LARAMIE, WY (AP) - Spitting out a mouthful of blood, I clambered to my feet and tried to regain my bearings.
A large calf wheeled around me and sped off toward the branded herd.
As riders trotted out to bring it back, several people approached me with the same caution I'd seen them use with a wild horse.
"Well?" Cow Camp Ranch co-owner Nell Kenehan asked. "You still got all your teeth?"
My tongue took silent inventory before I wriggled my jaw and nodded yes.
Tremors of pain rippled through my face as Nell assessed the damage, said a few quick words of consolation and returned her attention to the calves.
Big Laramie Valley Volunteer Fire Department Chief Richard Parrish handed me a blue hanky with a gesture toward my face.
"I think you need this more than I do," Richard said and added, chuckling, "I only blew my nose with it twice, so you should be safe."
By the creased edges and unwrinkled nature of the cloth, I guessed he was joking. Either way, I didn't think I had much of a choice.
No one would have stopped me if I headed for the gate, asked for a first aid kit or simply slumped down and bled in silence. But even though it hurt like hell, getting kicked in the face by that calf gave me the opportunity to prove to these weather-hardened country folk I was more than a city slicker with a notepad.
Gray clouds blanketed the sky high overhead as volunteers gathered between the red and white buildings dotting the Cow Camp Ranch west of Laramie on Wyoming Highway 230.
Although I heard some murmurs about getting a late start, nearly a dozen people were on horseback riding out to wrangle the herd when I sauntered in at 7:30 a.m.
Without a breeze, the air was a frigid 39 degrees and periodic drizzle sank the cold into my joints. Regardless, a steady trickle of people arrived clad in anything from cowboy hats, colorful scarves and spurs to combat boots, flat caps and hooded sweatshirts. They gathered by the corral ready to work when the riders delivered the herd.
"They're a pretty close-knit community," Dave Rowe said.
A 64-year-old hunting enthusiast, Dave said he met Nell's husband Paul while looking for a spot to hunt antelope. After hunting together, he said Paul invited him out for the branding.
"I'm an old guy and my legs are bad," Dave said. "But I do what I can."
Clad in a Battle Dress Uniform jacket and pants partially tucked into his black combat boots, Don Greene straightened the ends of his gray handlebar mustache as he explained he used to drive a school bus with Paul.
"The ranchers in the valley — all winter you haven't seen each other very much, so you get together and have a good time," Nell explained. "You might send a hand to their branding or they might send you some help, but nobody gets paid. It's just a fun time and everyone helps out."
Conversation became impractical as voices were lost in the tide of sound caused by the riders driving hundreds of cows into the corral from the pasture. Once in the pen, they separated the calves, and the work began in earnest.
Movin' on up
At first glance, the corral was chaos.
One false step could land you under a trotting horse, see you flipped over an escaping calf, bump you into a red-hot iron or run a giant needle through your leg.
I was dumbfounded trying to find where I might fit into the orchestrated storm of tasks.
While teenage boys huddled around Greene and learned to wrestle calves, Nell handed me a vaccine gun and told me I would be working with 3-year-old Ravada giving the calves their shots. Ravada looked up at me and twisted her lip as if she were disgusted to have to work with the greenhorn.
Being a classic example of the stoic Wyoming cowgirl, Ravada never said two words to me, but I got the feeling — after hopping from calf to calf, injecting our vaccinations and eating cheese Danishes together — I earned her respect.
Once I proved I was able to keep up with a 3-year-old and not waste too much medicine, Nell handed me over to Chris Starks, a U.S. Army veteran and Wyoming Army National Guardsman whose in-laws owned a nearby ranch.
Chris was a good teacher. He showed me how to flip a calf, hold a calf and most importantly, how to avoid getting pooped on.
"When you take the back end, you got to hold one leg with both hands, push the other leg with your foot and keep one foot over its butthole," Chris said with a seriousness that informed me my immature laughter was misplaced. "Otherwise, you'll walk away with cow--- all the way up your leg."
I slid into my first butt-plugging, leg-holding position with ease, and Chris complimented my form.
Holding the calf's hind leg for a moment was easier than I thought, but during my observations, I miscalculated how slowly time would crawl during the branding and vaccination process.
By the time I got up, my forearms were on fire and Chris had already found us another calf to wrestle.
On the ground next to us, a teenaged couple was on a "Wyoming date" and competed with each other to see who could wrestle the most cattle. After the dust settled, I asked the youngsters about their final count.
"I lost count at 38," Wyatt Bullock said. "But I beat her by one."
Whistling a high note, I congratulated them and did not mention I lost count after five but was sure I didn't make it to 10.
Not only was the work exhausting, but around calf number four, Chris was confident enough in my skills that he selected a slightly larger specimen for us. Trying to "cowboy up," I didn't mention to my teacher my arms probably wouldn't last this one through.
After all, I was struggling to measure up to these rancher's adolescent children, so I certainly wasn't ready to admit Ravada might have been right with her scornful looks.
Pride can be a painful thing.
In between the calf's shots and brand, I lost my grip. Instead of getting out of the way and admitting fault, I stayed put and fought to regain a grip on the flailing appendage.
It was just the opportunity the calf was hoping for, and he popped me right in the mouth for my stubbornness.
"Oh, fudge!" I hollered rolling around in the dirt and holding my jaw.
Except I didn't say fudge.
While no one at the Cow Camp Ranch was impolite or even unfriendly toward me before I nearly got my teeth kicked in, I did feel like an outsider who needed to prove his worth.
My blood hadn't even dried in the dirt before I heard three stories about getting kicked, branded or bruised by a calf on branding day.
Cowboys patted me on the back, pointed to the gaps in their smiles and welcomed me to the club.
A veteran of the pasture, Nell's father, Dan Watson, rode up to congratulate me.
"You keep it up," he said, grinning as he removed a partial denture containing most of his upper teeth. "And you'll be a cowboy in no time."
While I might have shied away from the next few calf-wrestling opportunities, I listened to Chris' advice and didn't let the day end in defeat.
He taught me how to handle the calf's head when holding the animal down. While it was considerably easier than the tail end, it was still no piece of cake.
Near the end of the branding, Paul pulled me aside and showed me how to use the brand, completing the experience.
The herd was wrestled, vaccinated and branded by noon.
In a show of appreciation, Paul and Nell invited the volunteers to stay for lunch, to which I hungrily agreed.
A prideful bunch even in the face of growling stomachs, no one stepped up to eat first. Hungry cowboys stood stoically on the edges of a barn serving as a mess hall. The standoff came to a close when the children were herded into the chow line, followed by the rest.
I offered to eat after my hosts, but Paul shot me a glance I read to mean I was being rude.
"I'll be the last to fill my plate," he said sternly.
Although few of these people were related, they came together like family and dedicated their time to doing what needs to be done in exchange for little more than a filling meal and a good story.
At a point in our country's history where little is free and many act entitled to more, spending a day on the Cow Camp Ranch forging bonds in blood and sweat was a pleasant retreat from the digital noise of life in the 21st century.