Sun up used to mean the crackle of a fire and clanging of cast iron, horses snorting, the smell of wood smoke and the feel of spring chill. There was the otherworldly jingle of trace chains and the creak of well-worn wooden axles as the chuck wagon set out for the day. The cowboys caught their horses and rode out for the gather, leaving the cook and the wrangler to break camp and jingle the horses along to the spot where they would be branding. They had a lot to do to have the mid-day meal ready on time and the remuda close for the change of horses.
They had to choose the right spot, and keep the horses grazing nearby. Then, they’d gather wood, un-hitch the team, and get the fires going. I fancy they started with boiling a pot of beans, and putting on a pot of coffee; then when the coals were right they’d start a dutch oven of sourdough biscuits. Comforting as that sounds, it would be a heck of a lot of work in the wind.
I can imagine it as if I had been there, on the wagon, a century ago. But now, it’s the purr of a diesel pickup and that rattle of a stock trailer leaving the house before the sun. The horses are caught and saddled in the trance of pickup headlights, and hauled to the drop-off point where the gather will begin. And me? Well, folks, I’m not on the wagon this year…again. I guess my role is as the wrangler. I help the cook, and I wrangle toddlers.
Ranching may have changed over the last century. But some things haven’t. A hundred years ago, the man hired as chuck wagon cook was the second-in-command. He had to be the most savvy, had to know the bosses’ mind and know his way around the country. Not only did he need to be a good cook, but he needed to know the in’s and out’s of the works so that everything ran smooth. The morale of the crew during spring and fall works could often hinge on the quality and timing of the meal, because they may be working in freezing wind or killer heat or even rain. A good meal really does a lot for the attitude of a man working in the weather.
These days, the chuck wagon cook is usually the bosses’ wife. And she fills the exact same job requirements as a chuck wagon cook would have back in the day. Only now, she uses her SUV or a ranch pickup, and packs the back with food she made in her kitchen. Her day begins at 3:30 or 4 a.m., and it’s a series of oven timers, stirring, tasting, and lots of toting tea jugs and coolers back and forth. They keep the coffee hot, take cookies to the branding pen, and then serve a full-on catered lunch. I’ve had the privilege of working alongside a few of these women. Let me tell you, they are invaluable. Their ability to adjust, and to accommodate the inevitable change of plans, is truly a super-power. Besides that, they do it with heart and they care about the quality of their work. I used to view their role as something like a prison sentence, because all that mattered to me then was which horse I would use and if I roped good. I have a new perspective now. Their job isn’t glamorous, often thankless and definitely taken for granted, but if they didn’t do it as well as they do, the works would be miserable. If you haven’t seen it, I wrote about this special gal in my post called “The Ranch House Rose”.
Two weeks have gone by since the crew started branding, and between us and neighbors, we will be doing it for maybe a month or more. Branding time is when the old glory and romance of ‘the cowboy’ still shines out, and I confess I do love it most of all. I expect I will someday rejoin the crew. But until then, like the wrangler who had to help the cook with the wagon, I have my share of lessons to learn first. I guess my horse and I will baby sit, and I’ll tote coolers and tea jugs and look on from the other side of the fence…for now.