Thursday, September 17, 2009

Are you afraid of the dark?

The day started early…or yesterday finished late? Whatever you want to call it, it was midnight and coyotes were yipping and howling nearby, as they do every night. They set the neighbourhood (yes, we’re all on 160+ acres – the property I am on is two quarter sections – but we’re still close-ish at the front, along the road) dogs to barking, as usual, but this time they didn’t stop, as they usually do. The Herefords belonging to the neighbours down the road, west of us, started bawling. Our cattle started bawling. The bulls belonging to the neighbours across the road from us, north of us, started calling out. I was just reaching for the light switch when the sounds of creaking fences drifted in through the window. I paused. The squeal of barbed wire against fence posts continued, intensified, even. I rolled my eyes – I’d seen the damage fighting bulls could do. But at one am? Cattle started calling out in alarm, cows bawled for their calves in the confusion evidenced by the sound of hooves and the sounds of the herd moving quickly through the protesting fence and into the brush. I thought I heard a cow or calf scream. I sighed as I tore on a pair of jeans, shirt, and sweatshirt. Leaving Aly in the bedroom, I raced out the door; I didn’t want her getting tangled in anything in the dark, where I wouldn’t be able to see her. First things first, I thought the cattle might have only gone through a fenceline on the property rather than a fence lining the road; my priority was the road so I jumped into the truck and idled down the fence along the road, my flashlight focused on the fences. Nothing seemed down and no cattle were visible on the road. My discovery meant that the cattle had likely simply gone through a fence into a pasture we had gates open to anyways. As relieved as I was, I still wanted to make sure, I wanted to find the cattle and see their whereabouts for myself. The horses were hanging around the house, another sign that something was up – normally they spent their nights in the pastures away from the house, down by the creek. To be up within the lights of the house was unusual. I grabbed a halter from the box of my pickup and threw it on Silver, fashioning a set of reins from the rope. I didn’t want to take the time to saddle up. As I led Silver to the gate that would lead us into the cattle pastures, I took note that any and all herds of cattle within a few kilometers of us were still setting up a ruckus, as were a neighbour’s dogs to the west of us. I could hear whom I thought to be one of our bulls calling out from the bush off to the east, and I thought I heard a cow or two. Silver stood stock-still as I leapt onto his bare back from the wooden fence and immediately stepped out into the blackness. I trained my flashlight on the ground as well as the surrounding area – it never stopped moving. I wasn’t sure what was out here upsetting all the cattle, but I wanted to make sure it didn’t have any of our calves. Silver and I walked past where I had heard the cattle go through the fence, to no avail – it was pitch black with no moon. The limited beam of my flashlight failed to find a single cow, though I could hear a bull quietly lowing occasionally, in the bush north of us. We continued along a little longer before following a ridge to an opposite fence. Following that fence would take us through a gap in the fence and over a culvert and mostly dried-up creek. My plan was to cross the small, dried-up creek and head north to the pastures on the opposite side of the fence I had heard the cattle plunge through. If my estimations were correct, the cattle had likely headed north then east, since they would turned east to avoid eventually hitting the northern fence along the road or the western fence along the house. They knew this land and were headed into the bush along paths they knew. Until now, I had mostly been following Silver’s guidance. Wherever he felt we should go, we went. I fully trusted his wisdom – I could feel in his step that he wanted to find the cattle as much as I did. As we walked towards the gap however, some type of sound reached our ears. I couldn’t decide whether it was the sound of flesh being ripped from bone or simply the raspy breath of a cow catching her breath after a bolt, or even someone tearing up grass. Was it just my imagination taking off on me? I couldn’t imagine it being a cow, seeing how there were none within my flashlight beam. Taking off the way the herd sounded like they did, the cows would be sticking together, not wandering about alone. The remaining cattle here are not exactly entirely quiet either – someone on a horse, waving a flashlight around brazenly, would have spooked a cow into running off towards her herdmates. This sound wasn’t moving. My flashlight beam didn’t pick up any cattle but I couldn’t make a thorough search of the area or for something along the ground without moving closer towards the sound. Silver didn’t seem overly alarmed but remained as tense and alert as he had our entire explorative journey. The sound continued without pause. Uneasy, I turned Silver about towards home. I’d heard some of the cattle in the bush nearby and knew they weren’t on the road – they should be safe as I could make them at one in the morning, in the dark. The last thing I needed was to further investigate some sound and find out the worst (likely a wolf or cougar, possibly feeding). Visions of Silver spinning about upon sighting the worst, leaving me with whatever else lurked in the dark with us, prompted me to turn him towards home. I had nothing to back me up and continuing on into possible danger was not exactly tantalizing. I could search first thing in the morning. I wanted so bad to pocket my flashlight, grab hold of Silver’s mane, and just let him rip all the way home. Instead, I reined him in. For whatever reason – whether there really was something out there and Silver wanted no part in it, or he just wanted to get home (albeit after stepping out eagerly and without hesitation away from home), Silver wanted to tear off as much as I did. My brain triumphed over my instincts however and forced me to ask Silver to walk. If there really was something out there, nearby, the last thing we needed to do was take off at a dead run. Even if something was already feeding out there, I had no idea what it was and had no wish to tempt it further. I kept my flashlight beam scanning the ground behind us and the sound carried on the wind as we travelled back to the house – as I type now, I still try to block the sound out. Cows bawling periodically as I type send shivers down my back. They should be quiet and sleeping peacefully, not calling out for their calves. Upon arrival home, I gathered up our three boys, whisked out some grain treats along the ground in front of the garage, and shut the barn door that would allow the horses into the back pastures. Our boys are staying in tonight. Thank-you Silver for taking care of me out there and for keeping me safe.

This morning I awoke late to the sounds of rain. Despite the dismal weather, I still wanted to check the ground where I’d heard the sounds last night. I sucked it up, got dressed, and caught Silver outside. Once saddled, I led him through a back gate that would lead us to the cattle pastures and swung up into the now sopping wet saddle. We took off along the fenceline and were within the area where we’d turned around last night within minutes. I scanned the ground nearby and found nothing. Not even so much as a misplaced hair. The cattle were lounging in the bush close to the house, and no cows were bawling for missing calves. Silver and I wasted no time in the rain and, brief search complete, headed home. We can conduct a more thorough search tomorrow, in better weather. So far, so good though, as we have not seemed to have lost anything in the confusion last night. What was out there last night I will probably never know.

Otherwise, no further work on the horses! I spent the day mostly catching up on lost sleep (I didn’t get to sleep until 4am) and relaxing. There was a moment or two of motivation to do stuff around the house…but it was quickly lost (lol). The boys spent the day rolling in the mud and grazing in the rain whilst I watched from the shelter of the house. Tomorrow will be a busy day of house cleaning, pasture clean-up, and riding!

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