“Riding for the brand” and “making a hand” are two expressions that are short on words but big on meaning, which seems appropriate for the Western genre they represent. Much like the word “cowboy,” there is a lifetime of components built into them.
Every cowboy kid grows up hearing these phrases—knowing it is part of what and who he is destined to be. How he gets there is just part of everyday living.
Ranch kids are given big responsibilities at a young age. It might start with simple chores like daily taking out the ashes from the wood stove, filling the wood box, bringing in the milk cow every evening, and gathering the eggs from the chicken house which includes eluding the rooster that is always waiting to attack.
Right around that same age, the youngster will unassumingly be given some responsibilities in the pasture beyond the usual seemingly permanent position of riding drag behind the herd.
As his dad rides off one direction, he’ll tell the young button to ride down a long draw as he points to it, bring along any cattle he finds and meet the cowboys at the gate at the end of the canyon.
With some pride filling his heart, the button will sit a little taller in the saddle as he rides off. As his horse picks his way through the quakies, a few head of cattle lift their heads from their grazing and start moving down the draw ahead of him.
The lad pulls off a small branch from a sapling as he rides by it and pops it on his leather chaps in a rhythm that matches the gait of the trotting cattle. He doesn’t know it yet, but those moments will be remembered by him as some of his happiest.
He keeps an eye on the ridge above him, hoping he’s not ahead of the rider coming that way or not too far behind the ones he is to meet. A few times a little worry eases its way into his gut. What if he wasn’t in the right canyon or not going the right way?
When he rode out of the end of the draw and no one was at the gate, he again gave thought to the possibility he wasn’t where he was supposed to be or maybe they’d forgotten about him.
The few head of cattle he’d pushed out hit the fence line. He trotted ahead of them, got them stopped and then sat quietly while they settled down.
He knew he should just wait. At least he had some cattle to show for his efforts.
He slouched in the saddle and began, one by one, stripping the leaves off the branch he’d brought along. He chewed on one and tossed the rest at a make-believe target a few feet away. Then he began peeling off the bark, keeping one eye on the cattle, and keeping his hands busy and mind occupied. Killing time he wasn’t sure he had to kill.
He stood in his saddle and looked in every direction for signs of anyone, anything.
He listened for the sounds of cracking branches and horse shoes striking rocks, or the sounds of cattle moving through the trees. Still nothing. Knowing he needed to trust his raising and for sure better be where his dad told him to be, he waited it out.
Finally, in a far distance he could hear an occasional “whoop” and “h’yah” as the cowboys moved a big herd down the fence line from the backside of the pasture. The button grinned, again sitting tall in the saddle, looking every bit the cowboy he wanted to be.
His dad rode by him and gave him a nod. It said all he needed to “hear.” In that gesture was, “Good job son. You made a hand.”
Those times are the confidence builders that build a foundation for a life and it plants seeds for loyalty and pride in a job well done.
“It was probably a step in the making of a cowhand when he learned that what would pass for heroics in a softer world was only chores around here.” -Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier
Julie can be reached for comment at email@example.com.