THE LAST COWS
Winner, Fourth Genre’s Editor’s Prize for Best Essay/Memoir, 2007 / Published in Fourth Genre, Volume 10, Number 1, Spring 2008 / Notable Essay of 2008, The Best American Essays 2009
“Don’t ever fall in love with your cows,” Keith said. We sat on our horses inside the corral fence, looking over a pen full of heifers that had been weaned a couple of months earlier. “That’s the best piece of advice I can give you about the cattle business.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” I said. “Love a cow?”
He got first pick, then I got a turn. But only one. My introduction to owning and raising my own herd of cattle would begin with one cow. Keith and I weren’t married yet. “Why not?” I asked.
“You never know when you’re gonna have to sell them,” he said, and yawned. “If it’s a dry year, or she doesn’t get bred or she loses a calf, or the market goes way up and you just can’t pass up the opportunity, she goes to town.” Meaning the sales yard, the slaughterhouse, the meatpacking plant, the supermarket.
“Oh.” I eyeballed the heifers. They were mostly Brahma crosses, blacks and reds, and some Santa Gertrudis, white markings like spilled milk on their redrock-colored faces, legs, and bellies. I tried to remember everything Keith had taught me—straight back, good angle from hip bone to tailbone, not too high-headed, no whites of the eyes. My horse shifted beneath me.
“Choose carefully,” Keith reminded me as he squinted at the herd from under the brim of his straw cowboy hat.
A near-black heifer stood in the middle, her ears nearly as long as her face, her legs long, too, like a colt’s or a deer’s. A sheen of red outlined her neck, chest, and belly, and ran down the insides of her legs. She had the Brahma hump of fat above her withers—the red there, too, and along her backbone—and dewlaps at her throat. I kept my eye on her.
Keith picked a pretty red heifer, one with not much Brahma showing and a splash of white above one eye that looked like a question mark. “Well?” he said.
I pointed. “That one.”
He lifted his reins and his horse took a step forward. “You’re sure?” The heifer stiffened, ready to bolt. “She’s a little high-headed. There’s a lot of other heifers here.” He rode across the corral.
The heifer moved into the thick of the herd and disappeared, but soon enough her head raised above the others, her ears twisting back and forth, one eye on him, one on me.
“Yep,” I said. “That one.”
Keith didn’t tell me that day the other reasons you might have to sell your cows. Like when your husband decides he wants to buy more farming equipment but he has to make a payment to the bank on an already too-big note first. Or he decides there’s no money in the cattle business anymore, and if he sold off more cows he could get better established in his side business of specialized bulldozer work, where he thinks there is money. Or the other reason: simply because someone tells you you have to.
I just walked about a mile and a half up a dirt road that wraps around the side of a mountain, my dogs sometimes at my heels but more often sprinting after jackrabbits they flushed from the sagebrush. Technically I am trespassing, having climbed over a locked gate to get here; on the level of the spirit, however, I feel I have a right to be here. Not because it’s all Earth and none of us own any of it, anyway, but because this earth, from the locked gate clear up the mountain to the National Forest, used to be “owned” by my great-aunt, “Sister”—my grandmother’s sister—and her husband Ed.
From where I’m perched I overlook a series of low, smoothly rounded hills criss-crossed with barbed-wire fences. A long strip of fenced land, which I cannot see but know well, runs upcanyon all the way to the National Forest boundary and includes 7,000-plus acres of the Cachuma Creek watershed. Just out of sight over a rise opposite me sits a reservoir—Lake Cachuma—that holds the water that supports the over-population of Santa Barbara, California, on the other side of the rugged Sierra Madre range. A tunnel housing a huge pipe cuts through the mountains, and the city siphons off water from Cachuma Creek and all the other tributaries that used to merge into the Santa Ynez River, which still tries to run along the bottom of the reservoir and—sometimes—gets let out onto the creekbed at the base of the dam. Two thousand-plus acres under that “lake” used to be the haying fields of Cachuma Ranch. That land raised good alfalfa, my Uncle Ed always said, the best land on the ranch. Five-hundred-and-eighty acres make up the ranch today, upon which a house, barn, and corrals were built back in the 1940s, when my forty-something-year-old aunt and her slightly younger cowboy-Indian husband settled here.
