Posted by: trevormeers | May 6, 2010

Saving Norman

(The final dispatch from a trip through cowboy country.)

Gwen Hoy waded hip deep in a surging wave of baby Angus. As the calves flowed around her in the narrow corridor between barbed-wire fences, Gwen urged them along, switching seamlessly back and forth between her roles as rancher and mom.

“Get up there, babies! Hah! Hah!” She nipped their shiny black rumps with her quirt, a Western riding crop consisting of a braided-rawhide handle attached to a flat leather strap.

“I’m sorry, babies. I know you’re tired. I hate hitting you, but you’ve gotta’ keep moving.” She let the quirt dangle by its loop around her wrist, reaching down with an open palm and giving a calf the same gentle shove you’d use to urge scared toddlers into a Sunday School room.

My own cowboy patter sounded empty compared to Gwen’s range and depth. I can’t whistle through my teeth, and it seemed presumptuous to even try the lilting, yodel-like “Hooo-OOOO!” of the experienced cowhands riding around me. So I relied on a rapid-fire “G’UPnow!” and a twirl of the long, loose ends of my reins. In the swirl of dust, lowing mama cows and bawling calves, I’m sure I could’ve done as well shouting “IluvkungpaoCHICKENnow!” But the cows weren’t the only ones listening, so I didn’t try it.

The night before, Gwen invited me to help move about 80 cow-calf pairs between pastures. By 8:30 the next day, I was riding across an immense pasture between Gwen and a former Marine who spent Vietnam crafting tunnel bombs, came home to make it big in plumbing and now played cowboy at the Flying W at every chance. No one ever asked if I knew how to ride a horse or punch cattle. They just pointed me to a saddle and a horse in the corral and went to work currying their own mounts. Cowboy interviews are apparently strictly in-the-field exams. After about 30 minutes of riding, Gwen said, “You look like a good rider, watch that side of the pasture,” and rode off to leave me in command of a territory bigger than an Iowa hobby farm.

As I pushed my share of the herd toward the alley of barbed-wire fences, the cows moved ahead of me with the lightest pressure. Once they entered the narrow passage, they’d surely pour down the line and dump right into the big flat pasture by the corrals. But it soon became obvious that driving calves—some only days old—between barbed-wire fences is something like squeezing jelly in your hand. The black calves squirted constantly between the strands and raced off into the boundless pastures on either side.

The calves in the alley tired quickly, and it took constant yelling, slapping and shoving with our horse’s chests to keep them moving. One calf with a white splash across his face bawled loudly, froth dripping from his dangling tongue. “C’mon, babies,” Gwen kept cooing. “You’re almost there.”

At the bottom of a hill, the herd spilled into the flat pasture and started the long process of mothering up. Cows, it seems, can’t tell calves apart anymore than I can. The bawling cows walk up to every calf, shove their nose against it to get the scent, then move on to repeat the process until they find their baby. While this was working itself out, Josh left the Marine and me in charge of holding the herd in place while the real cowhands went back to comb rogue calves out of the hills.

Almost immediately, the calves started drifting toward the fences like mercury drops headed for a table edge. Three scrambled through the fence, across a gravel road and into tall grass on the other side. The Marine grinned at the chance to spur his horse and went out on the road to coax them back.

I watched two clamber back through the wires, but the tired white-face never showed up. In a few minutes, Josh raced up in a Kawasaki Mule ATV and said, “How’s it goin’?” I answered, “I think one’s still up in that grass.” He said, “I’m sure he climbed back in when you weren’t looking.” I let the insult on my vigilance pass, more worried about whether it was worse for me to disrespect Josh’s experience or to recklessly disregard what I knew was true. “Boy, I’m not so sure he did,” I finally said. Josh pushed the Mule’s accelerator and said, “Oh, I’m sure he’s in there somewhere” and sped back up the hill.

The herd was starting to settle, and the Marine was hundreds of yards off, working a calf back from the far fence. I’d been watching my fence like a man given no job but keeping his finger in the dam. That calf was still out there, exhausted and scared. All on my watch.

I swung down from my horse, tied him to a fence post and climbed over the barbed-wire fence. I started working my way through the tall grass on the hillside in the awkward, rocking gait of a man crossing rough country in high-heeled riding boots.

I’d stalked animals through grass like this on many other days, my heart jumping with excitement when I found a whitetail curled at my feet. Dead! I shouted to myself then, flipping my shotgun into a resting position in my elbow. Success!

But now, as I spotted Norman (I’d already named him after Billy Crystal’s calf in City Slickers) and came within a couple of feet and saw no movement, my heart sank. Dead! I thought. What kind of cowboy are you? It didn’t matter that in a few hours, I’d sit down to a plate of smoked brisket cut from one of Norman’s relatives. It changed nothing that Norman himself would probably be on a plate before the next presidential election. It mattered only that a rancher was counting on me to bring every calf home. It was as joyfully uncomplicated a job as I’d had in years, one at which I wasn’t going to fail.

“C’mon, baby,” I said. “Let’s go find mama.” I reached down to nudge Norman, and his eyes popped open. Springing up, he ran toward the fence in that odd way of calves where their back ends seem to bounce higher and out to the side of their front. He squirmed between the wires and wandered into the herd.

A few minutes later, I passed Josh again on the Kawasaki Mule. “How’s it goin’?” he asked. I gave him a quick nod and tried to say it like a cowboy as I replied, “The herd’s all in.”

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