takes their time you can often get within 15 or 20 feet of them. This morning I did not interfere with any of them. It was just fun watching.
When I was above the canyon that contained the stock tank I stopped again and let the horse blow. I did not want to just barge down into the canyon and scare off anything that needed water. The nearest watering hole of any consequence was 5 miles on the down the valley. When I was assured there was nothing in the canyon I rode on it. I took the saddle off the mare and then let her water. She wanted to roll a bit in the sandy wash and I watched as she enjoyed loosening up and getting the kinks out of her back after hauling me all the way across those hills.
I picketed her where there was a little grass, put out some oats for her and then went and checked the well. Everything looked good so I went back down into the wash, laid down on the saddle blanket and took a nap. It sure was peaceful out there.. no cars, houses, phones etc. within 10 miles.
When I woke up the horse looked like she was ready to leave this place so we packed up and headed out. I decided to go back by the "road". This road was an old mining trail put in years before. Washed out, ungraded, unkept, it was a challenge to the 4WD buffs around Tucson. Every once in awhile someone would show up at our place after having waked 10 or 15 miles out of the hills. Since our place was the first one as you were coming out we got to hear lots of neat stories about "almost making it" through such-and-so canyon. But on foot or horseback it was much easier to get out on the road than go over the mountains the way I had come in.
And you never knew what you were going to run into on it. Everything used it. I came around a narrow spot one day - with a 100 foot drop off on the left side and a cliff up the right side - and there blocking the road was a bull that made two of my horse. I watched him for a minute and saw that the old boy was so sore-footed he could hardly walk. I eased my way alongside him and he was nice enough not to bump us off into the canyon. Another time I came down into a nice leafy bottom where there was quite a bit of shade and there, standing in the shadows was a man holding a Llama by a lead rope. (The critter, not the pistol.) I rode up and said "Howdy" and we talked a bit. My horse was curious about the Llama and eased up to it, sniffing it. The Llama stood this for a minute then rared back and spit in my horses eye! I about got pitched off as she threw a fit at that, much to the amusement of the guy holding the lead rope.
Coming out of the hills on this road one evening after dark, we were riding by starlight. No moon. The horses could see where they were going just fine and we let them have their head. I was riding in the lead and all of a sudden my horse pulled up and stopped. I tried urging her on but she just turned her head and did not want to go on. I got the idea that she might be trying to tell me there was something in the road. Looking as intently as I could I saw something, so I pulled out my pistol and lit it off. Literally. I was carrying the Freedom Arms .454 with full-power loads. The first shot in the dark blinded me. I fired 2 more, moving the gun just a bit to one side. And quickly found what the horse was balking at. A family of skunks. Seems some of the family was reduced to their basic elements by gravel and high velocity shrapnel. Other of the family showed their displeasure. It was kind of unpleasant around there for a while.
This day the trip back was uneventful. Just a nice ride in the hills. We made it home in good time. At the corral I unsaddled the mare, rubbed her down and grained her. She showed her appreciation by giving me a little nip when I got too close to her food. My wife had supper nearly ready when I came in. It has been years since I made that little all-day trip. I still remember the smells and the sights. It was New Year's Day 1986. It was a great day.... one I still cherish.