By Mike Thomas, February 1, 2010
I got a phone call yesterday from a ranch friend who was going through another Montana winter and all the difficulties of wintering a bunch of mother cows when calving has not yet started. We got to tradin' and swappin’ Montana and Colorado winter ranch stories, and we both had a bunch of them. Many of you that read this will know exactly what we were talking about, and then again many of you will not know what this kind of life is like. Like an old friend of mine said about cowboying and ranching, "it's days and weeks of endless boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror!"
I had to laugh! It only took two minutes for me to flash back 41 years to a time in 1969. It was on Mike Cervi’s Stoneham Ranch, when a real bad fall blizzard hit just before Halloween.
Fall and Spring blizzards in Colorado
Those of us with many years of ranch and feedlot experience in Colorado dreaded the real bad Fall and Spring blizzards. They were most
often very wet and could ice over a cow's eyes and nose to the point of
suffocating, or worse, a cow could drift into a snowed-over creek or bar
ditch and suffocate upside down in a self-inflicted avalanche. Anybody that has run cattle in Eastern Colorado has many stories about the tragedies that can happen. In 1967, the first year I was in Colorado, I was working for a 22,000-head feedlot when a Spring blizzard hit. We had about 2,500 yearlings grazing behind hot-wire fence on after-feed, the crop residue of corn, alfalfa and beet tops. The morning after the blizzard the yearlings went through the shorted-out fences and drifted from ten to twenty-six miles south with the storm. It took us six months to find the last one still alive. I flew with a friend of mine, Jim Osborn, over many a set of corrals going 26 miles south of Fort Morgan, Colorado (Glen Miller’s home town, by the way), swooping down close enough for me to read the brands on the penned cattle. About five years later, a Halloween storm blizzard killed 20,000 head in one night in many counties of eastern Colorado.
The call from Freddie
A huge Fall blizzard hit in October that year, 1969. I got a call from my friend Freddie Thomas (no relation) who had suffered a heart attack the previous summer at a roping in Fort Morgan, Colorado. We both knew that the blizzard was coming. I loaded up my ever-faithful Rocky Bob in Brush, Colorado, and was at the ranch in about an hour, where I penned and fed him good. When the blizzard hit, you could feel the force of the wind and snow throughout the house, which was higher on the hill and looked down to the corrals surrounded by big trees and out-buildings. The corrals were buffered from the storm all night. But the house shook in the blizzard. Even the water in the toilet bowls went from East to West and then North to South. Freddie, Jean, Wes, "Little Fred" and I all knew this was a bad one.
Breakfast Freddie Thomas calls the shots
Hearing the wind and snow shake the house all night made for an interesting lack of sleep! In the morning, Jean fed us all while Freddie and I looked out the South-facing window (towards Stoneham, which was about 10 miles South) to thousands of acres of the eastern plains of Colorado. We both know that cattle would drift Southeast with the blizzard and pile up in corners of fence lines where they would be trapped. We both knew that cattle would go into draws and creeks that ran from the Northwest to the Southeast, or they'd drift and plunge into snowed-over creeks and get buried in the snow that drifted over their backs, and suffocate. We both knew that the ones drifting with the blizzard and then hitting an East-West fence would collect; some would go through the fence and keep drifting to the Southwest. We also knew that their eyes and nostrils would freeze over with wet snow and nostrils as well and they'd maybe suffocate, standing on their feet. It was not the kind of snow that draws people to the Colorado mountains for fun. No fun here! We both knew these things, but only focused on what had to be done and had no need to discuss it.
Freddie, due to his Summer heart attack, could not ride at all, and this damn near gave him another heart attack. Like all real Ranch Managers, to be incapacitated at a moment like this can destroy everything in you and you can’t help one single cow or calf! Freddie was only 36 years of age. The pain was more than evident on his face; he was old beyond his years at that moment.
While eating a great breakfast served by Jean, Freddie laid out the plan for the day. "Well, let’s gather the cattle that are closest to the Headquarters to start with, after we get the horses and leppys (orphan calves) fed, grafted and taken care of. Then we will gather the ones out of the fence corners and be real careful how we knock the ice covering their eyes and noses. Make sure when you use a stick to knock the ice off, or ride by and kick one in the eye with your stirrup, you're prepared to get the hell out of there, because she will be on the hook!"
The important thing here is that Freddie was still the Ranch Foreman and even if he could not go, he knew that lining out the cowboys for the day is the most sacrosanct and respected role in life. Real good cowboys over the last 100+ years learned early on, "Never ask the Boss anything, nod your head and get your ass in the saddle and line out."
Our cowboy crew included Wes Thomas and I and Little Fred, who was only 6 years of age going on 40, with a "snooze can" in his hip pocket. Little Fred did the barn chores while Wes (age 13, if I remember right) and I followed the plan for the day. Oh yeah - when Wes and I rode out the yard, Little Fred said, "You boys gather them. I know you can get it done!" That was Little Fred, old beyond his 6 years, already running the outfit!
