Ranch life in the Big Sky state through the eyes of one who has lived through it...so far.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Hazards of Getting Hitched


Summer has arrived and across the country a familiar scene is playing out in driveways, campgrounds and at boat ramps. Forget money, kids or getting caught eyeballing the woman next door who does yard work in her bikini. Nothing can trigger a good fight quite as effectively as hooking up the trailer.

 Unless you’re lucky enough to own a towing rig with a fancy back-up camera, hooking up a bumper tow trailer has an inherent challenge: the driver can’t see the hitch to line it up with the ball on the vehicle. How does one hit this invisible target? One approach is to take a stab in the dark, stop when you think you’re about right, jump out, and trot back to see how close you are.

Shoot. Three inches too far to the left. Trot back to the truck. Pull forward, then back again. Jump out for another inspection. Dang. Now you’re three inches too far to the right. Back to the truck, pull forward, adjust your position, reverse again. Trot back to inspect. Yes! Lined up perfectly, just need to back up six inches farther.

Back to the truck. Ease into reverse—crap! Foot slipped, jumped back two feet, ramming into the hitch. Inspection reveals that you’ve knocked the hitch sideways, so you’re no longer lined up properly. Back to the truck, pull forward, move left…four inches too far. And so on, and so on….

 If your towing vehicle is a forty foot motorhome, congratulations. You will be fit to run a marathon by the time the jet skis are securely hitched to the bumper.

 The alternative is to get your significant other to help you. The routine is deceptively simple. One spouse climbs behind the wheel. The other takes up a position near the hitch. And the hand gestures commence. Techniques vary widely. Some perform their duties with the precision of the guy at the airport with the orange wands, guiding a 747 into Gate B-43. Others make vague waving motions that could be directions, or maybe they’re batting at mosquitoes. One person I know goes through what appears to be an elaborate Tai Chi routine.

The difficulty of interpreting these instructions is compounded by the fact that the driver is seeing them in the rearview mirror. In other words, it’s all backwards. Husband gestures to the left. Wife cranks the wheel. The rear of the vehicle goes right. Husband waves disgustly, indicating that wife should pull forward. Wife complies, except he only wanted her to go a few feet, and she’s twenty yards away.

His gestures become increasing agitated as he once again guides her into the general vicinity of the hitch. He makes a circular motion to indicate that she should turn the steering wheel to the left. She stops, assuming he must need to crank the jack down a few turns. He plants his hands on his hips and stomps toward the window to provide verbal clarification. She bails out and meets him halfway. Heated words are exchanged. She points angrily at the driver’s seat. He jumps behind the wheel and slams the door. The scenario above is repeated, with positions reversed.

 At some point, whether by luck or skill, hitch and ball will come into alignment. Hopefully before someone slams into the house to divvy up the silverware.

 My husband and I have hooked up thousands of horse trailers over the years. The process rarely generates even a dirty look anymore. For that, we have to get the tractor involved. More precisely, the tractor bucket. 

Last week we had to move the rollers across the coulee so my mother could roll the northernmost fields. Rollers are a new concept to my husband. He grew up in a place where fields have more dirt than rocks. He couldn’t imagine why you would plant your crops then drag a trio of massive steel rollers across them, so he wasn’t especially concerned when a combination of rain and equipment malfunctions kept us from rolling the grain and hay last year. Then he spent a few hundred hours bouncing across rock strewn fields, prying boulders the size of cantaloupes out of swathers and bailers, and repairing what they’d smashed.

His first order of business after harvest was to repair the rollers.

 The purpose of the rollers is to smash the rocks down into the earth, so the equipment can glide semi-smoothly over top. The first roller is hooked onto the hitch of the big, four wheel drive tractor. Two more rollers are hooked to either side of the first, in a triangular alignment. They are held in place by a pin that drops through holes whose orientation must be within an eighth of an inch of perfection. Therefore, you must line up two hitches at once, with zero margin of error.

 No marriage is that strong. Instead, we backed the tractor and first roller close to the second two hitches. Then my husband climbed onto the loader tractor to use the bucket to lift and shove the hitches into position one at a time. I thought my hand gestures were perfectly clear. Wave forward to drive forward, palm out for the classic stop gesture, wave back for reverse. Thumbs up for lift the bucket, thumbs down for drop the bucket, and a rocking motion of the hand to indicate tilt.

