Belabored Day; Team Penning in the Walker Basin Wilds

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     Every Labor Day weekend, we, the young Brangus steers of Walker Basin get together to torment the local ranch hands. Our premise is simple: 

     1. Evade 

     2. Deceive

     3. Escape 

They call it “Team Penning.”

     The preparations, such as they are, are pretty much the same every year: The hoomin cowpersons and their kin are all driven to a big fenced arena in the center of town and placed in a holding area with shaded rest and feed stations to calm them. Then, starting early in the morning, they are fed copious amounts of alcohol and assorted “treat” foods like chips and hot dogs and sugary snacks to make them all excitable. 

     In mid-morning, after they’ve been sufficiently primed, the hoomins are separated into little groups of three and mounted up on our horse confederates, then they’re sent prancing and galloping into the ring. We cows have congregated ourselves at the far other end– daring them to come in and get us. 

     Theoretically, when the flag drops, three of us cows with the same number on our bibs are supposed to let the hoomins steer us (get it?) back to a holding pen at the opposite end of the arena, but here’s were the fun begins: 

     Any cow who manages to cross the line wearing the wrong number, or outlasts the cowboy’s 90-second time allotment, scores a point. Any cow who refuses to be sorted out of the herd and remains plastered against the far end of the fencing, scores a point. Any cow who sneaks out of the holding pen and saunters back across the invisible line in the dirt toward the herd scores a point.  And any cow who by device or circumstance unseats a cowboy and sends his horse running back to the starting line without him, wins the round. This is what we all live for, cause there ain’t nothin’ that’s puts a smile in our heart faster’n a fat, red-faced hoomin yellin’ and skiddin’ across the dirt on its belly eatin’ twenty feet of dust and manure until inertia bashes it into a fence. 

     Of course, bonus points are awarded to any cow what makes a cowboy lose its hat in the fracas. And any cow that jumps over the back fence and takes off into the north forty towards the high country gets enshrined as a local hero. Yeah, it’s infernally hot, dirty, dusty, stink-ridden work for the cowboys, but we cows like to call it fun.

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                                             *****

Now, for those of you with a hankering for a bit darker take on the whole proceedings, here’s a story a friend of mine told me about the hoomins.  It’s called: 

 

THE STEER’S STORY

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     You don’t know what it’s like to be truly pwned until some two-legged fuck outsmarts you, overpowers you, and slits into your nutsack with a penknife. That’s when all the poetry goes out of your world. So there I am, the summer after we were babies up at Robin Bird Springs. Mom’s brought us down from the mountain into the sand canyon and I spend my days exploring oak meadows and rock caves; running around with my young buds, hanging with Mom…always Mom there with the milk wagon.

     Every few days some old guy in this ratty pickup truck comes rumbling down the creek bed and throws out a half a dozen bales of hay for the mom-cows—I guess in case they get tired of all the new sweet grass and forage, right? Seriously, those old girls can eat.

     So one day, my buds and I find this secret hideout in an old wash beyond the springs. Not much, really, just a kind of trampled-down lay-about in the middle of a stand of ceanotis bushes, but from the looks of it, it’s been around for a long, long time. We’re for sure not the first group of weanlings to break away from the herd and make a little trouble—just cut loose from the mom cows, you know? 

     Whlle we’re exploring the wash, we come across this mummified bull carcass up there in the thorn trees–and it’s got these huge long horns. I mean they’re LONG, as long as me, and it’s like he got stuck there in the thicket, maybe caught up or something. 

     Anyway, the carcass is wrapped around the thorn trees. Sure scared the crap out of me when I first saw it. This big old empty head with patches of dried-out hair still on it—and these freakin’ horns sticking out the sides—just lying there staring up at the sky through these eaten out eye-holes. 

     You have to wonder why a bull with a set like that would be out in a stand of scrub and thorn bushes anyway. Maybe he was got by a big she-cat who dragged him in there or maybe he was trying to escape from something that was chasing him? Or maybe he just out moseying around and got caught up by his horns and got stuck and starved to death? Who knows? But damn, those were some big horns! 

