Branding time was an opportunity to celebrate.
The calf crop – the ranch’s major source of income - had mostly passed the first difficult months and was growing well.
The warm, summer months had arrived.
One got the chance to spend a day or two in company with one’s friends and peers. For the mostly solitary riders, a rare treat. On many ranches, it was a time to kick up one’s heels.
So to speak.
Now the Stringam Ranch, where I was raised, was a liquor-free zone.
But on many ranches, the alcohol was flowing even before the last animal was branded.
An open fire.
Who doesn’t see any sources of concern here?
One particular tale of woe, told to us by our dad, stayed with me forever.
Let me tell you about it . . .
The branding was nearly finished for the day.
One of the hands had produced a bottle of something code-named ‘Hair of the Dog’.
It was . . . strong. And its effects pretty much instantaneous.
Said bottle made a couple of rounds.
By the end of the second pass, the boys were (to quote something ‘ranch-y’) feeling their oats.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a literal blur.
The last animal was branded.
Who, what or where, by this point no one really knew.
Someone shouted, “Let ‘em go!”
The corral gate was swung open.
I should probably mention that these cows and calves had been cooped up all day.
They were hungry, tired, stressed and sore.
The great outdoors looked just like that. Great.
En masse, they poured through that opening, heedless of anything that may be in the way.
The boss of the outfit suddenly remembered, through a slight haze, that there had been a cow noticed earlier. A cow with a horn that had curved the wrong way and was now threatening to actually grow into the animal’s head.
Easily fixed with a couple of lassos and a small saw.
But now that cow, along with her fellows, was making her way as quickly as possible toward the G.O. (see above).
He leaped aboard his trusty steed (which immediately proved itself to be anything but trusty) and gave it the spurs.
The animal, lacking somewhat in dignified communicative skills, resorted to the less dignified.
It began to buck.
Now, normally, this would have resulted in a few strong words with maybe a dusting in the prairie soil. But in this particular instance, location was everything.
Because the animal chose to express itself under the crossbar of the corral gate.
That first leap mortally injured the rancher.
Now the man had lived a rough life. Worked rough. Played rough. And drank rough.
But no one deserves a rough death.
A sadly sobering truth.
I don’t know what the effect was on those boys who witnessed the event.
But for me, even listening to it third-hand made me vow never to mix alcohol and any form of ranch work.
I know most of you won’t be toting a branding iron any time soon.
So, just FYI . . .
Leave the liquor in the bunkhouse.