Except I got confused and gave the thumbs up to indicate that the position was just right, and my husband lifted the bucket, and I threw up a palm to indicate stop but he thought I meant back up, and then I waved back and forth to say “Stop, dang it!” and he thought I meant tilt and the hitch slid off the bucket and dropped to the ground two feet farther from the target than where we started. My husband jammed the tractor into park and bailed out to look for himself.

 “You aren’t doing what I tell you!” I protested.

 “I would, if I could figure out who’s in charge,” he shot back.

 I looked left. Sure enough, my mother was standing beside me, going through an entire set of hand gestures of her own. Which really shouldn't be a problem. When given direct orders by both his wife and his mother-in-law, any intelligent man knows exactly who he should listen to. Right, honey?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Lazy Summer Weekends

Gorgeous day to brand a few calves.
Gathering done, just hanging around waiting. Aren't they cute little buggers? Hmm, maybe not so little when you're pushing them up the chute. Stylish, as always. And no...that's not mud on my shirt and jeans. Turns out their butts are just about waist high.
Fifty down, only a couple hundred more to go.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

That's more like it

The view from my living room, newly improved thanks to my chainsaw

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Power Tools

A few years ago, my husband gave me a chainsaw for my birthday. I was thrilled. Truthfully. I really was thrilled. I love power tools. Electric drills, table saws, grinders, even sanders. My greatest regret in changing my college major from engineering to sports medicine is that I did it the semester before we got to learn how to weld.

Unfortunately, my husband has learned that you can give a woman a chain saw, but you can’t make her sharpen it. Or tighten the chain. Which is why, after an hour of whacking down dead tree limbs last Saturday, the chain came off my favorite saw.

I guess I should have done something when I noticed it was sagging. Instead, I did what I always do when I experience a power tool malfunction. I kept going as long as it would go. When it did quit, I sort of tucked the chain back into place, then I put the saw back on the shelf for my husband to fix the next time he needed to use it. Hmm. Maybe that explains why it always takes him so darn long to get started on home improvements around here. And why he's always so dang grouchy about it.

The improvement part of home improvement definitely isn’t my thing. I prefer demolition. Twice in our marriage my husband has had reason to use the phrase, “Honey, where did the wall go?” The other time it was the deck that went missing. I don’t know why he got so excited. Who needs a deck in South Dakota, where sprawling out in a lounge chair is the equivalent of ringing the mosquito dinner bell?

To do demolition right, you have to break out the serious equipment. Tractors and bulldozers and backhoes are just extra large power tools. I’d love to test drive one of those monster cranes with the wrecking ball on the end. Which is probably why my husband speeds up as we pass construction sites.

Honey, where did the barn go?

Even a wrecking ball couldn’t match the power tool nirvana my husband encountered when he was fresh out of high school, employed by a construction company that was building a railroad bed across one of the more desolate stretches of eastern Wyoming. We’re talking the ultimate in demolition. The big Kahuna.


Keep in mind that this was a while back, before *OSHA became the only four letter word guaranteed to get your butt kicked on a construction site. Pre-Homeland Security, too. When no one thought twice about handing an eighteen year old a plunger connected to a series of blasting caps and saying, “Go ahead, give it a shove.” Of course, there was no certified demolitions expert on the crew. Do you know how much you have to pay those people?

When the bulldozers encountered an outcropping of rock, everyone would gather round, scratch their chins, and guestimate how many sticks of TNT it would take to bust ‘er loose. They’d drill a few holes in what they figured were strategic locations, hook up some fuses, place their charges, and string out the detonator wire to a safe distance. The process took some time, during which graders and trucks and loaders rumbled back and forth. Invariably, someone would drive a bulldozer over the wire and the steel tracks would cut right through. One of the crew would hustle out and splice it back together. After a while, the detonator wire began to look like a knotted, frayed shoestring. It also got shorter.

The day came when the heavy equipment encountered an especially stubborn layer of rock. The first blast barely made a dent. More holes were drilled, and a larger payload inserted. The crew backed away, to the end of the detonator wire, which reached right to the front of the nearest pick-up. The countdown commenced.

Four… three…two…one… Kabloom!

