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Crossing Over the Mountain

                                    Kurt Caswell

     Hoy estoy aqui
     Mañana ya no
     Pasado mañana por donde estaré. 

     I am here today
     I won’t be tomorrow
     Who knows where I’ll be
     the day after tomorrow. 

               ―An old Peruvian song Hector would sing under the tent, in the rain

Dawn. A few rain drops on Lookout Peak. I failed to put the rain fly on my tent, but the sky held until near 4:00 a.m. We packed and loaded and left without breakfast or coffee as storm clouds came careening in, and the rain came down with thunder and lightning. I’d become used to this routine: an early, fast wake-up, heavy labor for an hour, and a hasty departure. It was cold, colder than any morning so far, and the air was wild and high. As thunderheads settled in over us, Hector mounted his horse, the horse with no name, and rode ahead, pushing the band of some 2,000 sheep up over the mountain.

Hector Artica is one of about twenty Peruvian sheep herders working for the Soulen Livestock Company, a third generation Idaho sheep and cattle outfit. I was traveling with him this summer, as I had last summer, to live out my romantic vision of the shepherd’s life, to see wolves, and if I was lucky, to get a story. Every year the sheep, seven bands of 2,000 each, graze a vast expanse of country from the Snake River Plain in winter up into the mountains north of McCall in the spring and summer. The lambs are born on that range; the ewes live and die out there. The guard and herding dogs, and the shepherds too, live out there year-round with the eagles and trout, the coyotes and bears.

I hurried behind Hector on foot, as the lightning gave us the tree-lined horizon in flashes.
Hector hates lightning, and he seemed possessed this morning, driving those sheep on, hard and fast, to get over the top before God struck him down. “Lightning no no good for me,” Hector said.

On the trail we came upon a bag of dog food that must have fallen off one of the mules in the pack string ahead of us. The dog food was inside a plastic feed sack, and so would keep in this rain for several hours at least, but the dogs were so ill-fed anyway that we couldn’t afford to leave it. Not that there was not food enough, but often the dogs were foot-sore, so beaten down by the mountains, that when we hit camp they crawled up into some away spot alone to sleep like the dead. Hector stopped to wait for me as I hefted the bag onto the back of his horse. We tied it down, and Hector mounted and rode on.

We were both in the rear of the band now, Hector mounted and me on foot, and we followed behind a lamb limping up the rear, its left front leg spattered with brown ooze. It dragged that little leg helplessly with each step. I recognized it then, a lamb that Hector had responded to tenderly the day before. The rain came down harder, and my Gortex raincoat was shiny and slick. Lightning flashed all around us, and Hector’s eyes were wild and afraid.

“Stupid bitch!” Hector yelled at the lamb and the storm and his fear.

The injured lamb just could not do it today, could not, after all these days, push on with its useless leg. It stopped, ready to give up, give out, give in. Hector rode up on it with the horse, and frightened it. It bolted forward, moved along a little farther over the mountaintop. Soon it slowed and sputtered and stopped. Hector rode up on it again, which pushed the lamb on a bit farther. This went on for half a mile or so, until Hector dismounted, shoved the reins of his horse into my hands, took off his coat, and used it to whip the little lamb to make it go. It woke from its stupor once again and ran, a burst of surprising speed, before it realized the leg didn’t work, and it stumbled and fell. As tired as it was, it rose again with all its might, wanted to join the great band flowing out in front of it, the ewes and lambs bahhing and bawling, a tremendous force of sheep in a fluid grace over the mountain, but the poor lamb went no more. It lowered its head, its front legs buckled, and down it went onto its knees, its nose just touching a bit of soft moss to hold it up against the rocky back of the mountain.

Hector took up his coat again like a mace and beat the lamb. It started and ran. He whipped it. “Stupid bitch!” he yelled as the lightning flashed and the rain fell.

But that whipping, that rage, that ferocious abuse was not enough, was not more frightening than the fatigue and pain and destitution the lamb must have felt, for it stopped again. It was done, this lamb, finished with dragging its broken body over this great hump of Idaho.

If we did nothing more, it would surely lie down here and die. But what’s one lamb in a band of two thousand? I doubted we could bring it in safely. Let it go, I thought. Let’s go on. I can’t stand watching this poor thing struggle against death anymore. The rest of the sheep are hitting the crest now and maybe are headed down. We’re getting soaked to the skin. It’s cold. The lightning is close, and we’re surrounded by these great pines, sure to attract that fatal flash from heaven. Let it go. Let it die. Let’s go on.

