Side Trail Story
Gunnison County Drive
Erica Massey

Side Trail Story

Warren Lane had his mother’s eyes and his father’s nose and on his face they were still a family.

In reality, they hadn’t been a family for long. A Texas cattleman’s daughter and a half-Black half-Navajo rodeo star could hardly settle their differences for any real stretch of time. They laid them aside long enough for Warren to be born, and then picked them right back up again.

A year after his birth, Warren’s father rejoined the rodeo circuit, and his Mama fell to pieces, and his grandfather more or less took over Warren’s raising.

Warren often thought, looking out his bedroom window at the utility sheds that had once been slave houses, at the buffalo skulls over the fireplace, at his own brown hands, that he’d been born with his blood at war and that’s maybe what made him need to move, to always be someplace else. Like if he went far enough or fast enough, he could outpace the persistent ache of inexplicable want under his skin.

When he was little, he was wild with it, and his mama liked to say he had the devil in him.

Grandpa would say it weren’t Warren’s fault she’d let the devil in her and Mama would either holler back at him or go real quiet, depending on her mood.

It was an old argument, more habit than intention, but it always bothered Warren.

One time, at fourteen, he’d asked Grandpa why he was so mean to Mama about Warren’s daddy when he didn’t seem to mind the fact of Warren himself.

“It’s different when it’s your daughter,” he’d said, “taking up with some flashy rodeo hound.”

Warren didn’t see how it was different, but he’d already asked one question and Grandpa was a one-question sort of man. His patience was usually about as short as his reins on a bolt-prone filly.

“Mind you, I don’t care much about the Black or the Indian in the man,” Grandpa had said. “But no good ever came from a rodeo star without the practical experience to back it up. All spectacle and no substance. Don’t matter how long you can stay on a bronco if you can’t cut cattle. But you,” he gestured at Warren. “Look at you. Strong and smart as anything. Every good rancher knows the importance of adding new blood to his herd. A little biodiversity is probably just what the Lanes needed.”

Grandpa was a college man. He had a degree in agriculture from the university in Fort Worth, and he didn’t brag about it much, but the certificate was hung in his office, and sometimes he used words like biodiversity so people didn’t forget.

“So, I’m good breeding stock?” Warren had asked, only half-joking. “I’ll make healthy Lane calves?”

“I’m sure you will,” Grandpa said. “But you better not start any time soon.”

Warren never grew a heart for the rodeo, or crops or cattle, but he did have a head for horses. Grandpa fostered it as soon as it became evident, and when Warren needed an escape, which he still often did, horses were good facilitators of speed and distance and windy, flat-plain, catharsis. 

If Grandpa wished he’d show a broader interest in the ranch’s workings, he didn’t say anything. There were worse things than a hard-working, talented, protege. And maybe he hoped that one day Warren would gain enough confidence to argue with him over planting schedules or cattle sales. To hire someone without asking permission first. To have opinions about something other than horses. Maybe he hoped that, but if he did, he didn’t say anything.

On his nineteenth birthday, Warren found himself on the road to Colorado. He was delivering three mares to a ranch in Gunnison county. They weren’t prize flesh by any means, but they were good, solid, dependable, young things that Warren had a hand in breeding and training, and the buyer was an old friend of Grandpas who refused to get his horses from anyone else. Warren made the same trip four years back when he was allowed to drive the truck for short stretches while Grandpa watched critically from the passenger seat.

This time, the road stretched flat and hot in front of him. The temperature gauge on the dash slowly climbed to one-hundred degrees as the sun matched it overhead. The radio ran out of stations as he crossed into New Mexico. Something had come loose in the door of the truck somewhere around Amarillo that rattled over the noise of the diesel engine and the tires on heated asphalt and the indistinct fuzz of empty radio space.

He was about twenty miles from the Colorado state line when he spotted a kid—a Mexican kid, likely—with a duffle over his shoulder and his thumb out.

Warren checked the rearview mirror; there was no one behind him.