Huge chunks of rock sprayed into the air. Arced in glorious slow motion through the blue Wyoming sky. And began to descend. Which was when they realized that they had overestimated the amount of dynamite needed. And spliced that wire a few too many times.

When the dust finally cleared, they crawled out from under the pick-up. The whole crew stood around, contemplating the smashed windshield and the newly acquired, five hundred pound granite hood ornament. Finally, someone said, “I suppose we’ll have to tell the boss about this.”

I guess it was kinda big to park on a shelf somewhere and hope they weren’t around the next time he needed it.

  *Occupational Safety and Health Administration, otherwise known as the guys who stop by and hand out fines.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Last Roan

Osage Roan, owned by Cap and Smitty Overstreet
Photo courtesy of http://www.jimoverstreet.com/

The last roan horse on our ranch will be twenty-nine years old next month. It is, for us, very much the ending of an era. For over forty years our herd was sprinkled with those distinctive salt and pepper coats, and the remarkably hard heads that came with the package.

The first roan was a gelding named Little Ben Bailey. Like all the others to come, he was a descendant of Roan Hancock. And like many of them, he came from the Overstreet Ranch in Ennis, via their stud Osage Roan. The original roan Hancocks were rangy, tough horses, better known for athletic ability and cow sense than looks. Ben had all three. A well-made, compact body and a classy quarterhorse head, filled to the brim with more brains and cunning than any horse needs.

The next roan, a mare named Little Vixen, was just as bad. As were most of the rest. It takes a certain mindset to train roan Hancocks. I was at a rodeo in Idaho once, waiting to rope on a mare named Betsy. A old guy sitting on the fence asked me how she was bred. I told him.

He flashed a sly smile. "Buck much?"

Surprisingly, the answer was no. But Betsy was the one and only exception to the rule, and she made up for that oversight in so many evil ways. As for the others, well, let me just say that I didn't realize until I was fifteen years old that there were people who didn't saddle their rope horses before they were loaded in the trailer to drive to the rodeo. And not everyone arrived two hours early to start 'getting the hump out'.

A sane person might wonder why we continued to buy and raise these creatures--close to thirty at our best count--when there are so many nice horses out there. The answer is simple. In the calf roping, nice horses rarely finish first. It is the most mentally challenging event in rodeo for a horse. They must stand quiet in the box, break and run hard, stop hard when the calf is roped. Then the cowboy jumps off and leaves them to do the rest on their own. It takes a horse with unshakeable confidence and a strong desire to be in charge to stay on the end of the rope, keep it tight, keep the calf under control while the roper ties it.

All that aggressiveness is great in the arena. Not so much in the process of getting there. Through the battles and bruises and long days in the saddle it takes to persuade them to let you pretend to be the boss, there are times when you wonder if it's worth the fight. But one day it all comes together and the answer is a resounding yes.

Roans have faded from our herd for a number of reasons. We came across another foundation bloodline that produced some outstanding rope horses. Maybe we got older and not quite as tough. Mostly, though, it's because roan coloring is a recessive gene. We raised colts from roan mares and roan studs and got a long line of solid bays and sorrels. At this very moment I can look out my window at Pocket and Ember and Bailey: roans in sheep's clothing, one and all. Forget those recessive genes at your peril.

The last true roan is a mare named Tararound Vegas. By rights, she shouldn't still belong to us. Dad had her sold once, to a guy in Canada looking for a roan hazing horse to match the bulldogging horse we'd sold him a couple years earlier. The deal was pretty much done, until Dad entered the team roping at Pincher Creek, Alberta. In those days, every rodeo started with a grand entry that featured all of the mounted cowboys circling the arena behind the flag bearers, usually at full speed. It was windy, rainy, on the cool side. Halfway around the loop, Tara bogged her head and proceeded to put most of the saddle bronc horses to shame.

Oddly, the buyer developed cold feet. Must have been the weather.

Last week I went out to the south pasture and brought Tara in.The spring storms were hard on her, and she's embarassingly thin. I put her in the barn, filled the manger with hay, left the door open so she could come and go as she pleased. The grass around the barns and shops will soon be knee high. There's water, grain, other horses right across the fence. The ideal equine retirement home.

