James Wooldridge Photojournalism James Wooldridge Photojournalism

sign of spring

Golden sunlight beamed into Russ Kucera's barn as he saddled his quarter horses for a hard day's work.

On a clear, spring morning on the outskirts of Central City — 90 miles west of Lincoln, Nebraska — neighbors, friends and family, some from five hours away, drove their pickups onto the gravel driveway for the annual gathering.

Carolyn, Russ' wife, prepared food inside the house.

Soon, it would be time to start branding cattle.

Everyone turned south down 15th Road and stopped at a rye field. A train skated across the horizon between spring-green field and clear sky. Cattle grazed in the distance.

The cowboys mounted their horses and herded 170 cows and 160 calves, barreling down the fenceline. The cattle funneled into a crowded pen. A nervous chorus of moos didn't let up for the next three hours.

A cowgirl stood at the gate with a long stick, letting the cows escape but stopping the timid calves.

"Chhhh, chhhh, get outta here!" a cowboy yelled from his horse in the pen.

Once separated from their young, the cows roared in dissatisfaction. One brave mother ran back into the pen.

On horseback, the cowboys lassoed the calves and dragged them out of the pen. On the ground, cowboys wrestled calves down as they were vaccinated, castrated and branded with the Kucera's unique mark: a sideways K over a heart.

Cattle owners are legally required to prove ownership. The Kuceras could tag the cattle, Russ explained, but tags fall off. Branding is permanent.

The breeze carried smoke and the smell of fresh manure northeast, away from the crowd of a few spouses and kids, who came out to watch.

"Around here, nobody brands like we do," Carolyn said.

It's common around Central City to run cattle through a calf cradle, a device that holds the calves in place as they're branded.

Roping and wrestling, the Kuceras said, is "a lost art."

"You ready to jump in there?" Carolyn asked. They wanted me to wrestle a calf.

Russ later told me, "You can make it as easy or as hard as you wanna make it.”

I made it hard. With my shin on the calf's neck, I pulled his front leg toward me. But apparently, I didn't pull hard enough. He almost escaped. And my leg was in the way of the vaccinations.

Luckily, the Kuceras' son, Ryan, took a break from castrating, or “cutting,” to help me.

The numbers dwindled as the hours passed. Sooner or later, that final mother had to come out of the pen.

Aggravated, she ran out the gate and charged at the first person she saw. Me.

The life of my $3,000 camera flashed before my eyes. I was a photographer in the headlights of a 1,200-pound cow.

We brushed sides as she charged by.

When the first pen was empty, the cowboys drove 3 miles to another field. This time, fewer cattle.

Ryan had a new partner: his stepdaughter, Kayden Tyan, 7. Ryan wielded the knife, and Kayden, wearing a pink cowboy hat, pulled the testicles out, flinging them aside.

Kayden called the job "slimy" and "fun."

By 2:15 p.m., the work was done. But before heading back to the house, they had something in mind for me.

Two “Rocky Mountain oysters” sizzled on top of the furnace, a small, iron tube with a gas flame used to heat the branding irons.

"You don't have to eat it if you don't want to," Carolyn said, but I wasn't backing down.

“Squeeze right there,” Ryan said.

It tasted like egg yolk.

"Give him a sip of your beer," Carolyn said to her son afterwards.

Russ planned plant corn the next day. In three weeks, the cattle would be moved and replaced with cornfields. But that afternoon, the work was done. It was time for a beer.

On the ride back to the house, one cowboy’s aunt looked at his face, dirty from the day's work.

"Oh, you look beautiful, hon," she said. "Does anybody have a clean face? I love it when nobody has a clean face!"

Back at the house, the cowboys pulled out their folding chairs and set them in the shade of the shed. At the foot of a pine tree, five coolers held refreshments.

Behind the flimsy side door that blew open in the howling wind, trays of brisket, prime rib, beans, cheesy corn, potatoes, salads, fruits and desserts waited on the kitchen table. Carolyn and her grown daughters, Jennifer Davis and Stephanie Stromberger, prepared it the day before.

Friends and family cleared their plates.

"It's kind of a celebration," Carolyn said about branding. "Just helping your 'neighbor' without pay. It's about friendship."

By 4:30, many people had folded their chairs and said goodbye. One cowboy looked over at Ryan.

"We gonna go do more cowboy stuff?"


And off they went.

I thanked the Kuceras. Next time, they said, they would get me on a horse.

Before leaving, I asked them how they describe the smell of a branding.

"The burnin' hair?" Russ asked.

Carolyn laughed.

"It's a sign of spring."