The Stallion


It was many years ago when I was a young teenager and summer vacation approached.  I was too young to get any work around Glendale other than mowing lawns so my folks wrote a letter to my Uncle Royce in Arizona.  Uncle Royce owned a cattle ranch not too far from Prescott in a little valley called Skull Valley.  A couple of weeks later a reply was received from Uncle Royce saying he would be happy to look after me for the summer and could assure my folks that I'd be exposed to, 'hard work and clean air'.


So just a few days after I'd finished my freshman year I was on a passenger train headed for Arizona.  Since my dad worked for the railroad I had a pass that permitted me to travel for free.  It did take a couple of days however as I had to go first to Los Angeles and then across Northern Arizona.  My uncle had a fellow from the ranch meet me when the train stopped in Ash Fork.  Boy there sure wasn't much there.  It was still May and the place was already hot and dry.


The fellow that met me said his name was Shorty and you could see why.  He looked like he'd been sawed off at the pockets and was so short he couldn't see over a sway backed burro.  I followed him out to the old pickup and threw my bag in the back.  The pickup looked like it wouldn't make it to the next corner much less the 60 miles down to Skull Valley.


As we drove along Shorty told be a little bit about the ranch and what I'd probably be doing.  "The old man's tough but fair," he said, "Just do what he tells you and he'll treat you straight."We only drove about 30 miles per hour so it was over two hours before we got to the ranch. 


It was a beautiful little spread nestled in a valley floor that was covered with grass.  I didn't see any cattle and when I asked, found out that they were all loose in the surrounding hills.  They pretty well stay that way until late fall for the roundup.


I sure learned a lot about ranching that year.  Uncle Royce believed in taking good care of his stock and while I was there he taught me how to do the same.  There were a couple of dairy cows he kept in the barn and I learned how to milk and take care of them when they were sick.  I had a chance to practice with a lariat and learned the proper term for many of the items around the ranch.


Some days I'd eat out next to the cook shack with the crew and other times I'd have supper with Uncle Royce and his wife in their house.  I liked them all.  They treated me like a young adult and it really made me feel good.


That might have been the high point of the summer if it hadn't been something that happened toward the end of my time there.  Uncle Royce had a large number of horses but every day or so he'd come into the house saying that some horses were missing.  He thought someone was stealing them until a neighbor dropped by one day and said that all the ranchers in the valley were having trouble.  It seemed a white stallion had come into the valley and surrounding area and was breaking fences down and having the horses follow him. 


The neighbor said they were going to organize a group to go out and try to find that stallion and bring it under control.  He said they expected it might take several days so to bring all the men he could spare and provisions accordingly.  I asked Shorty if he thought that Uncle Royce would let me go with them and he said he didn't think so. 


I finally got up enough courage to go ask Uncle Royce myself.  I figured it would be a flat, "No," but it wasn't.  "It's going to be a tough ride, Lee," he said.


"I know, Uncle Royce.  But I know I can do it.  I'll do what you tell me just like I've done all summer.  And I'll stay out of the way."


After a long silence he said, "Well, guess you'll never get a chance to experience life if you're not giving a chance.  We leave at daybreak."


I didn't sleep at all that night.  I imagined that white stallion running wild in the lead of a large herd of horses kicking up dust across the scrub desert.  When I heard the first commotion outside in the yard I was out of bed, dressed and headed out the door.


There were about eight of us including Uncle Royce.  We saddled up and headed north.  We'd only gone about ten miles when we joined up with a larger group from other ranches.  By the time we were together there must have been almost 50 men in the group. 


"The last they were seen was up in Chino Valley," one of the other leaders said, "Let's ride."


We spent several hours in the saddle, only stopping long enough to water the horses and stretch our legs.  In Chino Valley we saw the damage that had been done and where the herd had headed north.  We rode all day and by nightfall I realized this was going to be more than a simple outing.  Just before dark we stopped and made camp.  There really wasn't much for a camp.  We just made a couple of campfires and threw our bedrolls down on the desert floor.


I figured I'd have a hard time sleeping but the last thing I remember was looking up at the millions and millions of stars overhead.  Daybreak came way too soon but after some coffee and beef jerky we were in the saddle again.


It was late in the afternoon of the second day before we caught up with the horse herd.  You could see the cloud of dust several miles before we actually saw the horses.  Finally we crested a hill and in the valley below we could see a magnificent white beast in the front of fifty or more horses. 


We rode hard to close the distance and several of the cowboys got their lariats ready to use if they got a chance.  All of them fanned out wide to try to encircle the stallion.  It was probably two or three hours before we'd got between him and the rest of his followers but he was not going to be taken easily.  By this time he was zig zagging across the desert floor and sometimes trying to simply outrun us.


All of a sudden I heard Uncle Royce say, "We've got him now.  The way he's heading goes right to the edge of the Grand Canyon.  He's trapped and there's no way out."


By this time it was a race against time.  Some of the cowboys had fallen behind to control the horse herd and the rest of us were pressing on hoping to bring an end to the stallion's freedom before darkness fell.  We were so close to him that I could see his flared nostrils as he reared back on his hind legs.  He was covered with sweat and scratches all along his lower legs from the brush and cactus through which he'd run.


"We've got him now," I heard Uncle Royce shout.  And just as he said it we were off again in a chase across the desert.  By this time you could see the setting sun dipping low in the sky and bathing the rim of the Canyon in its last warmth of the day.  We were there and there was no way out but capture.  The cowboys closed in around him with lariats at the ready.  "Steady now," Uncle Royce cautioned.


I was so impressed with this animal and shortly I was going to see him up close.  Once again he reared up with hooves reaching for the sky and just as one of the cowboys got ready to try to lasso him, he lowered his head and pawed the earth as if to charge.  But he didn't.  He threw his head back and forth as if to say, "I'll never to taken alive," turned toward the Canyon, gave a mighty whinny and leapt into the darkening abyss far below.


I'd never seen anything like that in my life.  And neither had any of the others, for at that moment a silence settled over the group I can remember to this day.  We were all spellbound.  This beautiful white stallion had preferred death to capture.  We got off our horses and walk over to the edge to get a closer look as if not believing our eyes.  By this time it was so dark we could see nothing below.


Some of the fellows wanted to wait until morning to get a better look but it was finally agreed that there was nothing we could do and the remaining herd was what needed our attention.  We used ropes to secure those animals for the night and started back to Skull Valley the following morning.  On the return trip we rode many miles in silence with each of the riders contemplating what they'd seen the night before.


A couple of weeks later I caught the return train to Oregon and started another year of high school.  You know I never told anyone about what happened that night at the edge of the Grand Canyon.  I figured most wouldn't understand and those that did probably wouldn't believe me anyway.


It was years later before I ever made it back to the little ranch at Skull Valley.  By then my aunt and uncle had long passed away.  The place had changed a lot over the years and it really made me sad how much of it had fallen into disrepair.


As we were leaving the area it was about lunch time and we stopped into a little cafe in Prescott.  A storm had been brewing all morning and now the clouds rolled in and the thunder cracked.  The waitress came to take our order just as an extra loud clap went off nearby.  It made everyone jump but we must have had a puzzled look on our faces because the waitress said, "Don't worry.  That's just the Phantom White Stallion of Skull Valley."  I just replied with a smile and she continued, "Have you ever heard the story?"