In 1989, my husband contracted with The Nature Conservancy to remove all the cattle off Santa Cruz Island. He had to provide all supplies except water and two relic island pickups. This included crew (cowboys, cook, drivers); sixteen horses and the saddles and tack to go with them; an abundance of lariats; hay and grain to last sixteen horses fourteen days; enough food and drink for the men (they ran short of the latter); bedrolls, clothing, and personal necessities (such as cigarettes and guitar for the cowboy singer); and kitchen supplies (cook tent, cookware, flatware, dishes, tables, soap, lanterns, etc.).
This was loaded onto the Vaquero II, a barge designed for seafaring cattle, and as Keith prepared to embark on what he hoped was one of the last trips, my two young sons and I watched from the pier. We could see down into the barge from above: Sixteen horses, half of which were saddled, stood tied to a railing in the open barge bottom, and cowboys milled around among them, making sure cinches were loose enough for comfort but tight enough that saddles wouldn’t slip, securing lead lines. Some of the horses braced against the ocean surges, their legs spread wide. I felt a little nauseous. Piled on the deck, all brands of gear, with more cowboys handing off duffle bags and boxes of food for storage below decks.
Keith looked up at his kids, waving his cowboy hat. “I want to go with Daddy!” Kenney said. He was five. Tyler, one and a half, snuggled in my arms.
“I know,” I said to Kenney, and I did know. I wanted to go, too.
Ten days later, Karen pushed her Bronco II down Highway 101 toward the tiny Camarillo airport as if the Bronco were a racehorse. The backseat down to fit more stuff, Cheri and I sat cramped among duffle bags and sleeping bags, rope bags and grocery bags, the three saddles our pillows and backrests. Cases of beer supported our feet. Cheri cradled fifths of whiskey in her lap. We did not want to be late. To be left behind, again.
After Cheri and I untangled ourselves and stepped out onto blacktop, we found that the race to the airport had been unnecessary: Our Channel Islands Aviation flight was delayed, having just returned from the island on an emergency flight to pick up an injured man.
“Do you know who?” I said.
“An old cowboy with a beard.”
We looked at each other. None of the cowboys on the island were old, and after ten days with no running water or electricity they must all be bearded—we remounted the Bronco and hastened to the hospital to find out whose cowboy it was.
To our relief we discovered that the man at the hospital didn’t belong to any of us, though cowboy McCoy was part of the crew. He’d separated his shoulder when his horse fell on him but didn’t look too bad, considering—his right arm taped to his side, his thumb hooking into his belt for support, he was scratched and bruised and adamant about returning to the island. “Hell, nothing’s broke,” he said, and that settled it.
Many years later, I would think of McCoy when my grulla mare, Savanna, fell on me. Ken, his young cousin, and I had gathered a bunch of cow-calf pairs to push down the Cowboy Trail when some additional cattle started heading our way. Since our cows were already paired up, we didn’t want the two groups to mingle, but a bull was among them. “See if you can sort him off,” Ken said, and I trotted across the open meadow, turning Savanna toward the edge of a small aspen grove as I decided to cut through the trees to get behind the bull without spooking the other cattle.
Right then Savanna tripped in a snowberry bush, her leg tangled and not there to support her. She tried to recover with her other leg but kept tripping and then I was slammed into the ground and I watched as her gray color and my saddle slowly rolled onto my right leg, and I thought shit as I remembered stories of broken legs from falls such as this, and then she slowly rolled back the other way and lunged up onto all fours, spooking at me as I tried to push myself up off the grass. I felt and heard Ken and his cousin running toward me, their horses’ hooves pounding the earth like bison. Again I tried to push myself up—so that Ken could see me, know I wasn’t hurt—but my arm didn’t work right and in an ungraceful butt-in-the-air move I lunged to standing the way Savanna had as Ken leapt from his horse and grabbed Savanna’s reins and said, “What did you do?” all in one breath.
“I didn’t do it,” I said. “Savanna fell down.”
He checked to see if I was okay, if Savanna was okay. I said I was good, and with his help I remounted, tucked my thumb in my belt, and we got the bull and started him and the pairs down the Cowboy Trail, so named by previous cowboys because it’s about the longest, steepest, most rugged trail anywhere. Our horses sweating, cattle resisting the steep downhill trek, Savanna tripping over downed aspens, Hunter’s small gelding jumping logs that nearly touched his belly, we reached the bottom more than an hour later. After mothering the cows up—making sure each calf found its mama—I rode over to Ken. He studied me. “I don’t think I’m okay.” He helped me down from my horse. “I’m dizzy, and nauseous.” I didn’t think I could go back up that trail, so steep I usually led Savanna partway to make it easier on her. Maybe I just didn’t want to.
Ken had already come up with an alternate plan. He made a sling of my sweatshirt, found a spot where he could get cellphone service, called his wife. We rode for another half hour through a beautiful open meadow rimmed with ponderosa pines and high red rocks before arriving at a dwelling. It had a chair in the shade and I sat and waited while the horses rested and Ken bullshitted with the chair’s owner until Ken’s wife showed up with a horse trailer.
I chastise myself for not cowboying back up that trail the way McCoy rode the small plane back over the ocean to do whatever he could to help Keith and the crew finish the job. Because hell, nothing was broke.