Lee Pitts is an independent columnist for The Atascadero News and Paso Robles Press; you can email them at leepitts@leepittsbooks.com.

I’ve presided over a riot only once in my life. It was years ago at our annual branding, which would eventually turn into an all-out war.

I always went out of my way to not only invite all the neighboring ranchers but to invite some town folks too who always enjoyed the proceedings, not to mention the free steak dinner. One year some friends called to ask if they could bring along an extra couple who had unexpectedly encamped at their house for an extended stay. I said, “Sure, the more, the merrier.”

More untruthful words have never been uttered.

The female of the couple was really sweet and did yeoman’s work in the kitchen, whereas the male was easily the most obnoxious human I’ve ever met. First, let me explain that I wear long-sleeve shirts practically all the time now because I’ve had several skin cancers carved out of my body, including half my nose and one nasty melanoma on my back. But this branding day was particularly hot, so I was stripped down to my tee-shirt, thus exposing my untanned arms. I can honestly say that at one time, I had good-looking guns. In fact, my arms were one of the few things my wife first liked about me. In college, I could snatch and jerk 100 pounds over my head with one arm fully extended. I’d be lucky to do 10 pounds these days.

Getting through this together, Paso Robles

The ex-dairyman took one look at my white, skinny extensions and said, “You call those arms? What are you, some kind of sissy? These are arms,” he said as he rolled up his shirt sleeves, exposing two giant forearms and biceps and triceps the size of bowling balls that he could make dance like Mexican jumping beans.

When I introduced the ex-dairyman to the big burly rancher I trusted to do the castrating that day, the highest honor that can be bestowed in the branding pen, the ex-dairyman shook his hand and immediately started cracking down like a pair of Vice Grips®. He squeezed until he saw tears coming out of my friend’s eyes, and keep in mind that my friend is over six feet tall and weighs 285 pounds, nearly all of it muscle.

“You call that a handshake, you milquetoast pansy,” said the old dairyman who stood about 5′ 5”, wore a snap-brim hat, and had hands the size of a catcher’s mitt. They looked more like an old gnarled tree root dug out of the ground by a D9, with protruding veins and short nails that were corrugated and cracked. I was worried that my friend’s hand was so permanently destroyed he wouldn’t be able to hold the castrating knife.

In just one morning, the ex-dairyman had insulted every male in attendance over the age of twelve. I assigned the 70-year-old freak of nature to the ground crew that day, hoping that the big calves would eat his lunch. But it was not to be. He grabbed the biggest calf, a 350 lb. mini-monster, and flipped it like it was a 50-pound sack of feed!

I had to admit that the ex-dairyman was a real body of work.

Unbeknownst to me, of course, my friends developed a plot to give the guy his comeuppance. They waited until the last calf, probably because they didn’t want to do without his hard labor, before going into action. My friend who’d been doing the castrating all day handed me the knife and mounted up, limbered up his throwing arm to see if the nerve damage in his hand would impede his throw, and proceeded to rope the ex-dairyman around the waist. When he yelled, “Stretch him,” every male over the age of twelve charged and put the old guy face down in the dirt. It looked like a rugby scrum in manure. After exposing one cheek (not on the face), my friend called for a hot iron. They were going to teach this obnoxious little brute a lesson.

Looking back now, I don’t know why I stepped in and put an end to their retribution. I had no doubt they’d have gone through with it, and I would have enjoyed watching, but I didn’t want this obnoxious SOB carrying my brand.