The first time someone left the yard gate open, Tara was gone, straight back to the pasture she came from. You gotta admire the tough old broad. She's gonna do it her way, right down to the end. Typical Hancock.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Rules of the Road

Travel is one of the evil necessities and occasional joys of rodeoing. I've seen a lot of places that I never would have considered going otherwise. Especially if it involved driving a one ton pickup and three horse trailer onto a ferry that bears a remarkable resemblence to Huck Finn's raft. Here, in no particular order, are a few things I learned from ten years on the rodeo road in the lovely Pacific Northwest. 1. Fuel is always cheapest at that last station down the road where you didn't stop. 2. No matter how many times you take the Kittitas Highway, it will never lead you to the Ellensburg Rodeo grounds. 3. Fossil, OR doesn't leave the arena lit up at three am. Those super-bright lights around what you thought was the arena? Those are at the LifeFlight landing pad. 4. Horses freak out when a helicopter almost lands on the trailer. 5. Traffic on I-5 through Everett, WA is prone to coming to a complete standstill for no particular reason, usually just beyond the crest of a hill. 6. A pick-up and horse trailer takes at least three car lengths longer to stop than a Honda. 7. The people in those three cars get sort of bug-eyed when you slide past them in the median. 8. A rodeo that begins at seven Mountain time actually starts at six Pacific time. 9. When you forget #8 until the last moment, it is possible for an F350 with a camper and horse trailer to outrun the Corvette club. 10. Officer Stone of the Oregon Highway Patrol is kinda cute. 11. There are three hundred and twenty seven stop lights between McMinnville and Newport, Oregon. 12. When you are running late, three hundred and thirty of them will be red. 13. Teenagers working at all night convenience stores are not a reliable source of travel information. 14. Boise, ID has the nation's highest per capita of cars spewing flames on the side of the Interstate. 15. Yes, it really is that far to Winnemucca. 16. The person who put up the 10 mph, sharp curve signs on the road to Weippe, ID is a liar. That's much too fast. 17. Rattlesnake Grade isn't nearly as pleasant as it sounds. 18. This bumper sticker should be standard equipment on every horse trailer west of the Cascades: 19. Rush hour in Portland starts at three o'clock, not five. 20. Last, but certainly not least, do not buy the 44 ounce super-sipper at the Flying J Truck Stop in Troutdale before heading into Portland at three fifteen.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Now that's more like it

Finally, things are starting to look more like this instead of a scene out of A Christmas Story.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tractor Crazy


Some day spring may come, and when it does the cattle will take a back seat to farming for a bit. My brother and I would have made good partners in this split operation. He has always loved anything mechanical. I'm an animal person. In his opinion, a cow is a thousand pounds of mobile aggravation in leather pants. I consider a day on the tractor slightly less tedious than counting the grains in a fifty pound bag of rice. \

Unless it's wild rice. That might put it over the top.

 The topic is fresh on my mind because I dragged pastures today. In other words, I drove a tractor around in circles for two hours, busting up cow turds with a harrow. My MP3 player was no help. Forget those businessmen trying to sleep on a noisy airplane. This is the real reason they invented noise cancelling headphones.

Luckily, the tractor did its best to keep me entertained. If I went more than two miles an hours, it immediately hit a badger hole hard enough to launch me out of my seat. And every fifty yards or so, for no particular reason, the door popped open. No big deal until the wind freshened and starting driving pellets of semi-frozen rain into my face as I attempted to steer with one hand while leaning out to drag the door shut with the other. 

Man, I love farming.

Maybe I would like it more if I was gliding along in one of those deluxe tractors with a temperature controlled, sound-proof cab, ergonomically designed seat, Bose stereo and a GPS system designed to eliminate all need for thought on my part.

 Wow. That sounds really dull.

 Old equipment does add a certain edge to farming. Can I make this one last round before the clutch goes completely? The answer is no. It will disentegrate when you've only got five acres left to seed and a three day rain settling in. The tractor I was driving today has a history of personality quirks. One year, during harvest, my sister was using it to bale straw. I was ahead of her on one combine and our hired man was on the other. Mom was in a field a mile away, swathing barley. Dad was in the fuel pick-up, roaring from one machine to the other, fixing them almost as fast as we could break them.

