The city girl behind the counter called it a marking. She wore Doc Marten sandals and just last week mistook a bird’s call for approaching cattle. Drugstore cowgirl, with her chopped blonde hair tucked beneath a curled straw hat, more Junior Brown than Tom Mix. She wants a stampede string to keep it in place should she need to chase cattle at the “marking,” and I’m smiling at the thought of her sprinting in her sandals through knee-high grass behind some rangy Angus cow, her hat tied tight beneath her chin.
We rose to cinnamon rolls and coffee—six a.m., and Bob’s pulling his tall, red-topped boots over his jeans; a bright silk scarf about his neck; white shirtsleeves shining softly in the morning sunlight. Bob drinks tea, not coffee; sweeps the crumbs from his long moustache, takes from the wall a straw hat with the same crease, crown and brim as his felts, and heads out, spurs jingling, to catch his pony.
The hands arrive in twos and threes, and their rigs line both sides of the driveway—crew-cab pick-ups and long stock trailers with cow-horses saddled and tied short alongside. The men gather around the plank table in the kitchen, exchanging greetings and jabs, sipping coffee and complimenting Cindy on the rolls. All wear boots and hats; many have chinks, and most wear spurs. They range in age from 15 to about 60. Chance, Bob’s youngest, wears his boots outside his pants, same as his dad; a rosy plaid western shirt, battered chinks and a black felt hat set back on his head. He’s rough and ready, a chaw in his cheek and blue eyes sparking, happily cussing the dogs.
Chance has two friends with him today—John’s dark haired and dark skinned, with baggy carpenter’s jeans and Docs on his feet. He’s clearly not cowboy, and his T-shirt reads the same as yesterday: “I’m just one big f—ing ray of sunshine, aren’t I?” (Hyphens mine, not his.) His sister, Rachel, watches Chance with dark eyes and prepares to ride—purple chinks with heart-shaped conchos; a long denim shirt opening on a white tanktop.
Straws are the hats of choice in summer; still, a few felts make an appearance. “Real cowboy hats can be any color, so long as it’s black or silverbelly,” Bob says. Rick Smiley wears a dark gray hat, for what that’s worth, and sky-blue plaid. Frank Timmons wears battered silverbelly, with a sweaty ring at the base of the crown. It sits low on his brow, so that the curled ends of his moustache are often all that escapes its shadow.
Where I come from is not far from the girl at the drugstore. I shake hands with the men around me, conspicuous in a green Filson cap that suggests I’d rather be fishing. I remember selling western boots in that same drugstore, when my own boots and the pearl-white snaps of my uniform shirt branded me a cowboy in the eyes of little boys from New Jersey—this day even my father, in his broad black hat and leather vest with antler buttons, may have dressed too plainly to be called “cowboy.”
A couple days later we’re eating chili around that same plank table. Bob took a call a few moments earlier from a Manhattan-based research firm conducting a survey on environmental policy and public opinion. He spends a good ten minutes on the phone with the caller, and by the time he hangs up, he has identified himself as a heterosexual white male, a conservative, a Catholic, and a staunch Republican.
“You realize,” I tell him, “that you are the enemy.”
He’s cutting cheddar with the same pocket knife he cut calves with two days ago. He’s got a saddle shop in his kitchen. He doesn’t care.
The riders mount and spread across a broad expanse of grass to round up the cows and calves. We’re watching from a windy hilltop overlooking the pasture, the pond, an old windmill and a few crooked trees, with the house, pens and buildings beyond.
Bob’s oldest boy, Tyler, is leaning against Sorley, a stripped down Suzuki Samurai with a homemade plywood roof and four-wheel drive—the name comes from the little rig’s sorrel color. He’s only recently back from Winona, where he’s studying for the priesthood; he’s dressed in a plain t-shirt and sweats, untied duck boots and an old fedora. His little brother’s riding with the men below.
