ABDUL & EBENEZER
Listen to that bark and beller out there.
Something extraordinary to raise such a brouhaha, to get me walking this far this late into the pasture this damp with dew… They've quitted, quieted. But it isn't done they're just listening, there's something – mygod it's Stewart fighting something right here! Yee! Gittum Stewart, gittum! Yee! Get outta here you phantom fucker you whatever you -- I can't tell if it's a fox, a way-out-of-his-woods wolf or a rabid 'possum.
Bark bark bark! Bark and beller and pound my heart while every hair for acres around springs to rigid attention. Stewart? Pant pant pant. Good gittin', Stew Ball. Who was that strange varmit? Your foot okay? Probably a fox, huh, some teenage fox out daring the midnight. Probably the same one that will sometimes slip up outside my cabin window in the hollow squeaking shank of a strung-out night to suddenly squawl me up out of my swivel chair three feet in the air then disappear into the swamp with yips of ornery delight.
Hush, Stewart. Hush. Let things settle down, it's twelve bells and hell's fire! What's that in the moony mist just ahead, that big black clot? It must be Ebenezer, back in that same spot beside the dented irrigation pipe. So, the drama is still running, after all these days. Over a week since that labor in the stickers and longer than that by almost another week since the slaughter, and she's still by the pipe. Well, it's a good drama and deserves a long run. Not that it has a nice tight plot, or a parable I can yet coax a clear meaning from, but it's a drama nevertheless.
It has a valiant hero, and a faithful heroine. Despite the masculine moniker, Ebenezer is a cow. She got her misleading name one communal Christmas before we communers were cognizant of such things as gender in the lesser life forms.
She is one of the original dogies, Ebenezer is, appropriated that first year I was out of jail and California – back in Oregon at old Mt. Nebo farm. Betsy had moved there with the kids while I did my time, and all the old gang had followed. That first giddy year the farm was loaded with lots of loaded people trying to take care of lots of land without much more than optimism and dope to go on. One enthusiastic afternoon we drove the bus to the Creswell livestock auction and bid into our possession eight baby "bummers." In the cattle game a bummer is a two- or three- or four-day-old calf sold separately because the owner wants to milk the mom instead of raise the calf, and sold cheap because, we found out a few hours after we got our little string home to their straw-filled quarters, they seldom survive.
The first went to the Great Round-up before the first night was over and the second before the second, their skinny shanks a mass of manure and their big eyes dull from dehydration. By the end of the third night the other six were down. They wouldn't have made it through the week but for the introduction of my brother's acidophilus yogurt into their bottles. True to Buddy's claim, the yogurt fortified their defenseless stomachs with friendly antibodies and enzymes and we pulled the remaining six through.
Hush, Stewart; it's Ebenezer. I can't see her in the dark but I can see our brand: a white heart with an X in it, floating ghostly in a black puddle. We use a freeze brand instead of a burn brand, so instead of the traditional bawling of calves and reek of seared hair and flesh, our stock marking is done with whispers and frozen gas. The heavy brass brand soaks at the end of a wooden stick in an insulated bucket bubbling with dry ice and methyl alcohol while we wrestle a calf to the sawdust. We shave a place on the flank, stick the frosted iron to the bald spot, then hope everything holds still for the count of sixty. If it's done right, the hair grows back out white where the metal touched. Why the crossed heart? It used to be the Acid Test symbol, something to do with spiritual honesty, cross thy heart and hope to etc.
It worked on Ebenezer the best; maybe the iron was colder, or the shave closer; perhaps it's simply that she is an Angus and pure black for the white to show against. Her has tripled in size since it was frosted on years ago yet still shines sharp and clear. The insignia gives her a look of authority. Indeed, Ebenezer has led the herd with an influence that has continued to grow ever since she first realized that she was the smartest thing in the field, and the bravest, and that if anybody was going to lead a charge of periodic grievances through the fence to protest pasture conditions, it would have to be her. When there is a beef, so to speak, Ebenezer is the spokesman of this whole eighty acres of grazers – cows, calves, steers, bulls, sheep, horses, goats, donkeys, and vegetarian four-footers all.
I refuse to say spokesperson.