 I can't recall exactly what was wrong with the tractor, but every time my sister shifted gears the front end popped off the ground. She bounded down the rows like a bronc buster on a rearing colt. I had problems of my own. The slightest pressure on the brake pedal caused the combine wheels to lock up. At the end of every row it lurched to a stop, nose-diving, butt flying in the air.

It was a real rodeo out there, I tell you. Her tractor rearing, my combine bucking, and Dad racing around picking up the pieces that flew off.

 Like the people on this ranch, our tractors are getting to the age when they require a little extra encouragement to get going in the morning. Each is equipped with the same basic tool kit: wrenches, screwdrivers, and a blue can of starting fluid.

We hadn't realized how often we had to pump ether into carburetors until one chilly morning when Mom and I and my three-year-old son climbed into one of the diesel pick-ups. It is notoriously cold-blooded and we had forgotten to plug in the block heater. My mom turned the engine over and over, hoping against hope that it would start anyway.

 My son tapped her on the shoulder, full of male superiority. "You know, Grandma, it won't go unless you use the blue can."


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Date Night?

This isn't quite what I had in mind when I said that two of us should go out without the kid sometime. Actually, this one is for Sadie. I probably don't have to tell her, but left to right are Bailey, Vegas and Julie.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Chief Struts His Stuff

Now this is more like it. Easy to see why the Blackfeet consider him sacred, isn't it? Had to go begging for good pictures from my cousin who has a camera that's up to the task. Happily, the snow in the foothills is mostly gone now.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Pusher

I married my pusher. It was an excellent decision. A girl gets tired of having to find a different pusher at every rodeo, never knowing what she’s getting until she nods her head.

Calf pusher, of course. What other kind is there?

 In an earlier post, I may have implied that I married my husband for his rope horse. This was not entirely accurate. While he did, indeed, have a very nice horse, it turned out ol’ Brown and I had philosophical differences. In other words, I didn’t rope for crap on him. But once I’d experienced the thrill of having my very own, full time calf pusher, I wasn’t about to let Greg get away.

 Breakaway roping is the fastest event in rodeo. You nod, you swing, you throw, you stop, and if you catch, the rope breaks the string that attaches it to your saddle horn. Time stops when the string snaps. All within two to four seconds. There is very little margin for error. (Never seen it? Watch this: http://mx.truveo.com/breakaway-roping/id/2003617298) Therefore, the calf pusher is vital. A stall or a false step by the calf can cause the roper to break the barrier, a ten second penalty.

The pusher’s job is to be sure the calf stands straight and leaves when the gate opens. To achieve this outcome, the pusher must climb into the chute behind the calf. This is where the job description gets dicey. There are sewage ejection devices at the back end of a calf. This area is guarded by a set of sharp hooves mounted on spring-loaded levers, which are triggered by touch, movement or sound. Thanks to the above mentioned ejection of sewage, even in the midst of a ten year drought the bottom of the chute will be ankle deep in pungent muck.

 Above the pusher’s head there are additional levers, bars and bolts, ideally situated for removing hide from scalps. These mechanisms are operated by a gate man who habitually drops the rear gate just as the pusher is ducking under it. To avoid all this hardware, the pusher is forced to assume a hunched position, which brings his face in closer proximity to the sharp hooves and the raw sewage. Then they close the rear gate and lock him in.

 As romantic as it sounds, people are rarely standing in line to push calves. Finding a pusher can be especially problematic for a woman. The issue is the lack of reciprocity. If my husband needs a pusher, he simply rides up to another calf roper.

 “Give me a shove?” he asks.

 “Sure, what out are you?”

 “Fourth. You need me to get you?”

 “Yeah. I’m gunner.”

 Translated: “Will you push my calf?” “Sure, what number are you on the list?” “Fourth. Do you need me to push your calf?” “Yes, I’m first.” Even trade, all parties satisfied with the transaction. But in one of the finer chauvinistic traditions of rodeo—and I say that in all honesty, having no love for calf poop running down the front of my jeans—women are hardly ever expected to push a calf.

Which is great, except it means in lieu of trading pushes, we have to resort to asking favors. Breakaway roper says, “Uh, Jim? Could I get you to push my calf?”

 Jim looks around wildly, realizing he has somehow allowed himself to be the only fool who didn’t vacate the roping chutes well before the breakaway roping. He heaves a resigned sigh. “Yeah. Sure.”

