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  • Writer's pictureTara Vaughan

Hello from the Wild West Part Two

Goodness I’m not sure where to even start; so much has happen since my last blog. I left it with heading to my second branding. I loved it even more than my first branding. A few more people turned up to this one. It was an early start as I was up prepping everything for a BBQ, being the woman on the ranch, this was really my department…

Amber and Destry were there and a few of their friends had travelled up from California over night, now that’s dedication to something you love. The corrals were much dustier due to being stirred up from the last branding the previous week but that only added to the dramatic-ness of horses looping in to rope a calf and a cloud of dust rising behind their hooves.

Jim let me help with mugging (mugging, depending on where you are in the States, is also known as wrestling and flanking). I really loved this. I am nowhere near as fast as the others but I wouldn’t expect myself to be as this is my second time and they’re been doing it since childhood. They are all patient and understanding and however much I feel as if I’m in the way and slowing them down not one of them would tell me to hurry up. The day ended as the rain came in, which we could have only been timed better if we had managed to BBQ before the heavens opened, as soon as we’d eaten we scuttled into a barn to take shelter. Amber made me S’mores, a traditional American campfire snack, consisting of a graham cracker, Hershey's chocolate and a marshmallow, slowly cooked over the branding fire. They are sickly and I think I’ll leave them in America.

Jim had a friend of his, Mike, staying for the last ten days of my time there. He use to own a cowboy shop as well as make and sell chaps and hats, which in itself is a dying art sadly. He did say that he’d make me a pair of chaps, he took my measurements and I think that’s as far as they’re going to get.

For my last week with Jim we really just moved cows and did other bits and bobs around the ranch. There was a day when we moved heifers, first time mamas, from one field to another, we went back and did another sweep through in case we missed any. I found a mama and two babies and started to move them along; this process of moving the three of them took just as long as moving the entire herd. These three had us practically running in circles.

After a quick trip across the pond for one of my best friends wedding, I now find myself in southeast Colorado. An hour north is the town La Junta and an hour southeast is another town, Kim. Kim has a school, two churches, a bar and a post office that is only open three days a week but it will serve you a burger – apparently, I haven’t had the pleasure yet.

I arrived at Denver airport and waited for a white pick-up, not being entirely sure who was going to be behind the wheel. Amber, very kindly, arranged this for me. Out stepped a man, scratch that, a cowboy, blue jeans (pants if you’re American), blue shirt and a white cowboy hat. Standing at about six foot tall and a nervous smile on his face. This is Chris. He runs the ranch that I’m working on, Smokey Rim Ranch. It’s 38,000 acres, and has around 500 head of cattle. It is 24 miles to the main road, to get here you have to drive through two other ranches – it’s fair to say, it’s pretty remote here. Chris has six horses and five dogs, one of which is called Puppy, she wouldn’t respond to her actual name so puppy stuck. The horses are all quarter horses and the dogs are all border collies. He has two colts that he’s starting. Colts being the general word for a young horse, they’re actually both mares. Delilah, the colt Chris has already started, is a beautiful chestnut mare and extremely friendly, all she wants to do is be with a human, coming in for some love whenever possible. His other colt, another chestnut with white socks hasn’t had any work done, she doesn’t even have a name. Chris has told me that I can start her, that she can be my project whilst I’m here and that I can name here. He suggested a Welsh name so I’ve gone with Myfanwy, after a dear friend of mine. Chris struggles with this, so I told him he could shorten it to Miffy.

Apart from the colts, there are two other horses currently in work, The Roan Mare and The Little Mare – the horses do have names but they’re rarely used. The Roan Mare is Chris’s old faithful that he will let almost anyone ride. Chris started The Little Mare, his best horse, and he hasn’t let anyone else ride her.

On my first full day we tacked up these two and went for a ride. The landscape here is so different to Oregon. Vast canyons surround us with jagged rock faces at the top and grass, cactus and juniper trees climbing the steep sides, running down to the flat earth that we ride along. The riverbeds are dry and Chris’s hopes are that one-day, in a few years, the water will return. Smokey Rim Ranch has not been looked after well in the past. The owners – Everett and Flo – have only been here four years, before them it was almost a barren land but with much potential, that’s why they bought it. Flo and Everett are in their late 70s and early 80s so Chris does most of the work. He doesn’t have many, but he’s shown me a few pictures of what it looked like when they first arrived here. Think of a dirt track road, that was the land more or less all over and covered with juniper trees and cacti, that was all the green there was here. Now there is grass – granted it’s not the heavenly grass that we have at home, the grass that Chris and every other cowboy I’ve met out here dreams of, but it’s grass and the animals can graze it.

