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.
Ah! The anguish of heart. I still feel the terror of the moment, although now I’m much older. That helpless feeling you feel when you can’t stop a tragedy, and goodbye is forever still pounds in my chest.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was not yet nine years old. It had snowed a couple days before, leaving drifts on the ground. When it snowed, my granddad plowed the road with his tractor. He hadn’t plowed down the road to the West that went into the horse pasture, and no one had driven that way since the snow. Perhaps it’s untouched purity is what drew me in that direction. Being so young, making tracks in the snow was always fun.
Most of what happened that day was a blur. I’m sick to my stomach even remembering. My mom and I had homeschooled all morning and by evening time I was needing to get outside. Kids get cabin fever in a shorter time than adults do, so my mom sent me to call in the horses. She knew they would all be up at the corral-or close to it-already by that time of day, but it was the adventure I was hoping for so I pulled on my snow boots and trekked outside.
I remember sliding on some ice on my way up to the corral. I saw the horses were waiting in the corral for their hay, except for my horse, ‘Pop’. I called him, but he didn’t appear. Laddie, Dan, Lena and the others were all standing there looking at me. But I remember Dan kept jerking his head up, ears in the alert position, listening. At my age I was too young to worry. I just headed out to the west because that road led to the horse pasture, just to see if I could lay eyes on him somewhere out there.
I played my way through the untouched snow and finally looked up. There he was. Pop stood by the cattle guard in kind of a strange position. I could see his breath pumping out into the cold air even at that distance. I called him, but he didn’t move. He just put his head down low.
I ran to him, picking up that something was wrong. As I got closer I saw blood all over the snow and how he was barely upright on two legs. My horse was in bad shape. He was covered in sweat, foaming around the shoulders and up high on his neck, and steam rose up from him a cloud. It was like witnessing his spirit slowly leave him.
I didn’t slow down then. I fell on my horses’ neck and the cry that finally came from my throat was barely audible. My sobs and tears just would not stop. I looked into his soft, round eye and I heard him tell me goodbye. I went from weeping to shock to panicked action. There was wire around him up under his foreleg from the old wire gate that we sometimes strung up across the road. His other shoulder hung dangling, the hoof jammed in between the pipes of the cattle guard. His hind legs were planted in the cattle guard too, but only one could hold weight. The other was broken.
I worked my tiny self so hard trying to free him from the wire and finally removed some of it. But I couldn’t do any more and I needed help. I sat down on the snow in front of my horse. My beautiful buckskin horse-of-my-dreams, the one that had given me wings. He nuzzled me, he put his nose into my lap and let me hug his head…my forehead on his. I was too young to have any words. What passed between us then was only in our spirits. He was a gift from God and I knew it. If I went for help my mom and my granddad weren’t going to let me come back. This was goodbye. The only words I managed to utter were, “I can’t save you Poppie. I love you.” I sat with him until my heart broke, because it was cruel to let him live like that another minute.
Many know this kind of pain. It’s not unique to me. But it’s hard to lose a horse. They give us so much of themselves and when their time is up, we are shocked by mortality and how terrifyingly final death is. The thought of never riding them again is a loss I can’t explain. But I know it. I know it well.
The horses had run in that evening and because the snow had drifted over that cattle guard, Pop never saw it and fell right into a death trap. Dan was Pop’s full brother; they were both buckskin colored and both good ranch horses. He had tried to tell me something was wrong that day. In the years since, I have learned to watch my horses more carefully.
A cattle-guard is placed in a road where a gate once was, and it allows you to drive through the pastures without having to stop and open a gate. Cattle rarely get hung up in one, but I’ve known three horses that have died in them, all because of snow. We put up cross-ropes with orange tape or flags tied on them in the winter now.
Growing up on a ranch comes with some hard lessons. The day Pop died, I learned that life is precious. It’s not time that we should value so much as life, and we should never take our gifts from God for granted. Already I had learned about death, but that day, I learned about loss. Some goodbyes are forever. I think learning this when so young has shaped me a great deal in life since.
I also learned something important about mercy. It’s very hard to explain, but the moment I knew he couldn’t be saved, I was struck with the thought that if I loved him, it would be selfish to make him suffer more.
If that had not happened when it did, I would not have loved my horses as deeply throughout my life as I have. I might have treated them all with casual indifference, and considered their years of service to be of little consequence, valuing them only by what pleasure they gave me. Saying goodbye to my horse was a hard lesson, but God used Pop to teach me some wisdom about life. He does work in mysterious ways.
