My ten year old younger brother Cache sits shivering in the cab of the brown truck, soaked and bloated from the creek water he just swallowed. After being pinned under his horse he was able to rise to the surface, breathe and cling onto a rock for dear life. It would be close to a decade before Cache would hear what really happened that evening. Now he sits in the truck, dozing in and out of sleep, recovering from the incident. They are miles from the nearest paved road, in the middle of rugged government land in the Coastal Range of California.
Wyatt, in his late twenties had been going to the hills since he was a kid and was on his way to becoming David’s step-father. Cache and David met at the local public school in first grade and became fast friends. Their late summer weekends were shared riding double in the same saddle over the same horse on trips to the hills. They did this for years and when Cache was nine our Mom ponied up, paid David’s Uncle Mike to convert the abandoned chicken coop into a horse barn and purchased from her friend a gentle horse – Jessie. This was Jessie’s first trip to the hills, he was not a very large horse, dark bay in color with a black mane and tail, a wild mustang from BLM ground somewhere in the west – he wore the fire brand.
Slot Creek was roaring to satiate the thirst of thousands of acres of maturing agricultural crops located at the western edge of the Sacramento Valley. The irrigation water for these crops came from stored winter rain water which now flowed from a reservoir down Slot Creek. The path of the late night ride to deer camp crosses Slot Creek over a dozen times. This path was not chosen for adventure but out of necessity. The rugged and steep mountains left few options for paths and the best plan was to blaze a trail beside the creek until you had to cross and do the same on the other side. The ruggedness of this country attracted few folks, which brings the prospect of decent hunting on public land in California, without running into other people, which is something worth working for.
Jessie was mounted with a saddle lent to Cache by Uncle Mike. Long ago the sun had set leaving a moonless night, the stars bright in a black sky that revealed on the horizon the silhouette of brush to the east and oak trees to the west. Cache was pleased and nervous to be riding his own horse into the hills. With all the animals packed they were ready to go, there was an energy from everyone, aching with anticipation to finally start getting down the trail. Wyatt led the string of six pack mules, they made a rhythmic mix of hooves clopping on the ground while the leather straps and firmly synched ropes creaked with the rattling packs of the marching animals packing all the gear to camp. Behind Wyatt and the mules, David followed on Mac, an old quarter horse thinned from a cattle operation because he “didn’t have enough go.” Following David was Cache on his own horse in the hills for the first time.
The dry summer air was rich with the perfume of Slot Creek water, a musty and ripe smell that is striking as you approach the creek. The night was darker than it had been, in the sky the moonless evening gave an amazing display of the evening stars. A satellite sped through the sky, at first glance looking like a shooting star. The heat of the summer day had transformed into a warm summer night but the breeze through the canyon was chilling the evening quickly. The night was quiet with the exception of birds making noise here and there, crickets and the quiet racket of the horses and mules. The six mules were tied together, each mule wearing a halter and a lead rope. The first mule’s lead rope held by Wyatt, the next mule’s lead rope tied to a break-away string on the back of the first mule’s pack saddle and so on, down the line to the end of the string. Their tails swiping occasionally at the mule behind them, one blows and grunts the air out of its nose, one tries to deliver a quick kick to the one behind him while another shakes her pack – the sound of it all turns into the background noise of the quite night.
Wyatt pulled his boots out of his stirrups and lifted his feet as high as he could while staying balanced on his saddle as he led his horse into the water at the first creek crossing, behind him the mules followed. The deepest part of the first crossing was right as he entered the water, about a four foot drop, the string of mules followed one at a time after Wyatt, each mule hesitating just a bit before plopping into the drink with a splash. The swishing sound of the animals running their feet through the water as they cross is loud enough to be heard over the rush of the creek. Half way into the crossing Wyatt pulls his flashlight out of his saddle bags and turns it on, the beam scans the other side of the creek briefly and identifies the spot to exit, a specific place between a large impassable rock ledge and a tree, adjusting the course of his horse slightly he turns the flash light off and lets his horse, Blackie, finish navigating the creek crossing. David waits a moment to give the mules in the creek some space before directing his horse Mac into the water, Cache on Jessie follows. One after another they all emerge on the other side, water dripping from the bellies of every animal and every rider dry.
