Originally published: Wed Jul 12th, 2017 @ 1:52pm
Ezra Hale reined in his big appaloosa. The gelding tossed his head against the bit, anxious to keep moving. Ezra spoke quietly to the animal as he twisted in the saddle to look out over the herd of cattle where they placidly grazed not far from the banks of the Chogun River. The river was deep and quiet here, the current slow-moving and there was a gentle slope to the bank making it an ideal place to water the stock. Although it was July, the grass was still plush and green. There would be no need to move the herd through the pass to the meadow anytime soon.
The cattle were a mix of Angus, Hereford, Texas Longhorn and Scottish Highland Cattle. Each of the foundation breeds brought special traits to the Lost Lake herd. The Texas Longhorns were known for their high drought-stress tolerance. Sustained droughts were not usually an issue in the Montana high country, but the summers could be hot and dry. The Highland Cattle were a hardy breed that was accustomed to living in the mountains and had a superior tolerance for the cold. Likewise, the Angus, a superb beef cow, had a high tolerance for the harsh winters of northwest Montana. The Herefords added muscle to the mix. The animals bred on Lost Lake Ranch provided an excellent grade of meat and were able to withstand being driven to market, the various forts, and Indian reservations with little loss of muscle tone. They retained more of their meat.
Some people called the Lost Lake breed mongrels. Ezra called them survivors.
The ranch also maintained purebred herds, housed in separate pastures. Those animals were kept for sale to other ranches and breeding. Like the cattle, the horses that the ranch raised for sale were a mix of Spanish Mustang and Quarter Horse. They were strong, fast, and agile which made them excellent stock horses and ideal for the often grueling work of the United States Cavalry. They kept the off-color animals for ranch use, one of the perks of working for the Harpers. Along with better pay than most ranches, excellent living facilities, and hearty three or four-course meals, each cowhand was given a horse, tack, and a rifle after ninety days of work. Sure, they had a few cowpokes that only wanted to work long enough to pay their way to the next place, the next job, but for the most part, the hands stayed on at Lost Lake.
Yes, the Double L Bar H, Lost Lake Ranch's brand, was a good place to work. Ezra should know. He'd been there nearly forty years.
Ezra had not been a rancher when John Caleb Harper hired him. He had degrees in history and literature, had served with the Army Corps of Engineers as a land surveyor, and worked as both a scout and wagon master for the wagon trains moving people around the vastness of the western United States' territories. He knew what everyone did about cattle and was a good horseman. It had been his superior knowledge of Indian culture and the land in general that had made Caleb Harper hire him. That and the fact that he was married and wanted to settle down. Ezra had worked his way up the ladder from hand to top-hand to foreman and now ranch manager. He had learned the business of ranching from anyone and everyone, no one was too young or too old to listen to. Now, Ezra was the man people sought out for advice on how to operate a ranch at a profit.
Solomon snorted and sidled restlessly, bringing Ezra's attention back to the present. He pulled his dusty Stetson off his head, dusted it lightly against his leg and put it back on, seating it firmly. Blue-gray eyes, still sharp despite the fact that Ezra was in his sixties, scanned the cattle again, taking a mental count. He figured there was about fifty head on this range and when a physical head count was taken, he'd only be off by five or less. It was a skill any cowhand learned over time. Lost Lake grazed their animals in herds of fifty to a hundred individuals, only combining the herds for a major drive to market. It made it less likely that disease or parasites could take hold and wipe out all the stock and kept the numbers manageable by a few riders.
Today they'd be moving this group to join the one grazing the pasture north of the river. It would bring the herd up to around a hundred which was what the latest Army contract called for. The animals would be fat and ready to travel by the end of the month which was when Fort Kalispell wanted them.
A wrangler on a spotted gray galloped up, sliding his horse to a stop and tipping his hat to Ezra. "The boys are ready to move 'em."
Ezra nodded, "Move 'em out, Tom. Try to keep them off the trail except for crossing. We'll have people coming in and out with supplies. It's that time of the week."
"Yes, sir!" The young man wheeled his gray and galloped back to the waiting group of wranglers. Ezra smiled, enjoying the men's energy. Despite it being July, which was usually hotter than Hades, the day was cool and even slightly crisp due to a northern wind coming in off the mountains. It made working the range a downright pleasure.