It’s true. I’ll confess. I was always a fair-weather cowgirl by preference. However, when cattle needed tending, fair weather was not a given. Fact of life—if you have cattle and live where winter is a force to contend with, you have to be dedicated to the job. Being a little bit crazy doesn’t hurt either.
The Texas Panhandle, Amarillo particularly, claims some notoriety for its miserable winters. Running yearlings on winter wheat is a tricky deal requiring good hard horses and cowboys of the same ilk.
Darrell had a big string of yearlings on winter wheat throughout most of a miserable Panhandle winter. The wheat had gotten too short and the cattle needed to be moved. Known for his penchant to always do things the hard way, Darrell called for some help to come move the cattle.
Trucking them would have cost about $100 dollars, but Darrell was determined to save the expense for the guy that owned the herd. The morning that the cowboys showed up to move the cattle, a cold, bitter east wind blew in, driving ice and sleet in front of it, and into the faces of the cattle, horses and cowboys. Naturally, east was the very direction they needed to go.
The cattle fought to turn back, refusing to drive into the wind except by force. This kept all but two of the riders at the back of the herd plenty busy. The two point riders were needed mostly just to open the gates. No danger of the cattle running off in that direction.
It took all the morning and a good part of the afternoon to drive the herd six miles. The cowboys took turns thawing out in the pickups that followed behind.
The horses had balls of ice and snow packed in their hooves and their eye lashes and nostrils were iced over, same as the cowboys. There wasn’t a creature, man or beast, that wasn’t chilled to the bone and hoping they’d live to see another warm day.
Nobody ever heard if cattle owner appreciated all the misery and work that went into saving him $100, but it was quite some time before Darrell was able to round up any extra winter help again.
In times of blizzards, a solid broke horse that will pull whatever you tie a rope onto is a must. Yearlings are known to ball up in a corner of a wheat field and die out of pure spite. Farmers seem to be irritable about it when they have to run over bones to plow in the spring, so a fella needs to be able drag off the deads and make them available to the used-cow dealer. Many a wheat pasture lord has become closely acquainted with the guy at the rendering service. All part of winter wheat pasture cowboying.
Meanwhile, back in the mountains where winter may not blow in quite the same as it does on the plains, cold and snow are still the challenge.
It was late in the fall and everything but a few strays had been gathered out of the mountain pastures, but the search would continue as long as the hills were passable.
My brother and I were quite young when we tagged along with my dad to track a few of the last stragglers in the deep canyons fronting the Rocky Mountain range of home. With our horses in single file, we trudged through the snow that had settled in the bottom of the draws.
Often we had to dismount and let the horses lunge their way to the top of a steep hill. We would catch them at the top of the ridge after we first, and then they, floundered our way through the belly deep drifts covering the north slopes in the shade of the pines.
Wet boots and wet gloves aided in fingers and toes turning to popsicles without feeling.
As the sun made its way to setting behind the mountain range, the cold fell on us like a heavy blanket, chilling us to the marrow. We were so cold by the time we headed home that my brother, still small enough to not be able to reach his stirrups, unknowingly lost one of his too big hand-me-down boots during the long miserable jog-trot back to the barn.
As long as there are horses that need ridden, cattle that need tended, cowboys will saddle up in the chill of winter and do the job because it’s there to be done, no matter the conditions.
In their youth, it comes more easily. A few decades later, justification for waiting for the sun to shine comes even easier. “Why ride colts in a snowstorm? How can you teach them to watch for rattlesnakes in this weather?”
Julie can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org