I want to try and explain what roundups were like on Date Creek Ranch. Everyone’s watched Westerns and so everyone has some idea of what roundups are like. Lots of cowboys dressed in proper cowboy hats and other cowboy-related attire. Chasing down cows and roping them, maybe dragging them back to the herd. And a chuck wagon. There has to be a chuck wagon, right?
View of Date Creek Mountains from near the creek
Ours were like that. Well, minus just about every one of those details. We hardly ever wore actual cowboy hats. I generally didn’t even own one. A cap was lots easier to keep on your head when chasing a cow. None of us could rope worth a damn and we basically never roped off horseback, especially since it’s a seriously risky, dangerous undertaking. (You want 800 pounds of angry cow on the other end of a rope trying to pull you and your horse down while you’re on the side of some steep, boulder-infested hillside? It’s a good way to break your neck.) Instead of a chuck wagon we carried sandwiches and apples in our saddle bags.
But other than that, ours were just like you see in the movies. The major roundups typically happened twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. They were planned to coincide with the calf crops. (You want to hold your roundup after most of the cows have had their calves. Too soon and you miss much of the crop. Too late and you have a bunch of calves running around loose out there with no brands. No brands make them easy to steal and yes, rustlers still exist, just now they have horse trailers to make off with their prey.)
So a great deal of the reason for holding a roundup is to get brands on the new calves. They’re also done to wean the calves from their mothers. You want to wean them when they’re about a half a year old. That way the cow can be bred again, hopefully yielding one calf per year.
Roundup is also a time to move cattle from a pasture that they’ve been in for a while to a pasture that has been sitting empty, where the grass—what there is of it—has had a chance to recover. It’s also an opportunity to give shots to the cows, treat any that are injured or sick, cull out the ones not producing calves, and just generally give the herd a once over.
Roundups typically lasted about four or five days on the ranch. We’d get all the horses into the corral the day before so we could get a good, early start. We’d get up about an hour and a half before sunrise—3:30 to 4:00 in the summer—grain the horses, eat breakfast, pack lunches and get out the door. The goal was to be in the saddle heading out before first light.
But wait, you’re thinking, what good is riding in the dark? How do you see the cows? Easy. We painted them all with a special glow-in-the-dark paint and…
Just kidding. No paint. We started early because whatever pasture we were riding that day we had to get clear into the back corners of it before we started gathering. There were some places on the ranch that we could haul the horses and get them within a couple miles of those back corners, but other places, like the creek pasture, it takes a good hour or hour and a half to get there on horseback. And that’s if you hustle, meaning keep your horse at a fast walk or a trot the whole time.
Ideally, we’d be at those back corners a little before the sun came up. Of course, Date Creek Ranch and ideally didn’t live on the same planet very often. Something was always going wrong. Vehicles wouldn’t start. Tack was broken. Something had gotten out during the night.
The creek pasture
I remember one morning in late fall. It was pretty chilly and we were all bundled up. (A body can get mighty cold sitting on a horse. Many times I got off and walked for a while to warm up.) It was predawn and we’d hauled the horses in the big truck down to Black Hill. Black Hill has this low hill made up of black, jumbled volcanic rocks beside it and it has a dirt tank. A dirt tank is just a place where the rancher builds an earthen dike across some small water course. Come the rains, the dike catches the run off. If it’s built in a spot with a high clay content in the soil not much of the water sinks into the ground and it will hold water year round, though the water can get pretty nasty after sitting there for six months, what with cows crapping in it while they drink and dead birds and such floating in the water.
Anyway, we’re on our horses, about ready to ride out but we want to water them first, so they can make it through the day. That means riding over to the dirt tank, letting your horse ride in a couple of feet and tank up. You don’t want your horse to go too far in, on account of the mud being generally super thick and quite deep and sticky.
So, for some reason, Dinah the Wonder Horse decides the shallow water’s not good enough for her that morning. She’s going for deeper water. While she’d doing this, Dad’s yelling and cussing and jerking at the reins and she just flat-out ignores him. She wades on out into that water almost to her shoulders and then she stops to drink.
A couple of minutes later she’s done and she comes splashing out of the tank. Dad’s legs are soaked and he’s so mad he can’t see straight. We’re all sitting around, pretending to look elsewhere and dying to laugh, but not daring to, knowing Dad will come unglued on whoever does.
Dad gets off Dinah without a word and ties her to the nearest mesquite tree. Then he stomps off to the truck and drives home to change his pants.
Once he’s gone, then we laugh. And laugh. We started about an hour late that day and no one mentioned the fact that if it had been any of us whose horse doused us, we’d have had to just suffer with wet pants until they dried. Dad brooked no delays. He’d have laughed, then we’d have gotten an earful about controlling our horse and that would have been that.
That it was Dinah—the Horse That Could Do No Wrong—that soaked him, just made it all that much funnier.
Once we reached the back corners of whatever pasture we were gathering, we’d spread out in a long line and begin sweeping all the cows back toward the corrals. The idea was to get as far apart as possible while still keeping within sight of each other so that no cows would slip through the net. Which some always did, but we’d get most of them.
As we drove them ahead of us, we also tried to stay more or less in a line. That part was always difficult for me when I was young, since I was always stuck on a crap horse like Lady that had no speed above a plod except for those rare occasions where I could coerce her into something resembling a trot for a short distance. Between that and the fact that I liked to daydream, I usually fell behind. Falling behind meant being yelled at. (Actually, just participating in roundup meant being yelled at. Things never went according to plan. Dad always planned more work than could actually be accomplished in a day. Which meant he had lots of things to yell about.)
The fact that cows are herd animals did make the job easier. Start driving cows in one direction and others will see them and figure, hey, I think I’ll head that way too. Unfortunately, this herd mentality didn’t apply to the bulls, big, thick lumps of testosterone-addled muscle that they were. If there were a few cows heading somewhere together, and the bull was feeling frisky, he was happy to tag along. But if he was feeling sullen and grumpy, or if you encountered him all by his lonesome in the wild, he was having none of it.
Let me pause to explain some fundamental differences between cows and bulls. Unless a cow has a calf to defend, she’s pretty much afraid of you and wants to move away from you. Which makes herding possible. But the bulls aren’t afraid of you. It doesn’t matter if you’re on horseback or on foot. You’re pretty much nothing more than a minor irritant to the bull. He’ll go when you try and push him if he feels like going. If he doesn’t, like as not he’ll just go stand in a patch of mesquite and ignore you until you go away.
(Part 2 to follow)