 The woman can, of course, sweeten the pot by rewarding her pusher with the alcoholic beverage of his choice after the rodeo, but this strategy has its pitfalls. The biggest being Jim’s girlfriend.

 After many years of scavenging for pushers, imagine my delight when I realized that I now had one under contract. If it isn’t in the wedding vows, it should be, right after that ‘cherish and obey’ part. Not only did I not have to worry who would push my calf, but I knew he would do it well. After all, my winnings were his winnings. Or so he seemed to think.

 A good pusher can make all the difference. We once rolled into Buffalo Gap, SD only minutes before the performance started. The arena was knee deep in mud. I checked the stock draw and noted the number of my calf. Then I went looking for someone who’d watched the morning slack. As soon as I said the number,

Billy gave me a pitying look. “Piece of junk. Ducked left both times he was run this morning.”

 Crud. I might as well have mailed my entry fees and saved the gas money.

 “I’ll talk to your husband,” Billy said. “Be ready to get your rope out of your hand in a hurry.”

 He and Greg had a quick consultation. Greg climbed into the chute to push the calf. Billy strolled out to help the liners whose job it was to make the calves go as straight as possible. My mare and I slurped through the mud and into the box. When all was set, I nodded. Greg shoved the calf’s butt so hard to the left that it staggered out of the chute sideways. Billy fired a mud clod across its bow for good measure. The calf spooked to the right, in front of my horse. I took one swing and threw before it realized it had made a wrong turn. Snap! Second place.

 If only it was always that easy.

 Later the same summer, we were in Taber, Alberta. Breakaway roping hadn’t caught on up there yet, and only seven ropers entered the rodeo. The committee rounded up a handful of feedlot yearlings so fat their bellies hung up as they tried to leave the chute. There was barely room for Greg to squeeze in behind. I backed in the corner and nodded.

The calf bailed out of the chute in one long lunge. I roped him quick and looked back to see if I’d broken the barrier. My husband was prostrate in the dirt, blood running down the side of his head. It seems some teenaged kid who knew nothing about cattle got the bright idea to prod the calf when the gate opened. Startled, the calf jumped, kicking with both hind feet, one of which connected squarely with Greg’s eyebrow.

My dad helped him stagger to his feet, then dragged him from the arena before he could choke the chute help. I met them at the camper. Greg was still bleeding. His eye was swelling shut. We were in Canada, we had no idea whether our insurance company paid bills that were submitted in loonies, and a visit to the emergency room would definitely cost more than the hundred and ten bucks I’d won.

 Here's where the day job in sports medicine came in handy. After determining that any brain damage appeared temporary, I slapped an ice pack on his head. Then we found a drug store. I bought Steri-Strips, benzoin and iodine, cleaned the wound, and reattached his eyebrow to his forehead. Did a pretty good job if I say so myself. Strangers hardly ever gawk at the scar when they meet him on the street.

 The whole experience put a damper on Greg’s enthusiasm for pushing calves, though. At the next rodeo, he eyed the chute, eyed the calf, then looked at me and said, “Maybe I’ll just stand outside and tail him.”

Obviously, it was time to review his contract.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Mad Cow Chronicles--A Good Idea Gone Bad

