Irons in the Fireby John McPhee
This acclaimed collection of essays begins with the title essay and a trip to Nevada, where, in the company of a brand inspector, John McPhee discovers that cattle rustling is not just history. See more details below
This acclaimed collection of essays begins with the title essay and a trip to Nevada, where, in the company of a brand inspector, John McPhee discovers that cattle rustling is not just history.
McPhee (The Ransom of Russian Art, 1994; Looking for a Ship, 1990, etc.) casts his net wide. The title essay describes his journey to Nevada to examine the process of branding cattle. Along the way, he turns up tales of high-tech cattle rustling and offers some typically shrewd glimpses of the lives of ranchers and cattle- brand inspectors. Lyrical to a deadpan fault, McPhee can describe a lowing herd as no other writer: "They sound like baritone whales. They sound like jets passing overhead without Doppler effect. They sound like an all-tuba band warming up." Elsewhere, on more familiar but no less startling ground for his readers, McPhee looks at forensic geology, relating how beer magnate Adolph Coors's killer was tracked down through careful study of the mineral grains deposited on a car's underside, and describes how an FBI geologist helped to solve the murder in Mexico-no thanks to the corrupt Mexican police-of Drug Enforcement Agency agent Enrique Salazar. Perhaps the most fascinating piece here concerns one of the most ubiquitous objects in contemporary society-tires. McPhee visits the largest tire dumps in America, interviews an assortment of surprisingly visionary entrepenuers, and emerges, as usual, with an arcane yet impressive array of statistics; for example, three billion tires sit discarded in the US, from which 178 million barrels of oil could be recovered. McPhee also profiles a blind writer who relies on a humorously idiosyncratic talking computer, describes the efforts of a mason to repair the cracks in Plymouth Rock, and in one of his more uncharacteristic essays, attends a unique auction of exotic cars in Pennsylvania.
Newcomers to McPhee, welcome. For old hands, more of the unique pleasures you have come to expect.
“McPhee is known as the dean of 'literary journalists' . . . His writing creates its own wonderful topographical map of the ways of the world, contemplated with both microcosmic closeness and cosmic breadth.” Kate Shatzkin, The Baltimore Sun
“Somehow McPhee finds, again and again, the kind of people we're told don't exist anymore: unsung heroes . . . living lives of absolute mastery of their varied fields. A master himself, McPhee writes about them with grace. This is a close to poetry as journalism gets.” Andrea Gollin, Miami Herald
“McPhee's essays are proof that the kind of journalism that can effortlessly put a topic into perfect perspective will never go out of style.” Robert R. Harris, The New York Times Book Review
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Irons in the Fire
IRONS IN THE FIRE
In Princeton, New Jersey, where I live, I was having lunch not long ago with a friend just home from Nevada. He prospects there for precious metals, in the isolation country in the eastern part of the state, hundreds of miles from Reno and about as far from Las Vegas. Between the Horse Range and the Pancake Range, beside a crossroads café in Nye County, he had seen a bright-white vehicle with three antennas and an overhead bank of red and blue lights. On its side was the Great Seal of the State of Nevada, in the center of a gold seven-point star. It appeared to be the magnified badge of a sheriff, he said, but where he expected to see the words SHERIFF or STATE POLICE on the door, the words were not there. Instead, bold gold letters said, NEVADA BRAND INSPECTOR.
The prospector sipped the last of his coffee and, with some of his gold, got ready to pay the check. "Think what those words imply," he said.
I said, "What do they imply to you?"
"That these are the nineteen-nineties, and not the eighteen-nineties, but cattle rustling is alive and well inNevada," he said. "I thought of you when I saw those words on the door; I thought of what you might learn if, from basin to range, you could ride around that country with the brand inspector."
I got up, said goodbye to him, and departed for Nevada.
The brand inspector's white vehicle is known to him and his family as the state pickup. One antenna is for mountaintop repeaters, another for the highway patrol, the third for district car-to-car radio. The glove compartment is packed with ammunition--for the 38 special, for the Smith & Wesson 357 magnum revolver, for the High Standard sawed-off shotgun. In a box beside the driver are pads of brand-inspection certificates, piles of miscellaneous documents, and the state government's gold-stamped, clothbound, handsomely designed "Nevada Livestock Brand Book," which describes and sketches thirty-seven hundred and forty-three brands. He doesn't seem to need it. If you crack it open and ask him to describe the brand of, say, Bertrand Paris, he says, right back, "Reverse B Hanging P Right Ribs."
It's a busy brand that might tend to blotch. He prefers simplicity, as in the Rocking Arrow of Bertrand's grandson David.
The brand inspector's name is Chris Collis. He is forty, and of middle height and limber build. He is wearing awhite cowboy hat, dark glasses, a plaid short-sleeved shirt, Levi's, a belt buckle made from the horn of a ram, and cowboy boots with two-inch heels. "It's a way of life," he is saying. "It's not an eight-to-five job." We are up in the Schell Creek Range, at nine thousand feet, in a forest of mountain mahogany. Aspens are already orange in the higher draws, chokecherry bushes red. The mountain mahogany is still green. The road is just a double track, and rocky, and he takes it very slowly. Coming out of the trees onto a bone-dry slope of sage and grassland, we look twenty-five miles over Spring Valley to the Snake Range. Grasshoppers are clicking, snapping. We pass a cow and a calf, another cow and her calf. Black Angus. "Feed stays longer in the mountains," he says. "Grass doesn't burn as much."
"What do they drink?"
"There are seeps among the aspens."
Wandering around on my own a couple of days ago, I crossed a cattle guard at ten thousand feet.
"Cattle start drifting off the mountain at this time of year," he goes on. "They know where they're going when it gets cool--if they were born here."
"Back east" is where the calves are going--to weightmaking pastures and feedlots--but Chris means that cattle in the mountains at the end of summer will move in the direction of the valley ranches to which they belong, will sort themselves out with a homing instinct. They are rounded up as well, "gathered off the range," and then the calves are shipped. "This country here is cow/calf country. People don't put up enough feed for calves, so they sell them before winter." Every shipment must be certified in person by the district brand inspector, or by a deputy. Chris's district is, for the most part, White Pine, Nye, and Lincoln Counties, and covers an area about the size of New YorkState. When Chris says that cattle are headed "back east," he usually means Colorado, or something close to Colorado. As it happens, he has never been farther east than that.
A calf is worth about a dollar a pound. "Every one of those calves is like a three-hundred-dollar bill sitting there," he says as--slowly descending--we pass more cow/calf pairs. Chris has found "strays" in southern Nye County that belong in Elko County. In other words, they strayed two hundred miles. "I think they had some help," he says gently. "Mistakes do happen." In White Pine County he has found "strays" from Roosevelt, Utah--two hundred and fifty miles measured with a string.
Stare as I will at the cattle, I have to ask him what the brands are. I'm not just suggesting that the brands are unfamiliar. I'm saying that I can't even see them. Of course, I may be looking at the wrong side. Or I may be studying the shoulder when the brand is on the hip. But by and large I see only a few disjunct lines, not whole letters and whole numbers and geometric forms. I could not tell a Lazy S from a Rolling M if my life depended on it, or a Running F from a Lazy Walking A.
I see instead what appear to be old foundations under sod. "It's getting a little cooler now," he says tactfully. "They're beginning to hair up."
With the smallest touch of frustration, I ask him, "Do you see the brand on that one?"
His characteristic "Yes" is firm but slow. It has a lazy, lingering Y.
"What is the brand?"
"H Bar," he says. "Real low behind the shoulder. See it?"
Brands are like fish in a river--visible to the accomplished eye. As a matter of fact, I'm no good at seeing fish, either. Fly rod in hand, I have stood in paralytic outrage while someone shouted, "There! Right there! Don't you see them? Here they come! They're right beside you!" If these Angus cattle had my middle name on them, I wouldn't know it.
Brands will show best in raking light. "Sunshine is the brand inspector's best friend, and sometimes a shadow," Chris remarks.
Shirley Robison, his predecessor, now retired, has told me, "You can run cattle through just almost as fast as they can go, if you got the sun with you, you know, and if you're an experienced brand inspector. A lot of people can't see irons." It helps to be a tracker. Both Shirley and Chris can look at desiccated ground and note that a light sprinkling of rain fell on it for a few minutes two days before. "How would you know if you weren't raised to know that?" Shirley said. If you can learn to see a vanished rain shower, you can learn to see brands.
"My job is to make sure that neighbors don't ship other neighbors' cattle," Chris is saying. "But, if all a rancher does is put his iron on his neighbor's slick calf, intent is hard to prove. He'll just say it was a mistake." After a time, he adds, "I shouldn't know anybody's cattle better than they know their own. If you've got a cow that doesn't belong to you, it sticks out like a sore thumb."
Especially if it's slick--unbranded. A young unmarked animal is also known as an oreana, a maverick, a long-eared calf. If you find someone else's oreana mixed in with your cattle, you might be tempted to put your own iron onit--you might be tempted just to pocket that three-hundred-dollar bill. Slick bull calves and slick heifers aren't just everywhere, though, and a truly dedicated thief will need to alter existing brands. One does not have to be a Viennese forger to see that a Lazy E could become a Lazy Spiked E or a Lazy Right Up JM Combined.
Not that anyone with those brands would ever think of such a thing. I am merely offering some random possibilities as a result of a browse through the brand book. Routinely, the Livestock Identification Bureau, in Reno, sends Chris drawings of newly approved brands that are not yet in the book. His responsibility is to make sure that neighbors' brands are not similar. Once, for example, Reno sent him a Five Eight Combined.
An established brand on a ranch near the applicant's was Bar S Combined.
"It don't take too much imagination ..." Chris says, his voice trailing off. After hearing from Chris, the bureau told the applicant to think up another brand.
In a general way, and without accusation, he has worried about how easily a Quartercircle V could turn into a Quartercircle M or a Quartercircle Flying V Bar.
And without too much running iron a Four Box could even turn into an AG Combined.
"If it was burned heavy, the open part of the G would look like an ordinary blotch."