I passed my 'riding test' and on day two Chris moved me on to The Little Mare and we went to move cows. The difference between these horses and the feral thoroughbreds up at Jims is unbelievable. A quarter horse, raised with cattle, knows its job. If a cow steps out of line, they know it’s their job to put in back in place. We sorted some pairs, Chris cut the mothers and babies one by one from the heard and pushed them my way, and I would drive them through the gate making sure nothing got out before Chris returned with another pair.

The next day, I got to do the cutting. There is nothing quite like it. Riding The Little Mare, we danced across the corral, cutting and sorting one mama and baby at a time, pushing them in Chris’s direction where together we’d guide them through the gate, that he’d then guard making sure that they didn’t come back out. He was impressed by my horsemanship with The Little Mare, surprised at how quickly I had learnt what to do.

That evening we packed our bags and drove three hours north to help Jesse, a friend of Chris’s, with a clean up branding of around 70 calves. We arrived at Jesse’s at one o’clock in the morning, having a slight delay as one of the Mexican’s who work here his truck broke down, a four hour round trip across the ranch to collect him and take him back to Everett and Flo’s house. We woke at 5.30am, tired from our long drive; we caught the horses from the corrals and saddled up. We waited for another friend, Dawson, put our horses in his trailer and drove the few miles to where Jesse's branding was tacking place. As this was a clean up day, of the few calves that were born late, it was all about the kids, which luckily meant that I could learn more at a slower pace, especially as they brand a little differently to Oregon, but Amber had informed me of that. Chris walked me through it and it was fascinating learning a new way. It was equally fascinating watching these little kids do it, the determination and the toughness of them was inspiring.

By the time that we arrived at the branding, Dawson, the joker of the group, had decided that I’m a mail order fiancé, here on a 90 day trail and that’s how he proceeds to introduce me to everyone, also telling everyone that he’s going to marry us (he’s been ordained over the internet). This was the running joke over the weekend. I had people coming up to me and congratulating me, asking when the big day was and how long we’d been together. Even when I told them that I’d only know Chris four days, their reactions weren’t “oh this is a joke”, it was more “when you know, you know”.

We were meant to drive home after the branding on Friday but Dawson persuaded Chris to stay and help at his clean up branding on Sunday, also for the kids. I took no persuading, as another chance to brand was another chance to learn.

Dawson and Chris have known each other for almost twenty years, they were at college together and are thick as thieves. Dawson has his own ranch, around 10,000 acres, is an excellent horseman, breeds and sells horses and runs cattle too. Jesse lives in one of his ranch houses, I’m not entirely sure how he knows Dawson and Chris but he’s pretty tight with them. Jesse, unlike most cowboys, is also a pro rodeo, riding broncs and team roping, as well as riding in ranch rodeos – his team is a two-time world champion ranch rodeo team. He’s one of the best and when I say one of the best I mean he’s won $150,000 from one event and numerous saddles and other prizes.

Dawson had been waiting for his sister to do his clean up branding so that her children could all be there to participate. He is all about the children and teaching them so that the next generation learn and understand the cowboy way of life. His daughter, Alice, is only four so a little too young to get involved but she’s there with Dawson’s mother Sue, watching from the front seat of a car – it’s freezing cold, for them, more like a British summer for me, it felt like a good 11ºC.

One of Dawson’s nephews was doing a lot of the castrating; he couldn’t have been older than 12 years old. It seemed a little strange because up in Oregon, Jim, being a vet, wouldn’t let anyone else castrate. But as Amber said to me, each State cowboy’s a little differently.

Dawson came up to me and asked if I’d like him to show me how to castrate, I jumped at the chance. We knelt down and he walked me through the steps, showing me where to cut and how to feel for the bullocks and to gently but firmly pull them out one at a time, then where to cut the cord. And that was it, surprising straight forward. I got to do another, Dawson standing next to me, watching closely. I’d love to say that I did another and another but it was a kids day not a Tara day so I moved back to wrestling.

