Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
My dad and I had ’em halfway surrounded, a herd of registered Hereford cattle, at the top of what we called the Big Hollow. Dished into the topography of our southwestern mesa, roughly a mile long and half-a-mile wide, it made a great spot to feed the cows in late winter, what with the sides of the hollow at least partially blocking the wind.
We were on a mission of grave importance, making certain that any cow ready to give birth in the next couple of days would be taken down to the lower ranch and sequestered in what we jokingly referred to as the “maternity ward.”
Imagine the plight of a newborn calf, slithering from the womb and hitting the ground on a cold, dark night, with only its mother to soothe the sudden harshness of a new reality. It might be 20 below, or the wind might be howling without repentance, swirling across a barren winter feed ground without regard for the calf’s quiet entry into the world.
Like all animals, a calf is hard-wired for survival, but obstacles abound. After making an inelegant drop from the womb, its mom licks the afterbirth from its rapidly cooling body, drying it off and trying to keep it warm at the same time. There’s only one thing of importance on a calf’s mind – get up and suckle. There’s no conception of death, only a strong and tenacious craving for survival. In nature, you either exist or you don’t and you’re only privy to one of those concepts. For a newborn calf, or its mother, there is no time for esoteric thoughts about hypothermia, more blankets or last rites.
My dad, riding his big buckskin mare and easily visible in a red, wool coat, had me hold the herd from dispersing while he rode through the cows, about 300 strong, checking for those that looked ready to calve. It was, even with the sky a deep lazuline blue, bitterly cold, well below zero, and the forecast was calling for even colder temperatures.
The sprawling mesa was about a mile from the ranch headquarters, totally out of sight of all civilization, and there’s always something exhilarating about that. Early in the morning, my dad and the hired hand, feeding the cattle with a team of horses and a big sled, checked carefully for “ready to deliver” cows. Dad would go back later and round them up with his horse, and me, if I was around. We couldn’t quit because we were bone-cold; there were cows we had to find and take home with us.
It didn’t seem I could take much more, but still we worked on. “Come on, mama, head this way, away from the herd and over the top and down the hill, where things will be good for you.”
Close to the house, a three-sided shed, back to the wind, held numerous stalls, each one fluffed deep with fresh, clean straw, ready for newly arrived babies. At one end was the enclosed “intensive care ward,” containing heat lamps, a ready row of medicines and syringes, and the calf-pulling mechanism, sometimes needed to help first-calf heifers finish the job.
On bitter nights, like the one we were about to experience, a tragically cold and sick calf might end up in the house, sprawled across the warm kitchen floor; a serious case might be curled up in the bath tub. My dad, in addition to being up all day, would spend the night checking, checking, and rechecking, unwilling to leave anything to chance.
There were nights I stood next to Dad, observing him smile at the first kicking signs of life, or watching him do everything possible to save one that, no matter my dad’s wishes, couldn’t hang on. Seeing the tears in my father’s eyes, either from joy or sadness, always clouded my own, mostly in homage to the depth of passion and commitment my dad carried for his role in life.
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