He slowed to a stop a few yards past the hitchhiker, and the kid broke into a jog.

Except when he rolled down the passenger window, Warren realized the kid wasn’t a kid. Or a boy. It was a woman with short-cut hair. Probably his age. Maybe older.

“Where you headed?” she asked.

“Colorado. Gunnison county.”

“That’ll do for me. I’m hoping to find ranch work, and that’s good a place as any to start. You gonna want some sort of payment if you give me a ride?”

“Nah, company is payment enough.”

She considered him another moment, scrubbed a dusty arm over her equally dusty face, and then got in the truck.

She smelled like heat and sweat and cattle in a way that Warren’s mother, born and raised on a Texas ranch, probably never had and never would.

Her hands were just as calloused and black-cuticled as Warren’s.

It was oddly compelling.

“You pretending to be a boy?” Warren asked.

“What would I want to do that for?”

“Well. I suppose it’s safer on the road to be a boy.”

She flipped a switchblade into her palm from somewhere up her sleeve, let it skip over her knuckles, and then pocketed it.

“I can keep myself safe just fine,” she said.

Warren believed her.

“Well. You’re too pretty to pass for a boy anyway,” he said. And he wasn’t really sure why he said it except for the fact that it was true.

“Pretty never got me nowhere good,” she said. “If there was something I could do about it, I would.”

Warren had never met a girl who didn’t want to be pretty before. She was, though. Despite the blunt cut of her hair and the dirt pressed into the creases of her neck, her kind of pretty was the sort that would only go away with years in the sun and the saddle. Maybe that’s what she was after. He didn’t think too hard about why that might be.

“You said you’re looking for ranch work?” he asked, slowly shifting his way back up the gears.

“Cattle,” she said. “Just quit my last job on account of the boss’ son getting fresh with me. I heard there was folks hiring north.”

“Well, I can take you as far as Gunnison or Montrose. Hell, you might find work at the place I’m taking these horses. I know they’re short at least one hand right now.”

Danny was a fair man. Warren didn’t think he’d ever hired on a woman before, but he might if she could do the work proper.

“Worth seeing,” she agreed. She pulled a jerky stick from her bag and made a show of staring at him while she ate it.

“Tu hablas español?” 

“Un poco,” he said.

“Not Mexican, then,” she said. “I didn’t think so.” It wasn’t a question, but it also was.

“Navajo and Black,” he said.

“And white.”

“That too.”

He thought she was probably the first one ever to point that out.

“I’m Ana,” she said.

“Warren,” Warren said.

They made good time, and when they arrived at the ranch, the owner, Danny McElroy, was waiting down at the horse barn with all three of his sons and a few hired men besides.

He made impressed noises as they unloaded the horses, got his hands on them, and then made more impressed noises.

He let Warren check in on the two horses they’d delivered a few years back, and then invited them up to the house for supper.

No one said anything about Ana, and Warren wasn’t sure how to bring up the fact that she was looking for work.

Turns out, he didn’t have to.

“I’ll be honest, Warren,” Danny said as they were sitting down to eat, “I’m in a tight spot. I’m short four men real sudden and have near five hundred head of cattle I need to move this weekend. We can’t do it with just the six of us;” he dragged a hand over the tow-head of a gangly pre-teen, “Beau is too young yet, and Mama ain’t no use on a horse right now.”

His wife smacked him in the back of the head with a dish towel, but from her smile and pointed hand to her pregnant belly, she hadn’t taken offense. 

“You looking for help?” Warren asked.

“Shouldn’t take more than three, four days on the outside. I’ll pay you for your trouble, and I’d be much obliged.”

“Fine by me,” Warren said, “long as I can telephone my grandfather and let him know I’ll be late getting back.”

“We’ve got one in the office.”

Danny considered Ana.

He considered her stirrup-scuffed boots.

He considered her work-scarred hands.

He considered her Levis, patched at the inside of the thighs and calves.

“You, girl,” he said, still considering, “you ever worked cattle?”

