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For four days the wild horses ran, trailing streamers of Idaho's dust—dust the gray-white color of leaf smoke and heavy with the smell of crushed sagebrush, wild mint and prairie grass. Conglomerate breeds of mustang, Thoroughbred, Apaloosa, Percheron and Indian pony, they came by the dozens and by the scores: clattering over the rimrock; skidding and poking down the blood-red scab stone set like tiles on the walls of Payne Creek canyon; splashing through the Squaw, the Wickahomey, the Shoo Fly creeks; stumbling in the faded ruts of the old Wells, Fargo stage route to Silver City, Nev.; drumming in a jig trot across the stubble of a dry lake bed in Duck Valley. When, at last, on the fourth day, the drive ended at the pine pole corrals, the horses and the men who had led them stopped and sagged. The sun sank behind a butte and was gone. And a wrangler, drawing a checkered sleeve across his forehead, said the days of the wild horse are running out. The West, he said, will seldom see another roundup like this one.
If this were indeed the end for the wild horse, the end had been a long time coming. The animals pawing and nickering uneasily in the corral on the Riddle ranch in southwest Idaho had had the run of the place, a quarter-million-acre place, for as long as anyone could remember. In fact, through their cayuse and mustang progenitors, they held claims on the land much older than those of the pioneer Riddle family, which arrived in Duck Valley with their branding irons eight decades ago.
But now the U.S. Government, dismayed by the insatiable appetite of the wild horse on the shrinking range, assesses the rancher a half dollar each month (or twice as much as for cattle) for every horse grazing on federal lands. Like nearly all livestock men in the dry West, the Riddles need the grass and water on the adjoining federal range to stay in business. "So you can take it from there," says Ed Riddle, who operates the ranch with his brother Bud and another partner. "The demand for wild horses is dying out. We couldn't get them broke good if the demand was there because there aren't enough men nowadays who know how. And the Government raises hell if we leave the horses on its range. We figure we have to sell now for what we can get while there's still anything to be got."
There were more than 200 horses roaming the Riddle ranch when the roundup started, and five men had gone out to find them. Bud Riddle, 37, was in charge; an articulate, good-humored and thoughtful man, he manages the 3,500 cattle and the saddle horses on the ranch, and spends most of his days on horseback. With him were Hubert Egan, 49, a solidly built man of the Paiute Indian tribe whose somber face is as dark and as tough as cordovan leather and whose Chevrolet hardtop is as colorful as war paint; Willard Egan, Hubert's teen-age son, who speaks Paiute to his father, English to horses and white men; Roy Ramey, 28, a transplanted North Carolinian who has wrangled horses and cattle for 10 years and who respectfully asks to be remembered as a buckeroo (the word cowboy, says Roy Ramey, should be reserved for "the showoff sissies in the rodeo" and for the loafers who wear their blue jeans rolled and ride the stools at the drugstore); Harry Ivie, 58, a sort of buckeroo's buckeroo who has ridden herd most of his life and who is spindly, weather-beaten, conversationally at ease with "yep" and "nope" and unshakably fixed once mounted in his saddle.
Notwithstanding the enormous size of the Riddle spread—a complex of six old ranches opening out onto government lands—the horses were not hard to find; the main herds had occasionally been seen, though at a distance, by the wranglers working the cattle. Out behind the land which had belonged to the old Quarter-Circle DO, for instance, ran a band of geldings, rounded up and branded when they were colts. Another gelding band was in the canyons between the Quarter-Circle DO and the Flying H. North of the YY ranch there were mares and colts, under the control of an outsized white Percheron stallion, and a similar band grazed somewhere behind the Bar 11. The plan was to pick up these larger herds first and then to gather in the smaller ones on the drive back to the YY, the Riddle headquarters.
The roundup began after breakfast, and one day was much like the other. In twos and threes the men rode their saddle horses at a walk into the plains, over a landscape unmoving except for the heat waves shimmering from the earth and, now and then, a bounding antelope, a flushed sage hen or a skulking coyote.
Never fast enough
They found some of the wild horses serenely cropping the brown bunch grass in the pocket of a dead-end canyon, some drinking at their watering hole, some already alerted and moving away, over the rimrock and out of sight—moving fast but never fast enough or purposefully enough to outdistance and outguess the riders circling their flanks. The riders branched out from either side to collect each small band and to coax it, with shouts and waved hats, into the main body. The horses resisted, but when escape appeared hopeless, most gave up and turned as the men turned them, falling behind Bud Riddle, who was riding point for the herd. A few, the daring, tried again for their freedom, peeling off and making for the high ground. But the outriders were too quick.
At midafternoon the column halted on a plateau. Two riders dropped over the hill to search for the mares and colts thought to be near by. The men left, behind to guard the captives eased from the saddle and sat in the shade of their mounts. The smoke from their tailor-made Camels curled above the knee-high sage as they talked about horses, cattle, roundups and water, of which there was none for five more miles.
An hour, hot and still, went by; horseflies buzzed, tails switched and a jet plane traced incongruous vapor trails in the cloudless sky. Then, over the rim, the mares and colts appeared, the riders at their heels, and melted into the waiting herd. The jig-trot gait was set again by Harry Ivie, who now took over the lead.