Photographing a branding on a legendary West Texas ranch was a privilege.
It was the quintessential cowboy experience, and the Four Sixes Ranch was kind enough to invite me along to its spring works in Guthrie, Texas.
I arrived in the afternoon while they were dragging calves to the fire. Next, they gathered the remuda from a large pasture and began roping the next day’s mounts, which would spend the night in the corral. Some of the cowboys shod horses later that afternoon. Dusty Burson and his brother True worked with a couple of colts. Some men took a dip in a nearby stock tank, while lifelong cowboy Brother Daniel worked outside his cowboy teepee on some of his gear.
Skipper Shepherd served supper under the wagon fly. While fierce clouds built to the west and weathermen issued a tornado watch, some cowboys played washers while others tried their hand at poker.
Under lantern light we ate bacon, biscuits and fried eggs. Dusty, Monte Hollar and Justin Johnson roped horses in the corral at dawn. I saddled up a Sixes gelding named Fadeaway and followed 17 men into the ranch’s largest pasture—about 15,000 acres. It would require two drives.
We trotted. And we trotted, cutting through an open, mesquite-pocked landscape, weaving through cacti, dropping into shallow draws and scrambling atop scenic mesas. The morning sunlight filtered through pink clouds, while jackrabbits popped out of cedar bushes and deer bolted away in the distance.
Wagon boss Reggie Hatfield split us into two groups, then his group continued east. One-by-one, he began dropping off cowboys, who began riding north. He assigned me a position between Tres Campbell and True. “Just stay between me and Tres,” True said.
I got behind a group of cows and calves that kept veering east, and in an effort to stay behind them I rode out of position. Reggie came loping and set me straight. Those cows would be gathered in the second drive. I loped back to my spot. Dang it!
We moved the cows north to a set of pens, then loaded the horses into trailers and drove back into the pasture to gather its southeastern side. I rode through thick trees, pushed cows north, and above all else kept an eye on the cowboy to my right and left, determined to stay in position.
When we arrived at the pens, the men began sorting the cows from the calves. Next, they unsaddled and took a break for lunch. Skipper brought sandwich fixings, chips and packages of cookies.
Once they began branding, everything moved along like clockwork. Two ropers entered the group of calves on the back fence, one working the left side and the other working the right. They heeled and dragged calves to the fire, with a ground crew flanking, branding, vaccinating and castrating the bull calves. Each roper dragged calves for a period of time, then chose which cowboy would spell him. Most of the crew got a chance to rope, including day workers and legendary Sixes cowpuncher Boots O’Neal.
After the work was done, Reggie began making arrangements for the next day, when the crew would pack up the wagon, move the remuda and set up their teepees in a new location.
Early in the evening I rolled up my bedroll, and Dusty and True helped me take down my teepee. “Come back next year and stay for several days,” they said.
“Thanks. I sure hope to.”
I threw my saddle, bedroll and chaps into the back of my pickup. But I drove home still wearing my spurs.