It's roughly 6 o'clock on Friday morning as I'm sitting on top of a hill out in the middle of no where, New Mexico. A steady breeze is coming out of the north and my horse paws the dirt, anxious to get moving. In front of me is 500 head of Corriente cattle scattered somewhere in eleven sections of rough country. Off to my left, three figures lope off to the west side of the pasture and four more lope off to the east. I can't help the feeling of excitement that is slowly welling up inside of me: it's branding time!
My brother, LJ and I drove up to New Mexico to help our uncle work cattle for the weekend. His ranch is about 40 miles north of Roswell where he and his wife run Corriente cattle on a little ranch off of highway 285. Loaded with three horses and my brother we headed out of Alpine Wednesday at noon. It's about a six hour drive pulling a trailer so we made it there in time for supper.
Thursday we got up not early and I spent the morning fixing the lights on my trailer. (the rough roads and my driving caused the wires to pull out of the adaptor that you plug into the truck) I was very proud of myself because I managed to put all the wires in their right places, or so I thought. After dinner, LJ and I rode my aunts horses for her because she hadn't in three months and they all were feeling their oats. Luckily, no one bucked and my aunt was very pleased.
Friday morning came and eight riders loaded in two rigs made the long trek to the very south end of the ranch. Two more riders stayed at the pens and rode to the west to 15 mile draw and my uncle on his 4-wheeler when east to 5 mile draw. The pasture was roughly eleven sections so we spread out as best as we could, riding on top of hills for the first mile. The riders on either side of me were blobs of color moving along the hills, that's how far apart we ended up being. The first set of cattle that I came to caught wind of me and ol' Curly and high-tailed it out of there. Those cattle hadn't been worked in over a year, since the last time Lj and I were up there in August of 2009 so they were all feeling very frisky. What makes it even worse is that there were many cases of a yearling and a new calf being on the same cow. After abut an hour, I topped a hill and saw almost all the other riders trailing cattle on both sides of me. I was in the direct middle and it was quiet a sight to see that many black dots moving in the same general direction. . I just loved it!
The gather went very well considering that my uncles cattle had a tendency to run off and we had everything penned by 8:30. Now the real work began. It toke the rest of the morning to sort mother cows, yearling bulls, yearling heifers, and calves. I was assigned the job of counting mother cows as they filtered them out into the main trap. What fun right? It wouldn't have been so bad except every time a group of cattle went out the gate, I was sourrounded by a cloud of dirt. When we had had some dinner, we started back up, this time setting up the branding pot, shots, and tagging guns. I got to give shots the first set of calves which isn't a bad job but it's not my favorite either. The second set I got to rope and drag calves. Usually I can catch a set of heels quicker than anyone but that day I wasn't roping worth a darn. I think it was the dust.... The third set I had to flank. Today I counted 8 bruises on my arms and legs from flanking calves. One because most of the calves weighed more than I do and two because I was on the tailing side. Stinking calves were big! Set number four I was allowed to brand. That was a relief and it gave me time to recover from flanking.
The fifth and last set of calves I got to rope again. I was just plain tired at that point and was not really paying attention. I had roped a pretty good sized bull calf and toke off knowing I had him when I heard a snap. The honda on my rope had broke in two when the rope came tight, and everyone knows to get out of the way when a rope breaks. Well I didn't have time to react and undally when what was left of my honda popped Curly right on the rump, sending him leaping forward into the awaiting flanker's faces. It was kind of funny seeing them fly out of the way like that, but I felt bad. Curly was pretty skittish after that but thankfully there were only a couple of calves left.
When we all came in that night for supper, we all looked like very tanned Mexicans. No offense to anyone but we did. There was so much dirt and dust on us that when we toke off our hats, the white showed up very clearly. What made it worse is that my uncles house doesn't have any running water, save a water faucet to water their horses, so no one could get a shower. It was pretty bad, we all went to bed covered in dirt...
Saturday morning rolled around at about 5 as we got up and had to haul all the yearlings we had sorted off to another set of pens, the ones with the chute in them. How convenient... and it was about a ten mile drive on dirt roads to get there And we only had three stock trailers. So.... 6 hours later, 150 yearlings were at the other set of pens, ready to be worked. The yearlings were very big and it toke most of us to work one at the chute because it was manually operated. After spending a half hour looking for a lighter or match to fire up the branding pot, (we ended up using a hot shot) we cracked down on working the yearlings. Somehow it went faster than the branding yesterday did and it only toke us 3 hours to get it done. I was all excited when we finished because I thought it meant supper and sleep, but I was sadly disappointed when my uncle said that there were 22 more calves to work.
The registered cattle that my aunt and uncle had were on the very east side of the ranch, across the highway. There were no pens over there so we had to set up a make-shift branding pen. Luckily they weren't hard to gather and we got them done right before dark. I was so tired then and was paying attention.. again, when someone dropped a panel and it hit me in the back as we were trying to put them on the trailer. I was thinking I was pretty much ready to go home at the point. I think it was about 11 when I finally crawled into my borrowed bedroll, (my sweet boyfriend lent me his because I didn't have one of my own.)
When the sun came up on Sunday I refused to get out of bed, but I had to or miss breakfast. We had donuts because my uncle was out of eggs, but that was ok with me. The plan for the morning was to gather the trap that the mother cows were in and sort off 125 cows that were white, red, spotted or old to take up north. It toke 3 hours to get that done and by that time I was not feeling good at all. One of the guys made me go back to the house to take a nap because I had to drive home that afternoon. I felt much better after my nap and everyone was done by the time I woke up.
Lj and I loaded up the trailer and all the horses and left for home at about 4 that afternoon. Remember me fixing the trailer lights earlier? Well, I wired three wires wrong so when I went to turn on my lights, the trailer breaks came on, and when I went to use the trailer breaks my lights came on. I was not very happy at this point so when we got to Wal-mart in Roswell I spent half an hour fixing the lights. When I finished I didn't have breaks but I had turn signals and running lights.. all I needed to get home. I thought we were making pretty good time when my brother fell asleep and I was left driving by myself. It was about nine at night when I was only an hour away from home when I started to get sleepy. I ended up calling my dad to come get me and drive us the rest of the way home..
I still love branding and working cattle and enjoying cool mornings on horseback, but I have certainly had my fill for a while.