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The Corral Branding

From: Arizona Nights

All that night we slept like sticks of wood. No dreams visited us, but
in accordance with the immemorial habit of those who live out--whether
in the woods, on the plains, among the mountains, or at sea--once
during the night each of us rose on his elbow, looked about him, and
dropped back to sleep. If there had been a fire to replenish, that
would have been the moment to do so; if the wind had been changing and
the seas rising, that would have been the time to cast an eye aloft for
indications, to feel whether the anchor cable was holding; if the
pack-horses had straggled from the alpine meadows under the snows, this
would have been the occasion for intent listening for the faintly
tinkling hell so that next day one would know in which direction to
look. But since there existed for us no responsibility, we each
reported dutifully at the roll-call of habit, and dropped back into our
blankets with a grateful sigh.

I remember the moon sailing a good gait among apparently stationary
cloudlets; I recall a deep, black shadow lying before distant silvery
mountains; I glanced over the stark, motionless canvases, each of which
concealed a man; the air trembled with the bellowing of cattle in the

Seemingly but a moment later the cook's howl brought me to
consciousness again. A clear, licking little fire danced in the
blackness. Before it moved silhouettes of men already eating.

I piled out and joined the group. Homer was busy distributing his men
for the day. Three were to care for the remuda; five were to move the
stray-herd from the corrals to good feed; three branding crews were
told to brand the calves we had collected in the cut of the afternoon
before. That took up about half the men. The rest were to make a
short drive in the salt grass. I joined the Cattleman, and together we
made our way afoot to the branding pen.

We were the only ones who did go afoot, however, although the corrals
were not more than two hundred yards' distant. When we arrived we
found the string of ponies standing around outside. Between the
upright bars of greasewood we could see the cattle, and near the
opposite side the men building a fire next the fence. We pushed open
the wide gate and entered. The three ropers sat their horses, idly
swinging the loops of their ropes back and forth. Three others brought
wood and arranged it craftily in such manner as to get best draught for
heatin,--a good branding fire is most decidedly a work of art. One
stood waiting for them to finish, a sheaf of long JH stamping irons in
his hand. All the rest squatted on their heels along the fence,
smoking cigarettes and chatting together. The first rays of the sun
slanted across in one great sweep from the remote mountains.

In ten minutes Charley pronounced the irons ready. Homer, Wooden, and
old California John rode in among the cattle. The rest of the men
arose and stretched their legs and advanced. The Cattleman and I
climbed to the top bar of the gate, where we roosted, he with his
tally-book on his knee.

Each rider swung his rope above his head with one hand, keeping the
broad loop open by a skilful turn of the wrist at the end of each
revolution. In a moment Homer leaned forward and threw. As the loop
settled, he jerked sharply upward, exactly as one would strike to hook
a big fish. This tightened the loop and prevented it from slipping
off. Immediately, and without waiting to ascertain the result of the
manoeuvre, the horse turned and began methodically, without undue
haste, to walk toward the branding fire. Homer wrapped the rope twice
or thrice about the horn, and sat over in one stirrup to avoid the
tightened line and to preserve the balance. Nobody paid any attention
to the calf. The critter had been caught by the two hind legs. As the
rope tightened, he was suddenly upset, and before he could realise that
something disagreeable was happening, he was sliding majestically along
on his belly. Behind him followed his anxious mother, her head
swinging from side to side.

Near the fire the horse stopped. The two "bull-doggers" immediately
pounced upon the victim. It was promptly flopped over on its right
side. One knelt on its head and twisted back its foreleg in a sort of
hammer-lock; the other seized one hind foot, pressed his boot heel
against the other hind leg close to the body, and sat down behind the
animal. Thus the calf was unable to struggle. When once you have had
the wind knocked out of you, or a rib or two broken, you cease to think
this unnecessarily rough. Then one or the other threw off the rope.
Homer rode away, coiling the rope as he went.

"Hot iron!" yelled one of the bull-doggers.

"Marker!" yelled the other.

Immediately two men ran forward. The brander pressed the iron smoothly
against the flank. A smoke and the smell of scorching hair arose.
Perhaps the calf blatted a little as the heat scorched. In a brief
moment it was over. The brand showed cherry, which is the proper
colour to indicate due peeling and a successful mark.

In the meantime the marker was engaged in his work. First, with a
sharp knife he cut off slanting the upper quarter of one ear. Then he
nicked out a swallow-tail in the other. The pieces he thrust into his
pocket in order that at the completion of the work he could thus check
the Cattleman's tally-board as to the number of calves branded.[3] The
bull-dogger let go. The calf sprang up, was appropriated and smelled
over by his worried mother, and the two departed into the herd to talk
it over.

It seems to me that a great deal of unnecessary twaddle is abroad as to
the extreme cruelty of branding. Undoubtedly it is to some extent
painful, and could some other method of ready identification be
devised, it might be as well to adopt it in preference. But in the
circumstance of a free range, thousands of cattle, and hundreds of
owners, any other method is out of the question. I remember a New
England movement looking toward small brass tags to be hung from the
ear. Inextinguishable laughter followed the spread of this doctrine
through Arizona. Imagine a puncher descending to examine politely the
ear-tags of wild cattle on the open range or in a round-up.

