An adolescent girl, perhaps the one in this picture, climbed the slope toward the irrigation ditch near the fence where I sat, at the edge of our property. “They told me to tell you you’re not allowed to take pictures,” she said.
Returning from a hike on a raw and cloudy Sunday afternoon in October, I had heard whoops, hollers, and bellows from the valley just below. I guessed what was happening. It’s a sure sign of autumn when the cattle crowd that corral. I had stopped to watch the people racing around on horseback, driving the cattle in.
“Who’s in charge?” I asked. She mentioned two names I didn’t recognize.
“We’re rounding up the cattle in this valley for the people who own them,” she went on. “They do this every year.”
“I know,” I said. “I live here.”
I stopped taking pictures after that, and nobody in this one is identifiable. (I took the rest of these at other times.) But it’s difficult to imagine that I’m forbidden from taking pictures of the landscape adjacent to my own property. If the cattle have an issue, they may consult legal counsel.
I wonder why these folks objected. Perhaps they thought I was an animal-rights activist.
The reason for my interest is outright ignorance. I see cattle every (nonwinter) day from my windows, and I have seen cowboys in many movies riding around among cattle. But I have never watched an actual roundup in action. As you may recall, I was a city girl.
Tourists sometimes stop in town to ask where they can see real cowboys at work, and we locals glance at each other before responding politely. You’d have to get lucky, be fairly far from town, and probably not go looking for them on a lovely afternoon in midsummer. I got lucky one chilly Sunday in October, and I had that privilege.
They must have been rounding these cattle up all day, I thought. It’s a very long valley.
The neighbor’s five horses and a mule had gathered between me and the corral, sometimes looking up at me as they grazed. A woman bundled up in parka and scarf walked a toddler around by the hand among the three livestock trailers parked near the corral. Two small dogs trotted around outside the corral, busy as if on errands.
It was loud where I sat many yards away, so it must have been almost deafening for the people helping to herd the cattle. (I don’t say “cowboys” because a few of them were women and the others were not boys). The cattle were objecting loudly to being penned inside the corral, of course, not to mention the whinnying of the horses and the cowhands’ own yells and whistles.
As I took my perch on the fence, two men on horseback were expertly cutting one huge black beast out of the herd as the others were trapping the rest of the animals inside the corral. They drove it off to one side and out the gate. It went in the wrong direction, and they barked and shouted as they wheeled around and galloped toward it. It leaped one fence with surprising agility, then another, and wandered off toward the river.
Meanwhile, the other cowhands busied themselves inside the corral, urging their captives into one pen or the other. One of them galloped back and forth inside the pen, cleaning cows out of a far corner. After a while, only he was on horseback. The others just walked behind the cattle, sometimes urging them forward with lazy sweeps of a rope.
I wondered why they had divided them into groups, only to open the gates and let them crowd back into the largest pen together again. Then I overheard a shout: “Write down 112!” They had been counting, of course.
Soon after, I heard someone call out “115”.
By historic standards, just over a hundred head is a fairly small herd for this region. Frank Welty, Sr. (1874-1958) reports in Recollections of the Upper Wind River Valley that he had a herd of 1800 head in 1919, but a drought followed by a hard winter reduced the herd to 150. That was “a sad end to a big business,” he said. I won’t attempt a digression now into the current economics of cattle ranching in this valley and why herds are smaller now. As I said, I’m ignorant.
Eventually, someone got into a pickup and backed one of the three livestock trailers toward the corral. The cowhands separated three or four of the cattle, closed them beyond a gate from the rest of the herd, and drove them into the trailer. The truck and trailer lumbered toward the highway and went off. (Were these few, I wondered, part of the wages?)
After a while, two men mounted their horses, headed back down the valley, and surrounded one of the few cattle that were still grazing out there. Is this the one they had cut out before? Why, I wondered, did they do that in the first place?
Now they turned it around, and it loped toward the corral, objecting. Handily, they steered it into the empty pen closest to the valley, then coaxed it into the largest pen with the rest of the herd.
There seemed to be a lot of standing around afterwards. Saddles were slung into pickups. Some of the horses were led into another trailer and driven away. Others were tied to the remaining trailer. People walked back and forth.
Sometimes, all at once, the cattle fell silent. Then one would moan and the others would start up again.
A few of the cowhands walked over to a fence near the corral and engaged in a long conversation with two men who had been watching from the other side. I could hear their voices, but not what they were saying. Negotiating terms or just shooting the breeze?
I waited for rest of the cattle to be driven into the other trailers. How would they all fit? Then I realized (knucklehead!) the trailers are for transporting all their horses, not for cattle. It’s their job to round the cattle up, not to transport them somewhere else—especially not after they have spent all day chasing them out of the valley. Others would pick up the rest of the cattle the next day, no doubt. (And sure enough, the cattle were still there the next morning.)
It was growing more breezy on my perch at the property line, and my gloved hands were cold. I gave up waiting for them to load the remaining horses into the last trailer, and headed home.
By the time I was seated by the window with a cup of tea, our neighbor’s five horses and mule had returned to the meadow by the aspen grove. I guess the show was over.
© Lois Wingerson, 2021
Thanks for reading! You can see every new entry of Living Dubois by email if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.
Who’s writing? Check out About Me.