I love you. I know you love me too. Now that we have that out of the way, there’s something else I want to say.
Dad, I’m just as good as my brothers at sorting pairs. You haven’t seemed to notice, but I don’t miss a thing; and if you’d only let me, I would sort ’em neat and clean.
You never let me ride the broncs, ‘cuz I’m a girl and all, thanks for your consideration Dad, but it isn’t fair you know.
You learned to ride from your dad, who was taught by his; how am I supposed to keep up then, if you don’t let me now and again?
I’ll never be the rough string rider, we both know that’s true, I just wish you’d see, though, how much I want to learn from you.
Just because I wear a dress to church and Mama’s teaching me her trade, doesn’t mean I prefer to cook than help you put out hay.
When the hay truck pulls up, go ahead and ask me, Dad, I am not afraid. (Just between us I think I’d rather do that than bake all day.)
I’ll do the work Dad, I know I can, so please don’t leave me out. I’m not the kind of girl who would turn on you and pout. The boys are given tasks to do so I don’t think this is too much to ask of you.
Listen, Daddy, someday I won’t be here.
I’ll be someplace else, with someone else, who includes me in what they do. Then I’ll have to cook, and stay inside, and go to town and stuff, because I’ll have a family of my own and be like Mama: tough.
If you’ll just show me your side of life for now, Dad, it’ll be enough.
Mama will teach me all she can about how to be a lady. Her lessons and her example are my guiding light, so don’t worry, I won’t lose her gentle touch.
But teach me to cowboy, to ride and rope and be a hand. After all, you still can’t tell which one of us will love the land. Don’t leave me out Dad, please. I’m part of this place, too. There’s lessons out there I was meant to learn…from you.
I’ll prove to you that teaching me will pay off sooner or later. I’ll learn this lifestyle inside out and when the time comes to choose my way, the passion that you passed on to me will make you proud someday.
Daddy, you’re my hero. Think about this, k? Next time we run in the colts or when it’s time to brand, just let me try, I’ll make a number one top hand.
With all my heart,
Your loving daughter
First you see the cattle stringing out at a brisk trot. You’re gathering a rough brushy pasture, trotting over a rock bedecked hill, watching for movement somewhere. You hope you covered all of your assigned territory and that you kept the pace of the circle everyone was making, because you haven’t seen anybody since the drop off. Your mind drifts back to that spot you figured was clear but now wish you’d trotted the extra 500 yards to make sure.
You pull up your sweaty horse to get a good look at what’s below you. While he’s catching his air you take note of the bunch trotting down the draw. The man on the outside circle ahead of you must have kicked them down here, knowing they’d travel and knowing you’d pick them up. Good, you tell yourself. I’m where I should be.
But the next thing you see is another horse and rider behind those cattle, and you realize you are behind. You’re somewhat disgusted with yourself, but glad you saw those cows or you’d have ridden right in front of them and turned them around. Squinting into the sunrise, you try to recognize the rider. What you see first sorta embarrasses you, then it makes you smile. It’s the kid.
They may be little. Their stirrups are barely long enough to touch the horse’s hide. Daddy may not let them carry a rope yet, and Mama might always stay within earshot, but don’t underestimate a kid on a horse. You’re looking at typically about 15+ years experience working and gathering cattle, between them and their horse. The judgement may come from the horse, but the motivation is from the kid. Gates do slow these little cowboys down quite a bit, but other than that, they’re good for as long as Mom will let them ride.
The truth is, cowkids learn how to do a lot more tasks than they are physically able to perform. They know exactly how to saddle their old pony, or work the squeeze chute, or drive the pickup, but the required height and strength is yet to come. There’s a lot they don’t know, but the trick is, they don’t know that!
When other kids are big enough to want to go to the mall, cow kids are about big enough to build a hay fort. They bring all sorts of ‘necessities’ to the hay barn and wrestle the 50-75 lb hay bales into the perfect spots to create tunnels and lookout holes. It’s like being lord of your very own grass castle. Our forts always had blankets, kittens, a canteen, and a pair of old binoculars for spying. My sister and I swiped the walkie talkies when we had friends over, but if we couldn’t use those, we would use our dogs to carry messages to the house (with notes tied in the collar that said something like, “Mom, bring snacks”).
