The Cowboy Way: Seasons of a Montana Ranch

Overview

In February of his forty-fourth year, journalist David McCumber signed on as a hand on rancher Bill Galt's expansive Birch Creek spread in Montana. The Cowboy Way is an enthralling and intensely personal account of his year spent in open country—a book that expertly weaves together past and present into a vibrant and colorful tapestry of a vanishing way of life. At once a celebration of a breathtaking land both dangerous and nourishing, and a clear-eyed appreciation of the men—and women—who work it, David ...

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The Cowboy Way: Seasons Of A Montana Ranch

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Overview

In February of his forty-fourth year, journalist David McCumber signed on as a hand on rancher Bill Galt's expansive Birch Creek spread in Montana. The Cowboy Way is an enthralling and intensely personal account of his year spent in open country—a book that expertly weaves together past and present into a vibrant and colorful tapestry of a vanishing way of life. At once a celebration of a breathtaking land both dangerous and nourishing, and a clear-eyed appreciation of the men—and women—who work it, David McCumber's remarkable story forever alters our long-held perceptions of the "Roy Rogers" cowboy with real-life experiences and hard economic truths.

In February of his forty-fourth year, journalist David McCumber signed on as a hand on rancher Bill Galt's expansive Birch Creek spread in Montana. The Cowboy Way is an enthralling and intensely personal account of his year spent in open country—a book that expertly weaves together past and present into a vibrant and colorful tapestry of a vanishing way of life. At once a celebration of a breathtaking land both dangerous and nourishing, and a clear-eyed appreciation of the men—and women—who work it, David McCumber's remarkable story forever alters our long-held perceptions of the "Roy Rogers" cowboy with real-life experiences and hard economic truths.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Newly divorced, having left his job as assistant managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner, McCumber (Playing Off the Rail) set out to see what life as a cowboy was like. The guest was part of what he calls "a rather thoroughgoing midlife metamorphosis." It is telling that he chooses the word "metamorphosis" rather than "crisis," for McCumber eagerly embraces his new life and spends hardly any energy mourning his old one. He soon found out that the cowboys of a real working ranch are not the stuff of popular culture. For starters, they rarely use horses (they often use what McCumber calls "Japanese quarter horses," a nickname for four-wheel all-terrain vehicles). Death is a constant threat to the herd and to the area's wild animals. Because of that, perhaps, McCumber and the other men of the ranch have a genuine respect for animals. But it's a tough respect, one that inspires McCumber to slit the throat of a doe who has cut an artery on a barbed-wire fence. What McCumber reveals of himself, he does so indirectly, through his descriptions of life on the Birch Creek Ranch, where the seasons are marked by the extremes of weather and the stages of cattle ranching--calving, branding, fencing, etc. Even his brief journal entries, interspersed throughout the book, look outward rather than inward. McCumber can be salty in one sentence, lyrical in the next, whimsical, stoic and, only occasionally, wistful. His book will creep up on readers, who will come away with admiration for McCumber and a strong, vibrant sense of the ranching life he has come to love.
Kirkus Reviews
A lively memoir of cowpunching, roping, and riding. A couple of years ago, veteran West Coast journalist and founding editor of Big Sky Journal McCumber (Playing Off the Rail, 1995) decided by way of midlife crisis to remake himself as a Westerner: "I quit my comfortable job, started writing for a living again, divorced, and moved to a little town in Montana." And what better way to become a true westerner than to become a cowboy? McCumber turned up at the gate of a nearby ranch under the shadow of the towering Crazy Mountains, confessed that he knew nothing whatever about cowboying, and asked for a job. He got one, and these pages detail his transformation from urban sophisticate to cowpuncher-and with none of the cloying sentimentality of the movie City Slickers. Mostly, McCumber writes, his work was backbreaking and unpretty: he had to hose down feces-caked corrals and trucks, treat bulls for venereal disease, mend fences in howling winter storms, and cope with separation from his children. He writes of all these matters assuredly and affectingly, describing well the "numbing sameness of the work and the dreariness of the season." On the brighter side, he writes with obvious affection of the little tribe of cowboys in whose ranks he was made welcome-but only after proving himself willing to do the hard work required of the crew. McCumber's glimpse into the world of real cowboying yields surprises for the uninitiated: his cowboys use high-powered radios, favor four-wheel-drive vehicles to horses, read modern British fiction, and eat lasagna. Far from the movie ideal, they turn out to be an unromantic but interesting lot, and McCumber does a fine job ofbringing their daily lives to his readers. A solid addition to what might be called New Western Americana.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380788415
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/28/2000
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 826,361
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

David McCumber is an award-winning journalist, a former assistant managing editor at the San Francisco Examiner, and the founding editor and publisher of Big Sky Journal. He has worked for more than twenty years as a writer and editor at newspapers and magazines across the American West. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


hiplock, hard pull, heifer


THAT FIRST MORNING, THE SUN BEAT ME TO WHITE SULPHUR Springs by the barest of margins. As I approached from the south, first light spilled over the rim of the Castle Mountains and painted the stubbled hills above the town the color of a flared match.

