PEOLA, Wash. – The women who help Linda Weatherly with her spring branding chores are experienced cowgirls who get the job done without riling the cows or the woman in charge.
Weatherly said she relies on an all-women crew because they don’t mind taking orders from her and remain calm around the cattle, even if they’re covered in mud, blood and crud.
“They work quietly and try not to stir the cows up,” said the 68-year-old cattle rancher. “They listen to me, and the cows react well to them. My brother, Tom, likes the way I do it because he just has to show up and do the actual branding and castrating.”
The daylong process runs smoothly, thanks to the strong bond and clear communication between the women, who met decades ago when Weatherly lived in Chattaroy, north of Spokane.
Most of her seven-member crew have made the Memorial Day weekend event a priority in their busy lives and pencil out time to travel from the Deer Park area to the Peola ranch, located about 20 miles west of Clarkston.
“We all have such great friendships,” Weatherly said. “Shelley (Loshbaugh) has been coming down to help me for 18 years now. She’s my person. We connected through our ex-husbands – got rid of them and kept each other.” A few men are in the mix, but they’ve been warned to let Weatherly take the lead and not spend the day talking about how their grandfathers did it differently, said Audre Garrett, a 46-year-old pharmacist from Colbert, Wash.
“She has a system that works,” Garrett said. “She’s the boss, and you don’t question her. Linda is one of the nicest ladies you’ll ever meet, but she’s a tough ol’ bitch, too. She’ll put you in your place.”
Weatherly laughed at her friend’s description. “That’s a compliment in this crowd,” she said.
He hays, she herds
As the daily tasks were lined out, a jar of huckleberry moonshine made its way around the circle of friends, and a couple of people cracked beers.
But the real party wouldn’t begin until every calf was branded and the chores were done. Promises of ribs, corn on the cob and a rousing game of “Cards Against Humanity” were dangled as rewards for the next few hours of nonstop action.
The women saddled up at 8 a.m. and rode through fog to herd the cattle into a corral and barn near the house where Tom and Linda Weatherly grew up.
The brother-and-sister duo are co-owners of a cattle operation handed down by their late father, Hueston Weatherly. The original Weatherly ranch was homesteaded by their ancestors in the late 1800s.
Linda lives at the ranch and oversees the cows, while Tom, a 72-year-old Lewiston resident, handles the hay side of the business.
“We have a great partnership and work well together,” Linda Weatherly said of the arrangement.
Her brother is always a big help during the branding event, along with her girlfriends.
Once the cows and calves were separated, the cowgirls guided the calves through a chute that led to a generator-powered branding iron. That’s when Tom took over, pulling a small, razor-sharp knife from his pocket. He quickly and efficiently castrated the young bulls, before placing a sizzling, electric brand on their hides.
The family brand – CC Quarter Circle – has been in use since the late 1800s and was first registered in Garfield County, before Asotin County was established.
Because it was rainy on the day the crew was assembled, the branding took a little longer than usual on the wet animals. The calves seemed to recover rapidly once they were let loose.
The smell of burning hair in the air was nothing compared to the scent of burning flesh, the pharmacist said. At her day job, Garrett once saw a “boob job” being performed and that was more grisly than what was happening with the cows, she said.
No time for pleasantries
At the ranch, Garrett was in charge of keeping a tally of males and females, placing marks on the fence each time a calf came through the chute. The crew handled 51 pairs of mothers and babies on that particular day.
The other women administered vaccinations and medications that will help keep bugs and lice away during the summer months. The expensive concoctions were carefully squirted in nostrils, dabbed between shoulder blades and injected into each animal.
Neighbors gathered at the fence to watch, and several cow dogs tried to sneak inside the pen.
When Weatherly yelled at the dogs to stay out, Heidi Lyngstad said the sharp commands are common on branding day.
“We all get yelled at or cussed at at some point,” said the 52-year-old woman clad in a pink sleeveless shirt and wiping sweat from her brow.
“Hormones,” was the one-word explanation for her summertime attire on a cool day.
