Sunday, November 22, 2015

WAR!! and a warm horse

A warm horse
Life in our line of sight
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            Yesterday morning started at 4:45 in pitch darkness.
            My horses conversed with me as usual. Bailey, always the most vocal, nickered softly and repeatedly. Pop stretched and relieved himself in a favored spot. Dotsie met me at the fence and walked with me to the barn with its expanded metal gates. She stood there in the way until I forked her hay onto the cement slab.
            Pop and then Bailey got theirs as the alpha horse presence dictates. Everybody knows the routine and everything is the same if I follow the routine. There was no squealing by one of the mares. I don’t like that.
            I was saddled, loaded, and nearing exit 116 at 6:30. It was still pretty dark and the lights were on when I hit the county road heading to the headquarters. I unloaded one horse at the cattle guard separating our Coldiron and Burris Pastures. It was Pop and I called to him to back out of the trailer. I let him make his customary inspection of the surroundings before I pulled the cinch and swapped his halter for a bridle.
My grandfather never even owned a halter.
            At the same time, Leonard was starting riders from four locations as we prepared to sweep the Burris Pasture. Our task was to wean calves and make one more pass through the herd branding missed, late calves. This ranch’s entire herd was supposed to be within the boundary fences of the pasture as called for in our rotation strategy. At just over 13 sections, we would have the Burris Pasture gathered in four hours.
For the moment … it was just the horse and me.
            The Gather
            The Burris Pasture gather is always good.
            It is cut by two larger ridgelines from a midpoint to the eastern boundary, but it is mostly easy country. If the ridges were not there, you wouldn’t even have to shoe a horse, but they are.
            Pop and I always take the southeastern corner of the pasture because of how the road enters the ranch and it is the most obvious and necessary sweep from that perspective. We worked our way up through the creosote that covers the south facing ridge. He knows the routine as well as I do. Seldom do we pick up cattle off the low ridgeline but we have to make the ride to the corner to make sure nothing is there. With multiple riders, we will drop riders off on increments and they will start their sweeps north toward what we call the Hepo Trough. With a single rider the same thing is done but sweeps are big zigzags and back tracks that take more time.
            Pop was fresh and he responded to my heels. I will stay completely out of his mouth when he is tuned in. I expected he would become less attentive as he got warmer and other riders and cattle caught his attention.
            As I rode, many things were obvious. The feed remained good and our plan to turn the cattle back out after the day’s work in the same pasture for several more weeks appeared to be workable. We picked up the first pairs at the crest of the swell. They started easily and did what all cattle do when they are started. They headed toward the nearest water. I stayed with them long enough to make sure the laggers were moving. I returned several times in the next 10 minutes to push on two pairs and a heifer that would drop their heads and return to grazing in my departure. Their herd mates could be seen trailing north on their own and without pressure.
            Every swell produced cattle as we picked our way east. The big end of the older cows always started with nothing more than a whistle or a voice queue from a distance. Some younger cattle interested in our arrival required direct pressure in the form of the horse and me to move them off.
            Repeatedly, we watched those cattle run pitching toward the increasing drive numbers headed north to meet yet more cattle at water… running not from us as much as running because of the cool morning and energy … another indicator that our standing feed and program were working.
            When we neared the eastern fence, we had to peak one more time into a little drainage that follows the fence line back to the far southeastern corner. Without fail there were three cows and two replacement heifers. Pop reluctantly responded to drop back off the ridgeline to pick them up. We framed them by coming off the ridgeline to their west and using the eastern fence as our line of drive. Everything went as planned except for one of the heifers that tried to run under us against the fence. We got her headed and turned, but I could now smell and feel a warm horse under me.
He would get yet warmer as we hustled back to the ridgeline to again shape that little bunch of cows before they scattered. The first of them, though, were already topping the ridgeline further north along the fence on Mayci Point rather than turning west under the point with the main drive. Pop and I would have to cover both sides of the point.
            We dropped under the point to make sure everything was moving before we returned in a high trot to start the climb on the backside. I let him stop and blow as he wanted as we worked higher. At the top, I stepped off to give him a good blow. He stretched and relieved himself with a low groan. I checked the cinch and then tried to assess how the greater gather was developing. I could see riders on Weldon Point, several points on the Lazy E ridgeline, and in Apache Flats between our Cuidado and New Joy drinkers. A big throng of cattle had gathered at Hepo and more were flowing in. To the west I could see dust but no cattle yet from that vantage point. Cattle were flowing toward New Joy Tank from three directions.
            Leonard had riders coming from all directions.
            Over the next two hours the gather would develop into two big drives. The cattle from the south end of the pasture were thrown together at Hepo and more cattle were added at the Halfway Drinker. The cattle from the north end of the pasture were started in mass from the New Joy Tank and trailed under the point and west along a remnant of the old Butterfield Trail. More cattle flowed into that drive from the drainages on the south side of Weldon Point.
            Leonard and I hooked up on the drive from HEPO. We discussed the sort that would start when we hit the pens at the headquarters.
            By the time we closed the gates in the big dry lot at the headquarters, a thousand head of individual animals were milling and bawling. Cows were calling calves, calves were screaming for mamas, and the age old practice of sorting soon started. After a quick drink, Leonard and I swapped horses and started the sort. Two of his grandkids were called to join us in the big alley to keep cattle moving under us. Matt Matsler controlled the flow of fresh cattle to us and everything progressed at a steady pace. We then broke for lunch.
            After lunch, Jack and Brenda Moore and Mike Lucero started the branding crew as the sort continued. By late afternoon, we were finished, the weaned calves were fed, and the rest of the herd was turned out. Another ranch day was done, and I headed for home with tired equine partners. Bailey nickered at me when I fed her, and Pop stretched.
            Life was normal, or … was it?
            Was my grandfather’s day on December 7, 1941 any different than the day of our gather yesterday? I would surmise the proceedings in his line of sight that day were normal. The change started with the radio coverage when he got home and continued with headlines in his newspaper the following week. Otherwise, his surroundings were dominated by Hereford cattle while ours were cross bred red Angus. If he was at a headquarters he would have broke for “dinner” while we broke for “lunch”. The corrals in his day would have had no livestock transportation parked around them. Ours was surrounded by horse trailers and pickup trucks. He would have had an oak fire going for the branding crew and he would have roped. We had a silent iron with its electric cord run across the ground becoming a nuisance from time to time. He would have grimaced at our calf table. We both rode the same saddle, though, when we made the cut. When we sort, I always saddle one horse with his saddle in honor of his memory.
            Indeed, it would have been another normal ranch day, but that would change. In his case, his oldest son went off to Europe to fly the race horse of medium bombers, the B-26, in the air war. I don’t have that son, but I am worried sick about my country just as he was in 1941.
            He and I had/have the privilege of viewing a normal ranch setting regardless of the consequences elsewhere. From this point forward, however, the rest of my world, just like his on that fateful day, won’t have the same normalcy.
            God Bless this nation and this world … I am afraid both will need it.

            Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “If you don’t think chaos is upon us … I will gladly fill the role of the fool.”

No comments: