Another major part of corral work was separating, or “cutting” the cattle. Yearlings and cows that were not producing were cut out to be shipped off and sold. Sometimes there were cows that were slated to be moved to a different pasture.
Some cutting was done in the corrals from horseback, but cutting cattle on horseback necessitates something that was in pretty short supply on Date Creek Ranch: good horses. For sure none of the nags I got to ride when I was younger were any good at it. You need a horse that’s got a soft mouth (easy to turn) and that moves quickly when you need it to (see Lady).
That meant most of the cutting was done in the alley and no, I’m not talking about a narrow, garbage-riddled street behind the local dive bar. In corral parlance an alley is a long, narrow pen separating a number of regular pens. The gates for all the regular pens open outward onto the alley and they’re designed to be just long enough that when halfway open they reach across the alley, sealing it off.
We’d put a half dozen or so animals in the alley and push them all down to one end. We kids would each take one of the gates opening onto the alley. Dad would walk down toward the cows and as he got close they’d get nervous and bunch up. Even closer and eventually a couple of the more desperate ones would bolt by him. When it worked right he’d only let cows meant for the same pen get by him. Then he’d yell out who needed to get their gate open, the cows ran in, and everybody was happy.
Note that I said, when it worked right. In the real-life application, it hardly ever went that way. For one thing, the aforementioned gates were terrible, rickety things made of broken, splintery boards that had been poorly repaired with baling wire. In other words, you couldn’t swing them. You had to lift them and carry them. They were heavy and splinters were just a done deal.
For another, Dad always planned way too much to do and not near enough time to do it in. That meant lots of hurrying, and also working into the night time. And these modern ideas about treating the cattle gently and calmly, well, Dad had no truck with them. Dad was old school. Animals, like children, were expected to behave exactly as he wanted them to, when he wanted them to. Any animal that didn’t do that triggered the inevitable yelling and cussing. That led to cows—and people—that were generally pretty stressed out and cows tend to do a lot of charging around when they’re stressed out.
All of which means that the corrals were generally a chaotic, somewhat terrifying place, filled with large, panicky animals and massive clouds of choking dust.
What often happened was that a mixed group, destined for different pens, would all panic and run by him at once. At which point the logical thing to do would be to let them all run to the far end of the alley, then push them back with the others and start over. But that took too much time and we had an impossible schedule to keep. What actually happened was more like this:
Three cows are running at me. I’m only supposed to let the first one into my pen. I open my gate about two feet. The cows, seeing an escape from the dreaded alley, all bolt for the opening. The trick is to wait until the first one’s halfway through the gate, then slam it and slam it hard on her hindquarters. (They’re in a pack, so if I want until she’s all the way in to close the gate, I’m getting all of them.) If I’m lucky and quick enough, I’ll end up with her in the pen and shut out the two who are following.
Oh, and as soon as I slam the gate I have to jump quick and get my ass up the side of it, because those two other cows have a full head of steam and they’re just going to run over me if I don’t get out of the way.
Unfortunately, sometimes I was too slow with the gate, or the cows wouldn’t be denied their shot at freedom. Maybe the second one in line got her head in there and the gate rebounded on me.
Cue Dad shouting and cussing.
Cutting the cows was really one of the more exciting activities on the ranch. Honestly I don’t know how we didn’t all end up in the hospital on a regular basis.
One time we had two bulls in the alley and they started fighting. Now, most of the time the bulls were pretty mellow. They regarded us human beings as little more than annoying insects, so they didn’t waste energy even threatening us. But when they started fighting, that was a different matter. (Our bulls were Brahma crosses. Brahmas are the breed with the large, rounded lump of muscle on top of their shoulders. They are big animals.)
When bulls started fighting in the corrals, we had to get them separated as soon as possible. I mean, these were large, heavily muscled titans and against them a wooden corral is just so many toothpicks waiting to snap and fall on the ground. Heck, our corrals were so dilapidated that some of our fence poles would fall down if you just looked at them wrong.
The upshot was that once bulls started fighting in the corrals, we had to separate them or they were going to tear the place down. Even more problematic was what happened once one of them started to lose. When that happened, all that bull wanted was to bug out, go stand under a nice thick mesquite tree, and nurse his wounded ego. No mere corral was going to stop him.
I once saw one submarine the main entrance gate and just basically force his whole body under it, ripping most of it away in the process. Another time I saw one try to jump over the fence. It was pretty impressive. He jumped about six feet in the air, high enough to get his front quarters clear up and over the fence.
High enough, but not enough distance. He landed on top of the fence, just crushing it.
So I was working a gate and these two bulls started fighting in the alley. The fight started to spill my way so naturally I scooted inside the pen and got behind the gate. Then Dad starts yelling at me to open my gate. I picked up the end of the gate and swung it open as fast as I could, at the same time moving around the end of the gate so I can keep it between me and the bulls.
Right as I got the gate halfway open, where the end of the gate just touches the opposite side of the alley, I was sliding around the end of the gate. At just that point, the bulls slammed into the gate. The gate mashed into my chest, pinning me between it and the side of the alley.
I remember hearing this loud woof! sound, which only later did I realize was me, having the wind knocked out.
Then, thankfully, the bulls carried their fight into the pen and let me go. I didn’t have much time to nurse my wounds since right away Dad was hollering at me to close the damn gate already before some animal went where it wasn’t supposed to. I had some pretty good bruises afterwards, but no broken bones.