Friday, July 4, 2014

Chapter One

I lay belly down on the ground, peering over the crest of the hill.  My good eye gazed through the camera lens while my fingers deftly zoomed in, focused, adjusted the settings, and pressed the shutter.  The mechanical whirr of my camera sounded loud in the silent world.  But my subjects did not take notice to the click, click, click of my presence.  The ram’s sharp eyes gazed in my direction without concern.  He may have sensed my nearness, but the wind was in my favor and neither he nor the herd could pick up my human scent.  The ewes browsed contentedly as they ambled down to the watering hole.  It was the only one for miles in the dry uplands of fescue and bunchgrasses, sage and rabbit brush.

It was early evening.  The violet hue of twilight balanced on a shade of red-orange across the grays, greens, and browns.  A wind from the northeast chilled my skin and made it difficult to move my fingers over my camera as I snapped picture after picture.  The world was quiet, save for the rustle of the wind and the sweet song of happy passerines in the sage.  It was peaceful.

I was so busy capturing the twilight colors on the group of big horn sheep that I did not notice at first the horses trudging single file down the opposite hillside.  Their shadowy forms caught my attention when I saw the sheep suddenly become very alert, gazing at the newcomers with intensity.
Smiling, I shifted my camera onto them.  I knew this band.  Piper and his mares barely gave the sheep a glance as they gathered around the water.  They took long turns sucking up its coolness between their lips.  It dripped from their chins as they lazily lifted their heads from the pool.

I clicked away.  As always, I was more than pleased to photograph my favorite subjects.  The public loved these shots too.  Wild, majestic horses revered to the point that any realism surrounding their existence has been lost on many. Iconic creatures of western days.

The sheep had not departed.  Thirsty as well, they stood their ground.  The ram took several steps forward.  The band stallion, Piper, lifted his head and snorted with an arched neck.  He postured.  Challenging the much smaller herbivore, the stallion trotted into the water.  It splashed up around his body.

The ram hesitated.  They had probably gone head to head before at this same, shallow source of water.  I knew from experience that sheep would wait rather than risk being kicked or stomped by the horses who had staked their claim like bullies.

I loved my horses, left to run in the sage free from human contact, but they certainly had an impact on the more native wildlife that many agencies were trying to restore.  Unlike the many activists I had dealt with in my work, I could love the horses, yet still see them for what they were.  An invasive.

After taking several pictures, I set the camera down and rested my chin on my crossed arms.  Sometimes, I had to see them with my own eye rather than through the lens of my camera.  I watched as Piper dipped his head down to the water.  The dusky colors of the sky glowed in the pool and illuminated him. 

I loved this bay stallion.  His five mares, one dun, three chestnuts, and one black pinto had been with him for the past year.  I had yet to see any changes in their group.  But, the dun and one chestnut were heavy with foal.  The dynamics of their band would soon change.

Sighing, I ached with captivated wonder as I observed the horses in the pool, created by a beaver dam a few hundred feet downstream.  The sheep browsed near the log dam, waiting for the horses to leave so they might finish quenching their thirst.  I have been photographing these animals and this region for two years and have yet to grow tired of it.  Less than half my time was spent in my cabin, writing articles and fixing photos for sale.  The rest of my time was out here in the wide open space of this sagebrush country.

“You all right?”  A sharp and intruding voice called from behind me, shattering the silence.  I jumped.  The sheep startled and took off to the east several paces until they stopped and turned towards the sound.  Piper huffed and his head jerked upright.  His nostrils quivered.  I could see his front legs shift as he contemplated moving his mares off and away from potential danger.  But he must have felt he was a safe distance away.  He did not move.

I rolled over and slid down the hill a bit so that I was out of sight of the horses and sheep before rising to my feet.  Peering into the setting sun, I saw the silhouette of a man on a horse.  The brim of his hat hid his face, but I had an idea of who it was.  Grimacing, I brushed bits of dried grass off my chest and slung my camera over my shoulder.  My pack was a few feet in front of me.  I let it be for the moment, eyeing the intruder who had invaded my peaceful moment.

“Fine.” I stated shortly.

He pushed his hat back.  Cole Bennett’s brown-eyed gaze met mine.  “Sorry to interrupt.  I just saw you lying face down…Better safe than sorry.”  His horse shifted.  The saddle creaked.

I arched a brow.  “What are you doing out here?”

He shrugged.  “Riding.  Checking livestock.”  He gave me a pointed look as though he were about to ask me the same question.  He changed his mind.  Really, we both knew what each other was doing out in this sageland.  Instead, “Are you camping nearby?”  I had not actually set up my campsite for the night.  Even if I had, I was not about to disclose it to him.  I remained silent.

“I’m gonna lay out my bedroll down there in that stand of aspen.”  He indicated the small riparian area just down from the watering hole where I had planned to stay the night.  I frowned.

“You are welcome to join me for supper.  If you’d like.”

I shook my head.  “No, thanks.”

He eyed me.  “Suit yourself.”  With a slight nudge and shift of his hand, the horse picked up an easy jog toward their destination.  The red glare of the setting sun reflected a golden hue on the chestnut’s haunches as they moved away from me.
Stifling a growl, I walked in the opposite direction, resigned to camping in the open and hoping there was a bush tall enough to offer some shelter from the evening winds.  There was no way I would be able to sleep if I were anywhere near him. 

It’s not that I disliked him or anyone else in the small community of Ponder Pine.  I was just not about to learn the hard way that they could not be trusted.  Besides, after growing up in the chaos and sometimes cruelty of foster homes, living in unofficially designated party dorms, and then living with loud roommates that respected no one’s privacy, I preferred to be alone.

Twilight had settled and the violet was shifting blue before I decided I had walked far enough.  I gathered dried bits of sage for my fire as I walked so when I found a nice tall and spreading bitterbrush nearly the size of a small tree, I quickly made fire.  It was placed in a shallow draw in a stand of others near the same size.  Within moments, I had the small blaze glowing before me.  With my back to the bush, I knelt in front of the warmth, staring into the flames and feeling slightly vulnerable in the open.  Having the brush to get under was a small comfort.  I preferred to camp in the trees, under an outcropping, or in a valley – somewhere protected from the elements.

“Damn cowboy.” I muttered to myself as I laid out my blanket in the hollow under the bush.  A deer had maybe slept here before me.

I peered into the clear sky where stars were making their emergence.  At least there was no threat of rain.  The wind appeared to be losing strength as night fell.

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