The second was that rancher, whose generosity was such that he told me to use and treat his 2,000 acre ranch as if it were my own – and I have. I’ve prowled its oak woodlands to bag a few turkeys, shot ducks and doves at a stock pond and caught plenty of bass in it as well. In return, and as he requested, I’d let him know if I saw a cow, fence, water trough or anything else that needed his attention.
When it was time for the spring round-up, he’d call to make sure the tentative date would work for me before he settled on it – despite the fact I’m no help at all around horses and cattle (the former tend to injure me and I eat the latter). He needed me he said, to put his mark on the ear of each calf. Little did I know that he would hand me a small can that once held condensed orange juice, replaced with alcohol as disinfectant and a razor sharp pocket knife.
While the calf was on its side in a squeeze chute and being vaccinated, or in the case of young bulls also being castrated, it was my job to make a perfectly straight slice to remove about one-half inch from the top of each calf’s right ear. I suppose this is an appropriate time to mention that I’m not much of a blade man and normally shed some blood cutting my morning toast into two pieces.
You can only imagine how daunting I found the task of trying to slice off the top of a writhing, jerking, bucking, snorting, snotting and bellowing calf’s right ear. The first time I tried, the sterilized knife was knocked out of my hand and traveled roughly ten feet through the air before coming to rest – in a freshly made cow pie.
I got chewed out a little bit before he showed me how to press my leg against the calf’s head enough to hold it still while making the cut without severing a finger or two, but I was never comfortable with the knife and had a tough time making the straight and neat cut that would allow him to distinguish his calves from any others.
While I may not be good with a knife, I’m at least decent with scissors and it seemed to me that kitchen or game shears would be perfect for the job, so the following year I arrived at the round-up with game shears in a leather holster attached to my belt. At first my friend protested, insisting that I learn to use the knife, but his eldest son gave the shears a try before pronouncing them to be a better and safer alternative – especially in my hands. My friend grumbled “we’ve never had to use scissors before,” but grudgingly acknowledged “they might be okay if it’s the only way Jim’s gonna get a straight cut.”
The truth of the matter is, that I was no real help at the round-up and any of the school age grandkids on hand could have handled the ear marking better and with less trepidation than I did, but my friend wanted me to feel that I was part of things – and I did. When he called in subsequent years to remind me of the round-up, he’d conclude the conversation with, “don’t forget to bring your scissors.”
If a few weeks passed without one of my visits to the ranch, or at least a phone conversaton, he’d call to ask if I was mad at him, which I never had reason to be, nor I hope, he with me.
Along with his wife, my friend was passionate about cattle ranching and the ranch lifestyle which they taught to the four kids they raised on the ranch along with a bunch of grandkids, other relatives and friends. Mending fences, tending to the health of the cows and horses, cutting and splitting wood for the stove and pulling a calf from a dying cow in labor were just a few parts of the job – a job he was born into, loved and lived his entire life.
The job and life became much tougher a couple of years ago following a series of setbacks. There was the big calf, blind in one eye that bolted in the corral and knocked him down, fracturing vertebrae around his tailbone and the ribs on one side. There was the fall on some large pipe that fractured ribs on the other side and later fractures to his pelvis, clavicle and nose.
The pain from the cracked vertebrae was pretty much constant and aggravated from jolts that kept him from the saddle, the seat of his tractor and the ability to straighten up when he stood. Most damaging of all though, was the flu-like virus that damaged the lining of his heart, leaving it weakened and his breath short.
His trips to the hospital grew increasingly frequent and disheartening as his condition forced him to live life with compromises he’d never imagined, no one could want, and loathed the time spent in the hospital. On one of his last stays, I arrived there shortly after he did, and he didn’t look good.
“I’m dying,” he told me, “and I don’t want to die in here, “you’ve gotta get me out.”
“I can’t get you released,” I said, “they’ll only release you to a family member and we don’t look much alike.”
“We’ll tell them you’re my brother,” he said, “my fat brother, and then you can get me out of here.”
Within a few days he was released to a care facility he found less tolerable than the hospital, and when I visited him there I figured the feeling was probably mutual. After a brief stay, he was allowed to go home under hospice care. His pulse grew weaker, his breath shorter, and he worried about his cows, their calves and the ranch as his mind drifted in and out of the reality we all share, or at least think is reality.
A few days ago, he was insistent that he needed to leave his bed and the house in order to get out on the ranch to check on his cows and their newly arrived calves. He was loaded into a car and rode the ranch roads to make sure everything was okay one more time. One last time. That was his job, always had been, and the cows and their calves were just fine.
In the early morning hours of the following day, and at home as he’d wished, he passed away. Mercifully, his pain, suffering and the anguish they brought were buried, buried in the dust on the long trail he left behind.