by Ian Clay Sewall
“Coboss,” my dad called, while beating on a five gallon bucket of chop.
The cows came, knowing his voice, knowing the promise of chop and maybe freshly forked hay. He walked confidently, feet in aging and angular cowboy boots, the land in his veins, every step closer to the large holding area where the spring Angus calves would be separated from the cows.
A rising chorus of cow bawling sounded like work, smelled like summer, and tasted like a little chew of dirt in your mouth.
We were modern cowboys, baseball hats and jeans instead of Stetsons and chaps; a calf table to hold the animals in place instead of horses and ropes. But we still branded our cows the old way, propane torch and irons, the calf would cry, then a short burst of quiet.
All operations in one smooth motion. Vaccinate. Brand. Eartag. Castrate. Release.
I asked my father why we branded our cattle.
“Well son, when we run our cows in the community pasture, they’re required to have a brand, and ear tags often fall off and a brand is the only sure way to identify an animal.”
He went on to tell me about the old days when cattle rustlers would carry a running iron, steal cows, change the brand, often at a campfire. It still happens from time to time, these days, he said. He told me he didn’t agree with the huge industrialization of ranching, the overcrowded feedlots, the animals need space, but that brands were necessary.
How is it that I never wanted to wear cowboy boots as a child? And yet, a pair of boots sits next to the door, as I live just blocks from Hollywood boulevard, riding the city range.
I remember the cattle squeeze, this huge green bulk of steel bars and levers, remember the cattle coming down the chute at mach 9, cow shit flying at times, but always there was a respect for the animal.
Sometimes branding of a single animal would send such steamy and thick smoke plumes into the air, I imagined my old cowboy Grandfather Jock, taking shape in those moments, a smile over his face, catch me, he’d ask.
I’d answer back, “Not yet, Grandpa.”
WINTERS AGO, IN SNOW UP TO MY WAIST I walked up the hill near the branding corrals. It was very slow going, I’d hop up on the steel fender of our John Deere tractor, while my father scooped up a round bale and dropped it into a feeder. A few little calves were now two or three times their size at branding, the blow torch visible, a tall pinnacle of snow balanced. The steers jounced and steamed and strutted, their heads in the feeder, chewing on fresh alfalfa hay, as the sky, a quiet painting, watched overhead.
Ian Clay Sewall is a Canadian based in Los Angeles. He is an MFA candidate at Antioch University and serves on the Lunch Ticket Journal. His stories have appeared in Soundings East, Santa Ana River Review, and are forthcoming in Prairie Fire. His films have won awards in both the US and Canada.