How to handle a heifer

Books | A cowboy’s job is to ‘move ’em on, head ’em up’
by John R. Erickson
Posted 5/18/19, 08:54 am

John R. Erickson, well known as the author of the great Hank the Cowdog series of children’s books, knows cowdogs because he was first a cowboy. He worked on ranches in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles for eight years, and in 1986 wrote a book titled Cowboy Country based on his experiences along the Beaver River in 1978 and 1979. I’ve put excerpts from that book into four baskets labeled spring, summer, fall, and winter. We have published in our Saturday Series one “season” each month since February. In last month’s episode, Erickson told how important it was for ranch hands to heed the weather report. Hope you enjoy the fourth and final episode. —Marvin Olasky


Around the middle of March, Leland called me and asked if I could help him gather some heifers off of wheat pasture and move them to another place. I told him I could, after I fed and did my chores.

He told me to meet the crew in a wheat field about two miles south of Beaver.

I fed all my pastures, put out hay for the horses and heifers, saddled old Star, hitched up the stock trailer, ate a quick lunch, and headed up the river toward Beaver.

By the time I got to the field, Leland, Jake, and Leland’s cousin Ralph Hughes were already bringing one bunch of heifers up the road, and I unloaded my horse and helped them pen them in an old wooden corral.

When we had this bunch corralled, we rode west into another wheat field and started gathering. These were heifers that Leland and Jake had weaned in the fall, and they were wild and silly, as only yearling heifers can be. We spilled them several times before they finally found the gate into the corrals.

Our horses had gotten soft and out of shape during the winter, and we put a lather on all of them before we finished the job.

We had a hundred heifers in the pens and Leland wanted to load them into trailers and haul them fifteen miles east to a patch of wheat he was going to graze out. We had four stock trailers and we calculated that we could haul the heifers in two trips.

We loaded up and started out. I brought up the rear. We went two miles north, then turned east on a paved farm-to-market road. I was driving along at about 45 miles an hour when a red pickup passed me. The driver had his warning lights blinking and he motioned for me to pull off the road.

I pulled over and he came up to my window. “Say, you lost one back there.”

“One what?”

“One of whatever it is you’re hauling in that trailer.”

A heifer?

Yep, that’s what he meant. One of those crazy heifers had jumped out of my trailer. He had seen her hit the pavement at 45 miles an hour. She had gotten up and staggered into the ditch.

I thanked him and went on.

If someone had asked me what would happen to an animal that jumped out of trailer and hit the pavement at 45 miles an hour, I would have bet money that it would have killed her.

At the east place, we unloaded our stock and I told Jake and Leland the news. They decided that if the heifer was able to move, we should try to drive her into a field on our way back to get the second load. That would get her off the highway until we could come back later with horses.

We headed back toward Beaver and found the heifer standing in the ditch. She had lost some hair and seemed a little shaky on her feet, but otherwise she appeared to be sound and unbroken.

I was surprised. If someone had asked me what would happen to an animal that jumped out of trailer and hit the pavement at 45 miles an hour, I would have bet money that it would have killed her.

The heifer wasn’t dead, but she was certainly in a bad humor. When we parked our rigs and got out, she threw her head up and started pawing the ground.

We worked out a plan. Jake and Ralph got behind her and started her east down the fence. I went down the road a piece and opened a gate into a wheat field. When she came down the highway, I would stand in front of her and haze her through the gate.

Well, here she came, trotting down the fenceline toward me, and I yelled to let her know I was there. When she saw me, she shook her head, snorted, threw up her tail, and came straight after me.

I was standing in the middle of the highway, with no protection, nothing to hide behind. I jerked off my leather vest and prepared to use it in self-defense. But it fell from my fingers. I made a quick calculation and decided that if I stopped to pick it up, the heifer would get me.

There was nothing left for me to do but run.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a highway sign on the side of the road. To reach it, I would have to run toward the heifer, but I thought I could make it.

I made a dash for the sign, yelling and waving my arms.

If I had run away from her, I bet she would have chased me down, but when I ran toward her, she lost her nerve. All at once she turned south and jumped the fence into the field.

