04 May 2012

Cowboy Days

For a six-year old boy living in Ft. Worth during the late 40's, cowboys were the heroes of the day. Every Sunday noon on the black and white television, Hopalong Cassidy and his pal Lucky rounded up the boys and headed the bad guys off at the pass. Somehow, Lucky always got "winged" in an unimportant place, nothing serious, but "we" always won. That next year, I sent off in the mail for my official Hopalong Cassidy billfold and ID card. A big brimmed hat and pointed toe boots soon followed as my mark in fashion. After all, we did live in Texas, with New Mexico and Kansas just down the trail in my near future.
During high school in Kansas, my nicknames were Curly and Cowboy. The Curly part didn't work out in older age, but there must have been something prophetic about the Cowboy nickname, even if it did take a few decades to get there.

As the Spring of '96 rolled around, one of my neighbors across the street, who also owned a small ranch south of Rapid City, pressed me into service building a few miles of barb wire fence. Spring Creek had flooded that year along the Front Range of the Black Hills, and when it took a shortcut across one of his pastures, it took out a lot of fence, drowned two high dollar registered Black Angus and scattered the rest downstream. I soon learned the intracacies of fencing pliers, post hole diggers, spud bars and fence stretchers. For corner posts, we sometimes used a two-man, gas-operated, post hole digger. Problem was, if the drill bit hit a rock or tree root underground, then the drill bit screeched to a sudden halt while the rest of the machine decided to rotate. If the operators weren't firmly braced, they ran the risk of going around like helicopter blades. Fun work.

When a second neighbor across the street heard about my fence work, he invited me to go branding at his father-in-law's ranch down by Buffalo Gap. Well okay, I'd always wanted to be a cowboy. We drove down in his pickup. The calves from two herds were already rounded up and waiting in a huge corral. This next particular operation was called "tabling." We squeezed the calves, one at a time, into a narrow chute with a gate in front and a gate in back. A large metal contraption clamped the calf to one chute wall (similar to photo). A lever then rotated that wall into an operating table about waist high. If the calf was a bull, it lost its horns on one end and its Rocky Mountain Oysters on the other end. (I'm trying to be delicate here for the ladies.) All got ear tagged, vacinated and branded. Some brands required two hot irons to make the brand, thus the owner did his own branding and had to live with any mistakes that got made. At the end of the day, my wife hosed me down in the driveway and took my clothes to a commercial laundromat. For some reason, she refused to launder them in her own machines.

After a few of those types of brandings, I got invited to an old style roundup where all the ranch neighbors come together and help each other in turn. Riding horses, we herded the cattle into a corral at the high end corner of several sections of land, cut the momma cows out and turned them to pasture. Then the day's work commenced and age had its advantages. The 70 year old men rode horses into the corral, lassoed a calf by its two hind legs and dragged it out backwards to the wrestling crews. The 60 year olds got to do the ear tagging, cutting and vacinating. The owners branded and everyone else ended up wrestling calves as they came out of the corral. I can testify that wresting small cows at age 52 is damn hard work whether you do the tailing or heading.

As the calf came out backwards, the tailer grabbed the rope in one hand and the calf's tail in the other hand, depending upon which side needed to go up for the brand. He pulled toward himself and down on the tail while pulling up and pushing away on the rope. When the calf landed on its side, the tailer then dropped onto his rear end on the ground, planted one boot into the calf's rear (if he was smart, he trapped the calf's tail under the sole of his boot), grabbed the upside hind leg at the ankle, released the the lasso loop so the roper could go get another calf, pulled back on the upside leg and blocked the downside leg with his other boot. Some calves were stronger than others, but you knew if one got loose, you were in trouble. The header, for his part, dropped his weight on the calf's upside shoulder to pin him down and grabbed the calf's upside foreleg at the ankle, bending it in towards the body and up to keep him as still as possible, plus this way, the cutter didn't get kicked by a loose hoof. You'd best have a good grip when the branding iron hit.

In later years, I helped round up and trail cattle from Winter pasture on government land down by the Indian Reservation, along back country roads to the owner's sections of grass land nearer home and into the corral. This old cowboy used the Norfolk System, which I heartily recommend for us old guys. Here, the oldest cowboys still roped the calves and drug them out backwards, but now we didn't have to wrestle. There was a metal stake driven in the ground. Attached to the stake was a length of rope which was tied to an inner tube. Tied to the other side of the inner tube was another piece of rope which was attached to a large metal clamp. As the roped calf came by a cowboy, he clamped the contraption around the calf's head. When the ropes and inner tube came taut, the roper stopped his horse, which stretched the calf out for every operation needed done. Me, I got promoted to ear tagger. Not near as strenuous as wrestling. This ole boy's operation ran six lines of calves at the same time, plus an occasional line for those high school age cowboys who wanted a taste of the old ways. We ran about three hundred calves through that morning.

Seemed like everybody from that community and nearby small town turned out for his branding. One of the nice things about it was the hot lunch and cold beer the wives served us afterwards. It was a bonding of neighbors for a common cause, a feeling of belonging to something good. I'd definitely recommend helping out at a branding if you ever get the chance. Just know that you're gonna need a long bath afterwards.

You know, now that I think of it, I never did see Hoppy or Lucky do any work with calves or cattle. Them slackers.

PS~ me and Dix had a slight schedule swap due to technical difficulties (Google Chrome & Blogger Dashboard), but we should be back on track by Friday, May 25th


  1. I had to do fencing as a kid and I well remember the fence pliers. Post hole diggers were an invention of the devil… I swear a tablespoon made a better implement. In a rare burst of spending, Dad opted for steel fence posts, which made a hell of a difference.

    We tagged rather than branded, but the part I hated was clamping and cutting… you know what I mean. Thank God we were mainly dairy.

  2. I used to have a Hopalong Cassidy story album; it was called "The Whistling Bandit" I believe. I loved that album and it was red, too, not black; which made it very special. Many, many years later, I wrote a story called "Whistle."

    Good piece, R.T. I enjoyed it even though I have never put up a fence or roped a calf.

  3. What an experience it is that you had with horses. A lot of people love horses and they would surely like your story.


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