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Return of the Cowgirl

"Peter's sulking because he couldn't have his horse," says his wife, Anne.

"This is a pony!" Peter cries. "My feet will get wet when we cross water."

Double E Ranch in New Mexico
Double E Ranch in New Mexico
Ranch hands take clients on horseback rides through the spectacular scenery at Double E Ranch in New Mexico. (Carol Guzy - The Washington Post)

_____Spring Travel Issue_____
Wash Thoroughly Without a Swimsuit (The Washington Post, Mar 6, 2005)
Cruise Control (The Washington Post, Mar 6, 2005)

We are headed to the HW Ranch, once owned by relatives of Donald's, and a half a day's journey up Bear Creek. Almost immediately the going turns laborious. In the absence of any clear path, we head straight through the stripling willows that clog the creek bed, tucking our heads and presenting the tops of our hats to the whipping branches. The patch of waist-high shrubbery I take a shortcut through turns out to be cat's-claw, and the hooked thorns embed themselves in my legs through my jeans.

After a few hours of fighting the underbrush, we reach a wire gate that marks the beginning of the HW. A dirt road appears in the sand. Our horses prick up their ears, and a moment later a chorus of agitated bellows floats down the hill. Preston grins, and spurs his horse up the road. By the time we reach the old ranch house, he has dismounted and is standing in a cattle pen making notes on a pad, a slight figure in a sea of heads and wide, shining horns. Standing motionless in the middle of the bunch is a massive bull. Preston squints at its ear tag and scribbles on his pad.

"We're going to sell you, you big son of a bitch," he says under his breath.

The wire pen holding the Double E's cattle has a gate opening directly into the wash, and we gather below it in jumpy anticipation. On the other side of the fence, Alan and his horse are working to crowd the cattle against the gate. The possibility of freedom broached, a state of unease has filtered through the groups on both sides of the fence.

Alan appears at the gate. We regard him anxiously. I, at least, have no idea what to expect. I tighten my stampede cord to the point of near-asphyxiation. Perhaps herding cattle will be self-explanatory. Perhaps he is about to give us some last-minute pointers.

"When I open this gate," Alan calls, "here they come."

The gate swings open. There is an electric pause, as the herd considers its situation, and then, of a piece, it lumbers toward us, swerves and heads down into the wash.

Herding cattle, I quickly find, is a little like herding marbles on a hardwood floor: Each animal barrels along a trajectory, ricocheting off obstacles and off of the others. The cattle crash through dense underbrush, and get themselves hung up on rocks and logs. They bellow inconsolably.

Preston bounds ahead, providing someone to follow, and Alan hangs back, guarding against stragglers. It is our job, Alan calls, to give the herd some motivation up the middle, which we do, hesitantly at first, and then boldly, lunging at the slightest show of malfeasance and giving voice to an impressive range of ululations.

"Bully-bully-bully," shouts Colin, smacking the white bull on the hindquarters with a sound like shoe leather.

"Gerrowt," snarls his sweet wife, Helen, fearsomely.

"Boo-yoo-yoo-yoo," warbles Peter, materializing from the woods.

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