Stories from ranching’s most anticipated day
He’s the cow boss. These cows are his and so is the debt and he knows well what it took to get to this day. He’s the first one in the pen when it’s still quiet. Soon, sorted pairs will add to the noise and the day will be a dull roar, dotted with the sounds of neighbors helping one another
He keeps a watchful eye on everything happening all around him. They won’t rope unless he asks them to and he’ll cut their rope the second time they neck one. He learned to be a hand by watching hands work quietly and skillfully, whether it’s reins, vaccination guns, knives, or his brand in their hands. Masters of their craft, no doubt.
“Don’t come out of that pen without two feet roped, boys…”
She’s holding babies, lists, lunch, sometimes her tongue, and trying to hold it all together. She knows branding day isn’t just a single day or two but a series of batches of cookies and brisket and potato salad, trips to fetch Styrofoam coolers filled with vaccines and cases of water and beer. It’s the culmination of a year in which she’s managed not to wash the red book and can put her fingers on the brand inspections, the bull breeding soundness exams, the bills, the checkbook, and the spreadsheet with those heifers they sold last year. She’s old enough to remember when Reba was singing on the radio and to know that her husband looks an awful lot like his dad did then, scanning the pen with a watchful eye. It’s a big gap to fill.
“Do not throw nuts at your sister! Is that roaster still on?…”
He’s 10 and he’s too big to play in the dirt by the coolers. He can stretch a leg for the man wielding the iron like he’s done it a hundred times because he dang sure has. These are the days he dreams about when the teachers are talking and blue skies and still winds are calling his name. He is learning to work quietly and quickly and is hoping against hope the cow boss will let him rope a few in the last bunch.
“Nah, I’ve got it, Dad. I can handle him…”
She’s been running the vaccinations since she was old enough to reach in the cooler and in a ballcap with a blonde braid on her shoulder, she’s still as tough as the boys her age, thank you very much. She’s her dad’s right hand man but still has to hide a smile when her mom says her blueberry cake tastes just like Grandma’s. She’s good help chute side, feeding bucket calves, and spotting cows that need help when the wind is blowing hard. He knows she is waiting patiently for the nod telling her to get on her horse and drag a few and they’re down to the last 20 calves. Her mama is watching, too, waiting for the nod she knows that girl has earned.
“Did you see that one, Dad?…she’ll make a nice replacement…”
She married into the ranch and still cooks breakfast listening to unfamiliar talk about people and bulls and parts that need welded. She didn’t grow up in town, but she didn’t grow up holding a knife in her teeth and pulling the cords either. She worries that she’ll confuse the cooler filled with vaccines and automatic syringes and mixing needles and swears she can feel disapproving eyes burning her when she shuffles to get out of the way. She practiced the cake recipe before she brought it in a bright, foil pan and offered it to the women who make up their own tribe, who had done this so many times and knew how to have everything hot at noon and still keep their syringes filled. An offering of chocolate cherry cake and a down payment on belonging, even if just today.
“Do you want me to refill that one?…”
He’s a hand but wouldn’t make a fuss about it. He knows this is no party and knows these kids need to learn, too. He earned those gray hairs just coming in, but he hasn’t forgotten what it is to be younger and full of vinegar. They listen when he reminds them to keep their thumbs up when they dally and that riding drag on the slow ones matters, too. He knows what it is to have the trust of the cowboss and he’s earned it over 30 years, starting when they were still pushing calves together.
“Rock the iron, son… good… that’ll bring him home…”
She misses her mom on days like this and thinks about her now at the sink as she chops and slices so the platter looks just like it did when she was a girl. Her house is much quieter now except when the grandboys are there, roping everything in sight and trampling her flowerbeds with broad smiles on their faces. She used to know every cow number but now just knows her favorites and she doesn’t mind watching the kids more closely than the crew.
“Lunch is ready… come get some… I remember how much you like my macaroni salad… how’s your mama?…”
He may have lost a step but he’s forgotten more about the cattle business than some of these boys know. He’s staying on the perimeter, watching men he’s known since their dads were boys. He’ll brand one just to make sure they know he still can, all things done with his straw hat, still shaped like they ought to be on the head of a cattleman, shading his eyes above a crisp, starched shirt.
“That’ll do… that’s how it’s done… good work…” ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 768-0024.
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I have been rather preoccupied lately and haven’t been writing my editor’s note. So, for those who have called and emailed to make sure I’m still on this Earth, I’m still here.