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Monday, 6 June 2011

I’d set the alarm for six on Sunday morning, just in case, but I woke up early enough. I listened to the news, did some writing, drank my tea and was up at the ranch house for eight o’clock, only to learn that Matt’s buddy was running late and wouldn’t be here till ten. Time then to take the mower down to the red house and get the grass trimmed. It now looks a little like a garden down here.

I went back up at ten, just as Bob arrived, with his wife and four boys – two teenagers and two little ones. ‘Right,’ said Matt, ‘let’s do it. Shouldn’t take but forty-five minutes.’

It was two and a half hours later when I handed him my clipboard – yep, I was the tally-man again – and drove back down to put on a clean shirt for the cowboy writers. Eight bull calves and five heifers had been dealt with, blood had been spilled, and everyone’s patience had been stretched to the limit.

What hadn’t occurred to me was that these beasts were a full month older than the ones we’d processed in the main round-up. These were no timorous little calves with spindly legs. They weren’t lightweights. They’d bulked up these last few weeks across the river, and acquired a bit of attitude. They had meat on their bones. There was no escaping that fact that these were wily young critturs. Trying to persuade the mother cows into one pen while holding the calves back – or how about we try driving the calves out and hold the moms? – stirred up a lot of dust and raised the temperature somewhat. The boys showed the kind of willingness that boys of that age will show, but somehow one or two calves always managed to hide away under the cows’ legs and slip through the net – or in a couple of cases squirm their way under the bottom bar and into the wrong pen.

Finally, after much clanging of gates, a few accusations of carelessness, and a pause for drinks, they got the calves separated out and were ready to get to work. I should point out here that of the two boys who were helping, one lives on a ranch and is used to this kind of thing; the other lives in a city and has never been around cattle. I couldn’t always tell the difference, such was their enthusiasm, and willingness to go in where it hurt. And it certainly did hurt. It made me wince, just watching – and again when a recalcitrant bull-calf charged the gate I was manning and almost broke my ribs.

They dealt with the three or four skinny ones first, to get into their stride. Then, hard as they looked amongst the chaos of black hides pressed against the steel bars, it seemed that the only ones left to brand were large and balky, with malice on their minds. Amidst the shouts of ‘Git the hind leg’ and ‘Grab the front leg, then he can’t kick’ came the recriminations. ‘I was on him. Where were you?’ and ‘It’d help if you kept a-hold the darned leg.’

Personally, I wouldn’t have been too keen to hold the hind leg of any three-month-old bull-calf, let alone one who’s just realised he’s about to be unmanned. So I could only stand and admire the lads’ bravery. They were into it now, hurling themselves across the calves’ backs and trying to throw them. It was frustrating work. When Matt waded in and got one pinned to the ground it was wrong side up. These calves are all branded on the left haunch. So they tried to turn the beast over – and, seeing its chance, it  wriggled free.

But in the end the boys worked out some sort of routine. Yanking a front leg to unsteady the calf, then a hind leg to bring it down. Holding the head still – with a knee across the neck or an occasional twist of the tongue. Hauling on one rear leg while bracing a boot against the other to keep the animal still while the brand was applied and the knife wielded. And after a while the city boy stopped grimacing every time Matt popped out the glistening testicles and tugged them loose. He even got to wield the branding iron, and looked quite the hero in his shit-stained T-shirt and bloodied arm.

As the cans of Mountain Dew and Coke were tossed from hand to hand I glanced at my watch. Twelve thirty, and I was due at the Sand Café.

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