The afternoon clean-up of stranded cows and calves
Wes and I got the job done in the morning and all went pretty well, with a few cows "on the hook" when we busted them out of a snow drift, and we had a lot of laughs over that. We also found more calves smothered by the snow as well, some dead, some orphaned. It could have been worse! Wes went off to the East to find some more while I went west of the Headquarters to look for some more. The morning gather was hayed and they stayed on feed and water with no ice.
Then I spotted a Northwest to Southeast creek about 10 feet deep, fully covered over from the same diagonals from the blizzard. Rocky Bob and I followed the creek Northwest and in just a few minutes spotted one stinking cow and calf on the South side of this 10 foot deep, snowed-over creek! Rocky Bob and I both knew that a direct line across the blown-over creek with over 10 feet of snow would be our grave for at least a month! The wind was still blowing hard, 40+ MPH, enough to make Rocky Bob and I make slow progress in the Northwest direction on the North side, with drifting snow stinging both of our faces and eyes.
We rode about a mile up that creek and came over a small ridge, and out jumped out about 8-10 antelopes. They took off in the same direction up the creek and by damned they found a low spot on the creek and crossed to the South side. Rocky Bob and I said, "Great! If it is good enough for the antelope, it's good enough for us."
With antelope tracks across real fresh, Rocky Bob and I agreed, "We will cross here."
Rocky Bob disappears
El Stupido (me) rides my friend Rocky Bob across and within two strides, his head, along with the rest his 1225 pounds, completely disappeared along with my saddle horn. I was chest-level deep in snow and no Rocky Bob! I don’t know even to this day that I can possibly explain what went through my know-it-all, stupid-ass 29-year-old cowboy's infantile mind. Shock would be a great start!
I rolled off to the side and started scooping snow down to Rocky Bob's left eye, and when it appeared, it was bigger than a hubcap on a semi truck, scared and staring blankly at his so-called pardner! After another small period of time I'd cleared his left nostril and then the right one. I was scooping snow with my hands faster than a dog digging a hole to China, with snow flying between my legs like a human snow blower! Then I started freeing up his legs with my head down, my ass now at nostril level in front of him. When I got him free enough, my friend Rocky Bob lunged forward and shoved me under the snow, head down with my ass exposed to the Colorado sun!
I crawled out and there was Rocky Bob on the South creek bank, looking at me (El Stupido) as if to say "slick move Sherlock!" That is when I first realized that Rocky Bob was way smarter than the dumb ass previously on his back. That was just one of many times over the last 65+ years that I have had to apologize to a horse that was way smarter than me. If you don’t have humility when around the horse, he will soon find a way to humble you. Like Ray Hunt said for many years, "What you need to know first is what you learn last."
You ain’t going to believe this...
Rocky Bob actually let me get back on and we rode the South side, circled around that stranded pair and pushed them back up the South side of the creek for over a mile into the wind - and cattle don’t like being driven into a 40+ MPH wind. Again, Rocky Bob was smarter than me, and with his eyes and mine 80% closed from the icy snow, he made all the right moves. But I took all the credit, you know. (Those of you that might not know: in all bad storms of any kind, horses and livestock turn their butts to the wind and hunker up.)
Here, my friends, is the worst part! About 50 yards Northwest of where I'd made my stupid decision, that dumb ass cow and calf found the only spot to cross where no snow existed - a crossing with no #@**!!^^!!***## snow At ALL! Not only was Rocky Bob smarter - so was that dumb ass cow and calf!
We crossed and took the pair back to the Headquarters, a normal 1.5+ mile ride that turned out to be about 5 miles, due to the snowed-over creek, and when I got there I said something just as dumb as this: "Yeah, Rocky Bob and I saw her across the creek and got the job done." It has only been in the last few years that I could admit how my impatience could have killed us both, me and my friend Rocky Bob! To this day when I hear someone say, "This is a stupid horse!" or "That is one stupid cow!" I grin and walk off with a smile knowing that stupid horse and stupid cow were way smarter than the jerk and his opinion.
When I brought that pair into the Headquarters, I sure as hell was not going to admit to Little Fred what happened. He wanted to know, "How come it took so long?" Age 6 in 1969! Later I told his Dad Freddie what happened and he understood why I did not want to tell Little Fred.
Thanks Rocky Bob!
