Brand Them

copyright 2007
by Lin Stone

The first time we got to use the brand new hydraulic branding chute nothing turned out the way we expected. Three days earlier we had received a shipment of 600 steers from Louisiana. That very night they had battered down the steel fence and we'd spent two days rounding them back up.

As I bunched that first steer up to the chute, Leon was experimentally flexing his fingers over the three control levers. The one on the right closed the back gate behind the steer. The middle one clamped the steer up tightly as we ministered to him. The left lever was meant to close behind the steer's head to restrict movements on that end.

"I am ready," Leon declared confidently.



I punched the steer forward and he walked all the way through the chute while Leon just stood there, looking rather puzzled. He had not moved a muscle, much less a finger. He glanced at me and shruged. "I did the best I could," he said.

I punched the next steer lightly so it would come up a little slower. But Leon still just stood there while the steer walked right on through the chute. I was worried: At this rate we were getting nowhere fast.

Leon studied the levers for a long time then he wiggled each one tentatively. "I think I have it now," he said. "Send me another steer."

That steer I just barely touched, and he went through the chute by inches because he tried to poke his head through every one of the bars as he went along. That meant he was taking much longer to get through. At the last possible second Leon's finger shot down on the lever on the left. It clattered shut -- but the steer scraped on through leaving just a little hide behind. The boss's voice dripped with sarcasm, "Boy!" he said. "You almost caught that one."

"We'll get the next one," Leon vowed.


Sure enough, Leon did catch that one! The front gate caught high on the steer's shoulder instead of his neck but he WAS caught. We worked him over in a fit of jubilation and cheered Leon for the catch all the time we were doing it.

Then Leon opened the gate and that steer fell over dead. The chute had squeezed his lungs shut. In a panic we pulled him out of the chute. Leon fell on the steer's chest with his knees about three times before it lurched up to its knees and bolted out of there without so much as a "thank you" to Leon for saving his life.

It was the beginning of a bad day. We had only worked four more steers before the electric branding iron quit on us. Bill had a brand-new one in the icebox. He brought it out just as we brought in a new steer. "This one's a bull," Leon reported.

Bill tossed his head angrily and muttered something under his breath about cowboys from Louisiana that were too busy fighting alligators to do their jobs right. "Cut him," he snapped.

Just then Budge Nelson a neighboring rancher rode up to our fence about eighty feet away and yelled at us: "Have you boys seen my prize bull?"

Nobody had so Bill handed the new branding iron to me and went over to talk with Budge for a minute. Moments later they rode off together to look through all the pens for Budge's prize bull. I unwrapped the branding iron and plugged it in to get it hot. Being from a new company it felt different in my hand and I looked it over good. Something was wrong, but I couldn't decide what it was before the iron heated up, cherry red.

For easier identification Bill always branded his cattle on the right hip, right up close to the backbone. I lowered the two bars to get at the bull and I slapped that hot branding iron on his hip just as Leon sliced open the bull's testicle bag. The shock of so much sudden pain sent the bull into a frenzy of bucking and jumping.

When it went up that first time he went so high that he struck a sharp edge of the chute and it ripped his hide down a patch right where I had branded him. There was a flap of skin hanging down right where I had branded him. What if that patch rotted off? The brand would be gone! You couldn't have that. But I wasn't sure what to do about it so I called Leon over for advice.

For a moment he studied the problem. Tentatively he pushed the flap of skin back into place and shook his head in dissatisfaction. "Brand him again, right under that one," he decided.

So, that's what I did, I branded that steer good and deep. As I brought the hot iron away from the steer's hip and stared at the brand with satisfaction Leon grinned at me, pleased. Suddenly the grin dissolved and he looked again. His finger traced the brand and his mind raced through memory. Then he grabbed the iron away from me and studied it. "Give me that old iron."

When you held the two branding irons up side by side it was obvious that the new company had made the symbols on the new iron wrong. The smells of fresh blood, green manure and spilled combiotic swirled around us for a dizzying moment. I know that cowboys loved that smell because when I was a kid I would walk eight miles to get in on a branding party where I worked for free when I could have earned four dollars a day by staying where I was.

Both brands had an H and a B, but the new one had the B turned around backwards instead of lying on its side as it should have been. Leon shook his head and laid the branding iron aside. He turned to the crew. "Well, that's all she wrote for the day, boys. Let's put these Louisianer critters back up."

So there we were herding the cattle back up the narrow alley when Budge Nelson yelled at us. "Stop. STOP!" He grinned at Bill and pointed. at our lead animal. "That's my prize bull. So, it DID get in one of your pens."

The animal he had pointed to did still look like a bull from the front, but from where we stood behind the herd we had this sickening feeling that something important had been irrevocably altered. Budge's prize bull was now a steer.

That was bad enough and Budge was just about dying from the knowledge. Then they discovered that I had somehow branded his prize bull twice and they had begun to discuss what they were going to do about that when Bill noticed it wasn't even his brand we had slapped on that bull -- well, on that steer, anyway.

They say that discretion is the better part of valor. Me and Leon left all those cows standing there and we ran for our lives!

Two days later and many miles down the road, Leon and I walked into this little country tavern and the owner glanced up at us as we came in. He knew Leon by sight. "I hear you boys have taken up cattle rustling."

I didn't know what to say and it was obvious Leon was embarrassed too. "We had to give up on rustling," he finally murmured. "It doesn't pay any more. Even when you brand a bull twice you still don't get to keep the steer."

We had come in for a drink, but in the face of that roar of laughter we just turned around and got back in the truck. Many more miles passed beneath us before either of us spoke again. Leon mentioned something about the weather maybe turning bad and how we needed to separate to bring some cows in off the BLM.

After inspecting the brands on our horses very carefully we mounted up and went back to cowboying with heavy hearts.



the end