The crown of leadership has not been a light one. She's paid for her years of barricade busting and midwinter protest marches. She's been hung with irritating bells, tethered to drags, hobbled, collared with yokes made from Y's of sturdy ash sticking a yard above her neck and a yard below to stop her from squeezing between the strands of barbed wire (stop her until she really got resolute, of course; any of our fencing during those first years was at best a tacit agreement with the half-ton tenants), and she has had bounced off her hide barrages of rocks, clods, bean poles, tools, tin cans and tent stakes and, on one rainy raging night, after hours of mediation over a border dispute, fiery Roman candle balls.
She doesn't do it so much anymore. She's learned the price of protest and I've learned how to build stronger fences and feed better hay. Still, we both know we can look forward to future demonstrations. There's a farm doggerel, goes: "Ya know ol' Ebenezer… she will do what'll please 'er!"
Hi, Ebenezer. Still here at the dent in the pipe, eh, chewing away cool and calm? I see you haven't let no hotrod fox mess with your memories in the ruminating night…
She's had other old men. The first was Hamburger, a big Guernsey bull, low-browed and hard-looking and horny enough to one time try to mount an idling Harley, biker and all, because a heifer in heat had rubbed against the rear wheel. During the bidding the auctioneer admitted Hamburger was no good looker to speak of, but he claimed he knew the beast personally and could guarantee he was a hard lover with boundless ardor. We knew he had spoken the truth as soon as the bull came down the truck ramp into our clover. He hit the ground with his hard already on. From that time on, almost any hour of any day when you saw Hamburger hanging out, it looked like he could have broke new ground by just walking on his knees.
But ardor that knows no bounds neither knows any boundaries. He wasn't a movement leader like Ebenezer but he was just as hard on my fences. One morning he wasn't in our pasture. I found the twisted gap in the wire, but Hamburger was nowhere to be seen. Butch, my neighbor Olaf's son, finally brought us the news that his dad had Hamburger chained in his barn. When I went over to get him, Olaf says, "Come on in the house. I'll have the woman make us a pot of fresh coffee. I want to talk to ya."
I trust Olaf. Like most of my farming neighbors he has to hold down a job to support his right to labor on his own land. He's out working his fields the minute he's home from the woods; he doesn't even change out of his calk boots.
We chatted the first cup away. After the second cup he says, "That bull's become a breacher – dangerous. Guernsey bulls'll do that, all to once one day decide to be hateful. And this'n has decided. From now on he's gonna go through any fence any gate any damn thing that happens to stand between him and anything he fancies. Till eventually he's gonna turn on a human being. Maybe not a grown man, but he wouldn't hesitate to turn on a kid or a woman trying to head him. Ya can bet money on it. He's got that look in his eye."
We went out to his barn and peered through the rails. There was no denying it: what had once been just hard and horny was now a look burning with the first coals of hate for the human oppressor.
"I'll butcher the bastard tomorrow," I said.
"Now don't do that. Ya don't want to be eatin' hate. He's still young enough so he oughten be too tough, but he'll have all that breachin' and screwin' and sod-pawin' in his blood. The meat'd be rank as a billygoat. What it is ya'll have to do is put him in a fattening pen and top him off with grain for about forty days. Try to get his mind off all the hellin' around after hot heifers."
We built the pen out of railroad ties and telephone poles, but I had my doubts about changing Hamburger's mind. Not only was he still horny, with those heifers crooning at him every night from miles around – "Hamburger… Hammm-burger, honey" – those coals in his eyes were hotter with each passing penned-up day. When we saw that the weeks of solitary were making him no mellower, were in fact making him rush daily fiercer at the fence when we brought his grain out, and roar and rumble nightly louder and louder like a pent-up volcano of sperm, we finally resorted to putting a potion in his serving of morning mash, hoping to raise his consciousness, if not up to the Knowledge of the Glorious All-Pervading Mercy that Passeth Understanding, at least up out of his scrotum.
