True Confessions

True Confessions

I’ll admit it.  We are novices.  Rank amateurs.  Rookies.  Tyros. Tinhorns.  Small hat, a few cattle.  Oops, we have no Stetsons either. We were the newcomers at whom the old timers at the feed store looked askance.  We are the city folk the local hardware store handymen took pity on.  We are the couple whose friends whispered behind our backs about midlife crises and middle age crazies.  Yes, we now own seven longhorns and one donkey.

 Why longhorns?  It’s my husband David’s fault.  His burnt orange teasip heart cracked when our daughter married an Aggie who loved east Texas prairie more than central Texas rocks and trees. (She’s since come to her senses and remarried a California Musician?)  It broke his heart when our son went to college in North Carolina, met and married a lovely young woman from Philadelphia, and moved there to begin a career.  David is a fifth generation Texan whose family land was all sold off in the previous generation.  He’s a botanist by training and a consultant by occupation.  By nature, he is an optimist and consensus builder.  He has already celebrated his fiftieth birthday a dozen times.  All of this led to the purchase of our two original longhorns.

He wanted to invest in a piece of real Texas for our city dwelling grandchildren and us.  I wanted a babbling creek, craggy hills, and lots of trees. We compromised and purchased thirty-some acres with a wet weather creek, small granite outcroppings, oaks, a few mesquite, some cactus, and no cedar in western Llano county.  We’re almost a stone’s throw from the Llano River.  We drilled a well, built a barbed wire fence, and constructed a small, cozy cabin.  The time came to add domesticated animals.  I wanted a miniature donkey or two.  David, the compromiser, who once negotiated buying our son a parakeet rather than allowing him to bring home newly hatched chicks from his sixth grade science class, argued for cattle to continue our agricultural tax exemption.

I’ve received some interesting gifts during our now forty year marriage.  There was a trampoline and then a lawn mower on consecutive Mother’s Days, a birthday sailboat, and a lovely diamond ring for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.  For Christmas that particular year, I received two longhorn calves.  Sassafras T, then sixteen-months-old, was a brindle mouse-back whose heritage could be traced to the Oklahoma Wichita Refuge.  Orange Crush, or O. C., a seven-month-old calf, looked as if an orange map of Australia had been artistically painted on his white sides, and eyebrows and eyeliner had been applied by an expert cosmetologist.  As we anxiously awaited their delivery to the “ranch,” David prepared a small holding pen, cross-fenced, and stocked up on hay and cubes.  As an English teacher, I followed the literary route.  I recalled what I knew about “ranching” from teaching a unit on the western novel, read J. Frank Dobie’s The Longhorns, and thoroughly perused publications from the official longhorn association.  From the beginning these two leather-bound history books on the hoof, roving yard art, and dogs with hooves amused us with their antics.

Orange Crush interpreted in oils

Orange Crush interpreted in oils

 Now true ranchers may wonder how we inexperienced weekenders made out with our herd.  Our education continued.  The day the vet and his assistant came out to administer shots, Sass and O.C. squeezed through a gap gate in the cross fencing and five of us chased them over twelve acres.  Thank goodness the electrician finishing the wiring on the cabin helped out.  Our steers matured.  At age three Sass’s horns measured forty-five inches from tip to tip.  We trained both of them to eat from our hands.  In fact, some said that David spoiled them.  Our steers grew smarter.  If David didn’t feed them immediately on our typical Friday evening arrival, they banged their horns on the corner of the cabin and looked in the bedroom window.  If he was slow moving on Saturday morning, the red Jeep Cherokee was fair game.  Horning the car was a sure-fire way to get David outside to handout treats.  One morning we awoke to strange noises on the porch.  O.C. had used his horns to rip open a bag of cubes left on the back porch the previous evening, and Sass was in front on the third step of five trying to reach bales of hay.  The burn pile was their playground.  Each weekend upon our return, the discards had been rearranged.  Another time, they transformed a picnic table into millions of toothpicks.  Before the split rail fence was installed around the cabin, they played their version of longhorn football by tossing leftover Thanksgiving pumpkins and empty boxes across the house pasture.  Later, lush buffalo grass and the gardens inside the fence became their favorite snack.  David seemed to think that opening the gate was easier than retrieving the lawnmower from the shed.

 Weather played an important role in our lessons, too.  Searching for hay became an avocation.  We could guarantee a shower within two days of putting out a round bale.  A spring storm caused the creek to flood and blow out the water gap.  Of course, the longhorns left to explore greener pastures.  Easter weekend was spent searching our southern neighbor’s property.  When we found them, I drove the SUV while David walked behind dropping cubes Hansel and Gretel style.  They willingly followed us but so did their eight new friends.  We were just beginning to understand the term “herd mentality.”  After another storm, Sass left through a different water gap at the other end of the creek only to be rounded up and sent back by that neighbor.  We were too enthralled with our pets to see a pattern emerging.  Then there was a drought.  Halfway through the summer, our well went dry along with all of the tanks.  David bought jerry cans and resorted to importing water from Austin.  Graze was practically non-existent.  David made sure our steers kept their rotund shape.  I kept telling him that it was okay to be able to feel their ribs.  Weekly hay, cubes, and sweet feed would quickly bring our herd to the pen and our neighbor’s cattle to the fence looking longingly.  One Saturday, we even found a black bull that had come to visit the longhorns in our pasture.