     So anyway, I’m living the good life in the canyon, when one morning the cowboys all show up with their 4WD quads and their big-assed quarter horses, and sure enough, they’re looking for us! A whole pack a-them. They come up whistling and hollerin’ to each other that they found us and let’s move ‘em out and git up there, and all that. What a bunch of assclowns. They could have moved us all twice as far in half the time if they’d just shut up and walked us out, but when you’ve got an audience up from the city for a “round-up” I guess you gotta put on a show for the folks. 

     Well. You never seen such a scramble. The old cows are freaking and the calves are bawling and scattering, and the humans are yellin’ and whoopin. Okay, I get it. I GET it. You want us to move….“Run! Hide!” My mom is telling me. She’s serious. I’ve never seen her like this. “They’ll never miss you if you go RIGHT NOW! I love you darling baby, but you have to leave me now! It’s all over for us. GO! Get out of here! Hide!” 

     She’s like so urgent, I almost do it, but there’s no way I’m leaving my mom and my buds—no matter what. I like to stay with my herd. Besides, I’m not afraid of these dumb cowboys. 

     So I bunch up with my mom and everyone, and we all start moving south down the dry creek bed. We’re all excited, but pretty quick we settle down to business and kinda walk-trot down our old paths, past the water holes and washes, over the mountainside and down the dirt tracks, past all our haunts and hangouts. With all the horses, and quads, and dogs, and even the old ratty pick up truck up ahead, it’s kinda like a parade or somethin’. 

     And after a couple of hours of this we get to the roadway. That’s when I get the sense something is gonna go weird on us. I’m not a big fan of the roadway, although a lot of cows say it’s a great place to sleep because the blacktop’s all warm on winter afternoons. But I’ve seen the stock trucks go rumblin’ by on it, and they’re full of the two-year-olds–the guys about my age now—and well, they just don’t look all that happy, if you know what I mean. Given my choice, I would just as soon stay away from the roadway. Nothing good comes of the roadway. 

     Well, we’re all sort of milling around and they shoo us onto the pavement, get us moving towards town, and everyone’s hooves are clacking on the asphalt, and there’s great spreading puddles of plop everywhere, and the dogs are yapping and nipping, and there’s a fly swarm like you can’t believe. 

     The young cowboys are having themselves a grand old time thinking how cool they look riding down the road behind a herd of cattle, and the old cowboys are just putting up with all the dust and flies and stink again this year so they can get canned on beer at the BBQ after the roundup. 

     One old cow tries just sort of cas-u-al-ly sauntering off the roadway toward this little gully that leads back into the canyon, and a few of the young heifers join her, trying to make a run for it. Well, the dogs aren’t having any of that shit, and BAM! Just like that they’re all over those girls—biting them in the hocks, hanging onto their tails with their teeth while the heifers spin in circles snorting and stomping trying to shake them loose. You got cows bellowing, growling dogs flyin’ through the air…it’s just crazy. 

     The stringers on horseback go racing after them and get behind and push them right back into the herd like they never left. Everybody’s getting kind of tense at this point, and the old cow is throwin’ the stink-eye at everyone. She’s not keen on anybody, cowboys especially, telling her where to move her hairy old ass, but what’s she gonna do? They’re the ones with the dogs and the guns and the big-ass quarter horses. 

     I’m just watching this thinking about the thorn thicket and that longhorn bull. Maybe that’s what he was doing in there; hiding. Sure isn’t a horse or even a dog with any sense at all going to chase a cow into a thorn thicket…especially if they don’t see you sneakin’ into it. Now maybe I see why the old mom-cows kept after us to go play hide and seek in the wash all the time. Maybe it was training. Maybe they knew something we didn’t.

                                                         *****

     The cowboys hold us up at these big old wooden corrals that look like they been there a hundred years. They’re all battered and gouged and strung with rusty pieces of dented pipe corral and patched with boards and wire. Looks like they’ve seen some hard use in their time. 

     The old ones say there used to be big cattle operations down here in the high valley. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of us at one round-up. Went on for days and people would come in from Bakersfield and Onyx to trade and party and do whatever cowboys do when they get to drinking. Not so much anymore, though, I guess. Just a few die-hard ranchers left in and amongst all the land salesmen. 