“No good,” Hector said, calmer now, shifting his position on our course of action. “No good, this little lambs.” He shook his head. The lightning didn’t seem to bother him now, at least for this moment.

Hector moved the dog food bag forward onto the saddle, picked the lamb up and laid it gently over the horse just behind the cantle. He took hold of the front feet, set them side-by-side, and tied them down with the leather saddle strings. He came around the rear of the horse, set the lamb’s back legs side-by-side, and tied them off tight. He moved the dog food bag, all fifty pounds of it, up behind the lamb now, pressed it in over the lamb to keep it in place, and tied it off with the horse’s lead rope.

“You go the horse,” Hector said, handing me the reins. “I push the sheep.” Then he left me. He vanished down the trail under flashes of lightning.

I started up and over the rocky mountaintop, leading the horse that carried the lamb, and then down, down, picking the way among the boulders and rocks. There wasn’t much of a path really, just a wide track of land where the sheep had traveled year after year for at least the past hundred years. The clouds were almost within reach; they were so low and we so high. The lamb lay there with its eyes open, blinking, helpless either way—walking or being walked, it had no will, no way to choose what would become of it. I put my hand on its head. There there, little lamb. It responded not at all to me, as if I were no more than the branch of a tree we brushed against. Hector had melted into the band of sheep somewhere below. I could hear them bawling a hundred yards ahead, and now and again, I caught sight of a ewe emerging from beneath a little pine, then gone. We fell farther and farther behind, me, the lamb, the horse with no name.

The rain fell steadily now, and my Gortex seemed to be holding out, but I was miserable as I led the horse onward toward the fading sound of the band ahead of me. I couldn’t keep up. I didn’t really know where we were headed, except down. There was one way to go, down, down, down to the lake, which spread out before me as I caught glimpses of it between the trees. Where was camp tonight? Where was Freddy and the pack string? Where was Edwin and the other band? I did not know, but I trusted I could find my way to Cascade Lake by the day’s end, if I had to. From there, I would hear the 4,000 sheep in a meadow somewhere, and nearby would be the shelter of the tent.

The horse stepped down into the slick mud, slid forward and rode up on top of me. I leaped out of the way as the horse caught himself and stopped. It angered me to be frightened this way by that huge animal almost toppling me over, toppling over me. We walked on, and the horse fought to keep his feet as I struggled to keep out of its way. We’d made a quarter mile, maybe a bit more, when I looked back at the lamb. It had slid over the horse to one side, and hung from its four feet like a sacrifice, helpless, bouncing painfully, its head lolling dangerously up and down as if it might snap off with the horse’s rhythm.

“Fahck,” I said aloud to the storm, for what else was there to say.

I stopped the horse, made him stand, and rescued the lamb, lifted it up and back over the horse, repositioned the dog food sack to hold it there, and we went on. The trail steepened and the horse slid and arrested itself, slid and arrested itself, me walking alongside it now as it drew out the reins in front of me until I was walking near the rear of the saddle, near the lamb that had slid down again into a little sling, its head lolling. It looked unaffected, poor thing, blinking at me that way, helpless, hardly aware of its body, detached from any knowledge of having a will of its own, waiting for whatever cruelties would befall it. I set the lamb back up onto the horse, and it lay there, that position as good as the hanging position, maybe, I couldn’t tell. It didn’t seem especially grateful. I felt awful though, terrible in letting it suffer this way. I stood there in the rain, listening for the band down the mountain.

“Fuckin’ Hector,” I said, “leaving me with this fucking horse and this fucking lamb. Fahck.” I wasn’t happy at all.

I looked back at all my troubles, the little, innocent, helpless lamb. High up on the horse now, the lamb craned its neck back to browse the green leaves of a mountain alder where a branch came down over it. Christ, I thought, what was it doing browsing the leaves as if this were an ordinary day? Didn’t it know it couldn’t walk, that its leg and its body were broken? Didn’t it know that it was a lamb on its way to the slaughter? That its life wasn’t worth more than the going rate of meat on the supermarket shelf? Didn’t it know that it was a prisoner, not only on this horse’s back, but in this world, its being locked away in this lamb’s body, hardly a body of its own, a body owned, like a carrot in the ground, an apple on a tree, a loaf of bread on the kitchen counter? Does it not desire to break free and bound through the boundless world and live, to face its life and death on its own terms, to face the coyote even, its jaws and teeth, so long as it were free?

