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Irons in the fire: Hornets and antlers

Paul Marchant for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 September 2018

As if from the staccato blast of a Gatling gun, I felt three sharp, painful smacks to my head just under my hat and directly behind my right ear. Except for the occasional Red Ryder BB gunfight with my cousins when I was a kid and the time my back was peppered by some shotgun pellets from an idiot pheasant hunter as I was fixing a fence, I’ve never really been shot.

But for the split second before I realized what was happening, it darn sure felt like I was taking a couple rounds to the back of the head. As my little roan, all wild-eyed and panic-stricken, took two giant lunges ahead and to the left, I realized that I was indeed under fire, though not from any sort of man-made weaponry.

I was under attack from the demons of the mountain: a swarm of black bald-faced hornets – usually at their masterful, nasty and evil worst in the late summer and early fall.

“Ride, ride, ride! They’re following you!”

It was Daniel, perched on his gray mare, 30 yards up the hill, and all Robert E. Lee-esque as he directed the battle as it unfolded below him. I gave little roan the steel, and we crashed ahead up the hill until I could no longer see or hear the presence of the relentless little enemy, though the reminder of their fury burned on my head like the heat of a rustler’s running iron.

This wasn’t my first run-in with the vicious little devils. The little buzzers and I have a history. Over the years, I’ve come face-to-face with their wicked mischief on several occasions. As a matter of fact, this particular encounter was the second in less than an hour. A year earlier, their wrath, exercised on my horse, who, to this day, I believe was in cahoots with the insidious insects, resulted in an epic trashing and a busted-up saddle.

There were no Skoal dippers in my company, so I couldn’t even borrow a wad to dress my battle wounds. I would just have to soldier on without the aid of anesthetic, placebo or otherwise.

When I met up with Daniel a few minutes later as we rounded the ridge and pushed the cows into the next draw on our way to Mill Canyon, I marveled when he told me he’d never seen any “black bees like that before.” It seems like I can’t even think about riding on the mountain or moving cows in late summer without some kind of an encounter.

I’ve gathered and sorted and moved cows in Daniel’s company several times a year in the past decade, so it’s hard to imagine that he’s never been caught in a hornet’s nest.

Daniel hails from Mexico and has worked for my neighbors, the Cactus and Puckerbrush ranches, for several years. He’s a good hand, knows the country and the cattle, is handy with a horse and is as reliable as they come. He’s the kind of guy you want to keep around, but at the same time, is hard to keep ahold of because his type is rare and in high demand.

He also has a talent that, as far as I can tell, is unmatched – at least in my corner of the world. He’s a deer and elk antler shed magnet. I honestly can’t recall a time I’ve ridden the foothills or mountains with Daniel when he hasn’t picked up at least one shed. Quite often, he’ll ride off the mountain with two or three sets of antlers tied to his saddle.

Daniel with a mule deer shed

Now, you might think that a guy who’s constantly finding treasures on the ground and under the brush must certainly be neglecting the real job at hand. But as I’ve already established, that is not the case with Daniel. He clears cattle off the high-desert hills and high-country slopes with more efficiency than a pack of good Catahoula hounds would clear out a Louisiana swamp.

At the end of two days of moving cows several miles from one end of the allotment to the other, I remarked to Daniel that my Winnie the Pooh-like ability to find bees wasn’t nearly as impressive as his antler radar.

He laughed and declined my offer to trade talents. That exchange led me to consider the sublimity in Daniel’s ability to find balance and how it ought to be that way with life’s long trail.

It’s not all that rare to find that you may focus so much on doing a job that you fail to notice what’s around you and wind up in a hornet’s nest, with the job only half done, anyway. Maybe, just maybe, if you slow down long enough to take a breath, you may get all the cows gathered AND find an antler or two along the way.  end mark

PHOTO: Daniel with a mule deer shed. Photo by Paul Marchant.

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