“My name is Ana,” Ana said. “I’ll thank you to use it when you ask me a question.”

Ana,” Danny repeated, “can you handle cattle?” It was snide, but that didn’t seem to bother her any.

“I sure can. And I can sing a herd to sleep in thirty-odd minutes, I reckon. Provided, of course, that you’ll be paying me for my trouble, too.”

Danny grinned at her a little like even if he didn’t believe her he found her amusing enough to indulge. “Alright then. Provided you’re useful as the others, you’ll get paid just the same.”

She shook his hand.

They left the next morning.

They were after a group of 450 odd cows on winter grazing land, and they needed to push them over the river to Danny’s summer land. They all knew it should be a quick and easy drive, but none of them were dumb enough to say so out loud.

Moving cattle in Colorado was mostly like moving cattle in Texas. The air was cooler, but the sun burned you faster. The grit of dust in your teeth was the same. In Texas, near everywhere was flat. In Colorado, the land pitched and rolled from grassy plains to jagged rocky peaks and shallow creek beds cut through the terrain like bright, blinding wounds with raw red dirt edges. You felt small in both places, Warren thought, but in distinctly different ways. In Colorado, the land was overwhelming. In Texas, it was the sky that made you consider religion.

In both places, a slow tide of dark clouds was cause for concern.

The first day the shade was a welcome reprieve as they flushed out the last of the cattle from scrubby pockets of trees and grouped them in the basin between two sloping mountains.

The second day, the clouds were no longer welcome as they rose up in stark, jagged banks, throwing deep shadows over an anxious, slow-moving, herd. 

The third day, the clouds won their mutiny against the last, dying vestiges of blue and settled low over them in an oppressive, static, blanket.

Warren could taste the electricity in the air like an itch on his tongue.

If the sun set, they didn’t see it.

You don’t get much warning when cattle stampede. They’re fine, and then they’re not. You’re fine, and then you’re not.

Out of the liquid darkness, lighting reached down to the touch the earth, not twenty yards from where Warren was sat on his horse and then--

Well. Then everything was chaos.

There was a roar of sound that might have been thunder or might have been nearly 2,000 hooves running on hard-packed earth and Warren kicked his horse into a sprint hoping he was aimed the right direction and his horse stayed sure-footed because it was near pitch-black aside from the lightning and the terrain was rugged, and he knew he had to head the herd off and push the frontrunners into a mill before they all scattered and took half a week to round up again and maybe even killed themselves or one of Danny’s boys besides.

Except by the time he got to the front, they’d already begun to turn.

Because Ana was there, standing up in the stirrups, her bared teeth a slash of white in the downpour: pushing and refusing to be pushed back. Warren and Danny arrived about the same time and automatically fell back to support her; within a few minutes, turned in on themselves, the cows faltered and slowed and stumbled into an uneasy amble. It took most of the night to get them settled and grouped proper again, but no one was hurt, and no animals were lost, and that was better luck than Warren expected.

Ana started singing about the time the lightning stopped, and the rain slackened to heavy mist, and the horizon went pale grey with the beginnings of dawn behind the clouds.

Warren didn’t know the song she sang. It was Spanish; slow and building and maybe a little eerie with the backdrop of a storm-drenched mountain valley. It was something about love and death. Something about pain.

The cows seemed to like it, whatever it was, and they seemed to like the next song just as well.

She stayed at the front of the herd as they reached the river, and Danny didn’t say a word about her going back to ride flank.

The river was low, and the herd moved forward without complaint, a slow, dark arrow through darker water beneath a cloud-strangled sunrise.

Warren went up to the ridge to try and get a headcount and, perched a hundred yards above the river, it struck him with sudden, ringing clarity, why his grandfather loved moving cattle. Why he still went out with the hired men despite the option to stay in his office. 

Warren had never understood it before, no matter how many roundups and drives he’d been dragged along to.

But he understood then.

The world was cast in watercolors: shades of grey just barely bleeding blues and greens and browns. 

