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Irons in the fire: Ralph and Claude

Paul Marchant Published on 24 October 2014

In the arid, high-desert country of the Great Basin, folks have learned to get by on not much more than hope, faith and a few acres of alkali ground covered with greasewood, sage and four-winged saltbush.

The wonders of irrigation can transform the mean, unforgiving country into something that can sustain some nice alfalfa and an occasional pivot of corn. Around the creek bottoms, you can find some willows and cottonwood trees, surrounded by nice sub-irrigated meadows.

But make no mistake about it; the folks who settled such country, by necessity, were tough, resilient and adaptable. If they were anything less, chances are they didn’t stay.

There are some big cow outfits in this country, but there have always been those who eke out a living on 80 acres of farmground, a half section of spring rangeground, a BLM permit and a job in town with the county road crew.

Claude and Ralph were the standard-bearers for hard-luck little guys. When I knew them, they were on the place their grandparents had settled. Claude was the older of the two brothers.

In the five years I was his neighbor, he only ever wore one hat. It was worn out years before I ever met him. The brim was floppy and had come apart at the base of the crown.

Not to worry, though. Claude was nothing if not resourceful. He stitched the hat back together with baling twine. It made its own fashion statement. I’m not real sure what the statement was, but the hat kept the sun out of his eyes.

The miserly but affable brothers had a couple hundred acres along the main road that they’d seeded to rye. My experience with rye was that it makes pretty good feed early on in the spring, before it matures, when nothing else has come up.

It seems that cows will eat it for – oh, let me see – about two days. After that, it’s tough and rank and the old girls are off in search of anything else that might resemble plant life.

Claude and Ralph’s little herd of Herefords were like 10-year-old kids who aren’t too fond of broccoli, but they weren’t leaving until they’d eaten their rye. They were dang-sure survivors, those old cows.

I don’t know how the four-strand barbed wire fence, cobbled and spliced together with 50-year-old wire and rotten cedar posts, kept them in but for the most part, the scrappy bunch of scrawny, shelly cows stayed put in that field for most of every summer until they’d cleaned their plate, as it were.

Surprisingly, they didn’t really look much worse than any cow that has to make her living on the desert. They at least didn’t have to trail 3 miles to water. When the creek stopped running, Ralph dutifully hauled them water every day with a rusty old anhydrous tank strapped onto a flatbed trailer.

I don’t think every cow in the herd bred back every year. But then, the breeding season wasn’t really a season, per se. The bulls never left the cows.

They were the products of the brothers’ own line-breeding program. (Which is to say that the biggest bull calf that missed the knife at branding became the next herd sire.) The breeding season, which lasted all year, ran concurrent with the calving season.

One day, in the middle of June, I was sorting a group of cows to go to the mountain. It turned out that a yearling heifer belonging to Claude and Ralph was in with this particular bunch of cows.

I called her a yearling because she was about that size, just shy of 600 pounds, but with a switch that nearly dragged the ground. She may have actually been a 3-year-old – but at any rate, she was still a heifer. I called Ralph to tell him I’d haul the heifer to his place. He told me to not worry about it. He’d send Claude right down to pick her up.

Sure enough, about a half-hour later, Claude showed up. But he wasn’t driving the 1974 Ford pickup with the stock rack or the rusted-out 16-foot four-horse trailer.

He arrived on the fanciest piece of equipment they owned: the Yamaha four-wheeler they’d picked up at an estate sale a couple years prior. In his hand, he carried a homemade rope halter.

When I inquired as to his intentions, Claude backed up to the squeeze chute and asked me to run the heifer up the alley and into the chute. His plan was to lead the critter up the road four miles with the halter and the ATV.

“Is she halter-broke?” I asked.

“Nope,” was his reply, “but we used a rope when we branded her, so I’m sure she’ll figure it out by the time we get home.”

With Claude’s blessing, I put the halter on the heifer and opened the chute. The ensuing rodeo could have ended worse because it certainly had a rough start.

The would-be halter-broke little Herfy was a little slow in remembering her lesson from branding, which may have been a year earlier or may have been two years earlier; there was still some question as to the legitimacy of her birth certificate.

The halter was tied to the rack on the back of the four-wheeler. The heifer took a couple laps around the machine and had Claude wrapped up tighter than a mummy before she ended up in his lap.

I somehow got the cowboy and the critter untangled, and we got the reluctant couple headed up the road. They started out in low gear, and the heifer would plant her feet until she could no longer hold out, at which time she’d leap forward, smashing her nose into Claude.

Eventually, though, she figured out the routine, and by the time they reached their destination, she was trotting alongside Claude like she was his pet beagle out on a morning stroll.

I learned from Ralph and Claude that there are a lot of ways to get things done. Although their means and methods were different from what I might choose, it worked for them. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one way to bring your cows home.  end mark