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Irons in the fire: Second chances

Paul Marchant Published on 24 April 2013


Back in the early ’90s, I was running a ranch in the high desert and mountain country of central Utah. We ran a couple hundred pairs on a forest allotment on the Fishlake National Forest, east of Fillmore.

There was usually pretty good grass in the high country, but it was mean, steep, rough country. I did quite a bit of riding to keep the cattle distributed and from spending too much time in the creek bottoms.

If I needed to do a big gather and move cattle from one side of the allotment to the other, I could usually find some day help or a friend or two from town who wanted to keep his mounted sheriff’s posse horse legged up for the summer.

Sometimes the boss, who lived three hours to the north, would send his kids down to the ranch to help for a few days.

On one particular move, besides myself and a dog I couldn’t keep track of, my crew consisted of the boss’ 9-year-old son, Landon, and his friend Jonathan, who was visiting from Wyoming.

We had to gather and move a herd to the head of a canyon and up over the top and down into a canyon on the other side of the mountain.

The kids were both pretty fair hands and provided good company and good help. Although it was a tall order for such a short-handed crew, we managed to gather about 100 pairs and get them headed in the right direction.

It was an overcast day, so once we got the lead cows headed in the right direction, the herd moved surprisingly well.

Most of the cows knew the country, and once they got the idea where they were headed, they didn’t put up too much of a fight.

At the head of the canyon, the only way to get to the other side was to follow a trail that gradually side-hilled for about a half-mile up over the top.

This was the most treacherous part of the move. The country was so steep that a cow or horse could barely keep its footing if it stepped off the trail.

At that point of the drive, the cows were trail-savvy and tired enough that they would just follow each other single-file along the trail.

If you didn’t get in too much of a hurry, but kept the cows moving, things generally worked out OK. At least that’s the “perfect world” scenario.

We had a big-framed, red 2-year-old heifer that was worn out from the climb up the bottom of the canyon.

She was getting pretty woozy and was walking like Ken Stabler at a post-Super Bowl Bourbon Street party. I decided to leave her behind and let her find her way after she had a chance to rest.

My Marchant luck was in play that day, however, and after I got around her, she decided to step off the trail.

From where she was on the trail to the bottom of the hill was about 300 yards. She rolled, tail over teakettle, about 150 yards through the brush until she got wedged between a pair of stray quaking aspen trees.

We hobbled the horses on the trail and made our way to where she was stuck. She was a little roughed-up but still in one piece.

With the way she was wrapped around the tree, and in her worn-out state, the only chance we had to save her was to use the saw blade on Landon’s new Swiss army knife and cut through a 3-inch quaky branch to free her so she could stand up.

After 45 minutes of sawing, the branch finally snapped. I knew if she would just stay where she was for a few minutes to rest and regain some strength, she might be able to work her way to the bottom.

If she tried to move too soon, she didn’t have much of a chance. Of course, she couldn’t take my advice.

Thirty seconds after she got her footing, she turned her nose downhill and it was a longer version of her previous tumble.

She rolled and crashed and burned for what seemed like five minutes until she ended up in a lifeless heap in the bottom of the draw.

It makes for a good story, but it wasn’t fun to watch. It has always bothered me that she squandered her second chance.

With Easter just past, I was reminded of that heifer again. I’m a firm believer in second chances. I’ve been the beneficiary of more than my share of them.

Second chances are a unique and beautiful form of freedom. It takes grace and humility to grant them, just as it takes strength and resolve to use them when they’re given to us.

Here’s hoping we’re more willing to offer them and more able to grow from them.  end mark

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