The Big Gather

by Barry Denton

Not too many years ago there was this big friendly fella around town that everyone liked. Jonah was a hit at coffee shops, the feed store, and the liars’ bench.

The man had an infectious laugh, loved to poke fun, and was consistently as good natured as you could get. I would guess him at about six foot tall and probably weighed upwards of 350 pounds. The man’s appearance was always kind of sloppy, and atop his head was a sweat stained cowboy hat that had seen better days.

Jonah was a true desert cowboy and wore his long handles all year long. I suspect every western town has one of these colorful characters. The truth is that on occasion he would go out and work on some big job, then come home until he ran out of money.

No one really knew what Jonah did when he went out of town, but when he returned his pockets were full. If you needed money he would loan it to you, or if your business needed an infusion of cash Jonah would do that too. Many of the town folks would always owe this guy so he was treated pretty well at the store, the saddle shop, and the café etc.

Jonah did not have a family, so his family was his town. I did not know him to ever have an enemy, but what Jonah did have was a cow herd.

Remember, I told you that Jonah’s family was the townspeople. When roundup time came he invited everyone in town to help with the roundup. For cowboys, he would have store keepers, bankers, dentists, funeral directors, and anyone else that would be willing to help out. It got to be quite the social event as the men went to work cattle and all the ladies went to prepare a big meal at the end of the day.

Inevitably someone would bring a guitar and fiddle and there would be a big dance after the meal. Needless to say was that it was great fun for all, unless he hired you as a serious cowboy to actually gather some cattle.

You have to understand that Jonah had one of the worst leases from the Bureau of Land Management. He got the lease for a song as none of his ranching neighbors would touch it. It was very mountainous which was rocky and hard to ride in. The lower part was desert where scarcely a cactus grew.

I don’t remember how many acres it took to support a cow, but the ones it did support never looked real good and were kind of wild eyed. Part of the reason for the wild eye and the high heads is that Jonah only ever had one roundup per year, and he had one cowboy hired to ride over one hundred square miles of lease land. The regular cowboy was much like the cattle as he never saw another human except about once a year.

For those of you that are not familiar with the cattle business, most ranchers keep checking their cattle on a regular basis so they get used to humans. Also, they normally have two roundups during the year, one in the spring and one in the fall.

There happened to be six of us cowboys hired at this year’s roundup and then we had the town folk too. The drill was that the cowboys would start gathering up in the mountains about three days before the towns people came. There were a couple of large traps at the base of the mountain if you could get your cattle there. Mostly we roped and tied cattle to trees and led them to the traps the next day. It was slow and annoying work.

By the time the townspeople came the cattle would be better broke to handle. Then we would line the townspeople up on both sides of the desert and take the cattle to the shipping pens with great fanfare. The townspeople liked to whoop and holler so those cattle we just got settled down would become wild again. I will say that the stampede to the shipping pens was always entertaining as a few always got bucked off and hurt. It was much more like running the bulls in Pamplona, Spain than it was like a normal ranch.

When the cattle did get into the shipping pens before dinner Jonah would stand up on this little platform and give a speech. He would tell everyone what good cowboys they were and give an updated report on the injured. During the next week if you went to do some business in town half of the business owners would be banged up and proud of it. They loved to tell stories of the great roundup. However, this year was a little different.

Jonah was kind of a sloppy guy and never really paid much attention to detail. His shipping pens were wired together and never very good. The trouble was that with his type of crazy cattle you needed good pens to hold them.

Just as he was crawling up on the little platform to give his speech the portable microphone he was carrying screeched. That is all the cattle needed, they hit the fence on the opposite side from Jonah and of course down it went. Cattle stampeded back to the mountains and you were not going to stop them. Jonah was a little disappointed and just said “Aw we’ll just get’em next year, let’s eat!”