Editors' Note & Caveat: This week's very explicit sheep ranching incident may be more than some of our subscribers can stomach, so we have posted it on a separate page with a link.
Veintiuno Colas de los Corderos
"Uno -- dos -- tres,"
José counted, "cuatro -- cinco --"
Seeing his opportunity, Checker, my pup, dashed in amongst the jeans and boots that were men standing by the fence-rail.
"Get!" Junior kicked dirt in his face,"Gw-on!"
Refugio waved his butcher knife and stomped his foot at the pup. Undeterred, he snatched a lamb's tail and ambled away with the bloody thing wagging from his mouth. He might have been a Golden Retriever, with his first rooster pheasant, for all the elegance and pride in his swagger.
"SEIS!" José stabbed an index finger at him. Then he continued, "siete -- ocho -- nueve -- diez --"
Holding the four legs of a squirming lamb, as I had been instructed, I rested its rump on the elevated board that served as the operating table. Refugio, standing on the opposite side, brandished the 12-inch butcher knife. I winced when he sliced off the lamb's tail. Blood squirted out in a fine spray, covering my hands and shoes.
The tail was sliced down between about the third and fourth vertebrae. This was a little longer dock than standard, an "Idaho" dock they said. When the lambs were shipped to market we'd get paid for a fraction of a pound more per lamb. Multiply this by 3,000 lambs, and it could add up to a thousand pounds, more or less.
I slid the lamb down the (dis)assembly line. Junior sliced off the end of its scrotum with a yellow, stockman's pocket-knife. He laid down the knife and squeezed out the slippery balls with the fingers of one hand and grasped them with the other -- pulling them free. They plop-plopped into the blue bucket of water at his feet.
Some of the lambs cried out -- others craned their necks to the side and were silent. Occasionally, one would kick its legs free and I had to struggle to get him under control again.
I slid the lamb down the board to Savon; he pierced a lime-green ear tag into one ear and clipped a notch of flesh from the other. Then Antonio jabbed injections into the lamb's rump with two pistol grip syringes.
Next stop, the bearded carpenter scratched the inside of the lamb's leg with a two-pronged scratcher and swabbed on live vaccine. He wore pale green rubber gloves, to protect himself from the infection.
Next, Domingo applied paint brands to the sides of the lamb, and -- finally -- I dropped it back to the ground. He wasn't exactly frolicking amongst dandelions as he scurried off to find his mother.
After catching the next lamb, I started back at the head of the line.
This time, on my way by, Junior described to me how the old timers pulled out the slippery testicles with their teeth. "No need to lay down the knife," he said, "it's easier to get a grip -- the job goes faster."
A ram-lamb had apparently bred these ewes early, giving us this run of lambs. They'd arrived before the shed was ready, so they'd not been "marked." Til now.
When Junior had arrived that morning to help with marking, he delivered a tall, grey bucket of tetracycline hydrochloride packets. The fetuses I had sent to town had tested positive for Ovine vibriosis, and I continued to find aborted lambs. The yellow powder would need to be mixed with the drinking water in the stock tanks. The tanks would need to be filled individually, to maintain the proper dosage of medicine. The medicine would help control the spread of "Vibrio." (This was less than perfect science as some of the ewes watered in the creek.)
The first ewe to lamb was one of the ewes in the pen we were marking now. Domingo and I'd found her in the hay field, back in December, when we were out feeding mineral pellets. All the other ewes ran to eat the pellets, leaving her and the lamb standing off to one side.
We caught them and Domingo tied three of her four feet together with an orange poly binder twine. We lifted her into the back of the truck. Domingo rode beside her. The lamb rode in the cab with Checker and me. Checker acted totally disgruntled with this new creature standing on the seat between us. The lamb, oblivious to danger, busied itself with nuzzling Checker in search of a nipple. Checker was humiliated; he feigned a nip at its face.
We had put the ewe and lamb into a pen near the lambing shed. As more early lambs had arrived, we added the ewe-lamb pairs to this pen. We were marking them now to have them out of the way before the coming rush.
The butcher knife flashed and another lamb lost its tail.
With the lambs all marked, José was counting to see how many we'd done. "Once --doce -- trece -- catorce --" One by one, he tossed the tails into an empty feed sack, "quince -- dieciseis -- diecisiete --"
"Want some Rocky Mountain Oysters?" Junior asked, grinning widely as he extended the blue bucket to me. "They're good!"
Checker was scrapping with the other dogs over the stolen lamb's tail.
"Sure," I said, "I'll take some oysters." Junior and I divided them between us. (The other men didn't care for any.) I sent mine up to the house with Sherry.
Checker ran off to bury his lamb's tail and José finished counting, "Diecinueve -- veinte -- veintiuno. Veintiuno colas de los corderos!" he said. [Twenty-one tails of the lambs.]