There were five of us cousins born within a few years of each other. At family ranch ‘works’, we were all mounted on trusty horses that had been there, done that. So when we got the cattle to the corral and there wasn’t anything for us little guys to do, we would designate teams and play ‘cowboys and indians’. Basically we chased each other around the juniper trees on a nearby hill as fast as our old ponies would let us go. It was a glorified game of tag, complete with ambushes and war whoops. We couldn’t get on our horses without a fence, so we seldom dismounted during our game. On a couple of occasions we did take it too far…we found some sheep chalk (a bright oil-based paint stick made for marking sheep but used also to mark cattle when we palpate) in the saddle shed and put war paint on our horses. It didn’t wear off for months! The times we used Mom’s lipstick, it came off sooner.
Most little cowkids will want to ride every four-legged critter on the place. They’ll try all the horses, ride anything in the corral if you don’t stop them: even calves, pigs, and dogs.
My first time to get really bucked off was at age 10 (it wasn’t the last!). I had convinced my Dad to let me ride a horse in his string named Mouse (‘string’ is the word we use for the horses that are assigned to a particular cowboy. They’re his tools, if you will. Many ranches provide a string of horses for each of their employees to use). Well, Mouse was a grulla color with a big white star on his forehead, and I was so in love. He seemed gentle enough, but hadn’t ever felt spurs up high on his ribs (cowkids aren’t known for having long stirrups). I gigged him in the ribs like I did my old pony, but Mouse was a lot more ticklish. He broke into a little crow hop and there I went. I still remember the slow-motion sensation of the ground rushing up at me.
Mom picked me up, dusted me off, caught my horse and put me back up there. Sitting back up on the beast, I could feel the electricity in him. His hide seemed to crawl with it, his ears were locked on me and I was locked on him. Mom fixed me a make-shift night latch (a leather strap around the swells of the saddle to grab if needed. No cow kid is ever allowed to use the saddle horn for balance. It’s for a rope only.) She rode right beside me, talking quietly to help me and Mouse get our minds off each other. Within minutes, we were moving out together like old friends. I had learned something that can’t be taught: respect your horse. It only took me four or five days to fall in love with another horse in Daddy’s string. Mouse was certified ‘kid-broke’ by then, and I was ready for my next one.
There’s a special age when your burdens are still light but you’re able to do more things, and that age for ranch kids is a blessed time of freedom. You start to learn everything important but you don’ t have the pressure of your teens to take the fun out of it. Hard work, responsibility, perseverance, discipline, compassion, honesty…it’s all there. Caring for livestock is fun; you want to go out in below zero cold to play in the snow while Dad busts ice. You want to go clean stock tanks because you get to play in the mud while Mom and your older siblings have to bail out the trough.
Cowkids. I would trade places with them in a heartbeat. Wouldn’t you?
The photos in this article are all the property of Brittany Starritt unless otherwise noted. They feature my niece, Sammie, cowkid and horsewoman extraordinairre. She illustrates the story better than the words do. I’m proud she calls me her ‘Tantie’.
I overheard a conversation the other day between my mom and one of her friends who was a young mom on the Block Ranch more than 20 years ago. Her son is a good friend of mine now, so when she said he growled at strangers when he was a baby, I wanted to laugh out loud!
“He spent all his time around the dogs! He didn’t know any better,” she explained.
Now, he’s a daddy. Can’t wait to hear how this plays out!
Mom followed with a story about me. I was always on my hands and knees, nickering and snorting instead of talking because I was a horse. None of my jeans had knees in them, and holey jeans weren’t the fashion then.
“When Cheyenne didn’t like someone she’d paw and squeal and turn around to kick them,” Mom said, her smile lines deepening. “I’d just have to tell them she was pretending to be a horse…”
If your best friends were flea-bitten cow dogs; the biggest crowd you’re ever in was a four-legged one bunched around a feed truck; and your greatest thrill was riding in front of mom or dad on their saddle to move cattle, well, you’d have a different perspective on life. You’d believe the world was your oyster. You’d understand the sky was your limit but you’d love having your feet on the ground all the same. It’s little wonder some of these babies grow up wanting to shoulder the burdens of an antiquated lifestyle in a world that has passed them by. They get a jump-start on things and figure out what really matters for themselves.
These little ones start this as soon as they can hold up their heads. So when they gain the freedom of walking, they toddle around at the barn or the corral and follow their tail-wagging pals wanting to be part of the ‘gang’ (or they are trying to stuff hay into mouths…any mouths…even cats and mama). And they do fit right in, right away. Last summer, when my daughter was only two, I stopped her from rolling in the dirt and throwing dust on herself.
