Tony Vagneur: Moving the herd comes with consequences and a hidden tear
He wasn’t very big, a mere 250 to 300 pounds compared with his peers of 600 to 700. Born late and then getting sick made it a tough road to keep the little fella healthy, particularly in this year of scant snow, dry spring weather and a summer of choking smoke.
We spotted him right off and my son-in-law, Ty Burtard, roped the little devil while I galloped back to get the horse trailer. We had about 80 head of Black Angus cow-calf pairs headed out on a 10-mile drive back to the main corrals — our summer pasture had finally run out in this almost-rainless summer — and we figured the little guy wouldn’t make the journey.
Ty’s now 34 — he’s been doing this drive since he was 5 — it’s old hat to him and it seems that way to me, although it’s only been three or four years for me.
It’s a two-day cattle drive, and by hook or crook, I’d missed the first day, which originated about five miles up Thompson Creek, three miles or so past the Yank Creek cow camp, on private ground that Ty’s grandfather owns.
If you want to know about days, be advised that Brad Day covered for me the first day, which involved rounding up the bovines from various draws, ridges and valleys before trailing them down the road to the box canyon in which Ty and I found them the next morning.
The plan was simple enough. “If you think just you and I can trail them out of there, I’ll meet you at John’s at 5:45,” Ty said and I selfishly winced a bit, knowing I’d have to get up at 4 a.m. to make that time frame. Yeah, two guys can do about anything like that, if they know what they’re doing. Like I said, Ty’s been at it awhile.
That time of morning, it’s a bit dark out (the damned moon was hiding behind cloud cover) but my trusty headlamp provided some vision. Trying to find a couple of horses in a 15-acre hilly pasture when you can’t see much provided a unique opportunity in sleuths-manship, and it worked me over pretty good.
Check by the road first, up the steep hill by those huge cottonwoods where shadows can sometimes make their own shadows and night owls might talk to you. Then it’s clear across the middle of the piece, figuring they might be on the other end, hiding under the hawthorn. Well, hell yes, there they are on another side, right by the spring-fed water trough. Hurry up, we don’t have all day.
Take my mount Easy out of the pasture to saddle him, suddenly realizing my pants are wet almost to my knees from walking through the dew-laden, tall grass. Damned lucky to have grass in this weird summer so don’t bitch, just suck it up.
Saddling a horse in the dark is never easy, even with the help of a headlamp, and it takes longer than usual and then like a damned kid who hasn’t seasoned out yet, I’m running 10 minutes late, but how fast can you flog it down the road in the dark, your best horse in the trailer behind you with the threat of deer and elk crossing in front of your rig at any moment?
Even taking my tardiness into account, we got the cows out of the canyon in good time. Fortunately, they had stayed together fairly well, certain, I’m sure, that they knew we’d be coming for them in the morning light. They’d been through this drill before.
They did a great job of heading down the road, with Ty and me covering the sides and often bringing up a few recalcitrant cows from the back. Ty’s new dog, Dot, was a remarkable help even though she’s only about 7 months old. She’s kind of like my late dog, Topper, herding them along.
My daughter was waiting for the swaying herd of beef at the Dry Park Road, making sure they didn’t take an unadvised detour toward Glenwood. She and my granddaughter, Charli, followed us down the road to our destination, making small talk as we clopped along.
We got to the corrals about 11:30 a.m., pleased to be there before it got too hot. Ty’s crew was waiting for us, ready to transport the cattle home in huge aluminum gooseneck transports. My daughter drove Ty back up to his horse trailer where the frail, young calf was waiting. I loaded our horses into my trailer and headed back to Woody Creek.
That brave little calf, the one we were rooting for, didn’t survive. He died a couple of days later from pneumonia, in spite of the best care that could be given.
There’s always a twinkle in a rancher’s eye, just in front of the tear he keeps for the little ones that sometimes don’t make it.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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