Young man goes west for adventure (warning: contains real-life scene of branding cattle)
“Ya sure yer ready to work cattle?”
Jake Miller shook his head in disgust as he took inventory of the newest hand on the Rocking R Ranch. Glossy hand-stitched boots, stiff new jeans, spotless floral shirt, and a perfectly shaped Stetson hat. Alvin Liebman looked like he’d just stepped out of a display window at the western wear store.
“I thought Red said there was a party today?”
“A brandin' party, Queens! Fer crissakes, it’s the dirtiest, nastiest job of the whole year. Ain’t ya got any work duds?”
Alvin bristled a little at the nickname Queens but tried not to react. The guys in the bunkhouse had thought it hilarious when he’d told them he was from Queens, New York. Red Smith, in particular, had crooked a hand and lisped “Welcome to Texath, thweetheart.” Alvin’s obvious annoyance had guaranteed that the name would stick.
“Uh, yeah,” Alvin stammered. “I guess I’ll just get changed . . .”
As foreman, Jake was peeved that the boss had saddled him with a hand as green as a June apple. He didn’t care if the boss wanted to throw money away, but Jake had better things to do than babysit. Especially today, in the barely controlled chaos of branding calves.
Boss said give ‘im a fair shake. Alright then, a trial by fire might be just the thing to scare the kid off.
Having made up his mind, Jake headed to the cook shack for breakfast. The other hands grinned and lined up behind him as a red-faced Alvin returned to the bunkhouse for more appropriate apparel. Most of the men were wearing outfits just one step from the trash barrel. Working cattle in a corral with more manure than soil meant a level of filth that the new man couldn't even imagine. Some would simply discard their clothes afterward, instead of trying to get them clean again.
Red Smith hooted after Alvin, “Lookin’ purty today, Queens. You gonna brand those calves or dance with ‘em?”
“Can you sit a horse, Mr. Liebman?”
“Yes sir, I’ve had several lessons at Merry Mount Stables.”
John Jeffers gave a strangled snort and Alvin hurriedly added, “It’s on Long Island, sir, they have lots of horses . . .”
There’s a 1500-mile difference between an easy lope on a groomed path and sticking on a Quarter Horse while you’re chasing steers.
Jeffers decided to keep his thought to himself for the moment, disguising his laughter with a forced cough. He was equally amused and annoyed by the young man he’d met on the west-bound train that morning. The awed youth had peppered him with questions ever since discovering that Jeffers owned an East Texas cattle ranch.
“How many acres? How many cows? Are there Indians? What about wolves? Do your men carry guns?”
Jeffers had quickly tired of the non-stop interrogation and tried to steer the conversation onto Alvin.
“Where are you headed Mr. Liebman?”
“West,” stated Alvin firmly.
“Yes, but is there a particular destination? Have you got people out west?”
“My ticket is for Omaha, sir. From there, I intend to seek employment on a cattle ranch. I’m sure to find a place before very long.”
“And why leave the comforts of the east for the hardships of the prairie?”
“Why, there’s unlimited opportunity out west, Mr. Jeffers, but you already know that. I won’t mind a little hardship in exchange for some excitement. The east is dreadfully dull. My father wants me to become a Rabbi and spend my life with books and prayers. He even picked out a wife for me. That’s not the life for me. I seek adventure sir! I want to live among real men and prove my mettle. I’ve read all of Mr. Buntlines work . . .”
Alvin went on about the glories of the west for some time, but Jeffers was considering an amusing idea of his own. He’d been green himself, thirty years ago, when his skeptical father had put up the stake that allowed him to buy a run-down old spread and turn it into the Rocking R ranch.
Who ever heard of a Jewish cowboy? He’ll probably make a fool of himself, but it would be interesting to watch him try.
The idea tickled Jeffers so much that he interrupted Alvin with another question.
“Mr. Liebman, I am impressed with both your attitude and enthusiasm. How would you like a job at the Rocking R?”
“Ugh! Is this really necessary?”
“Looky here, Queens, we gotta put the boss’s mark on each and every one of these critters. Unbranded calves are fair game for anyone with a rope once they’re offa mama’s teat. We get paid when the boss gets paid, and he only gets paid fer steers with his brand on ‘em.”
“But this is just so . . . barbaric,” Alvin objected. “Couldn’t you just put a collar on them with a name tag?”
“Are ya tetched in the head, or somethin’? A name tag?”
The acrid smell of burning hair and flesh was enough to make even a seasoned cowpuncher gag. It came as a jarring shock to Alvin. The hiss of the red-hot iron burning into cowhide made a clearly audible complement to the pained bellowing of the hapless calf.
He looked on in horror at the gruesome task in progress. The sickening sounds and smells were just part of a day’s work on the ranch. He felt queasy at the thought that he’d be expected to wrangle calves himself after Jake showed him the ropes.
The boy’s damn near to tossin’ his breakfast.
Jake felt a small measure of satisfaction at Alvin’s reaction. He might very well be rid of this nuisance before lunch. It took a strong stomach to push through the grisly but necessary work. It wasn’t unknown for an otherwise steady hand to make excuses to be somewhere else during branding.