The running iron is the rustler's traditional tool. It might be just an iron ring, tied to the saddle, or a conventional four-foot poker. You build a fire and use it to doctor a brand. The business end of most running irons is a short simple line. It becomes a red-hot stylus for metamorphic sketching. The business end of some running irons is as broad and flat as a playing card. You use that to blot out what you can't change. Be warned, though: there is pentimento in the hide--a history readable from within. Shirley Robison explained, "You take the critter and kill it, and have the hide tanned, and turn it over, and on the flesh side every iron shows just as plain as can he. Anyone can see where it's been altered or blotched."
In California some years ago, rustlers went off with three eighteen-wheelers full of cattle--a hundred-and-twenty-thousand-dollar robbery. Few people rustle cattle on that scale in Nevada, but to steal as much as one wet-nose calf is grand larceny. People with gooseneck trailers sometimes shoot cattle, speed-winch them into the trailers, and butcher them on the spot. The brand inspector is authorized to make arrests, but in country this size there's not much he can do to catch the butchers in the act. He has somehelp from the Secret Witness Program. A secret witness gets fifteen hundred dollars for information leading to the arrest and conviction of cattle rustlers.
There's a maxim in Nevada: "You don't ever eat your own beef." In other words, you steal it. You burn the hide. A variant is "You have to go to a neighbor's to taste your own beef." At a wedding, the host will thank his neighbors for supplying the beef.
A short Nevada chorus:
"You don't never eat your own beef."
"No one eats their own beef."
"Old Bob, he was a nice fellow to be around, but he liked to borrow the other guy's cow and eat his meat instead of his own."
The road follows a dry creek bed down toward the valley. The cattle we pass have split left ears and bell wattles--"marking" cuts, made during branding. They belong to a family named Eldridge, whose deeded land and range allotments include the mountains and the valley. With any change of ownership, cattle acquire an additional brand, and in the course of being sold by one rancher to another or to brokers who hold them on feedlots they come to look like living brand books, like vans covered with stickers.
"There are cattle that pack six irons."
If cattle run on a reservation, they have to carry the tribal iron with all the others--for example, the Duckwater Shoshone's Lazy Left YS Connected.
Not all brands are letters or numbers. You will see a range cow branded with a ladder, a leaf, a mitten, a mountain,a Boeing, a bow tie, or a fissioning bomb. In Minden, Nevada, the Hellwinkels' brand is COD. In Austin, Nevada, the Saraleguis' brand is COW.
As a calling, brand inspection derives from the gunfighters who were hired by the old cattlemen to protect their stock; and the detectives who were employed by livestock associations after the associations were formed, in the nineteenth century; and even the rustlers who were hired to prevent rustling. There is a little of all that in brand inspecting to this day. For the most part, the brand inspector is like a teacher taking frequent attendance in school. Much more is prevented than punished. If cattle are moved out of district or out of state, he is on hand to see each animal before it goes--even if ranchers are just trucking their own cattle between summer range and winter range, as many do. If cattle are changing ownership, the brand inspector certifies the change. When they are on their way to a sales yard, a feedlot, or a slaughterhouse, he is on hand to see them off. Otherwise, he rides around calling on people, or just punctuating the mountains and valleys with the white vehicle--making himself visible to as great an extent as possible. Where he is most visible, there is not much theft. There is not much theft within a hundred miles of his home, in Ely. He has thirteen part-time deputies. The Livestock Identification Bureau pays for itself. If the brand inspector inspects ten head, he collects six dollars; a thousand head, six hundred dollars. At all times of year, ranchers know, and are reassured to know, that he knows whose cattle are where, when they are moving, and when they should be moving. If he needs to, he will travel five hundred miles in one day to inspect them, getting up at 3 A.M. to be at a corral at daylight. There's only one auction yard in the state of Nevada. He goes to cattle gathered off the range.
Flouting the brand inspector is only a misdemeanorunless it hides a larger crime. When uninspected cattle were shipped to California one time and Chris learned of it, he drove five hundred miles, to Bakersfield, just to make sure that a major heist had not been pulled. In a feedlot there, he found a hundred Nevada cattle eating culled carrots but only a single cow that the shipper did not own. One night in Diamond Valley when Shirley Robison was brand inspector, people on horseback rounded up about a hundred cattle and put them in a remote corral, and then loaded them into two trucks, undetected. Shirley felt he had reason to believe that the trucks went to Gonzales, California--to the feedlot known as Fat City, where pens held a hundred thousand cattle. Gonzales was even farther than Bakersfield. Shirley went there and, in a steady rainstorm, waded from pen to pen up to his knees in wet manure. The rustled cattle weren't there.
Chris once went to Hyrum, Utah--more than three hundred miles--in pursuit of a single animal, a heifer with Frankie Delmue's V Bar V Connected.
He found her.
About one animal in twenty that he inspects is a horse. He uses the overhead blue and red lights when he stops trucks to ask to see certificates of inspection. Like many law-enforcement officers, he has had to put in a great many hours in court. "Defendants, they're never on trial," he says. "You're damned near naked up there on the witness stand."
Down at roughly sixty-five hundred feet, we move out onto a low alluvial fan and into Spring Valley. Far to our left, its flat horizon is flanked with mountains. Directly across the basin are mountains touching twelve thousandfeet. Far to our right is a flat horizon flanked with mountains. This immense silent linear basin has a few clustered trees in it, tens of miles apart. The trees are exotic, introduced. Where you see a tree, there is something human underneath: the locus of the isolated lights you see in the basin at night. We come to an asphalt road--another pickup, headed south. We stop, get out. The other pickup stops, the driver joins us, and we talk there in the road, indefinitely. Chris introduces him as Gordon Eldridge. He is a rancher, and he runs his cattle on something like two hundred and fifty thousand acres. "It's as much as you can see," he says, in answer to a question and with an absence of grandeur or grandiosity. A typical ranch in these valleys will have as little as a hundred and sixty or as much as eight thousand acres of deeded, patented land, and the rest in allotments on federal range. Gordon Eldridge, cordially answering more questions, tells me that he has about three hundred and thirty cow/calf pairs in the Snake Range and four hundred in the Schell Creeks. He'll have them all in the valley for the winter. Unlike many others, he has springs and meadows and plenty of hay, and can afford to keep them on.
He wears a red visored cap, a blue canvas shirt, Levi's, and boots with wide low heels. He has been working nonstop, and his clothes are soiled from hat to shoes. One could say that he looks a great deal more like a mechanic than like a cowboy, except that a clear majority of cowboys here resemble mechanics. He is burly, and handsome in a large way: large lips, a thick face, alert eyes. He is about fifty and has an artificial leg. A horse fell on him in the mountains. He spent the night there freezing. He could easily have died.
His children's high school is sixty miles away.
Is there a problem about thievery in this valley?
"Oh, yes," he says. "If a cow comes up short a calf,there are several possibilities: a mountain lion got it, or it died some other way, or people got it. You see crows flying. A magpie. One year, we were short ten calves. We find most of the ones that die. I know when people are operating, coming through the country. This isn't my first rodeo."
He looked around for a while, called attention to a dead fox in the road, and then said, "The brand inspectors just keep the people straight. Without them, people would be hauling cattle back and forth and we wouldn't know what they're doing. If you didn't have them, everybody--lots of people--would be stealing cattle for a living. They keep people honest, just knowing they're in the country. We've always thought it was good for the country."
Other ranchers, in other valleys, amplify the sentiment. For example, Norman Sharp, in Railroad Valley: "What if what? No brand inspector? There'd be a lot of dead bodies."
Chet Johnson, in White River Valley: "It'd be a disaster. Oh, shit, it'd just be a free-for-all. Cattle rustling is an occupational hazard. I'm surrounded with thieves."
I was spending a day with Shirley Robison, the retired brand inspector, when, in the following manner, I met Chet Johnson. In my rented Utah blue Chevy, Shirley and I were humming south on a paved road in White River Valley, under the Egan Range. A G.M.C. pickup, coming north and also moving rapidly, shot past us. Shirley said, "That's Chet Johnson. Turn around and turn on your lights." I slowed, braked, and spun around. By now, the pickup was about half a mile up the road. I switched on the lights. Immediately, the pickup pulled over. The driver, seeing a car in his valley, had been watching it. "That's ranch country!" Shirley said. "That's ranch country. You see, that's the way things work here." By the time we had closed the distance and stopped behind the pickup, Johnson was leaning his back against it, waiting. He was a tall, compelling manwearing a copper bracelet, black boots, Levi's, a small and conventional belt buckle, a brown canvas shirt, and a white cowboy hat. A longhorn Brahma bull had once hit a horse right out from under him and killed the horse. When he used the word "surrounded"--as in "surrounded with thieves"--the word had less immediacy than it would have in most contexts. His place ran about sixty miles this way and forty miles that. He said it was "damned hard to patrol." He said, "People just drive your cows on their place and brand 'em, even if they're branded already. There's not a hell of a lot you can do. Brand inspectors keep it down. Some people need a lot of watchin', even with a good brand inspector. Without the brand inspector, we'd have to go back to the eighteen-hundreds and start hangin' 'em. In fact, it's so hard to prosecute 'em we need to go back to that hangin'."
Shirley Robison, who had seen his share of mountain lions, coyotes, and defense lawyers, said, "That hangin'--we should go back to that. String 'em to the first tree."
Leaning against the pickup, I was looking due west, fifteen miles across the valley. There was no first tree.
In the great treeless valleys, pickups, with their wakes of dust, stand out like speedboats. "When you have five cows get away and come home with fresh brands on them, you have no idea how many went to Colorado," Johnson said. "There's somebody pecking at them all the time, and if you see a dust out there you go and check it out. Something's going on all the time."
Now Gordon Eldridge, in Spring Valley, reaches into a shirt pocket and removes a small ledger containing the license numbers and the makes of unknown vehicles that he has seen in the valley since who knows when. In these two hundred and fifty thousand acres, vehicles are so infrequent that he has no difficulty being thorough. "We can't watch our cattle, so we watch the people," he says. "Wetrack the people. My dad taught me to track a coyote across the highway; it don't leave much print." He tracks lions, too. "A lion can tear a horse's shoulder off. Lions kill a lot of mustangs. They kill those big old four-point bucks. They wait in the narrows of the canyons. Coyotes kill both calves and sheep. We were lambing sheep over there in those hills one time, and coyotes were killing lambs every night. One coyote was carrying the lambs seventeen miles to its den. My dad tracked 'im. He found all kinds of legs there. They don't eat the legs. Dad tracked 'im seventeen miles on horseback." Gordon returns the book to his pocket, remarking that the motives and motions of people are a good deal less difficult to follow than the tracks of lions and coyotes. "There was a gold swindler in the valley, looking for investors, and he told us that he got gold in a cave in the Snake Range. People can't come out here and fool us. We're crusty old buggers."
