Cowboy Genes

Greg is the low-watt Flitner version; his smiles are slow in coming and his manner reserved. Yet I come to see that he has at least as much energy as his father. Whereas David’s high-voltage lines run aboveground, Greg’s run deep. Greg handles the big rig as facilely as he does the chopper and as gracefully as he rides young broncs. Yesterday, David said something to the effect that it’s hard to be in another man’s shadow-to be the son who runs what his father or grandfather started. Upon talking to Greg, I begin to sense the tension and the love. Greg too made the choice when he was younger. “I was rodeoing, riding broncs,” he tells me as he works through the rig’s complicated gears, “and I started winning. Dad sat me down and said, ‘I support you in whatever you want to do. If you want to ranch, I support that. If you want to rodeo, I’ll support that to. But you can’t do both. Make a decision.’ ” I ask if he regrets the decision. “Hell, no,” he says with a laugh. “I see some of the guys I was running with, and they’re still chasing the dream. Their bodies are shot, and they’re going from place to place.”

Greg’s got kids now too. He says he’ll be happy with whatever decisions they eventually make. Surviving in the ranching world is hard. “Operational costs increase every year,” he says, “but beef prices haven’t changed in twenty. How’s a guy supposed to make a living?” Plus the work never stops. “It takes a special person to live out here,” he says thoughtfully. It strikes me that his dad said the same thing to me earlier.

My boots are covered in blood. I’m sitting on my butt with a boot heel latched into the crook of a calf’s leg, holding the other leg akimbo with clenched hands. It’s branding time. Yesterday we paired and moved these cattle to this pasture. The romanticism was thrumming among the guests, ruminations of sweet lives cattle punching under the immense cowl of blue Wyoming sky.
But from the first caterwauling bleat of a calf under hot iron this morning, the initial spurt of very red blood when a pocketknife nipped and tucked off a male calf’s gonads, the romantic gleam dulled away. We’re all covered in a mixture of cow shit and blood. Liz, a computer specialist out of St. Paul visiting with her daughter, can hardly force herself to look. She loves to ride horses, and this isn’t quite what she signed on for. “I know it’s necessary,” she says haltingly, not so sure it’s necessary at all. One of the wranglers claims calves’ hide is thick enough that they don’t feel the brand. But as choking smoke curls up from hide and the calf bucks wildly and you’re trying not to get kicked in the face or crotch as you hold it down, you know better.

The process is this: A horseman lassoes a calf out of the small corral, drags it by feet or neck into the field, and it’s wrestled onto its side. One person pins its neck to the ground with his knee while another holds the back legs open. It’s branded, ear tagged, castrated if it’s male, and inoculated by injection. They’re stronger than might be believed, and after about the fifteenth, we’re all beat. The men, of course, are in a small competition, none of us willing to look weak, especially me and Donny, a master sergeant in the Army. Besides, I want to be a hand. A good hand. There is no higher compliment on a ranch. Even when I disliked my endless chores back home, I always wanted my elders to know I was a good hand. It matters no less now.

I release an enormous calf’s back legs and narrowly avoid getting kicked in the face as it jumps to its feet and races off. I sit in a pile of shit and think, So this is what I missed. This is cowboying exactly the way my dad and granddad did it.

The next day is my last on the ranch. We’re again headed out to the same area, named Whistle Creek (pronounced crick by everybody), in the Ford 350 diesel, towing the horse trailer, what one wrangler termed the “rumble box.” Two of the young female wranglers, Katie and Garrity, are up front, and the radio is blaring a country song. The girls are robustly singing along. The male singer on the radio is warbling, “She thinks my tractor’s sexy.” All the women in the truck, including Tanya, Donny’s new bride from upstate New York, agree that tractors are sexy. Pause on my part. Tractors, sexy? Totally, they reply. Even the shiniest John Deere wouldn’t get me a date in New York, I say. Donny grins at me. “You mean you’ve never heard this before? It’s really popular.” He prods me. “You really should get out more.” The truck explodes in laughter.

We arrive at Whistle Creek to pair out calves one last time. I mount up, talking softly to Apache. We’ve got along pretty well, I figure. He knew I was a pilgrim but also figured out that I liked to gallop, so he put up with me. Greg rides up on a beautiful three-year-old, his two black-and-white collies, Tuffie and Collie, roughhousing at the horse’s heels. “This is the best horse I’ve ever ridden,” he exclaims with delight. I think he senses my genuine interest, and lets me tag along with him when he goes after a half-dozen head standing alone on a hill. “Bring the mother and calf back here and push those old cows off,” he directs. I do, but as I lead the mother and calf toward the road, I see her looking over her shoulder, a telltale sign of an impending break. This time I’m ready. As she sends clods of dirt in the air, barreling toward the space in front of me, I’m already kicking Apache on. We hit the space at nearly the same time, and the cow lurches to a stop and tries to duck behind us. No go; we’ve already wheeled around. She stops, gives up, and ambles in the direction I’m pushing her. “Like an old hand,” Greg says lightly. I tip my cowboy hat to him. I feel glad.
Last January I went home to New Mexico when my fifty-seven-year-old dad suffered a serious heart attack. Doctors said it was brought on by a bottle of booze a day. After a week in the hospital, he checked into rehab. At the same time, my eighty-six-year-old grandmother announced that she was selling the ranch. She’d been leasing it out for a pittance to a sweet couple who were farming it, but it was a constant worry. An out-of-towner was buying up property; he’d bought out our longtime neighbors last summer. The price wasn’t bad, and Grandmother had worked out a deal to continue living in the house as long as she liked.

I wanted to argue. Sell the ranch? One evening, I stood in the scrap pile, looking at the land my grandfather had devoted his life to, the fields my dad and I had both played in as kids. I took in the smell of welded metal, gazed at stars undimmed by light-pollution. Then I went back inside. “It just hurts my heart,” I told her. “The land, the house, our home. It’s been in the family almost a hundred years.” She knew, but like any rancher, she’s practical. She didn’t argue, just let me see it for myself. And of course I did. Neither I nor my cousins were going to take over the damn farm. Not even Dad-who would come out of rehab a whole man, a father I’d almost forgotten to remember-was going to start farming or ranching again. We’d chosen different paths.

Whatever you gain, you gotta give something up. And it takes a special kind of person to live out here.

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