We spent many months running posts and barbed wire. It’s hard work— fencing around here. We are in the odd bumpy toes of the foothills which means a lot of gullies, and you can’t leave an opening across a ravine big enough for a young cow to squeeze through.
We were getting cows for the first time— real Longhorns from Texas, twelve of them.
We thought we were ready, and one day they came in a big cattle trailer. This was only four years ago, and I was there. I don’t remember that day, but I remember that night. All had been well. The herd had been eating in the rich green field prepared for them. Serene. Pastoral. Just like we imagined. We went back to the house and before dark, Dad went to check on them. He came back, red face ashen.
“They’re gone,” he said. “I can’t find them.”
It was just the three of us then, my parents and me. Mama rode with dad on the Ranger and I set out on foot with a flashlight. They rode the whole enclosure, checking all the gullies, thinking they were bedded down, and I walked the line. Then I walked the pond on a hunch and picked up tracks on the opposite side. The cows had swam across not long before.
In all our reading on cows, no one told us they would do that.
I followed the tracks down a steep hill and to a large creek, and up the other side. They were running away from our beautiful land like bats out of hell. Looking into the thick woods beyond the creek was like that scene in the Two Towers, when Aragorn tracks the hobbits into Fangorn Forest: That wasn’t our land. Worse than that, it was nobodies land— It was the National Forest, and I had explored it enough as a kid to know you could get lost in it during the daytime with a map and a compass.
My dad is an impassioned man, fiery, working harder than ever now into his seventies. The Longhorns were his dream, one of many. I remember him looking across that creek with me into the forest. And I remember, just for a moment, his defeat.
But it was just a moment.
We found the cows that night and roped them and corralled them into a makeshift pen, and called our neighbor Johnny, in the wee hours of the morning, to come help us with his trailer. Johnny is the kind of neighbor who doesn’t really want to hear from you unless you need him desperately in the middle of the night. He answered his phone and showed up cheerful, like he’d seen it coming. Maybe he had.
I’ve always loved the feeling of bringing humanity into the wilderness, like with a picnic or even just reading a book under a tree. Rounding up those wild-eyed cows under the moon shining through the deep forest many miles from our boundary line was satisfying in that way. It seemed appropriate that Texas Longhorns should take us through that kind of struggle, a sort of baptism in pioneering, by hauling tail clear across the pond in search of some more promising land of promise.
After that, we ran the fence line straight through the pond, but it wasn’t really necessary because they haven’t done it again since then. Maybe they realized it was too much trouble to walk back to Texas. Or maybe they didn’t like it in the forest, and tell their calves scary stories about that night.
Or maybe, like all of us, there was something in them that just wanted to see if we would come looking for them and how far we were willing to go.