Twenty-five miles down the valley, in late slanting light, Chris turns in at Lonne Gubler's Cleveland Ranch, where Cleve Creek comes out of the mountains and productively waters the basin. There are, in addition, so many springs and so much meadow that cattle can remain here eleven months a year. Over the wide valley they look like chocolate bugs. A while ago, the brand inspector caught Gubler transporting uninspected calves and gave him a citation that resulted in a hundred-and-fifty-dollar fine. This in no way chills the brand inspector's welcome as he greets ranch hands, opens and closes gates, and bumps on out into the middle of the basin to put us among a thousand calves and cows. He is inspecting nothing. He is just visiting the cattle. Leaving the pickup, he walks about a hundred yards, and they skittishly run away from him, alert and fearful, wise to his kind. They could not care less that he's a brand inspector,but from animals that look like him almost all of them have felt the burn of brands.
They run in groups. They run alone. They run away. But then Chris lies down on his back, and, taking his cue, I sit on the ground near him. He raises one leg in the air. All the cattle turn their heads and stop in their tracks. They watch. They are not threatened. A sudden switch from fear to curiosity has taken place in their cavernous bicameral minds. The brand inspector is now lying on his side, propped on one elbow, maintaining the leg semaphore. Cattle move some steps toward him. More join in. More. Dozens more. A hundred. They have formed a great semicircle with him as gnomon. You can read the hour in the shadow of his leg: 5 P.M. Angus, Angus-Hereford crosses, Brangus, Charolais, Simbrah--about once a minute, they take another step forward, virtually in unison. The semicircle curls around until it is nearly a full circle of yearling heifers, flank to flank and head by head, benignly staring. "It takes two years to get a calf out of them," Chris remarks in a soft voice.
"How long will they last?"
"Until their teeth break. You'll see their teeth breaking pretty good at least by ten. Few cows are over twelve here."
He reels in his foot and assumes a cross-legged sitting position. Some very big cottonwoods stand nearby. Wheeler Peak, twenty miles away, looms above this scene with the imminence of the trees. We are almost exactly a mile above sea level, and Wheeler Peak is a mile and a half higher than we are. Wheeler Peak and numerous summits elsewhere in this state are not much lower than the highest mountains of Colorado and California--hardly the picture that outlanders see when they imagine Nevada.
I remark, "These animals look well fed, healthy, and expensive."
He says, "Fat is the prettiest color in the cattle business."
Out in the flats, coyotes are wailing like theft alarms.
The cattle, silent, show no interest in the sound of coyotes. All take another step forward. The circle tightens. And still another step. It closes. In their curiosity, they have built around two human beings a beef corral. They occlude the falling sun and study us through twilight. As my gaze slowly moves among these candid faces, these guileless open nonjudgmental faces--from one frank stare to the next--I see behind them future shoes. These are the faces of big spotted owls, of snail darters and three-spined sticklebacks. These are, to a fare-thee-well, endangered specimens. In their soft, tanned appearance you can see the belts and briefcases. There is chewing gum in a cow, soft cartilage for plastic surgery, floor waxes, glues, piano keys. There are detergents, deodorants, crayons, paint, shaving cream, shoe cream, pocket combs, textiles, antifreeze, film, blood plasma, bone marrow, insulin, wallpaper, linoleum, cellophane, and Sheetrock.
The sun is behind the mountains. We stand up to leave. They scatter like fish.
Some days later, and soon after school, Chris stops off at home to pick up his wife, his children, and his horses and take them to do branding at a ranch in Duck Creek Valley. The horses are Luke and Fuzzhead, sorrel geldings. They are in a pasture of about four acres beside the house and barn, on the outskirts of Ely. Neither Luke nor Fuzzhead wants anything to do with the ranch in Duck Creek Valley. They elude capture. From fence to fence they gallop, manes streaming. As Chris runs after them, they stay out of the corners. They know what they're doing. They areexpressing themselves with regard to the work ethic. Christopher Collis, aged ten, crewcut, removes his spurs, hands them to his mother, and runs into the pasture to assist his father. The two of them close in on the horses. The horses slip away, and run a hundred yards. A cool wind is blowing through this scene with valley and mountains behind it. Steptoe Valley. Camel Peak, of the Duck Creek Range. A new G.M.C. pickup and gooseneck trailer stand by, empty. The trailer's neck arches into the back of the pickup and attaches to the floor of the bed. There's a basketball hoop, exactly ten feet high. A dish antenna. Two bleating lambs. Karen Collis, with the spurs in her hand, looks patient. Her father is Gracian Uhalde, who trails five thousand sheep a hundred miles, between Steptoe Valley and Garden Valley, between summer range and winter range, twice a year. Her grandfather was a Basque from the French Pyrenees. Five feet tall and trim as a wand, she keeps her hair short and has small diamond studs in her ears. The new, metal barn has four stalls and a large space containing a Buick, a Chevy pickup, and a Cadillac El Dorado, which have a combined age of fifty-nine years. The house, one story, has a wide carport running all the way down one long side. It shelters firewood. Inside, there's a stone bearing wall and a big stove and a framed sampler: "Ewe's Welcome." Inside also are Gerry, aged nine, and Eleni, six. When their mother calls, they come tumbling out, Eleni in pink leggings, Gerry in a cap that says "ROPER." The horses have been bought off with a bucket of grain, time to go.
Twelve miles up Steptoe Valley is McGill, where Chris was born--a Kennecott company town. The copper smelter is gone now, completely disassembled. His family rig--an extended-cab pickup and horse trailer--rolls up Fourth Street, the principal thoroughfare. On the uphill side of Fourth, the uniform houses are somewhat larger than thehouses on the ground that dips toward the center of the valley. The house he grew up in was on the lower side, in a neighborhood known as Greek Town, which was near Austrian Town, with a buffer of Mexicans between. "Then all the white people lived above Fourth Street," he remarks, "white" apparently meaning comparatively well-to-do. His late father worked in the accounting office. Chris seems to have nothing but nostalgia for the beneficial Kennecott. He went to high school in Ely and college in Reno, where he studied animal science at the University of Nevada. He was teaching at the university and working toward a master's degree when, on Shirley Robison's retirement, he came home to be the brand inspector.
North of McGill, Steptoe Valley broadens, and, between its lateral ranges, goes so far beyond sight that we seem to be heading for open sea. Before long, though, we take a right, and climb over the Duck Creeks to a narrow mountain valley above seven thousand feet. This is where Chris has sixty-seven head of cattle, in rented pasture, on a ranch still owned by Kennecott. He took out a bank loan earlier in the year and bought the cattle, for the purpose of producing calves and gradually accumulating enough money to educate his children. The children are here to work, too, and in that sense will be self-educated. Ten-year-old Christopher, in his camouflage cap and Tonopah Test Range T-shirt, buckles on his spurs, mounts Fuzzhead, a big horse, and rides off to the north. His father--who calls him "pard" and "pardner"--follows on Luke. Watching them with mild interest is a six-point elk. The elk moves on. Christopher and his father round up forty-four head while his mother walks the pasture as a third party in the shaping of motion. Gerry waits. I wait. Six-year-old Eleni, in her pink leggings and matching top, waits. She sits onthe high rail of a small circular corral. There is a large adjacent holding corral--a rectangular pen--and her brother, father, and mother are attempting to influence the cattle in its direction.
Cattle are indeed like fish in the way they school and spook. To move them from place to place is to use to advantage their reliable desire to get away from human beings, which is derived from instinct, enhanced by conditioned response, and informed by common sense. A bit of stick, a little shout, they hurry by. They are also clever at slipping away, like basketball players: they move well to the left and the right; they reverse-pivot; they go back door. Eleni, on the corral fence, is playing electronic one-on-one basketball on a small machine in her hand: Michael Jordan versus Larry Bird. At White Pine County High School, her father played basketball, in the backcourt. When White Pine played Rancho High in North Las Vegas, two hundred and eighty-one miles away, he was matched up man-to-man with Lionel Hollins, who went on to play for Arizona State and then for the Portland Trail Blazers and the Philadelphia 76ers and other N.B.A. teams. When White Pine played Clark High School in Las Vegas, Chris was assigned to Willie Smith, who later played for the University of Missouri and for Portland and Cleveland in the N.B.A. At the University of Nevada, Chris went out for the rodeo team and became a varsity roper.
The forty-four cattle move to the holding corral as their other options are sequentially eliminated. Lacking romals (four-foot flexible rawhide whips), Chris and Christopher snap at the cattle with the ends of their coiled nylon ropes. The ropes are forty-five feet long and thirty-five feet long, and are made of braided nylon scarcely thicker than a quarter inch. ("You want a small fast rope.") Into thesmaller, tight corral they drive the cow/calf pairs, until the space is jammed with cattle. Then, riding among them, the two swiftly cut out and drive out most of the cows, leaving in the small corral a huddle that is mainly calves. Karen closes the gate. Christopher "throws a loop to catch a critter." He misses. His dad throws a loop to catch a critter. He misses. Christopher has been on horseback for seven years and has been working much of that time. His siblings, too, have been in the saddle from the age of three. Christopher, serious and competent, who rounds up wild horses on the open range, and rounds up cattle and brings them to corrals, and throws his loops, and dallies his rope, and helps to brand, and does all the rest of it, is nevertheless ten years old, a child still, a fifth grader, and at home he plays with toys. They are ranch toys--little loading chutes, and miniature trucks, and polyethylene corrals, and plastic calves--and he finds no end of absorption in them, and will play with them hour after hour, until it's time for bed, or time for homework, or time to go off to some real valley. mount a real horse, and do the real thing. He freelances. At a ranch a hundred miles from Ely, he rode roundup for the Fallinis this year. Gratefully, they gave him those two lambs he has at home, and a Hereford calf. Gerry and Eleni are not much interested in ranch toys.