At one time this was a 10,000-acre spread, much of it wild, where big blacktail bucks hid up in the thick brush until the rut drew them out and the wise old steers used to go to get away; some of it tamed by tractors, non-native seed, and irrigation. The government condemned the tamed part, took it for the people of Santa Barbara. Eventually, my broken-hearted uncle sold the 7,000 acres of backcountry to a group of mostly rich wanna-be cowboys—men who live out a fantasy for one week a year, riding too-fat horses through steep, rugged terrain, wearing black felt hats, drinking whiskey, playing cards. In years past, prostitutes were sometimes imported by truck and even helicopter to complete the men’s fantasies. Often at least one of the over-fed horses doesn’t make it out alive.
The remaining 580 acres belonged to my aunt and uncle until he died, then to her alone until she died, then her nephew sold it off for millions to some ex-movie star, or movie star’s ex-wife. No one knows, or so everyone tells me, where the money went. What I have heard is that the Hollywood personality tore down the walls of the adobe house and rebuilt with something else. Adobe that was ordered by the newlyweds back in the ‘40s, handmade by Mexicans in the old style and shipped here by truck clear across the Central Valley from Bakersfield. Uncle Ed said that the trucks could only haul one or two layers of adobe on their flatbed trailers at a time, it was so heavy. A big old truck with a short stack of bricks on it. Bricks three feet thick that made windowsills you could sleep on, now rubble.
This perch in the spent yellow grasses of fall is as close as I’ve been to the ranch since before my aunt died. Her Alzheimer’s was acute enough in the last three years of her life that she didn’t know me, and my selfishness was so intact that I couldn’t bear it. But before that, for a time, Keith and I ran the 7,000 backcountry acres, living in a double-wide trailer on a bluff above Cachuma Creek, our nearest and only neighbors my great-aunt and great-uncle three miles downcanyon. I conceived my first son on that bluff.
Dusk is settling over the dry hills, though the western sky still flaunts a bright orange hue. Horses run across the hundred-acre pasture below me. I don’t know whose they are. I don’t know to whom the land belongs now. I only know that part of me belongs to it.
Just like it does to another ranch a few miles from here. That ranch was my great-grandfather’s, my kids’ great-great-grandfather’s. He won part of it in a poker game in 1916, and, though he lived primarily on the Southern California ranch his father had purchased in the latter half of the 1800s, he spent a lot of time on the Central California coastal property. His children, too, lived there often—one of them was my grandmother, another my great-aunt Sister, who met my great-uncle Ed there, where he cowboyed for her father. You can imagine the family scandal that created: Boss’s daughter marries boss’s hired hand, who happened to be a quarter Cherokee. The scandal didn’t die until Ed did.
Something in the field below me gleams white in the sun’s afterlight, and I stand to get a better look. Lured by shapes glowing under ebbing twilight skies, I head straight downhill and climb another fence, making the final trespass onto the remains of Sister and Ed’s ranch. The dogs scoot between strands of barbed wire and run on ahead.
When I near the pile of bones, the dogs sniff at them for mere seconds before racing off to find something fresher. I pick one up—a thick, heavy cannon bone, which runs from knee to fetlock joint—and it occurs to me that the bones could be my grandmother’s Shire mares, or their descendents. Sister kept them on the ranch for years after my grandmother’s death until, one by one, the original team of eight Shires died, and then, one after another, so did their offspring. My grandmother, and then Sister, too, used to drive that team of huge draft horses pulling a huge wagon at rodeos and fancy horse events—tiny little ladies maneuvering horses with hooves bigger than their waists through obstacle courses of rights and lefts, forwards and backs.
The wagon lives in a museum now, but it used to be parked in the garage Sister and Ed built just for that purpose, leather and brass harnesses hanging from horseshoe hooks on the walls. Photographs at the museum show my grandmother sitting straight-backed on the wagon seat, all sixteen reins in her small hands, the Shires’ heads bent to the bit as if they had no idea what their great size could do. Sometimes in the pictures my great-grandfather sits beside her—the museum has those, too.
My grandmother’s horses. She died when I was five, but she taught me some things about riding first. She herself rode until cancer killed her. The mares and their descendants lived on, some to over thirty years old.
Bones, utterly white in the approaching night. I pick up one at a time and am awed by the size—the weight, length, and thickness. Clearly they are Shire bones. I find three skulls, as well, wrestling one from beneath the branches of a large sage. Two horses and a steer. The horse skulls are also Shires—I can tell by their monstrous size, damn near as long from poll to muzzle as my arm. One has a bullet hole between the eyes. It becomes clear to me that my uncle and his hired man turned the hillside beneath this white oak into a bone yard, a graveyard, a burial ground. Only they didn’t bury these mammoth horses, or the big old longhorn steers. They let the coyotes and turkey buzzards play undertaker, and the bones are strewn across the hillside and scattered down into the gully.