“Watch the boys, Queens, and see how it’s done. Yer gonna take Bob’s place fer the next go-round.”
Alvin watched as the burly cowboy who’d christened him Queens lassoed another 200-pound calf, dragged it over to the branding crew, and threw it down on its side. Wiry Bob Wilson, the second youngest hand, quickly dropped onto the mucky ground and slid under the calf’s hind legs. He hooked his boot heels on the calf’s lower leg and pulled back on the upper leg with both hands. His position looked like a rower pulling an oar, and the calf was nearly helpless with its hind legs splayed apart. Red, who outweighed the calf by a muscular 40 pounds, knelt on the calf’s neck and front legs to immobilize that end. He twisted the calf’s upper leg with a motion similar to putting an armlock on a human.
“See there, that’s how ya hold ‘em,” Jake explained. “And the better ya keep ‘em still, the easier it is fer everyone concerned.”
Old Doc, who wasn’t a doctor at all, moved in quickly with a syringe to administer blackleg vaccine. The fearful calf struggled feebly, but barely reacted to the minor pinprick. Doc had been showing up for branding for forty years. He was too stiff now to rope or get on the ground with the calves, but his store of practical knowledge was respected throughout the county.
Big Jim Whittaker was ready with a hot iron as soon as Doc moved away. Red and Bob held firm as the terror-stricken calf bucked against the searing pain of branding. It collapsed to the ground weakly, in shock, when the iron was removed.
Doc returned with a razor-sharp knife and a castration tool that the ranch hands called the masculator. Doc expertly sliced the tip of the calf’s scrotum and squeezed the testicles out into the open. He used the masculator, really just a large pair of pliers with flat jaws, to crush the connecting tissue and sever the testicles. The traumatized calf struggled feebly, but Doc was used to working under these conditions and didn’t falter as he completed the surgical task. He dropped the golf-ball sized 'prairie oysters' into a pan for later.
Big Jim had been standing by with the dehorning tool and the calf's horn buds were scooped out in a few seconds. The job was completed with a liberal application of blue sulfur powder to both the scrotal incision and the horn wounds. The powder would quickly stop the bleeding and also served as a disinfectant.
“Take a break, Bob. Queens is gonna wrestle the next one.”
“He better hold it right still,” Red grinned. “If Doc cuts hisself, he’ll use that masculator on Queens.”
All too soon, Red had another calf on the ground, and Alvin knew he faced a serious decision. He could dive in or buy a train ticket home. Jake gave him a cool, challenging stare.
The heifer was smaller than the previous calf, but it still wasn’t cooperative. Alvin flopped clumsily onto the ground and tried to grab a leg. He wasn’t quite close enough and missed hooking the lower leg with his boots. A hoof in the gut took his wind and he gasped as Red sat on the calf’s head.
“Scoot in tight and grab ‘er again, Queens!”
Fighting through the pain, Alvin followed Red’s instruction and got a firm grasp this time. He sucked in some air and pulled as hard as he could, forcing the calf into submission. Doc and Big Jim finished quickly since the heifer didn’t need to be castrated.
“Let ‘er go, Queens,” Jake said with grudging approval. “Took ya a while, but ya got there. Now ya just gotta do it another hunnerd times.”
By dusk the cattle had been turned back onto grass and the hands were all sucking down cold beer. Doc was skinning the prairie oysters and coating them with flour, salt, and pepper. The coals from the fire that had heated the irons were now heating a cast-iron griddle covered with frying meat.
Big Jim opined, as he always did, “Nothin’ beats a cold beer after a hot day. Deservin’ it really adds to the taste.”
The obligatory murmur of agreement was followed by a long group swallow.
“And nothin’ beats a prairie oyster fresh offa the brandin' fire,” added Doc. “grab a plate and dig in!”
Agreement was slightly less enthusiastic for this nugget of wisdom, but everyone had to admit that Doc did a good job. Some of the cowboys looked forward to these Texas meatballs, and many believed that they increased a man’s potency.
“Hey, Queens,” Red called out. “Ya best get some a these down yer gullet. Might perk ya up some.”
Alvin was in no mood to be teased. He’d never worked so hard in his life. His entire body ached and he was covered in calf manure. It was ground into his clothes, smeared in his hair, and he’d even dug some out of one ear. The only bright spot of the day was the casual acceptance from the other hands after he'd shown that he could hold his own in the corral. Alvin slowly pushed himself up and motioned to Red to follow him off to one side for a private confrontation.
“Why do you want to ride me all the time, Red? Am I going to have to call you out?“
Red gave the smaller man a sympathetic look. He knew Alvin had nothing left but sheer courage.
“Aw shucks, Queens, I don’t mean nothin’ by it,” Red said sheepishly, dropping his gaze to the ground. “Fact is, I’d like to get to know ya better. Ya really do look nice when yer all duded up.”
Alvin gave Red a long look, suddenly seeing him in a different light. Red wasn’t trying to be hurtful. The big, awkward, handsome lunk was just trying to get his attention.
“You’re a lot of man, Red, but there is one thing. Could you call me Al?”