In the tight corral with the bunched calves, Chris and Christopher are throwing traps so fast that they become in my scribbled notes C-1 and C-2:
C-2, roping, misses. C-1, roping, misses. C-2 gets bull calf in one leg, loses him, drops rope. C-1 misses. Mom coils C-2's rope. C-1 ropes two legs, but loses him or her. C-1 ropes a calf, yells to wife. "Get on him!" Before Karen can get on him, the calf gets away. C-1 misses again. C-2 misses C-1 ropes a calf by both hind legs. Momis on her. Calf bawling. Eleni crying. Mom sits on head. Charolais heifer, stretched out. Eyes bulging. C-1 dismounts. Gerry, 9, gets on dad's horse, holds rope taut to calf. C-1 gets vaccination gun, injects calf for blackleg, malignant edema, overeating disease, and red water. Mom is kneeling on calf, holding its leg. Mom is a surgical nurse. She works in the O.R. at William Bee Ririe Hospital, Ely.
Chris is apologetic: "We mainly do this in the spring. We're kind of rusty." Most calves are branded just after they are gathered off the winter range. These slicks are the latecomers, the overlooked, the whatever. When you're heeling, or roping, you make a loop through the honda at the end of the rope, and swing it, and throw it. The thrown loop is called a trap.
"When I threw my trap on that first calf, I should have had him."
The trap is thrown between the front and the rear legs, with the loop standing. The calf in that instant walks over the bottom of the loop, and you draw it up. You dally the rope--make turns around the saddle horn. You can lose your fingers. Chris has a rope-burn scar on his thumb from last June. The rope went almost to the bone. The horse, turning, keeps the rope taut and drags the calf to the fire. At the fire, the horse turns again to face the calf, backing up to keep the line taut. Quick-eyed Gerry with the "ROPER" hat, up on Luke the horse.
The Collises' fire is propane, in a small ovenlike shield, and it is hissing beneath the branding stamps on the ends of the irons. The shafts of the irons fan out like sticks from a campfire. People who still use wood to heat irons haul the cedar, the piñon, the juniper from the mountains. There are immobilizing calf tables now, and hydraulic squeeze chutes, wherein the calf becomes the filling of a steel-barsandwich and is hydraulically rolled to the horizontal to be stencilled with a hot electric iron. Wood and propane tend not to supply uniform heat. "An electric iron gives you a consistent type of iron," Chris says. But in Nevada the predominant method is still to "rope 'em and drag 'em to the fire."
A stamp brand with scupper holes will tend to make a neat impression--like, for example, old John Ansolabehere's Lazy E Over P.
The scupper holes are a way to avoid making what Shirley Robison has called "a burnt gob on the side of a critter." When the brand, cherry red, goes on, the heat dissipates in the holes, but the holes fill in. "The better irons are simple irons," Chris says. "Some get awful fancy, but all they are is blotch. There's too much iron, too much heat." His and Karen's original brand tended to blotch. It was the Greek letter Psi.
Elegant as a chalice, it filled too often. So they registered a new and simpler brand.
"The brand is a cow's return address," Chris remarks. "That Quartercircle Standing Quartercircle can be put on by anyone. You don't want your brand to embarrass you."
While Gerry keeps the rope taut and his mom continues to kneel on the calf, his dad, on foot, takes an iron from the fire and causes a puff of smoke to rise from the calf's right hip. The two new moons appear. "That's how a fresh brand should look--buckskin color," Chris remarks, returning the iron to the fire. (A buckskin horse is a yellow horse.) Ever mindful not to touch the ground with the iron, he says, "Manure burns forever. You have to be careful." He opens a knife. The calf, which was bawling, is now staring wildly but is silent. Chris folds the right ear. Into the crease he cuts a semicircle, making a hole in the center of the ear. He moves the blade from the hole through the pink flesh to the point of the ear--a longitudinal slit--as if he were cutting fruit. In the tip of the other ear he makes a notch. These are the family's registered earmarks. Earmarking is restrained by a Nevada statute: "It shall be unlawful for any owner ... to use an earmark which involves the removal of more than one-half of the ear ... or which brings the ear to a point by removing both edges."
Christopher ropes two heifers--a Saler cross and then a Hereford. His mom holds them, and his dad brands them.
Dad sails his loop to the ground, and leaves it there for a long count, lying flat, as another Hereford heifer walks over it. He jerks the line upward and the loop closes around the hind legs. This is known as "fishing it on the calf." Mom falls on the calf's neck. The calf is bawling, branded.
Calf No. 5 is a Saler-cross bull calf. C-2 ropes him on right rear leg, drops rope. Mom picks up rope, returns it to C-2. Dad dismounts. Gerry mounts Luke. Rope comes off leg. Calf fights free. New No. 5 is full-blood Saler bull calf, roped on one hind leg, screaming. Dad lifts him, flips him, marks his ears. He slices off the tip of the scrotum as if he were scissoring the tip of a cigar. He squeezes into the light the pearl-gray glistening ellipsoid oysters. He does not cutthe cords but works them with the blade--scraping, shaving, thinning until they part. The process greatly reduces loss of blood. The calf's eyeballs, having rotated backward, are two-thirds white. Mom stands attentive with an aerosol can of screwworm-fly spray. She passes it to Dad. The spray emerges royal blue, and coats the scrotal wound. Antiseptic and fly repellent, it keeps maggots from hatching there.
"Who's going to eat the oysters?" Christopher says.
Calf No. 6 is also a bull. These are not young calves, and they are hard to hold. They weigh at least three hundred pounds. At last, this one is stretched out, bawling, tongue protruding far, eyeballs largely white. From the bunched animals across the corral a cow emerges, boldly approaches the people and the prostrate calf, and smells it. Identification positive. He is hers. She goes on snuffling him but does not become aggressive. "Some cows would try to hook or butt you," Chris remarks. Six-year-old Eleni, down from the fence, has put away Bird and Jordan, and, nurselike, close to the procedure, is holding the vaccination gun and the antiseptic spray. "Get behind him," her father tells her, accepting the vaccine. He tries to hand her the oysters. She says firmly, "I don't want 'em." Soon Gerry is carrying a cup of oysters. Hereabouts, they appear on menus as entrées. "They are real rich, like sweetbreads," Chris says. "You've probably had mountain oysters before. You cook them in a Dutch oven. You brown them in oil and garlic, and bake them. They are also called fries."
The cow is carrying five brands, including the DB Combined of Donald Dee Eldridge, the JY Bar Connected of Jerry Millett, the Bar Over DM of Denny Manzonie, the Lazy Left YS Connected of the Duckwater Shoshone, and the Collises' Quartercircles.
A few more calves, and the evening's work is done. The sun is down. Eleni is now on Luke. Her pink sneakers do not reach the stirrups. She just sits up there, a small inverted Y, in her pink-and-purple-flowered outfit, looking very miniature and very competent. With Christopher, she means to get the cattle moving back to pasture. To get them out of the corral, he wants to drive them counterclockwise, but she kick-starts her horse and moves them clockwise. She directs the drive through the pens to pasture. It's just a matter of hang time.
"It takes nine months to make a calf and eight to get it to four hundred pounds, and in another five months you can almost double that weight," Chris says. "You sell pounds." In three locations, he has an aggregate of a hundred and twenty-one cow/calf pairs, and before long he will have two hundred. A cow will give him a calf a year. ("If I have a cow and she's not pregnant, she's not going to the winter range.") That should cover some tuitions. It should help the team.
There's a coyote watching as the Collises leave the high valley. A new moon has come into the sky, a standing sliver, right off their brand.
Will James was convicted of cattle rustling in White Pine County. He was Québécois, and his real name was Dufault. He was better at concealing his personal identitythan that of the stolen cattle. Only twenty-two, he was still an amateur writer and artist but already a seasoned cowboy. The year was 1914. Near Johns Wash Well, east of the Fortification Range, he and another rider, drifting south, came upon thirty-one head and recognized from the brands that the cattle had drifted, too, and were far from their home range. Hiding in hills and moving at night, James and the partner drove them into Utah, but, since nothing much moves in this country unobserved, James spent the next year and a half polishing his artistic talent behind bars.
In a conversation with Shirley Robison, the brand inspector emeritus, I learned that rustlers are cattle as well as people--a terminological knot. "Angus--Hereford crosses are very popular--they're good rustlers," Shirley said.
I said, "They are good what?"
"Rustlers. They're good at finding feed and trailing back and forth between the water and the feed in these long distances out on these alluvial benches and stuff. They'll get out and rustle. Those Angus cows will go clear back up in the hills here and then come back down to water. There is cattle that are worthless. You've got to get rid of 'em. They won't go out. They'll stand and half starve to death, and won't rustle for food."
We were travelling south, over ruts that were not quite road, on the Forest Moon Ranch, in White River Valley. He was revisiting the scene of the last major crime of his tenure (he retired in 1979). In the seventies, Hot Creek was the name of the Forest Moon. Its owner, John Gurley, hired a new foreman, named Ross Rytting. As any good foreman would, Rytting at once busied himself getting familiar with the ranch terrain--every wash, draw, arroyo, dip, and depression in country where a hundred miles is as far as the eye can see. His eye, evidently, was arrested particularly by the scant remains of a nineteenth-century homestead.Under cottonwoods and a dead apple, it was in a meander bend of the Moon River--an expansively named little spring creek--a mile and a half downvalley from the ranch buildings and fifteen feet lower in elevation: in other words, from the point of view of the ranch, hidden from sight. The homesteaders had lived in a half dugout, snuggled into a small river terrace; and around the dugout, with flat rocks, Rytting quickly built a stone corral. That, at any rate, was Robison's reconstruction of events. He first saw the scene, of course, after the fact--saw the tracks, the treads, the manure, the corral, and a crude stone chute. A foreman who rustles should think in small numbers--think six at a time will never be missed. Six can bring as much as two thousand dollars. Six fill a gooseneck and do not need a large truck. A large truck coming into the valley at an odd time would attract only a little less attention than would the QE2 coming up the Moon River.