Sister died at ninety-three. Ed died seven years earlier. A big man, heavy with sadness and alcohol, he had a stroke one night sitting on the bench outside their adobe home with a couple of his cats, and a dog Keith and I had given him, which he named after my husband. Most of his cats—he always had at least thirty milling and mewing and mating around the place—were too wild to be petted, or to get caught for neutering, spaying, or doctoring, but often there were two or three that would rub up against his legs and allow the slide of his hand down their backs. These cats were not the same from year to year—coyotes and sickness killed them on a regular basis—but Ed didn’t seem to notice. He loved them indiscriminately. Talked to them all the time, fed them new canned food atop the old in the early mornings because that’s when he was sober, scared the peacocks off that came in to raid the pig-trough-like feeders full of dry Purina Cat Chow. In the summer with the windows open, the whole house stunk like too many cats and too-old canned cat food, but as long as there were cats around him, Ed was okay. The same way Sister was with her peacocks, her great Shire horses and small Welsh ponies, her cows. Animals filled up the lives of those two the way work used to, the way children would have had they married younger than middle age, the way family might have had they not married at all.
The peacocks didn’t seem to understand Ed’s preference for cats any more than most visitors did. Nor did my aunt Sister. As we sat at the small kitchen table eating our own meals, we watched the peacocks tormenting the pile of cats on the picnic table right outside the window—that pile often three cats deep, even in summer—and Ed wouldn’t dare chase them off with Sister right there. But if she left to answer the phone or something, Ed would grab the buggy whip he stashed behind the kitchen door and the peacocks would flash with color as they ran and flew to the branches of the closest oaks and pepper trees. The cats would fly, too, but that didn’t seem to bother Ed. His eyes would get all twinkly, as though he’d just tasted something fattening and delicious that he wasn’t supposed to eat, and we could only grin back, glad for his small coup, one of his few victories.
I imagine one of the striped gray cats rubbing along Ed’s Levi’s-clad thigh that evening as he sat on his bench watching the sun lower itself from the day. Sister had sat with him for a short time, then she got up and busied herself inside the house, and Keith-the-dog trotted down into the field to roll in horse manure, and as soon as they departed the cat jumped up on the bench and bent her head to the automatic reach of Ed’s hand. She was small—they never got very big, whether from inbreeding or lack of longevity I don’t know—and he called her Kitty. A deep sigh ran through him as he looked over the land before him, land tired from years of overuse by cattle and horses, deer—he didn’t allow hunting—and feral pigs. It was early March, March 1st, to be exact, and the green had already faded from his hillsides, the cattle chasing it away faster than it could grow. He knew he had not made a good rancher—just like they all said he wouldn’t—overgrazing and then feeding hay half the year, and he didn’t care. What kept him going was his alcoholic Cherokee cowboy stubbornness.
I imagine him feeling the cat purr under his large rough hand, and speaking to her, but the words came out funny. He tried again, and even to him his words sounded drunk, and his hand grew heavy, the cat squirming under the weight, her purr ceasing as abruptly as his truck’s motor on the days he couldn’t manage the clutch. He tried to lift his hand. He tried to call his wife. He tried to stand, the cat scrambling away and watching him from around the corner. I imagine him pushing the bulk of himself up off the bench, not noticing that the sun had dropped, that the sky was flooded with a pink so soft he might have cried over it on another day, not noticing that what he hit when he crashed was just the cement of his covered porch. Their porch. Hers, really, but he didn’t have to think about that anymore.
From inside the house, Sister heard the cry that was supposed to be her name, and she dismissed it as an anti-peacock yell—she knew what he did behind her back—or some strange new cat noise. But the thud made by Ed’s body could not be categorized as anything other than something wrong, and Sister rushed outside to find her eighty-year-old, 250-pound husband collapsed on the porch, his face smashed into the cement, blood oozing from a crack in his brow, one arm bent oddly beneath him. Keith-the-dog was pushing at the other arm with his nose, having run up at the sound of the odd cry. Sister knew from previous experience how heavy Ed was—she and I had helped him inside on many occasions when he was too drunk to walk on his own, his bulk leaning always her way because she was the shorter of us two—and she tried to budge him anyway. His eyes were closed, his breathing light but still in and out, and she pushed on him with the dog’s help and tugged on his free arm. He was not dead, nor was he dead drunk, but he was dead to her. She scurried into the house to call the hired hand. The dog lay down beside him and the cat crept up to Ed’s body and brushed against his limp leg.