Our potion produced more agitation, it seemed, than enlightenment. He stood staring into the empty bucket a few minutes, slobbering and twitching. Then he gave a mighty fart and charged. He leveled a railroad tie with his first rush (it must have been a good one; we had estimated his weight as that of six men and medicated him accordingly). When he crashed out we headed for high places, stumbling over each other in our realization of what we had wrought, but his hormones were apparently stronger than his hate; forgetting his scattering tormentors, he stampeded straight for the neglected herd. Far into the night we could hear the debauchery.
Betsy phoned Sam's Slaughtering. The little refrigerated aluminum truck was there at dawn. Sam's son John got out and took the.22 rifle from the rack behind the seat. Sam no longer did the actual knockover. He was content to stay back at the butcher shop and argue with deer hunters while his son took care of the field work. John was only about eighteen at this time. Though not a licensed butcher, years of accompanying his father on these killing runs had taught John something about death and timing. He knew to arrive at dawn, to stroll out to the condemned animal before it was fully awake (a wave of his hand, a call – "Hey! Here!" – a sharp crack…) and to drop it with the first shot.
The resulting quake of terror that runs from one end of the farm to the other after this shot must never enter the mind of the victim, or the meat. Ya don't wanta to be eatin' fear, neither. As far as John and I and the cows are concerned, this is what kosher was originally supposed to be about.
After Hamburger we went through several steer misses – chance bulls, spared by our ineptness with the elastrator or weak rubber bands; but these fellows were at best bush-league bulls who kept trying to get into their own mothers, so they lasted no length of time. After a couple seasons of no bull, and fast approaching a time of no beef, I made a deal with my dad and brother and Mickey Write to get new blood on the property. Mickey had a couple of ponies foundering on my far pasture, and my father knew a milk producer with an extra young bull to swap. Mickey hauled the ponies to the producer in his girlfriend's horse trailer and returned a few hours later with our trade. We all stood in the bee-loud field and witnessed the cautious coming-out of a black Aberdeen yearling, as demure and dimensionless in the trailer as midnight itself. This was to be Abdul, the Bull Bull.
Barely a boy bull that afternoon, he backed off the ramp as cowed-looking as a new kid on a strange playground. A cute new kid, too. Almost dainty. He was long-lashed and curly-locked and hornless, it appeared to us, in more ways than one. He took one apprehensive look around at our array of cows watching him in a row, tails twitching and eyes a-glitter from two years of bull-lessness, and struck out south for mellower climes like San Francisco, through our fence, our neighbor's fence, and our neighbor's neighbor's neighbor's fence before we could head him off.
When we finally got him back he took another look at our cows and headed this time for Victoria. It took two days of chasing him with rocks and ropes and coaxing him with alfalfa and oats to get him back and secured and calmed or at least resigned that this was, ready or not, his new home. He stayed, but all the rest of that summer and fall he kept as much field as possible between himself and that herd of hussies stalking his vital bodily essence.
"What kind of Ferdinand have you rung in here on me?" I asked my father.
"A new experimental breed," Dad assured me. "I think they call 'em Faggerdeen Anguses, known for docility."
When hard winter set in, young Abdul finally took to associating openly with the herd, but for warmth and meals only, it appeared. After the daily hay was gone he would stand aside and chew in saintly solitude. With his shy face and his glossy black locks he looked more a pubescent altar boy considering a life of monastic celibacy than the grandsire of steaks.
There comes into the story now a minor cow character, one of Hamburger's heifers named Floozie. A cross-eyed Jersey-Guernsey cross – runty, unassuming, and as unpretty as her father – yet this wallflower was to be the first to clear Abdul of the charge of Flagrant Ferdinandeering. Betsy had told me some of the cows looked pregnant but I was a doubter. I was even more skeptical when she said that it was homely Floozie who was due to drop her calf first.
"Any time now," Betsy said. "She's secreting, her hips are distended, and listen to her complain out there."
"It's only been barely nine months since we bought him," I reminded her. "And the only thing he jumped that first two months was fences. She's just bellering because the weather's been so shitty. Everything is complaining."
