Selling our bull, Gentry, is a risk. While his body conformation isn’t our ideal, he is a walking, breeding, Mike-Tyson-Voice mooing herdsire. Our gamble wasn’t so much on whether or not he would breed if he stayed – our gamble is on who will take his place.
When we purchased our Southpoll crosses last February, ten fall 2014 calves came with them. Seven are bull calves. Most of those seven have developed beautifully and we are hoping to find a herd sire, at least for this year, in one of them.
As a matter of fact, they’ve gotten so big at just ten or eleven months of age that we decided to give their moms a break and pull them out of the general population.
This we did last Monday, moving them to pasture down the road from the farm. When we dropped them off, I resolved to check them every other day, and…
Wright checked them for me Tuesday, and…
Apparently that didn’t sit well with them because shortly after he left, they released themselves on their own recognizance. How do I know?
A neighbor told me she almost hit four of them early Tuesday morning as they sauntered down the middle of the road, just outside their pasture.
Remember I said there were seven bull calves? We now know they escaped in two groups – one group of four and another of three.
Last week is a blur. Truly. I don’t know what I was doing after Monday, but it must have been important because I slept quickly every night. This means that I didn’t get back to check on the bull calves until Saturday.
That’s right. When I discovered they were gone, they had a four day headstart!
Philip was with me that morning and we started our search immediately. Thankfully we happened upon a neighbor, Robbie, who told us that another neighbor down the road had four of our bull calves in her field with her cows.
“Great, I thought, I know where those are and they’re probably not going anywhere, so we just need to find the other three.”
I drove down the road to where the four calves were, saw at least two of them behind a solid fence, and left a note at the owner’s house.
Then we began our search. According to Robbie, she’d seen the missing three on Tuesday evening “going down Double Branches Road”. At last glimpse, they’d darted off the road and into the woods. I would later find out those woods were the beginning of ten thousand contiguous acres of timber company land. Cows that go in there often never come out.
Regardless, Philip and I went down double branches – literally the back road behind all the back roads you normally get lost on – and met everyone who came to the door – even at the houses with no windows and garbage dumps in the front yards. I was desperately searching way past where I thought the calves would wander, but I had to try, so everyone got my name, number, and description of the missing animals.
We even drove all the way to the end of Double Branches, not less than three miles, went under the Natchez Trace Parkway, turned left toward Collinwood, and looked for them, feeling silly for going that far. Everyone we’d talked to, afterall, shared our disbelief that they’d ever travel even half-way down Double Branches.
By 1:30 we were starving, so we went home, ate something, drank the equivalent of three kiddie pools of water and headed back out. I was determined to at least look in the woods near where the calves had last been seen. These woods bordered cattle pasture and I thought maybe they’d be hanging out on the outside of the fence, mooing at the cows inside.
Driving along these woods, near their border with the pasture, I spotted at a little trail. For a random trail going off into the woods, it actually looked inviting. It was grassy and wide and the dappled shadows hit the grass so beautifully that it seemed to beckon hikers. So I stopped the truck and hopped out with Philip and, now, Andrew, in tow. We walked down the trail, but, to my disappointment, the trail only ran 75 yards before it ended at someone’s deer stand. Not wanting to mess with hallowed hunting ground, we turned around and headed back to the road. 75 feet from the edge of the woods, Andrew called out, “Dad I’ve got some kind of little spiders on my legs! They’re everywhere!”
Accounting for some melodrama, I encouraged him with a compassionate, “It’s ok, just brush them off.”
About that time we stepped out onto the road and Andrew said, “Dad! They’re all over you, too!”
I looked down at my bare legs and saw no less than 300 baby ticks crawling everywhere. Immediately I started wiping my legs, trying to scrape them off, just like Andrew and Philip were now doing. They were just so small, though. And there were so many of them that wiping quickly devolved into a feverish slapping dance. We were brushing as fast as we could, but they just kept moving and then we’d find some on our arms or belt line and start swiping there, and then back to our legs, and then our necks…
For some reason I hadn’t yet noticed my socks. Just then I did. Hundreds more! They were all over my shoes, too!
