Ross Harwood’s Blind Cattle

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Part Two

Over the next few years we would see Ross out and about, always wearing the same i64147_27766-mid-weight-duck-insulated-waist-zip-coverall_largensulated coveralls regardless of the weather, his pith helmet, boots and his machinery changing color with the season. We would pith.helmet (1)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.

Cow in the cornfield 2When 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 all-pictures-11851neglected 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 imagesasmothering 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 blindthrough 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 and5328856497_115e32eea3 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 Credenhill19July2011-006getting 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 ofF100407MS81 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.

Tom Phipps

Ross Harwood Goes Mad


Part One

On an unusually hot and humid day, the last week of June, I got permission to stop at Bill Richardson’s store for an ice cream bar and a bottle of soda pop on my way to Grandpa and Grandma Phipps’s. I leant my bicycle against the store’s brick tar paper wall under a rusted Coca-Cola thermometer. A Massey Harris tractor and cultivator, it’s shiny shovels wound with morning glory vines, stood by the gasoline pump. A house wren sang out its declaration. The screen door whispered a squeak as I stepped inside.

“Why there’s ol’ Tom,” said Mr. Richardson. “What can I do for you, this fine sub-zero day?”

“I’d like an Eskimo pie and a seven Up.”

“That would be twenty cents. Go h’ep y’se’f.”

“How are you folks a-coming with your cultivating? You ’bout to get ‘er all laid by?” said Jim Best, a fellow who farmed directly west of us.

“Dad thinks we’re ‘way behind,” I said, dangling my hands in the icy water of the soda pop cooler.PrinceAlbertB

“Well we’re better off than we could be, the year a-being what it is, but I really don’t need to be a-sitting here,” he said, carefully shaking some Prince Albert into his folded cigarette paper. “How much rain did you all get over here two nights ago, Bill?”

“Three tenths.”

“Boy. That was the spottiest rain. We didn’t get quite a tenth,” he said, licking the paper. He struck a match. A cicada buzzed its pulsing song in the maple branches over the store. The coolers and freezers rattled and hummed quietly.

I sat down at the far end of the bench from Jim, savoring his tobacco smoke, chasing my dribbling ice cream with my tongue. After a while, Mr. Richardson stood up from his keg of nails, picked up my dimes and dropped them into the cash register, returning to his seat with a newspaper. Above the shelves of laundry soap and cereal, the Pepsi girl, reposing on the sand in her pink bra and pedal pushers, waved from her faded poster.

92870.1941.cadillac.series.61A 1946 Cadillac quietly drove up and parked beside the tractor. It was painted all over with aluminum and pumpkin-orange colored house paint, even its tires and parts of its windows. A man wearing insulated coveralls zipped up to his chin and an aluminum painted pith helmet shuffled into the store and up to the counter.

64147_27766-mid-weight-duck-insulated-waist-zip-coverall_large (1)“Morning Ross,” said Mr. Richardson. “What do ye need?”

“Couple Co’Cola,” he said, scarcely moving hispith.helmet bristly lips.

“Am I in your way out there, Ross?” said Jim.

“No-no. Don’t need no gasoline,” he said, scratching around in his coin purse. By the time he laid out his change and turned to shuffle to the soda pop cooler, his odor had filled the store. It was vaguely like that of a sugary sour slop bucket heating on a stove.

Mr. Richardson traded glances with Jim, then rose and immediately propped open the back door with a flat iron.

Ross sat between Jim and me with his two bottles of pop.

“What’ve you been up to this morning, Ross?” said Jim.


“Looks like you’ve been a-painting,” he said, nodding at Ross’s aluminum painted overshoes, fastened to the legs of his coveralls with hog rings.

“Oh I have been, but that was yesterday.”

“You paint your car again, this year?”

“Yeap. And my tractor. It needed it. I even had enough left over for my piano.”

“Your piano?”images

“Sure. It sits out there on the porch. It needed it.”

“Looks like you got your hat and boots, too,” said Mr. Richardson.