It made sense, on the surface. They had a bum calf. They had a cow that had just lost a calf. Why not put the two together? Perhaps because the cow in question was the meanest thing on the ranch. Still, with two riders on two big, strong mares, how tough could it be to get her into the corral? Once there, they could run her into the squeeze chute, drop the kick plate and let the calf have a go at her. So they set out to wrangle the cow, Dad on Tara, Mom on Myla. The mares were sisters, both out of my mom's former barrel horse, and as tough as they come. The only small issue was that Tara tended to be a little humpy, and the wind was especially chilly that day, and she was primed for an opportunity to buck. The cow threw up her head, blew snot, and stood her ground. She took a run at first one horse, then the other. Finally, Dad roped her. Tara crow-hopped some, but the cow was alternately trying to knock her over and drag her down the coulee, so she buckled down. Dad snubbed the cow up on a short rope. They mashed her between the two horses with no room to maneuver and shoved her into the corral. To their surprise, she zipped right down the alley and into the chute. Dad slammed the head gate. Mission accomplished! The hard part was done. Now to put the calf on her. About that time, the cow realized her mistake and commenced to bellowing and ramming around, rocking the chute from side to side. The calf took one look at her, gave Mom and Dad an 'Are you nuts?' look, and went and hid in the farthest corner of the corral. Luckily, they were prepared. Dad whipped out a syringe and a bottle of tranquilizer. A little Acepromazine and she'd settle right down. He gave her the usual dose. They waited. She continued her attempts to dismember the chute. Obviously, the adrenalin in her system was counteracting the tranqulizer. Maybe just a little more... The cow rumbled around for a few more minutes, but slowly began to calm. Then her eyes rolled back in her head and she dropped like a rock--wedged in the chute. They didn't dare leave her like that. They spent the next forty-five minutes dismantling the chute. Once her head was free of the squeeze, they tried to roll her out. No chance. She was a big, beefy cow, and they couldn't budge her. Dad got his rope, put it around her front legs, and climbed on Tara. He dallied up and kicked. Tara hit the end of the rope, bore down hard...and the saddle slipped. The mare had had enough. She broke in two and went to bucking. Dad managed to hang on to his dallies just long enough to yank the cow free of the chute. Then he let loose and concentrated on saving his own life. About the time he got his horse under control, the cow came to. She staggered to her feet and stood there, weaving and shaking her head like a drunk who just woke up behind a dumpster on skid row. The calf lifted his head. She blew snot at him and pawed the ground. Which was when they opened the corral gate and kicked her out into the pasture, where they agreed they should have had enough sense to leave her in the first place.

Hope for Spring Springs Eternal

No matter how many times they get flattened by wet spring snow, the crocuses spring back to life at the first sign of the sun. Much like Montana ranchers, I guess.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Chief is on the Warpath

Hard to imagine that this blog has been in existence for nearly two months and this is the first picture of Chief Mountain I've posted. Chief is the square one in the center of the picture. Together with his neighbors, he forms the eastern face of Glacier National Park. I wish my camera did it justice. When you're standing where I was standing, the mountains are about twice as close as they look in this picture. Then again, when you're standing where I was standing and Chief Mountain looks like this, you'd better have a firm hold on your hat. And maybe a fence post. We call those wind clouds. And take note of the wispier stuff around the mountains themselves. Those aren't clouds, folks. That's blowing snow.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Pocket-sized Cow Horse

I may have mentioned that we’ve had a little snow lately. Just an average April snow shower, with enough accumulation to bury a short elephant, if one were ever foolish enough to wander into northern Montana in the spring. The snow is melting now, leaving behind fields covered in water and slush and mud. The footing is treacherous. Badger holes lurk under harmless-looking patches of leftover snow. But there is still work to be done, and not all of it in a pickup. My husband broached the subject at lunch on Sunday. “I need you to go up on the hill and bring in the heifer that lost her calf.” The sun was shining, the temperature above forty degrees for the first time in a week. I agreed. There are three horses in my personal herd at the moment. Ember is the prima donna, the first string rope horse, and good enough at it that her cute little nose would be seriously out of joint if someone expected her to go out and play ranch horse. Plus, she’s obnoxious to ride in the pasture. Roo was raised in a part of eastern Oregon that gets slightly less rain per year than Tucson, Arizona. He balks at oversized puddles. Forget splattering across a submerged field, through chest deep snow banks, and across a draw swollen with runoff. That left Pocket. Pocket is my cow horse. Her name is a direct reference to her size. Small enough to get on in full winter attire, agile enough to outmaneuver any cow. Her greatest claim to fame is a grandfather who won a few horse races. Thoroughbred aficionados might recognize the name. They called him Secretariat. Having spent a lifetime on this ranch, Pocket can navigate a minefield of badger holes with nary a stumble. She doesn’t trip over rocks or her own feet, and rarely slips, even on the most greasy ground. And she will go anywhere. Swamp, near vertical coulee descent, snow bank, creek. Point the way and she will go. Mostly, this is a good thing. But it does lay the burden of decision-making on the rider. A more cautious steed will pause, look back, give you that ‘Are you sure?’ look before venturing into a horse-swallowing bog. I’m not sure Pocket would hesitate if I asked her to stroll off the edge of the Grand Canyon. Sunday, though, was a good day to have the fearless Pocket as my partner. The cow was not interested in being herded from a sunny, rapidly greening pasture into the barn. We urged her forward. She went left, through a foot deep pool of slush, into a bog. Pocket followed. The cow went back to the right, across the muddy road and into a snow bank clear up to her belly. Pocket followed. Just shy of the gate, the cow made a break down the fence, across a stretch of slippery, wet grass, through more snow, and down into the water-logged draw. Pocket followed. At that point, the cow threw up her hooves and surrendered. We pushed her through the gate--guarded by a snowdrift ten yards across and a good three feet deep--and into the waiting pen. Mission accomplished. We headed for the barn and a well-earned bucket of oats. And of course, Pocket followed. Pocket, still in her winter clothes.

