August 06, 1979 12:00 PM

The desolate and wind-whipped corner of northwestern Colorado where Pat Mantle hangs his battered cowboy hat is a combination of the proverbial rock and the hard place. About all that survives there, aside from the sagebrush and a scraggle of piñon, is the image of the rugged Old West—and Mantle himself.

Much of the year Mantle, who at 49 is weathered and creased after a life in the open, markets the image by renting out horses. Home is Brown’s Park, Colo., where Butch Cassidy and Sundance hid out from the law. There Pat, his son Steve, 23, and his partner, Rex Walker, keep some 1,200 mounts for a string of stables, dude ranches and hunting camps. Their style is a throwback to a time when the West was for winning. Even their pickup trucks and two-way radios seem almost archaic in the face of the condos, tin trailers and smog that have spread over much of the range.

So prized is that sense of the old days that Mantle never finds himself shy of customers. Once every spring, in fact, his 110,000-acre Sombrero Corp. spread is positively overrun with doctors, lawyers, businessmen and their ladies. They are drawn inexorably to the lonely dirt road (turn left where you see the 38-D bra flapping from a signpost) that leads to some of the best fun in the West. It is round-up time in Brown’s Park—time to b*ring the horses home from their low-country pasture—and Pat lets his guests play cowboy free of charge.

It is not easy work. Just about anybody can round up cows, but horses—especially after spending the winter running free and unsaddled—can be recalcitrant. On the eve of their first day on the trail, Mantle’s riders are giddy with macho expectations and firewater. One tinhorn from Steamboat Springs asks another’s girlfriend if she’d like to step into the shower with him (the answer is no thanks). Mantle watches the scene, pulling at a beer, until at 11 p.m. he throws everyone out of the ranch-house and turns in.

Up at dawn, he expresses the hope that this will not be the day one of his eager greenhorns falls from his mount and gets “munched” by the unruly herd as the drive begins. “Sometime it’s going to happen,” he broods. “You don’t stop 600 horses. Sure, the front ones will move aside, but the ones in back can’t see. That’s 600,000 pounds moving in the same direction.”

To Pat, who grew up in the saddle helping his father tend a Hell’s Canyon homestead, many of his horses are old pals known by name. “Oh, look at Little Blue,” he drawls. “Pretty little fella, ain’t he?” Taciturn by nature, he explodes angrily when he discovers that one of the wranglers has been hard on the stock during the roundup. He picks out a mount that will make the man’s next ride a rough one. “This will teach that son of a bitch to beat on young horses,” he mutters.

The drive takes two grueling days, with riders on the point sometimes gal loping 20 miles in four hours to keep the herd from spreading out over the ridges. Booze and chow wagons accompany the riders—along with a rescue jeep. Groans one woman, dismounting for lunch the first day, “I think I’m going to die. Everything hurts!” Somehow, 24 cases of beer and 12 bottles of Jim Beam later, the herd is safely in the holding corrals, and the riders, ecstatically saddle-sore, can’t wait to drive them back in the fall. “It’s a privilege for me to participate,” says one dust-caked energy company executive. “This is a last chapter in the Old West.”

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