Ride in the Moonlight
by Will Ghormley
Steve and I were heading out horseback for a couple of days. We started Friday night after he got off work. It was the middle of November and the weather was mild, but it was dark before we where saddled and packed and setting off cross country. The moon came out and the countryside shone silver. The air was clear and crisp. The stars fairly danced above our heads. It was going to freeze hard tonight for the first time, I could smell it in the air and feel it in my bones. But the breeze was light and the moon was bright and the clop of the hooves, the creak of the leather and the snorting of our mounts settled the whole world into place.
I said we were horseback, but that’s only half true. Steve is a mule man. It suites him. He was mounted on Jumper, one of the best mules in the country. Since it’s my policy not to ride any critter meaner or smarter than me, I don’t ride many mules. I was rocking back and forth on Ol’ Blue. He was three quarters Arab - and wired a little too tight between the ears - but sure footed, fast, with a lot of heart and he aimed to please. He was one of the few horses who could keep up with Jumper in rough terrain. Steve was in the lead and enjoyed going places that make horses and their burdens uncomfortable. As we road across a moonlit meadow the ground dropped away toward a dark line of trees and the steep valley beyond. In the dark I knew Steve was smiling. As we passed silently into the trees the darkness wrapped itself around me like a blanket. Almost at once Steve found the steepest most overgrown decent into the valley and pointed Jumper’s nose into it. The dark limbs snatched at my hat and pulled at my clothes as Blue stumbled and slid in the darkness. I guided Blue with my left hand as best as I could, following the sound of Jumper crashing through the brush ahead of me. I ride with my rifle facing forward on my right side so I can yank the branches from between my rifle and Blue with my free hand. Hanging half out of the saddle dodging limbs and fending off branches, we made it to the valley floor. We rode till about eleven and a cold fog was settling as we reached the creek where we planned to camp.
We tied off the stock and made camp without building a fire. We both had canvas bedrolls, made by my buddy Dave Ellis, out of Durango, Colorado, tied behind our cantles. Rolled out on the thick dried grass they felt like a feather tick after the long day. It would be a short night though. I had just pulled off my boots and stuffed them into the bottom of my bedroll, made sure the lid was on my canteen tight and pulled it into the bed with me so it wouldn’t freeze and gotten the canvas flap pulled over my head to keep the frost from settling on my eyebrows, when Jumper began to pitch a fit. We were only about ten miles from home, so we hadn’t hobbled the stock out to graze. Even hobbled they would have covered the ten miles to home before we had breakfast warm. They were both tied off to a downed tree, and Jumper commenced to kicking the tar out of Blue. I pulled on my boots and shook off my sougan and went to separate the two animals. Steve had jumped up too, but it wasn’t until we reached the two fussing critters that I noticed Steve was in his all-togeathers! I guess to be more comfortable Steve has stripped down to his skivvies, and didn’t have time to get dressed before all the commotion started. The animals had churned the damp ground into mud and Steve was standing in it bare footed trying to talk sense to his mule. Blue quieted down after he was out of hoof-shot from Jumper, but Jumper started fussing again after we’d crawled back into our bedrolls.
Steve got up several more times to tend to his mule while I faded in and out of a very comfortable sleep. The last time Steve jumped up he woke me with an exclamation and I sat up in time to see him dashing across the clearing nearly naked after his fleeing mule! By the time I’d pulled my boots on and was on my way to help, Steve was leading Jumper back to camp with his arms around Jumper’s neck. The stubborn mule had busted his halter clean in two. The mud was frozen now and Steve was shaking so bad I had to tie off his pesky nuisance. Jumper was making like he was still going to pull himself free, so I took the hobbles off my rear cinch ring and hobbled his front legs. If he broke loose again, at least he would be easier to catch! As far as I know, Steve had never used hobbles on Jumper before. They worked like a charm. Jump stood still the rest of the night like he was afraid he would topple over!
I pulled off my boots again and settled back into my bedroll. From where I was laying I could see Steve’s canvas quivering as he shook with cold. It wasn’t very long before I heard Steve say, “Hey Will! Can I come crawl into bed with you?” Well, I was just about asleep again, and in my mind I could still see a mostly naked Steve running around in the dark. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to make enough room in my bedroll for the both of us - and besides, I was sure he was kidding anyway. “Put your clothes back on and pull your canvas over your head!” I yelled back, only a little less annoyed than I sounded. “I did!” he retorted. “Steve, it’s your own fault for riding a mule.” I growled, “If you freeze to death I’ll say some nice sounding lies at your burial!” I heard some muttering for a little while, but like Jumper, he settled down and I was able to drift off to sleep.
I was up early. I untied Blue and Jump and put my spare set of hobbles on Blue so they could forage some while I made a fire and got breakfast ready. The morning was crisp and very cold. The fog had settled into a heavy frost. It would be a brilliant day when the sun came up! Even now the two knuckleheads were hopping across the meadow towards the ranch. I finally had to stake them out so I could finish making breakfast. The whole while I never saw Steve’s bedroll move, not even any steam from under the canvas. When the tortillas and beans were thawed out by the fire, I got to worrying some. What if Steve did freeze to death during the night and hadn’t wanted to bother me again. I felt a little guilty. I’d have to thaw him out by the fire before I could pack him out of the valley on Jumper. If I tried to tie him to his saddle all stiff and laid out like he was, I’d knock his head off trying to get him between the trees. Even the creek had frozen over during the night.
With a little hesitation I walked quietly over to his bedroll to see if I could hear any signs of life. I bent low over his bedroll, but it was quiet as a grave. Standing up straight again, I wondered what I should do. If he was alive, he would be tired after his long night and mad that I woke him up. But if he was dead, the sooner I dragged him over to the fire to thaw out, the sooner we could be on our way. I finally decided that I didn’t have to thaw out all of him, just the part that bends over the saddle. So I gave him a good kick to see how hard he was. I was startled and a little relieved when the bedroll jumped and growled and started to thrash about. I was ready to run, but by the time Steve made it to the opening of his blanket he’d spent most of his mad fighting his way out of the tangle.
He was a little sore that I had kicked him, but mostly his feelings were hurt because I would have let him freeze to death. I thought he was kidding about getting into bed with me, really! All the same, I’m glad he didn’t freeze. We had another twenty miles to cover that day. It was a lot easier since he was able to drag his own self around.