“Macho…” Jorge shouted. “Alto!”
“Macho” was not the right thing to be during the roundup season. It was like being long banks in September of 2008; you were going to get killed.
“If ever you are in the sluices,” we warned Elizabeth, “and they say ‘Alto!’ you should make a run for it.”
“Macho” means male. And on a cattle ranch, male animals are few. The ratio is one bull per 20 cows. The finest of the young males are spared…and destined to a life of procreation. The rest get sent “alto” – to the upper field…and then to the slaughterhouse (usually after being fattened up a bit before they get there).
We brought about 400 cattle over the pass from Compuel. As far as we know, only three died. One calf made it all the way to the corral down at the ranch and then fell down. We left it alone on the ground…hoping it would get back on its feet. It never did.
“There was something wrong with it before we left,” Jorge warned. The vaqueros would normally cut up a fallen calf and have it for dinner. This one, they didn’t dare eat.
The other two dead cows died of wounds inflected by the vaqueros themselves. One – a fat young black steer – was singled out of early retirement…it was the quest of honor at a barbecue at the ranch house. The other was cut up by the vaqueros and portioned out between them. We saw it when we headed back up the hill to the house at lunchtime. It was on its back and on the ground… Three vaqueros were working on it. Its hide had already been cut off. Even from the head. Otherwise, the animal was still intact. Pedro was beginning to cut the head off with a saw as we passed. Later in the day, the skinned head, with horns, sat on the wall like a devil’s head. The vaqueros made the sign of the crucifix when they walked in front of it.
Every once in a while, the bulls would begin pushing against each other. Once they got into such a squabble they broke through the main gate. Another time, a huge bull charged where we were working. All of us jumped the fence or climbed the sluice to get away. Then, we got back to work…
“Macho…alto!” “Hembra…bajo.” (Female…to the lower paddock.)
Jorge judged every animal.
As each animal got stuck in the jaws of the sepa, a whole team got to work. One of the vaqueros injected it against brucellosis. Another gave it an anti-parasite medicine.
Cosimir, a young man wearing a red trucker’s cap, put a pair of tongs in its nose and gave a tug…forcing open its mouth so we could look at the teeth.
We watched Cosimir’s face…intent on his work; each time he pulled on the tongs, his own mouth opened…his tongue went out to the side.
“Sin dientes…alto.” (No teeth…upper paddock.)
“Llena boca…bajo.” (All her teeth…lower paddock.)
Each cow was also treated to an ear tag and an earmark. Each yellow plastic tag has a number, so the animal can be identified and recorded. The tags are punctured through the ears like rings. Then, a v-shaped cut is made in the ear too – further identifying the cow as one of ours.
The cows kicked and bawled. But your editor had already closed the gate behind them. And Pedro had closed the sepa on their necks. They were stuck until we were finished with them.
Young macho calves were singled out for special torture. Once the injections had been made, ears cut and pierced, a rawhide rope was put around their necks. They were dragged into a small paddock next to the sepa. Then, they were held down by two vaqueros while the third cut off their testicles.
The first day, Edward, 15, wearing boots and a cowboy hat, learned to lasso the young calves. He was soon put to work helping Omar castrate the machos:
“I just held them down. Omar asked if I wanted to cut off their…well…you-know- what…but I didn’t want to do it. He was using a Swiss Army knife. I thought they used rubber bands. That’s what they use in France. But Omar says the rubber bands are not always successful. Sometimes they fall off. This way, there’s no doubt about it.”
Over the three days, Edward helped castrate dozens of young calves.
We finished with the cows from Compuel on the first day. By late afternoon, we were checking the horizon for signs of the second group. For while we were working on the thin cows from the high country, other vaqueros were on out the range rounding up hundreds more of them.
Towards the north, we saw a cloud of dust.
“There they are. They’ll be here in about an hour,” Jorge calculated.
It was already nearly 6:30 pm. The sun was going down. Soon, it would be dark.
“We’ll get them into the big paddock…and work on them tomorrow,” said Jorge.
The roundup lasted three long days. From sun-up to sunset, the dust rose up from the corral, along with the yells of the cowhands – including your editor’s. Without a break…the cowboys drove the cows into the sluices…the bright sun beat down…the injections…the frightened cows…the fighting bulls… By the time the sun set behind the mountain in the West, your editor was worn out. He could barely drag himself back up the hill to the ‘sala’ – the main ranch house.
But as he was going up the hill, he noticed, and not for the first time, what a beautiful place it was. It’s autumn in the Southern Hemisphere; the alamo trees have turned golden. Water is running in the streams. The grass is green. The sky is blue.
“I think what makes this place so stunning are the vivid colors,” said Elizabeth. “That…and the majesty of the setting.”
One on side, in the distance, is the snow-covered Nevada de Cachi. At the other, snow tops the Lomo de Negra too. Between them is a broad valley with cattle, vineyards, pimento, llama, barren desert, stones, cactus, and dry moonscape rock formations as well as dense, bottomland vegetation.
Until next time,
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