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It’s that time of the year again. Actually, it happens twice a year, in the spring and then again in the fall. Riley and our cowhands trooped out to the barn. I followed with Jared on my hip. I figured I would be missing a fun day outdoors in the fall sunshine. However, when I found out what my husband and the hands were up to, I was happy to turn around and head back to the house to do a little fall cleaning. Branding calves is not all that it’s cut out to be, whether it’s a huge bunch in the spring, or the late calves in the fall.
I haven’t had to help brand Memory Creek calves, not since spring 1887, when I was carrying Jared. But I have branded Circle C calves. I bet Riley is wishing I could help him today. As I put Jared down and started washing dishes, I gazed out the window. It all came back.
I always, always wanted to brand a calf. It looked like such an important job. Chad and Mitch used to let me ride around with them and watch, but when I was nine years old, they let me help! Chad told me that whichever calf I lassoed, I could brand. It was easy to lasso a calf when the cows and calves are in a big pen. One toss, and I got my calf!
There is so much noise when the calves are being branded. The mamas want their babies. The babies want their mamas. There’s a small, hot fire kindled nearby, where the branding irons are kept. The hotter the better because then the branding goes faster for the calf. Mitch grabbed one of the red-hot irons and I held on too.
The first time I branded a calf I didn’t hold the iron down long enough, so Mitch had to keep it down for me. Three seconds might not seem long to you, but it’s a long time when the stink and the smoke is getting in your eyes and nose. And I felt real sorry for the calf. Oh, and did I mention the horrible stench of burning hair and hide? You just don’t forget that smell!
Mitch told me the calf barely feels the burn because his hide is so thick. Hmmm, not sure if I believe that, but once the calf is branded it does jump up and run off pretty quick. But how he can tell which cow is HIS mother I’ve not figured out yet. When there are dozens of cows in one of the pens bawling, they all look alike to me.
Ranchers like my brothers and now Riley round up the cattle a couple of times a year. Mostly to brand the new calves and to castrate the bull calves. You SO don’t want a bunch of bulls running around. You only want to keep the very best bloodlines. The rest of the male calves are castrated and become “steers.” The kind that grow big enough to be sold and eaten by the city folk. The bull calves don’t seem to care that much about being castrated either. But the Circle C ranch hands are mighty quick with their knives!
So, why go to all this trouble once or twice a year? A burned mark in the cow’s hide is the only way to tell who it belongs to. There aren’t any fences way out on the thousands of acres of range land, and sometimes all the ranchers’ cattle get mixed in together. But that’s OK. Come fall roundup, the ranchers sort everybody’s cattle out and give them back.
Branding also discourages rustlers from being too bold. If somebody is caught with a cow, one look at the brand will let the sheriff know who the cow really belongs to. This also works well with horses. And since horse-stealing is a hanging offense, it keeps most horse thieves either honest or very, very careful about which horses they try to steal. But this does not always work. Keep reading to learn how rustlers get away with making off with other ranchers’ cattle (or horses).
By the time I was finished with the dishes and Jared was down for a nap, I was up to my eyebrows remembering all my cattle branding experiences, especially the bad ones! The Circle C has seen its share of cattle rustlers (not to mention horse rustlers). Years ago, my friend Macy Walker’s lowdown thieving brothers made it a habit to rustle cattle. But how do you sell cattle with another rancher’s brand burned into every steer, cow, bull, and calf’s backside? Very carefully.
I didn’t think the Walker brothers looked that intelligent. Boy, was I wrong! They figured out a way to completely burn over the top of an original brand, turning it into something completely different and nothing like the real owner’s brand. Of course, some brands are pretty detailed, so it would be hard to make a branding iron that could change one of those easily. But unfortunately, our brand, “Circle C,” is quite a simple design. Here is how it’s done.
For example, the BAR S (– S) brand could be changed to a 48. Or if your name was Larson and your brand was an L, think how easily a rustler could change it to an E. This would completely cover up the original L.
The Walker brothers changed the Circle C brand by changing the “C” into an “O.” What do you have now? The Circle O brand. Ooh! It makes my blood boil, even now, remembering how those outlaws stole our cattle and horses. Right now, Memory Creek cattle have a Circle C brand. But soon, very soon, we need to create our own brand for the new calves.
Riley put these two ideas together. M for Memory and C for Creek. Not too original, but it doesn’t have to be fancy. The metal needs to be easy to work in the forge. Which do you prefer–horizontal or vertical? Either will work to sear into a calf’s hindquarters.