Dad was a cowboy who raised me on a farm in the mountains of western Virginia. Working cattle on horseback with him, I made many memories that shape who I am today. One from 1996 or ’97 stands out above the rest and helps me stay in the saddle when the trail gets a little rough.
I forget how old I was exactly—probably around 12 or 13. We had to gather a couple hundred head of steers in our 500-acre pasture, so Dad and I hopped on the horses and away we went.
Our plan was to sweep around the pasture, collecting cattle along the way. Then we would push the herd through the corner gate, which led them through the lower pen, uphill through a driving lane and into the upper pens, where we would prepare them for transport. We’d done this many times before without any problems.
We circled the pasture, picking up a steer here and a couple more there. Noticing a thunderstorm coming up through the valley, we tried to move a little faster. By the time we had gathered all the cattle and gotten them to the corner gate, the wind had picked up and the cloudy gray sky rumbled with thunder.
Now, our cattle hated the corner gate. If you pushed them too hard they would protest and scatter, but if you didn’t push them hard enough they would stand there all day. You had to do it just right.
I was up on the side of the hill that paralleled the gate, and Dad was at the foot. The steers were examining the gate, deciding if they wanted to go through or not, when lightning lit up the sky. Dad and I decided to push a little harder.
I put pressure on my wing of the herd, and the lead steer headed toward the gate. I applied a little more pressure, but it was too much. The head steer jumped back, scaring the rest of the herd. The steers scattered in an instant.
I could tell that my father was none too happy, but with the storm about to cut loose, he ordered our retreat. “We’ll get ’em later,” he yelled. We took off, but the farther we went, the worse I felt.
So, unbeknownst to my dad, I stopped and let him run on. Then I turned back, determined to sweep the pasture once more. The thunder boomed louder and my heart raced faster as I picked up steers along the way. I tried my best to ignore the weather.
It was pouring by the time I got the herd back to the corner gate. Luckily, though, the storm’s bark was worse than its bite. With only an occasional flash of lightning and roll of thunder, I patiently asked the herd to cross the threshold of the dreaded gate.
The steers sat perched at its edge. I sat on my horse, planning my next move. Then I pushed the herd, and the lead steer’s nose went in the right direction. I backed off and let him get comfortable with the gate. He dropped his head and started grazing.
So I pushed the herd again. The lead steer’s head snapped up with alarm, and he leaned away as if he planned to make a run for it again. But then he decided to give me a break. He leaned back toward the gate, dropped his head for another bite of grass, then strolled on through. I quickly put pressure on the rest of the herd, and they followed him.
I don’t really know when it stopped raining, but by the time I got the herd to the top of the hill, the sun had come out and Dad was standing at the gate with a big smile on his face.
I don’t remember him giving me a pat on the back or saying anything special. He didn’t have to. The smile was enough.