She never did see the gate I had opened for her, but that was all right. At least we had her off the highway.

We hauled the rest of the heifers to the east place, then went back for our horses. Leland had to go to some meeting that night, so he went on. Jake, Ralph, and I loaded our horses and drove our rigs back to the field where we had left the heifer.

The sun was setting by the time we got ahorseback, and we set out to find her. We would have to work fast.

We found her with a small bunch of cows. We eased her out and started her east toward the trailers. We all had our ropes down and Jake said that I could take the first shot. That was a kind gesture on his part, since we all knew that he was the best roper.

I spurred old Star into a run and off we went.

You’d think that after a heifer had fallen out of a moving trailer, she might have lost a little speed. But this old gal was a running Jesse, and Star, who had gotten fat over the winter, just couldn’t catch her.

Jake and Ralph were right behind me, and I told Jake to take the shot, but by that time we had run out of field. The heifer went straight to the south fence, plowed through it, and kept on running.

We paused to make medicine. Jake and Ralph would go through the gate and follow the heifer and try to get a rope on her, and I would go back for a trailer and meet them somewhere in the next pasture.

By this time the sun had set and it was getting dark. I felt bad about the way things had turned out. Jake had given me first shot and I hadn’t done my job. He said not to worry about it. All I needed was a faster horse or a longer rope.

Jake had given me first shot and I hadn’t done my job. He said not to worry about it. All I needed was a faster horse or a longer rope.

I went back for the trailer and drove south into the pasture where the heifer had gone. I could see Jake and Ralph on the other side of a big draw. Jake was moving in for a shot. He kicked Buck into a run, stood up in the stirrups, and started swinging his twine.

Just as he was ready to throw, Buck stepped into a hole and lost his front legs. Jake rode him all the way to the ground, then at the last second, kicked out of the stirrups and hit the ground rolling.

Ralph was right behind him when the wreck occurred and came very close to running over the top of him. Buck did a flip and landed on his back. If Jake hadn’t had good reflexes and known when to quit his horse, he might have been crushed under twelve hundred pounds.

As Ralph flew past Jake, he yelled, “You all right?” When Jake said yes, Ralph went on and roped the heifer before she could jump another fence. He was riding a young horse that he had never roped on before, and he wasn’t too anxious to do this: But it had to be done, and he did it.

By the time we got the heifer loaded in the trailer, the moon was up and the stars were sparkling overhead.

At nine o’clock that night, I dumped the heifer out at the east place, forded the Beaver River south of Three Cross headquarters, and went home to a cold supper.

A COUPLE OF WEEKS LATER, I went over to Knowles to help the Open A gather cattle in several wheat fields. We sorted off 125 cow-calf pairs that Darrell Cox wanted to take north to the Cimarron country.

To do that, we had to drive the herd across Highway 64, just west of Knowles. We had done this several times before, and it had never been easy. It was a terrible place to cross cattle.

The old roadbed of the Katy Railroad ran right beside the highway. The Katy line had been abandoned several years before and the right-of-way had grown up in weeds. You never knew what you might find in there : rocks, wire, beer bottles, and half-buried railroad ties. Any time you rode into those weeds, you were taking a chance.

And of course there was the highway itself. Cattle don’t like to cross a paved road. It’s something they’re not familiar with. When they come to the edge of a highway, they don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s water, maybe it’s quicksand, maybe there’s a booger out there just waiting to jump out and grab them. The surface is hard and slick and they have a hard time moving across it without slipping down.

Cattle don’t like to cross a paved road. It’s something they’re not familiar with.

Once we got them out on the highway, then we had traffic to worry about. Highway 64 was one of only two east-west highways that went through the Oklahoma Panhandle. It carried a lot of truck traffic, and when truckers went through that isolated stretch of country, they had the gas pedal to the floor and weren’t looking for cattle or cowboys on the road.

If we’d ever lost a herd there, and if they’d run east, they would have gone right into Knowles, and we would have had to chase them through a little town that had barking dogs, lawnmowers, clotheslines, overgrown vacant lots, and other elements that can make cow work pretty difficult.