     While we’re all milling around, one of the young cowboys slides down off his horse and unties a paddock gate and we all get herded into this big holding pen. After living all my life on the range it seems like there’s hardly even enough room in here for us to move, then suddenly these humans are in here too! They’re banging into us on their horses, and hanging over the fence rails grabbing at us and yelling and whistling, trying to get in between me and my mom, and before you know it, all my young buds and me are on the other side of a fence from the rest of the herd. And they’re closing the metal gate!

     We’re trapped in here! We bunch up fast and huddle together as close as we can. Nobody knows what’s going on, but we figure out pretty quick that this can’t be good. 

     The moms are all freaking out and calling to us but we can’t get to them, and if we try clambering over the fence or hurling ourselves against it—and we do—the cowboys just shove us back into the corners and hold us there with their horses. A few of us sneak off to the far side of the pen to see if there’s a way out the back to our moms. The horse guys are looking the other way. 

     Then I notice the fire they’ve got going over here…and it’s not a cookfire neither. They got these metal rods sticking into it. And a group of the cowboys are gathered around wearing leather aprons and these thick leather gloves. I look back into the pen.

     The cowboys on the horses are twirling ropes in the air, then throwing them at us. We’re trying to dodge them, but they just keep throwing, then pulling the ropes back and throwing them at us again. There’s not much room to run, but I do—back to the far corner closest to my mom. 

     As I watch there horrified, my best bud’s head gets caught in a rope. The guy on the horse pulls on it and it tightens around his neck so he can’t even breathe, let alone run anywhere. My guy is jerking and bucking around in circles trying to shake it. Big mistake. While he’s worrying about his head, another guy on a horse with another rope snags one of his hind feet with the thing and yanks up. Hard. 

     He’s stuck. 

     The horses start backing up, which strings my poor bud up like laundry on a line. While he’s standing there going wtf?, this huge beefy dude comes running up to him and just kind of twists my friend over onto his side and plops him down onto the ground. Then all hell breaks loose. 

     My friend is bellowing and screaming, his mom is bellowing and screaming, and her friends are all bellowing and screaming and the humans are all bellowing and screaming. I’m just standing there in the corner petrified. I’m hoping no one will notice me. 

     This all happens in a flash, but it seems like forever to me. Some woman comes at him, and she’s got this shiny needle gun thing and she sticks him full of “noculation.” Then one of the leather guys has a branding iron in his hand, and all of a sudden my friend is screaming even louder than I ever thought it possible for any living thing to scream, and there is this terrible, terrible smell of burning hair and flesh that makes even the cowboy curl up his nose and back away quiet for a moment. 

     HOLY FUCKING SHIT! 

     Then, when it can’t get any worse, this old cowboy comes over and kneels down beside my friend and pulls out this pocket knife while the burly dude hoists up my bud’s hind legs and the girl cowboy stomps her boot on his tail. The poor little guy’s eyes are rolled back so far they’re almost completely white and he’s so beyond freaked now that all he can do is foam at the mouth and scream and scream and scream. MOAAAAMMMM! MAAAAAAAAMMMMMM! 

     It only takes a minute to cut him, reach into his sack and pull out his little nuts. Then, swipe. The old cowboy holds my friend’s parts up for the other cowboys to see, then drops them into a metal bucket while the girl cowboy swabs some gooey black tar into the hole that’s left there on him. We’re all just stunned. Even my friend has shut up—he’s so in shock. I mean, what can you say at something like that?

     Then, before they untie his legs and let him up, before he can run back through the open chute to his mom and just try frantically to nurse her for what little comfort is left in his world, this old woman cowboy staples a plastic tag to his ear to identify him as Hers.

     You Been Pwned little dude. Thoroughly and completely.

     He gets up all shaky and stumbles around crazy, trying to find a friendly face somewhere. A cowboy opens a chute to the holding pen, and my bud takes off running, running back to the black safety of the herd. Lose me in here! MmmmAAAAA MMMMMMAAAAAA! 

