STRONG CITY — The sky is littered with thunderstorms working their way across Chase County. Bolts of lightning punch red holes in the far horizon as the rain turns to drizzle.
Rain. Not something you need when you're about to set out on horseback in the dark, a little after 5 a.m., to round up 1,200 head of cattle.
Actually, real cowboys don't round up ... they call it "gathering."
Eleven cowboys zip up chaps and cinch saddles in the darkness next to the cattle pens on the Z-Bar Ranch northwest of Strong City. The only light comes from dim bulbs inside horse trailers and the occasional flash of a pickup's headlights.
Conversation is brief and limited to the weather and some cowboy-to-horse, "ho-boys," "easy" and "back," followed by an occasional heavy sigh from a horse.
There's no mention of the rough, rocky ground, loaded with unpleasant surprises, they're about to cover.
It's like listening to GIs a step away from combat, who talk about everything but what lies ahead.
"Man, when I was out in the barn at 4:30 this morning and that thunder and lightning hit, I did not want to hear it," said the soft voice of Gene Matile, coming out of the darkness.
Matile is a caretaker for National Farms, a company that's grazing some of its cattle on pasture leased from the Z-Bar.
He's honchoing today's "gathering."
Area ranchers help one another when chores like gathering require extra hands, but sometimes cowboys are hired at $65 a day.
It's a tough way to make $65.
Another voice, "I know darned well I must have half-a-dozen hat covers, and do you think I could find one this morning?"
That was Chase County rancher Norm Wilson. He and his son Ty are in on today's gathering.
"Norm, start movin' your cattle at 6," said a voice sounding like Matile's.
And they're gone.
Without one "yippy-tie-yi" or "get along little doggie," they ride quietly off into the darkness and rain.
Cowboying in the dark and in the rain is the only option today. Fifteen cattle trucks will be at the pens shortly after daybreak to haul the yearlings to feedlots in Greeley, Colo. They'll be there in time for an early breakfast.
Railroad schedulers could learn something from cattle haulers.
The unsuspecting steers are now scattered over 2,214 acres of the West Branch Pasture. It's big. You can ride 2 or 3 miles or more in three directions and still be in the pasture.
The cattle were born in Mexico, wintered in Texas and trucked into Kansas in May to feed on the grasslands of the Flint Hills for 90 days.
When all goes well and Mother Nature cooperates, Flint Hills feeder cattle can gain from 2.2 to 2.5 pounds a day, sometimes more.
In May, each cattle truck bringing cattle to grass carried between 103 and 107 young steers, each weighing 400 to 500 pounds.
Today, they'll be lucky to get 80 of the grass-fed cattle into each trailer.
Daybreak in the Flint Hills
The rains stop. There isn't much wind, and the air is moist. Even buried by a heavy overcast, a sunrise in the Flint Hills can be a mystical experience.
In the gray light, the high-spirited greens in the pasture's carpet can't contain themselves. Gradually, they disappear into the misty horizon.
And it's busy. Birds are swooping all over the place at ground level. Dragon flies sound like miniature helicopters. The night shift of buzzing mosquitoes has been replaced by flies and gnats that investigate anything warmer than a rock. Grasshoppers, butterflies and beetles make good use of the greenery.
The wind that was blowing the rain to the east has done a 180 and brought it back.
It's about 7:30 a.m.
Because of the low clouds, you hear the cowboys and the cattle before you see them. And, the cowboys are making a lot more noise than the cattle.
"If you hear a lot of yelling when cowboys are pushing steers, that's not a good sign," Matile has said. "That usually means a lot of cattle aren't doing what you'd like 'em to be doing."
Follow the leader
It seemed ironic that after spending three months grazing miles of open pasture, the cattle would soon be herded into trucks the same way they arrived. Through a loading chute, one at a time.
Matile's father, Don, 79, leads the steers into the pens. He and his 5-year-old cutting horse have led the herd since it was first gathered.
"You never know how many lead steers they'll be," Gene Matile said, "could be a few or a dozen."
"If you can keep those pinched together behind dad's horse, chances are they'll follow him all the way to the pens."
The fertile ground inside the pens has been kind to the weeds, which are stirrup-high in some places.
For the horses it's been a long time since breakfast, and some grab a mouthful of weeds on the fly as they move the cattle from pen to pen.
"Hey," says Norm Wilson watching his horse munch wild greens while still moving, "I'd like to help but my horse is eating."
Ready for truckin'
Once inside the pens the cattle still have to be sorted by size and the size of their horns.
Each cattle trailer contains several compartments, each loaded with same-sized steers.
This is where the cutting horses and their riders get a workout.
"Give me seven smalls," yells Kay Perschbacher, the only cowgirl working today. That's followed by "give me eight without horns."
The sun is hot, tempers are short, the humidity is high, and it seems every critter in Chase County with wings is buzzing the pens. Some bite.
The sweet smelling breezes at sunrise are not even a faint memory.
One of the first cattle trucks in the lot is painted purple and white with Kansas State Power Cats on the doors.
Makes you wonder the last time you saw a cattle truck painted crimson and blue with Jayhawks.
Each of the 15 cattle trucks backs up to the barely steer-wide chute that matches the size of their small rear door.
Most nail it on the first try, but a few leave space between the truck and chute.
A cowboy joked as a trucker was realigning his trailer to the chute, "When that happens, we just let the steers jump for it."
It's noon when the last door comes down on the last cattle truck. The cowboys, without conversation, start leading their horses to the trailers.
For many of the cowboys, it's the first time they've been out of the saddle since 5:30 that morning.
Ten minutes later the pen area is as vacant as it was 5 a.m.
Gene Matile will load out the last of his National Farms cattle tomorrow. It's been a busy stretch that began in April when he burned the very pastures he rode on today.