Part I
Chapter Eight. The Corral Branding
 

All that night we slept like sticks of wood. No dreams visited us, but in accordance with the immemorial habit of those who live out--whether in the woods, on the plains, among the mountains, or at sea--once during the night each of us rose on his elbow, looked about him, and dropped back to sleep. If there had been a fire to replenish, that would have been the moment to do so; if the wind had been changing and the seas rising, that would have been the time to cast an eye aloft for indications, to feel whether the anchor cable was holding; if the pack-horses had straggled from the alpine meadows under the snows, this would have been the occasion for intent listening for the faintly tinkling hell so that next day one would know in which direction to look. But since there existed for us no responsibility, we each reported dutifully at the roll-call of habit, and dropped back into our blankets with a grateful sigh.

I remember the moon sailing a good gait among apparently stationary cloudlets; I recall a deep, black shadow lying before distant silvery mountains; I glanced over the stark, motionless canvases, each of which concealed a man; the air trembled with the bellowing of cattle in the corrals.

Seemingly but a moment later the cook's howl brought me to consciousness again. A clear, licking little fire danced in the blackness. Before it moved silhouettes of men already eating.

I piled out and joined the group. Homer was busy distributing his men for the day. Three were to care for the remuda; five were to move the stray-herd from the corrals to good feed; three branding crews were told to brand the calves we had collected in the cut of the afternoon before. That took up about half the men. The rest were to make a short drive in the salt grass. I joined the Cattleman, and together we made our way afoot to the branding pen.

We were the only ones who did go afoot, however, although the corrals were not more than two hundred yards' distant. When we arrived we found the string of ponies standing around outside. Between the upright bars of greasewood we could see the cattle, and near the opposite side the men building a fire next the fence. We pushed open the wide gate and entered. The three ropers sat their horses, idly swinging the loops of their ropes back and forth. Three others brought wood and arranged it craftily in such manner as to get best draught for heatin,--a good branding fire is most decidedly a work of art. One stood waiting for them to finish, a sheaf of long JH stamping irons in his hand. All the rest squatted on their heels along the fence, smoking cigarettes ad chatting together. The first rays of the sun slanted across in one great sweep from the remote mountains.

In ten minutes Charley pronounced the irons ready. Homer, Wooden, and old California John rode in among the cattle. The rest of the men arose and stretched their legs and advanced. The Cattleman and I climbed to the top bar of the gate, where we roosted, he with his tally-book on his knee.

Each rider swung his rope above his head with one hand, keeping the broad loop open by a skilful turn of the wrist at the end of each revolution. In a moment Homer leaned forward and threw. As the loop settled, he jerked sharply upward, exactly as one would strike to hook a big fish. This tightened the loop and prevented it from slipping off. Immediately, and without waiting to ascertain the result of the manoeuvre, the horse turned and began methodically, without undue haste, to walk toward the branding fire. Homer wrapped the rope twice or thrice about the horn, and sat over in one stirrup to avoid the tightened line and to preserve the balance. Nobody paid any attention to the calf. The critter had been caught by the two hind legs. As the rope tightened, he was suddenly upset, and before he could realise that something disagreeable was happening, he was sliding majestically along on his belly. Behind him followed his anxious mother, her head swinging from side to side.

Near the fire the horse stopped. The two "bull-doggers" immediately pounced upon the victim. It was promptly flopped over on its right side. One knelt on its head and twisted back its foreleg in a sort of hammer-lock; the other seized one hind foot, pressed his boot heel against the other hind leg close to the body, and sat down behind the animal. Thus the calf was unable to struggle. When once you have had the wind knocked out of you, or a rib or two broken, you cease to think this unnecessarily rough. Then one or the other threw off the rope. Homer rode away, coiling the rope as he went.

"Hot iron!" yelled one of the bull-doggers.

"Marker!" yelled the other.

Immediately two men ran forward. The brander pressed the iron smoothly against the flank. A smoke and the smell of scorching hair arose. Perhaps the calf blatted a little as the heat scorched. In a brief moment it was over. The brand showed cherry, which is the proper colour to indicate due peeling and a successful mark.

In the meantime the marker was engaged in his work. First, with a sharp knife he cut off slanting the upper quarter of one ear. Then he nicked out a swallow-tail in the other. The pieces he thrust into his pocket in order that at the completion of the work he could thus check the Cattleman's tally-board as to the number of calves branded.[3] The bull-dogger let go. The calf sprang up, was appropriated and smelled over by his worried mother, and the two departed into the herd to talk it over.

[3] For the benefit of the squeamish it might be well to note that the fragments of the ears were cartilaginous, and therefore not bloody.

It seems to me that a great deal of unnecessary twaddle is abroad as to the extreme cruelty of branding. Undoubtedly it is to some extent painful, and could some other method of ready identification be devised, it might be as well to adopt it in preference. But in the circumstance of a free range, thousands of cattle, and hundreds of owners, any other method is out of the question. I remember a New England movement looking toward small brass tags to be hung from the ear. Inextinguishable laughter followed the spread of this doctrine through Arizona. Imagine a puncher descending to examine politely the ear-tags of wild cattle on the open range or in a round-up.