The creek has some very deep pools, the rapids have large and slippery rocks and the creek bottom is home to an always moving mass of gravel bars that create crossings for one season which might be moved by the next season’s rainstorms. All of this below the surface of the murky green water, blind to everything except the touch of the animal’s feet. Some hints of the creek’s bottom are given by the fact that the flow rate up and down the creek is exactly the same, which means narrow but slow water is deep; fast water tends to be shallow; wide and slow can be shallow too. However, the details of the bottom are riddled with exceptions – experience is the only thing that can be trusted.
When you cross the creek on a horse often enough it is inevitable that you will find yourself, fully dressed in boots, jeans, long sleeved shirt and a cowboy hat, swimming with your horse. The most important focus is personal safety which is delivered by getting as much space as possible between you and the animal. There is a gray area, where circumstances allow a rider to benefit the animal. When horses or mules find themselves deep in water they have no exit plan, they go for the edge they see and if that happens to be a cliff carved out of the side of the hill, the animal will try to exit there again and again and again until they become exhausted and drown. If a rider can guide the animal safely, the right thing to do is lead them out of a potentially fatal situation by tugging their head toward safety. Acknowledging that there is no heroism in dying while trying to prevent a horse or mule from drowning is of paramount importance – stupidity is the adjective that best describes that scenario.
The second crossing for the crew was not that far from the first, this was a shallow crossing and the sound of Slot Creek rushing past them roared as they approached it. Wyatt lead the way on Blackie, trial and error from the past trips revealed a gravel bar here, an easy crossing, free of tripping and slipping rocks, so long as you stayed on the invisible gravel bar. Downstream the water rushed over and around a nasty set of boulders that would have tripped up the animals. Wyatt had said it enough times that everyone knew; “Follow where I go with the horse, not where the mules go.” In flowing water horses and mules tend to fixate on the moving surface of the water and follow it downstream as they cross and this was a crossing where drifting downstream would lead you into rocks.
In the water the mules immediately started drifting, one a little bit downstream from the next, that one a little further downstream from the previous and so on, magnified by six mules. Mac the horse knew the drill and kept his line, with his peppy steps through the water he ended up almost passing the last mule and following where Wyatt had gone, not where the mules had drifted to. Behind them was Cache on Jessie, just getting into the water.
Twenty yards into the creek crossing Cache felt his horse stumble once and then again, with each stumble he anticipated Jessie to recover and continue on, but the horse never regained his footing and suddenly Cache’s world was dunked into the cool creek water. Completely submerged, time stood still as Cache felt the pressure of his horse anchoring his leg to the bottom of the creek, all he could do was think about getting away from his horse but at the moment that was not an option. Above the water, Wyatt, the mules and David were exiting on the other side, unaware of what had just happened and unable to see Cache’s felt cowboy hat drifting away with the current in the dark.
With Cache’s free leg he positioned his foot on the top of the saddle and pushed – nothing. Waiting for what felt like an eternity but was likely only a Moment, Cache tried again and as he did the horse struggled to stand up, liberating Cache from the creek’s bottom and injecting him into the force of the rapids. In the black of the night, with no life jacket and the weak swimming skills of a ten year old who grew up on a farm, his head surfaced, gasping for air but getting a huge slug of creek water. Floundering down the stream, his luck placed him into a position to cling onto a rocks in the middle of the rapids. With no plan on how to get out he clung to the rock and waited, in the back of his mind he wondered what had happened to his horse, in the front of his mind he wondered if he would get out of the creek alive.
With all the animals out on the other side of the creek, it did not take David long to notice that Cache and Jessie did not make it out. “Wyatt, something happened to Cache!” David pointed out. On his horse Wyatt turned around and headed back toward the creek, he handed David the lead rope to the first mule and turned on his flashlight, its beam pierced the night as it moved over the creek exposing a small circle of the creek – the currents, rapids, rocks and ripples until the beam landed on the rock to which Cache clung. Into the creek Blackie went, stumbling a time or two on submerged rocks but this was a veteran horse of the hills, proven to be calm and tough enough for the conditions of this rugged country. The water was shallow enough to flow under the belly of the horse and in short order Wyatt reached down from his saddle and plucked Cache from the rock by the back of his jeans and set him on the back of his saddle.