That had been the coldest winter in Oregon's short recorded history – 20 degrees below zero in Eugene! – and the bitterest in even the old mossbacks' long recollection. Nor did the freeze let up after a few days, like our usual cold snap. The whole state froze for one solid week. Water went rigid in the plumbing if a faucet was left off for a few minutes; submersible pumps burned out sixty feet down; radiators exploded; trees split; the gasoline even froze in the fuel lines of moving cars. After a week it thawed briefly to let all the cracked water mains squirt gaily for a day; then it froze again. Another new record! And snowed. And blew like a bastard, and kept freezing and snowing and blowing for week after week right through February and March and even into April. By Easter it had warmed up a little. Fairer days were predicted. The snow had stopped but those April showers were a long way from violets. Sleet is worse than snow with none of the redeeming charm. With nasty slush all day long and black ice all night, every citizen was depressed, the beasts as bad as the folks. Beasts don't have any calendar, any Stonehenge Solstice, any ceremonial boughs of holly to remind them of the light. Cows have a big reservoir of patience, but it isn't bottomless. And when it's finally emptied, when month after miserable month has passed and there is no theology to shore up the weatherbeaten spirit, they can begin to despair. My cows began to stand ass to the wind and stare bleakly into a worsening future, neither mooing nor moving for hours on end. Even alfalfa failed to perk them up.
Then one dim morning Betsy came in to tell me Floozie was in labor down in the swamp and looked like she needed help. By the time I was bundled up and had followed Betsy back down, the calf had been born: a tiny black ditto of daddy Abdul without a doubt, curly-browed and angel-eyed and standing against the sleet as healthy and as strong – to coin a phrase – as a bull. Floozie didn't look so good, though. She was panting and straining through sporadic contractions, but she couldn't seem to rally strength enough to pass the afterbirth. We decided to move them up to the field next to the house to keep an eye on them. I carried the calf while Betsy shooed Floozie along behind. We all had to duck our heads into the stinging icy rain. I was cursing and Betsy was grumbling and Floozie was lowing forlornly about the woes of this harsh existence, but the little calf wasn't making a sound in my arms; his head was too high and his eyes too wide with the wonder of it all to think of a complaint.
The sleet got colder. Betsy and I went inside and watched out the window. The calf lay down in the shelter of the pumphouse and waited for whatever new wonder life had in store. Floozie continued to low. The afterbirth dangled from her rump like a cluster of grape Popsicles. Some of it finally broke away and dropped to the icy mud. The remainder started drawing back inside. Betsy said we ought to go out there and dig the rest of it forth. I observed that cows had been surviving calving for thousands of years now without my help. Dig my arm into that mysterious yin dark? I was not – to coin another – into it.
That afternoon Floozie was down. She still hadn't passed the afterbirth, and fever was steaming from her heaving sides. She was making a sighing wheeze every few breaths that sounded like a rusty wind-up replica of a cow running down. The little calf was still standing silent, nuzzling his mother with soft, imploring bumps of his nose, but his mother wasn't answering. Betsy said peritonitis was setting in and we'd need some antibiotics to save her. I drove into Springfield, where I was able to buy a kit for just this veterinarian problem. It was a pint bottle of oxytetracycline antibiotic hooked by a long rubber tube to a stock hypo with a point big as a twenty-penny nail. Waiting for a freight at the Mt. Nebo crossing I had time to read the pamphlet of directions for the inoculation. It showed a drawing of a cow with an arrow indicating the vein in the neck I was to hit. It said nothing about where to tie her off, however.
The rest of the drive home I spent considering various ties. A garden hose, I thought, would be best, with a slip knot… but before I was even turned into our drive I saw that I wasn't going to get the chance, not that day. I could see the sides heaved no more. The little calf was still standing beside the steaming mound, but was no longer silent. He was bawling as though his heart would break.
The rest of that sleetsmeared day I spent shivering and shoveling and thinking how if I had just gone ahead and stuck my hand up that cow this morning I wouldn't be digging this huge goddamned hole this afternoon. While I dug and the calf bawled, the cows – one by one – came to the fence to stare in on the scene, not at the dead sister, who was already little more to them than the mud being shoveled back over her, but at the newborn marvel. As the cows stared you could see them straining back through the long dark tunnel of the winter's memory, recalling something. That little calf's cry was tugging on the udders of their memory, drawing down the milky remembrance of brighter times, of longer days and clover again, of sunshine, warmth, birth, of living again.