But, as I have intimated, even the inevitable branding and ear-marking are not so painful as one might suppose. The scorching hardly penetrates below the outer tough skin--only enough to kill the roots of the hair--besides which it must be remembered that cattle are not so sensitive as the higher nervous organisms. A calf usually bellows when the iron bites, but as soon as released he almost invariably goes to feeding or to looking idly about. Indeed, I have never seen one even take the trouble to lick his wounds, which is certainly not true in the case of the injuries they inflict on each other in fighting. Besides which, it happens but once in a lifetime, and is over in ten seconds; a comfort denied to those of us who have our teeth filled.

In the meantime two other calves had been roped by the two other men. One of the little animals was but a few months old, so the rider did not bother with its hind legs, but tossed his loop over its neck. Naturally, when things tightened up, Mr. Calf entered his objections, which took the form of most vigorous bawlings, and the most comical bucking, pitching, cavorting, and bounding in the air. Mr. Frost's bull-calf alone in pictorial history shows the attitudes. And then, of course, there was the gorgeous contrast between all this frantic and uncomprehending excitement and the absolute matter-of-fact imperturbability of horse and rider. Once at the fire, one of the men seized the tightened rope in one hand, reached well over the animal's back to get a slack of the loose hide next the belly, lifted strongly, and tripped. This is called "bull-dogging." As he knew his business, and as the calf was a small one, the little beast went over promptly, bit the ground with a whack, and was pounced upon and held.

Such good luck did not always follow, however. An occasional and exceedingly husky bull yearling declined to be upset in any such manner. He would catch himself on one foot, scramble vigorously, and end by struggling back to the upright. Then ten to one he made a dash to get away. In such case he was generally snubbed up short enough at the end of the rope; but once or twice he succeeded in running around a group absorbed in branding. You can imagine what happened next. The rope, attached at one end to a conscientious and immovable horse and at the other to a reckless and vigorous little bull, swept its taut and destroying way about mid-knee high across that group. The brander and marker, who were standing, promptly sat down hard; the bull-doggers, who were sitting, immediately turned several most capable somersaults; the other calf arose and inextricably entangled his rope with that of his accomplice. Hot irons, hot language, and dust filled the air.

Another method, and one requiring slightly more knack, is to grasp the animal's tail and throw it by a quick jerk across the pressure of the rope. This is productive of some fun if it fails.

By now the branding was in full swing. The three horses came and went phlegmatically. When the nooses fell, they turned and walked toward the fire as a matter of course. Rarely did the cast fail. Men ran to and fro busy and intent. Sometimes three or four calves were on the ground at once. Cries arose in a confusion: "Marker" "Hot iron!" "Tally one!" Dust eddied and dissipated. Behind all were clear sunlight and the organ roll of the cattle bellowing.

Toward the middle of the morning the bull-doggers began to get a little tired.

"No more necked calves," they announced. "Catch 'em by the hind legs, or bull-dog 'em yourself."

And that went. Once in a while the rider, lazy, or careless, or bothered by the press of numbers, dragged up a victim caught by the neck. The bull-doggers flatly refused to have anything to do with it. An obvious way out would have been to flip off the loop and try again; but of course that would have amounted to a confession of wrong.

"You fellows drive me plumb weary," remarked the rider, slowly dismounting. "A little bit of a calf like that! What you all need is a nigger to cut up your food for you!"

Then he would spit on his hands and go at it alone. If luck attended his first effort, his sarcasm was profound.

"There's yore little calf," said he. "Would you like to have me tote it to you, or do you reckon you could toddle this far with yore little old iron?"

But if the calf gave much trouble, then all work ceased while the unfortunate puncher wrestled it down.

Toward noon the work slacked. Unbranded calves were scarce. Sometimes the men rode here and there for a minute or so before their eyes fell on a pair of uncropped ears. Finally Homer rode over to the Cattleman and reported the branding finished. The latter counted the marks in his tally-book.

"One hundred and seventy-six," he announced.

The markers, squatted on their heels, told over the bits of ears they had saved. The total amounted to but an hundred and seventy-five. Everybody went to searching for the missing bit. It was not forth-coming. Finally Wooden discovered it in his hip pocket.

"Felt her thar all the time," said he, "but thought it must shorely be a chaw of tobacco."

This matter satisfactorily adjusted, the men all ran for their ponies. They had been doing a wrestler's heavy work all the morning, but did not seem to be tired. I saw once in some crank physical culture periodical that a cowboy's life was physically ill-balanced, like an oarsman's, in that it exercised only certain muscles of the body. The writer should be turned loose in a branding corral.

Through the wide gates the cattle were urged out to the open plain. There they were held for over an hour while the cows wandered about looking for their lost progeny. A cow knows her calf by scent and sound, not by sight. Therefore the noise was deafening, and the motion incessant.

Finally the last and most foolish cow found the last and most foolish calf. We turned the herd loose to hunt water and grass at its own pleasure, and went slowly back to chuck.