In the fading glow of the Idaho sunset, JP's voice cut through the quiet. "You've gotta move the string to the Inlet campground," he said, leaning casually against the blue 54 GMC stock truck. "Got some town business to take care of; I'll catch up with you later. Brush down the stock, feed 'em, water 'em, and be ready to roll at the crack of dawn."
I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, that's a bit much, don't you think? It's already 4:30. It'll be pitch black before I even start. Saddle the stock and string 'em out? Handling seven is a challenge, let alone fifteen. Cut me some slack, JP."
"Just get it done; you've done it before. I gotta run," he said, disappearing into the gathering dusk. "Unload the saddles and park the truck." And just like that, he left me alone with a to-do list as long as my arm and a night that promised to be anything but ordinary.
I pulled out the Decker saddles, ropes, mantys, bedrolls, two bales of hay, and 25 pounds of oats from the worn 2-ton stake truck. Giving JP a nod as he rumbled away, I trudged back to the animals, a good fifteen-minute walk away.
The sun dipped below the jagged horizon, casting long shadows as I set about saddling the horses and mule. The bunch seemed as disgruntled as I felt, and the lateness of the hour didn't help matters.
I lashed the bedrolls onto the mule, secured two bales of hay to Buckskin, my lead horse, and wrangled with Star, a black two-year-old filly who was still learning the packing ropes. The process took longer than I'd hoped; I was stubborn, sometimes to my detriment.
Finally, the string was set, and we began our journey toward the Fishhook Trailhead. "No moon tonight," I mumbled, glancing up at the star-studded sky. "Five miles to go," I whispered to Arabian, patting his neck in the fading light. Once on the trail, I reminded myself of the golden rule: no stopping. The stock could get tangled if we did.
Arabian, a true Arabian gelding standing at a mere 14 hands tall, carried me with an effortless grace. Despite his size, he was a powerhouse, and his smooth gait made the ride easier on my weary knees.
JP's parting words echoed in my mind: "Keep to the left all the way to the inlet campground." The Bench Lake trail clung to the western ridge, offering glimpses of Red Fish Lake below. With no moon to guide us, the starlight turned the ride into an eerie journey. The trail occasionally hugged the edge of a sheer drop, a thousand feet down to the dark expanse below.
As we pressed on in the shadowy landscape, the starlight offered just enough illumination to make out the trail ahead. The Arabian gelding led the way, his instincts seemingly unfazed by the lack of visibility. The air crackled with a nervous energy; even the unbroken string seemed to sense the unusual tension.
Finally, the trail forked, signaling a steep descent toward the lake. I dismounted, grasping Arabian's tail in a misguided attempt to let him lead the way. Horses, after all, knew what they were doing. But instead of a smooth journey, I found myself dragged and stepped on, the descent a chaotic dance in the dark.
The night was filled with uncertainty, and the only certainty was that the journey had just begun.