It all started the summer the rancher I worked for, Joe, decided he needed a new bull. He wanted a Semental, a hybrid of several older strains that supposedly combined all their best qualities. He had Hereford bulls for the older cows, Angus bulls, which produced smaller calves, for the heifers, and for a while he had flirted with the a few Charolais bulls, until it turned out that not only could they jump like deer, but the long-legged calves were too big for many of the Hereford cows to deliver safely. After one devastating winter when cows were dying left and right, taking their beautiful, long-legged taffy-colored calves with them, he opted for the heavy, placid, stocky Semental strain.
While bulls have a bad reputation—and in some cases it is richly deserved—under most circumstances I have found them predictable, reasonable animals, though I knew better than to trust them. After all, something that weighs more than half a ton can inflict considerable pain in even a fleeting moment of pique. In general, though, if you feed them well, don’t grab them in unseemly places, and don’t block their access to cows you will get along fine. With most of them, most of the time, that is.
When Dad and I left for the cattle auction late that summer to buy the new bull I had no idea that Casanova—which is who we would be bringing home, though we didn’t know that until much later—would be any different. He looked like your average thickheaded premium bull: heavy muscles, stocky legs, impressive equipment, blunt face covered with wavy white hair. He was an investment.
The handler led him around the show pen while the auctioneer reeled off his pedigree.
“Do I hear ten, ten, ten anybody give me ten?”
Dad raised his hand.
“Eleven, eleven, eleven…”
Another hand drifted up across the ring.
Dad’s hand lifted.
In the end, Casanova went home with us. Dad backed our truck up to the loading chute. The auction yard hands opened the gate at the bottom and flicked Casanova’s back with their whips. He turned slowly, hooves thudding on the boards. Our Australian Shepherd/Cattle Dog mix darted into the chute and nipped at his heels. Casanova swung his head ponderously, but the chute was too narrow—something our smart if cowardly dog had been banking on. What he hadn’t banked on was Casanova’s determination. The heavy swinging head hit the timbers lining the chute. One plate-sized cloven hoof lifted and came down on the bottom timber. Another rose and stepped on the next.
“Damn, he’s climbin’ the wall!” yelled a cowboy.
“Toby, get outa there,” Dad snapped at our dog. Toby, shocked by Casanova’s unprecedented athleticism, darted out of the chute and scrambled into the truck cab, where he sat grinning and panting behind the wheel.
Cowboys and ranchers came running, whips in hand. By this time Casanova’s face hung overhead like a placid white moon, his front hooves balanced on the top timber. The timber creaked, then cracked.
The whips rose and fell, slashing at his tender nose. He shook his head and snorted, puzzled. Finally the head turned. The hooves slid off the timber, and Casanova crashed down into the chute. Toby leaped out of the truck and darted for his heels again. “Get back,” Dad snarled. Toby veered off course and scampered back to his observation post in the cab.
Men lined the chute, climbing the timbers to reach over and flick Casanova’s back and hindquarters. He lifted a heavy foot, then another and plodded up the cleated, manure-smeared ramp and into our truck, then stood, placid brown eyes peering inquiringly through the slats. Casanova might be dynamite with the ladies, I decided, but he was clearly not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
“Welp, better get this bull home to the cows,” Dad joked. “Thanks for the help.” The cowboys, ranchers, and auction hands were already striding back to the ring. We pulled out onto the narrow, twisting strip of blacktop that climbed the steep hills out of town and wound through the rolling wheatfields and sagebrush-choked gullies toward the ranch.
Dad drove smoothly, gliding gently around corners, slipping to a stop at the junctions, ever-mindful of Casanova the Investment balancing in back.
Thump. The truck shuddered. I twisted and peered out the tiny back window that looked into the truck bed. A massive cloven hoof rested on the bottom slat. As I watched the truck shuddered again, and another hoof appeared on the slat above the first.
“He’s climbing out, Dad,” I shouted. The auction yard with its helpful whips was far away. So were the loading chutes. If Casanova actually scaled the sides of the truck, as he clearly intended, we were lost.
The first hoof disappeared, then reappeared a board higher. The truck shuddered again. Dad stomped on the brake. I swung out my door as the truck slowed, grabbed the frame, planted one foot on the running board, and looked up. Casanova peered down at me over the cab. As I watched one hoof appeared on the top slat.
“He’s coming over,” I shouted.
“No he’s not,” Dad gritted. “Sit down and hold on.”
Dad jerked the wheel. The truck slewed across the road. He jerked it back and we slid the other way. There was a mighty crash in back. The cab shook. “That’s taught him,” Dad grinned. We started for home again. Thump. One hoof appeared in the window. Thump. The other joined it. Dad’s lips tightened. “Brace yourself.” I grabbed Toby and braced my feet. Dad slammed on the brakes. Casanova crashed down again. Dad drove on. The hoof appeared again. Dad slammed on the brakes, veered over the center line and then back, Casanova thudded down again, and home we went, lurching and swerving, and Casanova singlemindedly pursuing his dreams of Freedom.
