Lucy and I spent the day in Burlington yesterday, having her braces tightened and doing our every-two-months shopping in the big city. We got home at 4 PM, in time for Lucy to take an English test — and for me to drive down to the farm and find Duke, my yearling bull, roaming loose in the rain.
He had obviously pushed through the electric fence. I had known that it was shorted through the driftway by a thicket of tall, wet, raspberry canes, but most of my animals, after the first shock, never come close to the fence. I had thought it was safe enough. I was wrong.
Duke was standing on the cabin knoll. Thank goodness I’ve had the back acres cleared, as that open space called to him, rather than the highway just beyond the trees at the top of the property. He was rubbing his head on D’s excavator — the eternal bull question: Testing, testing, am I stronger than you? — between bellows to the rest of the herd.
I know this is the restless, “no limits” male spirit that propelled Lewis and Clark across the west and took the first man to the moon. However it also fuels soccer hooliganism and drunken frat boys. On the farm it’s a pain in the neck.
In the barn I saw a smashed bag of shavings that Duke had bashed and “killed.” I quickly cleaned his stall, tossed in a couple of flakes of hay, and filled his grain dish. Then I headed out to find him, carrying a pitchfork.
It took me ten minutes to get Duke the two hundred yards back to the barn.
Duke knows the prod of the fork and was wary. He lowered his head and braced his legs. He growled, a deep gargling sound. He never turned tail. I had to force him back step by step.
With his chin almost sweeping the dirt, Duke wagged his head back and forth, watching me and the fork. It looked as if he were shaking his head and protesting: no, no. I knew from reading Temple Grandin that what he was actually doing was bringing me into focus, preparatory to a possible charge. My heart pounded.
“Get back!” I screamed. Cattle hate raised voices. “Go! Get out of here!”
Step, step. When we finally reached the barn Duke refused to go in, but cut to the side to bellow over the fence to the herd. I ducked into the tack room and scooped a little grain into a can. I closed all the stalls except his and the one next to it, then ran to the barn door.
“C’mon, Duke, come on in and eat your supper,” I called, shaking the can. My voice was trembling but I tried to make it lilt as if he were still a cute little calf and not a red-eyed threat.
He walked toward me, suspicious. I ran back into the stall next to his, closed the heavy gate to keep myself safe, and stuck the grain can back out in the aisle. I shook it invitingly. (I imagined his view: the disembodied can of sweet feed, shaking in mid-air.)
Then suddenly Duke was just a goofy bull calf again, galloping down the aisle into his stall, lollopy-lollopy, and shoving his nose into his grain dish. I slammed his gate shut and threw the bolt home. It was over, thank God.
Two minutes later D drove in with his baby granddaughter to feed apples to the pigs. I walked out to the pigs with them; D and I talked about the work he is doing for me on DH’s lane to the cabin. By the time they left and I got back to the barn to bring in the other animals and finish chores, Duke was furious again and bellowing. He had bashed his water bucket off the wall and crushed the heavy plastic flat in his rage at being alone.
This morning I will make calls. Duke is a small bull; he won’t even turn a year old until next week; but he makes me too nervous and I want him gone. This afternoon I will weedwhack my fencelines, to bring the charge back up to 6000 volts.