"A Rained-Out Roundup" - An Essay by John R. Erickson

Wednesday, May 25, 2016 | By John R. Erickson

Hank and drover in the rain


I was in a nervous state all week. I had set May 24th and 25th as the dates for my spring branding. I had lined up a crew of 12 riders for each day, and had spent weeks repairing gates, fences, and wing fences.

    I had made long lists of things to do: buy groceries for the crew; buy horse feed, vaccine, and supplies; gather wood for the branding fire; turn on the windmill in the summer pasture; trim the feet of all the saddle horses; tie up the dogs so that they wouldn't cause a stampede when we brought the cattle into the pens.

    The day before the branding turned out to be unusually hot, 94 degrees. That gave me something else to stew about. You hate to drive cattle in that kind of heat. I hoped for a cooler day on Wednesday. I got my wish, sort of.

    On the evening of the 23rd, it appeared that I was ready, but still nervous. Spring branding is the biggest event of the year on any ranch, and no matter how many times a guy has gone over his lists, he is still nagged by the feeling that something might go wrong.

    Lance, Bobby, and Bill came the evening before and spent the night. We put their horses in the corral and fed them for the night. The rest of the crew would meet us at the headquarters pens at daylight the next morning.

    At three o'clock in the morning I woke up. The wind had shifted to the north and was blowing pretty hard. Rain was falling on the roof. I went out on the front porch and looked out. We were getting a nice rain—nice unless a guy wanted to work cattle and had a crew of cowboys trying to haul trailer-loads of horses down eleven miles of muddy road.

    I went back to bed. At 4:30 Johnny Scribner called from Perryton. It was still raining. "Are you going to brand today?" I told him to get a cup of coffee and call me back in an hour. I didn't know.

    At 4:45 Frankie called from Higgins. "I've got my horse ready to load. Clay and Russell should be here any time. Can we get down that road to your place?"

    I had checked the rain gauge by then. We'd gotten half an inch and it was still sizzling down. Our roads became greasy with half an inch of rain. You could negotiate them in a four-wheel drive pickup, but not with a stock trailer.

    I canceled Wednesday's branding. Bobby and Lance stayed around until noon, then they had to attend to other matters. They left their horses and trailers, promising to return on Thursday.

    Around noon the sun came out. The weather forecast for Thursday seemed promising: late afternoon and evening thundershowers, some possibly severe. With luck, we could get two pastures gathered, sorted, branded, and moved to summer pastures.

    We were up Thursday morning at 5:00, saddled our five horses, and were at the pens around daylight. The crew from the Lips ranch were already there. Bill brewed up a pot of coffee on a propane branding iron heater. We talked, joked, and studied the clouds. It was overcast but the clouds appeared to be thin. I felt sure they would burn away, leaving us with a cool day for our work.

    We hit the saddles and left the pens. We rode up a steep winding road out of Picket Canyon. On top, we split into three groups. Dave Nicholson took his group south to ride out Dykema Canyon. Billy DeArmond took his group north and east to gather Point Creek Canyon. They would bunch the herd at a windmill near the center of the pasture, then drive them west out of the canyons. I would be waiting up on the flats and would try to keep them from running south.

    Five minutes after we split up and rode our separate ways, it began to spit rain. Half an hour later, it had become more rain than spit. Forks of lightning slashed across the darkening sky, followed by claps of thunder. It wasn't looking good, but I thought it would quit.

    In this rough pasture, it took an hour and a half for the two prongs of the crew to meet at the windmill, and by then we were riding through a cold steady rain that showed no signs of letting up. Lightning slashed through the clouds and thunder boomed.

    We were rained out again. We rode two miles back to the pens, with water dripping off our hat brims and oozing down our backs.

    All those lists I had made for the past two weeks; all the worry, the phone calls, the sleepless nights didn't amount to much. Ma Nature has a way of putting all our plans into perspective.

    Her plan was better than mine anyway. We'll take the rain when we can get it, and brand in July, if we have to.


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