Coop Durrell and the Chinook Steer
by Faith Brynie
Stringy Spangler took a deep drag on his roll-your-own, while Coop Durrell ran his lasso through brown, callused fingers, methodically coaxing the kinks out of the ancient rope and looping it into a tight coil. To steady his balance on the fence top against the growing force of the wind, Coop jammed the heels of his scuffed, leather boots more firmly into the rail below. Coop ran a leathery hand through his three-day growth of grizzled beard. Today, Coop's knee ached with the vengeance of the devil. Must be the wind, Coop thought.
Stringy shifted closer to Coop on the fence and hitched up his chaps. "Another chinook," Stringy said, as if Coop didn't know.
Coop nodded and turned watchful eyes southward. Maybe up in Denver chinooks blew down the eastern slope of the Rockies, but across the flats of Huerfano County, they came from the south. The hot, dry chinook winds collected their load of red dust and stinging sand somewhere south of the border and hurled it across New Mexico, picking up filth and heat and evil as they blew. By the time they got to southern Colorado, they could turn a field of wheat to straw in an hour and bury a heifer alive in two. The chinooks set the sage brush afire with red dust and turned the trickles that sprung up in dry arroyos to rivulets of blood.
People got sick when the chinooks blew.
People got crazy when the chinooks blew.
"Not gonna get much brandin' done today," Coop said, feeling the grit of Juarez coat his tongue and grate between his teeth.
"Could work in the barn. Wax some of the saddles, shine up some of the tack," Stringy said, not meaning it.
"Don't know that I'm even up to that." Coop patted his bad leg, and Stringy nodded understanding.
"Always gets you when the chinooks blow, don't it?"
"Just like the first time," Coop said and remembered.
It had been a chinook then, too, a gully-gorger the same as this one threatened to be. Funnel clouds of ochre dust had skittered like mischievous tornadoes across the prairie, and the air was so dry, it had turned Coop's eyes to sandpaper and his mouth to parchment.
He hadn't been called Coop then. He'd been Beau, the name his mother had given him. French for "handsome," she said, and Beau had thought--without admitting it to anyone-- that he deserved such a name. He rode tall and proud in the saddle, and the girls in their bright, calico dresses and swingy, lace petticoats eyed him admiringly at the Saturday night square dances.
That was before the steer.
The steer had been a Texas longhorn, tall and tan and rangy--all bones and leather and willfulness. The animal looked no different from the others in the herd, but in some fundamental way, he was different. Later, Beau realized there was something in the eyes of that beast--some kind of fire that spelled trouble. He should have expected trouble even without the animal's glance of warning. The chinooks always brought trouble.
Beau had readied himself for the maneuver he had performed a thousand times before. In those days, there were no electric prods and trapping pens to guide and restrain the animals. The herd roamed free, and the cowboys practiced the ancient art of steer wrestling, now banned even from the rodeos for cruelty to the animals. Cruelty to the cowboys was more like it from Beau's view. Stringy was his partner then as now.
"I'll trap him for you," Stringy called above the roar of the wind and the gallop of the herd, "and you take him down."
Beau nodded agreement and guided his Appaloosa mare toward the unbranded steer. Stringy took his position opposite and punched his buckskin gelding to a gallop just as the steer sensed the danger of entrapment. The animal ran headlong into rough sagebrush, treacherous territory where gopher holes broke the legs of good horses and desolation broke the spirit of good men.
Not to be outdone, Stringy raced after the steer, with Beau close beside. In seconds, Stringy had the steer level with his horse's flanks and angling to the right---the perfect position for Beau to leap from the saddle gripping the steer by the horns. After that came the strength and the skill. A cowboy like Beau could plant his heels in the earth and wrench the steer's neck to the ground in a single, sharp thrust. Where the animal's head went, his body followed. The steer would be down in seconds, pinned to the ground and ready for branding.
With the steer perfectly positioned, Stringy shouted "Go!" and Beau sprang from his saddle. Good little mare that she was, the Appaloosa veered to the right, out of harm's way. Stringy cut to the left and swung his horse in a wide arc, racing back to snatch the hot branding iron from the fire now a hundred yards away before returning to burn the steer's flesh and retrieve his partner. Stringy would do the actual branding without ever descending from his horse, like a figure in a Charles Russell painting.
This steer had no appreciation for art. When Beau grasped the horns and planted his heels before him, the steer gave a mighty twist directly opposite to the force Beau was exerting on his neck. The steer was a powerful animal, stronger than most, and he tossed Beau over his back like a sack of manure. Beau landed in the sagebrush yards from the steer with his ankle rammed into a gopher hole. His heel and spur stuck in the hole while his body continued to propel forward, forcing his right leg back under him at an unnatural angle. Even above the wind, Coop could hear the shredding of ligaments and the snap of bones in his knee and lower leg.
