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Tuesday, 10 May 2011


I was awake at 0430h this morning, and up by five. It was the humming noise in my left ear. Took a while to figure it out, but I’m pretty sure it was the last echo of those bawling calves yesterday, all 250 of them – and their mothers, matching them note for note for nine long hours.

We were lucky. Very lucky indeed. After Sunday’s 87 degrees – 92 at the neighbour’s place, barely six miles from here – branding day dawned grey, cool and foggy. Well, they said it was foggy. They should try North Yorkshire in November, when you struggle to see across the road. By my reckoning the visibility was… several miles, but, yes, I had to admit there was a slight haze. 

The pictures tell the story, and I’ve put up an unusual number because this was, for me, an unusual, vivid experience. I was privileged to have a ringside seat, playing a key role as… the man with the clipboard. Oh yes, these cowboys recognise talent when it washes up in their front yard. Writer, huh? Here, grab yourself a pencil and start taking notes.

There was a system, and once it got started it was going to be pure poetry. I just knew it was. But first, we needed an overview of the situation to hand (picture #1). That caused a brief outbreak of consternation amongst the cattle (#2), and required some input from the younger element (#3) before the trail boss took over and started issuing orders (#4). Soon as he said ‘go’, those cattle went (#5) raising a cloud of dust.

Over at the business end there was a slight hitch when we couldn’t get the propane burner started. The cigarette-lighter had seen better days, but with the help of some scrunched-up paper – and at the cost of a few singed hairs around the wrist – we had us a flame, and the branding-irons soon glowed red (#6).

Then it was down to business. There were three different herds involved, and the guy with the pencil was soon working his fingers to the bone.

“Bull! Matt!”

“No – heifer!” Good job I had an eraser.  And then it turns out somebody – we could safely blame Lightning, now that he was back across the border - had put the tag on the wrong ear, and this heifer belonged over there, in the other pen. That was my other task – to swing the gate.

So the cowboys dropped smoothly into their respective routines.  There was Eric wrestling the calves into the trap – it seems that if you twist the tail you can get them to go most anywhere; Luke with the fresh ear-tags and array of syringes, plus some large yellow pills for any beasts whose rear-end output was beyond the call of duty; Matt the Knife dealing with the bull-calves, and Bob with the branding-irons. Funny how, no matter where you stood, the wind blew the stink of singed hair right in your face.

Castration – even after I’d watched it a hundred times I found myself wincing – is a deft operation.  Matt used a short, slender blade, maybe two and a half inches, to slit the sac. And then, rather than dig around for the testicles – and risk infection – he squeezed them out, pulled hard to get several inches of the string out, and – cut. Into the bucket (pic #7).

The whole deal could put you off meat for a while, I suppose. But Kitty’s lunch, served in the house at , was irresistible. Big juicy beef steaks, fried onion and potato, pasta salad and biscuit, followed by an excellent dessert cake with ice cream. Damned shame we had to stumble back out to work afterwards.

We were done by about four, hot, dusty and thirsty. Rocky Mountain oysters, anyone? Par-broiled on the propane burner? Our scribe and tally-man said he was a brave feller – so brave indeed that he could admit to quaking in his boots at the very thought – and it was left to our young accomplice to prove himself a man.

Today I’m off to Rapid City to collect my English pal, Chainsaw Phil. With luck – and a following wind -  I’ll be posting some interesting historical matter tomorrow. Just need access to a scanner.

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