Before that dingy day had muddied to full dark my cows were calving everywhere, not weakened by forlorn despair but strengthened by jubilant certainty. Ebenezer calved so fast she thought there must be more to come. We were able to slip Floozie's little maverick alongside; in her jubilation Ebenezer never doubted for a moment that she had dropped twins. By the next morning I couldn't tell the orphan from its stepbrother or from any of the other curly-browed calves that continued to pop out all that day in a steady black line.
During all this maternity business, the father hadn't come in from the field. After the last cow had calved I walked out, and I could see him in a far corner near my neighbor's fence. I reached him just as the sun pried through a jam of clouds. He listened shyly while I tendered him apologies and congratulations, then turned his back on me to enjoy the bundle of alfalfa I had brought. I noticed further bellering and saw two of my neighbor's Holsteins with fresh black babies and, in my neighbor's neighbor's field of high-rent red Devons, saw more of Abdul's issue hopping about in the sun like a hatch of crickets.
"Abdul, by God you are one bull bull!"
He didn't deny it, chomping away with altar-boy innocence; he didn't brag about it, either. It wasn't his style.
The seasons wheeled on. Our herd soon doubled and then some. We banded the baby bulls, ate the fatted steers, and spared the heifers toward the time when even I get it together enough to realize my dairy farm vision. As the herd got bigger, it got blacker. Better than two thirds were now three-quarters black, with fading smatterings of Guernsey, Jersey, and Oregon Mongol. Abdul got broader and less dainty, yet never lost his altar-boy demeanor; he never butted or assaulted a heifer with that typical show of cruel strength that gives origin to the name "bully."
No one ever saw him score; taking advantage of his natural camouflage, he chose darkness for his wooing ground. If his midnight nuptials sometimes took him through a fence or two, he usually returned before dawn; when he didn't, there was never any attitude but gentle obedience toward any of us who went to fetch him back. The only anger I ever saw crimp his brow was aimed at no human but at the bull who serviced Tory's herd across the road, an old blowhard Hereford. It was easy to see why. After every broad-daylight hump of some sleepy heifer, this rednecked old whiteface had to parade up and down his fence and bawl his boasting across the road at our young Angus. Abdul never answered; whenever Old Blowhole across the road started, Abdul always headed for the swamp.
At length, Betsy began to worry about the number of our herd and about the size of some of Abdul's daughters. They were getting "that age," as it were (and as the nasty neighbor bull was quick to make clear whenever one of Abdul's virgin daughters grazed past) and old enough to be capable of inbreeding. I personally didn't think Abdul would stoop to incest, but who wants to take a chance on idiot veal?
"What can we do?" I asked Betsy. We were walking along the fence, checking our charges over. Across the road Tory's bull was following, huffing up some new diatribe.
"Pen Abdul up, or auction him off, or sell him, or -"
She stopped, drowned out by the whiteface. When his harangue bellowed back down I asked, "Or what?"
"Or eat him."
"Eat Abdul? I don't want to eat Abdul. That'd be like eating Stewart."
"Pen him up, then. That's the way you're supposed to keep breeding bulls…"
"I don't want to pen him up, either. I wouldn't give Tory's bull the satisfaction."
"That leaves sell or trade. I'll put an ad in the paper."
We found no one wanted to trade anything but deer rifles or motorcycles. And the cash orders came not from kindly cattle breeders but from local beaneries seeking bargain burger.
After a month passed without any results from our ads, and after a night helping Hock, our neighbor to the east, separate Abdul from the half-dozen Charolais Hock'd just bought, I decided to try the pen.
The tie had been replanted, the rails replaced, but not since Hamburger had the little square been occupied. Abdul entered without a squawk. To my surprise, he had to squeeze in the gate that Hamburger used to pass through easily.
"Abdul ol' buddy, you're big enough to know some of the harsh facts of life," I told him as I fastened the gate. "It ain't all free love and frolic." Abdul stood without comment, munching the bucket of green apples I had used to lure him. Watching from across the road, Tory's bull had a lot to say about his rival's incarceration. He was terrible. All afternoon he kept up his needling of Abdul with bawled innuendos and sexual slurs. By the time I went to bed, the Hereford had worked up to downright racial insults. I promised myself to have a few words with old man Tory about his beast someday soon.
