Chilled calves were warmed beneath infrared lights, and those in a weakened condition were injected with caffeine as a stimulant and camphorated oil to head off pneumonia. While I was at the calving shed, a number of the young cows seemed hesitant about nursing their first offspring.
“Two-year-old heifers are not always instinctively good mothers,” said the Padlock’s cow boss, Charlie Dunning. “That’s why we calve them in these sheds. Some have their calves in the pasture and just walk away from them. If the weather’s bad, the calves can quickly catch pneumonia and die. And every calf counts. At the end of a year these calves will represent a large part of our cash crop.
“That’s why right now is the roughest time for my cow crews. They put in fourteen hours a day for six weeks without a day off.”But cowboys seem blessed with an extra measure of good humor to get them through the rough spots. One evening, after riding all day in a cold, wet snow squall, the men sat drinking coffee beneath the yellow glare of a bare bulb in the calving shed, waiting for the night crew to arrive. Soggy gloves had been hung to dry over a coal-burning stove, and the smell of wet wool lingered in the air.
“You know,” said Claude Fahlgren, “it’s sure a lot different calvin’ them older cows up at the north end of this outfit. With them a man can just sit in the sun and have a smoke. They’ll take care of themselves. But these dummies—why, hell—you gotta be right there to take it out for ‘em, and show ‘em what to do with it. There ain’t nothin’ dumber than a two-year-old heifer—except two of ‘em.”
That day reminded me of words spoken years ago by the father of a friend of mine. “Son,” he said, “if you’re going to be a cowboy, let me give you two pieces of advice: Stick to herding steers—never work for a cowand-calf outfit. And never work for a man who has electricity in his barn. You’ll be up all night.”
When I left the shed, the nighthawks were getting into their long yellow slickers and checking the flashlights they would use to cut the darkness as they rode the pastures, midwifing the young heifers. Outside the door two saddle horses with white-frosted rumps stood droop-headed, reins tied to the top rail of the corral. Bathed in light that fell from a yard lamp, melting snow ran down from their saddles in glistening rivulets along the stirrup leathers. It was not a good night to be a cowboy for a cow-and-calf outfit.
Before the spring roundup was over, my sons, David, 8, and Scott, 12, came out from our home in Virginia to be with me on the wagon. I wanted them to experience a way of life that might be gone forever before they were men.
For a week they rode with us. Each evening they sat by the wagon listening to the inevitable debates over who makes the best boots and saddles, and they heard much about how it was in the old days.
“Forty, fifty years ago,” Vern Torrance reminisced, “you could take a string of horses and ride a couple of hundred miles and never worry about havin’ a place to eat and sleep. When you felt like stoppin’ for a while, you could always count on turning your horses out on somebody’s grass for the night. Now you can’t hardly ride beyond your own outfit, because nobody’s gonna offer to put you up. You’ll be lucky if they let you water your horse. That’s just the way people are today.”
Sky-high Price for a Pair of Woollies
My sons heard about ranches wiped out by too many years of not enough rain, too much snow, plagues of grasshoppers, and bad prices; of good outfits and the men who rode for them; of good horses and some that might have been the best if lightning hadn’t killed them. They heard true stories that were stranger than fiction, told by men who could weave them out into the stillness of evening as smoothly as they rolled the “makin’s” of a cigarette to savor them by.
“Man I worked with on one outfit had a pair of bright-orange wool chaps,” recalled Harold “Smitty” Smith. “Orange woollies, they were. Another fella on the outfit took a real likin’ to those chaps. Decided he had to have ‘em. Finally traded the man. Gave him his wife and twenty-five dollars. He sure liked them orange chaps.”
My oldest son laughed at that story and probably thought Smitty had made it up. Of course, my son has never seen a pair of orange woollies. I saw a pair of green ones once. They were beautiful. While we were at the branding camp, range detective George Cunningham often stopped by during his rounds. A retired lawman from Billings, Montana, Cunningham was hired by the Padlock several years ago to cut down cattle theft.
With 450 miles of fences to keep up and hundreds of gates to be closed, the Padlock finds it difficult to maintain an accurate count of all cattle all the time. “We make partial counts now and then,” said Cunningham, “but our only complete inventory is in December. So if cattle are stolen in February, the thieves might have ten months to hide or sell them.
“Poachers and hunters can also be a problem. Many are careless and leave gates open. Some of these pastures contain 30,000 acres. If just one or two gates are left open, it can mix up the cattle. And every year a few of our animals are shot. Some are killed by accident and some by hunters who don’t get a deer and decide to butcher a beef. Unless you’re right on the scene when they shoot, it’s hard to stop that kind of loss.
“We’re more concerned about rustlers who make it a big business. Their method is to get a bunch of cattle in a semitruck and to head east into areas where there’s no brand inspection. Possession becomes the law.
“But the large-scale rustler usually depends on an inside man, someone who knows the ranch’s operation and where the cattle will be at certain times. One of my jobs is to check out the backgrounds of new men hired. We’ve had a few that were let go because of a suspicious past. This approach seems to be working. Our losses are way down.”
According to Dan Scott, hiring a range detective has been a successful investment. “We’ve had years when we’ve been short 300 cows. But now our unexplained losses are down to maybe 40 animals a year—some, we know, through natural causes, such as creek drownings. Our detective is primarily a deterrent. Professional rustlers respect the fact that we’ve got a professional detective out there looking for them. The word gets around.”
Making Hay —10,000 Tons of It
With branding coming to a close, the farming operation was in full swing. The Padlock cultivates 5,000 acres of hay and grain to fatten the young animals on its feedlot and to supplement the winter-range diet. With a 40-man crew, 16 tractors, and motor-driven sprinklers, the highly efficient feed factory gets as many as three cuttings a year off the same field. Since the disastrous blizzards of 1886-87, which killed up to 90 percent of some herds in Wyoming and Montana, ranchers have relied on hay to carry their cattle through winter. Last year the Padlock raised 10,000 tons of it.
The feedlot is where the yearling heifers are artificially inseminated with frozen bull semen. “We can improve the quality of our herd faster and cheaper with artificial insemination,” feedlot manager Jerry Rankin told me. “Some of the bulls that produced the semen we’re using are worth $100,000. We buy the best semen for about five dollars an ampule, but we don’t have to buy the bull.”
Two-thirds of the Padlock’s basic herd are now white-face Herefords. The remainder consist of a Hereford-Angus cross, known as “black baldies,” and two- and three-way crosses of Hereford, Shorthorn, and Angus. Sometimes these are also crossed with one of the larger European breeds—Charolais or Sim mental.