With the impressive new foreman in place, John and Mrs. Gurley went off on vacation. Scarce had the dust settled behind them when Rytting got into his pickup, drove down to the old homestead with a horse trailer, loaded six calves he had sequestered there, and headed for Utah. Heifers and steers, they were six months old. They had not travelled ten miles when someone in White River Valley saw the trailer, saw that it had cattle in it, wondered what that was all about, and telephoned the brand inspector to let him know. When Shirley tells the story, he relishes the irony that the Gurleys that evening had checked into Ely's Hotel Nevada--a saloon with beds, dating from the nineteen-twenties, with ancient brands all over a wall--and "if Gurley had looked out a window he could have seen his own calves going by in his own trailer." Up the long spare valleys with their farspread lonely lights, Shirley tracked the cattle by telephone. Not for him the posse chase. There was method, though,in this relaxed approach to police work. Nevada is not a plexus of roads. A vehicle in motion in Nevada is like a ship on a set course. This one seemed to be going out of state, and that is where Shirley hoped to track it. He talked with a deputy brand inspector in Wendover (on the state line), and his instructions were simple: "Let him go."
Shirley had developed a preference for federal courts. "A little judge can be bought off," he will say. "A federal court, the politicians can't get at it." Never mind that "the U.S. Attorney wouldn't know a cow from a pig."
There was a regular livestock sale in Ogden. Ogden was more than a hundred and fifty miles from Wendover, but that was where the calves would be going. Shirley called the brand inspector there. "I told him to put the biggest padlock in Utah on those cattle, that they were stolen. And then I called the F.B.I. in Salt Lake. The F.B.I. said, 'We'll take over.'" Rytting, arraigned, was released on bail.
Three F.B.I. agents were assigned to the case--a ratio approximating one pound of agent per two pounds of beef. Shirley told me, "They confiscated the calves, loaded 'em up, and then one agent drove the pickup and two agents followed--one in front, one in back. They didn't want that chain of evidence to be broke. Those calves were gone three days. They never did get out of the trailer."
At Shirley's request, Chet Johnson, whose place abutted Hot Creek Ranch, rode with some hands into Hot Creek grazings to search out and round up tight-bagged cows. Easily, they found the mothers, and took them to a Hot Creek corral. The ranch structures under old cottonwoods are neat in appearance, shaded, and cool. They stand below a limestone butte capped with quartzite--freestanding in the basin, like a floating vessel, sheer, eight hundred feet high. Into this milieu came Shirley Robison with three F.B.I. men and six calves. He had connected with them in Ely.Shirley continues the story: "We undone those calves, and we put them in with the big-bag cows, and the agents had a movie camera, see, and we took movies of the whole thing: the calves matin' back up and suckin', you know. And a cow don't allow--a range cow, especially, don't allow--another calf around. We matched 'em all. We had 'em all suckin' within fifteen minutes. We made movies of each calf as it mothered up to its mother and started to suck."
Some time later, Shirley was the recipient of a threatening phone call from a man who did not identify himself, a man who had a voice like a tuba. He said, "You smart brand-inspector son of a bitch, you better pull off before you're in trouble."
Shirley said, "Who are you, Mister?"
The man said, "Look, you brand-inspector bastard. Pull your God-damned horns in before it's too late."
Shirley in his youth was a Golden Gloves boxer. One of six brothers, he grew up near the Sinks of Baker, in a basin so remote that his high school had two rooms, two teachers, and thirty students. He played basketball there, and the name of every player on the team was Robison. He always had his own boxing gloves, and wore out a pair a year. He learned to fight by fighting his brothers. Shirley--six feet, solid--has a trim trapezoidal mustache, a squarish face, and hair enough on either arm to cover anyone's head. Holding his telephone, he felt some of the hair move, and he said to the caller, "You cowardly dog! You come to my face and say that. Let me know who you are. You're a coward."
"It could have been anybody," Shirley says, telling the story.
Several months went by before the federal court in Reno heard the case of the Hot Creek cattle. When Ross Rytting took the stand, Shirley was looking at Rytting forthe first time ever, and he lied like a tuba. But Shirley had what it took to put him away. "He got four years. Which isn't enough. They used to hang 'em, you know."
Shirley was not often able to chase down a rustler by telephone. He had to get up in the ranges and out in the basins--far from Ely, his home and base as brand inspector, far from much of anything--to gather his evidence and, when necessary, capture cattle-rustling women and men. Being far from Ely was, after all, his birthright geography. When his family said that something was "in town," they meant Ely. It was sixty miles away. "I bought my clothes by mail order from National Bellas Hess, Montgomery Ward, and Sears. I never went to Ely until I was a grown kid. You betcha. My granddad came into this country, alone, in 1873, when he was thirteen."
Shirley's most complicated case involved a woman and two men who were thought to be preying on the cattle of the brothers Sharp. The Sharps lived in Railroad Valley, in Nye County, a long distance from a telephone, and a much longer distance from the nearest railroad, there never having been one anywhere near Railroad Valley. The Sharps were "good boys," in Shirley's view. "Good old country boys. Very economical ranchers. Don't spend anything." One of the things they didn't spend was a great deal of time keeping track of their cattle--patrolling their ranchlands and range allotments, which were comparable in size to a modest sea. And so--over two or three years--the clandestine rustlers were able to take something on the order of twelve hundred head. "That's how they made their living. They just about had the Sharp brothers flat on their back."
When Shirley's help was finally sought, he was before long inconvenienced to discern that there seemed to be acouple of masterminds behind the rustling operation, for he thought that one of the masterminds was the head of what is now the Livestock Identification Bureau, in Reno, while the other was John Casey. "The worst two words you can say in the state of Nevada are John Casey," Shirley remarked one day while we were driving toward Baker with his wife, Marge. "You betcha. Those are the two nastiest words you can say to any rancher. John's still alive. They had him on TV, and made a special thing about thieves here, a while back, and he looked just like a rattlesnake, slippery as an eel."
Marge said, "He's not to be trusted."
Shirley was not overwhelmed by the fact that his boss might be implicated. You can't judge a crook by his cover. The first rustler that Shirley ever caught had been someone he grew up with. There is an intimacy in Nevada in inverse proportion to the great open space. You betcha, he was undeterred--just cramped somewhat--but he sent word up an ancillary grapevine to Governor Paul Laxalt, in Carson City, who sent a plane to fetch him (Nevada One) and flew in District Brand Inspector Arshal Lee, from Lincoln County, as well. Laxalt told them that they were now reporting to him and to "go and get the job done."
They narrowed their attention to a spring creek in the mountains at the nose of the Quinn Canyon Range. There was an abandoned ranch--the old Bardoli place--and the rustlers were believed to be there. Across the mountains to the east was Garden Valley, into which came a wash called Cherry Creek. Up Cherry Canyon, at a place called Adaven, they began their careful and stalking approach. (Adaven--its population long since zero--had been named by somebody who figured out what that spelled backward.) Above seven thousand feet, they stashed the state pickup behind Cherry Creek Summit, and proceeded on foot down the OxSpring Wash and nearly a mile past Burnt Canyon. They stopped where they could look down a west-facing slope half a mile to a small corral. The spring creek was there, and--two hundred yards from the corral--"a shacky frame house, little more than a cabin." They saw a watchful gaggle of domestic geese; they saw dogs. They waited. Day after day, they waited. They camped in Sawmill Canyon, on the far side of the crest of the range, and returned each morning, six miles, in the same manner. They could work only in daylight. They would have to see the brands. At last, a small truck appeared, carrying cattle, and followed by a pair of riders. Two men. The driver of the truck was a woman. They left the cattle in the corral and went to the house.
Shirley went down to read the brands. He walked, crawled, and slid the half mile. He used cedars and piñons for cover, completely conscious that he could be killed if discovered. Where he had to cross open ground, as he did most of the way, he lay on his back and inched downhill.
"If I tried to get on my hands and knees, there'd be too much of me exposed. I stayed as low as I could into the brush."
Nearing the corral, he managed not to arouse the dogs, and he skirted the pit-bull geese. But the rustlers also kept a flock of sentinel pigeons.
"And I got past the dogs and I got past the geese--they were away from me now, they were a hundred and fifty yards over here, but a dog can usually pick you up, you know, and so can a goose--but the damned pigeons spotted me, and they dive-bombed me. They'd come right down over me. And I figured they'd give me away. But I finally got in back of the corral and got out of sight, really, until things settled down and they flew on away."
Looking through the corral fence, he saw three long-eared calves, three Hereford cows, and two brands.
Both the Cross L Combined and the Quartercircle Lazy E were registered under the names of Norman and Gerald Sharp.
You can't read a brand on the far side of a cow, and the uncoöperative cows had just stood there presenting their unbranded sides.
"You have to wait for 'em to turn around. I would flip rocks in so I didn't make much movement, you know, so anyone would see me; I would flip rocks in so I could get 'em to turn around till I could read the brands, see?"
Creeping, sliding, hiding his way uphill, Shirley retreated.
Later, he and Arshal watched the rustlers take the cows away, leaving the calves. They took the cows to a field. Shirley and Arshal approached on foot, and hid near the field behind trees.
"Those guys ... We were down so damned close. We got down onto 'em close enough to hear 'em fart."
They were hearing Barney Simpson and John Casey, Jr.
Casey and Simpson had a .22 pistol and used it on the brains of the cows. At the firecracker ping of the first shot, numerous pigs, appearing out of nowhere, came running.
"Bang--they'd shoot 'em in the head. And, when they banged, pigs of all sizes--from big old mature sows to little bitty pigs--come ascreamin' and asquealin'. If there was one, there was sixty. They knew they were going to get fed. And we sit there and watched Barney Simpson and John Casey, Jr., and they used big knives and would slice on the shanks and the belly and open everything up so the pigscould get right in. The pigs ate it all but the paunch. I mean, we're that close enough to watch this. I mean, we're right against them, see? They didn't see us. We made damned sure they didn't. If they'd have known we were there, they'd have cut us up and fed us to the pigs. We'd have just been skulls out there, rolling around with the pigs. They were unkind people. They were giggling. They were proud of what they were doing. They were feedin' those pigs off'n the cows and stealin' the long-eared calves, see? And they were pretty slick at it, I'll tell you. But they have no godliness. They have no godliness."
