We had about four acres of vacant pasture when Phil, a neighbor, suggested that we go in together on four baby steers he could buy from the Happy Cow Dairy for $100 each. He would take them for the first couple of months, since it was mid-winter, and he could give them shelter in his barn. He also had the know-how required to handle things like getting them neutered. Then in early spring we would take them in our pasture. We would split the cost of hay come winter. In a year or so, they would all go off to the market in Phil’s horse trailer and we would make a few thousand dollars. It seemed like a fine deal.
Chuck named the calves Hamburger, Roast Beef, Lunch and Dinner. I called them the Cow-boys, since they were boy cows. Before long, we both just called them Houdini 1, 2, 3, and 4.
The first time we discovered the calves missing was early one morning, when I walked the dog. The cute little guys hadn’t gone far, and we easily lured them back in with some sweet feed. Chuck mended the fence without difficulty. We smiled at their cleverness. The second time–or was it the third or the fourth or maybe the tenth?—they strayed across the road, where several small houses are rented to young families. It was early evening, and everyone seemed to be home. The hunt was on. Our boys had been spotted crossing someone’s lawn, headed east. Someone else had seen them farther south. Like a posse dividing up to head off an outlaw at the pass, we spread out and moved in several directions. When we finally found the boys, it was a spirited gathering of neighbors that joined in the round-up. You might have thought someone was having a party as we reveled in our community success. Expressing our gratitude, we introduced ourselves to the young men and women who had helped us and gave them our phone number…just in case, you know, this might happen again.
By mid-January, when we started out in our motor home for a few weeks in Florida State Parks, we had managed to go for about three months without a single escape. By then, Phil had decided to sell his two and we had acquired a stunning young Santa Gertrudis bull that we named Ferdinand. Our trio seemed quite content to stay within their boundaries.
For a brief time while we were in Florida we did not have cell phone service. When we got back into the land of four bars we had messages from several neighbors… beginning with Billy, the neighbor who had been called home from work because there were three cow-boys in his front yard. We called Phil, and he and Billy herded our trio along Old Fort Road (a busy country road with a 45 mph speed limit) and back into a more secure section of our pasture.
The following day the cow-boys were right back in Billy’s yard. Again, Billy and Phil herded them home. What happened next is a mystery. Apparently one of the Houdinis got out again, crossed Old Fort Road, and jumped the fence into Tom Miller’s pasture. We had never met Tom, even though he lived less than a mile from us, but we were about to become acquainted. A couple of neighbors tried to catch our solitary escapee, without success. Within a day, the second Houdini and Ferdinand found their way into Tom’s pasture as well. At that point, we made plans to cut our vacation short and return home. Meanwhile, Tom agreed to let us leave our boys with his herd until we got back.
Before we could get our fences mended and retrieve our animals, Tom was awakened at 3:00 A.M. by a sheriff’s deputy, scolding him for having his cows out on Old Fort Road. They were not, of course, Tom’s cows, but our boys, at it again. Tom, still recovering from knee surgery, went out to repair his fence.
We were feeling pretty awful when we went over to Tom’s house the next morning with our paltry offering of Florida oranges and my special blackberry jam, and actually met him face to face for the first time. We would, of course, compensate him for hay, but nothing would make up for the aggravation of his having to hobble out on his cane to herd cow-boys and mend a fence by moonlight.
Tom was incredibly gracious. He must have been annoyed, but he was nothing but kind to us. He wouldn’t even let us pay for the hay. “Just let them stay here until you have the fences mended,” he said. A few days later—with cheers from kids on a school bus, we finally brought our boys home—although not before they had gone through a few more fences, crossed a creek, and fertilized a few more neighbors’ lawns.
The next day, we sold the Cow-boys for $600 and 20 pounds of grass-fed beef. Our plan was to keep Ferdinand, and find him a heifer or two. We had invested way too much money in fencing to give up just yet.
Ferdinand, however, had learned the ropes from the Houdinis. He was lonely, and he knew where he would find company. “I am going to the stockyard on Thursday,” Tom said. I can take your bull down then.” Thank you, we said, reluctantly accepting defeat.
Why is it, we still wonder, that we drive by farm after farm where cattle are contained by a strand or two of electric wire, yet 8,000 volts and five strands of wire did not faze our boys? It doesn’t seem fair that Tom could manage a herd of twenty with a single hot wire, but his fence was not adequate for our cattle. Should we try again, we wondered, looking at ten acres of unused pasture stretched out like a big green ocean. Then we thought about the Sheriff awakening Tom at 3:00 a.m. “Hay,” I said. “Let’s get someone to cut and bale hay.”