Adding to the herd, even temporarily, seemed better than missing longhorns.  We traveled to North Carolina for Christmas confident that Sass and O.C. would survive eight days without us.  David left plenty of hay, stashed hidden cubes in a few bales, and made sure that they were well fed before we left.  On Tuesday evening, the day of our return, we drove the one-hundred-sixty miles round trip to check on them.  O.C. spotted the car and followed us through the main gate to the cabin.  Because of their particular herd mentality, our suspicions quickly arose.  Sass was nowhere around.  O.C. ate all of the treats, but bellowed forlornly that his herd had deserted him once again.  No search could begin until the following weekend when we returned.  Worst of all, we didn’t know if he had been AWOL for a day or eight.  We assumed that hunters had left a gate unlatched or open again on our neighbor’s property.  Sass had used that gate for a short, hardly worth mentioning, get away when the same hunters got their four wheel drive truck stuck in the mud and left the clearly posted “KEEP THIS GATE CLOSED” gate open while they waited for a tow truck.  And we don’t have any common sense?

 

Despite cold and rainy weather on Saturday morning, we walked the fence lines looking for the spot where Sass might have gone through or over.  Experience had honed our steer tracking skills, and our only clues were a few old tracks on the other side of the “deer hunter gate.”  With permission from the landowner and with bucket in hand, we set out in the car to find Sass on sixty acres.  We drove and drove and walked and walked.  As we scouted closer to the Llano River, we encountered fresher tracks.  To our dismay, all of this land opened to the river.  Sass could have traveled west all the way along the river to Junction or east anywhere between the city of Llano and us.  We warned our neighbors, notified the sheriff’s office, and issued an APB in the form of a classified ad in the weekly Llano News.  On our Austin phone, we received news of numerous Sass sightings.  Sass had visited a Mr. Matthews’s property several miles down river and stared at his house for a day or two.  Duh?  Sass probably wondered why the idiot didn’t come out and hand feed him.  Then Mr. Smith telephoned to say that he has spotted him, too.  No staring, just rustling.  Sass had cownapped a few of the gentleman’s stock.  An electric co-op employee reported that he was watching Sass and his entourage two miles down river at the intersection of our county road and the river.  Next, a neighbor called to say that Sass had returned to the “deer hunter gate” and had continued to build his herd.  The black bull and some cows had gone through a fence and joined Sass’s newly formed gang.

 

David and the neighbor agreed to meet on Saturday afternoon to begin the recapture of the truants.  In order to make a long story shorter than the actual adventure, the posse, consisting of David, our neighbor, his helper, a professor visiting from the University of Georgia, and me, spent the afternoon chasing Sass and his herd of miscreants.   After getting them back to our property from the river through the “deer hunter gate,” everyone sighed with relief and retired to the cabin for a cool drink of water.   It didn’t take David too long to decide to “reward” the longhorns with some cubes.  However, when he called them with his distinctive whistle, not one of them appeared.  The entire herd had jumped a cattle guard to search for greener pastures.  A feat that is supposedly impossible, and the truly impossible part was chasing them back across the cattle guard to our land.  Before the afternoon ended, a crazed group, the cattle and the herders, had been part of three additional escapes and returns.   Our tired neighbor loaded up the strays into a trailer and returned them to their rightful pastures.

 

Since we now had a complete understanding of herd mentality, David’s solution to keep Sass and O.C. in their own green pasture meant adding to the herd.  The next weekend we purchased a heifer or young cow, Bubbles, and bull, Apple Jack, bringing our herd to four.  Over the succeeding years, we have gained four calves and lost Jack who refused to stay on our land regardless of cattle guards and barbed wire fences.  The grandchildren, following in their Poppy’s boots, now lay claim to the calves—M&M, Sticky Bun, Chocolate Chip, and Ice Cream.  Of course, each calf was named for the child’s favorite food at that moment.  Then, we needed someone to manage the longhorns.  What better ranch manager than a donkey?  I received Cupcake, a paint donkey, for our anniversary.  Although, I fail to see the logic, Cupcake can boss the herd; she just needs to avoid long sets of horns.

 

Our learning curve has been steep, but we are no longer novices even if our ranching neighbors make fun of David and his Sequoia ranch truck.  David has been successful.  The Philadelphians come to the ranch on their spring break.  Our daughter’s husband loves to build, build, build just like David. The grandchildren love their own personal longhorns and the cowboy shower. In his own inimitable way, he has created an exceptional piece of Texas to pass on to the family.  Life is an adventure full of optimism, compromise, and wonder.  I wonder what I’ll get for my birthday this year. 

 

Orange Crush interpreted in oils

Orange Crush interpreted in oils

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