It was a lousy place to work, but the cattle had to go north. We had seven men on the crew that day—enough if everything worked right, but not nearly enough if we got into a storm.

We pushed the herd onto the apron of pavement in front of the highway. When they stepped on the black top, they began slipping around and getting nervous. Several calves ran through our line at the rear because our horses couldn’t move fast enough on the pavement to head them.

Hobart Hall, Gene Hester, and I worked the drag and tried to ease the calves back into the bunch, while Pat Mason, Kary Cox, Randy Mason, and Rodney Barby held them on the east side and kept them from making a run through downtown Knowles.

Traffic from the east had come to a stop. A man in a cattle truck had seen what we were doing and had enough sense to stop and wait. Several cars were lined up behind him.

The road was clear to the west. This was our chance to make a safe crossing, but we couldn’t get the lead cows to step out. Weheld them there for several minutes, cutting them off when they tried to run down the ditches and holding the calves at the rear.

Finally, the truck driver got impatient and drove past. The cars that had been stopped behind him went on too.

At last two or three cows crept out on the pavement and started across, and the rest of the herd followed—all but ten cows and calves that stayed on the south side.

One of these cows was partially blind, and she had made up her mind that she wasn’t going to step out on that strange surface. I don’t know why, but cattle often choose to follow the lead of a blind or half-blind animal, and that’s what they did this time.

They tried to go east and we stopped them. They tried to go west and we stopped them. They circled and bawled, but they wouldn’t go north.

We held them as long as we could, and then they started breaking away. It was inevitable. We couldn’t move our horses fast enough to stop them.

When they broke, they went in several directions at once. The old blind cow headed west down the edge of the highway. Gene Hester was the closest man to her and he went after her. He was riding a nice little sorrel colt that he had just started breaking into cattle work. I was riding Little John, and I galloped west to back Gene up and keep the cow from cutting behind him.

All at once, I heard a loud crash behind me, followed by the sound of broken glass hitting the pavement and the scream of brakes. I threw a glance over my shoulder and saw a red car sliding down the middle of the highway, and a grown cow flying through the air.

The driver hadn’t seen us and had crashed into a cow that had wandered out onto the middle of the highway.

I could see that the car was coming to a stop and that it wasn’t going to plow into me and Hester, so I turned my attention to the cow we were chasing. If we didn’t get her under control, she might cause another wreck that would get someone killed.

All at once, I heard a loud crash behind me, followed by the sound of broken glass hitting the pavement and the scream of brakes.

I was right behind Gene and yelled, “You’d better get a rope on her!” Over his shoulder, he shouted that he didn’t want to rope a grown cow off his colt, for fear the colt would get jerked off his feet or dragged into the wire and junk along the roadbed.

Gene was a good hand and he showed good sense here. That was no place to train a colt.

I hollered, “Okay, turn her back this way and I’ll take a shot.”

Gene spurred the colt and rode hard, passed the cow, peeled her off the shoulder, and pointed her south into the weeds. I had a loop built and went in after her.

Little John stumbled over railroad ties and plowed through heavy weeds. I had never roped heavy stock off him before, and I didn’t much want to now.

I still remembered what Pat Mason had told me: “When you get in a jam, that horse will quit you.” But the cow had to be roped.

Little John staggered through the weeds and junk, gave me position, and I dropped my loop around her neck.

Several of the cowboys had jumped off their horses and run to check on the driver of the car, an older man from north-central Oklahoma. He wasn’t hurt, though the car was badly damaged. Another cowboy had ridden east up the highway and was flagging down traffic.

Gene and I were worried about our position. If an eighteen-wheeler had come along at seventy miles an hour and swerved to miss the wreck, it would have wiped us out. We wanted to get to safer ground.

Gene got behind the cow and I turned Little John to pull and gave him some spurs. Maybe he’d figured out that this was the wrong time to loaf. He leaned into the rope and did his job.

As we were dragging the cow through the weeds, Hobart waved his arms and yelled, “Don’t ride straight ahead! There’s a bunch of hog wire in there.” I hadn’t seen the wire, and I was sure glad Hobart had. That could have led to disaster.

