Martin (pronounced Mar-TEEN) Carrillo limped from the fire to the squeeze chute with a branding iron in his gloved hand. By the time he pressed the iron against the steer’s hip, it was cool. Looking at the iron with disgust, he grumbled to himself, “Hmph. These damned irons are not getting hot.”
We were on the Granberg Ranch in Atascosa County, South Texas.
Martin had lived on the ranch his whole life. His hair and mustache were white, contrasting his dark brown face. He wore a blue Wrangler work shirt, buttoned at the neck, and Levi’s that were a few sizes too big. An old feed store cap, well-worn work boots, and a pair of leather gloves completed his outfit, which never changed year-round.
Though I never saw him on a horse, I heard that he had been a good horseman in his younger days. Now he rode a tractor.
Regardless of how important his mission was, the old tractor was always in first gear with a string of dogs trailing behind. “I used to have a weenie dog,” he told me. “Best cow dog that was ever on this ranch. She bit the cows on the ears and held ’em till I roped ’em.”
Years of building fence, breaking horses, doctoring cows, and planting wheat had slowed Martin down. He followed as we worked, sometimes opening or closing a gate, and supervised us boys with a disapproving look. He was usually quiet; but when things weren’t going smooth with the work, he looked disgusted and said, “Humph. Someday when I die, this whole damn ranch is going to go ka-put.”
Paul and I had gathered the crossbred cattle out of the blackjacks and live oaks. On the Granberg ranch, the rule was “slow and easy.” Running the fat off the cattle wouldn’t do, so gathering and penning took all day.
That night, we slept on the ground in one of the large pastures so that we would be ready to work the next morning. Paul’s job was to keep the fire going. Mine was to sleep.
The next morning, we broke camp and splashed icy well water over our faces.
No need for breakfast. Mrs. Granberg would have a lunch fit for kings at noon; and we knew that once we were full, she would force us to eat at least two more plates before dessert.
We were working in the old pens. The fire to heat the irons was fueled by boards that fell off the sides of the chutes. Like most cattle working pens, baling wire held together much of what was in place.
The horses were standing hip-shod and saddled inside the pen. The cows and calves, now separated from each other, were bawling.
Those that came out of the blackjacks were wild. One heifer had an old pickup tire around her head. No one could get near her to get it off, and she wouldn’t fit into the squeeze chute. We finally turned her out to keep her from tearing everything up.
As the cows came out of the working chute, blood pulsated out of their freshly tipped horns like a stream from a water gun. The animals ran around the pen trying to find a spot to bust out. Each time one of the cows passed us, horses, tack, and all were sprinkled with the spurting blood.
My job was to castrate the bulls. Paul kept the cattle moving through the loading chutes. The older men dehorned and vaccinated.
Martin worked the branding irons until someone who moved quicker relieved him. After that, he supervised and cussed to himself.
Not long after, a few months maybe, Martin was feeding the ranch horses. As he stood near the haystack, the horses on either side of him started fighting. They knocked Martin down and nearly trampled him to death.
When he healed enough to leave the ranch, he loaded his clothes and belongings in his beat-up white Chevy pickup. It was time for him to retire, so the Granbergs found him a place in town to spend his last days.
Without celebration, he left the ranch for town, driving slow enough for the dogs to follow.