“What are you doing, Kaelyn?”
“I’m taking a bath like a chicken!” she replied in her two-year-old lilt, looking over her shoulder at the chickens scratching and dirt-bathing their feathers.
Oh. I shook my head and thought to myself that I’d just make sure she took a bath like a human later on.
Bottle calves and milk cows; horses and chickens are their social life. Eating feed or chewing on a dog biscuit are just what you do. Bringing mom a dead mouse instead of flowers is not unusual, the cat does it all the time! And licking mineral and salt is certainly one of the social norms. (Mom draws the line at drinking out of the stock tank…if she can get there fast enough to prevent it.)
My two little cowbabies delight me. I love watching them. Kaelyn lopes everywhere on her pretend pony Sparky. She is the Sheriff of Dog City (the place we keep the dogs) and her little brother Crockett is the honorary Deputy. But he would rather collect certain colors of rocks and eat cat food, or, if we are at the barn, goat droppings. Close enough to raisins, right?
Crockett can’t say please, but he can say the pony’s name clear as a bell (“Beau”). Kaelyn can’t put on her own boots, but she can open any gate in the corral no problem. Both of them count cows on sight, and cry when it’s time to go in the house.
Mine have the benefit of a very watchful daddy, who gives them ranch exposure in small doses…like several hours in a feed pickup. He’s the one who packs them around the corral, who can work the chute with one hand while holding them in the other. They always have daddy in their sights. I have to say, I think this one thing is probably worth any price, growing up in the shadow of a hard-working godly man. (Maybe this is a bit of bragging. You can take that occasionally, right?)
The bigger the babies get, all ranch mama’s eventually learn that the safest place to put your kids is not in the house (because they’ll either destroy it or escape), but on a horse…the old babysitter. It’s the only way to keep them from going down a badger hole with the dog! Even though we parents try, we can’t keep them civilized when they live like the cowboy version of Mowgli from day one.
Here’s the equation: Cowboy + Cowgirl = Cowbaby.
Cowbaby + Cowdog – Mama = Trouble.
Cowbaby + Cowhorse – Mama = Fun within a safe distance of the kitchen window.
The goal for us parents is just to raise our kids in the best possible way, like any other family. There are some variables in our life that do spice things up a little, most of those variables are four-legged, and the rest of the variables have something to do with caring for the four-legged ones. Bringing a baby into your life is a God-sized blessing no matter who you are. And for a mama, at first, it means backing off caring for the four-legged’s and focusing on the kids. But eventually, things get back to ‘normal’ . Somebody gives the baby a dogie calf or a lamb or a kitten to love, (or the mare foals), and just like that, a cowbaby is christened. The cycle has begun anew, right before your eyes. The next generation takes the torch.
How embarrassed the mama’s of cowbabies can be! If you meet one of these kinds of children, and they sniff you, bark at you, or circle you…well, they’re normal for ranch kids. If they look you up and down with no expression when you try to speak to them, don’t worry. They just don’t get to town very often. Church or the grocery store are a culture shock. So cut these cowbabies some slack. When they grow up into Cowkids, most of this behavior is shunned. 😉
The real pleasure of being a ranch woman is bringing along the next generation of cowboys and cowgirls. I want to announce a new series about the ‘littles’ called “Cowkids”, coming in March.
With the passing of time, I miss the way ranch life seemed to me when I was a kid. I remember the magic of the morning and how days and miles seemed to last a lifetime, only to wake up longing to do it all again. Cold, heat, wind, dust and mud only seemed to make it even more fun for us. (Folks, I’m sad to say, I don’t always feel that way anymore!) How better to look at ranching than through the eyes of the future?
I’m very excited to kick this off with an essay written by one of these rare young’uns! Here is a story by a little gal who is unique even among adults. During spring works on her grandparents ranch, she’d be up, dressed, saddled and waiting for everybody else. She could stay with it all day without complaining before she was even as tall as her horses’ knees. She has a bent for creative writing, and here she shares her view of the mornings before the work begins.
Enjoy her story, and watch for the next chapter about kids, cattle, and horses coming next month!
Pick a Mount
Today. The day when all the cowboys and cowgirls wake at the crack of dawn and pick the horse that will carry them to love hard work. When all the cowhands wake up, they rise to see all the beautiful, vibrant colors that God painted in the morning sky, consisting of pink, coral, deep blue, as well as dreamy purple, the colors that you can never imagine.