They had just started the ride in and had it been light the horse trailer and truck would have been in visible. Everyone but Jessie the horse headed back to the trailers. Cache was understandably shaken up and cold from his swim and his now soaked cotton clothing in the cooling evening. On the back of Wyatt’s saddle Cache sat as they back tracked the two crossings, arriving at the truck and trailer. Starting the brown truck, Wyatt turned the heater on and tucked Cache into a blanket. With the mules tied up to the horse trailer, Wyatt and David returned to the creek on their riding animals to find the missing mustang.
Cache was not sure how long it had been, it was late at night and he was drifting in and out of sleep when Wyatt and David returned with Jessie’s saddle and halter. “Horse drowned, Cache. Let’s get you home.” The mules were unpacked and all the animals were loaded back into the horse trailer. In the middle of the night the brown truck and stock trailer wound its way over the dirt BLM roads that had been bulldozed through the brush. It was a couple of hours past midnight when the whole crew, less one horse, made it back to Wyatt’s house.
Wyatt is not a man I recognize to be scared or intimidated by much but he was scared early the next morning. He loaded Cache into his pickup and they drove to the farm to find our Mom. As I understand it, he was horrified by the thought of how this conversation might go, this is the type of conversation that can change things between people forever. When you take someone’s kid on a trip, it is expected that everyone, even the horse, come back alive.
Mom was at one of her leased fields, it was late summer and she was in her white Plymouth Colt talking to Ricardo after inspecting the status of the summer tomatoes and the progress of the fall vegetables that had just been planted. They were standing next to the irrigation canal that was ripping full of the very water that Jessie had drown in. Wyatt found her, told her what had happened and cringed while he waited for her response. “She was so cool about it” was the phrase he later used to describe her reaction. I was not surprised to hear how Mom reacted, Mom was an extremely pragmatic person. Pets were not allowed in our house, she grew up in the city but had lived on her farm long enough to know that life in the country included dead animals – a dead horse was no big deal next to her living son. Additionally, as a single mother she took note of the willingness of Wyatt to include Cache, like a son, in these activities. After delivering Cache safely home, Wyatt, David and the rest of the animals headed back to the hills to finish the trip they had started, after all, it was buck season and these precious weekends were limited.
While Mom took the news fine there was plenty of commentary that surrounded the event. A horse drowning in the creek on the way to camp is a situation that raises a few eye brows and builds a quick list of questions. It was the horse’s first trip and you went through that creek? It was pitch black at night? Do you know how much water was going through that creek? Are you crazy? All fair questions I suppose, but the answers to them vary widely based on who you ask.
There is an intensity about going to the hills, almost an obsession that infects and spreads to a select group of people. To us the hills are a magical alternative to the norms of the day-to-day. They are a place that not anyone can go, an experience that is never predictable and always entertaining. It is an experience ripe with hard physical which is rewarded by nature’s beauty and a special relationship with the places, animals and people that become a second family. There is no doubt that the hills are not for everyone but there are a small group of people who have a relationship with these places and experiences that are comparable to what the religious feel of God.
The answers to the list of questions from someone who does not understand the hills can be an ignorant projection of their own mundane life. The answers to those questions to someone who knows the hills is the pragmatic realization that when you do that kind of thing often enough, these things eventually happen. Of course he is going to ride in at night, work ended and it took this long to get here – now it is dark. The place he wants to go requires crossing the creek, who wants to hunt on public land infested with road hunters? Of course he is going to cross the creek at night – that is what is required to get to camp. The time to be there, buck season, happens to be when there is a lot of water running through the creek – an unfortunate coincidence.