At home we backed up to the loading chute. I opened my door and swung out. “Move it, Bodie,” Dad yelled, even though I was already running. I scrambled up the heavy, creosote-soaked timbers, dropped into the chute, yanked back the bolt holding the box bed door shut, and jumped back out of the chute. Dad climbed up onto the truck cab, whip in hand. Casanova eyed him appraisingly. Dad flicked his whip. Casanova stood stolidly, then slowly turned and ambled down the chute and out into the holding pen. He headed straight for the water tank, where he dropped his head and slurped. White foam drifted on the water’s green surface. The float dropped. Water ran. Dad swiped the sweat off his forehead.
“Welp, we got him here,” he panted. “You girls get him out with the cows before he tries climbin’ the fence again. He’ll be fine once he sees the cows.” Bulls are simple creatures, after all.
I found Pam and we saddled up, opened the gates to the pasture, and flicked Casanova to get him moving. We let our horses slouch along behind him, flicking him occasionally to remind him that he had somewhere he needed to be, but not often enough to make him mad. Casanova might be dumb, but boy, was he ever big. We followed his square, muscular backside until he had spotted a group of cows, then turned and rode back home, thinking our troubles were over.
Ranching’s busy work, and given the normal bull’s to-do list—find cows, find grass, find water—we figured we could leave Casanova unsupervised for a few days. What else could he want? True Love, as it turned out. Casanova had a romantic soul. It would have been all right, had he found romance at home. But like Gauguin, Casanova yearned after the exotic. He lusted after strange women in his heart, which, as everyone knows, always leads to trouble.
A few days later a neighboring rancher called.
“Hey,” he said. “Nice bull you got.”
“Yeah. He’s registered Semental. When did you see him?”
“Right now. He’s in with my cows.”
“I think he’s yours—come look when you got a minute. Take your time, though. No rush.”
We rushed. Every cow Casanova seduced at the neighbor’s was a calf that we wouldn’t take to market.
Sure enough, it was Casanova, looking goofily at the neighbor’s cows. As we watched he mounted one and pumped contentedly. Dad’s lips tightened.
“You girls get him home,” he snapped.
Pam and I rode over that afternoon with cattle whips and drove Casanova home, where he stood surrounded by timothy grass, water, and willing prime registered Hereford cows, looking forlorn.
The next morning the neighbor called again. And the next. And the next.
“You wanna buy a bull?” Dad asked him, half in jest.
“Hell, why should I?” he laughed.
Dad’s lips tightened again. Pam and I rode over and drove Casanova home.
The next morning the neighbor called…
A month later we drove the truck over to the neighbor’s, loaded Casanova from the neighbor’s chute, and Dad drove lurching and swerving back to town, where Casanova went back up on the auction block and Dad replaced him with a less handsome but more reliable Family Man type bull, one blind to the blandishments of the neighbors’ cows, one who would remain true to our herd.
While I was having to drive Casanova home every morning I considered him a pedigreed pain in the neck and a prime registered screw-up. Sometimes, though, particularly late at night, I can understand what drove him, and I feel a wry admiration. He refused to settle. He knew what he wanted and he went after it. He didn’t let fences, or inconvenience, or disapproval stand in his way. He had a dream, and he fought for it.
When we’re children we all want to be brain surgeons, painters, astronauts, presidents, queen of England, writers, sculptors. And then we grow up, and become technicians, clerks, hacks. Does anyone fantasize about selling insurance? We let our dreams die. We settle.
And sometimes rightly so. One must eat. Artistic and literary endeavor feed my soul, but my son needs cereal and bananas, too. Dreams don’t build good bones. I think of Joshua Reynolds, who dreamed of painting sweeping historical grandeur and ended by painting chubby ladies dressed up as Aphrodite. He became rich—one of the few painters ever to do so—and funneled his creativity into experimenting with fruits in his paints. On the other hand there’s William Blake, who hated Reynolds for his success—and blindly pursued his dream of excellence into starvation. There’s got to be a balance.
How do you know when it’s time to stop striving, stop jumping the fence, and settle into bovine contentment? I’m not even sure I want to—maybe, like Ulysses, and like Casanova, it’s my nature “to strive to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Perhaps I’ll be jumping fences throughout my life and into a cranky old age. Perhaps I will die, feeling that I have never really lived, or never really achieved the thing of which I wanted to be capable. Maybe, like Casanova, I will never get to live my dreams. But maybe that’s not important. Maybe it’s not the cows in the next pasture, but the act of jumping the fence that’s important, the striving, and not the succeeding, that feeds my soul.
I suspect that, like Casanova, I’ll never settle. Oh, from time to time maybe I’ll let them throw a quick rope on me and lead me home. I’ll stay there long enough to let everybody get some sleep—and then knock up a few cows on my way to the fence again, in pursuit of the siren cows beyond the horizon.