The next day, as soon as I was allowed, I visited Uncle Ed in the hospital. His skin was as gray as his hair, and slack. Everything about him was slack. When the nurses shifted him onto his side on the bed—it took two of them—they accidentally disclosed his flaccid penis and testicles. I had never seen anything so lifeless before that wasn’t yet dead. His whole body looked like that, a pouch of stretched and worn skin loosely containing what remained inside. The gray pubic hair startled me, too. I remembered a discussion between my mother and an aunt long ago wherein they debated whether pubic hair in fact grayed. Here it was, age and death in a way I had never before seen it.
I sat next to him, held his hand, talked into his ear, watched his face for signs. His large hand was heavy in mine. Hospital staff had cut off his wedding ring, so thick were his old fingers. He didn’t wink, grin, grunt, or flinch in recognition, that day or any other. The stroke had affected one whole side of him so that he had no use of one arm and leg, and could not talk. But that didn’t matter, because he remained comatose until death caught up with him five days later, the day after Cotton, my favorite little cowdog, was hit on the highway and killed.
When my aunt—not my great-aunt Sister but the one who discussed pubic hair with my mother—called to tell me Ed had gone, my instant tears confused her. It was only Ed, after all, and we’d all known it was just a matter of time. I told her about Cotton, and she hung up satisfied. I didn’t even try to explain what I had felt for Ed, my great-uncle, the old geezer who called my dogs turd-hounds and laughed when I got bucked off and giggled when he was drunk, and who gave me his middle name for my first-born son. Lafayette. Nor did I ever give voice to what I knew that old man, beneath his sober gruffness and drunken silliness, felt for me.
Ed had wanted to be cremated. I knew that, and Sister did, too, and in one sense the formality of the act, arranged by the family, and the lack of ceremony—there simply wasn’t one—honored Ed’s wishes. And that was the end of Ed. For them. No one questioned why he desired cremation, though I wouldn’t have told had anyone bothered to ask me. But here’s the truth: He and Sister had started on a different ranch, up near Paso Robles, on Nacimiento Creek. They built an adobe home there, and barns and corrals and a life. But shortly after they felt good and settled in, the government came along with plans to dam the Nacimiento, and there went that ranch, house and all. The ghosts of it float under the waters of Lake Nacimiento reservoir. Two ranches in one lifetime, and Ed wanted his ashes and the small bits of bone to be scattered over the waters of the reservoir called Lake Cachuma, over his old haying ground, the “best land on the ranch.” He wanted the last word.
A couple of years before this, Keith wanted to sell Sister and Ed our last cows. From 120-some-odd cows we were down to ten, including Ruby, my first cow, who had filled out big and beautiful, her short-haired red-black hide sleek and shiny over her rolling muscles, an 07 branded on her left side and my brand on her left hip. Ruby, and nine others. Our very last cows.
I said no. I pleaded, begged, threatened. But, we had a payment to make. And Keith was tired—in many ways ten cows require as much work as a hundred. I didn’t care—I wanted the cows, welcomed the work. Keith sold them anyway. My only compensation was that they moved to Sister and Ed’s, where I could visit any time.
After they bought the cows, Sister had the hired man rig up a water trough right there, ten yards from the house. He moved a white porcelain bathtub into the field, just on the other side of the fence, and filled it each morning with a hose that drew water from the house plumbing. Through the huge picture window in the living room Sister could watch the cows come to water, their cute little Brahma-cross calves dancing around their legs, bucking and butting heads, white froth covering their greedy mouths as they nursed. On warm days Sister would top off the trough herself when she went outside to talk to them, which she did until she couldn’t walk that far anymore. She called Ruby by name, as I did, and Ruby would lift her head high, flick her big Brahma ears back and forth, and look right at you but only with one eye, her other eye always on escape, her weight on her outside legs, leaning away. Ruby never got less than half wild, though her Brown Swiss-Brahma-cross counterparts, 06 and 13, acted like big old puppy dogs. Even out in the field they’d walk up to you and let you scratch them behind the ears, and Sister did this, too, when she was still able, or she’d lean through the board fence and rub their long faces, just like Ed and his cats, Ruby watching tall in the background, waiting to drink until all humans left but listening and answering in body language when Sister spoke to her: “Ruby!”
