FRYBURG - Clouds lowered their gray heads and spit rain into coffee cups and riders in chaps and boots tucked ponchos behind the saddles, figuring it would only get wetter before it got dry.
It was some rough, tough country ahead, from the western edge of the Badlands to a pasture close to the Little Missouri River and hours of riding in rain to contemplate.
Some 180 longhorn cows with calves needed moving from summer to winter pasture Oct. 15, the last time George and Sydney Hegge would own this herd, likely the largest in North Dakota and a fairly rare breed for cattle producers generally.
George Hegge staged the ride just off a winding gravel road about 10 miles southeast of Medora down and around a few oil wells and ranch homes tucked behind the hills.
He laid out thermoses of black coffee and sugary packaged doughnuts on the hood of his pickup, a real cowboy picnic table; the horses munched whatever grass was at their feet.
Before long, friends and neighbors arrived, each pulling a trailer with a pickup. The long, side-slatted trailers are standard equipment in this part of the world, where horses go along for the ride like most people might take a hunting dog.
The Hegges had, strictly speaking, more help than they needed.
But some weren't there to help so much as be honor bearers to a fine tradition.
"Usually it's not such a big group. It's because it's his last one," said Lori Shypkowski, a Fryburg ranch neighbor, who came with her husband and daughters for the long ride through the Badlands.
Shypkowski said she enjoys working the longhorns, out somewhere unseen in a vast, rain-shrouded federal pasture encompassing 18 sections, or half a township.
"They're good to handle," she said.
Jane Nygaard pulled her hair back through a brimmed cap to keep the rain off her face and layered up her clothing to stay warm in the gray chill.
"People like to come to this ride. It's real pretty country to ride through," she said.
Doug Tescher, of Medora, brought a few Minnesota friends along for the experience. "It's pretty and rough, big country back there. Some of it you can't get into with a four-wheeler," he said.
The Hegges have owned longhorns for a dozen years, starting in the first years owning 30 on shares.
He found he liked the historic breed, not only for their classic Western looks, but for their temperament, so he scaled up his numbers.
"They're very intelligent. They take care of themselves. They'll climb buttes that no other animal will and graze them." He said their meat is low-fat, like bison, and they marble on grass, not grains.
The average span on a longhorn set is from 4 to 5 feet across, tip to tip, though he's got one steer with a "seven-footer." "He's still immature. They live to be 20 years old," George Hegge said.
Hegge said his age - 78 -and his health - a heart attack awhile back - are working against him now, though he still loves it all.
"I can't consort with hookers," he says, pulling out an old longhorn cliche, along with a cigarette from a crumpled pack that was some off brand and not a Marlboro. "Too strong," he says.
When everyone was saddled up and accounted for, the riders headed out into the brush and the clay hardpan that was getting slicker with every drop of rain. Three horses would lose their footing and spin out. Fortunately, no rider or horse was hurt.
It'd be some 12 to 18 miles of riding and nearly four hours before they reappeared on the other side of the pasture, driving the mostly black but some roan longhorns, calves and a handful of Angus bulls into the Hegges' pasture allotment on Tipi Creek.
"It's a good long ride. They move fast," said George Hegge of the animals.
The Hegges sold their cattle and rented their pasture to Cody and Jessica Buehner, who've been ranching up in oil-roaring Dunn County and were thrilled to get a chance in a quiet western setting, along with genuine Texas longhorns with a colorful history of Spanish conquistadors and 1,500-mile cattle drives to boot.
"It's a dream come true," Cody Buehner said. "You get a little less for them, but you put a little less into them, too."
After the ride, George Hegge gathered everyone up for a group photo and treated them to a supper of ribs, baked beans and spuds.
"It was one of the most fun rides I've ever had," he said. "It was my last hurrah."
(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 220-5511, or email@example.com.)