A memory of my father, the shepherd

Juan Andres Vargas, Sr.

Horses and Dogs

Sheepherders have to be equestrians and know about horses and dogs, which, my father said, are the ones that earn our paycheck. Farrier tools and horseshoes were part of our gear. Three packhorses carried all our food, clothing, bedding, stove, tent, shovel, axe, farrier tools and my two boxes of books. The camp tender had to know how to saddle the horses, pack and unpack them and tie the loads correctly so they wouldn’t slide off on mountain trails. One also had to know where to and how to set up camp. It was not easy work.    

The Loneliness of the Sheepherder

During the entire three months in the mountains, we rarely saw other people. Once in a while we would visit herders from Taos in adjoining allotments, and every 10 days I rode down to where we had entered the Caribou, and waited for a rancher to pass by. I would ask him to take our grocery list and letters to our loved ones and request that the ranch’s co-owner, Mr. Dayton, send money to my mom. The list always included cans of Prince Albert or Velvet tobacco or bags of Bull Durham for our nasty smoking addictions. Only when I returned on a set date to pick up our groceries would I see someone from the ranch and have a chance to visit for a few minutes.

My dad was also eager to see other people, especially from Taos. Since he was not afraid to let the sheep graze untended for extended periods, one memorable day he and I decided to visit another herder named Belarmino Archuleta, who, along with his campero, Rugelio Martínez, was in an adjoining allotment. My dad and Belarmino were both from Ranchos.    

We arose earlier than usual the next day. After a hearty breakfast we rode up the mountain, found the herd intact, and with the help of the dogs, headed it in a direction that would allow us to intercept it that evening on the way back from our visit. We rode for many miles, and as we approached the camp, my father observed that Belarmino was the kind of herder who kept the sheep grazing near the tent and moved camp daily.       

We were happy to meet Belarmino and his camp tender, Rugelio Martínez. We talked about many things and made a wonderful noonday meal of tortillas, beans, red chile and lamb ribs, after which we took a short nap under a ponderosa. During lunch, Rugelio said that he had an older, very eccentric brother who was working as a herder in another allotment. His brother insisted on being without a campero, as he couldn’t stand to be around anyone. The following weekend, Belarmino and Rugelio visited us at our camp.       

A week or so later, we learned that lightning had killed Rugelio’s eccentric brother. Rugelio returned to Taos with his brother’s remains. Jesus Gutíerrez from Ranchos de Taos was his replacement. He told us that when Rugelio’s brother failed to arrive at the designated place on the remote mountain road for his food, the range rider and another cowboy were sent out the next day to find out why. Circling scavengers signaled where the body was. Coyotes, vultures, crows, ravens and magpies had gnawed a lot of his body, as well as the remains of the horse and dogs. The sheep had to be gathered, as they were scattered all over.

Years later, I asked my father about Rugelio, who was a short stocky guy who liked to drink and fight. He said he heard that he’d been shot and killed in a bar fight in Rock Springs, Wyoming.

Duties of the Campero

I was acting camptender, and relied on my father to patiently teach me the job. He had worked in his brother Martin’s restaurants in Taos.I was grateful that he taught me how to cook our favorite dishes. I learned to make tortillas, sopapillas, sourdough bread; I made leg of lamb and lamb stew in a Dutch oven buried in a hole covered with wet gunny sack covered with dirt. Brown gravy, red chile, sourdough starter from fermented milk, and the sourdough pancakes we savored every morning were all dishes I learned to cook.

My dad also taught me about the inherent dangers of riding among horses and dogs, and the dangers of being isolated in the mountains, where you might not see another soul for weeks.

My father was an intelligent and compassionate man. A week or two after we set up our camp, he told me to saddle up and help him bring down the herd from high up in the mountain so that they could drink from the creek. Sheep normally get sufficient moisture from the vegetation and dew that collected on plants. However, it had not rained in weeks. He also wanted to give them salt and to slaughter a fat yearling. My father caught it with his staff and dragged it by its hind legs to a log where we placed its head, cut its exposed throat and then punctured its spinal cord with a knife so that it wouldn’t suffer.