Still, it went on nibbling the leaves, impervious to my questions, my pains, the way I ached for it, the fucking lamb.

Things went on this way for some time, for a life-age, I couldn’t tell. I stood there in the rain. Hector was gone, and so I had but one option: go down. So down I went, leading the horse as before, trying to stay out of its way, it struggling to keep its feet in the slick muddy places where the sheep had trammeled the ground between the rocks. The rain came down. The sky flashed, and I waited for the thunder to shake the mountain. Wham! It was beautiful and terrible too. I hated it. I’d never leave home again. Wham! I loved it. I’d never go home again. Then the horse lurched forward and slid on all its feet, its back legs splayed out and then back under it. I leaped to the side to save myself. Soon we gentled out onto the next little flat into the taller grass. I had not yet looked back to see what I knew I would see, the lamb hung loosely again over the side of the horse like a sack of grain. I didn’t want to deal with it. I didn’t want to.

When I looked back, the lamb was hanging loosely again over the side of the horse like a sack of grain. I hefted the little lamb back up, pulled its front feet over, positioned it just so, and dropped the dog food into place against it. What an impossible situation. I walked alongside the horse now, the reins in my left hand, and my right hand on the lamb’s backside to keep it from falling. We ambled on through the grassy swale and the rain. It worked, at least for now, to lead the horse and hold the lamb, and we must have made up a little ground because I could hear the sheep again out in front of us. Farther on I saw a ewe, at last, its broad back exposed through the branches of a pine. Hector must be here somewhere, I thought. Then I felt something warm and comforting, but I couldn’t place it. I didn’t know where or why I was having this sensation. I looked up at the sky and into the wet clouds hung low above me. Across the horse into the green treetops. And then at the lamb, which was pissing over the top of my hand and down the side of the horse.

Who knows what words issued forth in that moment, but I also felt so bad for that little creature. It had not even the dignity of its body’s functions. Of course it would need to piss. Of course it couldn’t help but piss. And where was it to piss but right where it was, strapped half under a sack of dog food, probably dog food made from lamb meal.

I stopped then and stood beneath a great pine. I shook my hand off and held it out to let the sky clean it. Where was Hector, anyway, and why, why, why had he left me with this lamb and his horse? Why didn’t he take the horse and let me push the sheep? There wasn’t anything to sheep. They knew where to go. He’s out there walking free, or sitting under a dry tree while the sheep mosey down the mountain to camp. God damnit. Shit-hole situation.

I scanned the mountainside and the sheep scattered here and there, and back up behind me, all around, everywhere. No Hector. Christing Jesus! I’m not doing it, I decided. The lamb has to go.

I pushed back the dog food bag, untied the lamb’s feet on both sides, lifted it up and off the horse and set it down. It crumpled into a little pile. Now not one of its legs worked. It couldn’t move at all. What a pitiful sight. I picked up the lamb and walked with it up to the base of the great pine. There I set it, positioned its legs so that it looked as comfortable as I could make it.

What was I doing? I couldn’t abandon the lamb this way. Poor thing. I couldn’t leave it here to the coyotes and the turkey vultures. Would this terrible sin hang on my soul? Would guilt consume me and nightmares trouble my sleep in the coming days, in the long cold nights? Would beasts appear from the darkness to mete out reparations? If I walked away now, the lamb’s fate would no longer be tied to mine. I would be free. What was I doing, I asked again? I could not abandon the lamb this way.

But I did. I turned and walked back to the horse. The band of sheep had moved on, and now unencumbered, I took the reins, and with the horse chased after them.