Old man Tory beat me to it. He was there at sunup, cracking at the windowpane of my front door with a flinty old knuckle.
"Yer bull? Yer gor-gor-gordam black bull?" He was shirtless and shuddering violently, from both the morning chill and the heat of some as-yet-unbottled anger. "Yer sell him er yer still got him tell me that!"
Tory is a toothless old veteran of some eighty embattled years of farming, with the face of a starved mink, and not much bigger. It is said that he once accosted a pair of California duck hunters trespassing after a flock of mallards they'd seen go down in the slough that gullies through Tory's property, and had proceeded to chew them out with such snapping ferocity that one of the hunters suffered a coronary. Now, as I watched him shuddering and sputtering on my doorstep, toothless and scrawny in his bib overalls and no shirt, I feared that this might be his blood pressure's time to blow. Soothingly I told him, why yes, as a matter of fact, I still had Abdul. "If you'd like to size him up he's out in my bullpen -"
"The gordam hell if he is! He's been over in my field since afore light, tearin' up fences an' gates an' all sortsa hell. Now he's into it with my bull – t' the death!"
I told him I'd get after the delinquent right away, soon's I got my clothes on and my kids up to help. I apologized for the trouble and old man Tory cooled off a little.
"I'd've broke 'em apart myself," he growled, as he started hobbling back down the steps, "but I ain't had my breakfast yet."
I hollered everybody up and we headed over to our field car, a '64 Merc convertible. We didn't have to drive down to Tory's gate; the hole in his fence looked like a road grader had opened it. I maneuvered through the fractured wood and wire, then headed us bouncing toward the cloud of dust in the distance. I drove alongside the freshly rutted trail left by the battle's progress. The distance traveled into Tory's land showed who was winning. Bull fashion, the Hereford had planted himself between the black attacker and his whiteface herd, but Abdul had forced him steadily backwards, more than half a mile. When we reached the scene of the conflict the Hereford was nearly to the edge of Tory's gully. His tongue was dripping blood from the corner of his mouth and his eyes were rolling wildly to and fro, from Abdul, standing mountainlike a few feet in front, to the lip of the chasm a few feet behind.
They both turned their heads to regard the car honking and reving its engine at them. I got out. "Abdul!" I hollered. "Knock it off! And go home!" He gave me such a look of apology I thought for a moment he might obey, like a dog. But the whiteface tried to take advantage of the distraction with a charge for Abdul's turned neck: butt! Abdul staggered. He pawed for his balance, stepping backwards, then dropped his head in time to meet the next attack: ka-dud! The two big skulls crunched together with astonishing force. Thousands of pounds of conflicting inertia rippled down their backs to their butts and right on through the earth. You could feel it underfoot: ka-dud! Then again: duddd! and Abdul regained the turf my shouting had cost him.
What a spectacle! They would collide, and drive, heave, grind until they were exhausted, then stand panting. Sometimes they placed their big foreheads together without a charge, almost affectionately, increasing the force until the huge necks would accordion with the effort; sometimes they would sling their heads from side to side and bring them together with a sharp crack before starting their push. But whatever the tactic, inch by inch Abdul was forcing his weary opponent to what looked like certain defeat; even if the Hereford didn't lose his footing over the edge and expose his underside to Abdul's murderous trampling, he would still be fighting downhill. Downhill from that much weight would put him at a conclusive disadvantage.
I didn't want to be paying Tory purebred prices for a dead blowhard, so I jumped back behind the wheel of the Merc and gunned it into the fracas. The bumper caught Abdul in the fore shoulder while he was brow to brow and pushing. He didn't budge. I backed off farther and came at them again; again there was no give. But the impact had jammed the radiator back into the fan; the ensuing racket distracted Abdul long enough to let the Hereford escape the precipice. For a second it looked like he was going to turn tail on valor and run for discretion, but his ladies across the chasm raised such an outcry the Hereford had to swing back about. There was nothing to do but fight to the finish or spend the rest of his days hearing them nag.