“Dad, we gotta go! We gotta go home and get in the shower! There are too many!”
I was torn. I was literally standing in a waking bug nightmare, but it was all up to me to find those calves.
Nope. They were gonna have to wait. Andrew was right. This was too much. (I am literally itching writing this.) It was bad. I stripped off my socks and shoes while I kept brushing my legs. Andrew and Philip were letting out half cries and wimpers as they joined my gyrations in the middle of the road.
I shouted, “Let’s go! Yep! We gotta go now!”
We all ran to the truck, jumped in, sped home, threw everything in the washer and jumped in the shower.
Thank God for a home with three showers!
That pretty much put an end to Saturday’s search. But remember, “drama” is repeated thrice above.
Saturday evening I got a call from the neighbor, Darlene, with the four calves in her pasture. My calves had put a dent in her grass and she wanted me to come get them the next day. I agreed to come after church and called in all of my lifelines for help – Wright, Christian and Zach.
Upon arrival, we found Darlene absolutely pleasant and kind and the cattle-catching area porous but well-situated. Darlene had about six cows and calves in the field and, while our calves wanted to comingle, hers were not fans of integration.
This left a slight opening – a gap – between the two groups of bovines as they walked across the top of Darlene’s field, along a fenceline. We were at the top of the hill, behind our cows, and Darlene at the bottom. From her vantage point, she called to me and told me to run in an arc down the hill, around my cows, and place myself between them and hers.
This I did, but enroute I came within 100 yards of her bovines. Apparently this was too close and one suddenly jumped over the fence, breaking the top strand of wire. I was so far away from this skiddish cow when she broke out that I couldn’t even see her. I knew she’d jumped only because I saw and heard the fenceline shake. This, I knew, was not my kind of cow.
I couldn’t address her just then, though. We had a chance to push our cows down the hill, into the holding area and our trailer, so I had to take it.
And it worked. They went where we wanted as if on command. We followed behind them slowly, shut the trailer gate and breathed a sigh of relief. But we weren’t done.
I told Darlene the bad news about her cow and, as expected, she said we needed to go get her immediately.
So, we did. Darlene positioned herself near the gate into the field the cow was now in and called her, shaking a bucket. We positioned ourselves on the flanks, hoping to discourage travel in either direction. Just then the jumper burst out of a thicket. It resembled the form of an enormous, black cow charging toward Darlene. I was struck dumb. This animal had to weigh at least 1,200 pounds and bolted past like a horse, muscles rippling. For a second I saw a knight in full armour on her back, waving a sword. But then I stopped, rubbed my eyes and it was just her – just this enormous, black beast barrelling across the field. “This, I thought, is no mere cow.”
And it was no calm cow. There were horses in the field, too, and they came to Darlene’s call, too, adding to the confusion. I don’t know if it was their presence, our presence, the situation in general, but the beast wasn’t having it. Suddenly she took a sharp left and shot away up, up, up the pasture a quarter of mile or more – out of sight.
The blank space above is a full, complete, and total representation of the patience I harbor for animals of this sort. In my now sixteen years of bovine experience, I have discovered that the greatest benefit such animals bring to the world begins within the four walls of a large freezer and the quicker they begin their journey to that freezer, the safer we all are. Call me calloused, but I bet you’ll change your tune in a field with one.
But this was not my animal and its fate wasn’t my choice, so we trudged up the hill. Wright and Christian veered right. I faded left. Nearly half a mile up, and just within sight of the back of the pasture, I rounded a blackberry thicket. There, for just a second, 100 yards ahead, I spied the brute standing, head high, in the very back corner of the pasture. She spotted me, too, and, without hesitation, shot through a hole in the fence and into the pines.
Remember the mention of 10,000 acres of timber land? That’s what she jumped into. I called Christian and Wright over and suddenly heard the beast. She was barrelling through the pines and blackberry thickets, not 20 yards from us, parallel to the fenceline she’d just run through, and back towards her point of origin. Christian and I were next to each other and we froze, listening intently, hoping we’d see her emerge below us and jump back into the pasture. Nothing doing. Gradually the crashing sounds just faded and we couldn’t tell if Dementia (We were now on a first-name basis)had run out of earshot or stopped and was hiding, as cows are want to do.
