There was a water pump, but no trough. I turned the pump on and twined my fingers into a bowl. Mort drank, taking great gulps from the gushing water that drained my makeshift bucket and soaked me down for the second time that day.
I wiped down his face and belly with my wet hands. He was ganted up and he had wrinkles under his eyes.
I loosened the cinch and let Mort graze for awhile. My stomach rumbled and I thought about how long it was going to be before I ate.
"I sure don't want to backtrack," I told my weary horse, "maybe we'll go out this road and find another way home."
I laid my head on his butt and closed my eyes. I gave him another ten minutes before we headed out.
After an anxious couple of miles we came to a little grocery store at the corner of our dirt road and a main road.
"Why honey, where did you ride in from?" The lady at the counter said after one look at my grimy clothes and sunburned face.
"I'm from town," I said, "I was wondering if you could tell me the best way home."
"Well you're in Falcon now. If you head out this way you'll end up in Black Forest," she pointed North, "this way will put you right in downtown," she pointed West. "You look about done in, do you want to call somebody?"
"No, no, I'm fine, which way did you say Black Forest was?"
I couldn't imagine who I could call. My butt was getting deeper in trouble every minute. I had friends from my riding club in Black Forest and I knew how to ride home from there. It seemed the best bet.
I felt better as we headed North. I didn't have a clue where I was, but I knew I'd eventually end up somewhere I recognized.
Mort's trot picked up and he seemed a lot cheerier. It might have been my renewed sense of purpose, or he might have had an idea where we were, whatever it was he slid back into his easy, long strided trot and headed the direction I asked.
We felt good enough to stop and cause a little trouble.
There were maybe 8 pairs of cattle drinking at a water tank. I came in through the gate and they scattered as we came up to drink.
Mort snorted and played in the water. He'd bury his nose in deep and make waves by pushing his head back and forth. When he felt the cattle edging back in to share the water he would pin his ears at them, sending them back out.
Once I remounted I hesitated before I turned back to our road.
I'd seen the cowboys do it on TV. Herding cattle couldn't be that hard.
I pointed him to the cattle which were still patiently waiting for us to leave them to to the water. Mort pricked his ears and headed towards them with interest.
We walked around them, bunching them up first. They were easy enough to keep in a bunch, especially since we were circling the water tank.
Then I peeled an old cow off the herd. She trotted around the group, her calf snugged in to her flanks.
We trotted behind her, she disappeared into the herd ahead of us.We peel off another pair, then another. Mort was getting pretty good at pushing them out and we both agreed to stay away from the cows who lowered their heads and shook their horns at us.
Then I decided we could hold one out of the group. It took several tries but we finally cut a cow and calf away from the herd. The cow slipped past us, but we held the calf.
Before I could think of what to do next the calf turned tail, whacked through the lower two strands of the barb wire fence and hightailed it.
I ran up and down the fence looking for a gate as the little calf disappeared into the heat waves shimmering above the pale prairie grass. This was not good.
I looked all around and saw no place to go for help.
It occurred to me I could be shot for cattle rustling and trespassing. Or hung. Or both.
With a guilty conscience I hustled out to the road and headed on my way, trying to look as innocent as possible. I never did see the calf again.
By the time we hit Black Forest, Mort was down to a walk. When I finally found a street I recognized the sun was definitely hanging over the mountains. The heat had picked up for it's final blast before the cool evening would take over for the night.
The shade from the thick pine trees gave us a welcome relief.
We walked along the side of the dirt road, finally close enough to home territory to need to stay out of traffic.
I made one last water stop as I came up on Mike Craig's place, Pine Run Ranch. Mike met me in the yard.
"How did you end up here?" He asked.
As I unfolded my day (sans the cow episode) his eyes grew wide. He looked Mort over, ran his hands down his legs and pinched the skin on his neck.
"Go ahead and give him a drink and let him graze awhile," he said, as he loosened his cinch.
"He seems to be in pretty good shape."
"I've let him rest and drink off and on all day," I told him.
"You look about done in too. Should we call your folks?"
"No, no, let's not do that," my words rushed over each other.
I sat in the grass and leaned back against a fence post. It did feel pretty good to sit still. My legs ached and I felt a pretty good saddle sore starting on the inside of one knee.
I visited with Mike until Mort started to pick his head up and look towards home between bites.
"Are you sure I can't call somebody for you?" Mike asked again.
"You know, I think we'll go ahead and finish it," I said.
Mike stood with his hands in his pockets and a worried look on his face while I cinched my horse back up. I noticed my latigo went up another two holes since the far away morning. Mike watched from the end of his drive until we turned around a bend and disappeared in the trees.
I was so tired I kept dozing off. Mort walked on without my help, sure of the way home now. We travelled steadily, Mort's ears were up and his walk was even. We rode by our riding club as the sun began to sink, came down T-gap road, passed Swede's arena and finally, finally, saw the drive-in on Barnes Rd.
Mort whinnied, his voice was raspy and deep, but he found his trot one more time and we cruised in the last few miles.
I pulled off his tack and was grateful I had remembered to fill his water in the early morning. The cool night air raised goose bumps on my arms. The cold was starting to settle on me and I wished for a jacket. I tossed him half a bale of hay before I picked up my saddle and made my way home.
I slid in the door a little after 8 p.m.
"What happened?" My mother's worried face switched gears into pure pissed as soon as she noted I still had both arms, both legs and there was no blood.
"I got a little lost," I told her.
My weariness was seeping through my bones and I went to sit down on the couch. Somewhere in my fog it registered I must have really scared her because she was letting me sit on the couch in my barn clothes.
I gave my parents an abbreviated version of my day. I saw them glance back and forth at each other, resignation and belated worry crossing their faces.
"Couldn't you have called?" My Dad asked.
We don't have a horse trailer! I shouted in my mind.
"I never found a phone," I said instead.
Later, after I had cleaned up and had my much anticipated cold supper I found myself back on the couch, staring into space in a total stupor.
"Have you ever been so tired you felt heavy?" I asked my Dad.
"I swear, my arm weighs about 1000 pounds." I slowly lifted my arm and let it fall.
Dad came over and sat next to me. He unfolded a map and spread it across our laps.
"Let's track this ride you went on," he told me.
"We talked and whispered, my poor Mom had her fill of me for the day, and figured out the route I had taken.
Mort and I had covered a little over 70 miles.