He spread his feet groggily for his last stand. I tried to maneuver the car into position for another side shot, but it was beginning to steam. Abdul hiked a couple of disdainful clods into the air and lowered his head for the kill when a sharp crack! crack! startled all of us. Up out of the gully came old man Tory. A clean white shirt was buttoned over his overalls and his dentures were in; his lips and stubble were flecked with toast crumbs and berry jam. In his hand he carried a little green leather buggy whip, the kind you buy as rodeo souvenirs.
"Good gord ain't yer broke these sonsabidges up yet?" I told him I'd been waiting for them to wear themselves out, they'd be less dangerous.
"Dangerous? Dangerous? Why good gordamighty damn stand outter the way. I ain't a-skeered of the sonsabidges!"
And waded into them, whip crackling and dentures snapping. His Hereford received two snaps on the snoot and, to my amazement, took off bleating like a lamb. Abdul spun to give pursuit but there was that little wizard right in his path, green wand cracking like firecrackers. Abdul hesitated. He looked after the panicked whiteface galloping for the barn, then back at the stick conjuring green sparks, and decided if Old Blowhole was that scared of it it must be pretty strong medicine. He turned around and started toward home in a shambling walk, his black brow lowered.
"Yer see that?" Tory pointed the whip after his fleeing bull. "When the sonabidge was a calf my great gran-kids useta tie him to a wagon an' whup him inter pullin' them – with this shittin' little whup. Never forget it, did 'e?"
We gave the old farmer a lift back to his farmhouse. I told him I'd fix his fence; he said it was done past that; now that my bull had topped his it wouldn't rest till it had topped the whole herd. "Prolly won't even rest then, yer know? There's only one thing to do. And if yer don't I b'gord will."
So that night we called Sam's, and the next morning John came turning in the drive before I'd even had coffee. Riding the running board, I directed him out to where the herd was bedded in the green clover around the main irrigation pipe. Ebenezer commenced bellering a warning, as she has come to do whenever she sees the approach of the silvery little death wagon, but she was too late. John was already out, walking around toward the target I had pointed out. Because of the size, he was carrying a.30-.30 instead of his usual.22. Abdul was just blinking awake when the shot exploded in his brow. He fell over the pipe without a sound.
As the herd bucked and bawled John hooked his winch cable to Abdul's hind feet and dragged the carcass away about fifty yards. I used to insist that he drag them clear from the field out of sight, so the herd wouldn't have to watch the gory peeling and gutting of their fallen relative, but John'd shown me it wasn't necessary. They don't follow the carcass; they stay to circle the spot where the actual death occurred, keening around the taking-off place though the hoisted husk is in full view mere yards away. As time passes, this circle spreads larger. If one were to hang overhead in a balloon and take hourly photos of this outline of mourning, I believe it would describe the diffusing energy field of the dead animal.
Abdul was the biggest animal we'd ever killed, and this mourning lasted the longest. Off and on between grazing, the herd returned to the dented pipe and stood in a lowing circle that was a tight ten feet in diameter the first day, and the next day fifteen feet, and the next day twenty. For a full week they grieved. It was fitting: he'd been their old man and a great one, and it was only right that the funeral last until a great circle had been observed, only natural – with the proper period of respect fading naturally toward forgetting while Nature shuffles her deck for the next deal around.
But at this point up pops a joker.
The bathroom floor rots through. Buddy and cousin Davy drive out in the creamery van with a load of plywood and we work the night away nailing it down. When they leave in the morning Buddy is attracted by a bellering in the field. It is Ebenezer. Another duty of her office is to let us know when one of the young cows has started labor. Buddy sees the supine heifer and throws his truck into reverse and comes hollering and honking back. "Looks like there's a calf about to be borned," he yells at me. Betsy hops in with him while I open the gate. We head out to where Ebenezer is trumpeting her announcement.
"That's right where Abdul got it last week," I told Buddy. "They've been bedding down there every night."
"Listen to Ebenezer," Betsy said. "O, me, I hope she doesn't think -!"
It was too late. Ebenezer had already made the mistaken association: early morning, an approaching truck, a killing still strong in her memory… and what had begun as a call for assistance became a shriek of warning. She planted herself between us and her laboring sister and bellowed, "It's the killer wagon! Head for the woods, honey; I'll try to hold the fiends back."