We tried going into the pines after her, but ran into a huge wall of blackberry thickets, six feet high, as far as we could see. It was so thick that we couldn’t even tell where she’d gone in. So, we walked back through the field along the fenceline and Christian agreed to climb a tree, hoping to see something. While he climbed well for a middle-aged fellow, he spotted nothing, even from 35 feet up.
Once he hit the ground again we headed back down the hill. Halfway down we met Zach, who’d been waiting by the gate all this time.
“I saw a black cow come flying down the hill a while ago. She didn’t even blink at the fence. She just sailed right over it and ran into the middle of the other cows.”
His description limited this activity to a very small time window.
Christian said, “I don’t see how the cow we were after could have gotten back down there so quick. Didn’t Darlene say there were two black cows in her herd? Did you see two black cows or just that one?”
“No it was just that one.”
“I think there were two black cows out,” Christian surmised.
We had to go down and tell Darlene what had happened. Before it was over, she was in tears. She’d taken our cows in and cared for them, had thousands in Dementia, her husband had been gone for weeks working on a barge and she was there, alone, taking care of these animals and eight children. We couldn’t leave her with her cow loose in those pines.
I was totally sunk. I needed water and food. What’s more, I could smell mutiny brewing among the siblings and I wasn’t keen on hiking up that hill again.
“I need water. I need to get these calves out of this hot trailer. I have a four wheeler and a dirtbike. I’ll be back in an hour,” I said. Darlene silenty shook her head in acquiesence.
We trucked home, unloaded the calves, Christian and I fueled up and I texted the fam, asking them to pray in this hopeless situation of a $5,000 cow missing in 10,000 acres of timber.
Then we headed back. When we returned, Darlene was waiting by the gate to the pasture.
“Your parents came by to help, but they left because their tire was goin flat. They headed home to fix it, but I don’t see how they were gonna make it,” she said.
We were passed hesitation or surprise at this point. Christian just said, “I’ll go,” and sped off on the dirtbike after the possibly- stranded parents.
Now it was just me and Darlene.
“I want to go up the hill and call her, she said, did you bring any sweet feed?”
I’d asked Christian to bring some, but par for the day’s course, he’d only had a small pickle jar on hand when he went to get it, so I had a whopping sixteen ounces of sweet feed. I held it up and she accepted it as readily as if I’d been holding a full five-gallon bucket. I think she was beginning to feel the day’s punches, too.
She hopped onto the back of my four wheeler and we headed up the hill. Halfway up, I stopped and she called. And called. And called. Nothing.
We went the rest of the way up, all the way to the back where I’d last seen Dementia. Darlene called again. And again. And again. Zip.
So we started heading back down. Shortly we came upon Christian. Mom and Dad had made it home.
He hopped on the four wheeler and we started talking about what happened again. When we got to the part about the cow sailing over the fence in front of Zach, Christian asked Darlene about the other black cow – was she out, too, had she seen that cow…
“Well that other black cow’s old. She’s real old,” she said.
A glimmer of hope!
Run through them, maybe, but real old cows don’t sail over fences. Could it have been Dementia?
We decided to go check the herd.
The oppressive heat had driven the cows out of the pasture and into the woods. When we got near, Christian hopped off the four wheeler and disappeared into the trees. Shortly I heard him –
“I see two black cows!”
It was too good to be true. I had to double check – “What? How many?”
“Two. There are two black cows down the hill, in front of me, in the trees!”
“Amen,” echoed Darlene.
But it wasn’t over yet. Darlene wanted to see the missing cow with her own eyes, so we drove down to the bottom of the hill where she disembarked, grabbed her feed bucket and began sweetly calling Dementia by some name I didn’t recognize.
Wtihin a minute or two, everyone appeared – except, of course, for Dementia. After ten minutes, Christian was back beside me and Darlene insisted there was only one black cow in the field.
