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Return of the Cowgirl

"Gee-yah," I try, tentatively. The doctor from Albuquerque snickers.

The Brits, as it turns out, are fantastic herders. Colin, whooping and hollering, takes the natural lead, flushing the bull out of a couple of tight spots and maneuvering the whole herd through a bottleneck as we near the end of the trail. Ann and Helen are eagle-eyed wingmen, dashing after wanderers, and Peter and the low-riding Lefty pull a few surprise ambushes from the rear. I manage to goad Gonzo into a couple of timely blocks. Now and then, the herd coheres into a unified bunch. It even kicks up a little dust.

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 head into the final stretch, sweating and stiff, funneling the herd through the creek and up the dirt road toward home.

At dinner, Alan estimates that we traveled a good 20 miles on our ride. I am sitting next to Jerry, the contractor from Iraq, who took a day trip with the beginning riders today. He shows me his handheld Global Positioning System, into which he has programmed the barn and the cabin. I have never seen one of these before, and he does a quick circuit through the functions.

"This was our max speed today, 12.3 miles an hour," he says. "That was a trot. This is the distance of the barn from the airport in Germany, our stop in and out of Iraq. This is the dining room's latitude and longitude."

We watch the screen, waiting for the satellite to deliver our elevation above sea level.

MY FLIGHT LEAVES from Silver City in the evening. After taking us on a last ride in the morning, Preston is heading into town to run errands, and Debbie has arranged for him to drop me at the airport. He and I drive around for a while, picking up a tire he was having repaired, lifting a hand at each passing driver. This is the New Mexico I was once intimately familiar with: the vast expanse of the flatlands, hemmed by blue mountains, framed by a wraparound windshield and split by a two-lane highway. "You and me and the lights down low," croons Gary Allan from the stereo. "With nothing on but the radio." Two long rifles and a few boxes of cartridges are lying on the bench seat behind us -- Preston has recently begun leading guided hunts at the Double E, for deer, bighorn sheep and mountain lions.

We stop at Wal-Mart, where Preston picks up a roll of pictures. He shows me one, a view of the wood-paneled interior of a mobile home. The Egglestons have offered to let him live on the ranch, and he is shopping around for trailers. Like Donald, Preston comes from several generations of ranchers and farmers; his father now works for a local copper mine. He recently graduated from high school with honors and a 4.3 GPA. "I had options, you know?" he shrugs. "But I do this because I want to."

Preston went dancing last night, at a bar called the Blue Front Cafe, an hour north of town. He is limping slightly, and as he eases back behind the wheel, he shows me a hole in the toe of his boot, where he stuck a pitchfork into his foot doing chores the day before. "I had to take 1,800 milligrams of ibuprofen just to be able to dance," he says. When he left, to catch a few hours of sleep before the morning feeding, the bar was still hopping. It was a quarter to 2 in the morning.

I wish that I had gone dancing at the Blue Front. I wish that tomorrow were not Monday, and that I did not have my entire year planned, a tidy grid of pay periods and federal holidays, on a laminated calendar push-pinned into the gray flannel of my cubicle wall.

The sun is setting, and from the parking lot of Wal-Mart the clouds stand out like red flares over the darkening hills.

"You know," Preston says, "most people have Sunday off."

He steers out of the lot. The road arrows toward the horizon, disappearing into the velvety twilight. He tugs on the brim of his hat, which hasn't budged since breakfast.

"But not cowboys," he says.

Lauren Wilcox is a writer living in Little Rock, Ark.

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