    It was barely north of zero and the wind was blowing. For the past hour and ten minutes I had been pushing my old GMC up Highway 89, through little towns still huddled under blankets: Clyde Park, Wilsall, Ringling. The surrounding country rested easy under its own blanket of snow, oblivious to the names bestowed by recent visitors: the Crazy Woman Mountains, the Bridgers, the Shields River, the South Fork of the Smith. Then White Sulphur, the Castles and daybreak, and ahead of me as I turned west onto icy gravel, the main Smith River, the Big Belt Mountains and a job I had no idea how to do.


These days there are many Montanas. I live in Livingston, a railroad town seventy-five miles south of White Sulphur. It is still at the stage of having a charmingly split personality, with cowboy bars and art galleries and coffee houses mingling in happy profusion. Other Montana towns like Bozeman have been yupped into another time zone—say, Pacific Daylight—but this place, White Sulphur Springs, Meagher County pronounced Marr, is still firmly old Montana, Mountain time, 6:45 A.M. at the moment. Big country, open, mountains on the horizon, sagebrush and bunchgrass under snow, and not a Range Rover or a Humvee anywhere.

    That thought cheered meas I mashed the brakes to avoid a ribbon of whitetail deer streaming off an alfalfa field, over a fence and across the road. Ian Tyson, the magnificent Canadian cowboy singer, bounced along with me on the tape player: "Open up the gates, boys, let my ponies roll/I'm gonna travel on the gravel, gonna head 'er for the setting sun." Hell, Ian's still cowboying, I thought, and he's sixty. I can do this.

    Right. Ian Tyson had been doing this most of his life, and I hadn't. I had come out a month before, met rancher Bill Galt, and he'd asked me what I knew about ranch work. I don't know shit, I'd replied, but he hired me anyway, maybe because at least I was honest. Honesty did not give me much comfort this morning.


The road kept climbing into the foothills, the rise approaching each hilltop a little greater than the drop on the other side. About five miles from town it crossed the Smith, and in another four the road swept to the right, but I kept going straight, through a ranch gate and toward a big, new-looking rectangular wooden building. I knew from my previous visit: this is Birch Creek Ranch and that building is the calving shed, where the heifers, young cows bred for the first time, are taken to have their calves.

    I parked and got out. Something was wrong; the shed was deserted. "We get going at seven," Bill Galt had said. It was seven and there was nobody here, and suddenly I was suffused with the same panic I had thirty-eight years earlier on my first day of school, when I got on the wrong bus and ended up miles from where I was supposed to be. Bill had not told me where to report; I just assumed the shed would be the place to go. Lesson number one: You don't know something, don't assume. Ask.

    I looked up at the hillside above the road I just drove and saw a large white vehicle with what looked like a huge yellow claw on the back, tilted toward the sky. A couple of people were standing on top of something on the bed of the truck. Perhaps they could use some help. I walked in that direction, and when I got over the rise I saw that they were standing on large bales of hay, the width of the truck, stacked two bales high. They were pulling on one of the bales together, their exertion showing in frosty plumes of breath. The truck was churning slowly around in a rough circle, surrounded by a milling, mooing clump of cows and their calves. When I got closer yet I was taken aback to see that no one was driving.

    I waved, and got a shout in reply: "Hi! You must be David. I'm Fletcher. Come on up here and help me. Christian can drive." Come on up. Yes. Well. I grabbed a handle on the side of the cab and swung a leg up onto the gas tank, then up onto the back bed, whacking my head in the process on the big yellow thing, which turned out to be officially known as the front tines, and unofficially, for reasons I now understood, as the headache rack.

    Fletcher and Christian, the Mutiny on the Bounty duo as I would forever think of them, were both in their early twenties. They looked decidedly un-cowboyish. Christian, hopping down into the cab and removing the bungee cord that was serving as surrogate driver from the steering wheel, was dark, intense, long-haired, and thin. Fletcher, too, was trim, a little more muscled perhaps, with a sandy beard and a dazzling smile that seemed out of all proportion to 7:00 A.M. Monday morning and five degrees. I scrambled up on top of the bottom row of bales and stood next to him, balancing precariously as Christian gunned the truck over a bump.

    "Grab onto this, we've got to roll it." Fletcher pointed to the bale in front of us and I followed his example, grabbing two strings on top of the bale. I flexed hard, giving it a strong yank without waiting to get in sync with Fletcher, and I was rewarded by the bale rocking almost imperceptibly and a shooting pain in the middle of my back.

    "Easy there, we'll do it together," Fletcher said, smile unabated. "These things weigh eight hundred pounds or so apiece—more when they're frozen, like these. Ready: one, two, three." We rocked it like that twice, and on the third time it came over—onto my right foot. My yelp was premature; I was able to get my foot out with only a little twinge. "Watch the feet, keep 'em out of the way. I'll chop, grab the strings." Fletcher picked up a homemade-looking tomahawk-like weapon with a triangular steel blade on one side and a pointed, curved spike on the other. He attacked the four orange bale strings with the triangle side. I grabbed them and pulled as he cut. "Make sure you tie those and put them with the others." I fumbled with the strings, wondering what arcane cowboy's knot I should be using. I ended up wadding them into a ball, and when I hung them up on the hook with the other strings, they came undone immediately. I turned to help Fletcher, only to discover he had already fed the entire bale and was waiting for me to help him roll the next.