There was speculation as to just what exactly happen that night. The general idea is that as they crossed the creek the horse started drifting, maybe he was following the mules as they drifted, maybe he was fixated on the rushing current and followed it downstream. As he did this he left the gravel bar and ended up in the rocky part of the rapids where he likely got tripped up and fell down in the water. Just downstream of this crossing the water slowed and gathered into a deep pool that had eaten a cliff out of the side the hill. The thought is that after fumbling out of the rapids, this vertical shale slide is where Jessie the horse tried to exit, toiling to climb the impossible cliff, gravity bringing him back to the water again and again, until his energy faded and his life was swallowed by the creek. The horse was found in the rapids just downstream of this pool. They drug him out of the creek, unsaddled him and left him for the many local scavengers who were elated with their good fortune.
Uncle Mike loved to talk about the incident. With a huge smile exposing the gap between his two front teeth, wearing denim-on-denim wrangler jeans and shirt, white high top sneakers and a thick set of square glasses, his loud and slightly high pitched voice would exclaim with excitement – “I’m lucky I got my saddle back!” laughing with a half scream, half snort. Or in a more serious and thoughtful tone: “The problem was that horse, that horse had no heart.” Mom was silent about the situation but was horrified that her friend, the woman she bought the horse from, would find out. Mom made it clear that if her friend ever asked how Jessie was we were to tell her “he was fine.” Mom’s significant other took the opportunity to be mad on the grounds of principle, he called to find the flow rate of the creek and exclaimed to me on several occasions “They were running over 700 cubic feet per second out of there.” He would say this with a tone and look on his face that justified his point of view that the trip should have never happened. I heard and understood what he was saying but noted to myself that he wasn’t taking us hunting.
By the next season my Mom had purchased Cache a new horse, Lucky Ned Pepper. Ned would never let us down, he would piss us off, but never let us down. One trip Ned ate all the bread from camp on the first day of a three day hunt. He had a nasty habit of getting turned loose to feed and deciding to walk back the trailers by himself. Ned ended up outliving our mother and after she ended her battle with cancer Ned ended up with some cancer on his ear – horrified after loosing our mother we over reacted and had his ear cut clean off. Ned, even with only one ear, was reliable, predictable and turned out to be a gem of a horse for the hills. One season at a time Ned became Cache’s horse and the incident faded into the past. Like the bleached white bones of Jessie scattered across the hills by the bears and coyotes, the whole thing turned into nothing more than a memory from the hills.
Almost a decade later Cache was at David’s house, they were in the pantry were Wyatt had his hat rack mounted to the wall. Cache and David were old enough to drive, their trips to the hills evolved from tagging along to packing rifles and shooting (at) bucks (sometimes hitting them). Drinking beer in the hills had not started yet but was only a few years away. “Hey Cache, come look at this.” David’s voice and body language was dripping with mischief. “You see those little dots?” with his finger out, David directed Cache’s attention to one of Wyatt’s straw cowboy hats and in particular to a splattering of dark dots on the white hat. Cache looked at it for a moment with no idea what to make of them. “That’s Jessie’s blood” David said with a taunting tone and grin.
The rest of the story of that August evening so many years ago finally came out. While Cache was in the truck, wrapped in a blanket, Wyatt and David found Jessie washed up in the rapids like they said. They dallied a rope around the horse’s head and the other around the saddle horn of their horses and started to pull him out of the creek, they only go so far until Jessie was hung up by the rocks in the creek – the horses could not get him any further out. Not wanting to leave the dead horse to rot in the creek, Wyatt did what had to be done.
On Wyatt’s riding saddle he carries a short handled ax for cutting the branches of fallen trees or bushes out of the trail. That night he pulled the ax off of his saddle and wadded into the creek. As the water rushed around him, Wyatt started to chop. Just before the last rib he started hacking the drown horse in two, blood splattering with each blow. The cavity of the horse opened and insides began to bubble out, they were grabbed by the current and the creek eviscerated the horse, stretching the guts down the creek. Wyatt took care to not land a blow of the ax onto his leg. The task was work and he began to breathe heavier as his heart labored with the task. Almost done, the back bone took a focused set of swift blows, finally splitting the corpse into two pieces. The current moved both halves a bit but they were quickly stuck in the rocks again. With Jessie in more manageable pieces, the horses had no issues dragging him from the creek, one half at a time, to an inconspicuous spot in the brush.