But, as I have intimated, even the inevitable branding and ear-marking
are not so painful as one might suppose. The scorching hardly
penetrates below the outer tough skin--only enough to kill the roots of
the hair--besides which it must be remembered that cattle are not so
sensitive as the higher nervous organisms. A calf usually bellows when
the iron bites, but as soon as released he almost invariably goes to
feeding or to looking idly about. Indeed, I have never seen one even
take the trouble to lick his wounds, which is certainly not true in the
case of the injuries they inflict on each other in fighting. Besides
which, it happens but once in a lifetime, and is over in ten seconds; a
comfort denied to those of us who have our teeth filled.

In the meantime two other calves had been roped by the two other men.
One of the little animals was but a few months old, so the rider did
not bother with its hind legs, but tossed his loop over its neck.
Naturally, when things tightened up, Mr. Calf entered his objections,
which took the form of most vigorous bawlings, and the most comical
bucking, pitching, cavorting, and bounding in the air. Mr. Frost's
bull-calf alone in pictorial history shows the attitudes. And then, of
course, there was the gorgeous contrast between all this frantic and
uncomprehending excitement and the absolute matter-of-fact
imperturbability of horse and rider. Once at the fire, one of the men
seized the tightened rope in one hand, reached well over the animal's
back to get a slack of the loose hide next the belly, lifted strongly,
and tripped. This is called "bull-dogging." As he knew his business,
and as the calf was a small one, the little beast went over promptly,
bit the ground with a whack, and was pounced upon and held.

Such good luck did not always follow, however. An occasional and
exceedingly husky bull yearling declined to be upset in any such
manner. He would catch himself on one foot, scramble vigorously, and
end by struggling back to the upright. Then ten to one he made a dash
to get away. In such case he was generally snubbed up short enough at
the end of the rope; but once or twice he succeeded in running around a
group absorbed in branding. You can imagine what happened next. The
rope, attached at one end to a conscientious and immovable horse and at
the other to a reckless and vigorous little bull, swept its taut and
destroying way about mid-knee high across that group. The brander and
marker, who were standing, promptly sat down hard; the bull-doggers,
who were sitting, immediately turned several most capable somersaults;
the other calf arose and inextricably entangled his rope with that of
his accomplice. Hot irons, hot language, and dust filled the air.

Another method, and one requiring slightly more knack, is to grasp the
animal's tail and throw it by a quick jerk across the pressure of the
rope. This is productive of some fun if it fails.

By now the branding was in full swing. The three horses came and went
phlegmatically. When the nooses fell, they turned and walked toward
the fire as a matter of course. Rarely did the cast fail. Men ran to
and fro busy and intent. Sometimes three or four calves were on the
ground at once. Cries arose in a confusion: "Marker" "Hot iron!"
"Tally one!" Dust eddied and dissipated. Behind all were clear
sunlight and the organ roll of the cattle bellowing.

Toward the middle of the morning the bull-doggers began to get a little

"No more necked calves," they announced. "Catch 'em by the hind legs,
or bull-dog 'em yourself."

And that went. Once in a while the rider, lazy, or careless, or
bothered by the press of numbers, dragged up a victim caught by the
neck. The bull-doggers flatly refused to have anything to do with it.
An obvious way out would have been to flip off the loop and try again;
but of course that would have amounted to a confession of wrong.

"You fellows drive me plumb weary," remarked the rider, slowly
dismounting. "A little bit of a calf like that! What you all need is
a nigger to cut up your food for you!"

Then he would spit on his hands and go at it alone. If luck attended
his first effort, his sarcasm was profound.

"There's yore little calf," said he. "Would you like to have me tote
it to you, or do you reckon you could toddle this far with yore little
old iron?"

But if the calf gave much trouble, then all work ceased while the
unfortunate puncher wrestled it down.

Toward noon the work slacked. Unbranded calves were scarce. Sometimes
the men rode here and there for a minute or so before their eyes fell
on a pair of uncropped ears. Finally Homer rode over to the Cattleman
and reported the branding finished. The latter counted the marks in
his tally-book.

"One hundred and seventy-six," he announced.

The markers, squatted on their heels, told over the bits of ears they
had saved. The total amounted to but an hundred and seventy-five.
Everybody went to searching for the missing bit. It was not
forth-coming. Finally Wooden discovered it in his hip pocket.

"Felt her thar all the time," said he, "but thought it must shorely be
a chaw of tobacco."

This matter satisfactorily adjusted, the men all ran for their ponies.
They had been doing a wrestler's heavy work all the morning, but did
not seem to be tired. I saw once in some crank physical culture
periodical that a cowboy's life was physically ill-balanced, like an
oarsman's, in that it exercised only certain muscles of the body. The
writer should be turned loose in a branding corral.

Through the wide gates the cattle were urged out to the open plain.
There they were held for over an hour while the cows wandered about
looking for their lost progeny. A cow knows her calf by scent and
sound, not by sight. Therefore the noise was deafening, and the motion

Finally the last and most foolish cow found the last and most foolish
calf. We turned the herd loose to hunt water and grass at its own
pleasure, and went slowly back to chuck.

[3] For the benefit of the squeamish it might be well to note that the
fragments of the ears were cartilaginous, and therefore not bloody.

Next: The Old Timer

Previous: A Corner In Horses

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