Sunday, November 19, 2017

Jack of the West

            I was required to take off my boots to go through the TSA scanner – even in the tiny airport at Glasgow, Montana.

            “Where’s the boot-jack”, I inquired.

            “Boot jack?” asked the gal at the desk.  “What’s that?”


            A boot jack is a tool I use every day – to remove my lace boots; to change out of my irrigating boots; to pull off my winter pacs; to pry off my riding boots.  This woman had never even heard of one.

             “Where you from?” I asked.

She admitted that she was from the East, and another crew-member explained to her that boot jacks were a Western thing. 

Like Jack-Coke, he added, referring to a common drink consumed in large quantities in the bars of Montana.



It wasn’t long until we added ‘Farmer Jack’ to our list of common Western terms.


Every farmer and rancher in the West has a Hi-Lift Jack – or two or three – and uses them regularly.  These jacks are also necessary equipment for off-roaders.

And in keeping with that ‘jack’ theme, the term “jack fence” soon came up.


Jack fences are used where the ground is too rocky – or too wet – to drive fence posts.

            Finally we added “Jack of all trades”, to the list – and this one really hit home.

            Over the last 50 years in Montana I have made my living in a number of different jobs: ranch hand, contract fencer, elk guide, mule-skinner, trucker, horse-trainer, horseshoer, ranch manager, camp cook, carpenter, deliveryman… 
I’ve done plumbing, wiring, roofing, butchering, shearing, artificial insemination, welding – and a lifetime of mechanical repair.

            I returned to college mid-life, and graduated the same year as my oldest daughter.  I’m currently working an interim assignment as a nursing home administrator – and returning to the ranch on weekends to shoe my horses, move cattle, work calves, gather, sort, and ship.

            Yep, I’ve used bootjacks, drunk Jack Daniels, jacked up more pieces of equipment than I can count, built miles of jack-fence, and worked at many different trades.  I guess you could call me a “Jack of the West”.

Read about some of my adventures in the book Ain't This Romantic!?!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

On the Prod

On the Prod

Merriam-Webster: “transitive verb:

1 a :to thrust a pointed instrument into

b :to incite to action

2 :to poke or stir as if with a prod

intransitive verb: to urge someone on

Over the years on the ranches of Montana I have heard the term “On the prod” to describe an animal that is in bad temper – as is a man who has been subject to constant nagging.

            That description fits a bovine that is stressed by pain – as with an injured or inflamed joint  or having recently calved – but is most often is applied to a bull who may also be described as ‘on the fight’.  This is the story of a bull, so I’ll give you a little background there.

            One might think of the life of a bull as idyllic: the grass is green, the sky is blue, and lots of the most willing brown-eyed females everywhere he looks.  But all isn’t fun and games – even in paradise.

            There are other bulls with their eyes on the females, and they are big: as big as a ton.  The hills are steep and rocky; the sun is hot; the flies incessant.  After a few years of that, bulls get tired.  By the time they are five years old, most bulls are either lame, or they have discovered that there is nothing that can stop them from doing whatever it is they have in mind: not a fence, not a gate, and not a horse.

            A cowboy can’t really make a bull do anything.  All he can do is make it so miserable in every other direction that the bull finally “chooses” to take the route that requires less pain and effort.

            There are a few tools in the cowboy’s arsenal: a horse, a dog, a bullwhip, a load of .22-caliber birdshot, and last-but-not-least – a lariat.


            On Saturday we had a foot of snow, with colder weather in the forecast.  The field in which the cows were residing had too many rocks to make feeding practical.  It was time to move them to their winter range “up west”.  First we had to cut out 6 calves which had crossed the river and two fences to return to their mothers after having been separated.

            That wasn’t much of a ride, as the cows were bunched only a half mile from the corrals.  We rode out, raked through the cows, took the six pairs on out through two gates and across the bridge, and into the corral, where we quickly separated them. 

            We returned to the cow-bunch, and discovered one of the neighbor’s bulls among them.

            Now was the time to cut out the bull, as we were only a few hundred feet from the neighbor’s fence, and we were about to move those cows a couple of miles west.

            But he wouldn’t cut.


            When I tried to turn the bull back, he just ran until we were even with him, then he shouldered through my horse and kept on agoing. 

I tried to throw a few cows together with him – but he was determined to head west away from his home.  I was alone with just a horse and a dog, and couldn’t hold a small bunch together with the bull.

We could have left him with the cows, but we were headed a couple of miles west – making it harder for the neighbor to retrieve him.

We could have turned the whole cow-herd back into the neighbor’s near-by corrals - but if we couldn’t cut him back with the horse in the pasture, how could we cut him back in the corral where we had no space to evade his charge?

Roping a bull out on the prairie is not a task to be taken on without some prior planning, and I’ve written a story about that.  But this was a young bull that didn’t outweigh my horse by much, and the corral was only a quarter of a mile away.  I stopped to tighten my cinches, then shook out a loop.

After having lost a couple of critters because my rope was too short to dally, I was now carrying a 45’ rope.

The rope was long enough to dally this time, but I was too late in jerking my slack: he had already stepped through with both his front feet - and when I pulled tight, the rope was around his chest.  I was slowing down.

Taking one front leg in a neck-loop can be a good strategy: it keeps a critter from choking down.  But with both front legs in the loop, I had a minimum of control.

The wolf advocates of our country think it is “cruel and unusual punishment” to shoot a wolf who is tearing apart one of our cattle.  They instead insist on the strategy of making the wolf “feel unwelcome”.  With a rope around the neck of this younger bull, I could have controlled him; but with the rope around his chest, I could only make him ‘feel unwelcome’.

That strategy worked in this case. I didn’t have enough control to take the buIl back through the gate into his own pasture, but Eric was able to push the cow-herd on west while I held the bull back, and made him feel unwelcome among our cows.

The bull was now separated from the cows, but my good rope was still on him.  I couldn’t force him back to the corral to pull the rope off in the chute.  I couldn’t choke him down and tie his back feet while I pulled off the rope.  Robby was due to arrive any time now, however, and we could ride out together to head and heel him to get this lingering rope off the bull's chest.

It was late and cold before Eric and I had dropped the cows up west and returned to headquarters.  The bull couldn’t get into any trouble with just a rope on his chest.  Tomorrow would be a bright new day.  Tomorrow we could go out and put that bull back in the field where he belonged, and retrieve my good 45-foot rope.

If you like this story, you'd enjoy my book Ain't This Romantic!?!