Weatherly was unapologetic about barking orders. It’s her job to keep everyone safe, and she doesn’t have time to say please and thank you.
Spoke her mind, lost a lease
After the calves were branded, they were reunited with their mothers and sorted again. Some will go to the Blue Mountains this summer, and the rest will stay at the ranch. Colored tags were attached to each one to keep it all straight.
“That one’s named Kitchen,” Weatherly said, pointing to a white heifer. “Tom saved her life by taking her in the house when she was freezing, and that’s how she got her name.”
“She never did thank me,” her brother said with a grin.
A third of the herd grazes on U.S. Forest Service land over the summer and will be brought back to the ranch in the fall. The family has had a permit to run cattle in the Blues since 1909.
They also leased some land, but that came to an end because of two words on a Facebook post. The landowner wrote, “Who’s for Trump?” and Weatherly responded, “not me.”
“We’re done doing business,” was the next comment, and she was suddenly scrambling to find a new place for her cattle.
“Luckily, the Forest Service had mercy on us,” she said. “We hope to renew the permit for the entire herd next year.”
During the branding session, no one talked about politics. The group was focused and worked with precision to get the tasks completed before more rain came down.
Dawn Atkinson, a 62-year-old Redmond, Washington, resident, said she was so eager to participate in something like this that she once considered signing up to work at a dude ranch.
She’s been a part of the Peola crew for 15 years now, but had to skip a few sessions. She missed it so much, she swore she’d never be absent again.
Lyngstad said the camaraderie, breathtaking scenery and opportunity to ride are what keep her coming back, year after year.
“Not many places you can go anymore and do what you want,” Lyngstad said. “It’s work but it’s not work, because we love it. There’s no better day than when you’re riding your horse.”
When she’s not in the saddle, Lyngstad takes care of two of her four grandchildren. She recently quit her job as a phlebotomist to accept the full-time nanny gig.
As she waited for the next calf, Lyngstad said she respects Weatherly’s organizational skills and how she assigns each person a specific task.
“The reason Linda likes working with us is because men don’t usually listen to women bosses. We come. We do the work, and we don’t complain. Before our husbands were allowed, they had to be educated. If they came down here and started telling her what to do, they’d be gone.”
Her husband, Scott, 54, is one of the guys who gets invited back. This year, he had worked out of town all week as a crane operator, but happily crawled into the truck after just a few hours sleep for the annual trip to the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley.
Several years ago, he had major back surgery in early May and showed up in a body cast because the traditional Memorial Day event means so much to him.
“I like the atmosphere, the kinship and getting away from the kids,” he joked. “No kids allowed.”
His wife and some of the other longtime helpers had “Peola Cowgirls” badges pinned to their hats and wore leather chaps and custom boots for the job. They hauled their favorite horses to the ranch, along with rain gear, saddles and coolers of cold beer.
Kathy and Mike Brooks have the shortest trip. They live along Alpowa Creek, between Clarkston and Pomeroy.
On this weekend, Mike, 70, was in charge of getting the afternoon meal on the table, while Kathy, 60, worked the cows. She is employed at Tri-State Memorial Hospital as an MRI technician.
“I go to work to rest,” she said.
Rounding out the crew were the Loshbaugh sisters – Shelley and Marcie – and Jennifer McLaughlin. Shelley, 53, is a farmer who works at a Guardian Insurance call center, and Marcie, 46, is employed at Northwest Orthopedics.
“This is a good excuse to get together,” said McLaughlin, a 53-year-old staff accountant for the Spokane Symphony. “We don’t see each other that much at home.”
The cowgirls are keepers
After the branding iron was unplugged and the cows were back in a pasture, Weatherly expressed appreciation for her core group of friends and reflected on what she’s learned about cattle ranching over the years.
“Don’t think you know everything, because you don’t,” she said. “I try to be aware of what’s going on and what needs fixed. I’m always looking for ways I can improve.”
But there’s one thing that will never need to be tweaked.
“I’m keeping my cowgirl crew,” Weatherly said. “True dat.”
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