Cowboys ‘R’ Us

Alyce Gorter

24 hours after they arrived.

The day was perfect! An early telephone call had confirmed that the two Scottish Highland steers had been corralled and were now awaiting our arrival for pickup. Ken, friend John, and I were prepared for an early start and truck and trailer had been hooked up days earlier just waiting for this moment. We were on our way! There was limited traffic to Vankleek Hill that December day, and, although freezing rain had been predicted, morning driving conditions were excellent.

Pictures of the animals on the sale site had appeared to show thin, forlorn creatures, but to our surprise and great delight, they were, in reality, short, stocky, well-rounded, and beautiful. Long horns gleamed, luxurious thick forelocks tumbled across broad foreheads and over big, brown eyes, and the animals showed no fear of strangers, only a mild curiosity. The owner pushed between them, heaving on parts of their anatomy to assist their entry into the trailer, without fear of damage to his person from horns or hooves.  They stayed calm in the trailer for the three-hour ride as we hurried to reach home before darkness or freezing rain descended. They were exactly right for Rock ‘n’ Horse Ranch!

My heart was happy, frequently overflowing with exclamations of joy over the comeliness of our new arrivals and their calm dispositions.  How good they would look on the property once they had gotten familiar with their new surroundings, and how nice it would be to soon have them settled into their 60’ round pen home. At 5:00, with a sigh of relief, I backed the trailer up to the gate and we prepared to unload the cattle.

It was suggested that, since it was already quite dark, perhaps leaving them on the 20’ trailer until morning would cause them no hardship and give us a fresh start in the morning. However, as they were not accustomed to being in such a confined space, this didn’t seem ideal. Instead, I recommended that some type of chute or passage be put in place through which the animals could walk directly to the security of the pen. This would have meant a fair amount of labour — in the cold, in the dark. There were two male votes against this. That’s how we came up with the bright idea that, due to their docile nature, they would, most likely, just follow someone with a tub of grain from the trailer, down the hill, across the 150’ expanse of field, through the gate right into the round pen which was set up with fresh hay, water, and a salt block. After all, they were probably hungry, thirsty, and tired, and why wouldn’t they be as content with us as we were with them? On the off chance that it didn’t quite work out as planned, not much could go wrong, as the field in which the round pen was erected was enclosed with three strands of electric rope. We had been assured that these steers were respectful of this type of fencing.

So, down the slope they went, snuffling at the grain bucket, right to the round pen gate. How easy was that? With just a few feet to go, however, they suddenly decided that where they really wanted to be was Vankleek Hill, and, if they didn’t waste time on long goodbyes, they might be home in time for supper. They trotted purposefully to the fence and, without breaking their stride, tentatively reached out their noses to test its electrical output, and then simultaneously, as one stepped through the three strands, the other jumped completely over them. They melted into the blackness of the night as though they had never existed on the property at all. And by the speed of their disappearance, it was unlikely they would ever exist there again.

We were horrified! How could we possibly track two errant steers at night? To make it even more difficult, one of them was jet black. And there was nothing to stop these animals from moving across thousands of acres of vacant bush and swampland. As Scottish Highland cattle can thrive on browse and these had each other for company and no attachment to Rock ‘n’ Horse Ranch or us, it was unlikely that we would ever see these steers again. But, on the off chance that we WERE able to find them, how could we trap them? Other than a bit of electric rope, there wasn’t a fence on the place, and we had just learned how effective that was.

The men wanted to use four-wheelers in the search. I argued that not only is it hard to find and follow a broken trail at night while driving a vehicle, but the noise and lights might frighten them into faster flight — if that was possible. We could not agree. Although opinions had been quite loudly expressed up to this point, I’m now thinking this is probably where the yelling actually started.

Equipped with a walking stick and flashlight, I picked up their path in the shallow snow, following it down past the lake — grateful that there were no tracks out on the ice — up the hill and past the cabin. But there behind the shed, at the brink of a steep rock face, the tracks ended! Being unfamiliar with the landscape, the animals must have rushed over the edge and were now either dead or badly injured at the bottom — the Fifth Lake version of Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump in Alberta. Sadly, my second attempt at farming had been cut woefully short at about five hours duration. That had to be a new one for The Guinness Book of Records. The only possible way to cut my losses would be to host a big family barbecue. How could such a beautiful day go downhill so quickly?

But as I played my light along the cliff, listening for moaning or other signs of life, the beam picked up the form of the red steer, standing quietly looking back at me. Well, at least one was still alive!

[Find out the thrilling conclusion in tomorrow's SCOOP!]