The primary disadvantage of cattle is that they are alive.
People who aren’t involved in the cattle business might not understand this, but any cowboy who has put in some time on the lone prairie will know what I mean.
Not only do live animals insist on eating and drinking every day, but if you keep five hundred or a thousand of the little rascals around, there comes a time when you have to count them.
In an ordinary business venture, this is called inventory, and it’s fairly simple. You count the boxes of soap on the shelf and write the number down on a piece of paper.
In the cattle business, it’s called keeping tally and it ain’t so simple, because cow brutes don’t sit on a shelf. In fact, they rarely sit anywhere. They walk, run, scatter, hide, and jump fences, and before you can count them, you have to find them.
Once you’ve got them gathered, it ought to be a simple matter to count them, but somehow it’s not. They mill and squirm. Two blacks standing side by side appear as one. A small steer standing behind a big steer is invisible. It’s nothing unusual for two men to count the same bunch of cattle four or five times before they can agree on the tally.
When l first started out in this business, a rancher told me that the best way to count cattle was to count the legs and divide by four. Another man told me to count the legs and divide by 3.5. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this was a standard joke in the profession. Every experienced cowboy knows that you count the ears and divide by three.
Counting a large number of cattle is difficult enough when you do it alone and without distractions, but when you have a dude riding with you, it becomes impossible. Let’s say you have two hundred steers on the books and you want to check the tally to make sure they’re all present and accounted for. And you take your friend with you.
You drive them into a corner and stir them around until they start trotting down the fence in single file. When they leave the herd in ones and twos, you can get a good reliable count.
But your friend doesn’t understand what’s going on, and he keeps right on talking.
“51, 52, 53 …”
“These cows sure are pretty.”
“Thanks, 54, 55, 56 …”
“When do they have their babies?”
“57, 58, steers don’t, 59, 60, usually calve out, 61, 62, 63, till late spring, 64, 65 …”
“Huh. What’s the matter with that one?
“66, 67, 68, pinkeye.”
“That one’s limping.”
“69, 70, foot-rot, 71, 72 …”
“What about that one?”
“73, 74, 75, shut up, 76, 77 …”
There is a minute of quiet. Then, “What do you think Reagan is going to do about inflation?”
“191, 192, 193, beats me.”
“I sure hope he can get it stopped.”
“194, 195, uh huh, 196 …”
“Oh, my gosh, look at that, will you!”
In spite of yourself, you turn away from the cattle. “What?”
“A big old jackrabbit!”
Sure enough, it’s a big old jackrabbit, and you’ve lost your count. You have it all to do over again, but this time you send your friend off on a mission—to find a red billy goat in the far corner of the pasture.
Every cowboy has his own way of counting cattle, and if the conditions aren’t just right, he doesn’t feel good about his count. I prefer to have the cattle pass by on the right side of my horse because I point my right hand at every animal as I count him.
If they pass me on the left, I have to point across my body, which just doesn’t seem to work out. You’d think that a normal, fairly coordinated cowboy could count as well with his left hand as with his right, but that’s not the case with me. I never trust a left-handed count.
There’s another quirk about my counting method that I don’t understand. Not only do I have to point with my right hand, I have to take the glove off that hand as well. What does a glove have to do with a good count? I don’t know, but there you are.
I’ve known other cowboys who counted by twos or threes and some who bobbed their heads instead of pointed their fingers. The worst kind of man to work with is one who counts out loud. No matter how hard you try to ignore his muttering, it gets into your ears and then soaks into your brain. Before long, all you can think about is telling him to shut his yap, and you lose your count.
There is also the kind of man—usually a rookie on the crew but not always—who wants to be the first to get the count. He rarely comes up with the correct number, but that doesn’t seem to bother him as long as he’s the first one through. He slops through his count and then yells out, “I got a hundred and ninety-seven! What did you get?”
Unless you possess iron discipline and tremendous powers of concentration, this fellow will blow your count every time.
If you are employed on a ranch that runs a large number of cattle, you can’t remember the tally in all the pastures, so you have to keep your numbers in a tally book. On our outfit, which has cattle scattered all over the country in fifteen or twenty pastures, we don’t dare leave headquarters without a tally book.
Mine is a small black book that fits into my shirt pocket. This works fine in the summer when I wear shirts with button-down flaps on the pockets. Unfortunately, my flannel shirts, which I wear all winter long, don’t have flaps, so any time I shuck off my vest, I have to start chasing my tally book.
There is a little ritual I go through every morning when I hook up the stock trailer. I bend over to crank the trailer down on the hitch ball. My tally book falls out of my pocket. I bend over to pick it up and my chewing tobacco falls out. I curse and bend over to get the chewing tobacco and my matches fall out. I bellow, pick up the matches, and my ballpoint pen falls out.
When I’ve emptied out both shirt pockets, then I can get on with the rest of the day’s work.
I’ve also planted a few tally books out in the pasture. This usually happens when an outlaw steer breaks from the herd and High Loper and I are horseracing to see who gets first loop. When you’re up in the stirrups, swinging a hungry noose, grinning that wicked cowboy grin, and your tally book sprouts wings, it just breaks your heart.
If you don’t quit the chase, you lose your tally book and therefore your brains. But if you stop to get it, you know that High Loper won’t be loose-herding the roping stock and waiting for you to go get ahorseback again. He’d beat his own grandmother out of a pasture shot. In fact, I think he’d rope his own grandmother if she ever got out of the yard.
So you stop and go back for the tally book. Just as you bend down to pick it up, you hear Loper let out a squall. There’s only two things that can make him squall like that: either he got his finger caught in the dally or else he made a mighty pretty one-looper. But either way, he’s beat you out of a shot. All because of a derned tally book.
Which just goes to prove what I said at the beginning: that the cow business would be a bunch easier if the product wasn’t alive, and if you could stack it up on the shelf like boxes of soap and take a tally once a year. But, come to think of it, that would sure cut down on the pasture roping, so maybe we’d better just leave things as they are.