As Molly, Kate, and Ellie approached the log corral, Ellie saw the cattle kicking up dust in the far corner. Molly stepped onto the bottom log and put her arms over the top one to balance herself. Ellie, taking her lead, helped Kate up, and the three women waited for the action to begin. Ellie saw the handles of the branding irons sticking out of the fire in the middle of the enclosure.
“It won’t be long now,” Molly shouted. She waved to one of the older cowboys. “There’s Jim, he married my cousin.”
“Good morning.” Aldon rode over on one of the most beautiful horses Ellie had ever seen. Its white mane and tail blew free. The colors on its hide reminded her of a brown, black, and burnt orange painting, on a white background, she had seen in a gallery once.
“Is that Chief?” Ellie asked, remembering her few conversations with Aldon. The horse nodded its head twice as if in answer, but Ellie suspected it was only demonstrating impatience.
“Yeah, he’s an Appaloosa.” Aldon answered.
“I like his hair,” she hid a smile, knowing her choice of words would tease Aldon. He hesitated before speaking, but then he smiled too.
“Most of his breed has one or two colors, but he got all four.” Aldon touched the brim of his Stetson. “We’ll get to work, now, kid. So long.” He touched the brim of his Stetson, gave the animal a light kick with the heel of his boot and they were away.
Ellie, watched Aldon as he left. Suddenly he had a rope in his hands and was twirling it over the cows’ heads. He seemed to choose a cow and calf to separate by letting the loop drift between them. The cow stepped back, and at the perfect moment, the loop settled on the ground under the calf’s hoof, catching him by the ankle. Aldon pulled the rope tight, and Chief strolled pulling the calf along behind on three legs. At the fire, a big man grabbed it and threw it to the ground. He tied its back feet together, then its front ones.
The creature bellowed in pain as another man shoved a red-hot iron into its hip. The sizzle and smoke from the burning brand, and the odor of singed hair took Ellie back to early days at Grandmother’s store when she trained in the beauty salon. It was the day the permanent wave machine malfunctioned and burned the curls off a patron’s head at the scalf. The smell, combined with the calf’s agony, made her sick at her stomach, so she lowered her head hoping she wouldn’t upchuck into the corral. She didn’t think anyone saw her distress, but when she looked up, Molly was scowling at her.
Telling herself to be brave Ellie looked again into the center of the pen where the young steer had been released to return to its bawling mother. A cowboy, down on one knee tossed something white that looked like baby eggplants into a galvanized bucket.
“There now,” said Molly, “that’s the castration done. Those Rocky Mountain oysters are a treat for the men. They insist on frying them theirselves. They think a woman can’t do it, but I was frying them when they were only gleams in their dad’s eyes, so they needn’t tell me there’s anything a woman can’t do.” Molly stepped down and started back toward the house. “We have to get dinner ready, and then start on supper.” The other two joined her.
“Will those poor calves be ready to travel this week?” Ellie asked.
“Sure and they will. They never give it thought. What’s the matter, girl? You can’t be feeling sorry for everything and everybody around here. This is a working ranch! You’d best hurry up
“Are you ready for the drive?” Aldon stood in front of the serving table, which had been brought outside for the noon meal, giving her a knowing look. Apparently, her lapse of attention was already the talk of the ranch.
“Ready when you are,” she said, handing him a slice of bread. He laid it on top of his chili.
“Thanks for the grub.” Aldon turned and walked over to a grove of trees where the other men sat on the grass eating. She wished he could have stayed and talked, but she knew they must tend to their jobs. As Molly had said earlier, there was no time for lollygagging.
“We better slice the cakes.” Molly came up behind her and set a cake and a knife on the table. “Those fellers will have all that chili et in no time and be looking for more.”
She was right. They wolfed down their dinner, came for seconds, and then demolished the cakes. As the cooks cleared the tables, the men rested against cottonwoods with their hats pulled over their eyes to shield them from the bright sun. The younger ones, including Kenny Fitzgerald, roughhoused like warriors training for battle. Too bad we have no young maidens here to swoon over them, thought Ellie.
At suppertime, after the branding was finished, the men filed into the kitchen and seated themselves at the long table. Since she was going on the cattle drive, Aldon insisted that Ellie sit down with them instead of serving. Molly gave him an annoyed look before she handed him the plate of Rocky Mountain Oysters, the product of the need to neuter the calves. As the plate went around and the contents disappeared, the men laughed and joked. The plate was almost empty when it reached Ellie, but the men had stopped eating and talking and were staring at her. She forked a Rocky Mountain Oyster, put it on her plate, took a deep breath, and cut off a morsel. The men fell silent, all looking at her. She knew she had to prove she wasn’t a sissy so she put the bite into her mouth. As she chewed, she thought she might be sick again. It only took a moment, however, to discover that the meat tasted like nothing, but fried flour, salt, and pepper. She smiled, and the men around the table roared. Kenny applauded, and the rest joined in.