Remembering the year the cows ran away

The herd got spooked, broke down the gate, disappeared into the bush and didn’t come out for much of the summer

SASKATOON — Almost anyone with cattle works in close proximity to nature and sometimes nature takes an unexpected hand in our livestock business. My father’s experience was no different, especially one particular time when he took cows to the Kettle’s quarter.

Dad bought Alex Kettle’s quarter when Kettle retired from farming. He only had the one quarter and his was purely a grain operation. But he had a slough on the property surrounded by trees and plenty of grass, so Dad decided to fence the slough and put cows with their calves on it for a few months every summer to give the pasture a rest. We always called this land the Kettle’s quarter.

When the fence was ready, we planned how to move some of the cows there. This land was 3.5 kilometres from our farm following a grid road.

The next evening we started off. Dad drove the truck ahead while one of us kids sat on the tailgate holding a pail of grain and calling to the cows to follow.

Occasionally, we kids at the rear had to chase a straggler back in line. We wore rubber boots, had holes in our pants and the girls wore head scarves. We carried sticks we’d found on the ground to extend our arms. Pretty slick cowboys, we were.

To start, we had to pass the house, take the lane to the grid road and make a U-turn north. On we ambled — the Great Hathaway Cattle Drive of the 1960s — six cows and their calves, moseying up the long slope that stretched ahead.

Once we passed our barn and yard, the cows stopped calling to the ones at home and focused forward, settling into a steady pace. That left us behind to simply keep up, pick flowers and joke with each other.

We scanned the blue bowl above our heads to find the hawk we heard screaming. Was it calling us? We spread our wings and tried to answer it.

The gravel crunched beneath our black, rubberized feet. A pretty pebble, a tiny buttercup, or a feather all found their way into a pocket.

As we covered the rise, we looked back to the elevators of Marwayne, Alta., stretching above the trees in the gully. We heard a meadowlark sing, Dad’s favourite bird. There wasn’t a breath of wind and we felt the sun burnishing our cheeks. A car passed, slowing down and leaning into the ditch to pass us.

We stared at the occupants and they stared back. We waved, whether we knew them or not. It was what you did.

Once we got to Kettle’s quarter, Dad turned in the gate and the cows followed. We gave them their reward, grain poured in a row on the ground. The calves started sucking. We watched them for a while but it seemed like they’d be just fine so we went home and Dad planned to check on them daily. Every time he went to check on them, he took grain, poured it on the ground and called them.

“Come on.”

They always came out of the bush or the slough, glad for their daily ration.

That was the usual way of most years. One year, however, nature put her hand in and things didn’t go so well.

That’s when the rodeo started. Dad drove up to check on them one afternoon and before he stopped the truck he saw the wire gate laying down. He immediately assumed some prankster had opened the gate but when he parked, he saw it had been pushed down. Cattle tracks led him to the farm across the road where they had broken into Dan Ure’s quarter of unbroken bush. He walked the quarter until he found them but they were too spooked to herd back where they belonged. Their panicked behavior alarmed him. Something must have really scared them.

These cows were pets at home — family members. They normally didn’t take off at a dead run when they saw him. He went home and called neighbours, asking if they knew of anything unusual that could have scared them.

One of these neighbours told him that a bear had been seen in the area and so they speculated that it had spooked our cows, causing them to break down the fence in their stampede to get away. It’s very rare to see a bear in this part of the province.

For the next several days we went up there every evening after supper when they would ordinarily be fed grain. Mom, Dad and my two older sisters tramped through the bush on Ure’s quarter looking for them with the hope of herding them back where they belonged. The land was mostly a tangle of trees, fallen logs and short shrubs, a jungle. But the cattle were so spooked that when my parents and sisters did glimpse them through the trees, they took off on another mad stampede to another part of the bush.

My brother and I were too young for any fun. We had to wait in the car with our homework and colouring books.

When it got too dark to see, we just sat and waited, listening for voices, our signal they had returned to the car to go home. Sometimes, we heard coyotes, not something we feared, but it helped to break the monotony. Once we saw two or three half-grown calves race by and we expected to see a family member come after them. No one came so we knew they had escaped from our family one more time.

I remember one night it took everyone so long to give up and come back, I decided (not telling my brother) that the bear must have eaten them and I started planning how I’d take care of myself and my brother for the rest of our lives. The relief of having them back will always stick with me, but they were laughing and joking about someone falling over a log so I couldn’t tell them I’d been worried.

As a last resort, Ure told Dad he could leave them there for a while to calm down and Dad agreed, since there didn’t seem to be any alternative.

A month or so later, Dad had a new plan. He would go up by himself at the end of the day with grain and hay in the back of the wagon. It was the same wagon he fed them hay from in the winter so he hoped they’d remember it and think of some good feed for a change.

If they followed, he’d bring them home rather than put them back on the Kettle’s quarter. He was hoping they had tired of Ure’s treed acreage with not much grazing area. They also hadn’t had grain for a long time and would be hungry for it again.

We all waited at home, sitting upright in front of the TV but not really watching it. We wondered if he’d return at last successful or empty-handed once again. What a relief to see the tractor and wagon slowly moving along the grid road past our place on its way to the lane, followed by every cow and calf. Not a single animal was lost. We celebrated by whooping, “they’re home, they’re home.”

A missing part of our family had returned. Past our house Dad drove, triumphant in the driver’s seat, waving to us as we pressed our noses against the windows, and following behind came the long-missing herd.

We did our best by our cattle. Things didn’t always work the way we planned when nature intervened. We took cows to the Kettle’s quarter every summer for several years. That was the only time anything unusual happened and we had our rodeo in the bush.

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