Stranger on the Plateau

They were stranded on a mountain in bad weather with a hundred and twenty-five horses when a guardian angel appeared...

Posted in , Apr 20, 2015

An artist's rendering of a cowboy angel on horseback

Bang! The door slamming jolted me awake. The sky outside my bedroom window was pitch-black. It wasn't anywhere near morning. Whatever time it was, my father was awake and furious.

"Those no good...They're gone!" he said. Then he yelled, "Everybody up!"

I scrambled out of bed and followed my older sister, Geraldine, into the kitchen where my parents were. "The field hands have deserted us!" Dad said. "Snuck off in the middle of the night!"

Why would they do that? I thought sleepily. Then I remembered. The afternoon before I'd been tucked up in the hayloft and heard Dad fight with Allen and Jake by the corral. Dad wanted them to drive his herd of horses up Mount Home in the Uintas, across the wide plateau called the Blue Bench, then back down the other side where our new farm was waiting for us.

"You're crazy!" Allen had said. "You want us to drive 125 horses up a mountain pass for 20 miles, and another 50 across that God-forsaken Blue Bench all in one day? It's impossible. You've got to truck 'em to your new place!"


"There's no money for trucking," Dad said. "You get your gear together. You're leaving at four o'clock tomorrow morning, so you'd better be ready. It's the only way to get those horses out of these here hills before it snows."

During dinner both Allen and Jake were silent. A terrible silence, louder than any angry words.

They sure were dead set against crossing that Blue Bench, I thought now, standing in the dark kitchen in the middle of the night.

"We've got to move to our new place today, horses and all," Dad told me and Geraldine, his voice going gentle. "Your mom can't drive the truck or those horses. She and I will take your little brothers in the truck with our things.

"Geraldine, you and Sylvia will have to drive the horses up Mount Home and across the Blue Bench. Nobody's better with horses than you two. You're better than those field hands, even. Just move west to east. I'll meet you on the other side."

Life on a farm wasn't like life in the city, especially back then. Us kids were used to hard work and I was at home on a horse. But if two grown men didn't want to do it, how could Dad give such a job to Geraldine, at 17, and me, only 12? Get all those horses up a mountain, across 50 miles of dirt, sagebrush and sky in all directions?

What if we needed help up there? Don't you care what happens to us? I wanted to ask, but nobody said no to Dad. And for good reason. He usually knew what he was doing.

Geraldine and I saddled up. I rode Hytone, my favorite, a big, beautiful palomino. As the sun rose so did my spirits. We followed a mountain road lined with quaking aspens, pine trees and lots of grass for the horses to graze on.

Trees canopied the road. Glimmers of sunlight danced through the dewy leaves. Geraldine and I giggled, sang songs and yodeled at the top of our lungs. Two girls were doing what seasoned field hands couldn't.

We watered the horses at a creek, then Geraldine rode out in front to guide them onto the top of the plateau. I followed behind the herd. The Blue Bench was as desolate as I remembered, full of washes and ravines.

Seeing it laid out before me I wondered if we'd ever reach Dad on the other side. Maybe those field hands had the right idea by running away. It was just Geraldine and me, abandoned with the herd. "We have to be really careful," Geraldine warned me, "not to lose any of the horses back in those ravines."

The horses' hooves stirred up clouds of dust. We kept them close together. Too much space and some young renegade was sure to break ranks and race off to parts unknown, tail waving straight up in the air. Then we'd have to go racing after him. Looking out over their backs to the north I saw the peaks of the Uintas glistening with summer snow.

We pushed out over the dusty land. There was no yodeling now. I was plain mad. My mouth was parched. My butt ached in the saddle. I squirmed side to side, but it didn't help. My shoulders and neck hurt too.

"Are we about there?" I cried out. "How much longer?" No answer. Geraldine couldn't hear me way out in front when I added, "My body feels like dying!" Nobody would care if I did die up here, I thought.

We pressed on, hour after hour, until the sun got low and the wind picked up. Heavy black clouds gathered over our heads. Now, as well as being tired, thirsty and mad, I was scared.

"Dad'll never find us in a storm," I yelled. "He cares more about his horses than he cares about us!" I laid my head on Hytone's strong neck and bawled.


But my bawling didn't stop the rain pouring down on us a moment later. The horses turned their backs to the storm, dropped their heads and refused to move. This is as bad as it gets, I thought. Then it started to hail.

Geraldine rode her horse over to me. She looked as miserable as I felt. "This hail's beating us up!" she yelled over the wind. We huddled close to the horses' warm bodies for shelter. "I guess we know what hell is like, don't we?" Geraldine yelled. We sure did.

We pressed together in the thick black night as the wind battered us. When the storm finally let up a little Geraldine said, "Let's get on our horses. We must be almost there by this time."

I climbed up on Hytone and tried to urge the horses forward. A flash of lightning showed they were wandering off, hunting for food. "Hey, I'm hungry too, but we've got to get off this God-forsaken Blue Bench!" I yelled as Geraldine and I chased them back into line.

I was shivering wet in my clothes. "Dad!" I screamed. "Where are you?" The wind pushed my voice right back in my face. I probably would have cried again if I wasn't so tired.

"I'm going to look for a way off this plateau," said Geraldine.

She disappeared in the darkness, and I felt like the last person in the world I could count on was gone. I was abandoned in this desolate place, lost. Lightning flashed again, showing only the same dirt and sagebrush I'd been staring at all day. "God!" I called out. "I need you now. Please! I'm farm-raised and tough, sure. But I'm still just a kid!"

Another bolt of lightning struck. It illuminated the sky—and something else. The outline of a figure. What was it? A man on a horse? "Dad!" My heart swelled. Courage surged through my body. Dad's come for us! I'd never loved my father so much as in that moment I realized we weren't abandoned. Maybe I was just a kid, but I felt like I could do anything.

"Come on," I yelled to the horses. "We're getting off this plateau now!"

Another flash of lightning showed me our savior again. He was smiling proudly, like he was just as happy to see me as I was to see him. He motioned for me to come his way. Hytone trotted ahead like he was following the signal too, his tired muscles moving fast under my legs, stepping onto a narrow path I would never have found without Dad to guide me.

I met Geraldine at the bottom right beside a road. We'd made it off the Blue Bench, and we hadn't lost one horse. "Which way should we go?" Geraldine said, looking up and down the road.

That was a silly question—we would just follow Dad when he got down. But before I could say anything, a truck pulled up. Down rolled the window and out popped Dad's face.

"You made it!" he said. "Good work! Now just follow me down the road a bit and we'll be home." He started to raise the window and stopped. "I'm really sorry I didn't meet you on the plateau," he said. "I couldn't find a way up there in this storm."

Couldn't find a way up? I thought. Then who...?

I twisted round in my saddle and looked back up to the Blue Bench far above my head. Lightning lit the sky. The man on the horse waved down to me, smiling and proud at what we'd done.

I still felt him watching over me as I turned to follow Dad home in the truck. Dad had not been able to lead us down the mountain himself, but I was never alone on that plateau. And I would never be abandoned.

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