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Range Wars and Gate Hickeys

In the late eighteen hundreds, an invention came along that transformed the West. Deceptively simple, it allowed settlers to conquer the vast spaces that had previously defeated them. It was called barbed wire.

Modern ranchers owe a lot to barbed wire. Not only did it allow cattle, sheep and horses to be turned loose one day and found the next in the approximate location where you left them, it gave the fence advocates and the open range proponents all kinds of reasons to shoot each other, thus igniting the range wars and providing John Wayne an entire movie career.

Within a week or so of the first roll of barbed wire arriving on the Plains, the first fence was completed, requiring the invention of the first barbed wire gate. As far as I can tell, the design hasn’t changed since.

Wire gate construction is pretty simple: Drive a post in the ground. Tie a second post to the end of your gate. The bottom of the loose post goes into a wire loop at the bottom of the stationary post. Some sort of wire, rope or chain is employed to tie the two posts together at the top. Like so:

When closed, the gate wire must have a certain amount of tension on it, because even a cow is smart enough to figure out that a gate that sags like your granny’s third chin isn’t going to slow her down much if she puts her tiny little mind to pushing her way through it. Because of this tension, opening and closing such a gate requires that you simultaneously push in on the post and remove the chain from the top.

Given my puny muscles and the amount of tension on the average gate, I have to get up close and personal. Sort of squat down, stick my arm through the gate so I can shove the post with the front of my shoulder while using one hand to assist in pulling the two posts closer together, and the other to pry the chain off the nail whose head is slightly too large for the link that has been forced onto it.

And that’s where the gate hickey comes from.

Nearly all of our gates have chains. And nearly every time I open and close one of them, I manage to catch a pinch of of that tender skin on the front of my shoulder in the chain and come away looking like my husband has an armpit fetish.

Now it is summer. Even here in northern tundra, the temperatures may soon be high enough to go sleeveless. If I were to spend all of my time around other ranch women, there would be no issue. We compare the size, shape, and shade of purple of our little badges of ranch wife honor. Cuss the men who think they need to stretch those gates so freaking tight. Compare horror stories about the time we couldn’t get the gate shut and ended up with yearlings scattered clear to Badger Creek by the time we got back with the fence stretchers.

Normal people require a bit more in the way of explanation. I’m thinking of having something printed on a tanktop: You can always tell a cowgirl by her hickeys.

Or, um, maybe not.


11 Responses

  1. now that t-shirt would bring some comments, wouldn’t it?

    You know what I love about your posts? You always tell me stuff I don’t know. I’m such a city-girl!

    Is your dog taking a poop in that picture???

    Can’t wait for my BC to meet your BC!

  2. Always love to read about ranch life. I live on a 10-acre “farmlette” in the Cascades, but we don’t have livestock (just a couple of easy keeper horses) so we have few of your issues. Our biggest issue is our well. It’s wired into our house, but our generator isn’t. Trying to water 4 horses without a well when your power is out for 10 days is… difficult.

  3. I agree, you always teach me something in your blog posts. I find your ranch life fascinating and hilarious!

  4. I love your posts. Informative and yet entertaining. ; )

  5. Cyndi: Your BC may go apeshit when you turn her loose with acres and acres to run and hordes of gophers and robins already well trained in the art of torturing dogs. And no, Max wasn’t pooping. That’s her stalker mode. Very similar in appearance, though.

    Melissa: Oh, geez, the water thing. It’s a constant problem around here thanks to our less than spectacular wiring and a certain pipe that tends to freeze every winter. One of the things on my husband’s list to fix permanently, right after he’s done putting up steel gates that actually swing on all the corrals, rather than dragging on the ground.

    Crystal and Shawna: My son did the photography for the picture of me. Got in one shot. Kid’s gonna actually be useful one of these days.

  6. LOL I was going to ask the same thing–did you take a picture of your dog squatting?

    fastincating! bobwire, I have many scars from that. We always made ours gates swing on hinges…and thus, I never got those hickeys.

  7. I third (fourth?) Cindy’s comment! Now I have to find a way to reference gate hickeys in a WIP, even though I don’t write range fiction. 🙂

  8. Wow, I had no idea. Those are the kind of details that require us to really get into our subject matter.

    Loved this simile: “a gate that sags like your granny’s third chin.” Can’t wait to see your ranch hickey in NY. 😉

  9. Sorry I’m late stopping by. I always love to read your posts because they are so fun and full of stuff I don’t know.

    Like Cyndi, I’m a city girl and would not survive in your neck if the woods.

  10. Gwen: I wish, but I had to chose between buying a month at a stud farm for my mare and the trip to NY. Ember’s having a fabulous time, I hear.

    Heather: We haven’t killed anyone off in ages. And Bill Cameron barely even got wet when he came to visit and I dumped the pickup in the creek.

    And for the first six months we were back here, there was one of those wire gates across the driveway. Picture Kari in her work clothes at six thirty in the morning, wading through snowdrifts to drag that stupid thing open. Not the best way to start your day.

  11. I’m so laughing at Cyndi because that was my first thought too. But I thought it was a cat pooping.

    You do always reveal something interesting and very foreign. The closest I come to cows is in the supermarket, when they’re under the plastic wrap and ready to grill. I have to admire the way you lead your life – hard work, sense of purpose and sense of humor. Something attractive in the basic simplicity…though I don’t know if I would feel that way in February. Brrr.

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