    This time he noticed my trouble with the strings and said, "Here, you chop, I'll tie." The chopper felt awkward in my hand, and I kept missing the strings. Finally I used it like a saw, which took longer than it should have.

    The entire load took us half an hour to feed, which I figured would have been fifteen minutes, max, if Fletcher and Christian and the bungee cord had done it by themselves. Just when we finished, a four-wheel off-road buggy came zipping up alongside us. "David, come on down here." As I clambered down, the driver wheeled his buggy about ten yards away, hopped off with amazing speed and grabbed an unsuspecting calf by the hind legs, twisted it to the ground, put a knee on it, whipped a syringe out of the pocket of his parka, gave the shot, traded the syringe for a paint stick, put a green stripe on the calf's back, and released it. I gaped, thinking how I'd like to be able to do what he had just done and simultaneously fearing that I would be expected to do just that in the next five minutes.

    "Scours," he said. "Diarrhea. See his butt?" The retreating calf's hindquarters indeed bore conclusive evidence. "What's the paint for?" I asked. "So we can tell he's been doctored." "Oh. Of course. Are you having a problem with, uh, scours?"

    His jaw tightened. "Too damn much. Runny eyes, too, and we've lost some to pneumonia. This weather." His eyes scanned the sky, and he pointed toward the mountains to the west. "More snow coming. My name's Keith Deal. I'm the foreman here." We shook hands, or rather shook gloves.

    "This is incredible country," I said, looking around us. "Is everything we can see part of this ranch?"

    "Just about," Keith said. "Everything that way, and that." We turned in a slow circle. "It goes up over that mountain, takes all the timbered part of it. That ridge over there is the Gurwell, and the O'Conner's up there above us. Lingshire, over that way about twenty miles. You work on this ranch for a year, you won't see all of it." His eyes focused back on the middle distance, at the cows and calves scattered in this pasture. "I've got to check the rest of these. You walk up the county road there. Tyson will be along in a minute and you can go with him." He sped off on the buggy, chasing another calf.

    Sure enough, when I got back to the road another big white track carrying a load of hay was churning around the corner. When I got in, I found myself shaking hands with a muscular, crew-cut young man who could have been anywhere from eighteen to twenty-five.

    "Tyson." The radio crackled. "Did you pick up David?"

    "Yep, got him right here. We'll start with the yearlings."

    A hundred yards down the road he turned and stopped in front of a barbed-wire-and-post gate and looked at me expectantly. I jumped down, boots crunching in the snow, and wrestled the gate to a fall.

    "Leave it down," he called as he drove through, a little smile betraying his amusement at my struggle.

    Tyson wound the big truck through a seemingly random series of turns as we made our way across a field infinite in its whiteness and mystery. I no longer possessed a sense of direction; the seamless gray sky had lowered over the mountaintops and all I had around me was undulation of snowy pasture and the wind. Around a corner, past some frozen willows, and suddenly we were in the midst of a bellowing mass of in-between cattle, not calves and not cows, somehow the more fetching for it. Like Munchkins or Oompa Loompas, they were smaller than you'd expect yet fully developed, and they were eerily uniform in size, perhaps three feet tall and maybe five hundred pounds. Black, red, black and white, red and white, and a very few pure white, all snorting steam and bellowing for the breakfast we were bringing them.

    "We'll feed here." Tyson put the truck in first gear and did the bungee cord trick, setting the wheel so the truck would turn in a short circle, and we climbed out of the cab and back to the work. Because we were carrying a full load—ten bales, five on top, five underneath—there was no place to stand to feed the first bale except on the tine rack itself. The ledge was maybe five inches wide and it felt like fifty feet above the ground, even though it was only about twelve. Tyson saw me looking at the hay and said, "We don't roll this first one because there's no place to take it. We just slide it."

    "Slide it?"

    "Yeah, just pull it apart from the rest so it'll flake off okay. Grab the first two strings and pull. If you only grab one and it breaks, you're going to be airborne."

    I took his advice, but as we fed the third bale I bent over trying to clear away a mass of wadded-up hay, the front end hit a dip on my side, and I was airborne anyway. I pushed myself away from the side of the truck as I fell, narrowly missing snagging myself on the cable that stretched across the side of the bed, and somehow landed feetfirst right between a couple of startled yearlings. "Well, that's once," I managed as I climbed back on. Tyson kindly withheld comment.

    The hay looked startlingly green against the snow, almost fake, like AstroTurf, or a brown lawn spray-painted, the way they do in Phoenix in the summer. It looked plenty good to the steers we were feeding, and across a fence a few hundred more yearlings, these all heifers, stamped and called impatiently for their share.

    Three hours and seven loads later I was a wreck. The muscles in my arms and shoulders were cramping constantly. I couldn't find a position to move to so they would stop, and that shooting pain in my back was now a fixture, from shoulder blades to beltline, grabbing as I moved in any direction, stabbing when I tried to breathe deeply. Each wrench, two or three on each bale, brought a new wave of pain. On the last few trips back to the stackyard for more hay I elected to ride back on the bed in the cold because it hurt to sit down and to get in and out of the cab to get the gates. Easier to stand dazed on the bed, jouncing down a road invisible to me under snow but fortunately imprinted in Tyson's memory, or maybe the truck's. Scramble down to get gates and back up again to wonder what lapse of sanity had uprooted me so rudely this morning from home and bed and girlfriend to truck and cold and hay and pain and a landscape so savagely beautiful I knew that like so much of the mountain West it must have claimed the hearts and bodies and bankrolls of many men and women who had come before.


