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  • The Last Cows
  • Kathryn Wilder (bio)

"Don't ever fall in love with your cows," Keith said. We sat on our horses inside the corral fence, looking over a pen full of heifers that had been weaned a couple of months earlier. "That's the best piece of advice I can give you about the cattle business."

"Oh, I wouldn't do that," I said. "Love a cow?"

He got first pick, then I got a turn. But only one. My introduction to owning and raising my own herd of cattle would begin with one cow. We weren't married yet. "Why not?" I asked.

"You never know when you're gonna have to sell them," he said, and yawned. "If it's a dry year, or she doesn't get bred or she loses a calf, or the market goes way up and you just can't pass up the opportunity, she goes to town." Meaning the sales yard, the slaughterhouse, the meatpacking plant, the supermarket.

"Oh." I eyeballed the heifers. They were mostly Brahma crosses, blacks and reds, and some Santa Gertrudis, white markings like spilled milk on their redrock-colored faces, legs, and bellies. I tried to remember everything Keith had taught me—straight back, good angle from hip bone to croup, not too high-headed, no whites of the eyes. My horse shifted beneath me.

"Choose carefully," Keith reminded me as he squinted at the herd from under the brim of his hat.

A near-black heifer stood in the middle, her ears nearly as long as her face, her legs long, too, like a colt's or a deer's. A sheen of red outlined her neck, chest, and belly, and ran down the insides of her legs. She had the Brahma hump of fat above her withers—the red there, too, and along her backbone—and dewlaps at her throat. I kept my eye on her. [End Page 1]

Keith picked a pretty red heifer, one with not much Brahma showing and a splash of white above one eye that looked like a question mark. "Well?" he said.

I pointed. "That one."

He lifted his reins and his horse took a step forward. "You're sure?" The heifer stiffened, ready to bolt. "She's a little high-headed. There's a lot of other heifers here." He rode across the corral.

The heifer moved into the thick of the herd and disappeared, but soon enough her head raised above the others, her ears twisting back and forth, one eye on him, one on me.

"Yep," I said. "That one."

Keith didn't tell me that day the other reasons you might have to sell your cows. Like when your husband decides he wants to buy more farming equipment but he has to make a payment to the bank on an already too-big note first. Or he decides there's no money in the cattle business anymore, and if he sold off more cows he could get better established in his side business of specialized bulldozer work, where he thinks there is money. Or the other reason: simply because someone tells you you have to.

I just walked about a mile and a half up a dirt road that wraps around the side of a mountain, my dogs sometimes at my heels but more often sprinting after jackrabbits they flushed from the sagebrush. Technically I am trespassing, having climbed over a locked gate to get here; on the level of the spirit, however, I feel I have a right to be here. Not because it's all Earth and none of us own any of it, but because this earth, from the locked gate clear up the mountain to the national forest, used to be "owned" by my great-aunt, "Sister"—my grandmother's sister—and her husband, Ed.

From where I'm perched I overlook a series of low, smoothly rounded hills crisscrossed with barbed-wire fences. A long strip of fenced land, which I cannot see but know well, runs upcanyon all the way to the national forest boundary and includes 7,000-plus acres of the Cachuma Creek watershed. Just out...


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