Unexpected Ending to Gathering Cows
- October 11, 2023
- Jan Swan Wood
Weeks of riding, combing brushy draws, timbered ridges, and gumbo breaks, had finally culminated in having the cows all, hopefully, gathered on the ranch where I was working. They were wild, snakey old rips who hadn’t seen a human since their calves were branded, if they’d gotten branded even, and they’d gathered hard. One at a time was common, with a big group being three or four pairs. They hid out in the oak thickets and pine trees, and knew every spot they could get away from a horse at. I’d used my string of horses hard gathering them.
Fall was winding down and the trucks were coming to haul the calves away, so the cows needed to be gathered into a set of pens to sort them off. That wasn’t going to be a simple thing, as they were just plain tricky to handle. We sure didn’t need any extra “help” that wouldn’t know when to shut up or not hurry, so the boss, who we will call Willis, concluded that fewer was better and I agreed. So, it was him and I horseback, plus a really good hand who also worked on the ranch, on his motorcycle. He was a stockman, and handled stock very well on that fat tired motorcycle, plus he always had a really well broke dog on board with him. The bike was surprisingly quiet, too.
So, bright and early on the day the trucks were coming, we rode out to gather. Willis and I went around one way to get to the backside of the pasture, the other guy, Jim, went the other. The cows threw up their heads and moved away from us, but we stayed back and just let them drift, providing they were going in the right direction. We’d let them settle down a bit every once in a while, and they cooperated pretty well, with none of them just leaving the country, which wouldn’t have been unexpected.
As they moved toward the corrals, we stayed very quiet, and finally we had them at the mouth of the lane that would narrow until it got to the corrals. We were sure ready in case they decided to turn back, but surprisingly, they eased into that funnel end of the lane. The dogs were even walking extra quiet, and we sure weren’t making any big noise either.
Slowly, the lead cows decided that they could “get away” if they went down that wide lane. With bated breath we eased forward, gently pushing the drag to keep them flowing behind the leaders. Those old cows were watching us like hawks, and we knew if a sparrow flew up at the wrong time, we’d spill the whole works.
Finally, all of the cows were in the long lane, which had a good fence on both sides. They worked their way down through the lane, into the next corral, out the gate on the other side of it, through the big round pen’s gates, and into the big corral where we would hold them and start sorting. We hadn’t let our full weight down or taken a deep breath for an hour by this time.
We rode through the last gate into the big pen and I swung it shut on my horse and chained it good. Willis and I were just sitting there admiring the bunch in the pen, quietly remarking on how well that had gone. He lit up a cigarette and took a puff while we waited for them to settle down. The cows were still milling, horrified that they were captured I’m sure, and were making laps in that big corral. Suddenly, as we watched in disbelief, the whole east side of that corral just fell over on the ground. The cows didn’t spook back or hesitate, but headed right over the top of it, calves at side, and disappeared into the oak thickets and pine trees to the east at a high lope.
I sat there on my horse, waiting for the explosion from Willis. I was ready to explode, myself! I grew up with a Dad who had a fuse like peach fuzz so my expectation of a verbal tirade was justified. Willis watched as the last cows and calves disappeared into the timber, no expression on his face. Then he reached up, took the cigarette out of his mouth and said “Well heck, I thought that fence was a lot sturdier than that.”
That was it. No raised voice. No swearing. Just that observation. Then he turned his head and spoke to Jim who was on the other side of the gate watching in stunned disbelief. “Jim, could you buzz up to the house and call and let them know we won’t need the trucks after all?”
About Jan Swan Wood
Jan was raised on a ranch in far western South Dakota. She grew up horseback working all descriptions of cattle, plus sheep and horses. After leaving home she pursued a post-graduate study of cowboying and dayworking in Nebraska, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota....