The skin sizzled and spat, grains of flesh melting beneath the hot iron. The cow roared and bellowed, throwing its hind quarters upwards and kicking out its legs. The head, with its bushy curly hair and wide flat face, was held in a harness, preventing the cow from escape.
There were 17 cows to brand. 15 heifers and two calves. They were a different breed than she was used to. A poorer quality, she thought. They had been imported, making their way across the cool, white spray of the Atlantic, a journey that always affected them. They were weakened by it. Their spirit soured.
The smell of burnt flesh rose like steam through the air. It settled in their clothes and hair. It surprised her how much she craved fried meat on branding day.
When the skin was burnt enough, the stamp imprinted on the hide, the iron was drawn back, plunged into a bucket of water and put back in the fire to glow white hot. She touched the cow’s neck to steady it and in some way, comfort it, before the harness was released and the cow ran, bucking high into the air, angry and sore.
She had come to the farm through New York, down through New Jersey and Delaware. She picked up work as she went, doing anything that needed doing. There were offers everywhere she went.
“Just a quick one, love,” they said, pressing a coin into her flesh. But she never said yes. She had managed this far without having to do that.
She felt for the girls who were not strong enough to say no. Their faces ashen, their morals destroyed. But there was no pride in hunger. And she had eaten what she could, sometimes trailing wagons and begging for scraps, foraging in the bushes for berries she did not know the names of.
Sometimes she thought that there was no real difference between home and here. There were still people dying. Still people robbin’ and lootin’. Still children crying with the hunger, for mothers who didn’t come back, for daddies who died from the fever.
She was glad that she didn’t have to worry anymore. That she had no one to look after but herself. Her heartache and grief, had been parcelled and tied up with the last corpse tipped over the edge, a dead weight, landing with a splash in the deep Atlantic ocean. They didn’t toss the animals overboard on the ship. They ate them instead.
They would be finished soon. These animals branded, theirs, no matter where they roamed. They’d heard of some rustlers who sliced the branded flesh from the cow’s hide and burnt a new symbol on the other side. So now they did both sides, pressing the hot iron into one flank and then the other.
Here, the land rolled out for miles, mounted by hilltops that pointed into the sky, green canopies dotted with black and grey shale. They cut wood to make fencing, to mark out their homestead and keep some of the more vulnerable animals safe.
They pulled the last cow into the harness, the men using all their might to wrestle the large beast into the trap. The cow pulled back and lowed, frightened by their violence, unsettled by the screams of the animals already branded.
She tried to soothe the cow, stroking its warm thick neck. This breed were from the continent and were bony and stubborn. The cow knew what was coming. The smell of burnt flesh was already in her nose.
The farmhand forced the brand on hard, digging it in deep, a loud sizzle burning away hair, flesh and hide. The cow roared and bucked, rattling the wooden beam across her back. The men shouted ‘woah’ as the fencing they sat on shook with her might.
The brand was yanked from her side and plunged into the water, hot steam hissing from the bucket. The iron rod was plunged into the glowing embers of the fire, buried and stoked beneath the white hot coals.
“Maybe we’ll leave her,” she said, sensing that this cow was dangerous, that she had intelligence about her unlike the other beasts.
“No,” said the brander, who had paid for their passage, who had put the small bit of harvest money they had into the taxes and bribes to get the animals to their farm. “She’s worth too much.”
He kicked at the rod in the fire and pumped the bellows to add heat to the iron. A silence descended, a fraught tension among them, a tiredness that only branding day could bring.
The cow blew hot breaths through her nose, scraping at the yellow earth with her front hooves. The brander took the iron and held it in the air, walking purposefully round the fence to the cow. He pulled his elbow back and plunged, forcing the rod firmly the skin, pushing it deep through the tissue to burn and brand her.
Rage shot through the cow, she bucked, weakening the beam, then breaking it. The farmhands fell from the fence onto the ground and tried to scatter as she broke free, throwing her body into the air, landing with force on the brander who had hurt her.
He fell under her weight, his arms crushed against his body, the hot iron lying across his chest, between him and the cow. His screams filled the ring, worse than anything they had heard today. The cow struggled up, her legs scrambling in the dirt, and ran off in a slow trot to join the rest of the herd.
They all looked to the farmhand who lay, broken and moaning, the iron and brand, melted deep into a cavity in his chest. She thought of the sausages that her mother used to fry, on the black pan on the range at home. His burnt flesh had a distinct smell of pig.