We were the rest of the morning trying to find the cow in the swamp. We finally located her hiding place by her ragged breathing. She was on her side under a thicket of blackberries. From the size of the calf's front hooves sticking out, we could see it was a whopper, far too big for so young a heifer. Maybe she could have squeezed it out on her own out in the field when she was still fresh, but Ebenezer's misguided alarm had sent her running and spent her strength. Now she was going to need help.
I tried to get a loop over her head, but she was as skittish as I was unskilled. The rest of the afternoon Betsy and the kids and I chased her from one stickerpatch to the next. There was never really any room for me to get a good toss of my loop. At length, I traded my lasso for my old wrestling headgear and climbed into the low branches of a scrub oak. When Betsy and the kids drove her beneath me I leaped on her and wrestled her down bodily. I held her until Quiston got a loop around a hind leg and Betsy got another around her neck. We got a third tie around her other hind leg and lashed her to three trees. Quis sat on her head to keep her from rearing up. I wrapped the calf's protruding hooves with clothesline and started pulling. Betsy massaged her stomach, and little Caleb talked to her and stroked her neck. When a contraction would start I would brace a foot against each side of her spread flank and tug. When the clothesline broke, I doubled it – and when it broke again, I double doubled it and kept pulling.
The sun went down. Sherree brought the flashlight down from the house and some wet rags to towel some of the stuff from our faces while we labored. Blood and mud and sweat and shit. Finally, with a mighty tugging and grunting and rending of orifices, out it came: a pretty little bull, all black with one stripe of white in the corner of its mouth, as though he'd been drinking milk already and had drooled. It wasn't breathing. Betsy blew air into its lungs until they started pumping on their own.
We let the cow up but kept the tie around her neck so she wouldn't flee in exhausted craziness before she accepted the calf. Sherree brought her a bucket of water, and while the animal drank we stood back out of sight and shined the flashlight beam on the calf. Calmed by the drink, the cow stepped forward to sniff the wobbly child. I switched off the light.
The moon had come out and was dappling down through the oak leaves. She had begun licking the calf. I wanted to take the rope from around her neck so she wouldn't tangle in the brush, but she wouldn't let me near the loop knot to loosen it. I opened my buck knife and slipped up as close as I could and began sawing very gently at the rope a few feet from her back-straining head, humming as I worked. She looked back and forth from me to her calf in the moonlight. You could see the trust returning.
But apparently both jokers had been left in this deck. As the last strands parted, a car came rattling down the road and screeched to a halt by our mailbox, then backed up and swung in the drive and shut off the ignition. As the engine quit it gave a loud backfire and off the cow stampeded, right over the hapless calf.
Betsy and the kids went after the cow while I went after the car. It was unloading a rowdy crew and a barking dog. The crew was a bunch of Dairy Manufacturing majors from Oregon State who'd had a few brews after class and decided to drive down from Corvallis, check out how the famous commune was doing – and the dog was a goddamned German shepherd barking about how many chickens he could kill given the opportunity. I dispatched them quickly back northward, clattering and backfiring and cursing back at me – "Grouchy old baldheaded prick!" - then I returned to the swamp.
The cow was back with her calf, licking it and lowing. Betsy whispered it looked like she was going to stay. We crept away to the house and washed up. Betsy visited the mother and child once more before we went to bed.
"She's still with it. He hasn't got back up yet, though."
"He's probably exhausted. Lord knows I am. Let's get under the covers before something else happens."
In the morning the calf was where we had left him, dead. Lifting his body away from the grieving cow, I could feel some of his little ribs were broken. Who knows? From the rigors of the birth or the backfire that stampeded his mother over him? From Ebenezer's confused warning? Tory's bull's taunting? The position of the stars and the planets, the dice throw of destiny?
I buried him near what was left of his great-aunt Floozie. He made a small new hump next to the big old hump, blooming blue and yellow from the crocus bulbs we had planted there last fall. I haven't decided what we'll plant over his nutrients. Cowslips sounds about right.
Let's go Stewart; this dew has all my toes froze. Nighty-night, Ebenezer. Lie back down and tell the rest of the gals to cool it. It was just a fox, tell them, just a varmint in the dark.