Not far from this scene, a week or so before, Shirley had discovered a burning ghat for bones. "I mean, big stacks of burned bones, as deep as my arm. They were all sawed up." The rustlers were cutting the brands out of the cowhides and burning the brands as well. He also discovered that they were taking the calves to a secret corral in White River Valley, where the calves were fattened to ready them for market. When the brand inspectors found the corral, it contained fifty-three long-eared Hereford calves.
At dawn on the ninth day, weapons in hand, they returned to the mountain ranch to make the arrest.
"We knew John Casey, Jr., was there--him and his wife, Alice, and this other guy. We found the woman. She come out and done everything but spit in my face. We found the other man--Barney Simpson. We couldn't find John Casey, Jr."
Shirley "took tracks." He went around the house "trying to cut his tracks, anywhere." No tracks. He made a wider circle around the house. No tracks.
"I made three circles, trying to pick up a track where he'd got out of there. He didn't get out of there. We knew he was there. We got back in and lifted up a trapdoor and found him under the floor. He wasn't armed. Barney Simpsonhad a gun, laying on a little nightstand there, a little stool. He reached for it. I said, 'You will die if you grab that gun.'"
Simpson elected not to die, and the two men were removed to Nye County Jail. "All we ever got Simpson and John Casey, Jr., was five years," Shirley told me ruefully. "Simpson was put on probation. We put Casey in the Nevada pen."
"No godliness," Shirley said again, finishing the story. "This man John Casey, I sit in his house one day, in Little Fish Lake Valley. I was down there inspectin' cattle for him, and was washin' my face, gettin' ready to go have dinner. And he said, 'You know something?' He's layin' back on a couch--he's a big man, about six feet two. And he said, 'You know, my dad always told me,"Never make a deal that you can't make over." ' That meant he wouldn't honor a contract, or anything. He made it over. That's the way he lived. He didn't make a deal that he couldn't make over."
Marge said, "And they lived like animals. With their cute little girls."
Shirley said, "In the Kawich Mountains, in Nye County--I was down there with a federal vet--we seen this dust going up this canyon. We go up the canyon to see what's going on. There is Casey with two of his daughters --say, thirteen and fifteen, pretty little girls--and a truck backed up to a corral. The girls had had no food and were hungry. While their father was loading cattle, I handed 'em a can of peaches. When you load cattle, you know, you're right up back of 'em, poundin' 'em, tryin' to get 'em in the truck. They pooped all over him. And he got up with his pocket knife--pulled it out, and scraped it all off, and sat down, and wiped his knife, and then he opened the canof peaches and stabbed a peach and handed it to his daughters."
Shirley's roll call of rustlers includes the late Beverly Hooper, of Newark Valley, under the Diamond Range. Hooper had a corral there veneered in rustled rawhide, so that it more or less resembled a leather boxing ring. Shirley believed that Hooper was stealing cattle and selling the meat to a café in Eureka.
"He was a handsome big man, about six foot one, very intelligent, but he was a bad one, a horribly dishonest, ungodly human being. I had had him in court once--but just for selling uninspected meat was all I could get him for. It was illegal meat. I knew it was somebody else's beef. But I couldn't prove it. I had him in and got him fined a hundred and fifty bucks. You betcha. He had studied some law and was a sharp guy, for that matter, but he couldn't lay in bed straight. He had taken these hides and cut 'em to where you couldn't find the brands. To get rid of the hides, he just cut strips and wrapped his whole corral. He wrapped it around and around and around like that. In the corners he wrapped them around the other poles and made them tight. Rawhide when it dries is tight. A cow could hit that and it would not break. I went there at night--I come in out of Elko County, so they wouldn't know I was there--and I found this vantage point down to where cattle, other cattle, were mixed together. And I seen his car come around the point of the mountain over here two miles, go down into the flat. All of a sudden, I see a flash of fire, and then I heard the report of a gun, you know--so I knew they had killed something. And before long I seen 'em--with binoculars--go to the back of the car and put something in. And when they come back they didn't turn and go back to the ranch, they turned toward me. I had no place to go.I couldn't get turned around. So I decided to tough it out. It was stupid on my part to do such a thing. Because I'm alone out there. But I had a two-way radio. When they drove up to me, I had my red light right here in a spotlight. I flipped that on. It burned out. It made one flash and burned out. So I flipped my headlights onto 'em, and I got out of the car and motioned for 'em to come back up, and I had the radio right up to my mouth and they didn't know who I was in contact with. I got 'em out of the car. Five of 'em, four men and a boy--Hooper was one of 'em. And I had 'em lay face down on the oil and keep their legs apart, and told 'em to stay where they were. And they didn't know--me with that microphone--who I was in contact with. When they seen that red light flash, they knew it was law, and they didn't know how many I had out in the brush. They didn't know that. But it was a foolish thing to have done. I had Hooper get up and open the back of the car. What did he have in there? A jackrabbit. That's all he had. I had to let him go. He had the laugh on me."
In Hamlin Valley, answering a call for help one day, Shirley picked up three long-eared calves. He later matched them to their mothers in a neutral corral. Then he and another man staked out the corral.
"We sat on 'em with a tommy gun, with a .45 automatic, waiting for the thieves to try to steal the evidence. Over Thanksgiving, we sat on 'em day and night."
One of the rustlers they caught was the deputy sheriff of Millard County, Utah.
"We put him in the penitentiary. He was a man I knew all my life. His name was Art Loper. He was a one-eyed man. He had a hell of a horse. He could rope a calf and snub 'im up tight in the saddle, you know what I mean, against his right leg, and go up to the back of a truck, andthis horse would jump in and pull the calf right in the truck with him. Roan horse. Loper was trying to help feed a family. He had a big family. And there was damned poor pickin's for 'em, I'll tell you. But if he was stealin' someone else's cows he had to be stopped."
Shirley reflected for a while, and then he said, "If you run on the open range, you'd better have a brand. The law don't require you to brand anything under six months of age, no, no, but anybody in their right mind would have a recorded iron and have every animal branded, because you're asking somebody to take an oreana--you know, a long-eared critter--off from ya. I mean, if he doesn't have an iron on. Possession is nine points of the law. If you didn't catch him at it, he could steal everything you had."
Late in April, not long ago, a pickup hauling a horse trailer pulled in under the cottonwoods and the Chinese elms of Nyala, also called Cross L Ranch, where cattle are branded Cross L Combined.
This was in Railroad Valley, which somehow seems more vast, austere, remote, silent, and empty than almost any other Nevada valley. The ranch and its range allotments measured fifteen by thirty-five miles--three hundred and thirty-six thousand acres--and many slick calves were known to be scattered about it. The ranch had a reputation for being more casual than others, unscientific. ("They let things take care of themselves.") If an animal fell dead, it might be left for some time where it was. A manure fire there had once burned for weeks. The location, even byNevada standards, was described as "backcountry." The trailer was sizable, and had some plywood in it and a horse. As two men got out of the pickup, they were greeted by Norman Sharp.
He had been in a hayfield when the trailer approached. He was bearded, in his fifties, patient and pleasant in manner--a bachelor, like his brother and partner Gerald. In Shirley Robison's description: "They are topnotch people. They wouldn't ship anybody else's critters for anything in the world. You betcha. They're straight as dies. No way they would take anything from anyone. They're good ranchers, in a way. I mean, they're conservative, and that's what makes them good. Makes 'em a success. They came back from almost bankruptcy after the Caseys were stealin' from 'em. They're good business people, but they've lived out in the backwoods so doggone long they're countrified."
Now, on that April day, Norman Sharp invited the two men--Leo Stewart and Wayne Lee--into his house for a glass of iced tea. The pair had been there six weeks before, when the Sharps traded them five calves for one horse. They had taken three calves. Now they had come for the two others. Tea swirling, cubes rattling, they mentioned that they would also like to trade that horse in the trailer for five more calves. If all this sounded like a Las Vegas shuffle--a way of exchanging a hundred-dollar bill for ten ones, six tens, and nine fives--it may have been. They wanted the calves for roping practice. Wayne Lee and Leo Stewart were, among other things, professional ropers. They performed together in pair roping--two against the clock, taking, say, 4.8 seconds to rope horns and then feet and have a steer stretched out. They could win as much as ten thousand dollars in such events, in Panaca or Caliente or Pioche or Ely or Tonopah--wherever the little rodeos would be.
Norman Sharp--in his denim, his suspenders, hisgrange demeanor--thought that Wayne Lee had "a touch of the slick" about him, that "he looked like a cowboy." Lee was lean, tall, rough, and rugged-looking, in the potatochip hat, the Levi's, the boots, and the spurs. His helt buckle was inlaid with silver and gold. He made his home in Las Vegas.
Leo Stewart's buckle was also inlaid with silver and gold, but he was from Alamo, in Lincoln County, and he looked more like a farmer--like Gordon Eldridge or, for that matter, Norman Sharp. The son of a range cowboy, he was huskier and shorter than Wayne Lee. He was red-faced, heavy-jowled, quiet, and friendly. The two had been partners scarcely six months.
Lee was a breaker of horses. Large letters on the gooseneck trailer said "WAYNE LEE HORSE TRAINING." He was a second cousin of Shirley Robison's colleague Arshal Lee, and as descendants of John D. Lee they belonged to one of the first families of the Great Basin. Their distinguished forebear had participated in the murder of the occupants of an emigrant wagon train in what historians call the Mountain Meadows massacre. Of Wayne Lee's several occupations, the primary one was breaking, gentling, and training horses. But he also held still another job, even more pertinent to this story. He worked for the State of Nevada under the supervision of Chris Collis. He was a deputy brand inspector.
Norman Sharp had a good opinion of Wayne Lee as a trainer, but he rode the horse that had come in the trailer and said he was not interested in making the trade.
"It's a broke horse, a good horse."
"No, not at this time, thank you. It needs more training to be worth the price of five one-year-old heifers."
The two calves that the Sharps owed to Stewart and Lee were in a corral. They were Herefords, the only breedthe Sharps run, and, like nearly all Cross L Ranch calves, they were small for their age, with good heavy horns, and hair lighter than most Herefords'. Before they could go, they would require brand inspection. "We'll get Carl Hanks to do it," Norman said, mentioning a deputy brand inspector who lived not far up the valley.