As I made my way to the band, I counseled myself, consoled myself. You’ve done the right thing. You’ve done the right thing. But Hector? Would he have abandoned the lamb, I wondered? When do you abandon a lamb, the way we abandoned that ewe a couple days back, her wool mostly gone, her face gaunt and tired, her last moments upon her. What was that night like for her, the dark coming on, the temperature dropping, alone among the silent trees as the band moved farther and farther away from her, she calling out to it, to us, with no one listening, no one coming for her except the coyotes now, barking and calling to each other with excitement, one appearing out in front of her, another behind her, a few more coming down off the hill, coming in on her from all sides now. What was that moment like as the first coyote determined Hector was nowhere around, no one was anywhere around, and it was safe to come in. So in it came, descending upon her, not straight in, but circling a little and then circling back, just to be sure, because to be cautious is still to be alive, and then when it was so close it had to, the coyote rushed in, taking the ewe’s throat in its teeth, holding her in its teeth, turning her neck back, twisting her until she went down onto her side. And once down, she lay unresponsive, waiting to die, submitting to this end, the teeth deeper in her neck where now she bled into the coyote’s mouth while other coyotes arrived, some pulling on her legs, the young ones leaping up around her in excitement and confusion. She made no sound at all, her throat clenched tight in the coyote’s jaws until the bleeding weakened her and weakened her and she breathed heavily, waiting for it to end, her breath slowing and slowing until it stopped and her eyes went stone cold black.

I descended to the sheep sounds, the band bawling among the trees under the rain, bawling, calling to me, or maybe calling to the little lamb. Where was Hector? When I finally found him, he would ask after the lamb. What would I tell him? How would I explain that I did not bring it in, poor thing. In my own defense, maybe I could tell him that I do not know domestic stock the way he does. My situation was dire. Or was it? I didn’t know, and I still don’t. Would I be able to communicate these feelings to Hector? Would I dumbly point up the mountain, and try to explain that I dumped the lamb under a tree. He’d seemed so callous about it earlier, whipping it with his jacket, beating it down the mountain, cussing it. Maybe he would agree with my choice and pat my shoulder and say, “Ah, yes. You good. Lamb no good. OK.” Why abandon a lamb or not abandon a lamb? This was knowledge and experience I didn’t have. What is possible and what is not possible? What is done and what is not done? What is of value—a lamb’s life—and what is not of value?

I walked down, descending with the horse into the band of sheep. Closer and closer now, the ewes and lambs calling out in the wet rain, until one appeared in front of me, and a few more, and I came to the edge of them. The great pine in front of me, dry beneath, looked like a good place to tie the horse. I wasn’t certain why I needed to find Hector, except that I wanted him to acknowledge my choice and tell me it was the right thing to do, that no shepherd would have kept on with the lamb, that it was done for, and this is the way of things on the sheep trail. Some lambs don’t make it. Some ewes don’t make it. The dogs die out here, from time to time, the mules, the horses, the herders.

But where was Hector? He wasn’t anywhere, and I became worried that now I too, like the lamb, had been abandoned in the rain, here under a great pine, the camp surely down the mountain by now and the tent erected there in a green meadow at the lake edge where Freddy and Edwin and Hector now relaxed near the stove with coffee and cheese and crackers.

Where was Hector? I turned off to the north, scanning the trees and the sheep band, then to the west, the south, and the east. Where was Hector? I looked down for a moment, watching the rain run from my hat brim. I looked up. There Hector was.

“The little lamb?” he said. “You bring the lamb?”

I pointed up the mountain.

I suppose I expected some kind of judgment—I know I did. I expected that in this situation there was right and wrong. There was protocol, or procedure, or a system in place to determine what to do. Instead I think there was only what was possible and not possible for me, and what was possible and not possible for him.

Hector pointed up the mountain after me. I nodded.

“Show me,” Hector said.

We trudged up the muddy path in the rain, up the steep mountain face to the tree. When we had covered half the distance, Hector stopped and turned to me. I was winded, breathing hard. I am not a fitness fanatic, but I am a runner, and have kept in good shape. In any group of peers, I stand always among the fittest. But where I was winded, Hector breathed easy. He was made for these mountains.

“OK. You wait here,” he said.

“No,” I said. “I go with you.”

I kept on, trailing behind now, trying to keep up with Hector. We came to the tree, and the lamb lay there still, curled into a shivering ball. Hector knelt there in the mud and whispered something to it. An apology, perhaps. Some soft words of encouragement. Or maybe Hector told the lamb it was safe now, that Hector was here, and everything would be all right. I think he knew the lamb needed him, and I think maybe he needed the lamb. Either way, he took it up, the little lamb, into his arms. Then he lifted it over his head, draped it around his shoulders like a shawl, and carried it down the mountain.

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