12 May 2010

Quakers in the Country: Cowhand

It’s morning on the ranch. After we feed the stock, Roger and I check with Joel to see what he wants us to do for the rest of the day.

“First, I need you to go get WinWin,” says Joel. “It’s time to measure his horns.”

And so it begins . . .

WinWin is a fully-grown Longhorn bull, currently out with the cows across Muskrat Road from the big house. Dickinson Cattle Company is the largest Longhorn breeding ranch in the United States, and happens to be in Barnesville, Ohio, about twenty miles from where I live. For a while I had a job there as a cowhand, one of the things a Quaker can do from time to time, when he lives in the country. If I lived in a place like Philadelphia, I might have a different job, maybe a school teacher, or abbot of a Quaker monastery. But I live in the country on purpose, and one reason is because I’d rather punch cows than be tempted to punch people.

Cowboys tend to look a bit different from what many people expect. I don’t wear a cowboy hat (unlike various of my recent ancestors), but I do use a leather thong threaded through a couple of grommet holes in my Amish-made broad-brim to let it hang down my back, which fits in with cowboy chic. And I’ve worn cowboy boots ever since I was a kid, given a choice. I’m from Oklahoma, after all. But otherwise I look more or less like any normal plain-dressing Quaker, rather than a cowhand. Most people seem to picture a cowhand looking more like that old picture of my Uncle Willie, there to the right, all saddle leather, lariat, and dramatic moments. And I suppose if Uncle Willie were still around, he might agree. Certainly his photograph is pretty impressive. But I expect that most cowboying back then was as routine as it is now: feeding cows, herding cows, sorting cows, medicating cows, finding lost cows, finding lost calves, building fence, digging holes, and on and on. Chores are always divided up, and my own personal task every morning and evening was feeding the bulls in their stalls and shoveling manure. Did you know that a full-grown Longhorn bull can fill an entire 7-cubic foot wheelbarrow full of manure every day? And somebody has to shovel it. The bulls just ignore you while you work around them, because dealing with manure once they’re done with it is beneath them. And as an annoying monkey, you’re frankly beneath them as well. Except when you get told to do something unusual, like to go get WinWin and put him someplace where you can measure his horns. Then you have to deal with them on different terms.

WinWin was out doing his job. Hanging out with the cows, waiting for the few fleeting hours when they would go into a standing heat, and then making sure that they delivered a pedigree calf later in the season. That’s what he was good at, and WinWin took his job seriously. Roger knew about where he would be, so we mounted up the four-wheelers and rode off.

Dickinson Cattle is a modern cattle ranch. Seven hundred cows and calves, four or five ranch hands, four or five four-wheelers, three moldy saddles in a trailer, and one horse. The horse was wise to ranch work, and spent most of his time avoiding people. Not a problem, as the cowhands preferred the ATVs. No catching, no saddling, no bridle, no cool off, just turn the key on to go, and turn the key off when you’re done. Simpler, and much more to the liking of the horse, who would make himself scarce anytime anybody looked like they might get close enough to actually put a bridle on him.

It was a beautiful spring morning in the month of May. We puttered down the lane between the fenced pastures, stirring up a little dust behind us in the warm air, passing late mustards and locust still in bloom, occasional sky blue chicories to the sides, the cherries and elms on the slopes and behind the fencelines in full leaf. A warm breeze blew over the green pastures, carrying the smell of sunny meadows and cool shady woods, water-wet creek bottoms, and murky cattailed sloughs. Longhorns are descended from the cattle brought to the Americas by the Spaniards centuries ago, and are lean and very self-sufficient, with several centuries of evolution to adjust them to the dry climate and scarce feed of the arid west. But the Longhorns liked the eastern deciduous woods just fine, and used them to their advantage when hiding out from cowhands like Roger and me.

Eventually we find WinWin, lying in state in the company of four or five of his harem, calmly chewing his cud, already having filled up on water earlier in the day.

“How many?” I ask.

“Just him,” says Roger. “It would be easier to take him and four or five cows, but Joel only wants him.”

And of course, it will turn out exactly as Roger predicts. WinWin rises to his feet, a magnificent bull weighing over two thousand pounds, brown and black splashes on a smooth white coat, his horns spreading something over sixty inches from tip to tip, the whole reason for the approaching adventure. He inspects us calmly, still chewing, powerful and composed.

WinWin isn’t dangerous out on the grass. None of the bulls are, except by accident, really. In general, Longhorns are intelligent and easy-going animals, and only when they’re confined in stalls and have clearly defined territorial boundaries do you have to look out. Then they can maneuver their horns through the bars with mischevious accuracy, and knock off your hat or break your ribs, easily and at their own discretion. But out in the open, they have nothing in particular to defend, and will quite happily move along from place to place at the whistles and hoots from a pair of monkeys on ATVs.

