Over the course of the winter, Fergus proved an astonishment. He didn’t walk around the pasture. He swaggered. He ate the most hay, licked the most salt and definitely got the warmest spot in the pasture for naps. He was the Papa Doc Duvalier of the herd, a superficially benign dictator who got his way by dint of size alone. Though I often walked up to him in the pasture to run my fingers through his coat and scratch his broad nose, I kept our kitchen door firmly closed.
When spring was well underway, we were surprised to hear that Owen had sold his Highlands to Jerry, a Steamboat Springs fellow who wanted to increase the size of his own small herd. Over the course of a couple of months, money changed hands and the brand inspection was completed. Finally, the day arrived for the Highland cows to move to their new summer home.
A plan was formed and in everyone’s opinion it was a good one. Owen and Jerry were to meet at our ranch headquarters at 11:00 in the morning. Each would bring a livestock trailer. For our part, we were to leave the herd unfed. This was neither cruelty nor misplaced thriftiness. It was strategic. Cows will go where the food is. If that food is moving, they’ll follow it. A couple of buckets with grain would be enough to lure the entire herd, none of whom would waste any bovine brain space worrying whether the bit of grain chuckling in a bucket was sufficient for all of them. It wouldn’t even require coaxing for Fergus the bull to follow that bucket into the loading pens; he would go wherever his cows went and the sound of food would only make him move that much faster. Once in the pens, it’d be a simple matter to load them. That’s because cows would always rather move forward than backward. All we’d have to do was back an open trailer up to the gate, swing it open and in they’d go.
The two men arrived on time, which struck me as a positive omen, since ranching is a enterprise where disruptive breakdowns and delays are the rule rather than the exception. They filled their buckets with cracked corn and oats sweetened with molasses, a mixture cows love even when they’re full. As they walked through the herd shaking their buckets, the sweet smelling grain and scratchy sound of it tossing about had all the cows lined up in a jiffy, drooling and eager. Everything was proceeding well. Maybe that’s why I let my guard down.
The parade moved out of the field, shaggy cows lumbering along, sprightly calves trotting and bucking beside them. With their thick forelocks and long coats in shades of silver, white, dun and red, they looked like shag carpet on the move. Up the drive they wound, then past the ranch house. Owen and Jerry strode ahead, their buckets sounding like maracas, cows and calves jostling behind in an undisciplined conga line. Fergus alternated between shepherding his herd from behind and shoving his way to the front to get closer to the grain. And so the herd arrived at the cattle pens, which they entered without a sideways glance. From there they docilely loaded themselves into the trailer. And that’s where the easy part, the planned part, ended.
When the last trailer door banged shut, it became clear that neither Owen nor Jerry had bothered to confer with the other about trailer capacity. Both trailers were chock full of Highland cows, and there was still one animal left on the ground who couldn’t be squeezed in: Fergus the bull with his 5-foot spread of horns.
Oh no…..go right on to Part 3 for the conclusion of this tale.