Doc said it was the worst compound fracture he'd ever seen. But then that doctor hadn't seen many fractures--that is, if his skill in setting Beau's leg was any indication. The leg never healed properly, and Beau endured constant agony. The pain never eased, never retreated, only changed its form from a searing fire at some times to a stomach-churning ache at others.
That steer had trotted away, leaving Beau in the dust with a shattered limb and a shattered soul. That day he'd earned his new nickname: "Chicken Coop." Too chicken to wrestle a steer and too cooped up in his own fear to try again. Kindly, the old wranglers had dropped the first word of the nickname as the years went by, and the new boys didn't know why he was called Coop and didn't ask. Kindly, too, there were plenty of jobs around the ranch that didn't require wrestling steers, and Coop did them all. But he never rode quite so tall in the saddle after that, and the girls didn't flirt at the square dances anymore.
All Coop ended up with was the name and the fear. The nickname he could stand. The fear still consumed him, as undiminished by time as the pain in his leg. Peering into the dust devils stirred up by the chinook, Coop thought he could see that steer again, stepping lean and red-eyed from behind the corral gate.
When he looked again, he saw the impossible was true.
He blinked the dust from his eyes and turned to Stringy for confirmation, but Stringy had already descended from the fence and was halfway across the paddock toward the barn. Coop looked again and knew his eyes were not deceived. This was no ordinary steer. It was the same steer that had robbed Coop of his leg and his courage thirty-seven years before.
Coop drew back from that same red-eyed warning he had failed to heed decades ago. As the longhorn moved nearer, Coop shrank back from the radiating heat of the steer and nearly choked on the animal's musty, untamed odor.
Coop dropped from the fence onto his good leg and limped to the far end of the corral where his bay mare stood saddled. He did not take his eyes off the steer. The animal paced the length of the enclosure. It pawed the ground and puffed clouds of dust from flared nostrils like a bull. Coop rose to the saddle with a practiced swing and turned his mount toward the steer. The steer turned toward the gate and headed at a trot out to the open range. Coop followed.
For a moment, Coop lost sight of the steer in the swirls of fiery dust that scampered across the scrubland like puma kittens. The curved, ivory horns disappeared into the maelstrom and with them, the lanky, skeletal, loose-strung haunches of the steer. That steer was nearly as tall as Coop's horse and probably weighed more, Coop thought, before drawing up his mare, lifting his ancient felt ten-gallon from his head, and wiping his sleeve across his sweat-soaked brow.
Coop had left his days as a dreamer behind with his youth. He reasoned now with all the common sense his growing burden of dread would allow that this could not be the same steer. That was thirty-seven years ago, Coop tried to convince himself, and the Texas longhorn who had left him a cripple had been dog food and leather purses for so long that the dogs who ate him died of dyspepsia and the women who bought the purses threw them away in disdain when the fashions changed. With all the force of his reason, Coop tried to deny the truth that the churning in his gut insisted he accept. It was the same steer, all right, the same one that had made him less of a man than he had intended to be. The same steer, blown again--as before---out of the dust of the chinook. The aching in Coop's leg confirmed what his common sense strove to reject.
Everyone knows chinooks bring trouble.
Is it possible that chinooks bring second chances?
Hot and confused but inexplicably resolute, Coop kicked his little mare to action and plunged forward into the thick of the storm. The whipping, biting dust ringed him now like a cocoon--flexible, but skin-tight, breathless, confining to the point of claustrophobia. Coop's mount sensed her rider's fear and multiplied it by her own, slowing from the trot to a walk and picking gingerly through the banks of creosote bushes and stunted ocotillo that lashed at her legs.
Coop gripped his bay mare tight between his knees and shook the reins sharply, spurring her forward into a gallop. The horse responded hesitantly, but Coop dug in harder. The mare's heavily-muscled legs answered his commands with ground-eating bounds that cut the distance between Coop and the steer to ten yards in only a few seconds. The steer, alerted by the crunching of hooves against loose sand, turned his head and snorted over his shoulder.
The pursuit began.
The steer bounded headlong into vertical shafts of dust that looked as solid as Greek columns. The mare instinctively plotted a zigzag path through the obstacles, but Coop hauled at her neck and kept her on a course straight through the thick of it. The horse obeyed the signals of Coop's hands and knees and bent her head toward the retreating steer, her stride extending with each beat. Clouds of steam rose from her nostrils, and lather dappled her neck. Coop spurred her on, the reins loose now, giving the animal her head as horse and rider closed the gap.
