Sounds like a terrible job

One of my favorite films of late is the remake of “Monte Walsh” with Tom Selleck as the aging cowhand. In the original film, it was Lee Marvin. Both were great westerns, but for once, the remake is a better film in my opinion.

There are many memorable scenes in this classic western, but this little exchange between ranch boss Cal Brennan, and newly arrived eastern dude, and sadly, ranch manager Robert Slocum is my favorite.

In an argument over making the cowboys pay for roughing up a railroad crew, Brennan defends them with this, “See, these boys have no home, except for a horse and a cook shack. They got no property but a saddle and a gun. They don’t earn any money. Got no wife, got no kids. They spend their entire life pushing cattle around to where them cattle don’t want to go.”

Slocum replies, “Sounds like a terrible job.” (Which in reality, it was, and this film doesn’t gloss over the life of the cowhand on the unforgiving prairie as many westerns do)

“Yes, sir, it is a terrible job, but it’s their job. All they got is freedom and pride, keeping their word and looking out for one another. All they got is their rules.”

Given the chance on a cold winter afternoon, or maybe on one of those ridiculous nights where you wake up for no reason at 3 a.m. and can’t sleep, this is a go-to movie, along with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the Searchers, the Outlaw Josey Wales and the Best Years of Our Lives.

As the years roll by, I realize my tastes in films have changed. Maybe it’s a reflection of watching my friends age and realizing I am as well, but I enjoy movies that allow aging men to reflect on what they’ve done, what they’ve seen, and what they have to give up as the years roll on.

Balboa, the story of an aging Rocky is only surpassed by the original Rocky movie in my opinion, as another example of this.

But in the real world, the aches, pains, and slow movements associated with what was once something as easy as blinking your eyes, but no longer is that effortless come often.

We moved a few trailer loads of cattle from my house to my son Brian’s place a dozen miles to the north on Monday. Our grass is about spent, and his was ready for a couple of months of grazing before we had to feed hay.

In years past, the process of loading and moving even a handful of cows has resembled a goat rodeo.  Over time we’ve improved our corrals, gates, and holding areas, and now, aside from an occasional bovine revolt, the process has become much more efficient.

It wasn’t always that way.

Jump back to the mid-70s and my dad and I were cutting out several dozen newly weaned calves. Each time we almost had them in the pen, one would cut back through into the main corral and the rest would follow.

I had a date with a Riverton girl that night, and time was getting short to pick her up. As one of the 300-pound calves started to cut through again, I’d had enough. I squared up and hit the calf head-on, just like tackling a big running back I thought.

You’ll notice I wrote, “I thought.”

I hit the calf in the chest with my right shoulder, reached down to grab a leg, and suddenly saw stars against the bright blue sky. Sunset was at least an hour away, the stars were all inside my head, and were accompanied by a hoof on my right thigh, and another one on my left shoulder as the calf leveled me.

I lay there for a few seconds and heard my dad’s voice with a mixture of anger, laughter, and sarcasm.

“Get up Butkus, go get em,” he said.

He was referring to my favorite defensive player at the time, Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears. I was no Butkus. We put the calves in the pen a few minutes later. I called the girl and told her I’d be a little late after I had to shower and change clothes after getting knocked into a little “organic material.”

A few years later, I was hired by Dick Pfister to work cattle on one of the sections of his 21,000-acre ranch north of Lusk. At 24 years old, there wasn’t much that fazed me. Grabbing, throwing, and holding 400-pound calves was all in a day’s work. That job turned out to be all of a day’s work.

Grabbing hocks on the calves I’d worked as a kid only took one hand. These brutes were big, December calves that we were working in mid-July. It took two hands to stretch a leg and a good push with my leg to hold the other one.

A great lunch, $50, as many cold ones as we felt like drinking as the day ended and I thought nothing of it. Just another day when you’re still 10 feet tall and bulletproof.

I ended up in physical therapy a few years ago after a cow refused to load in the stock trailer. Instead of waiting for her to turn again and trot into the trailer I got a little impatient and tried to force her in with my left arm using a panel. Physics came into play. My left shoulder wasn’t quite ready to take the brunt of a 1300-pound Angus cow who disagreed with me.

It didn’t hurt that much as my shoulder came out of place, and thankfully it popped back in on its own, but a few minutes later, it hurt plenty.

It was nothing six weeks of three sessions a week of physical therapy couldn’t fix.

When our granddaughters Jayne and Norah were here for a month last summer, they were fascinated by our son’s Scottish Highlander cow, Madonna. She is an attractive red cow with a shaggy coat and long horns. We often see people stopping to take her picture.

Madonna held their interest, but the two bulls in the pasture, their loud bellows, and their massive size, one of them over 2,000 pounds, really caught their eye.

Bulls are interesting to deal with. I had a neighbor’s Angus bull take an interest in our cows one afternoon. I trapped him in the corral, opened the gate, and tried to herd him out. He wanted to be with our cows and kept cutting back. I finally whacked him with a 2×4 on the rear end, but in the process, he kicked back high in the air. I saw the hoof coming and leaned back like Mohammed Ali dodging a Joe Frazier roundhouse, but he still tagged me in the middle of the chest.

It was only a glancing blow, but it knocked the wind out of me for a few seconds. Satisfied, he walked out of the gate and back to where he belonged.

Cow tales, something most of America will never know but experiences most of us in Fremont County have dealt with or still deal with every day.

It’s not the terrible job Cal Brennan spoke of in Monte Walsh, but it is our job, a job by choice and a connection with a different place, and a different time, mixed with a bit of the nostalgia that comes when you realize that yes, you too, are aging.

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