When my brother, Matt, and I were small, we used to go on a lot of vet calls with my dad, meaning that our childhood memories differ slightly from those of our friends. City children reminisce about scheduled play dates, rules about talking with strangers, and adult supervision. We, on the other hand, rode horses up into the hills, threw rocks at ranchers’ kids and dogs and were pelted with them in return, poked sticks down gopher holes only to scare a snake out, and learned to close every gate we opened. Both are American childhoods; ours simply had a bit more tang to it.
Veterinary work came easily for my father. He grew up in the Powder River area of Montana, which is simply a polite way of saying that he is from somewhere desolate. He spent summers at an uncle’s ranch in Broadus, which to this day has a tack store in town, and from there decided to be a vet. He and my mother met at Colorado State, married, and then moved to Montana after ensuing internships. They found and purchased a small veterinary practice in the Clarks Fork valley of Montana, the south-central portion of a very large state. Dad was—and sometimes still is—the local vet for the surrounding ranches and pet owners while Mom taught at the local high school before moving on to teaching at the college. Growing up, money was tight when present at all, which is why I and then later on Matt were regular fixtures on Dad’s vet calls. For us, day care meant a watchful border collie or German Shepherd and the vet truck. To this day, I have fond memories of sharing my green suckers with a German Sheperd named Lucy.
Back then, cattle ranches provided a substantial proportion of my father’s workload. Ranches are always busy, spring and autumn being the zenith of the cycle. February and March mark the onslaught of work as calving season begins; September and October pick up again as thousands of heifers need to be preg-checked. For those unfamiliar with the process, it involves the vet’s arm, a shoulder-high plastic glove, and the back end of a cow. The vet lifts the tail, pushes his arm in, and feels for the shape of the calf in the heifer’s womb. If the vet feels the curved shape of the unborn calf, he shouts out “Cavvy!” If not, a sigh and the sedate knell of “Open.” Not exactly high-tech, but very effective.
One of Dad’s favorite places to go work at was out at the Williams’ ranch, a nice-sized spread at the southeastern end of the Clarks Fork Valley. Mike and his wife, Debbie, lived on his family’s place, raising cattle and later two kids, Stevie and Heather. Mike raised alfalfa hay, good cattle, and in his spare time, played in a band that specialized in that ‘70s favorite “Disco Sucks.” And to him, disco really did. Charlie Daniels and Johnny Cash were far more likely heroes, as was the poster of Farah Fawcett poster that hung in the mud room. Mike and Debbie were just plain fun to be around, so even working cattle with them was never too much of a chore.
Working cattle is a good excuse to call in favors as ranches live by the maxim of “many hands make light work.” On this particular October day, Mike had cadged Jim Bonogofsky, a nearby odd-job man, Rhett and Wally Pappas, and Debbie into joining him and dad out at the squeeze chute. My brother, Matt, was ostensibly there to “help,” which really meant that he and Stevie would play together and hopefully keep one another out of the way of the work being done. Kids are pretty good at that, fortunately, but parents probably don’t want to know what went on once they’d left the confines of parental oversight.
The day was going along pretty smoothly, all things considered. Jim headed back to the house for one reason or another, and that is where he found Stevie and Matt and Peekaboo. Peekaboo was Mike’s red heeler, and it was Peekaboo’s job to help work cattle and keep all of the feed trucks matted in dog hair. A few things to keep in mind about red heelers: they work hard, will take on the meanest cow of the bunch, and they aren’t necessarily friendly. Heelers, be they red or blue, are the canine equivalent of a land shark: short on personality, long on teeth.
Stevie had Peekabo wrestled to the ground and a vicelike headcatch on him. Matt had emptied out the contents of a bread sack and then put it on like a glove, all the way up to his right shoulder, just like Dad. He had Peekaboo’s tail in one hand and was just about to reach in, when Jim walked into the house.
“So what are you boys doin’?” asks Jim, more than a little curious about the disarray he just walked into.
“We’re preg checking Peekabo,” replied Stevie, trying to keep a choke hold on the writhing red heeler.
“Oh.” (long pause) “You know, Peekabo is a boy, so he probably wouldn’t be a very good mother. Are you sure you need to preg check him?” countered Jim.
“Yeah, we probably should,” Stevie replied. “Peekaboo doesn’t seem to mind.” (Peekaboo thrashed behind Stevie, trying to get enough purchase to escape whatever evil version of boy-hell he wandered into.)
“Well, that’s good thinking, but maybe you better turn Peekaboo loose. He doesn’t look very happy, and I think they need his help out in the corrals. Maybe you can preg check him later.”
Stevie reluctantly relinquished his hold and Matt peeled the bread sack from his arm. Both looked a little glum as they thought they had a pretty good idea. Peekaboo took that opportunity to skittle out of there. He wasn’t seen for quite some time, and who could blame him. Coffee-pot theories ranged from him going to live with a grizzly bear, where it was safe, or leaving the state altogether.
Whenever I try to imagine Jim walking back to the squeeze chute, stumbling with laughter as he tells the chute society about Peekaboo, the boys, and the breadsack, I cannot help but laugh along with them.
Mike died about five years after that. He was out moving cattle one August afternoon, and his horse stumbled hard in a gopher hole. Mike and the horse went down, and Mike took a blow to the head from which he never woke up. I tell myself that Mike was out doing something he loved, but every once in a while, I still miss picking up the phone and hearing Mike’s voice, greeting me with an enthusiastic “Shortcaaaaaake!” and wondering when he’ll see me next.