Tyler stands in front of the little 4×4, watching the cowboys work. He’s not like these others—he’s a big kid and prone to discussing philosophy, praying aloud in Latin or singing in Spanish—but he looks at home here and I snap a picture of him, God’s country in his eyes.
The cows are vaccinated, and the fire’s lit. Bob moves between groups of cowboys enjoying cookies and iced tea and assigns them to work as ropers, wrestlers, branders and cutters. Dad and John man the gate, shooing the bravest calves back into the pen. An odd pairing, to be sure—my father will lock up the brakes on the pickup at the sight of a middle finger, and this kid’s wearing as bad as that across his chest.
The ropers ride into a sea of bawling black and throw their loops. They drag the calves out by their hind feet, and the wrestlers topple them to their right sides and pounce on them, one on the head and topside foreleg, the other on the hind feet. The horses keep the rope tight, looking only slightly interested, and the riders watch. Two needles to the neck; blue smoke, the stink of burning hair and the sizzle of flesh. If it’s a bull calf, a few deft strokes with a pocket knife and a squirt of disinfectant. It’s brutal, quick and effective—strangely, the calves bawl loudest when first roped and dragged, and scarcely limp upon release.
Bob is cutting calves, and in just half an hour, his white sleeves are punctuated in red. He keeps his pocket knife in hand, wiping the blade occasionally on his chinks. It’s coarse surgery, without anesthesia or stitches, and I tell him so.
“You’re right,” he says, looking to the next calf. “It’s pretty rough, what we do to these critters.”
The smoke rolls.
The latest issue of The Atlantic ran an ad for the American Indian College Fund, with the tagline, “Have you ever seen a real Indian?” The picture is of a young woman of no obvious ethnicity, with long dark hair, standing near a wooden cabinet full of microscopes. “Carly Kipp, Blackfeet,” the ad reads. “Biology major, tutor, mom, pursuing a doctorate in veterinary medicine, specializing in large-animal surgery.”
The work’s nearly done, and Chance and Rachel are leaning against a gate, saying little. He dates her cousin, and he, Rachel and John spent last night beneath the stars on a hide-a-bed couch in the back of a pickup.
When the branding’s finished, it’s dinner—roast beef and beans; mashed potatoes and gravy; bread and salad and beer. Some of the men head home—the rest take up spots on the porch or the lawn. After a bit, two guitars come out, and Bob and Paul (a rancher out of Montana who owns the cattle we branded today) take turns picking—old country songs, rock older still—and discussing how music and cowboying has changed over the years.
“My wife tells me,” says Paul, “that if I want to get back to cowboying, the first thing I gotta do is get rid of about 1,500 head.”
I’m riding a sawhorse next to Chance. He takes his dad’s guitar and begins to play—bits and pieces of more recent rock songs. He finally settles into “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”—bending strings to coax all the heartbreak he can out of them, the lyrics audible only in fits and starts above his playing.
Three-year-old Brendan’s on the porch with Rachel—they’ve been splashing each other with water from a five-gallon pail, and Brendan is soaked. Rachel’s hair is dripping, and Brendan’s new “pet” clothespin is clipped to the back of his shirt—he’s been looking for it for the past twenty minutes. She’s swiped a beer from the ice-filled tub in the grass, and Brendan wants what she’s having. They play together for an hour or more, when nobody asked her to—she’ll make a mother someday. Or someone’s favorite aunt, at least.
Bob says her older sister’s a beautiful girl—could’ve been a model.
“She’s got just enough Indian—they’d take her to Elko, to the Artists’ Ride, and dress her in skins …”
Rachel’s a beauty in her own right—her mixed ancestry shows in her complexion, her dark curls and brown eyes. She’s been arguing with Bob about whether her Adidas visor qualifies as a hat.
It takes a special girl, I think, to make a visor and chinks look good.
I’m driving to work and NPR is talking to songwriter who’s latest recording is called Scar. The title cut, he said, is based loosely on his relationship with his wife—it’s about how our relationships and experiences, for better and worse, mark us for life.
Brutal, quick and effective.