“I know what I saw,” he said to me, out of Darlene’s earshot.
“Are you sure it wasn’t just the shadows under the trees?” I said.
“I know what a black cow looks like.”
Still, we had to drive back up to the top of the pasture, park the four wheeler, and begin walking down through the woods, hoping to happen upon Dementia.
Not 50 yards in to the woods, bam! Dementia popped up out of a Honeysuckle thicket. She snorted at me and trotted away, down the hill. Thirty seconds later Darlene called, “I see her”.
“How, I thought, can I tiptoe a fourwheeler off this property before anything else happens?’
But that wasn’t all. Darlene wanted us to fix the fence Dementia had broken, so we did. Then we said our goodbyes and headed home, thankful. Darlene’s cow and four of our calves were returned.
My concern hadn’t abated yet, though. There were still three calves on the loose and I did say ‘drama’ three times…
Fastforward to Monday. We were loading Gentry and talking about those three missing calves when the price of cattle slid into the conversation. Then somebody said, “You know, those calves are worth some money. Maybe you should call the stockyards around here and ask them to keep an eye out for them.”
And I did. When I got home, I rang the one in Savannah. They were skeptical they’d be able to spot them, but agreed to keep an eye out. Then I called Florence.
As soon as I said “three missing red calves” to the lady on the other end of the line she said, “We’ve been waitin for you to call. You need to talk to Harry. You got his cell number?”
I pulled the phone away from my ear and slowly looked around the room. Was she talking to me? Where’s the hidden camera?
“Who’s Harry?” I asked.
And I did. After a minute, a male voice picked up. This was Harry. He wanted to know who I was, where I lived, where the calves had been. It was a test I really could pass. I even knew the numbers on the missing cows’ ear tags.
“You need to call Dave D.,” he said, somewhat cryptically.
“Ok. Does he know where my calves are?” I asked.
“I think he does.”
So I called Dave and repeated my conversation with Harry. Dave confirmed that, yes, he had my calves. They were safe and I could come get them anytime.
So I did – quickly. I called Guiness before I left for Dave’s so they could confirm a new land speed record between my farm and Waynesboro.
When I arrived at Dave’s, with Christian, we were led to a loading chute and instructed to back our trailer to a particular gate. Dave and his helpers opened our gates, shooed our calves into our trailer and shut the gates. Dave then reached over and gently pushed my gaping jaw closed.
Dave, you see, lives a full 35 minutes from me by car.
“How did they get here?” I asked.
“Well, they’d gone all the way down Double Branches, hung a left on Tie Camp Road and ended up in the middle of Highway 13. That’s when I got a call. Whenever cows show up and nobody knows who they belong to, they call me. I don’t know why. But I brought ’em here and called Harry at the sale barn, figuring somebody’d call up there lookin for ’em.”
I wanted to hug him, but I restrained myself. So I just shook his hand and said goodbye.
Then I turned and took a step to walk back to the trailer, but my right foot wouldn’t go down to the ground. It bounced back up, ten inches up. I tried again, and it bounced higher this time. I lifted my left foot and swung it forward, but now I was completely off the ground. And I wasn’t getting closer to it. As a matter of fact, I was slowly floating up. I had been standing next to the trailer and, when I looked left, I saw I wasn’t alone. The trailer was rising with me.
Then I looked forward and saw the truck climbing into the air with us. And there was Christian, too. Somebody had simply switched off the gravity.
By now I was literally twenty feet off the ground, floating up next to a truck, trailer full of cows, and brother. Now I looked around for Dave and his helpers. They were still on the ground, going about their business and didn’t seem to notice us at all. Still we kept climbing and slowly we all drifted up, up, to the treetops and over, higher. We floated gently – I wouldn’t have believed it unless I’d been there – and then just soared calmly and straight. We flew. We flew right over Waynesboro, over Highway 64, over acres and acres and acres of timber land, over the Natchez Trace, over the chicken barns, over our neighbors houses, and right back to our driveway, down, down down, softly, perfectly, landing there, all of us, gently, carried home as if by some invisible arms that had been there all along.