Tempers and tallies

Books | A cowboy needs anger management and accounting skills
by John R. Erickson
Posted 7/20/19, 12:01 pm

John Erickson doesn’t write parables, but some of his stories about the cowboy life he once lived would work well in church. The Bible refers to us as sheep, sometimes without a shepherd, but we also act like cattle and anger the Owner of the ranch. In 1982, Erickson, the author of the popular Hank the Cowdog series of books, published a bunch of these stories in The Devil in Texas and Other Cowboy Talesand over the next few months we’ll republish, with permission, at least two at a time as part of our Saturday Series. Here are two of Erickson’s tales from that volume. —Marvin Olasky

Temper, Temper

I have observed that there are two kinds of cowboys in this world. The first kind is young and foolish. He expects livestock to do what he wants them to do. He expects his work to go smoothly and according to plan. When it doesn’t, he loses his temper and often curses.

The second kind of cowboy is old and foolish. He expects exactly the same things, even though he’s old enough to know better, and he loses his temper and curses too.

The major difference between the two is that when the young cowboy loses his temper, he often takes actions which hurt himself more than they hurt the animals he’s mad at. The older cowboy, somewhat wiser for his years of experience, will think twice before he lashes out in rage. If any blood is to be shed, he will see to it that it’s not his.

One of the dumbest stunts I ever heard of a young cowboy pulling involved a fellow named Erickson, who happens to be the writer of this article. It occurred on a very hot summer day in 1974.

I was cowboying in Beaver County, Oklahoma, back then. A cow and calf belonging to one of the neighbors had strayed into one of our pastures and had enjoyed free room and board for several weeks. I decided it was time for them to leave.

I saddled old Reno and off we went to throw the rascals out. When they saw me coming, the cow went north and the calf went south. I ran the cow all the way to the hole in the fence (she knew exactly where it was), and then I went back for the calf. I had already decided that he needed roping.

He weighed about two hundred pounds. He could run like a deer and dodge like a jackrabbit, and he made a complete monkey out of me and my catch rope. When I finally got him caught, I was in a towering rage.

I flanked him down and started tying him with my pigging string. He kicked out of it. I tried again, and he kicked out again. Then he kicked me. Sweat was stinging my eyes, so I couldn’t see too well. I cocked my fist and aimed a right hook at his neck. He squirmed, and the blow landed squarely between his horns—the very hardest part of his anatomy.

I wish I could report that he shuddered, stiffened, and died on the spot, but that would be an exaggeration. Instead, I howled and drew back a withered limb. For the next six weeks, I had to explain how I got the plaster cast on my right hand.

No matter how well I told the story or how hard I tried to improve it, I couldn’t quite conceal the truth of it—that it “Was a pretty stupid thing for a grown man to do.

No matter how well I told the story or how hard I tried to improve it, I couldn’t quite conceal the truth of it—that it “Was a pretty stupid thing for a grown man to do.

But my pal High Loper understood, even if nobody else did, because, like me, Loper was young and foolish and had recently pulled a stunt of his own.

He was trying to break a horse named Macho, a big, stout, gorgeous gelding that had all the physical qualities you want in a ranch horse. But he had one small flaw: he hated saddles, blankets, bridles, corrals, and cowboys.

Cowboys who end up with a horse like Macho dream of selling him to an enemy. If they ever talk to a buyer about him, they will say, “Shoot, all this horse needs is a lot of miles.” Which means, “Ride him fifty miles a day in a sandy river bottom, seven days a week, and maybe he won’t kill you.”

One day in the saddle lot Macho went on a snort, and when the dust cleared, he had the saddle under his belly and he had built a couple of new gates in the corral fence. Outraged, High Loper stomped over to the horse and taught him a lesson. He kicked him in the butt and broke his big toe.

Not long after this, Macho was sold and went to “a big ranch up north,” as Loper puts it. If that doesn’t mean “to the packers,” then the dirty son of a gun got better than he deserved.

High Loper and I were young and foolish back then. Had we been wiser, we might have followed the example of men who had outgrown their urge to kick, slug, and bite animals that shouldn’t be kicked, slugged, or bitten.

Consider the example set by a cowboy I knew up in the Oklahoma Panhandle. One day many years ago he was trying to drive a bull to the headquarters corrals. The bull went on the prod and tried to hook the horse. This man was too old for silly displays of temper, which to his mind included sticking a rope on something as big and evil as a Hereford bull.

He didn’t lose his temper. He rode to the barn and came back armed with a pitchfork. The next time the old bull took a razzoo at the horse, he got acquainted with a five-tine fork, and when he turned to run, he got those same five tines buried just below his tail.

The bull went to the house. The boss was not proud when he saw his herd bull wearing a pitchfork, but the cowboy didn’t give a rip whether the boss was proud or not. He had followed orders and had not shed any of his own blood.

Another fellow I knew up in Beaver County was calving out some two-year-old heifers. He had five of them in a little trap behind the house, and one evening he tried to drive them into the corral for the night. Four of them went in, but the fifth one, who was as round as a whiskey keg, went up to the gate, sniffed, and ran back into the pasture.

This was repeated four or five times, until the cowboy was grinding his teeth in silent anger. A young buck would have roped the heifer, but she would have sulled, and with darkness coming on, the cowboy would have found himself in mess. At the very best, he would have been late for supper. At the worst, he might have gone into one of those screaming fits that can produce a broken hand.

This cowboy was too wise for that. He parked his horse and climbed into his pickup. He got behind the heifer and honked and roared the engine. They made several laps around the trap, and when the heifer still wouldn’t go through the gate, he rammed her, knocked her to the ground, and ran over her with the front and back wheels.

It would probably be a mistake to recommend this as a general management technique, but this time it worked. Not only did the heifer survive, she wasn’t even hurt. She jumped up and ran straight to the corral, and several days later she delivered a healthy calf.

A cowboy never outgrows his temper. By the time he’s old enough to work around livestock without getting mad, he’s entirely too old for the job.

A cowboy never outgrows his temper. By the time he’s old enough to work around livestock without getting mad, he’s entirely too old for the job. But there’s a time in his life when he leaves the follies of youth behind and learns to give his anger a more mature expression.

I’m proud to report that, seven years after he broke his toe on Macho, High Loper is showing a few signs of maturity. Last week he was trying to load a horned cow into the trailer. They had a dispute, and before long the old cow had Loper pinned against the corral fence.

Did he blow his top? Did he start throwing punches and karate kicks? Did he bellow and curse?

No sir. He used reason and persuasion: ‘‘Now darling, I can see that you’re upset, but let’s try to be mature about this. Back off and let’s try again.”

The hard-bitten cynics among us won’t believe it, but the old cow seemed to understand, and she responded to Loper’s calm, reasonable appeal. She backed off and let him go. He thanked her and said it was always better to talk things over than to have childish displays of anger.

While she was thinking this over, he stepped outside the corral and came back with a seven-foot bodark post. “Now get the heck in the trailer,” he said.

She snorted and charged, and he knocked her to her knees with the post. Which just goes to prove that you can catch more flies with sugar, but you can load more cows with a bodark post.

Illustration by Gerald L. Holmes Illustration by Gerald L. Holmes

Keeping Tally

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

John R. Erickson

John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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  • PP
    Posted: Sat, 07/20/2019 02:13 pm

    We'll done.  Comment of a "city guy".   

  • wtgillin
    Posted: Sat, 07/20/2019 08:00 pm

    Love this! As an old cowboy, I can vouch for all these antics! We recently had a difficult time running an uncooperative bull with damaged equipment to the corral. He didn't want to go to town!