Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
She was lying in a shallow depression, just below the line of sight, but the stench of her rotting corpse was unmistakable. Usually, ravens put me onto such remains, but on this day, there was an eerie quiet surrounding the scene, as though we had ridden through the gossamer sheen that separates our reality from that of the unknown.
I have seen a lot of death in my travels, and it never fails to set me back a bit. My horse Billy and I rode near the carcass and stopped, giving a silent salute to the once dynamic creature. Fortunately, I can think like a dog on occasion and managed to call Topper off the scent before he had a chance to roll in the midst of such canine delight.
After our voiceless soliloquy, the three of us set to work. I dismounted and approached what was left of the rotting beast; Billy kept his head close to my right shoulder, ears cocked forward, as if making sure this wasn’t a dead horse he’d have to worry about all day; and Topper lay off to my left, eyes never leaving me, hoping for a distraction on my end that would give him just the sliver of opportunity he needed to revel in the dog-enticing smell that originally drew us there.
First thing the big boss will ask is, “Didja get the tag number?” meaning from the ear tag, which has all the pertinent information such as year born, lineage and ownership. I usually cut the tags off and take them home, just so there is no chance for misinterpretation, but in this case there didn’t seem to be any tags. As I lifted the now unnatural, eyeless head and turned it over, looking through the carnage of the scavenger feast, I felt an empathy with this cow that was hard to shake.
Instinct had no doubt taken her to the fence she lay along, an ancient attempt to get home before she died. There’s no rule about where bovines should perish, but many times it seems like it’s beside a fence line, near a gate. But maybe that’s just my imagination. Most cows die in a slaughterhouse, which may be more precise and preferable to death on the range. What can it be like, if you’re an instinctual animal, to not understand why your body no longer functions as it used to and why your legs are too weak to bear your weight? It doesn’t help that your lungs are filling with fluid and your body temperature soars in the hot August sun.
Just before she lay down to die, the black Angus no doubt tried to let her calf suckle one last time, taking care of business to the tragic end. Her labored breathing called in the coyotes, never far from cows and calves, and their yapping song went through the tree tops, signaling winged scavengers that a veritable plethora of vittles was inevitable. The cow had no choices left as the coyotes began to tear at her milk-laced udder and soft underbelly, long before she was dead, nor could she close her eyes tight enough or long enough to keep the birds from plucking at the tender orbs. One final attempt to locate her calf and a raven harvested the last of her vision. It’s not about intestinal fortitude or big, mean and dumb cows ” it’s about mercy and dying.
As I count her legs and study the misshapen, cloven hoof of her left hind, it’s hard to envision the infinite miles this old mother cow has put on those hooves, up and down rocky, steep trails, her last year perhaps in pain from the foot injury. But no matter her physical limitations, never did she shirk her responsibilities of ruminating diligently and caring for her calf, nor did she refuse to go to the mountains by remaining bushed up along some cool, live-water creek bottom.
No, she wasn’t a wild creature, but neither was it her fault we insisted she be dependent upon man for her survival. We share in her death.
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