But they’re still cows, and cows are herd animals. WinWin doesn’t mind getting up and moving, but he doesn’t like the way we slip in between him and the others, trying to push him in the other direction. Nothing good can come of that, he knows. The cows instantly recognize that they are free to go, and treacherously abandon WinWin to his fate. WinWin watches for a moment, and then deftly steps around us and trots away, after the girls. Roger cuts in front of him, WinWin makes up his mind to run for it, and we’re off.

WinWin is a huge animal, five feet at the shoulder, five feet across at the horns, and when he runs he shows just how much power a Longhorn bull can command. He thunders across the flowers, Roger on his right shoulder and me close in behind as we try to turn him in the direction of the pipe corral to the southwest. His immense body rocks above the ground like a battleship, the rhythmic pounding of his hooves propelling him forward, a giant mammal at home on the grass under the blue sky and cumulus clouds, in his element and confident. He turns to the right and slows suddenly, then slips behind Roger and heads east again, back to the cows, back to common sense. Roger guns the throttle and circles around to his right, pushing him back to the west while I move in to his left side to keep him from repeating the trick in the other direction.

“Look out, Kevin! He’ll jump!” Roger shouts.

WinWin’s hooves slam into the ground as he races us to the trees in the creek bottom. At his left shoulder, I push ahead and close in at twenty-five miles per hour, my hat flying behind me on its thong like a kite, crowding him away from the trees but not getting too close. WinWin is quite capable of leaping clean over my head as I approach, and I see him rolling his eyes at me to gauge my distance. If he makes a mistake and lands on top of me, it could well be fatal, so I drop back a few feet.

WinWin seizes the opportunity and dives into the trees, running for the other side between trunks too close for Roger to follow quickly. While Roger twists and turns the handlebars to get through, I turn and tear around the woods to the north, across the slope and down to the creek on the other side to get in front again. WinWin emerges triumphantly from the brush and steps into the water, looking back at Roger, just as I reach the creek and jam the ATV to a stop directly in front of him. As he pauses to reassess, Roger catches up. Then together we pinch him between us, and urge him back to the southwest, towards the fenceline.

Again and again we cut and push, gradually working WinWin closer to the fence. The waltz between the cow and the cowherders continues for another twenty minutes, slowing all the while as Roger and I get more and more tired. WinWin is exhausted by this time, too, his rib cage heaving. Finally we reach the fence and block him in, Roger off his right shoulder and me again urging from behind. With nowhere left to run, WinWin acknowledges temporary defeat and slowly walks along the fence towards the corral, head hanging low under the weight of his mottled brown and black horns

He enters the open gate and Roger and I ride in after him. Roger drags the fence panel closed, and I turn the key and climb off the ATV, whistling and hooting gently to urge WinWin into the corner where we can drag the panels closed alongside him in a makeshift squeeze cage. Joel is already there with the tape measure.

“Dang! What did you do to him? He’s leaking from everywhere.”

Head down, WinWin is indeed leaking: urine, green manure, drool, and a running nose to boot. More exercise than he was expecting. I refrain from telling Joel that I’m close to leaking from everywhere too, and instead slap WinWin on the butt to encourage him into the corner.

With the three of us heaving and pushing, we finally get WinWin positioned alongside the fence and squeeze the panel against him, holding him securely in place while Joel stretches the tape between his horn tips. Spread is important in pedigree Longhorns. If a bull manages to grow his horns over sixty inches between the tips, it’s an automatic $5000 increase in his sale value. Dickinson Cattle has bred the world’s record Longhorn on their ranch, a beautiful and sweet-tempered dapple-gray cow named Shadow Jubilee, with horns over 82 inches across. More cooperative than WinWin, too.

WinWin is a bull, not a cow, so his horns are shorter and heavier. After thwarting several attempts, WinWin finally holds still long enough for Joel to read the tape measure.

“Sixty-five and five-eighths,” he says, stepping back. WinWin is a very good bull.

Roger and I unchain the fencing panels and drag them back so WinWin can step out. He looks at us wearily, and I can almost hear him cussing us in disgust. He finally steps out of the corner and walks slowly to the open corral gate, and then heads back out into the grass, back towards his cows, back towards peace and quiet away from the annoying monkeys. I’m still tired, and still close to leaking.

“Okay,” says Joel. “Now go get Victory Lap.”

And so it begins . . .

*           *           *

By the way, all the cow photos were taken by Darol Dickenson on his ranch, and are used by kind permission of Dickinson Cattle Company, Barnesville, Ohio. I have no idea who took the photo of Uncle Willie.


Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

And suddenly, teaching 9th graders the proper use of a semicolon doesn't seem nearly so daunting...

kevin roberts said...

Don't you think so for a moment. Remember when that teacher Christie McCauliffe died in the Challenger space shuttle crash? The next day my friend Kathy Rettenmaier walked into her 9th grade home room to find written on the blackboard:

"Mrs. Rettenmaier--Next Teacher in Space!"