Later that day, after we made it back to camp and the horses were turned out in the grass, Jim led an escape with Tailstar in tow, and we could not find them. Buck called and called. Ironfoot and Diablo stood at the picket line under the pines, whinnying, stamping their feet, longing for the security of the herd. Buck ran to his truck, and with Dana Ivers and me, tore out to the jeep road. They found a trace in the sand leading from the Tavaputs and out of the Book Cliffs, south toward Colorado. "Goddamn, they think they're going home," said Ivers.
Six miles down the road, on the dizzying descent out of the Book Cliffs, was a cattle guard where the horses could get caught and break their legs, which would mean they'd have to be killed on the spot. Buck sped the truck along the twisty road, looking for evidence of passage: the snaking line of the halter ropes, then a pile of fresh manure, then hoof tracks. It was late afternoon, the light blue and dank as the sun failed over the ridges.
Finally, we spied the horses jogging in the distance. At the sound of our engine, they turned to look, and as if caught in a crime, they shook their manes and ran faster.
Ivers took the wheel, and Buck bounded from the truck. In a single, running, catlike leap he was on Jim's saddleless back, high on the animal's withers, legs splayed, his left hand gripping the mane. He grabbed the halter line that still held Tailstar and wheeled both animals around and grinned. "You turds," he told the horses. "He's got it," was all Ivers said as we sped back up the hill in the truck.
A few minutes later, we stopped at an overlook, waiting for Buck, worried now because he hadn't followed. From the perch, I could see the entirety of the Robbers' Roost where Travis and I had backpacked and been thirsty and wanted out. "We need these places like we need air," Travis had said. "A free man can't live in the termite existence of the cities. If you're gonna rebel, you need wilderness."
Travis told me later that I should "romanticize the hell out of our trip," that if this were a cowboy tale, we'd have met the cougar in the Roost and roped him, discovered a slug from Butch's gun, walked 50 miles with no water. Instead, there was only the silence of the country, the unspeakable enormity of it, the distant plateaus, the perilous deserts, the impossible canyons. Unlike in Butch's day, though, this space had been mapped. We were only a couple of hours from Grand Junction. Ivers had a signal on her cellphone. If anything went wrong, we could call in our location, and the Hellfire drones would be on their way.
Three thousand feet below us, I was scheduled the next day to meet an environmental activist who had told me there were plans to develop the East Tavaputs. Rich veins of oil-shale and tar-sand deposits waited to be exploited. The area would be ploughed under with new roads, the forests felled, the streams fouled, the wilderness strip-mined. I wondered what Butch would make of this: a tragedy or an outlaw's opportunity? I suppose it would depend on where they kept the payroll.
"See him?" Ivers said. I did not, but I heard the hooves. Buck was nearby, galloping the horses up the road. Ivers and I stood on the perch and listened. The sun, disappearing in the west, stained the land shades of sepia. There was a sweetness and melancholy to the fading light, and the hooves clattered and echoed. "There," she said. Around the bend came Buck, riding bareback, fast and head forward, and I swear he was a figure out of myth.