"How goes the battle?" Bill Galt asked with a smile. Tyson and I had finished the feeding and had taken the bale retriever around the bend past the big gate that led to the calving shed, past the entrance to the steer pasture, up a hill and and into a driveway on the right that led to the nerve center of the ranch. Tucked into a little draw were four huge grain bins, gas pumps, a beautiful old hip-roofed barn, two mobile homes, a shed, a tractor, a semitrailer, a dump truck, a big Caterpillar with a snowplow blade on the front, a front-end loader, maybe half a dozen pickup trucks, and a large rectangular metal building. This was the shop—where I was supposed to have reported for work, it turned out—and Bill was just pulling up to get gas. Dark, tall, substantial, he moved with authority and decisiveness, and when he moved, it behooved the ranch hands around him to move quickly also. Bill Galt did not like his men standing around, and he preferred them moving at a trot.

    "It's going okay, thanks," I managed, joints and muscles shouting otherwise, and he nodded briefly and strode into the shop. Tyson and I followed.

    "Keith, what are you working on?" Bill asked as he went in.

    "Replacing the alternator on the old maroon truck, Bill."

    "Good. Where are Christian and Fletcher?"

    "Cleaning the calving shed."

    "Okay." Bill motioned to Tyson and me. "Get these guys going on busting the tires off the crew cab and putting new ones on, will you?" I found an air wrench, had to ask how to attach it to the compressor hose, and managed to remove the wheels. Tyson busted the tires and changed them and I put them back on.

    "Goddamn Ford and their better ideas," Keith grumbled from underneath the maroon truck. "You damn near have to pull this engine to get the alternator off." Nevertheless, I noticed, Bill Galt seemed to be partial to Fords. All the pickups and two of the three big hay trucks, properly known as bale retrievers, were Fords. So was the shiny new tractor parked in front of the grain bins outside. Christian and Fletcher came in, and Keith set them to work changing the oil and servicing another truck. A hand I hadn't met yet came in a few minutes later, wordlessly pulled in one of the four-wheel all-terrain vehicles and began tinkering with the throttle. It seemed as though automechanics was going to be a significant part of this job. Great. I knew about as much about carburetors as I did cows.

    Keith's wife Kelly made lunch for the crew in the living quarters at the calving shed. Today's fare was lasagna, a favorite. I met Willie John Bernhardt, the fellow who'd been working on the four-wheeler. A husky, muscular six-footer in his early twenties, he nodded my way at the introduction but didn't exude any warmth. Okay, I thought, maybe it's just his way. Then again, maybe he's not thrilled that the new hand is an aging rookie.

    "Fletch, go check the drop," Keith said after lunch, "and take David with you." In early February, about six hundred bred heifers had been put in the corral west of the calving shed. Half of them had since calved; the other three hundred would do so over the next few weeks. Every half hour during the day, someone walked through the corral to check the drop—see if any were ready to calve or had done so. "You look for 'em showing any sign," Fletch said. "Hiking up their tails, lying on their sides, walking away from the rest. Sometimes you'll even see a foot or two sticking out."

    "What do we do if we find one?" I asked as we began walking through the big corral, eyeing heifers' nether regions.

    "We take her into the shed and put her in a jug."

    "Jug?"

    "That's what the stalls are called. Then we watch her for the next half an hour or so, and if she's not calving okay by herself, we pull it." We were clearly an irritation to the heifers as we checked them. They would get up grumpily and move away as we approached. Fletcher talked to them kindly as we walked: "It's okay, Mom, don't worry." It was my impulse to do the same, and I appreciated him for it. He clearly liked the cows, rather than resenting them for bringing him out into the weather.

    The wind had come up again, and fully half of the heifers were huddled in a mass against the west fence, seeking shelter. I didn't blame them: I was wearing thermal underwear, quilted coveralls over my jeans, and all-weather pac boots with heavy liners, and in the wind I felt as though I had come out in T-shirt and shorts. A few stragglers were across the creek that bisected the corral; we walked across the frozen stream to check them. "A lot of your calving heifers will be over here," Fletcher said. "They tend to want to get away when they start thinking about it."

    "Fletch, what about that one?" I pointed to a large black Angus against the fence. Her tail was kinked, and she held it out and away from her body, and seemed to be moving restlessly.

    "Good eye. I think we ought to bring her in." We cut her out of the group and she walked willingly enough toward the back door of the shed. Once we got her into the tiny corral where the door was, Fletch opened the door and stood back in the opposite corner. "Give her some room. She'll figure it out." I joined him, and sure enough, she moved toward the door, backed away for a moment, then moved back toward the opening and stepped inside.

    "Okay, run her down the alley." Fletcher stepped in after her and closed the door. I got behind her and hurried her down the narrow corridor behind the stalls. One stall had its back gate open in readiness, and when she turned in I closed it behind her. Agitated now, she spun around and around the little jug.

