The following story is excerpted from the book A Million to One Odds (times five) This story is true, with only the names changed to protect the guilty!
Always the one to back an underdog, I once turned down two different jobs to go to work for less than half the pay for a family starting up their own cow outfit. They had around three hundred cows on summer pasture fifty miles from town and were buying another hundred fifty cows to add to the herd. Normally not near enough cows (or pay) for me, but I thought the family was nice and that I would enjoy helping them get started out.
The plan was to get things situated to be able to bring the new herd into the winter pastures at the edge of town, then wean the calves and bring the others in as well. I was to live in the basement when the cows were in close, and in a camp trailer when they were out on summer pasture. Now Garl’s father was a wheat farmer, and that should have been a dead giveaway, but I didn’t pay attention.
The first thing we did was to gather the cows in the summer pasture down close to the pens. Then we went back into town to get things ready for receiving cattle although we were several cows short on the gather. The next few weeks were spent fixing fence and starting a couple of colts and preg testing the soon-to-be-bought cows. When everything was about ready, Garl sent me out to summer camp with the colts to repair the pens so we could ship out and look for the shorts.
Things went fairly smoothly, except that the colts had never seen running water, and the cows were on the other side of the creek. In that type of country, the creeks cut a steep bank so the crossings are few and not the kind that you just whip and spur a green colt through without taking your life in your hands. After only two days, they more or less had it figured out, and the pens were repaired, but the lost cattle were still nowhere to be found. The plan was to make a quick circle on the third morning to check for them, then head into town and set the gates to receive the new cattle. But plans change.
I woke up at five to discover that the temperature had dropped rather severely, and there was nearly three feet of fresh snow on the ground. I figured this would help matters, as those missing cattle would be easy to track. I unplugged the truck and had the cattle fed by six, plugged the truck back in and saddled up. When I got back to the trailer around ten, I discovered the propane tank had run out so there was no heat. I figured I’d call the neighbor and let him know that I still hadn’t found the cows and to ask him to keep an eye out for them.
It was so cold that I had to manually return the dial back to its original position. When I got a hold of the neighbor, he informed me of the temperature. He’d checked it at 9:30, and it had warmed up to 45 below. No wonder I felt a little chilly; I’d been out in that bitter cold for over four hours, sitting on a horse.
I got into the pickup, yearning for and needing the warmth of the heater. As it turned out, the heater fan decided that this was the proper time to quit working. Oh well it was only 50 miles to town, and then I could warm up at the house and have lunch. The roads were icy and slick, so the normally hour-long trip took nearly three hours. When I got to the house, it smelled terrible. When I checked, the vent pipe had a stalagmite of ice blocking it. Once I had the vent pipe thawed out, I made a sandwich to eat on the way over to start shovelling the gates out so we’d be able to unload the cows and get them to the feed ground. I loaded the truck with hay and saddled a horse.
When Garl got there with the cows, he led them with the feed, and I followed on horseback to keep the stragglers going. Once we had them fed, Garl reached under the lid of the stock tank and untied the float. That’s when we discovered that the line was frozen. As it was nearly eight o’clock, he figured we would chop some holes in the ice on the pond in the morning and turn the cattle in so they could drink. Only fourteen hours after going out into the sub-zero weather that morning, I was finally someplace warm. After being in the house half an hour, while sipping on a cup of hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps, I discovered I had frostbitten three fingers and two toes. The discovery is made through the excruciating pain one feels upon thawing.
The next morning we were once again at it early. The first thing we did was to place a space heater in the culvert in the bottom of the dam, which the waterline was in. Then we fed the cattle into the trap containing the pond and started chopping ice. One of the hazards of watering cattle in this manner is that they do not always stand on the bank to drink. Before we finished chopping our holes, one of the cows came walking across the pond to get a drink and just happened to fall through the ice when she began to drink. We brought the truck around and started tying a rope onto her so we could pull her out when the ice broke once again. This time it was I who went through the ice. At least it was easier to get the rope around her, and it had warmed up all the way to thirty-five below zero. She was hypothermic by the time we got her out so we ran back to the house to get another generator, space heater, and tarp so we could build a tent over her and warm her up. Heck we even took time for me to change into warm clothes.
As we were feeding the next afternoon, the waterline freed up and a twenty-foot-high fountain shot up into the air at the water trough as Garl had wanted to leave the float valve off. Pulling the valve out of the glove box he handed it to me and told me to put it on. Now it was a balmy thirty degrees below zero, so I asked him about turning the water off before I tried to screw the valve back on. Good son of a farmer that he was, he never bothered putting a shut off valve on the system. Now trying to screw a valve onto the end of a pipe with fifty pounds of pressure behind it is never really easy, but in sub-zero weather, it is nearly impossible. Somehow, I managed to get it done. We put the lid back on the tank and stood there for a minute, making sure the float would shut off when the tank was filled.
After a few minutes, Garl decided it was time to feed and instructed me to jump up in the back of the truck and start throwing hay. I would have loved to have been able to oblige him, but I had two small problems. First my clothes were frozen solid, and I couldn’t even raise my arms. Secondly my feet were literally frozen to the ground. A few slaps from Garl with the cake shovel and a couple of pries with a spud bar, and I was ready to go. Not necessarily into the back of the truck to feed, but I was ready to go, which was exactly what I did the following morning as soon as Garl gave me my check.
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