We finally got the cattle under control. A wrecker came out and towed the car into Beaver. The cow that had been hit was still alive on the side of the road, but so badly broken up that Kary got a .30-.30 out of his pickup and put her out of her misery.

If an eighteen-wheeler had come along at seventy miles an hour and swerved to miss the wreck, it would have wiped us out.

WE DIDN’T GET AROUND TO BRANDING Leland’s calves until June 5. That morning, eight of us gathered at the Three Cross, rounded up a pasture of cows and calves, and drove them into the pens.

By twelve o’clock, we were all hot, tired, dry, and hungry. Leland had mentioned that his wife had gone to Oklahoma City that day, and several of us began to wonder about the grub situation—if we were going to get another of Leland’s famous roundup dinners.

The noon hour came and went. The crew went on working but there was no joking among the boys and very little talk. We were all weak with hunger. At a quarter to one, Jake pointed out that we still had three hours’ work to do and that maybe we should stop for lunch. Leland agreed and said that he would take us into Beaver for a good hot meal.

That brought smiles to our faces, and we loaded into Leland’s pickup and headed for town. Leland, Jake, Pat, and I rode in the cab, and the boys rode in the back end.

We went to the Motel Restaurant and took a big table near the back. We must have been a pretty rough-looking bunch when we walked through the cafe. We still had our spurs on, we were dusty and sweaty and speckled with dehorning blood, and I imagine that we brought some of the fragrance of the branding pen with us.

We all ordered chicken fried steaks.

After lunch, Randy and Bud took out their tins of Skoal and loaded up. Rodney didn’t use tobacco very often, but this time he decided he would. He took a pinch out of Randy’s can and put it under his lower lip.

We all piled into the pickup and headed east toward the Three Cross, thirty minutes’ drive down the river.

We had just cleared the city limits when Bud stuck his head in the window. He was wearing an odd smile. “Rodney’s got sick on that snuff. He thinks he might have to throw up.”

We all looked back at Rodney, who was sitting very still and leaning back against the tailgate. His eyes were hollow and his face was the color of oatmeal.

Bud continued: “Do you want to pull over so he can …”

“Hell no!” said Leland. “Tell him to hang his chin over the tailgate and get after it. And tell him if he messes on my pickup, he has to clean it up!”

By the time we crossed the Clear Creek bridge, three miles east of town, poor Rodney was heaving over the side and everyone in the pickup was laughing. Now and then his head would appear, he would give us a weak grin, and then he would hang over the side again.

By the time we reached the ranch, Rodney had left a trail of chicken fried steak eighteen miles long. Some of the color had returned to his face and he was feeling better. Leland pulled up in front of the house, turned on the garden hose, and let Rodney run some cold water over his face.

By the time we reached the ranch, Rodney had left a trail of chicken fried steak eighteen miles long.

He was a good sport about it, and after sitting in the grass for a few minutes, he began laughing with the rest of us.

Leland stood over him and shook his head. “Next time, I’ll just feed you a cheese sandwich. No sense in wasting a good chicken fried steak on you. You’d just puke it up.”

I LEFT COWBOY COUNTRY IN AUGUST OF 1979 and moved to Texas to take a job on the LZ Ranch south of Perryton. Though I worked on the river for only a year and a half, it was an important period in my life. I learned my trade under some good men, the best cowboys I’ve known. I’ll always be grateful that I had the opportunity to ride with them.

John R. Erickson

John is the author of the Hank the Cowdog book series. He and his wife, Kris, live on their cattle ranch near Perryton, Texas.

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  • OldMike
    Posted: Sun, 05/19/2019 01:19 am

    John sure is a great storyteller!  Plus he’s writing about a subject I have great appreciation for: tough men doing the toughest of jobs. It’s uncommon now to hear of people doing this kind of work, but not that many years ago a lot of men got up everyday to go to jobs that would make our kids turn pale and shaky. 

    We have lost something of great value even as we’ve attempted to make the world safer and more civilized.