After both brandings we had a big lunch. This is where I feel it’s a good idea to ask the cowboys their thoughts on Trump and guns. They all love Trump, they all hated Obama. And of course they all love guns and strongly believe that it’s their right to have them as it’s written in the constitution. Some of them feel that ‘the wall’ is a good idea that it’ll help keep the Texan ranchers safer. That it’ll stop Mexicans from bringing in drugs to the country. Many of them don’t like the fact that marijuana has been legalised in their State, they say that the crime rate has gone up. They feel that Trump is a breath of fresh air, they like how he’s not afraid to speak his mind, that he’s not a politician. They did not want Hillary in. They believe that Obama will go down as the worst president in US history.

When it comes to guns, I’ve been told that the police have called them up (them being the ranchers) and have asked them to be back up, especially if a cowboy is in closer proximity then the police happened to be but also if the police can get there in a timely manner, they want the cowboys there as back up. Dawson has been told that if he were to shoot somebody, to protect himself, he is better of to bury the body then to call it in. So they like guns and believe that they need a lot of them. They think I’m strange that I don’t want a gun to protect myself, that the UK as a whole doesn’t want guns to protect themselves. I tell them that we don’t feel a need for them. That we use them for shooting and hunting and that we have to have our license on us and that we have to be vetted by a policemen. Apparently, that’s not as good as the FBI vetting them online. They tell me that it’s not the gun that kills people, that the gun is only a tool and that it’s the person using it that is the danger; that a knife is more dangerous. I feel no reason to argue against them, but instead listen and try to challenge them a little but not too much and try to understand where they are coming from. I don’t understand and I’m not sure I ever will but I’m trying to be open.

It took a week to finally meet the owners of the ranch, Everett and Flo. They had Chris and I over for lunch. Towards the end they briefly talked about me coming on full time, talking about visas, that they would buy me a horse – I chipped in and told them a horse costs a similar amount as it would to fly one of my horses out here. They’re happy for Ziggy to be here too and they may also buy me a cattle dog. They said that instead of living in Chris’s tiny house (he is currently sleeping on the sofa and I am in his bed, I don’t know many people who’d give up their bed to a stranger!), we would move into one of the ranch houses and if I like I can do one of them up as a project. Everett said that he and Flo would discuss it in more depth and then they would talk to Chris about it and finally me. 

I had my first roping lesson. Chris thought that instead of going from A to B to get C, we’d go straight to C. A being learning how to ride – that I can tick off, Chris is telling everyone we meet that I’m a better rider then he is, now that’s a confidence boost. B being learning how to rope – I have thrown a rope once before but not here. C being bringing A and B together and trying to master how to ride and rope at the same time, something a lot of people struggle with, you either concentrate too much on riding and forget about what your ropes doing or you concentrate too much on the rope and end up riding in circles. I am, apparently, a natural; Chris was almost speechless and told me he has never seen someone pick up a rope for a first time and get on so well with it. He was so impressed that he filmed me and sent it to Amber and Dawson, who were equally as impressed. Dawson called me later that day to say just how impressed he was and that if I’m that good after one lesson with Chris, think how good I could be with Jesse teaching me. I think I’m right in saying that I have potential and that roping could be my thing – who knew!

I have spent some time lighting fires to burn juniper trees. Juniper trees, in this part of the State, are incredibly invasive. Fire is the most economic tool that they have to keep the trees from dominating the countryside. The juniper tree can take up to 40 gallons of ground water a day if they have access to it; they choke out the native grass and their root system encourages erosion. I have also spent time fighting a fire that came back to life four days later and it had had a good inch of rain on it.

