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I met the Mitchell family for the first time about 10 or 11 years ago. While out photographing, I spotted a long caravan of horse trailers early on a Sunday morning headed into the foothills of the Bear Paw Mountains. One seldom saw any vehicles in these parts, let alone at 6 AM on a Sunday morning. So, I decided to follow them. They arrived at a plateau high above the Mitchell Ranch and with many buttes and the Little Rocky Mountains well within sight. There they had erected a corral made of steel panels where they would gather that day their cattle for branding. Daryl Mitchell, the father, was kind. He tolerated me being in the way while they were working and welcomed me to photograph while they worked.

There I also met a family from Louisiana. They came to Montana to visit after the Mitchells met them on vacation the previous year. Based on those stories alone you might think the Mitchells are an outgoing lot. Really, they aren’t. But they are some of the nicest people you would ever meet. And generous. But it’s funny how the good Lord has a way of introducing people who need to meet.

I was busy making photos, trying not to get run over by a horse or impede their operations very much, and photographed everyone, including the Dillon family from Louisiana. The photo above was one of the photos I made while some the people on horseback rode off into the distance to begin gathering cattle. I liked it some, but as it turned out, not as much as Danielle Dillon did. She was one of the daughters who made the trip to Montana with her parents. She’s the one in the middle riding a horse.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about Danielle, but like her mother and the rest of her family, I will always remember their Cajun accent and how friendly they were. Danielle especially so. And I do remember she had a big smile that could warm the coldest of souls.

One of Dillon children wanted to use my photos for a school project a few years later (I don’t remember which one), something I was honored to assist with. And Danielle later wanted a print of the photo you see here, so I was happy to oblige. I gave her the “Cleveland family discount,” which meant she only had to reimburse me for the cost of printing and shipping it. She wanted it large. How wonderful.

Then a few weeks ago Danielle’s mother called me. I kept in contact with the Dillons a little bit over the years, so her call out of the blue wasn’t strange, but the news was devastating and so sad. She told me Danielle passed away last August. I was stunned. She was so young and full of life. I can’t imagine being a parent and having to cope with that.

Danielle became a nurse. And during the Covid epidemic, Danielle became sick and died; complicated by the fact she previously battled cancer. And survived. Only to volunteer to put herself in harm’s way to care for sickly patients; probably knowing full well she was much more vulnerable to the disease than the average person.

Danielle’s mother said she loved the photo I printed for her. She hung in her bedroom. She remembered her trips to Montana fondly and she loved those cool spring days helping the Mitchells round up cows and calves, meet their friends and neighbors, and brand the cattle. So her mother said they used this photo for her headstone, knowing Danielle would probably approve.

I don’t share too much of my personal life on social media, and I wasn’t going to share this. It seemed too personal. But when I spoke to Danielle’s mom, she thought it was good to let others know the story. And for me it’s a little cathartic. But I also hope Danielle reminds us that t life on the big blue marble we call “Earth” is fleeting. And we while we all have sacrificed over the past two years, some have sacrificed even more. Health care workers had to deal with a lot to care for us and our friends and our relatives through this sickness. They served like soldiers on the front line. And they deserve our thanks.

I wish I had gotten to know Danielle better. God bless her, her parents and extended family, and all of those who fought on the frontlines in hospitals, and clinics, and health care facilities over the past two years.

Yes, it’s funny how the good Lord has a way of introducing people who need to meet.

Rite of Passage Known as Branding
Between the Parks

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