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Dusty-Corral School of Learning

By Jon Remmerde / November 5, 1992

THE old gray mare bucked straight up, into a shape like an inverted V, and Jack, the rider, continued up toward the bright blue sky about 15 feet. At this apogee, he laid out flat in the air, facing the sky. Then he contorted and twisted himself in an amazing fashion until his feet were downward, responding to gravity's insistence, and landed in the dusty corral dirt in a crouch, with his bending knees as shock absorber, unhurt.

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John, owner of the ranch and of the gray mare, was close to my right. I asked him, "Did you see that?"

He asked, "See what?"

"Jack just got bucked off. I never did see anything like what he went through to get his feet downward and land right."

"Well, Jackie's been bucked off a few times."

"What would have made her buck him off?"

"Don't know. The old gray mare, she's kind of a one-man horse. Maybe she realized I'm standing over here, and somebody else was up in the saddle."

John was never in the least disturbed by nor inclined to make fun of my relative ignorance about horses and cattle. He was the best man I ever worked for. He didn't pay a top wage, but he was generous with "please" and "thank you" and had a crew more devoted to him, and to the work that had to be done, than many ranchers who paid better wages.

My job, as caretaker of the ranch in the Blue Mountains in Oregon's northeast quarter, included irrigation work and fence repair. The cattle stayed on John's ranches at lower elevation near Unity through the winter and in national forest in the summer. In the fall, after the hay was cut, riders drove them down from the forest, and they grazed the stubble and the places on the meadow we couldn't cut until snow covered the grass.

I didn't work with the cattle much, so when I did, it was a learning experience.

Rick was a cowboy who stayed the summer in a cabin down the river about two miles at Cow Camp with his wife and their two small daughters. They rode the national-forest grazing allotments, looking for cattle in any kind of trouble, keeping them out of the streams as much as they could, and moving them to better grass when they grazed an area short.

When there was work to be done with cattle at the Whitney corrals, Rick came up and helped.

Rick specialized in working twice as fast and hard as was needed and swearing three times as much as could be believed. The first time I went to the corrals, which were 100 feet from our house, to work the cattle, the main project was driving calves through a narrow wooden chute, about 30 feet long, into a metal squeeze chute, where they were held immobile to receive insecticide and injections.

The crux of the project was getting the line of calves to move forward when a calf was released from the squeeze chute and another was needed.

Rick told me, "No matter what you do, you're going to get kicked, so you might as well get kicked and get it over with."

He jumped down into the wooden chute, twisted the last calf's tail, pushed, got kicked, and swore. I've worked with men who used rough language, but Rick came up with phrases I'd never heard before. I concluded that the desire to be original in his work methods and in his language was part of Rick's motivation for living.