SUBLETTE COUNTY — It was a crisp 36 degrees at 7 a.m. when about two dozen riders left the Murdock Cattle Company headquarters to gather up and brand 330 calves.
“We hope to be done by lunch,” said Caleb Helm.
By 8 a.m. all 330 calves, plus a mother cow for each of them, were being guided into the holding pens. Designated roping cowboys got their loops ready as they worked their way into the tightly packed herd. About 50 yards away, there was a big whooshing sound as propane gas ignited in the branding iron furnaces. Designated branders pushed the irons into the flames to get them at the correct temperature for the most efficient brand.
In between the herd and the furnaces, Coke Landers set up a line of five groups of kids, from elementary to high school, to receive and wrestle the calves. Each group had an adult helper.
“All my wrestlers are kids,” said Coke.
As he said it, a roper pulled a calf right up to the wrestlers, who swarmed it like hungry monkeys fighting for the only banana… except the “banana” was a big, stout son of a gun that fought and kicked like a gorilla.
The ropers don’t ease the slack until the kids manage to wrestle the calf to the ground and grab onto all four legs and the head. As soon as they believe they have the calf secure, they loosen the rope and throw it toward the roper so he can go back and snag another calf.
The brander waits patiently while the kids get control of the calf before applying the brand. Branders like to do good work. Nobody wants a messy, hard-to-read brand, or spend any more time applying iron to the calf’s flesh than necessary.
One, one-thousand. Two, one-thousand. Three, one-thousand. Four, one-thousand. Five, one-thousand.
Five seconds seemed to be the time it took to do it right. These relatively quiet moments are when a wrestler might squint through the smoke and sweat to take personal stock of what that calf cost them in blood, bruises and lost skin. The adult helper might lay his hand on top of a small wrestler's hand as a bit of insurance in case things get unpredictable, as they often do.
Van Huffman stood silently admiring the wrestlers’ work and remarked, “When I saw all the kids, I thought, this is going to be a battle, but they’re dang good.”
About two hours in, someone called break time. Water, soda, beer and snacks were opened up and consumed by the ravenous throng. The kids can’t seem to get enough wrestling and at any moment they can gang up on another kid just as they do with a calf, wrestle them to the ground and paint them with colored grease paint. One kid showed off his bloody cheek and another emerged proudly from the pile with a piece of someone’s or something’s ear.
Tipton Tibbetts, who was on photography duty, studied the rack of hot branding irons and said, “We have an archway at our school that is made out of a bunch of branding irons. I’m always surprised by how few kids know what they are.”
Finally, the last calf is branded, equipment is loaded back into the trucks and 24 riders head south to the ranch headquarters for lunch, as they have done for more than a century. A long stream of cowboy hats and boots funneled toward the ranch house door. They stop to knock off the biggest chunks of branding evidence before heading into the kitchen to dish up delicious, homemade food for themselves. They heap their plates with roast brisket, bbq beans, potato casseroles, tasty stuffed mushrooms, a variety of salads and fancy desserts.
Outside, the littlest cowgirl sits at a card table and gestures at three empty seats. Not many words are exchanged, but plenty of bites are referenced with appreciated sounds and looks. Finally, she declares she’s had enough and asks the photographer if he likes whipped cream and chocolate chunks on his cake. A minute later she comes back with the cake, and with a parting smile, she skips off to join her friends on the trampoline.
Ranch owner Madeleine Murdock stands on the deck admiring the scene of picnic tables full of friends, a trampoline full of jumpers and ropers riding on hoverboards trying to heel rope each other.
“I am so grateful to be part of a village,” she said. “Most of the people here played together as children, went to school together, look out for each other and grow old together. There’s something to be said about the health and happiness of a community that is fortunate enough to live among all these generations.”
A cowboy yell broke the idyllic spell, as Tipton Tibbetts jumped off the water windmill tower and rode the zip line all the way to the swing and teeter-totter by the old galvanized water trough. Yeehaw!
Overheard at the branding:
• “Try not to back into my branding iron, partner.”
• “When someone tells you not to do something, don’t, because it might have a horn in it.”
• “Hug the fence; it’ll eliminate about 180 degrees from where they can come at you.”
• “Get over trying to dodge the cow pies, you’ll just pull a hamstring.”
• “Don’t bring out your band-aids, cowgirls like torn-up knuckles.”
• “Trust your neighbor, but brand your cattle.”
• “Why do cows have hooves instead of feet? Because they lactose.”