Wayne Lee said, "We don't need him. I can do it." He soon handed Sharp a brand-inspection certificate for the two calves, naming Stewart as the buyer. While he and Stewart were putting the calves into the trailer with the horse, one calf got away. In 4.8 seconds plus a couple of minutes on either side, they had roped the calf and hauled it to the trailer. When they departed, they had been at Nyala two hours.
They went off to the southwest about twenty miles, their dust out of sight over the curve of the earth, and then they headed east toward the mountains, still on allotted Cross L range. Beside a deep wash under high red bluffs, they climbed the mountain bench on a two-rut road, passing any number of Cross L cow/calf pairs. They went high, near the roadhead, turned around in the brush, and backed into a smaller wash, where they parked and took the horse out of the trailer. If they had started roping at the bottom, they would have driven cattle above them up and out of the country.
One of them mounted the horse and went up into the brush northwest, where he threw his loop and a calf crashed on its side, into the black sage. Over the gravelly ground they hauled it to the trailer, and used a lot of muscle forcing it in. Then one man stayed with the truck while the other rode downhill to rope a second calf. Truck and trailer joined the scene. There was another big scuffle as the calf was pulled to the road.
They were not heeling the calves, and heaven knowsthey weren't fishing for them. They were roping them around the horns or the neck. In Chris Collis's words, "You rope around the horns, the cow will go better. You get closer. You take your dallies, and you drag that steer where you want him to go. Roping them around the neck, you shut off their air and they go down."
The most difficult animal was roped in the black sage near an overtowering butte. It was not about to be dragged to the road, so they drove the trailer through the brush some hundreds of yards to get it. In this manner, calf after calf, they packed the trailer as they worked their way downhill. To the west-northwest they could see fifty miles to the Monitor Range--over intervening summits and, in the foreground, the immense treeless valley. There was a big dry lake bed, white, in the valley. In all that landscape they could see no sign of as much as one human being; and, as far as is known, no one observed them. Nor did they ever tell this story. After shoving the horse in among the calves, and obscuring the nature of their cargo with plywood, they left, along the bench, on the rarely travelled road to the south.
After a time, a plume of dust belonging to Gerald Sharp came up the same road in the opposite direction. Gerald had been running an errand, and had passed Lee's rig, and now, along the escarpment near a water hole called Eds Well, he saw tire tracks on a spur that climbed the bench toward Red Bluff Spring. Minutes later, at Nyala, Norman told him about Lee and Stewart's visit.
"How long ago did they leave?" Gerald asked.
Norman said, "Six hours."
Wayne Lee was interesting but incidental--a lateappearing walk-on with spurs. If there was one rustler thatChris Collis had ever hoped to convict, it was Leo Stewart, this quiet unpretentious roper with, as Chris put it, "a reputation that wouldn't quit"--a man suspected of so much cattle theft that Chris eventually kept an eight-by-ten color picture of him as a souvenir. From the day that Shirley Robison retired and Chris assumed the title of District Brand Inspector, he was beset with complaints, hearsay, suspicions, and innuendo coming at him from all directions about Leo Stewart; yet, if all these things were true, the evidence was cunningly kept beyond reach, and years went by while Chris waited for an unambiguous chance.
The Sharps, for their part, "for years and years" had thought that Stewart looked upon them as prey. Their Cross L Combined brand had much in common with the H Over L used at that time by one of Stewart's relatives, and even more in common with H Hanging L Combined, which he could easily pass off as his relative's brand. Looking at these brands, in that order, one could almost see a scribe bent over his table in Beijing building a composite character.
The Sharps had attempted to collect evidence and deal with Stewart on their own--in part because they looked upon him as a friend--but they had failed. Their fiscal blood count was once again turning white. Exasperated, they agreed to call the brand inspector. Lacking a telephone, as they still do, they would have to use one that was twenty-five miles away.
Next morning, soon after daybreak, Gerald drove there, and called Chris in Ely. Anxious not to reveal his purposeto anyone listening in, Gerald kept his voice slow, flat, and detached. He didn't say why he was asking Chris to come and visit. Chris knew where the phone was, sensed urgency, and departed for Nyala.
When a brand inspector writes a certificate, he draws a slanting line through any unused space, closing the certificate, and limiting it to the listed cattle. He collects money and sends the white original to the state. A yellow copy stays in his certificate book, a blue one goes to the buyer, and a pink one to the seller. At Nyala, as the Sharps told him their story, they showed him the pink certificate written by Wayne Lee to cover the calves they owed him. In one glance, Chris saw less than he needed to know but more than enough to make him active. There was no slanting line. There was free space for additional entries. Not drawing the line is known as "leaving it open."
With Gerald, he went down the bench to Eds Well, but when he saw the multiwheeled tracks going into and coming out of the brush, and "the horseshoe prints in the dirt where the horse was pulling something heavy," and the story of roping and loading written into the sage, he decided to go no farther. "The chain of evidence has to be maintained or the evidence is no good." he explains. To read and record tracks and sign as thoroughly as possible, he wanted another pair of professional eyes to go with him into the brush. He called the Nevada Division of Investigations and, within a few hours, was joined by an agent named Steve Nevin.
Chris rode on the hood of Nevin's pickup as they climbed the mountain bench at a rate that could have been reckoned in yards per hour. Where he signalled, they stopped. They made notes and photographs. They collected and labelled tufts of hair. They picked up the story from the end to the beginning, working on the last roping first, and then moving uphill to the penultimate roping, and soon, in order not to risk obscuring things with their own equipment. From the manner in which treads covered treads they could read the directions in which the truckand-trailer had moved. The horse-trailer tracks were "shallow going up, coming back they were real deep." When Nevin's pickup came to a place where a calf had been roped or where the trailer had been stopped and loaded, Chris could see what had happened: "You could see where the calf crushed the sage. There was red hair on the brush. Where the gravelly ground was really disturbed, you could tell it was a calf, roped. There were scuff marks all over the road where a calf balked getting in." All were Hereford calves. At each place where the trailer had been opened, hay and manure had fallen out in a straight line. This was not in summer dust. The moisture of an April rain, a few days old, added clarity to the tracks and to Steve Nevin's photographs. "I don't claim to be a real good tracker," Chris says. With a short pause for reconsideration, he continues, "Well, I read tracks pretty good. When I see them, it's as if somebody turned on a light switch." He could see the size of each animal roped and removed. He could see the roper, after roping a calf, "take a few dallies and maneuver the calf onto its feet and to the road--either one of them could do it." The narrative of the calf ropings by Lee and Stewart in Red Bluff Canyon would derive entirely from this investigation, which continued into the next day. The highest line of hay and manure that Nevin and Collis found was in the wash where Lee and Stewart had removed the horse from the trailer.
The rustled cattle could have been taken (1) who knows where, (2) to Stewart's place, in Alamo, (3) to Lee's, in Las Vegas. Chris had to make a quick decision and go. Stewart was the ranking rustler, Lee the neophyte, he reasoned, but Stewart was also a cattle rancher with plenty of ropingcalves, while Lee not only had no ranch but was not even from Nevada. He was, as Nevadans see it, from Las Vegas, a foreign country. "I just know we'll find 'em there," Chris said. "If we're lucky, we'll find his brand-inspection book there, too."
Lee lived on Rosada in northwest Vegas. In corrals there Collis and Nevin saw, from the street, about a dozen Hereford calves, small for their age, with good heavy horns, and hair lighter than most Herefords'. They soon returned with a search warrant, a gooseneck trailer, and a black-and-white unit. In a black-and-white unit, a cop is behind the wheel. Lee was in Fallon at a roping. His brand-inspectioncertificate book was in a vinyl briefcase on the dining table. Lee had added ten animals to the certificate left open at Nyala. In the corrals outside, all the calves were freshly branded.
Chris hardly needed to refer to his book. Lazy H Seven Combined was registered in the name of Leo Stewart, Alamo, Nevada 89001. Chris loaded the calves into the trailer and followed the black-and-white unit into downtown Las Vegas. Before he left Railroad Valley, he had told Carl Hanks to go up to Red Bluff Spring and gather tight-bagged cows. Hanks had gathered three. After seeing the calves at Lee's, Chris had called Hanks and told him to take the cows to Horseman's Park in Las Vegas, where Clark County Animal Control had some holding corrals. In the dark of evening, he was now headed for the park himself with the impounded calves, and the heavy traffic was confusing, the noise intense, the lights of the casinos chatoyant. At the park, a horse show was under way in blazing light. This wasclose to Sam's Town, the big casino. "Imagine cows in downtown Las Vegas. They had never been hauled before. The cattle were stressed. The truck ride had been a shock to the animals' systems. They were older calves. Turned into the holding corrals, they were running, trying to leave, hitting fences. You could just not expect a normal mothering-up response." And none came when cows and calves were placed together.
At each stop in Vegas, almost everyone he encountered was a friend of Wayne Lee. The warmest greeting he received was "You better be sure. You better know what you're doing." Then, slowly, in the dead of night, the animals calmed down, and so did the turgid city. In the morning, two of the three big-bag cows had been sucked. The teats were clean. The hair around the bags was curly. The bags were no longer tight. It wasn't a sprawl of evidence, covering countless examples, but it would do. If your game is icebergs, you might have to settle for tips.
Stewart and Lee pleaded not guilty. Theirs was the longest criminal trial in the history of Nye County. Chris was on the stand for four days. The defense said it was not possible to rope more than one calf in two hours. Lee and Stewart were convicted on five counts of grand larceny of cattle. Each was fined sixteen thousand dollars. Each got twenty-five years, but the judge put them on probation and did not send them up. Chris slowly shakes his hat as he finishes the story, saying, "They were convicted on grand larceny and spent not one day in jail."
While I'm out with Chris in the basins and ranges on his long, unplanned rounds, we find ourselves on a small dirt road in Railroad Valley, heading north. "Was this the road that Lee and Stewart used?" I ask him.
The muffler comes loose under the state pickup. It falls, one end clanging. He stops, gets out, looks at the muffler,and hunts the bed of the pickup for baling wire. In several hundred square miles of sage basin and rising ground, no structure is in sight to any horizon. "Not this road," he answers. "They were travelling the backcountry."
