Friday, June 05, 2009
I said Whoa!
Last night the bulls got out. Luckily, I had to go over to the stack to get hay for the horses, and I found the flattened gate before the bulls had time to scatter. Strutting around, doing as they please, bulls can create some serious havoc on a ranch. Fences smashed in pursuit of frisky heifers. Calves born in the bitterest cold of February instead of the slightly less bitter cold of April. Or the pride of the registered Angus cows sporting a gaudy, spotted Longhorn calf. Worse yet if it’s the neighbor’s prized purebred cow. Back in the sixties, when Rod’s shorthorn bull got out and headed down Milk River coulee, he had to get him back, pronto. He and his wife saddled up a pair of horses and took off in pursuit. They got him slowed down and turned around, and were able to push him to the base of the big hill below their pasture. Then he sulled up in a patch of chokecherry trees. Neck bowed, muscles quivering, he rumbled a low, bovine invitation to go ahead and try to make him move. Even if Rod and Joyce had been willing to accept his challenge, the horses were smart enough to decline. But they couldn’t leave him to run amuck with the neighbor cows. So Rod roped him. With the rope snug around the horns, he attempted to pull. The bull locked up and dug in. The horse leaned hard into the rope, hooves scrabbling on the rocky hillside. The bull didn’t budge. Which was when someone got the bright idea to get the pick-up. Rod snubbed up the rope to the stoutest tree and they high-tailed it home. The plan was to tie the rope to the bumper, then tow the bull up the hill. For safety’s sake, Rod would ride in the back, knife at ready to cut the rope if the bull should get tangled. They returned to find the bull still sulking in the trees like a fourth grader in time out. The transfer of the rope from the tree to the bumper went smoothly. The bull was tied off on about fifteen feet of rope, nice and short for optimum control. Joyce climbed behind the wheel. Rod climbed into the back. Like most feed pick-ups, it had no tailgate to get in the way of loading and unloading hay. The muffler was rusting in the sun beside a particularly large badger hole over in Fox Coulee. If the rearview mirrors hadn’t long ago been scraped off on a gate post or smashed by a cow, they were too muddy to be of any use. No problem. Voice commands would suffice. Joyce stuck the pick-up in low gear. Rod settled in, butt on the rear edge of the pickup bed, feet firmly planted on the bumper. The bull glared and huffed and yanked at the rope. “Go!” Rod yelled. Joyce released the clutch. The pickup eased forward. The bull reared back. She gave it some more gas. The bull skidded up the hill like a four legged water skier in slow motion. After the first twenty yards, the bull realized the futility of resistance and began to lead along pretty well. The plan was working perfectly. And then they hit the really big bump. The wheel of the pickup slammed into a badger hole so wide and so deep that the impact launched Rod right out of the pickup. He landed on hands and knees—face to face with the bull. It snorted and shook its head. Rod swapped ends and scrambled on all fours under the rear of the pickup, which Joyce had stopped when she saw him fall out. Or so he thought. In truth, ramming into the hole had bounced her head off the ceiling and her foot off the accelerator, and kicked the old pickup out of gear. She stuck it back in low and started off again. “Whoa!” Rod shouted. Over the roar of the unmuffled engine, Joyce thought he said Go! She hit the gas. The pickup bounced ahead, leaving Rod cowering in front of the irate bull dragging along behind. He scrambled after the pickup like a panicked hermit crab. Joyce glanced over her shoulder, through the dusty rear window. Wait a second. Rod wasn’t sitting where she’d last seen him. She slowed. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Rod screamed. Well, geez! she fumed. One Go! would have sufficed. He didn’t need to be so rude. Annoyed, she hit the gas a little harder. The pickup shot forward. So did the bull. He blew snot into the rear pockets of Rod’s jeans as the mad scramble for the safety of the pickup resumed. Every time she slowed, he yelled “Whoa!”, and she heard “Go!”. They lurched and scrambled through the brush and the wild rose brambles and the rocks, and were almost to the top of the hill before he managed to cut the rope. The pickup jumped forward. The bull stumbled back, surprised by the sudden release. He and Rod stared at each other for a long moment. Then the bull shrugged as if to say, “Too easy, dude,” and sauntered back to his patch of trees, dragging the severed rope behind. Joyce jumped out of the pickup. “What did you do that for? Now we have to start all over!” Rod flopped onto his back in the dirt, panting. The knees of his jeans were shredded. So were his hands. He looked up at his wife. “Next time,” he said, “how ‘bout I drive?”