Over the next few years we would see Ross out and about, always wearing the same insulated coveralls regardless of the weather, his pith helmet, boots and his machinery changing color with the season. We would encounter him at night, suddenly seeing him in our headlights, driving without his lights on, two wheels off the pavement, two wheels on, creeping along like some kind of garish ‘possum.
Dad had thirty acres of the most beautiful corn on the south-west part of Grandpa’s eighty. It was about the best ground that we had and we’d planted it at exactly the ideal time, and the weather had been just right for growing. He went to inspect it incessantly, his one perfect field. On the fourth of July, his birthday, I went with him to see his corn one more time. Grandpa had a contrary wether outside the fence, so I stayed to help get it back in whilst Dad went to see his field.
When Dad returned, he was livid with dismay. Ross’s cattle had tramped the fence and were stripping his corn. “Locks a-missy! Hell fire and damnation!” he said, looking away at his field. He took a champ on a timothy stem, flinging it aside.
“We don’t need the corn that bad,” said Grandpa, shuffling up.
Within the hour, Dad had been to see two or three of the neighbors who farmed close by. One of them, Jack Best, came with us to see Ross. We turned into Ross’s lane between hedges grown wild with mulberries, carefully straddling the ruts and gullies as we climbed to the house.
The grand fronted Civil War era brick house rose at the crest of the moraine with neglected majesty, its windows looking out across the front yard which was now a hawthorn and blackberry thicket to rolling pastures that once were. We parked beside the kitchen at the back. Dad and Jack stepped through the vines smothering the porch and knocked at the pink and blue door. The pink and blue piano stood resignedly, its keyboard facing the vines. The windmill beyond the sheds squawked in spite of the still air. A starling gave a breezy whistle. Dad knocked again. They slowly stepped off the porch and hesitated, Jack idly pushing at stones in the gravel with his toe, Dad glancing at the sun, kneading his watch to the top of his overalls pocket.
“Yea?” said Ross, stepping into the doorway without his pith helmet, steadying himself against the piano. His face was white as a pupa behind its egg crusted bristles. His gum boots, their blue paint crackling and peeling at the ankles were fastened mercilessly to his filthy coveralls with yards upon yards of adhesive tape. “You’ll pardon me, but I’ve been blacked out for a few days. I couldn’t manage to get to town for my insulin until yesterday evening,” he said, catching his balance.
“Did you know that your cows are out?” said Dad. “They’ve been all through our corn. They’ve been over on Jack’s some, too.”
“Ain’t surprised. Pasture’s all petered out and I haven’t had the strength to feed ’em for a spell.”
I looked into the kitchen as they talked and nearly reeled from its fetid reek. I held my breath and peered in again. Its floor was stratified with banana peels and flattened ice cream cartons, mired in a blackened goo better than a foot deep, as though it were some ghastly calf shed with more than a year’s accumulation of manure. The kitchen stove and a kerosene heater stood anchored in the mire like oriental furnishings in some lost corner of Hades. Jack read my face as I stepped back off the porch, giving a slight grimacing wink and shake of his head.
“I ain’t able to he’p,” said Ross, “but if you ones could round ’em up and take them to the packing plant, you can divide up what they fetch. I hope it covers your corn, Harry.”
Jack and Dad decided to get some hands and run the cattle back onto Ross’s place and corral and load them in his barn lot. Word was sent out by telephone and after dinner we joined a sizable party of neighbors and their hired hands at the edge of the Whisnand Woods. We took out a large section of fence next to the corn and started our drive.
We learnt several things right quick. The herd simply could not be driven. They went insanely wild as we closed in, running every which way, breaking through our line repeatedly and unpredictably. Dad and Jack had been puzzled by Ross’s inability to say how many head he had. It was now quite clear that he had neglected his herd for years, allowing them to inbreed. Most of them were blind and over a third of them were bulls of various ages.
I was at the edge of the trees when a bull and three heifers broke and came my way from the corn. As I was clapping, waving my arms and hollering, I heard sticks snap right behind me. I wheeled about to find a dozen or more of the brutes coming straight for me at a dead run out of the timber. I remember a fleeting glimpse of the trunk of the tree next to me and I recall watching the beasts thunder by beneath the limb I was standing on, but I remember nothing at all of my climb. I wasn’t about to go back down the way I had come, either, for my sudden refuge turned out to be an old honey locust tree, bristling with sharp spikes all over the trunk which was also smothered in a mantle of poison ivy vines.
