|Some of the crew . . . and the all-important 'squeeze'.|
little lot of background . . .
Branding, at the Stringam ranch, invariably took place in high summer.
And lasted forever.
Okay, I was six. Everything seemed to last forever.
Except Christmas, but I digress . . .
For the entire day prior, every rider on the place would be involved in gathering the herds. With an operation the size of ours, this was no easy task. The fields were a section (640 acres) in size and, normally, two riders would have to work together, collecting the herd. Then those smaller herds would be gathered, one by one, into the main corrals.
The sun would be high and hot, baking the wonderful scent out of the sage.
There would be glorious vistas of open, wind-swept prairies where one could see, literally, for miles.
Heat and dust and sweat.
And an unbelievable din.
Picture this: Hundreds of cow and calf pairs, which, when herded together immediately become . . . unpaired.
They start bawling for each other. ('Where are you?' in cow, invariably sounds the same, 'Mooooah') They aren't smart enough to actually . . . look . . . for one another.
The cows merely sniff any calf that happens in their vicinity. 'Sniff', nope. 'Sniff', nope. 'Sniff', nope. 'Mooooah'.
And so it goes . . .
Slowly, each herd is driven to the corrals and penned. Hay is thrown into the mangers. The cows finally find their babies. Peace is restored, somewhat.
Then, another herd is brought in and everyone immediately becomes separated again.
More bawling. Then they get sorted out. Then another herd.
This goes on all day and into the evening.
Things are quiet for the night.
Then, the big day dawns. The most exciting, but noisiest day of the year.
Cows and calves are separated and the cows are moved into the largest pen.
The calves go into pens which connect to the chutes. One by one, these smaller, though not necessarily easier to work with, animals are pushed down the chute and into the squeeze (an apparatus which captures the calf and then converts into a table by tilting sideways).
And then, with the noise, come the smells.
Hot metal of irons in the fire.
Burning hair as those irons are briefly pressed to the tough hide.
KRS, a disinfectant.
One by one, the calves are branded. Inoculated. Then released.
One by one, they find their Mamas.
And slowly, ever so slowly, order is restored.
Then the entire herd is released and driven back out into the pastures.
More noise and confusion.
Then all is quiet.
Every year, on the ranch, this is a highlight.
For us humans, anyways. (I have to admit, it probably isn't quite as exciting for the cows, or their babies.)
Enough background . . .
This was the most exciting year of all. This was the first year I was able to participate. Well, as something more than just chief mischief-maker.
The excitement was palpable.
A crew had been assembled. (As branding is such a big job, invariably, neighbors come in to help.)
My oldest sister and I were given the smallest, and nearest field. We left the chatting, gesticulating crowd and headed towards our assignment.
The two of us gathered our herd and pushed them towards the corrals. At one point, just below the ranch buildings, it is necessary to cross the Milk River.
But the crossing is shallow and, usually, the cows show little concern.
Our small herd marched across without a pause. We chased them up the hill and into the corrals. Then we sat back and watched as the others herds came in.
There were a few tense moments, but mostly, everything went off well.
The herd was tucked in for the evening.
The next morning, the real work began.
I was assigned to be the 'pusher'.
And no, it's not what it sounds like.
I was the person inside the chute with the calves, pushing each of them into the squeeze so they could be branded.
It was hot, heavy work, especially for a 6-year-old.
And I loved it.
Push. Push. Push. Gate closes. Squeeze . . . ummm . . . squeezes. Tilts sideways. Branding. Shots. Tilts back. Squeeze - unsqueezes. Front gate opens. Calf bolts.
Push. Push. Push . . .
And so it went throughout the day. At noon, Mom appeared with lunch for everyone and we abandoned our posts to gather in whatever bit of shade we could find, and gorge.
Have I mentioned that Mom is a great cook?
Two brothers, neighboring ranchers noted for their pranks and hijinks, were on hand to help us out.
They had found a comfortable spot for lunch on one side of the car Mom had driven up in.
Mom and Dad had relaxed on the other side.
Mom had made the mistake of supplying sliced watermelon for our dessert.
The two brothers, as they had finished each piece of watermelon, launched the rinds up into the air over the car, aiming for my hapless parents.
Two rinds had been met with silence. Obvious misses.
The third rind went up.
"Hey!" My Dad's voice.
Dad got up and stalked, playfully, around the car, but the brothers were already gone. He shook his head, turned towards the corrals and walked over to stand next to the chute.
It was the signal for the rest of us to get back to work.
I crawled up the side of the chute and prepared to drop down inside.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Alfred, one of the brothers, sneaking up behind my Dad. I turned to watch.
Alfred was carrying a pitcher of ice-cold water, which he proceeded to empty into my Dad's back pocket.
"Hey!" Dad spun around. But by then, Alfred had, once more, disappeared.
Everyone, including Dad, got a real laugh out of that one. Fortunately, with the hot, dry air, his soaked pant leg soon dried.
By sunset, the work was finished and the herds sent back out to pasture. Everyone who had been involved assembled at the house for supper, feeling sunburnt, windblown, tired . . . and happy.
That year, as in previous years, we all sat around the table, talking and laughing.
And it was then I realized that branding was a time of gathering, not just of cattle, but of family and friends. Because of the vast distances between settlements in this prairie country, people go months without seeing each other.
So branding, in addition to being the apex of the year, regarding the work, is also a time of visiting. Re-acquaintance and exchanging of news.
Perhaps that is the reason it is so important to all of us who live on the ranch.