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Irons in the Fire

Irons in the Fire

by John McPhee
Irons in the Fire

Irons in the Fire

by John McPhee



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In this collection John McPhee once agains proves himself as a master observer of all arenas of life as well a powerful and important writer.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374708474
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/01/2011
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: eBook
Pages: 216
Sales rank: 985,867
File size: 267 KB

About 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.

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 over 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

Read an Excerpt

Irons in the Fire

By John McPhee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1997 John McPhee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70847-4



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 in Nevada," 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 a white 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 York State. 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 on it—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 some help 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 misdemeanor unless 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 thousand feet. 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.


Excerpted from Irons in the Fire by John McPhee. Copyright © 1997 John McPhee. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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