Now you can rest assured that Mr. Bill Cunningham was tough! Another good old boy we all called Uncle Kennis used to work for him and he said that if Bill sent you out to pack salt or check the range and cattle, well, Bill figured you hadn’t done nothing if you didn’t ride 50 miles by dark.
However, many of the cowhands in southeastern Utah agreed that the Cunninghams had the best horses and set the best grub on the table, so that made them a damn good outfit to work for.
If you read the last installment you might remember that Bill was out on a cold windy point up in the Book Cliffs with plenty of snow under his horse and more coming down. He had sent his stray cows back along the roundabout path he’d taken to get to this spot. He was undoubtedly the only man on top of this early winter mountain, and he knew he’d better be getting off it quickly.
It had already been a very long day full of struggles for both Bill and his horse, but dark would come early and he was going to take a shortcut down through the rims into Hells Hole Canyon. Bill knew that if he could make it down, hours would be saved and maybe he would be, as well.
Bill’s stray cows had been stranded along this ledge, but by moving some deadfall and rolling a rock or two he was able to get his horse down through a notch in this first rim. From that point he was able to follow a narrow spine down through the buck brush to another sandstone rim, and then another, as he worked his way down through what the map calls the Roan Cliffs; that area between the actual Book Cliffs benches that rise from the desert floor and the mountaintop known as the East Tavaputs Plateau.
I don’t know for sure how many rocky rims Bill clambered down through, but he said it was miserable going and steep as hell in a lot of places.
Sundown, or what passed for it on this grey colorless day, found Bill maybe just over half of the way to the valley floor of the canyon he was descending into. He had made it down through a couple of real bad places and was sure that those had been one-way passages. Thinking back on it I remember that as Bill told me that story, I’d butted in and mentioned something we both knew. That being: How amazingly wonderfully well a good horse works with you when the chips are down and how you can easily convince one to trust you and how it will go places and do things it would certainly balk at on any sunny Sunday gallivant of no consequence. It helps if the horse is a little afraid for his future and hoping you know what you’re doing.
Now, however, Bill found himself on a pinion- and juniper-clad shelf with a long way to go and a short time to get there as the good song says. He was searching for a break in the rim, but it was looking doubtful. This particular ledge was 12 to 15 feet high and a rather solid cliff instead of the broken sort of rims behind and now above him. Bill was hoping to get around the far ends of the rim on one end or the other where they banked into the next mostly vertical bulge of the canyon wall.
It was no good! Too steep and no footing for a horse. To make matters worse, much of the main crescent-shaped rim was hard to see over due to the trees and brush that clung to its edge. Bill said he had to leave his horse and crawl through the thick stuff in several places in hopes of finding a break in the rim that could be traversed horseback. He said it sure looked like this was the last real bad place and if they could just get down then the rest would be easier.
After finally getting a good look at all sections of the rim and finding no possible trail, it was looking like it was time to make camp with no camp gear. On the other hand, and out of pure desperation, Bill made an outrageous decision as the final daylight was about to be snuffed by the low clouds and big snowflakes that were swirling on the cold breeze.
Above him was the big heavy limb of a bigger-than-average pinion pine tree and it stretched out over the rim he needed to descend. Bill loosened his lariat from his saddle and threw one end up over the big limb. He caught the loose end then threw it over again making sort of a dally. He coaxed the horse down through the brush and as close as it would let him to the very edge. He was trying to turn it parallel to the rim in the tight quarters, but the big old boy was not liking it much. Just then his horse’s front foot slid and wedged Bill’s own foot against an oak brush stump, which stuck him to the very spot.
The horse was in a bad position and scared to move. Bill said he just cussed and kicked with his other foot and finally managed to knock the stump loose, freeing himself but nearly falling over the ledge in the process. Then he quickly ran the end of his rope through the pommel hole and made it fast to the saddle horn. Bill then grabbed the opposite end of the lasso and with no time to spare and all the guts in the world he backed up a couple steps and kicked his poor horse right over the rim.
The big pinion limb took the 1,100-pound load and the gnarly bark slowed the double-wrapped rope as Bill held on for all he was worth and payed it out as slow as he could. He said the horse went down and collapsed onto his knees, not like you’d lower a sack of eggs but more like a big paratrooper with too small a parachute. Bill then doubled his rope around a handy rock knob and used it to help him climb on down to his shaky ride. He checked the horse over and found nothing broken or much skinned up, so he climbed on and they lit a shuck for the desert.
It was rocky, rough, steep, and brushy going, but when they finally felt their way in the dark to the canyon bottom it was pretty much smooth sailing. A couple or three miles took them to the junction where they could hang a right onto the Nash Trail for home, then another four or five miles put them at the barn by around 10 p.m. Bill said it sure felt good to be home with all in fine fettle and said his cows made it late the next day.