    Keith came out and inspected her. "I'll take care of it. You guys go help Willie in the chute shed."

    The chute shed, across the corrals, was a much older, more dilapidated building that housed the squeeze chute, a device used to hold cattle while they are worked on—vaccinated, examined, etc. The squeeze chute was a steel enclosure slightly longer than a cow, with a gate that lifted up on the back and a catch on the front designed to hold the animal by the neck. The person running the chute waits until the animal is herded in and sticks its head through the front of the chute, then slams the head catch closed. Then if further restraint is needed, the sides of the chute can be moved inward, literally squeezing the animal and, at least theoretically, immobilizing it.

    An outdoor runway led from the corrals to the chute, and Willie had already herded the eight head he was going to work on into the runway. Now, as he ran the chute, Fletcher and I prodded the first cow until she entered. She and the next two were heifers who needed their hooves trimmed, and Willie took care of them with practiced ease. The last five were newly purchased bulls that needed vaccination and branding, and they were a different story altogether. These boys weighed maybe a ton apiece, and they hit the chute on the run. When Willie caught them in the head catch the impact was like a '55 Buick slamming into a telephone pole.

    The irons were heated in a propane-fired pot. Bill Galt's primary brand, /OO, required two irons, an O and a /, and three actual applications. While Fletcher and I gave the shots, Willie clipped an area high on the bulls' fibs, did the two Os first and then added the slash above and to the left. The smell of burning hair and skin filled the little shed. Sometimes the iron would make the bull blow up in the chute again; other times it seemed as though it was hardly noticed. When Willie John freed the head catch, the bulls would walk out relatively calmly. He would raise the back gate and Fletcher and I would push the next one in.

    We were working the last one when Christian came running into the shed. "C-section" was all he said and all he needed to say. "Get over there," Willie said. "I'll finish up here and be right behind you." "Over there" was back at the calving shed, this time in the operating room, which was between the living quarters and the barn. There was a head catch in there too, but that's where the similarity to the chute shed stopped. This room was scrubbed clean and well-lit, with gleaming white walls, a concrete floor, and a large, very irritated cow in the head catch, legs tied, splayed on her side on the floor. It was the black heifer Fletch and I had brought in an hour before. Keith had tried to pull the calf but it was just too big.

    Bill Gait was stepping into a pair of clean blue surgical coveralls as we walked in, and I figured he must be planning to assist the vet. He wheeled to the sink and started to scrub up, zinging orders around the little room like ricocheting .22 slugs. "Tyson, get the clippers ready and check her spinal. Fletch, get the scrubs ready, and my instruments. Put a new scalpel in there for me, but don't take it out of the wrapper. Make sure there's plenty of gut, all three sizes. Keith, do you have the lidocaine?"

    A new scalpel for me. Jesus, he's not assisting, he's doing it.

    "David, get clean," Bill snapped. "It's just as easy to scrub in case you're needed. You're not going to do me any good with mud and cowshit on your hands. Tyson, goddamn it, take that shirt off. You can't go into a cow with a long-sleeved shirt, you'll kill her. You know that. Pay attention and think, damn it. How many times must I tell you things? Where's Willie?"

    Keith Deal, meanwhile, was bent over the cow with the electric clippers, shaving perhaps two feet by three feet on her side. "How's the spinal?" Bill barked. "Okay, Bill." "Sure?" Bill checked himself to make sure, picking up her tail and dropping it. She showed no reaction and her tail hung limp.

    "Okay. Give me the lidocaine." He turned to me. "David, you clean? Come here. Don't touch her, but point to where I stop." He took the needle and made a thin red line down the black hide, in the center of the shaved area, then started injecting the topical anesthetic every inch on down the line. He stopped to refill the syringe, and I pointed at the place he left off. After he finished, he quickly followed the same route with a scalpel, cutting one quick, long stroke through the tough hide, where a red line bloomed. He squirted more lidocaine into the incision and then cut deeper, and the wound gaped open. A spray of blood came from the bottom of the cut. "Damn it, too many bleeders. Hemostat." Tyson slapped the clamp in his hand, and in a moment the spray slowed to nearly nothing.

    Bill put his hands inside the incision. "This is the crucial part. If I perforate her uterus under there she's dead, and it's like tissue paper. There." He held the uterus up gingerly so that it was partly protruding from the incision, and said, "Go ahead and cut it, Keith, right there on top." Keith took the scalpel and made a cut in the glistening white muscle, and a pair of hooves popped free. "Take it, quickly," Bill said, and Tyson lifted a very hefty black calf from the cow's belly and swung it to the side, cleaned out its mouth and laid it down. Bill called out over his shoulder: "Is the calf breathing? Is it okay?"

    "Seems just fine, Bill."

    "All right. Pills!" Bill bellowed, and somebody jammed a piece of plastic with four large pink pills in it in my hand. "Drop them in the uterus," Bill said, and I did so. "Antibiotics," he answered my questioning glance. "Now, watch. This uterus has to be sewn up just so. The sides of the incision have to be folded over, like this." I watched, fascinated. Not only did this man seem to be an extremely competent and meticulous surgeon, but he was actually conducting a clinic on performing cesarean sections on cows. He finished suturing the uterus briskly and moved on to the main incision, pausing only while Keith poured an antiseptic into the opening. "Mr. Fletcher, come on over here and watch this. Now I'm sewing up the first layer, which is the ...?" He let the question hang and looked around at his crew. "Peritoneum," Willie John supplied as he walked in the door.