A few years back, when Keith and I still had a decent cowherd and lived on a ranch on the coast, we’d trailer the calves to a field a few miles up the highway when we’d wean them in either May or June, depending on the feed year. The cows would mill around the corrals for a couple of days after the weaning, bawling for their calves, their bags full of milk and taut between their back legs. The youngest mothers stayed the longest, thinking that since this was the last place they had seen their babies surely the calves would return to this spot, while the older cows, having been through this before and understanding the futility of it, wandered out toward the back pasture and better feed. Ruby had just been separated from her second calf, and I noticed on the second day that she was nowhere to be seen. We rode the pasture, about 2,000 acres of it, counting cows as best we could with them spreading out already—no Ruby. Keith kept saying she’d show up, not to worry, but I knew she was gone.
A couple of days later, as I drove up the highway from one pasture to another searching the last conceivable place, I saw movement along the shoulder of the oncoming lane of traffic. It disappeared, then I saw it again, a big dark shadow moving through the sagebrush near the edge of the road. I hit the brakes and yelled “Ruby!” through the open window. She jerked her head around, looked right at me, and trotted across the pavement to the center divider. I pulled over to stop traffic. “Shit, Ruby!” I said, and she fixed those big browns on me and held me there with her half-wild, half-mad, half-sad look, and then she crossed the near lanes of highway and trotted on, as if she had someplace to go and someone to see.
I followed beside her in the truck, my emergency flashers flashing, my heart pounding up into my head while she pressed through the overgrowth at the highway’s edge. She veered off with the fenceline and I stopped to watch her. She crossed over the old frontage road, paralleled the fence, and at the first sign of a loose top wire she hopped over, the barbs that sliced at her hocks holding on to tufts of her red-black hair.
How she got out of the original pasture, knew from miles away in which field to find her calf, and managed without water and without being seen for five days, I thought I’d never understand. But when I pushed my own baby out into the world and held him to my breast, the understanding hit me with that first rush of milk. Keith always said that Ruby didn’t make a good cow—she was too big, he said, it took too much to feed her, and the weaning weights of her calves did not compensate for the cost of keeping her. But I knew better. I knew Ruby was the best damned cow we ever had.
What Keith neglected to tell me that day so long ago when I first picked Ruby out of that herd of heifers was the main reason not to fall in love with your cows: because it cracks your heart open like an egg when they go, and all you’ve got left to hold a marriage together is slippery yolk and tiny bits of shell.
I make a sling out of my sweatshirt and load up a pelvis and two polished white cannon bones. I pack them up the hill to the fence and hoist the load over, dropping it on the far side. Carefully climbing the fence in the dark, I snag only one leg of my jeans on the barbs. Huffing uphill, bones on my back, I follow the dogs to the road. Their moonshadows guide me. Tracing unseen tracks, I start the trek back along the dirt road toward the truck parked on the other side of the locked gate, and I remember the rest of the story.
When Ed died a nephew of Sister’s gained power of attorney and started running Sister’s life as if she were livestock on her own ranch, the ranch the family couldn’t wait to get their hands on to sell. One day a phone call came, no word of warning, just an order to the hired man from the power-of-attorney city nephew who fancied he knew what he was doing: Sell the cows. Today. They brought slaughter prices, though they still had a few good calves left in them and people would have paid good money for them because of Keith’s reputation as an excellent cattleman, and everyone knew Sister’s cows came from us. But no one knew they would be selling that day. Not even Sister. So to slaughter they went, including my Ruby, who weighed in at over 1200 pounds and brought near brood-cow prices anyway. But it wasn’t about money. It was about my aunt having Alzheimer’s and Uncle Ed being dead and her nephew having control. We learned later that he’d made a deal with someone who wanted to lease the land. To run horses.
Sister was never told what happened to those cows. Her cows. My cows. The last cows. Cows that would not leave skulls under a sprawling old oak tree on the side of a hill, would not leave bones behind for me to find like rays of moonlight on a darkening night. For the three years between the sell-off of her cattle and her death, Sister, unable to grip the passage of time, sat in front of that great big picture window day after day, waiting for the cows to come to water.