The Daily Bread


When my grandmother was a girl, the Bureau of Reclamation decided to build a canal that would reroute water from St. Mary's Lake into the Milk River, and via the river, across much of the northern edge of Montana. It was a pet project of Teddy Roosevelt, who liked to hunt and fish the lower reaches of the river and was dismayed that it often dried up completely in late summer.

Huge crews of men and hundreds of horses were commissioned to dig and scrape and haul the dirt. At five points along the way, cement flumes were built to shoot the water down steep hillsides. These were called the drops, and are still in place today.

 Drop number five was on land that was part of my great grandparents' allotment from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and very near their house. My great grandfather acquired a contract to help with construction. And, because their house was so conveniently situated, to feed the crews. Great Grandma Dubray was a stickler about her house…and her kitchen. She ran both with an iron hand. Each day she hauled gallons of water, peeled buckets of potatoes, and baked loaf after loaf of golden bread to feed the ravenous men.

My grandmother Eva and her cousin Grace were pressed into service as cook’s helpers. In the midst of the construction, Grandma Dubray found it necessary to be gone most of one day. She organized the menus for the day and left the two young teenagers with strict instructions for preparation and serving of the meals. Then away she went, rattling over the hill in the buckboard wagon.

 The girls pulled off lunch without a hitch. The men wolfed down the food, thanked them kindly, and went back to work. As the girls cleaned up the dishes, pots and pans, they noticed that there was not enough bread for supper.
 “We could make some,” Eva said. Grace, always the more timid, was doubtful. “We’ve never made bread.”

“But we watch Mama make it every day,” Eva said. “I know we can do it.” T

They found the recipe and set to work, adding flour and yeast, a dab of butter and milk. Soon they had a huge mound of dough. They huffed and puffed, kneading it smooth as they’d seen Grandma Dubray do it. Then they put it in big bowls and set them aside to rise. Nothing happened. They peeked under the cloth time and again, waiting for the dough to swell, to begin to give off the ripe aroma of percolating yeast. Still nothing.

 “We did something wrong!” Grace wailed. “It’s just sitting there.”

 Eva eyed the massive lumps of dough with consternation. Mama would be furious if she saw how much flour had been wasted in their failed attempt at bread baking. “We’ve got to get rid of it before Mama gets home,” she said.
 They grabbed up the bowls and went outside. Where to dump the incriminating evidence? The hillside rose, bare and mostly featureless, above the house. Nothing on the creek bank was large enough to conceal the white blob. And it was time to begin supper preparations. They had to hide the dough…and fast.

 “I know!” Eva cried. “We’ll shove it down some gopher holes.”

 They scurried around, tearing off big chunks of the dough and stuffing it into holes around the farm yard. When it was all gone, they hurried back to the house to begin peeling potatoes for supper. Grandma Dubray returned to find supper ready, exactly as she had instructed. The table was set, beans simmering on the stove. The men began to arrive.

One came in with a puzzled look on his face. “What have the chickens gotten into? They’re running around with big lumps of white stuff in their beaks.”

 The girls exchanged a look of horror. Everyone trooped out into the yard. Sure enough, a chicken strolled by with a lump of dough.

Grandma Dubray pointed at a spot on the ground. “What in the world is that?”

 They all stared at what looked like a giant white mushroom. Someone pointed to another, and then another. The things were popping up all around the yard. Eva and Grace knew exactly what had happened. The warmth of the afternoon sun had finally caused the balky dough to rise…right up out of their hiding places.