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Postcard from the Past - Wild Cow Milking Episode

Written by Dick Perue

The following excerpts are from the writings of a pioneer Wyoming rancher:“A few weeks later found us all at the Sand Creek Ranch, on the eve of the beef roundup. Some thousands of our range herds were scattered far and wide through the grassy upland valleys of the Medicine Bow Mountains, east of the North Platte River. The time had come when it was necessary to collect the three- and four-year-old beef steers for the Chicago market. These were the ripened fruit, the saleable assets of the cattle-ranch, whose proceeds were destined to provide dividends for shareholders in the old country 5,000 miles away.

“Our program was arranged as follows: A friend and myself were starting next day for a month’s hunt in the Medicine Bow Range, where plenty of wapiti, deer and antelope and an occasional bear were to be found.

“At the end of that time, we were to meet Frank Earnest and the Pick outfit of some dozen cowboys, under Chico the foreman, at the far side of the range, when it was hoped some 300 or 400 beef steers would be collected ready for shipment to the Chicago autumn market. We should then have an opportunity of inspecting the beef cattle on their way to the railroad.

“The best-laid plans, alas! ‘Gang oft agley.’ The night before our departure Frank Earnest, Chico and I held a council of war. Chico, our foreman, was a sterling character, with considerable influence over the wild cowboy crew he commanded, a fine rider and with hardly an equal in skill with the rope and in general readiness and resource in an emergency. An incident in illustration of his qualities had occurred only that day. 

“The boys wanted a drink of milk, and of course, the tame old ranch cow had gone astray. Charley Smith and two or three of the hands had managed to drive a wild, young, two-year-old heifer into the corral, leaving the calf, her first one, bawling outside the eight foot log fence, which formed the enclosure. We all strolled down to watch Charley rope and throw the heifer preparatory to taking her milk. It was obvious from the first that the heifer in question strongly objected to the whole proceedings. She had probably never been inside a fence or been man-handled since the calf-brand of eighteen months before; her budding instincts of maternity were now about to be grievously outraged, and under these circumstances a wild two-year-old heifer can be more aggressive and dangerous than the most masterful bull on the range. Charley Smith climbed over the corral fence and walked slowly towards the heifer, impatiently pacing, with lowered head, ‘round the enclosure. The gallery sitting on the fence began to chaff. Chico leant carelessly against the outside of the corral, but it might have been noticed that his rawhide lariat lay, ready coiled, in his hand.

“‘Guess she’s on the fight, Charley. Mind you don’t spill the milk,’ remarked the crowd. Charley’s rope trailed in an open loop on the ground behind him, and with a dexterous twitch of the wrist, it was sent flying through the air. At that moment the heifer turned and charged quick as thought straight at him, and the flying loop just grazed, but did not catch, her horn. The man quickly turned and ran, gathering his rope as he did so. The gallery sat spellbound. The active, savage, half-bred Texas cow in a moment was at his heels and escape from her sharp-pointed horns seemed impossible, when, from beyond the far end of the corral, the snakelike coils of a lasso shot out into the air, and the loop at the end settled fairly over the head of the galloping heifer. 

“Chico had made his throw and then, quick as lightning, had taken a half-hitch round a corral post. The plaited rawhide rope tightened with a jerk and brought the enraged animal up all standing within a few inches of Charley’s heels, just a moment before he plunged head-foremost over the fence, while a wild yell of cheers and laughter went up from the delighted gallery. The heifer was duly thrown and milked, to an accompaniment of cowboy profanity, while the calf outside went supper-less. But the general opinion was that Charley had had a close call, and that Chico had postponed a funeral.

“To return now to our council of war. . . .”

But, then, that’s best left for another time.