He secures the muffler and drives on. Baling wire, he informs me, is Mormon buckskin. We stop in at Nyala, an authentic oasis. Karen Uhalde grew up just across the eastern mountains, and went to high school with Chris in Ely, a hundred and twelve miles north. The Sharps' ranch has the waste-nothing aspect of bush Alaska. All about in deep profusion are tractors, swathers, choppers, feed wagons, dump wagons, a corn harvester, a baler, a combine, stock trucks, a welder, a cement truck, old disks, plows, land planes, an old pump jack, irrigation pipe, sprinkling equipment, wheel-line parts, gated pipes, siphoning tubes, corrugators, markers, and seed drills. In the background are great mounds of hay, quonsets of hay. Norman and Gerald Sharp, their brother Melvin, their sister Marian, and her husband, Ed YIst, nod to Chris and swiftly form a huddle around me, in which they let me know without ambiguity that the federal government is an almost pure evil. I sense, in the huddle, that I am standing in for the federal government. Compared with the federal government, moreover, they'd call Leo Stewart the lesser rustler. "Leo had been a problem since he was fifteen," Norman says. "For him, rustling was a way of life, not a necessity. Some people steal because they're hungry. Others for a lark. And for a third group it's a way of life. If it wasn't for Chris, they could come in to the desert here, load up, and be in Kansas in a few days. Both Lee and Stewart were good ropers. They probably met at a roping show. It isn't a closed society. In Nevada, if you don't know someone, you know about them. Leo and Wayne had been here. Strange as it may seem,you know they're doing this, but they're still friends. Leo is not an unlikable person. But when they start doing it every three weeks you know it's a business. If I stood on your toe, you might tolerate it for a while, but eventually you say, 'Enough of this shit.'"
Soon after daybreak on a cold October morning, sprinkler fields are frozen in Steptoe Valley. We go south and past them to Three C Ranch. This is private pasture, some thousands of acres, where the basin is no more than ten miles wide, gently concave under the fans of its flanking ranges. There's an eight-foot fence to keep elk out--also antelope and mountain sheep. Far out there in the deepest ground--in the axis of the valley, collected--are fourteen hundred head of cattle. Half are about to go east. The ranch belongs to Bidart Brothers, a company in California. The brand is the Long Tail B.
The cattle, massed and choral, are a mile away--a unit slowly seething, now to the left, now to the right, with dust around them, among them, above them, like fog. Four cowboys on horseback and one in a pickup are trying to move them into a long fenced lane that comes up to the corrals. Their sound, in its concentration, is orchestral, and large in volume despite the distance. The punctuating soloists, whose contributions would be prominent nearby, are blended into the total vibration. If you could not see the animals, you would not know what you were hearing. They sound like baritone whales. They sound like jets passingoverhead without Doppler effect. They sound like an alltuba band warming up. They seem to be creating the serious music of the twenty-first century.
"Too many cows and not enough cowboys," Chris remarks as we wait. When the cattle finally begin to move toward us, they stop, jam, rebel, retreat, and start again. A dart leader goes out in front, and the rest follow for a hundred yards, but then they stop, jam, struggle backward. "They hesitate coming up the lane because they turn around looking for their calves," he explains. "When they hear calves bawling, they stop and look for their own. If you rope a calf and drag it in front of them, they'll follow."
The cowboys shout. They pop their chaps with their romals. On their heads are baseball caps. As they draw close to the corrals, in the oncoming rise of dust, we can hear the patrón switching from Spanish to English to Spanish. His name is Melchor Gragirena. The cowboys tie their horses to a fence of the outermost corral and work the cattle forward on foot. This is a complex of large rectangular corrals flanked on two sides by an alley. With their stock whips in motion, fast on their feet, they move the cattle up the alley and separate cows from heifers from steers. To the greatest extent possible, they try to be gingerly and calm. "The least amount of working, the least shrink," Chris remarks. The calves are on their way to a scale. Shrink is loss of weight, up to and for the most part including manure. The calves here will be worth about a third of a million dollars. In one sudden burst of fear and flight, they can leave a thousand dollars on the ground.
Cows go into one corral, heifers next door. Steers remain in the sorting alley. Ingenious combinations of swinging gates make it possible to separate cows from calves and sex the calves at the same time. A lot of ranches do not havesuch facilities, and have to run their calves a second time to sex them, resulting in more shrink.
Chris is in the alley counting. He is up against the fence as the steers race past him, and he writes with a pen on the palm of his hand. He is facing east, into the early sun, because the Long Tail B is on the right ribs and the steers are running to his right. There is no adjusting these less than ideal factors. I have watched him inspecting cattle in a large, rectangular mountain corral where he took a position with his back to the sun while a cowboy sent before him, clockwise, a stream of calves branded on their left hips. (The cowboy, in fringed-buckskin chaps, was a moonlighting Baptist minister.) Now, in this confining alley, Chris is compelled to squint, but he can see the Long Tail B, even if I cannot. The steer calves look slick to me--most of them, anyway--while Chris seems to have electronic eyes that are reading hair-covered bar codes. He assembles the steers in groups of eighteen, recording their numbers on his skin. He says, "I use a lot of three-by-five cards when I run out of space on my hand."
The female calves, in their corral next to the alley, have spontaneously lined up in ranks, shoulder to shoulder, ignored for the moment and suddenly placid, staring toward the alley with their grandmotherly, contemplative eyes. Brockle-faced heifers, coon-eyed heifers, redneck heifers (the touch of Angus), they are learning a lot in a hurry. The dust is so dense it tastes. From the cows' corral comes a din of foghorns.
Cows are mounting cows in the cows' corral. Roan cows. Brockle-faced cows. Hundreds of cows are crowded together, wailing, crying, sobbing, bawling--and riding one another. The hair is wet on the calves' noses in the alley and the heifer pen, so recently have they been sucking.Among them there seem to be no dogies--leppies, orphans.
Chris flicks his fingers as he counts the running steers, as if he were shaking off water. "Diez y seis!" he calls to a cowboy. The cowboy nods. As the steers approach, Chris first checks the ears. The right ears have been marked by being halved down the middle. (The heifers' right ears are notched.) He checks also for strings--the long strands of dangling hair that are the only sign that a calf is male. Then he looks for the brands as the animals pass him. He looks again at the ears when they have gone by. He writes with a ballpoint. His hands--palms and backs--are now covered with ink. Why does he write on his hands? "It's easier. Diez y siete! Diez y ocho!" The cowboy shuts a gate. Chris opens another gate, and the steers, en bloc, go onto the scale: seven thousand five hundred and eleven pounds at ninety-seven cents a pound.
I have two apples in my pocket. Does he want one?
"No, thanks!" he shouts. "I've got a mouthful of Copenhagen!" He lives on Copenhagen, by his own description. He has nothing but coffee in the morning. He seems to forget to eat lunch. There's a circular protuberance in his shirt pocket, in his jaw a pillow of snuff.
Now, in the alley, he is stopping six, his legs in the shuffle of defense. Like a basketball player, he has moved on experience and without thinking--because his glance has fallen upon an underbit in one calf's ear. He separates her from the steers.
A slick bull calf shows up m the alley--born too late for the branding. Chris cuts him out, too.
Cattle are auctioned by satellite now, in truckload units of fifty thousand pounds--but few from Nevada. The buyer has a dish antenna, and sits at home watching videotaped cattle in the egret flats of Alvin, Texas, on the Red River plain of Louisiana, against the velvet greens of Jane Lew,West Virginia, and back to the pastures of Easterly, Texas, where mahogany steers against a stand of trees are up to their hocks in grass. "They walk on more feed than these cattle out here get a chance to look at," Chris remarked one afternoon when we were watching his set. It's not a bad way to see the country, four hours, coast to coast, cow to cow--in one afternoon, thirteen million five hundred thousand dollars' worth of cattle sold. In this part of Nevada, more often than not, the middleman is Denny Manzonie--order buyer, livestock dealer, broker--who buys cattle, takes them to his lots in Nye County, and resells them to many forms of client, from other ranchers to Super Fresh and Foodtown. Lacking a personal satellite, Manzonie is, in his words, "busier than a fart in a skillet."
Six big semis have come to the Three C. They are eighteen-wheelers, made of aluminum to improve the weight ratio of cattle to truck. They are multilevelled and multichambered. You can get fifty thousand pounds of living beef into an extremely small space, as Delta once whispered to United. More than a hundred and fifty tons of calf are ready for the semis now. After the scale, they enter still another corral, next door to their bawling mothers. Their destination is Wilsey, Kansas, which impresses the brand inspector, who says, "They're really going east."
He counts them all again as they are loading. They go up a chute in eights and tens, balking, twisting, sometimes forcing their way back, and the truck drivers lean over the side of the chute holding four-cell electric prods. The prods are now and again effective, but less so than the brand inspector, who closes a small gate at the bottom of the ramp and follows each pulse of cattle upward, leaning hard into them with one shoulder, his legs driving.
"I've seen inspectors who don't get out of the pickup," a truck driver remarks.
The calves, six and eight months old and averaging four hundred pounds, back down on the brand inspector and pin him against the gate. They seem to be crushing him, but he muscles back, shouts "Hey hey hey hey hey, calves!" and piercingly whistles through his teeth. They turn and climb for Kansas.
"A lot of brand inspectors sit on the fences, but it makes a long day," he has said to me. "It's just something I've chose not to do. If you're going to do that, there's no sense to even go."
A hundred and sixteen climb into the first truck, a hundred and twenty-six into the second. After the door closes on the seven-hundred-and-fifth calf, he writes his brand certificate, and collects the four hundred and twenty-three dollars he has earned for the State of Nevada. The trucks are free to go. In the cow corral, the sound is more intense than ever. Weaning by semi. The sound of the gears is lost in the din as the semis pull away.
The cows are released from their corral and allowed to mill about. They are not driven back to the fenced and distant pastures. They would break down fences to get back to the corrals where their calves were shipped. Tomorrow, beside the corrals the powder will be a foot deep as cattle walk the fence line looking for their calves.
[Brands drawn by Ellie Wyeth Fox]
Copyright © 1997 by John McPhee
Meet the Author
John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
- Princeton, New Jersey
- Date of Birth:
- March 8, 1931
- Place of Birth:
- Princeton, New Jersey
- A.B., Princeton University, 1953; graduate study at Cambridge University, 1953-54
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