Lee Pitts: Dust to dust
“Good fences make good neighbors.” Robert Frost
I’ve read countless articles on ways to make your feed last when drouth has you in a death grip but not one of them mentions the cheapest, easiest and most prevalent way to stretch your grass. That is, simply cutting a hole in your fence and letting your cows graze on your neighbor’s place. If you run a cow-calf operation there is an additional bonus: your cows will probably get bred to a higher quality set of bulls.
A man we called One Thumb ran 200 cows with just a homeplace of 600 overgrazed dryland acres. He did so by spilling them on to four neighboring ranches. One Thumb’s ranch looked like the second coming of the dust bowl and he didn’t have to prod his cattle to look for feed elsewhere, they stampeded on to neighboring range. The neighbors were very discreet in dealing with One Thumb. Now myself, I don’t believe in being discreet; I don’t mince words or vegetables. To me, tact is horse gear. But, I admit, I never had a neighbor like One Thumb. The neighbors were so careful because One Thumb was a huge, mean man who supposedly lost his thumb in a knife fight years ago. This is not the kind of character you want to irritate. He also had a lovely wife who often cooked and delivered delicious berry cobbler to the neighbors.
The neighbors came up with some novel ways to deal with the involuntary pasturing of One Thumb’s cattle. One Christmas neighbor #1 wrapped up a set of brand new fence pliers along with a box of staples, put a bow on top and mailed it to One Thumb anonymously, along with a set of instructions on how to use them.
At least neighbor #2 had the courage to deliver his present in person. He gave One Thumb a brand new pup out of his great working Australian Shepherd bitch with hopes that when the dog got older it would make it easier for One Thumb to separate and gather his cattle and take them back home. But the pup hated life at One Thumb’s place and kept running back to her birthplace, so now neighbor #2 had to feed One Thumb’s cows and his dog.
Neighbor #3 got up the gumption to send One Thumb an invoice for 12 months of grazing for 200 cows but this worked as well the fence pliers and the pup.
Neighbor #4 posted “quarantine” signs, faked a letter from his veterinarian and sent a trichomoniasis testing kit for One Thumb to test his cattle for the abortion disease. But One Thumb didn’t care, his cows had been infected with Trich for years. In fact, he figured he was the source of the new outbreak on neighbor #4’s place.
No one wanted a range war and they all wanted a peaceful settlement. Neighbor #2 even volunteered to sell his place to a bison breeder and run off with One Thumb’s wife in retaliation, and they all mulled over the possibility of just slapping their brand on all of One Thumb’s calves that were grazing on their places at branding time. But these folks weren’t crooks or rustlers, they just wanted their ranches back.
The problem was solved when One Thumb put to rest the old bromide that only the good die young, when he keeled over from a heart attack while pushing some cows onto #3’s place. This came as quite a shock to all who knew him because no one had even considered the remote possibility that One Thumb had a heart.
To make sure he was really dead the neighbors all attended One Thumb’s funeral and listened to the glowing praise the preacher heaped on the miserable man, proving yet again that the biggest metamorphosis a person undergoes is between the time they die and when their eulogy is delivered. The neighbors managed to stifle their guffaws when the preacher listed all of One Thumb’s noble traits, but when he came to the part about One Thumb being such a good neighbor, #3 asked neighbor #1 in a voice the entire congregation could hear, “Are we at the right funeral?”
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The thing I miss most from my childhood is raising steers for the fair. I’ve never found any activity since that provided the same competitiveness, camaraderie, financial reward, fun or friendship. And when I say…