It’s not like I’d woken up that morning planning to be an outlaw, but I had woken up to find my mules missing. Being camped on some remote BLM land above Arches National Park, I didn’t think twice about putting on only my tennis shoes and hat and leaving camp in my underwear.
There wouldn’t be anyone out there in the heat of late July and I expected to find my critters nearby at the head of Courthouse Wash, grazing the rich sedges and cattails just below the spring located there. But their tracks indicated they had pushed under the flood gate designed to let flash flood debris through while keeping livestock out of the park. Still assuming they’d be close by, I headed down the wash.
I hadn’t bothered with a halter and lead rope. My mules all came when called and I often rode my steadiest mule, Fart Blossom, bareback with no headstall. She was the first mule I ever owned. At 37 years she was my longest constant companion. I preferred riding bareback in those days and we had come to move as one unit. I had good control without a headstall on her and would start many a morning on desert camping trips leading my whole herd on a several mile wild ride with mules kicking and frolicking all around me while I often wore nothing more than my hat, skivvies and tennis shoes.
Almost 10 miles later, I started hearing the sounds of angry shouting and squawking radios echoing off the canyon walls near the bridge over Courthouse Wash on the park road. Although I’d walk/jogged as fast as the intense heat would allow, stopping only once for a drink at a spring halfway down, they’d already had enough time to call in the Calvary. As I approached the bridge, I saw two park ranger trucks and another truck with a big goose-neck horse trailer. One park ranger sat in his truck chilling in his AC watching another ranger trying to disperse a gathering crowd of onlookers to keep traffic moving. Thus, I approached this busy scene wearing only my hat, briefs, and a bad sunburn sorely wishing that I hadn’t shown up so under-dressed for this occasion.
Anyone that starts out bossing and bullying a bunch of mules is almost certain to be starting a losing battle and is sure to wind up frustrated and angry. That is apparently what had happened here. I managed to slip past the rangers and under the bridge without drawing attention other than a few tourists pointing from car windows. I soon came upon a very Yuppie-looking cowboy on a beautiful paint, guarding the wash above the commotion. I startled him from behind with a greeting and a compliment on his horse. Giving me a quick once over, he skipped formalities in telling me I was in a very dangerous situation and needed to return to my vehicle immediately. I then indicated his radio and told him that if he could call off his buddies for a minute, I could call my mules in.
“Your mules?” He didn’t wait for an answer as he grabbed his radio to excitedly report that he had the mule owner in custody and request immediate backup at his location. He then started ranting at me about irresponsible ownership of dangerous animals and no, I couldn’t help, I’d done enough damage already and they had the situation under control and we were all under the custody of the federal government of which he was a duly appointed agent and on and on. I’d never had a total stranger so pissed at me.
As he continued raging, his horse and I were paying attention to the crashing of underbrush approaching us through the tamarisk. I interrupted his rant to whistle my mule call and within seconds Blossom came crashing out of the brush dragging a lariat followed by my other two mules and donkey. Blossom was scared half to death and obviously glad to see me. The paint horse, already on edge from his rider’s anger, was obviously not accustomed to the company of asses and started rearing and spooking backwards into the brush as my mules rushed forward.
I looped the lariat on Blossom into a makeshift halter and was coiling up the slack when three riders appeared around the bend a couple hundred yards down the wash. When they saw us, they broke into a run shaking out new loops preparing for action.
This was crazy! My animals were standing as peacefully as possible in spite of the yahoo scaring his own spooked horse. These guys didn’t want peaceful resolution. They were pissed and wanted revenge. They wanted to rope and choke down my best buddies!
With rangers above and angry vigilantes below, I was struggling for a solution when the pissed-off paint owner screamed, “Get your blankety blank blank mules away from my horse!!” This not only sounded like a great idea, but seemed to be a direct order from a self-proclaimed, duly appointed agent of the Federal Government. I shucked the makeshift halter off Blossom, hopped on and hauled ass.
The first ranger (requested backup?) had no time to talk as he dove for cover from my little stampede. The second ranger, who had been on the bridge with his radio when we rounded into sight, had plenty to say as he ran, stumbled and tumbled down toward the wash. “Halt! Stop! You’re under arrest! This is evasion! Don’t make it worse!” I replied with “Look out! Can’t stop! Out of control! Call off your riders!” Pokey, the donkey, crow-hopped a few steps over to throw a side kick in the direction of the ranger to punctuate the end of our conversation, and the race was on.
Looking back over my shoulder every few seconds, I saw the three riders coming under the bridge with the paint horse guy close behind. Over the first half-mile the riders slowly closed the gap to within about 50 yards, but I wasn’t too worried. Although Blossom was barely 13 hands and built like a pregnant guppy, she was deceptively fast.
Those riders all had 30 to 40 pounds on me, not including their heavy western saddles, and it was at least a hundred degrees out. With Blossom being half Arabian and half ass, I knew I had the best combination of desert equines under me, and I’d not yet asked her for speed.
Nonetheless, just for safe measure, I took a shortcut across a long meander on an ill-defined game trail I’d taken on the way down the wash following the mules’ tracks, so I knew they were familiar with it, too. I was risking a little sunburned flesh in the tight brush, but Blossom was best in tight quarters and any followers would have to dismount to negotiate some low hanging cottonwood branches along this trail.
I came back out into the wash with a minimum of scratches and no pursuers in sight. Soon, the three riders came around the bend in the wash, whipping and spurring harder than ever, but 200 yards further behind and slinging lather with every stride. Blossom was barely starting to sweat. Then the paint came crashing into the wash from the game trail, taking the lead of the posse but missing his rider, now replaced with the remnants of cottonwood branches hanging from the saddle horn. Rounding the next bend I lost sight of my pursuers but let my gang keep running. They were still frolicking.
A couple of miles up the canyon, my animals had slowed to a casual lope and I finally persuaded Blossom down to a trot and then a full stop at the end of a several hundred yard straight stretch where I sat watching for pursuers and pondering how this style of Fruit of the Looms had come to be known as “jockey shorts.” Obviously, I wasn’t alone in my taste for riding apparel.
Down the canyon two riders trotted into sight on tired horses where they stopped and sat glaring at me. I doffed my hat and waved it at them in the classic cowboy “adios amigos” fashion, to which one responded by raising his hand in what I guessed was a less amiable gesture. I then gave my best “yee haw” and for the first time that day asked Blossom for some speed, which she happily delivered, almost squirting out from under me as we zipped around the bend and out of sight.
Dropping out of high school to pursue the life of a cowboy, Duke eventually bullshitted his way into college where he learned pretty much everything. The rest he makes up.