The cardboard cowboys are no longer. Surrounded by atmospheric dust, rusty windmills and pale morning skies, it’s easy to reduce people to symbols of the Old West, too. I meet bearded men in battered hats; old cowboys in tasselled chaps. Silhouetted against the Colorado sky, they’re as two-dimensional as the pictures I take of them. It's an odd feeling, looking back over the pictures from the first week; something like guilt, knowing now that there’s so much more flesh, blood, surprise, and nuance than the picture allows.
The change must have happened on Friday, because Saturday’s branding was a whole new world. That day, I stopped being a cut-out too. It was my third branding, my third encounter with Morgyn, Gilbert, Waco and the others. They’ve already heard my story and my accent, and I’ve heard theirs. It’s nice. We can talk about nothing just like everybody else.
On Friday morning, I stuck with Donna while the group spread out to gather the cows. We were at a place called Treetop, where there wasn’t a tree in sight. For a long time we were alone. Then cowboys cascaded in over the hill to my right, pushing cows into the dry valley like a black, many-backed river. Gradually the group reassembled behind the cows. Light refracted in the liquid dust, catching and re-catching in the valley as we rode towards the rising sun.
Near the back, toddlers perched on the front of their parents’ saddles, whilst veteran cowherds slapped ropes against their chaps at the front. I saw a green John Deere cap bobbing ahead of me, so I trotted to catch up with Morgyn. The good thing about cowboys is you can spot your friends a mile away by their hat and their horse. On the odd occasion I see a friend hatless, it takes me a moment to register who they are. Sometimes men tip their hats when they shake your hand and become unexpectedly bald in an instant. That’s what happened with the man who helped Morgyn and I at the back of the group. We’d taken personal charge of a particularly slow calf; either newborn, sick, or both. For such a small calf, he was awfully bold. He kept running through our horses’ legs, making him impossible to move in the right direction. Eventually Morgyn got off her horse and walked the calf by its tail.
At the branding pens, the scene had the balance of form and idiosyncrasy that’s characteristic of brandings. In many ways, it was the same: a metal pen with a clutch of lowing calves at one end, and, at the other, fifty people, and a pick up holding three coolers of beer and six trays of banana bread. This time there was a pop-up gazebo sheltering a lady wearing a facemask who was handing out eartags for the calves, and a little boy with a bucket and spade, building sandcastles in the dirt. A lady in a tye-dye shirt pointed out the difference between a fire brand and an electric brand. I hadn't even realised this was a fire brand. I was expecting the bonfire and the 6ft iron brands I’d seen for the Murube bulls in Spain. Instead, there was propane gas shooting a steady flame into a metal cylinder, heating up lightweight brands no longer than my arm.
Everyone between eight and twenty-five stood nearest the front, facing the ropers. We’re all poised for the chance to flank. People don’t go easy on me anymore. If I want to flank, I’ve got to fight for my position on the calf just like everybody else. I start by going for the smallest ones, but those are in high demand with so many kids around. A proud, gap-toothed toddler sits on her dad’s lap while he kneels on the calf’s shoulder. Her mum takes a photo. I set my sights a little higher, and fought off a teenage boy for the back end of a stocky little bull. Luckily the boy didn’t back off very far. My grip on the steer’s hock was slipping. When the moment came, steeped in the now-familiar smell of branding, the steer jerked suddenly. He kicked out at my face and in dodging his hoof I almost let go. I’ll be damned if this steer gets the better of me. I put his leg under my armpit and held on for dear life. The boy stood on the steer’s other leg to keep him still enough for the next branding iron.
I heard someone behind me say, “Old England’s catching on pretty good, huh.” By the time I’d stood up, they were gone. I shook hands with the boy, "Cheers."
“No problem,” he said, “I’m Chance,” tipping his hat and rubbing the dust out of his mullet.
I got talking to Johnny and Jared: the manager of this ranch, and his son. Both were wearing tweed waistcoats, burgundy neckerchiefs, and round, wire-rimmed dark glasses. Jared was armed with a clear blue gun full of anti-parasitic spray. It leaked so he had to stand with it pointing upwards, as if ready to duel. Neither of them would be roping today.
“You usually don’t at your own branding," said Jared, "Give everyone a chance, you know.”
And, everyone did get a chance. Gary put his arm around my shoulders while he introduced me to some friends and patted me on the back when I chose the correct beer, “Atta girl.” Beer’s known as ‘aiming oil’. Maybe that’s what inspired Gary.
“We’ve gotta get you roping, girl. I’ll talk to Johnny. You’re gonna get you a calf.”
I told him I’d never even heeled a dummy before, let alone a live animal.
“Doesn’t matter. You’ve got try and that’s enough.”
He recruited the two best ropers to help me shape the calf, and sent me in. Like some bizarre fairground game, I was told I had to rope a calf with a blue tag; the orange-tagged ones were already branded. Obviously I missed. The rope hit the calf’s rump and bounced off. Once, I managed to throw it under a calf’s heels, but he stepped out of the loop before I could pull it tight. At last, I got a calf by one heel. Normally you’d let it go, but everyone shouted “Pull pull pull!”, and my horse decided the calf was caught. He turned around and began striding towards the branding fire. I gripped the rope hard, determined not to let my fluke calf go, but the rough nylon slipped through my hands and was gone. Gary handed me back the rope, “Now dally dally dally!”. It took all my strength to wrap my rope around the horn of the saddle, and we were there. I had him. I bade my horse stride up to the crowd of flankers, proudly dragging my first calf.
All the ropers had tips, especially Gary: I was dallying upside down, throwing the rope too slowly and my aim was way off. Somehow, getting advice meant they thought I could take it, and that I had potential to get better. Not one roper pitied me with a “Good job.” It would’ve been a lie anyway. But, they did ask when I was going to try for my next calf. I grinned. Gary said he was proud of me in the car home. Donna relived it all with me while I watched the video, still reeling.
I barely took a single photo the next day. Suddenly, I felt one of the gang, just another girl at another branding. Morgyn’s dad spotted me standing alone, came over to say hi, then added, “Morgyn’s in the car, by the way.”
I’m not over the aesthetic, but I feel as if I’m below the surface, now. It’s one thing to see a guy rope; it’s another to know that if money were no object, he’d own a small cattle ranch in Texas. My friend Gilbert tells me he’d love to train horses full-time. His daughter Tecla sits in front of him on the saddle. She’s four, already learning to be a cowgirl. Morgyn’s all set to go to college to do a Tech programme for John Deere. Her dad said he didn’t know what he’d do on the ranch without her. His hands are covered with scabs, scars and plasters. Hers are dotted with fresh wounds. Their eyes meet as they compare their hands and they both smile. Then he pushes up his glasses, squeezes her shoulder, and heads off for another beer.
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