     My mind is gone. All I’m thinking is stampede. Moving against them as one is our only chance, but how can I tell the rest—and where could we go? Everything I am is telling me to mass and run, but all I can do is stand here. I am without hope and without help and I’ve never been so alone in my life. And now? Those cowboys on the horses? They’re all looking at…ME!!!

                                       *****

     There is no sound in my world. There is no color or sensation. No time, no fear. I can see the cowboys on their horses, singling me out from the herd with their eyes. I see their women along the fence rails waving their arms and moving their mouths—yet I hear nothing. I am aware of a breeze rustling the cottonwoods behind the arena, but I neither see nor feel it. I know this is happening, but somehow it is happening to someone else and I am only watching it unfold. I am rooted, unmoving as I watch the cowboy ride toward me swinging his lariat, half expecting myself to break for the fence.

     When the rope hits me, it’s hard, like a slap—mean and unexpected. I feel the noose as it slips over my head and settles on my shoulders, tightening. Then another trips me and coils around my feet. There is a thud as my body hits the sand arena, and I feel the choke of dust in my mouth. I bury my face as best I can. I don’t want to watch this. 

     I smell the brand before I feel its heat above me, like the radiant hot of an abandoned car rusting in a dry creek on an August afternoon. The cowboy is saying something…it’s the wrong iron? It’s not hot enough? He walks off and leaves me there consumed with dread and wonder. Am I to be spared? I hear boots crunching the gravel and now the girl is bending over me. Her hand on my neck is steady, gentle even, and I barely feel the stick of the needle. The ache of the serum entering my veins is a comfort.

     When the iron touches my flesh, my body reacts before I do. The burn of it has not even registered before my muscles contract with such a violence that my body jumps from the ground where I am tied. When it comes, I am consumed. I am nothing. Each cell of me is an explosion of anguish. No breath survives my being. I smell my own flesh become smoke, sense the disgust of the cowboy. He stands, stretches, spits his chew. He walks back to tend his fire. I am His. 

     There is something almost reverent about the old cowboy with the knife. He’s done this a thousand times, I know he’ll be quick. I give silent thanks that he’s not some young dude and I’m not his first practice cut. I smell the wood smoke, and tobacco juice, the rust and blood on his hands. His shirt is old but freshly laundered and still clean from the wash. His jeans are not. His leather boot rests against my cheek…the hide of my fathers. My fathers who burned and burst, and bled to shoe this cowboy’s feet—protecting him from their own gore, even as they gave it forth. 

     My heart breaks in this moment. 

     A crushing weight lies atop me as the burly cowboy shoves my legs up over my chest –exposing me. I am beyond shame. I am beyond being. He smells sour and musky, and full of hate. It’s still morning, and he’s already half-past drunk—rough and resentful. Through every other insult assaulting me, I sense my ropey little tail trying to curl onto me, yet even that scant cover is denied by the girl with the needle’s heavy foot. I cease to struggle. All I can do now is let it happen, let it be over. 

     I wait for the cut—tense my belly, my legs, my neck, my back—and the moment of the awful stick does not disappoint. The pain is precise, elegant, not at all the ripping of tender skin by jagged branch or the sharp, cruel puncture of a cactus spine. It burns like the sting of wasps, clear and high over the thrum of the brand still burning itself into my flank. It is awful and terrible, and it is there –even as I tell you this today—there, in the very core of me. It is me. I am pain. 

     It is nearly over now. 

     A child approaches wielding the ear punch that will mark me as his property. He looks stricken. Suddenly, I want to cry for him.“DO ‘im!” yells his mother from her perch on the railing. The boy, hesitant, looks at her for reassurance. I am his first. By the end of the day, he will be an old hand at this, but for now he is scared, tiny. “It’s okay,” I want to tell him. “There is nothing left of me that you can hurt.” 

     “G’wan, ya pussy!” yells the burly guy. His father? 

     The boy has no choice. We both wince as the blade cuts its hole through my flesh. There is a wet little glinch of resistance. Fumbling, he attaches the tag. And we are bonded.

 

 

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 Nothin’ left but the dust….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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