As the lamb was kicking in rigor mortis, I grabbed and held its hind feet tightly. No, No! Mi hijo, no la detengas, my father promptly told me, dejala que le tire los ultimos pedos al mundo. Mi Dios nos da estos pobres animales para que nosotros vivamos y siempre es duro matarlos, pero tenemos que vivir. (“No son! Let it kick its last farts at the world. God gives us these animals so that we can live and it is always hard to kill them, but we have to live.”)      

My father skinned the hind legs and placed a stout stick across them. Then we hoisted it up between two ponderosa pines and finished skinning it. During the skinning, he brought out a meat sack. He cautioned me that I had to get up each morning at dawn before the flies were able to move, and place the sack over the lamb. Otherwise, the flies would lay their eggs and the meat would be devoured by maggots and spoil. Each evening, I removed the sack and let the air out. We ate the entire ewe. None of it spoiled or grew mold, and it tasted better the longer it aged.       

My father got to know the entire allotment by exploring and memorizing all the trails and terrain. He understood the mountain so well in order to know where to let the sheep graze. Occasionally he rode off by himself to visit other herders and learn the parameters of other allotments. On one of our trips, he showed me where we would make our last camp before heading down in the fall. It was the highest point in the mountain and there was a spring with ice cold water.

From that vantage point you could look down on Soda Springs, Idaho and to the south, gigantic Bear Lake, and to the north, Montpelier. My father showed me an aspen where he had carved his initials “JA VARGAS” 10 years before. He had imprinted everything of significance in his mind and could remember details that others didn’t. He paid careful attention every step of the way. On one of those explorations, he showed me a blueberry patch hidden in a meadow, full of fruit. We gorged on them and took some back to have with our sourdough pancakes the next morning.      

On the way back from one of our visits with Belarmino in late evening, I poached a mule deer. We spent the night jerking the meat, salting it and hanging it to cure deep in the woods. Since it was illegal, it was my job to hang out the meat every evening and take it down in the morning before the flies and any ranger might come by. We also slaughtered and jerked a big ewe.

At the end of the summer, I took home a sack full of lamb and deer jerky that my mother utilized all winter long. She made brown gravy with potatoes and jerky, warmed in the oven, then smashed on a flat rock. She also used it in red chile. We stuffed our pockets with jerky and snacked whenever we got a hankering. I spent the summer exploring the forests (I found a whole ridge of giant ammonites!), cleaning out springs and bear wallows.

As the end of the summer approached, the sheep seemed to sense that it was time to head down the mountain. The grasses were getting dry and it was starting to turn colder. Of course, they didn’t know the fate that awaited them. Most ewes—those not kept for breeding—would be separated from their lambs, loaded on multilevel eighteen wheelers and driven to the slaughter.

I, too, was ready to return to my studies and didn’t know the fate that awaited me. After paying my tuition, purchasing all my course books and renting a hovel, I tried to find a job to pay for groceries through the semester. After four weeks of fruitless search, I got tired of being hungry and withdrew from school. I was promptly drafted into the army, and it would be two more years before I could return to the university.  But that is another story.

At the end of that summer tending sheep with my father, I packed my belongings, books and a sack full of jerky. As he and I embraced and bid each other adios, tears welling up in our eyes, I remembered the first metaphor of Spanish literature. El Cid is sitting astride his horse Babieca as he prepares to depart to fight the Moors who had occupied Spain for over 800 years. “Asi como la una de la carne, asi apartandose van. (“Like the slow tearing of a fingernail from the flesh, that is how painful their parting is.”)  

Juan Andres Vargas was born and raised in Taos. He received a B.A. from UNM and a Juris Doctorate from Thurgood Marshall Law School in Houston. He was a special assistant attorney general and twice elected probate judge for Taos County. Vargas has two daughters and is married to Eugenia Hauber, a retired attorney.

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