Steam was rising off the river from the heat of the cattle, and over the susurrus of rain against water, he could hear Ana’s lilting voice, even if he can’t see her.

The cows answered back, quieter, wary, but docile.

The flank riders waded their horses into the river and then the last of the cows went in, and then the drag rider, and there it was: the whole herd, in the water, laid out in front of him as the first bits of sunlight knifed their way through the weakening storm.

It wasn’t beautiful, exactly. But it sure was something.

Warren blinked rain out of his eyes and nudged his horse forward.

They got back to the ranch by sunset that night, all of them exhausted and Ana near without a voice but undeniably pleased with herself.

She had reason to be.

“If you want a full-time position,” Danny said to Ana as they fell into their food that night, “it’s yours for the taking.”

She smiled, small and fierce, and Warren didn’t know quite what came over him, but he said, “I’ll pay you better.”

Danny laughed. “I can’t argue with that. You’d have to live in Texas, though.”

Ana blinked. “Pardon?” she said.

“Come back with me,” Warren said. “We need a new cowhand, and I can’t think of a better one than you.”

She squinted at him, arms crossed. She tipped her chair back onto two legs. “You qualified to be making promises like that?”

“He’s heir to the throne, sweetheart,” Danny said. “You might as well be talking to the man himself.”

It was likely a testament to her focus on the issue at hand that Ana didn’t tactfully address being called ‘sweetheart.’

“I expect to be paid the same as a man.”

“Of course.”

“And if someone starts trouble with me, I won’t abide being punished for defending myself.”

“If someone starts trouble with you, they’ll be dismissed.”

The smile returned.

She held out her hand.

Warren shook it.

They headed back to Texas the following day, leaving before sunup, and Warren let Ana drive for a few hours through the flattest straightest bit of road so he could catch some sleep. 

They got home just after 8pm, and as the ranch came into view Ana rolled down her window to lean out, wind in her face, her teeth a now-familiar slash of white in the darkness.

“This is it?” she said, gesturing to the lit-up buildings sprawled along the black slope of prairie land.

“This is it,” Warren agreed. For once, the stillness of the ranch at night didn’t bother him.

They unhitched the trailer and parked it behind the horse barn, and Warren sent Ana up to the main house to enquire about some food. He followed a few minutes later but cut round the back of the house to enter through the open door off the side porch.

Grandpa was just standing up, turning off the lamp in his office, when Warren rapped his knuckles against the door frame.

“Warren,” he said. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes. You look plain wore out. How was it?”

“Good drive. Near miss with the lightning storm, but we got them moved hale and sound. Horses performed just as they should.”

“No surprises there,” Grandpa said, “considering who trained them up.”

Warren ducked his head.

“Listen,” Warren said, “I hired a new cowhand.”

Grandpa near about stopped in his tracks.

“You what?”

“Before I left. You were saying you needed two new cowhands for the season. I hired one.”

“One of Danny’s boys?”

“No, sir. But she did come on the drive. And Danny paid her same as the rest of us. She’s got a good touch with cattle. Sings them calm like you wouldn’t believe.”

She,” Grandpa said.

“Ana,” Warren said. “Grew up on a ranch in Mexico. I’ve promised her the same salary as the men provided she pulls her weight. Won’t be a problem, from what I’ve seen.”

Grandpa looked at Warren like he wasn’t sure if he should be pleased or angry at Warren’s unexpected initiative.

“You screwing her? Is that what this is about?”

“No, sir. And I wouldn’t say that again where she can hear. She’s got a switchblade and a hell of a lot of pride.”

Grandpa started laughing like he might not stop.

“Alright,” he said when he got himself together again. “Alright, so we’ve hired a Mexican spitfire. I may just have to join the next roundup to see her in action.”

“You won’t be disappointed,” Warren said.

“No,” Grandpa said, tapping his hat against his thigh. He squeezed the back of Warren’s neck and ducked out onto the porch. “No, I don’t imagine I will be.”