    "Correct, Mr. Bernhardt. The peritoneum. Notice it is very thin, so I'm taking some muscle tissue with it." He worked very quickly, and his stitching would have done credit to an Ungaro gown.

    "This in-between layer I'm sewing now is the muscle and fascia. How's that calf? Bull or heifer?"

    "Bull, doing fine."

    "Okay, Willie John, why don't you go ahead and tag him, give him his shot, and put him in the jug. She'll be ready shortly. Spray." Christian reached over and sprayed yellow Furex antiseptic spray all up and down the incision, and Bill rethreaded his needle with heavier gut. "Now restitching the hide is considerably less delicate," Bill said, jabbing the needle rather forcefully through the thick layer at the top of the cut. He made a few stitches quickly and then said, "Mr. Fletcher, you're thinking about becoming a veterinarian. Come here and sew up this cow."

    "Bill, I'm not comfortable doing that," Fletcher said. "I haven't ever done it and—"

    "This is the only way you'll learn," he said. "You guys need to know this stuff. You might not be able to get me or Doc some night and then you'd have to do it by yourselves. Come on."

    Fletcher, highly agitated, took the needle from Bill. "Don't hold it down there. Remember, it's double-sided and sharp as hell. You'll cut yourself. Hold it up higher."

    Fletch made a nervous stitch. "That's right. Notice that the sides of the incision are everted here, the opposite of the uterus, where they are inverted." After Fletcher took a few more stitches, Bill said, "Okay, I'll finish. We need to get her back on her feet. Keith, do you have the shots ready?"

    "Ten ccs of anti-inflammatory and thirty ccs of penicillin?"

    "That'll be fine." The suturing finished, Bill applied a final dose of antiseptic. "What time did we start?" Bill asked. "Two thirty-five," I said. He looked at his watch. "Straight up three. Not bad, but I like to get 'em closed up in fifteen or twenty minutes. The quicker you are, the less chance of infection. An old vet told me once, `You can either be sterile or you can be fast.' You always try to be sterile. We keep this a lot cleaner than most calving sheds. But it's easier to be fast." He and Keith and Willie John untied the cow and got her to her feet. She walked a little unsteadily into the alley, and Tyson and I pushed her up into the jug where her calf waited.

    "We'll have to watch her close with that calf," Tyson said. "Sometimes they won't mother up right and she'll kick the calf or not let him suck. She seems like a good mom, but we need to watch."

    "Get this cleaned up and disinfected in here," Bill said, pointing to the floor of the operating room. "We've got a lot more to do. We need to move some of those pairs out. Keith, has anyone checked the drop?" When the heifers calved, the cow and calf generally stayed in the jug for twenty-four hours before being turned out into a pen behind the barn. If there were any health problems with cow or calf, they would be left in the barn longer.

    Once they were turned out, they would be watched for another day before being moved from the pen into a small nearby pasture with other pairs. That group would be checked at least twice a day; calves with problems could be doctored and watched. Then healthy pairs would be turned out into a large pasture. That's what we needed to do this afternoon.

    Everybody turned out to help move the cattle: Bill, Keith, Willie, Tyson, Fletcher, Christian and me. Running to where the four-wheelers were parked, I stopped and rifled the glove compartment of my truck, found the ibuprofen bottle and ate six. I rode on the back of Willie John's four-wheeler. My back was so sore I couldn't straddle the seat but rode instead sideways across the back rack. Willie looked at me strangely; I'm really making points with this guy, I thought. Whistling and shouting, pushing up close behind them, we got the cows across a creek and headed the way we wanted. A couple of times I had to tackle calves that tried to elude us. I was feeling proud of myself for grabbing and stopping a runaway calf when Keith called out, "David, back up. You won't have to do that so much if you give them a little more room." Oh.

    When we got them situated, Bill said, "David and Christian, go back and help unload mineral in the reefer."

    Mineral supplement for the cows came in fifty-pound sacks, and five tons—two hundred bags—were being delivered. We went to one of two identical truck trailers permanently parked near the calving shed and opened the side door. The trailers, known as reefers, were used for storage, and the mineral was kept in this one.

    My back was screaming. Every bag of mineral I lifted increased the volume, but the ibuprofen finally kicked in, and by the time we were done it felt a little better.

    Christian, meanwhile, had checked the drop again, and had brought two more calving heifers in. One of them had calved uneventfully by the time we checked her; the other was having problems.

    Willie John got a rope around her neck, taking a wrap with the rope around a corner post on the jug and slowly drawing her closer to it. Tyson put some lubricant on his hand and reached inside her. I watched his face as he figured out what his hand was telling him.

    "She's about there. I've got a foot. Give me a chain." Willie handed him a pulling chain, about three feet long. He made a loop and held it in his hand as he reached inside her again. In a moment he pulled a little, and one hoof came free, the chain around it visible now. "Let me get the other one," he said, and repeated the procedure.