You took care of me for several years, even in the middle of ignorant decisions I made, and you always made me look good, never took credit, and loved me deeply in your horse way. I still don’t know why? You were ridden by World Champions of Rodeo, but you could care less; you took care of the stupidest person that probably ever put a leg over you. We roped hundreds upon hundreds of cattle, sorted hundreds upon hundreds of cattle a'horseback, joined in many rodeos and ropings in at least six states, drug lots of dead cattle out of feedlot pens, gathered and doctored hundreds of sick cattle, and so much more. You stood by when I got off you and would brag to anyone listening what a good job I did that day. You always listened my friend, you always listened. I wish now I listened more to you, my friend. Thanks for making me look good over several years (1962-1971).
You were a winner from the day you were born until your last day!
A word or two about Rocky Bob
Rocky Bob was by Rocky Bob Jr. by Rocky Bob, by Flying Bob (Louisiana bred) and had lots of running blood on both sides of his pedigree. He was probably the fastest horse I ever rode to a cow, calf or anything when I nodded my head and called for stock. But he had something very few horses ever have: he craved to be riddin seven days a week, he craved cattle, he craved any job! When you came out of the back door he would watch you like a hawk and if you backed the pickup to the trailer he would just go nuts!
He would run up and down the fence in huge anticipation. When I would swing the trailer gate open, he nickered, whinnied, jumped, farted and bucked like a big kid! When I would go towards the gate he ran to it, waited for me to open it, and then shoved his nose in the halter. He always had halter manners and would never think of pulling on you for any reason, but he would get so excited about going somewhere that he would do the most beautiful piaff beside you, all the way to the trailer and with float in the halter rope. There are thousands of so-called dressage horses, then or now, that could not do so well.
Sometimes, just for fun, I would only open the gate and he ran to the trailer with no halter and jumped in and stayed there, while I walked up and closed the gate, and off we would go. He was an Arizona bred horse and like most, did not like to get his feet wet if he had a choice. His first Colorado Winter/Spring he spent it standing in a huge feed manger of 15 foot planks and when there, the top rail of the fence only came up to 4" above his pasterns! He could have jumped over the fence and been gone, but he never did. It was a heart warming sight for me to pull into the feed yards at 5 AM and pull up to the gate, step out, get a huge nicker from Rocky Bob standing on his feed manger pedestal. He could not wait to be saddled for a long or short day, as long as we were riding together and had a job to do.
Feedlot work, outside pasture work
When we spent hundreds of hours of cutting up to a 100 sick cattle a day out of pens, he did not worry about the slick pens at all! He was hooked onto each and every bovine and he did not like losing one, and in fact, would get mad about it. Not one ever got by him twice, even when the pens were slicker than snot with ice as well! At least a couple of times a day, I had to lass one and drive and drag it out of slick semi-frozen pens, and he never fell once.
In 1969, I took on a thousand head of yearlings to run on wheat pasture around Otis, Colorado, and my partner in the venture never showed up, not once. So it was up to Rocky Bob and I to doctor at least 20-40 head of short yearlings a day. The real sick ones were easy because they could not run anywhere, so you rode up, double-hocked them, rode up short, tied off, got off and treated them with a battery of injectibles and boluses that we packed with us.
Then you'd get one that was wild and on the hook! Some were near dead and some were just not quite sick enough, but wild. Since we were alone in the middle of Nowhere, Colorado, Rocky Bob and I tripped them in a whammo-slam-down and we were tied hard and fast at that point! He got to really liking it when I would run up, rope one, ride by, lay the trip and the bovine would make a half-gainer in the air and slam to the ground and drag them (500 pounds). I'd get off while he was still dragging and, using a steer string, tie up three legs. As soon as I got to the bovine, Rocky Bob was watching and quit logging, but damn sure kept the bovine's head pinned to the ground. The doctoring was plumb simple after this!
Rocky Bob always understood the job we were doing and he was way smarter than me in preparing himself. It did not make any difference where we were or what we were about to do, he knew what his job was and understood it. He craved it! He loved it!
Rocky Bob loved life and any job it presented
A couple of years later, Rocky Bob passed away in my arms while writhing with a twisted intestine. While he was in the throes of death, I held his head so he would not bang it on the hard ground. He was smashing me into the ground, but I held tight with tears flowing, crying like a baby, and this did not quit for many hours later and even now. I am popping a tear while I write this and I am not embarrassed at all. He died on the same ground where just a week before the trailer was parked and he ran to get in. He is still buried there now, 41 years later on the South side of the curve of the Brush/Sedgewick Highway, just North of Brush, Colorado.
Two paintings and many rodeo pictures exist in Sharon’s house for our girls, Michelle and Shannon, and our grandchildren to enjoy, and I am glad. I am also sure that not one of my children or grandchildren will ever know how incredible that horse was that is pictured so well. "Pretty horse, pretty horse", they might say, and that is the way it should be.
Thanks, Rocky Bob - you were always my Pard, I will always love you!
PS: This is Rocky Bob One. Yet to come are Rocky Bob Two, Three and Four and another phenomenal horse, Quartermaster, born Aug 31, 1940, died in Winter 1971.