In the late 70’s, my grandparents, having transplanted themselves to southwest Missouri, bought a small farm outside a little place called Greenfield.
They had maybe 10 acres or so, a quarter-pie shaped bit of land rimmed by the curve of a railway that scribed a hard iron line between pastures, a black walnut grove and the rising hills beyond. We kids spent summers there by alternating weeks, but as I recall it, I feel certain I spent more time there with my grandparents than my siblings. Maybe it was my age – 13 or so. Maybe it was my devotion to my grandfather, an adoration that bordered on worship.
In all likelihood, it was because my grandmother, having survived breast cancer and a mastectomy, needed an extra pair of hands to help in the kitchen and garden. At the time I was just old enough and willing to help, yet not so advanced in years that personal pursuits like boys and a budding social life could possibly interfere.
Time with my grandparents meant time to work on my latest novel; I was forever researching and writing something. As such, any hope of a social life for this bookish and bespectacled lass was a few years off.
Whatever the reason, I was on hand to aid my grandfather when his Angus cow, errantly named “Princess” by us kids, came into season and decided to trample a weakened fence through the creek that divided Grandpa’s land from the neighbour’s. Princess, already with her calf in tow, was no lady. She could smell a bull, and she was as determined, wiley and hardheaded as ever a cow could be, a fact which proved itself undeniable in the three days it took Grandpa and me to track her down and return her home.
I still remember these as three of the most exciting days of my life.
Grandpa and I walked miles under cloudless summer skies discussing life, lands he never got to visit but that he was expert on because of the many books he read, social issues and bear hunting. We talked of insects and bird life, and the best variety of Swiss chard to grow in Missouri. Talk turned, as it always did, to blue tick hounds and coon dogs, and of his favourites over the years. How to make camp coffee and what parts of a moose are edible were up for discussion, right along with the complicated politics of cattle.
We searched for two days with no luck. The neighbour’s herd was a mixed bag of Hereford, Angus and a few Charolais, there were calves aplenty, and, let’s face it, one black angus cow looks pretty much like the next. I recall being absolutely terrified of the bulls at pasture. Without fail, these would make their presence known with a deep earth-shaking warning whenever we were spotted in proximity to his cows. My heart would literally stop when I heard that bass rumble, the lowest sound on earth. Still, we forged on. On the third day, we eventually spotted our errant cow, grazing happily amid the neighbour’s herd along the shady banks of the creek, her white-faced bull calf alongside her.
It was a tricky and terror-filled operation, separating Princess from the herd without incurring the wrath of the bull, and while I was not animal shy, I was also perhaps 100 pounds soaking wet and had a healthy appreciation for the dangers associated with 2000 pounds of angry beef. And with Princess in heat, the likelihood of being gored or trampled was considerable.
Still, at my Grandpa’s side, I reasoned I would be okay. His tall, weathered presence was a comfort. “Polly,” he said, “let’s see if we can drive her into the barn and get a rope on her.”
For some reason that has never been explained or understood, my grandfather had taken to calling me Polly somewhere in my early teens. While it may not have been true, at the time I had every confidence that I was his firm favourite out of 17 grandchildren. My special nickname was proof of that. And being part of a large family, the need to feel special, the need for one-on-one time, the need to be perceived as unique in some way seemed terribly, terribly important.
With much difficulty, Grandpa and I cornered Princess in the barn and got a rope on her. But our wily cow, full of estrogen and motherly instinct, panicked and nearly trampled both of us. At this point, we decided on a change of tack.
Roping Princess was hopeless. Our goal was now to get a rope on her calf, and momma would simply have to follow him home.
We eventually managed to get Princess and her calf corralled, but we had company. Along with our calf, we had managed to inadvertently corral another bull calf whose mother was grazing nearby. I have no idea why, maybe it was my size (or lack thereof), maybe it was my looks or how I smelled, but this second calf had it in for me.
The corral was divided into 2 sections with a fence running through the middle. Wherever I stood, this little black bull calf made a Kamakaze beeline for me. He rammed the fence at a full run again and again, and, when I stepped into the gap between the 2 partitions, he went for me. I narrowly avoided being stampeded by 300 pounds of angry and unreasoning calf. He nearly broke his own leg trying to jump the fence before Grandpa and I managed to drive him out of the corral to rejoin his mother, now pacing frantically outside the fence and bellowing loudly.
We then roped our own calf and proceeded to half drag, half push him the mile or so back home. All the while, he thrashed about and threw himself onto the ground, his tongue hanging out and eyes rolling wildly in their sockets. He was a proper drama-queen, but his histrionics were effective in luring his mother back to her own pasture. Princess followed no more than 3 paces behind, mooing in protest, but taking no chances on losing her baby.
Grandpa and I, eaten up with chiggers and sweating like troopers, managed to mend the fallen fence and make it home in time for dinner. Grammie ladled out stew and dumplings while I proceeded to tell the epic tale of my brush with death and the 300-pound black bull calf…
“You mean red!” interjected my grandfather.
“No, grandpa, it was a black calf with a white face, just like yours! They could have been twins…”
Grandpa looked at me like I had sprouted a second head. “It was a red bull calf!” he fairly shouted.
“No, it was black!” I knew what I saw.
And so did he. “That bull calf was red, by God. I was there!”
This was perhaps the only proper argument I ever had with my grandfather. Oh, in my mind I was right, absolutely. The calf’s head missed my chest by inches. Its black leg had left a whopping bruise on my hip. I would never forget it. But in the end, I backed down. To his dying day – quite literally – Grandpa insisted that calf was red. We laughed about it sometimes, but we never agreed.
Was it red after all? Perhaps. Perhaps.
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