Entirely recovered from all ill effects of his afternoon in Jackson’s store up in Perry’s bend, Johnny Nelson waited with Red Connors on the platform of the branding chute and growled petulantly at the sun, the dust, but most of all at the choking, smarting odor of burned hair which filled their throats and caused them to rub the backs of grimy hands across their eyes. Chute-branding robbed them of the excitement, the leaven of fun and frolic, which they always took from open or corral branding—and the work of a day in the corral or open was condensed into an hour or two by the chute. This was one cow wide, narrow at the bottom and flared out as it went up, so the animal could not turn, and when filled was, to use Johnny’s graphic phrase, “like a chain of cows in a ditch.” Eight of the wondering and crowded animals, guided into the pen by men who knew their work to the smallest detail and lost no time in its performance, filed into the pen after those branded had filed out. As the first to enter reached the farther end a stout bar dropped into place, just missing the animal’s nose; and as the last cow discovered that it could go no farther and made up its mind to back out, it was stopped by another bar, which fell behind it. The iron heaters tossed a hot iron each to Red and Johnny and the eight were marked in short order, making about two hundred and fifty they had branded in three hours. This number compared very favorably with that of the second chute where Lanky Smith and Frenchy McAlister waved cold irons and sarcastically asked their iron men if the sun was supposed to provide the heat; whereat the down-trodden heaters provided heat with great generosity in their caustic retorts.
“Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me,” sang Billy Williams, one of the feeders. “But why in Jericho don’t you fellers get a move on you? You ain’t no good on the platform—you ought to be mixing biscuits for Cookie. Frenchy and Lanky are the boys to turn ’em out,” he offered, gratis.
Red’s weary air bespoke a vast and settled contempt for such inanities and his iron descended against the side of the victim below him—he would not deign to reply. Not so with Johnny, who could not refrain from hot retort.
“Don’t be a fool all the time,” snapped Johnny. “Mind yore own business, you shorthorn. Big-mouthed old woman, that’s what—” his tone dropped and the words sank into vague mutterings which a strangling cough cut short. “Blasted idiot,” he whispered, tears coming into his eyes at the effort. Burning hair is bad for throat and temper alike.
Red deftly knocked his companion’s iron up and spoke sharply. “You mind yourn better—that makes the third you’ve tried to brand twice. Why don’t you look what yo’re doing? Hot iron! Hot iron! What’re you fellers doing?” he shouted down at the heaters. “This ain’t no time to go to sleep. How d’ye expect us to do any work when you ain’t doing any yoreselves!” Red’s temper was also on the ragged edge.