“Of course,” said Ross. “They ought to match, oughtn’t they?” He certainly had them there. For a mid_IMG_6306moment all was quiet except for the wren and the cicadas. Ross unzipped his coveralls, spread out his collar and poured Coke all around his neck and collar bone.

Jim leant forward, looking at Ross. “You must be pretty hot,” he said.

“Tolerable hot,” said Ross, stretching his chin to one side to slop on some more.

Mr. Richardson lowered his newspaper and stared agape, shifting his eyes to Jim.

Jim grinned with raised eyebrows, searching for a reply that wouldn’t quite materialize. “Well Bill,” he said after a spell, “I’d better get back on the cultivator.”

“I followed him outside with my cupped hand full of ice cream that had thawed whilst I was struggling to get used to Ross’s bouquet.

“Say hello to your folks for me,” he said, starting his engine.

1930's Call for Philip Morris Matchbook CoverI wiped my hands in the grass beneath the Kool penguin and the Philip Morris buss boy, koolforever waving in rust-streaked competition from the wall. I mounted my bike and pedaled to Grandpa and Grandma’s.

I found Grandpa under the shade of the big black locust outside his work shop in the orchard, running the treadle of his grindstone, sharpening a hoe.

“You wouldn’t believe what I just saw Ross Harwood do,” I said.

“I just might,” he said, stopping the stone.

“Ross came into the store and poured Coke all down his neck.”large-vintage-coke-coca-cola-sold-here-metal-steel-sign-796-p

“You mean the outside of his neck?”

“Yea. Almost the whole bottle.”

“Well if that don’t beat the bugs a-fighting,” he laughed, wiping his chin with the back of his hand. “That’s a new one, all right. But I’ve seen him do similar, many a-time.

“Years ago, when Ross was still a young fellow, he was a-helping us put up the silo at the cattle barn, over on the east place. He was a-running the rope with one of the mares, a-hauling up concrete blocks to us. He’d be ready for to send up a load before we were, nearly each time, so he started building a hog shade over in the corner of the barn lot. It was just perfect for an old sow and her litter. He even wired up gates around it.

“When we took a break at about eleven, he scattered straw under it and then crawled in on all fours. The hands were a-watching him, kind of amused. He didn’t say a word to anyone. He’d lie still, then he’d wallow and thrash around and lie still again, just like an old sow and her pigs.

“Ross ain’t stupid. He’s just stuck on making himself the brunt of his own jokes. The more of an audience he has, the harder he’ll work a-clowning, that a-way. He’s been doing that almost the whole time he’s been grown.”

“You mean he was normal once?”

“Yea. At least he didn’t seem too queer whilst he was a-growing up.”

“So he just got that way gradually?”

“No sir. He changed right now.” He paused, straining to pull his leg off the grind stone. He scratched his head and replaced his cap as he studied one of his ewes coming up for a drink. “Nope. All of a sudden. He lived with his folks, right where he lives now, straight south. He even went to college at Eastern. I don’t remember what he studied, but I reckon he did all right. he put in nearly all of four years. He’d room at a boarding house through the week and then ride his horse home and farm on the weekends.

“Well he had a sweetheart up there, some young lady from Windsor, if I’ve got it right. And they were engaged to be married. He was home one spring weekend, out in the field a-harrowing. His mom come out where he was a-working with a letter from his fiancĂ©e which said that she was a-marrying some other fellow.

“He went mad right then and there. He ran his team and harrow off into the brush, tangled them up in some wire fence and beat the holy daylights out of them. They were a nice gentle young team of Clydesdales, too. Just as sweet as ye please. They’d bought them from us. The mare’s legs were so badly cut up, she had to be destroyed.

“Well, he left his team and ran off into the timber and was gone for days. And when he finally showed up, he didn’t act right. And from that day to this, he’s been just as odd as odd can be. When his mom died, he boarded off their dining room, parlour and upstairs with her things in it, and has let everything else run down ever since.”

Tom Phipps