We woke early one morning and rounded up some bulls and drove them up on top of a canyon. It’s time the bulls got to work! As we were riding back to gather six small bulls to take to a government allotment Chris received a phone call, informing us that there were two car loads of bandits heading in our direction. We were asked to go and check his house and barns, and the two empty ranch houses. I found this terribly exciting. Chris was a little more serious about the whole thing. He picked up a couple more guns and ammunition. I asked if I could have one, thinking back to old cowboy scenes and imagining a pistol stand off, he said absolutely not and that I was to stay in the truck at all times. Boring! I wanted to get involved; I couldn’t let him have all the fun. I asked if I could have a gun incase he gets shot, again came a no, saying if that were to happened I’m to drive away and hide out at the neighbours (who I’ve not yet met). As things started to become slightly more serious I thought it wise to shoot Jeremy a text to let him know what I was about to get into and that if he hasn’t heard from me in 24hrs then to maybe start worrying. He replied, as only a brother could, “Wicked, lock and load! Head down run fast!” Sorry, Mummy and Daddy that this is the first you’re hearing of this but I didn’t want to worry you and I believe Jeremy is the best person to inform that I’m off to find outlaws... It’s like I was stepping into a real life game of Cowboys and Indians – not many people can say they’ve played that game.

Surprise surprise, we didn’t find them. I’m not sure which feeling was greater, the disappointment or relief that they weren’t there.

A couple of days later we moved the six bulls to the government allotment, it’s a good hour away and a small 11,000 acres plot of land. To Chris’s dismay we found a rather handsome big white bull with long horns hanging out with Everett’s cows, he has definitely been impregnating them, they are going to have some interesting looking calves next year. On our way back I got the glorious tour of Kim. It truly is the tiniest, strangest little town around. 

Chris took me to my first rodeo; I dropped a lot of hints that I was keen to see one. We drove four hours north to a town called Evergreen. This was a small time rodeo, more of a family day out, like the equivalent of a small country show to us. But what fun it was. I got to watch team-roping, the bronc and bulls riders and best of all the mutton busters. Mutton busting is the last event of the day and is for the children. They put sheep in the bronc pens, place a child on top, open the gates and let the sheep run for the hills. It is so entertaining. I can just imagine the child’s parents saying whatever you do don’t let go. The sheep come tearing out of the pen and occasionally fall over; the child is still holding on while the sheep tries to stand up, I admire the child’s determination. Other children get put on backwards, they come soring out and reach the marker, still not wanting to let go.

Rodeos are cool and I definitely need to get myself to one of the big professional ones. Jim and his friend Mike invited me to a big one in Oregon called Pendleton Round Up and Dawson and Chris have told me that they’ll take me to Frontier Days, in Wyoming, they are both week long rodeos and have the best of the best competing at them.

I have moved cattle until dark; I have moved cattle trying to dodge lightning storms; and I have moved pairs to new pastures. One day Everett came to help. He likes to get involved but at 80 he’s not much help, he doesn’t ride anymore so he drives the feed pick up. He thinks this is effective but it’s really not. The cows come running, leaving their babies hidden in juniper tress, making Chris and I’s job a little more difficult, roaming through 900 acres looking for the little ones, they can be hard to spot. We drove the cattle down a steep signal file track; zig-zagging its way down the canyon, Everett leading the way. He stopped not far from the bottom to talk. With all the cows bunched up Chris took the opportunity to check one of the calves – only one nut had dropped at branding time and he wanted to see if the other was ready to be cut out, it wasn’t. Chris didn’t say that this is what he was going to do. Everett and I were chatting away when Chris bellowed for me to come over, quickly. He had roped the head of this calf, I thought he had done this for me to get a feel of having a calf at the end of my rope, I was wrong. Chris told me to untie my rope and throw it on the floor. He handed me his rope and told me to dally (dallying is wrapping the rope around the horn of the saddle). He told me to keep my horses head straight to the calf’s head at all times and to keep the rope tight no matter what. Chris jumped off and picked up my rope from the long grass, he jumped back on as quickly as he jumped off and swung his rope to heel the calf. I still didn’t have a clue what was going on, I thought he was just messing around. It wasn’t until he was off again and had the calf on the ground and was asking for my knife that I realised that this wasn’t so I could get a feel for having a calf at the end of my rope, something was actually going on. The calf’s nut hadn’t dropped and Chris told me to un-dally letting the calf get back up and slipping out of the rope. I handed him back his rope and he handed me back mine, I coiled it back up and attached it back to my saddle. Chris told me I did a good job and I told him to let me know what the hell was going on next time, so I wasn’t thrown into the deep end without warning – he likes doing that to me.

So much more has happened but this is long enough for now. I’ll try and get the next one written and sent out a little sooner.

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