By and by Dad came to my aid, parking his tractor under my perch. He stood on the seat, steadying me as I dropped onto the hood. “Don’t you reckon that this is a poorly chosen time to watch birds?” he said.
The men milled about at the edge of the corn, visiting and spitting. “We’re not a-getting anywhere this way,” said one.
“No. Not when the help is a-trying to go to roost with the owls,” said another.
“I don’t see how we’re going to get anywhere without horses, do you Harry?” said Jack.
The next morning I flew through my chores. I had scarcely begun doing them when Dad took off for the Whisnand Woods. After what seemed like a small eternity, I finished up, put a drawbar and clevis on one of the tractors and drove after him.
There were pickup trucks scattered all along Grandpa’s lane when I got there. The pasture looked like a fairground with neighbors and hands milling about several small tractors and the large cattle truck from the Charleston Packing Plant. Whilst everyone visited, waiting for the horsemen to arrive, I marveled at the tree I’d been up the day before.
The voices picked up, accompanied by the clank and rattle of iron. The first two horse trailers had arrived. The two drovers began saddling their horses. In spite of their riding boots and chaps, they didn’t look much like Hollywood cowboys. One wore a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap and a t-shirt with a picture of a belted Hampshire hog on it. The other fellow did wear a white hat, but it was made of straw and had International Harvester stenciled on it. Each of them had a cheek stuffed tight with tobacco.
They were off directly, in pursuit of some cows in the brush at the edge of the woods to the south. Dad and I each followed with a tractor and several passengers apiece. It didn’t take long for each drover to run a cow-brute into the open and rope her, but it was an ordeal getting them hitched to the clevises on the tractors, for upon being roped, the cows went wild, dragging the horses about. My cow broke her rope and hied off into the brush again, horses in pursuit. Directly, she was re-roped, bellowing and snorting, throwing her head about. This time, a hand managed a hitch knot which wouldn’t cut the rope, feverishly tying, mindful of his dear fingers. “All right! Take up the slack! If she comes for ye, switch off the tractor and get under it right now!” he hollered, springing aside with a wave.
She was the one who took up the slack! She gave the tractor a hair raising jerk as I got under way. She bolted from side to side at first, causing the tractor to sway and labor. She growled through her froth, stiff-leggedly planting and sliding her feet like some furious dining room table.
They were struggling to load Dad’s creature as I approached the truck. She fought, blind pink eyes rolling, muzzle a-froth all the way up the chute. They pulled with ropes through the slats on the sides of the truck as they prodded at her flanks and rump. At last she lurched into the truck. My brute began her ascent much the same way , except that half way up, she decided to climb over the sides. She nearly made it before lying down, refusing to move.
The drovers kept all the tractors and hands busy throughout the morning, even whilst changing mounts. The loading chute was what slowed us, so they called for another truck to cut loading time in half. To my surprise, the bulls were the easiest to load. Some of them would give in and walk, with only occasional attempts to bolt. Yearlings weren’t too bad either, but it was the cows who fought us relentlessly, especially if they had calves.
A little past one ‘o clock, the cloudless sky began growing dark. “What the dickens is going on?” I said to Bill Hall, a fierce old man with a couple of teeth in his mouth to match the two fingers he had left after a corn picker accident.
“Ain’t ye heard?” he said. “That’s the eclipse. We’re supposed to have a solar eclipse.”
“Aw shit!” I said, I wish I had a cardboard box and some white paper and tin foil.”
“What on earth for?” he said, fixing his steely gaze upon me.
“So I could look at the eclipse.”
“Well look at it then!” he said. “You’ll miss it if ye don’t.”
“That’s why I want the box. I don’t want to burn my eyes.”
“Experts!” he said with a brown spit. “For Christ’s sake! Is that what they teach you at the Lab School? Now don’t get me wrong. I’m right glad you’re a-going to the Lab School. But them experts don’t want you to wipe your ass unless they say it’s all right.”
“But they say…”
“Of course they do! They can’t feel important unless they can demand you heed their narrow minded judgment, if ye know what I mean. They’ve got to have you a-stepping in time to their dance. Men have looked up at the sun for thousands o’ years to get the time ‘o day. How many blind farmers do you know? You’ll miss out if ye let them keep ye from looking.
“I’d better get this here rope,” he said, looking up at a thrashing heifer.
I felt sheepish, still afraid to look up at the eclipse. As it grew light, I finally plucked up the courage to glance up at the sun as the last fragment of black slipped off the orb.
The following January, Ross burnt up in his house. The local paper allowed him the dignity of printing a picture of his charred torso being removed from the hot ashes with a manure fork.