Coop drew up behind the steer rapidly, but the steer ground to a halt, pivoted left, and loped off in a new direction. By the time the mare got her legs under her and corrected her course, the steer was twenty or thirty yards ahead again and gaining. Coop knew that his mare was fading, knew that the brave, little animal could not long keep up the pace he was setting for her. Nevertheless, Coop applied the spurs again, and the mare stretched for all she was worth. Coop leaned forward in the saddle, his head so close to the mare's neck that the reek of her sweat choked him nearly as much as the dust. They galloped on, closing on the steer when, once again, the longhorn executed his slide, stop, and pivot maneuver.
Coop and his mare slid, turned, and galloped once more, but Coop had grown wise to the steer's strategy and braced himself for the next encounter. Horse and rider bore down on the steer's flanks, the little mare growing more breathless with each beat of her hooves. Coop held her back a little, focusing on precise timing, trying to predict with pinpoint accuracy when the steer would pivot and whether to right or to left. A split second before the steer's turn, Coop pulled his mare hard left. The steer, having already committed to his pivot, circled left as well, directly into the path of horse and rider.
Here was the opportunity Coop had hoped to create. He propelled himself upward and out the saddle with a sharp, knee-wrenching thrust of his feet against the stirrups. For seconds suspended in time, Coop hung in the air like a gliding squirrel, his hands extended toward the steer's horns and his feet flying behind him through dust-clogged space.
Coop's gnarled fingers curled around the horns of the steer an instant before his feet hit the ground behind him. The steer plunged wildly forward at the same time as Coop's mare cut away to the east and disappeared into a whirlwind. Alone now, Coop tasted fear. The animal was dragging him through the sand and sagebrush, his good leg and his bad one trailing behind, both equally limp and useless. Coop tightened his grip on the horns. He had only one chance.
With the agility of a man a third his age, Coop flexed his abdominal muscles and lifted his knees tight against his chest. Then, in one urgent swing, he thrust his feet before him and leaned back hard. The keels of his boots plowed furrows into the soft earth, and the steer's horns threatened to slip loose from Coop's sweaty grip, but Coop held on. Shafts of pain sank from his back into his hips, thighs, knees, and calves, and his arms cramped with the fire of a thousand branding irons. Still, Coop held on. The steer tossed his head and kicked blindly at his tormentor. One hoof cut a burrow deep enough for a gopher into Coop's good leg, but still the cowboy held on. Sweat streamed from his head long ago separated from his hat, and blood soaked Coop's jeans and flowed into his boot. Still, Coop hung on.
The last moments were the hardest. The wind filled Coop's mouth with Mexican grime and peppered his eyes with sand so he could not see. The bellow of the wind was so intense Coop could scarcely make out the puffing of the tiring, but still powerful, animal he fought.
It ended in seconds. The steer pitched his head left one last time, a move that gave Coop a chance to tighten his grip and improve his leverage. Not much but enough. Enough to bring the animal to the ground, pinned on his side, snorting and exhausted beneath the yahooing cowboy who crouched astride the captive steer and punched the drooling jowls of the fallen giant with a playful, back-hand slap.
Stringy showed up then. He rode out of the dust just as he had thirty-seven years ago, but this time he did not have a fire-heated brand at his side.
"What the Jim Knickers you think you're doin', rollin' around out here in the dust all by yourself?" Stringy asked, circling his partner warily. "I saw you ride out in the storm. You losin' your marbles, Coop, or is it just the chinook crazies again?"
Coop lifted himself off the steer. The subdued animal shook violently and rolled over in the dust twice before finding its feet and limping off into the prairie. Coop stood frozen for long minutes, memorizing every step of the animal's retreat.
"For Pete's sake, Coop, quit starin' and let's get goin'. There's nothin' but dust and sagebrush out here, and that wind's gettin' meaner. Let's get back to the barn before this chinook drives me as loco as you are," Stringy shouted.
Coop strode even and strong on two painless legs toward Stringy, gesturing his intent to mount behind Stringy and ride back to the barn. Gripping Stringy's arm and swinging gracefully onto the horse's rump, Coop spoke. His voice was so clear and low, it silenced the wind. "I ain't Coop no more. I mean to be called Beau from now on. Beau's the name my maw give me, and it's the name I reckon I'll keep."
Stringy shrugged his shoulders and turned his gelding toward the corral in a smooth, wide arc. He punched his mount into a gallop, kicking up a cloud of red dust that rolled slowly away to be lost in the prairie behind them.