    When both hooves were out, he took two steel handles from his back pocket, each shaped like the top of a shovel handle, with hooks on the end. He hooked the handles into the chain, sat down in the straw, braced his boots against the cow's haunches and started to pull. "Come on, you bitch, push," Tyson said, with slightly less affection than Fletcher had showed earlier with the heifers. Experience is a cruel teacher.

    Willie took one chain and Fletch the other, spelling Tyson, but it didn't help. The calf's back legs would come halfway out, but no farther. "Goddammit, she's hiplocked," Tyson said. "David, get in here, and lift that leg up and toward her head."

    I grabbed her right rear leg, and she promptly kicked me in the chest. I grabbed again, and this time managed to hold the leg up long enough to get a rope around it. "Fletch, get the puller," Willie John said.

    The puller turned out to be a heavy, rather primitive-looking device that did the same thing Tyson and Willie and Fletch were doing, with a little less delicacy and more stamina. It looked at first glance like a long-handled rake, but the business end had a bar that went across the cow's haunches and chains that pulled ever tighter with the turn of a crank. I was surprised at its roughness but pleased when the inexorable steel force of it finally prevailed and the calf flopped at my feet. Willie picked it up and swung it by the heels in a half circle, clearing its lungs, then set it down again. He squirted iodine on the umbilical cord and gave it a shot and copied the number off the mother's ear tag onto a new tag and loaded it into the ear tagger. It looked like a pair of pliers, with a slot for the ear tag on one side and a metal pin on the other, and Willie handed it to me and said, "Left ear." I put it on the calf's ear and squeezed, and it drove the pin through the ear and the tag, holding it in place.

    Willie walked back into the shed, picked up a spiral notebook and pen off the counter next to the sink, and carefully wrote, "Number 361, Hiplock, Hard Pull, Heifer." I noticed the previous entry on the page in the same handwriting—"Number 289, C-Section, Bull"—and realized he must have made the entry after today's surgery.

    "Okay, it's six-fifteen, let's bring in the drop," Tyson said, and he and Christian and Fletcher and I went out into the pasture with all the heifers and herded them into the alley behind the shed for the night. About half the heifers were eating at the manger, a long L-shaped feeding area we kept stocked with hay along one side of the pasture. I went over there to push them toward the gate and slipped on the shit-covered ice, landing on my ass. I looked up quickly, embarrassed, but either nobody noticed or they didn't care. I dragged myself up wearily and headed inside with the others.

    The lights were on in the calving shed when we went in. It was probably only thirty-five degrees or so in the barn, but the contrast to the outside temperature was significant and gratifying; it was nearly dark and the cold was clamping down again.

    Frank Grigsby, the night calver, was on duty, and Keith was walking with him along the jugs, pointing here and there, talking about each animal, handing things over to him for the evening. The barn was crowded; only five of the eighteen jugs were vacant. They were laid out nine to a side, with an alley behind for moving cattle back and forth and a large open area in the middle. At either end of the shed were large sliding doors that could open to admit large trucks into the center area; a big old Ford truck with a dump bed, blue in the spots where the paint survived, was parked in the middle of the shed now, heaped with dirty straw and manure from the cleaning earlier in the day. At the other end of the center space, near the door to the operating room, were several bales of hay and straw, and a large flatbed trailer with building materials stacked on it—drywall, sheathing, paneling, roofing. I wondered what that was for.

    "The C-section's right here in five," Keith was saying to Frank. "She seems to be mothering him okay. You might see if you can get him up and sucking later.

    "That calf with scours is still down in eight. He's been doctored today, so you shouldn't have to mess with him. Now, these two just calved. This one was a hiplock, but they both seem to be doing okay. You've got a red heifer out there in the lot that looks kind of suspicious—number 349, she is. She might be ready for you in an hour or so; keep an eye on her."

    Frank Grigsby nodded. He was an older hand, in his late forties or early fifties, with silver hair and the bowlegged gait of a lifelong horseman. "Got it, Keith."

    One jug was occupied not by cow and calf but rather by a llama, dark brown with black markings, and her baby, an impossibly skinny little conglomeration of legs and ribs and neck. As Keith and Frank walked back toward the operating room, Keith jerked his head in the direction of the llamas and said, "There's fresh milk in the refrigerator. You might try to feed that camel a bottle. He hasn't eaten for about three hours."

    "What's the matter with him?" I asked. "The mother never got her milk," Keith said. "I don't know if the little guy will make it or not. He's not eating that much."

    Fletch and Christian and I raked up the center area. My bones ached and my eyes crossed with fatigue. "Where should I put this?" I asked Fletch, pointing at the pile of straw and manure I had gathered.

    "Right there with the rest on the back of Lucy," he said, and pointed to the old Ford truck.

    "Okay, you guys, get out of here, see you in the morning," Keith said.

    "Where do I go?" I asked.

    "Nobody showed you the bunkhouse?" Keith said. "Go with these guys. Their place is right next door."

    "There's no bed in there but mine," Frank Grigsby said. "That couch probably sleeps okay."

    The wall would sleep okay tonight, I thought. Keith said, "We'll mention it to Bill tomorrow. He'll get you squared away. And help yourself to any of the meat in the freezer. Bill provides that for the hands."

