Sunday, February 11, 2007

Winter Cattle Drive

Winter Cattle Drive

Ah, the good life. Just imagine you are trailing cattle down the Old West trail with mountains looming on the horizon. You expect it to be hot and dusty? Hello!!! Instead there is a refreshing breeze and on occasion you are riding on snowbanks so hard that your horse does not even sink in. Dressed in Carhartt coat and bibs and face mask under your scotch cap…you’re authentic western all right. And that breeze is more like a gale and it is blowing dirt and hair …and when that cow peed in the wind; you made mental note not to ride so close next time. It is fifteen miles to Big Timber door to door from the ranch…. And then another couple of miles the other side of town to the Boulder River Ranch. Temperature was right at freezing and throughout the day we cussed and discussed the weather … mostly remarked on the wind which blew hard in the morning and then leveled off right into our face at about 25 mph all afternoon.

Welcome to the winter cattle drive. This is ranch life. That’s how it is. Often the weather dictates what we can do but this time it was not like we could just wait for a warm day; we settled for a do-able day. Dictated by gestation tables and feed and family schedules… it was time to trail the cattle to the home place before calving begins in earnest. Officially calving begins the day after Valentines, however the first set of lively twins was born last night…it was time. “Look on the bright side,” Grandpa remarked, “no mosquitoes when we trail in February!”

OK… so …maybe not your typical cattle drive. Certainly not the kind you would invite guests to join…but we enjoyed the camaraderie of friends and family. I drove the pickup pulling the stock trailer and kept the heater going for anyone who wanted to trailer their horse and warm up in the cab for a while. I can not ride yet because I still have the “siraloP” imprint on my leg. [My spell checker does not know that “siraloP” is Polaris 4-wheeler spelled backward.]

My job was to drive and be a “story listener” as the grandkids rode with me in the cab and spun yarns. Jordan (7) showed me the exact spot on the trail where she had her first sip of coffee as a three year old and she said never told a soul because she thought it was something to keep secret like your first sip of beer. Jess (5) confided how his friend Sam said a bad word; he watched for my reaction and predictably, I disapproved. Well, Jess continued, he had said that bad word too…after all, he heard his dad and his grandpa say it…so he just had to say it “to get it out of my system!”

And then besides the predictable yarns of remember when we came to this spot last year, there was the unpredictable. Although bucking broncos are not unusual when taking young horses on their first big ride outside. The wind gets them frazzled. When it happened, (all four legs up…all four legs down, hard,) Jami dusted herself off and got back on. Then for the rest of the ride, her colt took an interest in the cattle and went along like nothing ever happened. [Hint: don’t ask to ride Ben until he gets a little older and more sure of himself!] But the cattle drive is sure good for young horses and it is a darn side better for the cows than the stress of trucking them.

When the colt lit into crow-hopping, the cows went the wrong dang way and they headed for McLeod instead of Big Timber. But it was cold enough that Grandpa could ride right across the frozen swamp and head them back toward our destination… on to the overpass where we had to cross over the Interstate. That was a little tricky because we had six cars from each direction not wanting to wait for the ponderous mother cows who were taking their time deciding when to cross over the highway traffic noise.

Friends and family strategically parked their vehicles and helped encourage the cows to stay the course until we could get through town. Cort flagged from Indian Rings Subdivision. He showed me the spurs he was making and I admired the sleek Calvary styling and coveted the jinglebobs he had fashioned. Great Grandma Betty, at age 83, was parked at the Fishing Access when we trailed over the Boulder River Bridge. She had baked fresh cinnamon rolls and made strong coffee which she served up along the trail midmorning. Tom Ivey ate his cinnamon roll from his car while parked in a lane near the golf course. Sure would not have wanted those cows to take a romp through the golf greens.

It did not take long before the old cows were “trail broke” and they plodded their way down the streets through the edge of town, behind the Frosty Freeze and then along the railroad tracks to the frontage road. These older cows kinda know the way but Grandpa recalled earlier years when there were stampedes because a train came through town a blowin’ their horn. Would have been some “wrecks” this year if we had been behind those hundred heifers …old cows are a real joy. We had two trains and no troubles either time.

With these first two “town” miles behind us and fifteen more to go, we just had to watch for haystacks and country lanes, navigate the Yellowstone River Bridge at Grey Bear Fishing Access and then on home. We loaded our horses in the trailer by mid-afternoon and for the last 5 miles, the cows were on the honor system. They know where their hay is going to be in the morning and after they took a little rest, they continued on their own. Twelve hours from the time we saddled up, the last of the 200 cows made it to the ranch.

Soaking in the hot tub that night, Grandpa said he had enjoyed riding his Foxie mare and bragged on how quickly she turned after a cow that tried to double back. He likes to brag on Foxie. And since no one was hurt, he could chuckle at how daughter Jami “rode to the buzzer” and how she would not think of missing a cattle drive regardless of the weather.

Then before the inevitable nap …Grandpa crooked one arm over the edge so he did not slide into the hot tub and drown. Happy as a lark and overcome with love he said “I love you guys…love you very much.” And midst the splashing came the reply “We love you too Grandpa!”

Life is good.
And…The cows are home.

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