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Time to cowboy up, buckaroo

“Have you ever run a chainsaw?” boss man Sam asked me. “No,” I answered. “OK, take this chainsaw and…”

Or, “have you ever driven a tractor? No? OK, here are the keys…”

I’m exaggerating a little, but when I accidentally got a job as a full-time ranch hand by answering an ad for a temporary carpenter, I certainly got to do all sorts of things I had never done while growing up in an Eastern college town or attending the University of California at Santa Barbara. The only time I had been on a horse was a pony ride at the county fair, and my carpenter experience was also meager. I never did figure out why I was hired — perhaps for comic relief?

My wife and I and our 2-year-old son moved onto Sam’s ranch outside of Ashland, and I worked there full-time for two years and part-time for three years while also working in town. Our second son was born on the ranch. It was a great place to be a young family.

The first week on the job, I was given a horse to ride, an animal that was so old I worried it might have a heart attack. An animal probably as old in horse years as Dave and Bill, two real cowboys — real, old cowboys who volunteered on the ranch just for fun.

Bill’s father had been a stagecoach driver over the Siskiyou Mountains between Wolf Creek, Oregon, and Oroville, California. Dave had broken horses for the army in World War I.

I loved the work, which was divided between fence building, construction projects, farming and trying to be the best apprentice buckaroo ever. Those long aluminum irrigation pipes you seeing lying in hay fields? There is a knack to walking smoothly with one on each shoulder, otherwise they bounce you up and down and you look ridiculous.

When it comes to riding, it is true that you can find yourself upside down under a horse — a horse that will never respect you again — if, on a long ride, you forget to stop and retighten the horse’s cinch and then try to duck under a tree branch.

And if you are helping to brand rather large calves by throwing them down and sitting on their hip after one of the real cowboys has roped them, and Dave, when you are not paying attention, pokes your butt with the cold end of the branding iron and says, “Is that hot?” you will feel the heat and jump five feet into the air. And after that you will often be greeted by laughing ranch hands with the salutation, “Is that hot?”

About a month after I started at the ranch, I received one of the best compliments of my working life. I had spent an unseasonably warm spring day helping to move cattle from our winter feed lot to summer pasture; cattle that in the heat of the day showed their displeasure by constantly leaving the road for the shade of the trees.

My job was to haze them back to the road while Hugh and Bill rode peacefully along, one at the head of the herd, one at the back. When we got home after a 14-hour day and reported to Sam, Cowboy Bill spat out some tobacco juice and said, “Get this man a better horse.”

My manhood was soon tested. The next day, riding my “better horse,” Bill and I found a young, pregnant cow lying on her side, unable to get up. Bill got off his horse and leaned over the prostrate cow. He felt her stomach. “From the smell I’m guessing her calf has been dead for two or three days.”

“Inside her?” I said stupidly.

Bill gave me a challenging look. “Here,” he said, handing me a rope with a loop on one end. “Reach up inside and loop the rope around the front feet.”

I looked at Bill. He wasn’t joking. I looked at the cow. She was in obvious pain. I took off my long-sleeved shirt, thinking, “Did I really sign up for this?” Holding my breath, I pushed my hand inside her. I found the head but the legs were deeper inside.

“The legs seem to be folded back. Can I put the rope around the calf’s head?”

“Harder on the cow, I think. Give it another try.”

I pushed my hand farther in, my face pressed up the back end of the cow, found the legs and managed to pull them forward and loop the rope around them. Next, we put a rope around the mother’s head and tied the rope to a tree. Bill wrapped the rope connected to the dead calf around the saddle’s pommel and backed up his horse. The dead calf popped out onto the grass. The mother, despite our urging, did not get up. After setting out new salt blocks and checking the rest of the herd, we headed home. I felt proud that I had done my part.

My pride was premature. Back at headquarters, Sam gave me a pistol with instructions to ride back out to the herd in the morning, and if the mother cow wasn’t standing, I was to put her out of her misery. Whoa! Time to cowboy up! But what about my misery?

I had never owned a gun, and I had never killed anything unless you count accidental road kill. All the way there I prayed she would be up.

She was up! And grazing! I was relieved I didn’t have to pull the trigger, and I felt that if I could get through this, I must be a real buckaroo!

Warren Carlson lives in Medford.

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