    I climbed into the bale retriever Fletch and Christian had parked outside the shed after feeding in the morning. It was the vehicle I had started this day in, or rather on top of. As Christian fired it up and started winding our way without benefit of lights back down to the county road, it seemed at least a week since that first hay bale. It had in fact been a little more than thirteen hours.

    The bunkhouse turned out to be the elderly blue trailer near the shop. Fletch and Christian lived in the yellow trailer right behind it.

    "Holler if you need anything," Fletch said.

    "What time's breakfast?"

    They looked at me oddly. "Nobody fixes breakfast. You're on your own. You just need to be ready for work by seven," Fletch said. "Tell you what, I'll stop by to make sure you're up, and we'll have a coffeepot on."

    "Okay," I said. "Thanks."

    The bunkhouse was funkadelic, very seventies. The propane stove top worked great, but the oven wouldn't light. Everything in the refrigerator, I noticed, was frozen. The dining table surface was so sticky that it made a Velcro sound when you took a dish off it. I thought it was just dirty, but the surface tack survived soap, water and steel wool.

    The living room offered an orange velour sofa and love seat with football-sized holes in the upholstery, and a ratty but very comfortable La-Z-Boy. Down the hall was a washer and a dryer. The washer worked fine but the dryer was useful only as a hall table. Frank's bedroom was in back; the other was tiny and featured a clothesline rigged from closet to light fixture—Frank's answer to the dryer dysfunction—an ancient, enormous and equally unusable television set, a vacuum cleaner which I suspected worked about as well, and several sets of ancient, tattered work gloves, God knew whose.

    The place actually bore little sign of previous occupants, although there were a few things: a Copenhagen Pro Rodeo sticker on the front door; a few clothes in the closet. Miss December from some year or other appraised me languidly with impossibly blue eyes from her perch on the back of the bathroom door.

    Frank Grigsby would make a good roomie. For one thing, with his schedule, it looked like he'd always be gone when I was off work, and vice versa. For another, the floors and counters were sparkling clean.

    I went out to the mud room that had been added on the front of the trailer and rifled the freezer. Most of the meat out there seemed to be internal organs and tougher cuts, but I found one rib steak, thawed it in the micro, pan-fried it (no broiler) and ate it with a can of corn, a slice of bread, a glass of water and another handful of Advil.

    As I laid out my bedroll on the orange couch, I could no longer deny the pangs of disconnection from my normal life and family and friends. I knew rationally that this was only one day and what I was feeling was the anticipation of pain, rather than the pain itself, but it felt real nevertheless. I could tell that my life would be very isolated here. The ache that was always with me, missing my two boys who lived away from me ten months out of the year, seemed sharper tonight, just because I was so far from anything I'd ever shared with them. And I couldn't keep from thinking about my girlfriend, Sarah, whom I had left sleepy and freckled and warm and sweet-smelling early this morning in my bed. Would the separation be too much for either of us to stand? Would our relationship survive it? Several times during the day I had thought of her, how she would have enjoyed the landscape, the animals, the people. The last thing I thought before sleep was that I had so much to tell her: feeding, branding bulls, C-section, hiplock, llamas. The wind was blowing hard, and it made the old trailer creak and moan. Through the window above the couch I could see snow swirling pale and cold in the moonlight.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Birch Creek 1
Pt. 1 Life, Death and Feeding Hay
Ch. 1 Hiplock, Hard Pull, Heifer 9
Ch. 2 The Last of 5,000 29
Ch. 3 A Million Acres of Montana 45
Ch. 4 Top Hand ... 63
Ch. 5 ... The Crew ... 73
Ch. 6 ... And the Greenhorn 87
Pt. 2 New Grass
Ch. 7 Gods with Wide Pure Hoofs 97
Ch. 8 Thaw 111
Ch. 9 The Last Heifer 128
Ch. 10 Heifers in the Mood for Love 140
Ch. 11 Making Good Neighbors 148
Ch. 12 Never Buy a Rancher's Pickup 168
Ch. 13 Branding and Brain Surgery 181
Pt. 3 Haying, Spraying and Other Delights
Ch. 14 Water the Grass 195
Ch. 15 More Water, Please 210
Ch. 16 Thirty-Six Square Miles 227
Ch. 17 Pestilence and Fire 241
Ch. 18 Leaf-Cutter Ants 258
Pt. 4 The Best of all Seasons
Ch. 19 More Fencing, more Progress 277
Ch. 20 Always, the Grass 295
Ch. 21 The Gather 309
Ch. 22 The End of the Trail 329
Acknowledgments 338
About the Author 339
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2002

    This one is 'how it is', wonderful and exausting.

    This is modern ranching on a mega scale in mega sized country, but the essential beauty as well as the gritty reality remains clear and honest. It took lots of stick to it-iveness to take a full year as a real modern ranch hand as a self confessed greenhorn. The insights are wonderful and the reader gets the feeling of what the modern cowboy is all about. Get it, you'll love it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 29, 2000

    A Must Read For The Cowboy and Cowgirl At Heart

    A great book for every person to read. Takes you right into the lives of these ranchers and coming from a californis ranching family I felt it was very true and a little inspiring.

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    Posted December 31, 2011

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    Posted May 19, 2011

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    Posted July 18, 2010

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