Today is really a special day, for when all the ranch hands gather in a circle, grasping a cup of coffee in their course, raspy, scarred hands, they tell a story of hard work and respect. Although you might think all the ranch hands are grown, however there are some tough young cowhands that know the true meaning of hard work. This is when all the ranch hands gather at the horse corrals to pick their cayuses (horses).
Crowding at the fence, they stare at the beautiful creatures that God created. Some may say that this is the hardest part of that day, for their noble steed may not want to be caught or chosen for the hard work ahead of them! Dodging and shooting across the pen, as if there was a cougar trying to eat them for its breakfast,the dust rises. It looks as if there is a thunder storm building. At last, the horses calm down, tired and out of breath, causing it to seem like they are breathing smoke.
Finally the cowboys, and cowgirls throw their saddles on their horse’s backs, in the western style. A cold piece of metal reaches to center of the cayuse’s tongue, causing the horse to raise it’s head in surprise. Then the cowboys load their horses in a grungy trailer, bouncing them up the long rugged road, carrying their noble steed to the hard work of the ranch life.
Written by Abby Morris, age 13.
[Abby used some terms that may not be familiar to you, like the word “Cayuse”. It’s just another word for horse. And while a good saddle horse is used to going to work, chances are he won’t volunteer. Abby talks about what it’s like to watch the cowboys select and catch a horse that feels good in the morning!
She also makes a reference to a ‘grungy trailer’. In modern ranching, it is common practice to load the horses in a seldom washed stock trailer and haul them to remote parts of the ranch where the crew unloads, mounts up, and spreads out to gather all the cattle in that particular pasture. It saves the horse to haul him at least part of the way and gives him a bit of a break when the work is done. This way you give him a ride home and not the other way around.]
Would you like to hear more from the cow kids themselves? I know I would! If you’ll leave a comment here on the blog, I’ll see what I can do about that. 😉
Biscuits. My nemesis.
“You wanna taste something’ come directly from Heav’n?” Chill Wills says to John Wayne as he hands him a biscuit presumably made by the striking “Mrs. Warren”, played by Yvonne DeCarlo.
“You thinkin’ what I’m thinking’?” he asks, grinning.
John Wayne is still chewing, but he nods. As soon as he can manage with his mouth full, he says, “Hire her!”
This is from the movie “McClintock!”. Just by tasting her biscuits, they give the poor widow a job-even before they see her! If John Wayne had only known the trouble those biscuits would set in motion…but then, judging by how well everyone loved Mrs. Warren’s cooking throughout the film, I have a hunch he wouldn’t have changed a thing.
What I wouldn’t give to be the gal who makes biscuits from Heaven!
I can serve my man anything, so long as I serve biscuits with it. But if the biscuits are a disappointment, even a steak dinner is a disappointment. (I am exaggerating, he’s not that way, but still!)
I would be wringing my hands in distress because for one, it was maddening to me that he wouldn’t just pat me on the back and pretend to like my rock-hard, black-bottomed home made biscuits. I’m covered in flour with tears streaking down my red-hot cheeks, for crying out loud! Just eat it!
And two, I was mad at myself because I couldn’t do this simple thing that would make him so happy. I finally resigned my marriage to mediocrity, leaving the biscuit responsibility to a can. And my husband, my hero and the love of my life, had to settle for too-often-burnt-hockey-puck biscuits courtesy of a creepy, smiley little dough boy with a chef hat. Hmmph.
But I didn’t give up, not really. I kept trying every biscuit recipe I got my hands on to please my biscuit-loving cowboy. I cooked my way through a high stack of Pioneer Woman recipes, too. Plus home-made bread, rolls, pies, cakes, muffins, brisket, chili, lasagna, authentic enchiladas from scratch (including the red sauce), and even disappearing breakfast burritos have all joined my repertoire. And after all that, the biscuits still remained a blacklisted (and often blackened) item.
Until…the year 2018 came along. For Christmas, I was given a cookbook by Mackenzie Kimbro called Roots Run Deep: Our Ranching Tradition. And in said book, I found the secret to bringing back that honeymoon look in my hubby’s eye. It was a recipe called “Refrigerator Biscuits”. And there was much rejoicing in the Landry home when I got that recipe down!
Maybe I do make biscuits every time I turn around these days. I don’t mind. It’s worth it. To be honest, I’ve tasted better ones myself, but if he likes them, they’re perfect!
So now you know what he’s getting on Valentines Day: a batch of hot, buttered home-made biscuits, made from scratch by yours truly! (Plus a kiss or two…)