The Real American Cow-Punch

by CB Bassity © 1996 All Rights Reserved

    Considering the mystique of the cowboy, that stand-tall American symbol of individuality, I think we've misplaced the emphasis entirely. We tend to think of the cowboy as proud and rugged (okay so far), certain of himself and his abilities. Funny, but from broad experience with cows and cowboys, I'd say that's wide of the mark. If cowboys have any one thing in common, it's having been kicked, stepped on, outdone, knocked down, bewildered, and outrun by one of the dumbest animals on earth. Maybe it's curiosity about what further embarrassment the bovine species can deliver that keeps men and women in this field. Lord knows, there's not money enough involved.
    Oh I'm sure it's a rare cowboy who wouldn't want to claim the glorious heritage attributed to the profession. But--and here I might be betraying a sacred trust--when two pickups approach and slide to a dusty stop on a road that sees more roadrunner traffic than vehicular, and when the drivers lean on left elbows to visit, they inevitably trade stories like: that damn bremmer-cross cow of Pete's that jumped three fences so's she could calve alone. Bremmer is cowboy-ese for Brahma, those hump-shouldered Indian imports that stand up so well to Southern heat, that would eat the bark off a tree before going hungry, and are wilder and wilier than hybrid monkeys. These Southern-heat-survivalist qualities mean that something like ninety-eight-and-a-half percent of cows from Atlanta to Amarillo are at least half "bremmer."
    Worse than bremmer, or equally bad at any rate, is a pernicious breed that worked its way into the bloodlines of many herds by virtue of its hardiness and fast growth: the Chianina (pronounced "key-a-knee-na"). You can raise the hair on the back of an experienced cowboy's neck with just the mention of "key" blood.
    We once had a conventional herd of Angus and Hereford cows, before we entered into a "cross-breeding" program with our neighbors, the Vernons, local Chianina breeders. The Angus and Hereford breeds were the Ford and Chevy of American beef cattle for all the innocent years of the mid-twentieth century, until a horde of "exotic" breeds edged their way into the market, much the way Japanese imports upended the American car market. Unlike the stolid Hereford and Angus of British origin, the exotics have evolved from every corner of the globe--there's even a Watusi breed--and carry temperaments to match. Cross-breeding normally refers to a carefully controlled program of genetic improvement.  In our case, however, it meant that the Vernons' bulls were long-legged and unmanageable enough that they crossed the fence and bred our cows any damn time they cared to. The Vernons' brand, WAV, for Wesley and Ann Vernon, grew to be well-known, for the WA part, as "Wild-Ass" throughout the county.
    Since the Vernons were selling breeding stock for outrageously high prices, we hardly considered their bulls' visits a problem. Once, while fixing fence where a bull had torn up the barbwire in crossing, I merely lowered the top wire to facilitate matters. And we got some splendid, growthy calves out of the deal. But, like selling out to the devil, genetic improvement of our herd came with a price.
    Cowboys all know that barbwire has less to do with confinement than with guidance. Scare, anger, or otherwise rile a herd or an individual, and barbwire enters the realm of the abstract.  So cowhands learn early the art of chasing strays, be they groups or individuals.  One day while searching a Vernon pasture for a cow missing from our herd, I approached a herd of Chianina cows resting in the shade of some cottonwoods. The behavior of normal cows--Herefords and Angus--resting in the shade, resembles that of parked cars. When I got within one hundred yards of these "chi" cows, however, sudden and brief thunder erupted, and except for a thick cloud of dust, I was quite alone. I started thinking about raising the top wire of our fences, maybe adding a wire or two.
     On account of the Chianina breed’s panicky and excitable temperament—strong survival tendencies, actually—jobs that had once seemed routine often turned into electrifying and unpredictable adventures.  Working with the herd, particularly when corralled in a lot for worming, vaccinating, or weaning, we grew accustomed to cows tearing around in a frenzy, ripping through barbwire that curled and sang behind them like snapped guitar strings.  Sometimes they sailed over fences as if in a steeplechase.
    Eventually we went from "breeding up," increasing the "chi" blood in our herd, to purging the "chi" influence. It's a tough choice when you have a highly productive cow that consistently drops growthy calves. But if she has once run you over in a hellbent race for the corral gate, or butted you several feet through the air for trying to help her freshly-born calf to its feet when zero degree temperatures try to freeze it to the ground, the decision comes more readily.
    Several years back, we weaned our last crop of calves with any "chi" blood. One blond steer got spooked somehow and jumped a "hotwire"--an electric fence. He disappeared for several days. I finally found him half a mile down the creek, huddled miserably in a fence corner and wanting desperately to be in with the herd--one of ours--on the other side of the fence. It looked to be the easiest job of retrieval I would ever come across: merely pull loose the barbed wire from several posts, lower it to the ground and tie it, and let the steer walk through and join the herd.
    Nothing doing. Apparently this beast had brushed the hotwire on his mad dash out of the pasture we'd put him in, and now viewed any strand of wire as an electric threat. I camouflaged the lowered wires with hay and weeds. I let several of our cows wander across the wires to eat hay with the steer, just knowing he would follow them back through. All for nothing, however; the steer would not cross where he knew a wire to be. I was forced to ruin a Saturday afternoon, cutting the fence and building an actual gate, then waiting incessantly until the steer satisfied himself that no more wire existed. Only then would he walk through, slowly, looking around as if he expected a swarm of wasps to attack him.
    Several months later, when we moved that particular herd from their winter pasture to an adjacent one, it was through a gap in the fence, a gap made, again, by lowering the wires and tying them. Knowing that the troublesome steer might be reluctant to cross the wires, I got part of the herd started through, and then hurried down the fence-line under cover of brush to emerge behind the main body of the herd. I whooped and hollered the remaining fifty or so head into a stampede toward the gap, and ran along in the dust behind them, congratulating myself for being such a masterful hand. In the dust and confusion of the running herd, that steer wouldn't even know a wire existed when he ran across it.
    But instead, I nearly bumped into the stupid thing who stood alone staring wide-eyed at the wire at his feet, while the rest of the herd was placidly munching on hay a few feet beyond. While it had taken only a half hour to move an entire herd out of this pasture, it would take much more to move the spooky steer. I had to bring portable corral panels from another place and set them up, leaving choice hay inside for several days to coax this one intractable animal inside so I could load him in a stock-trailer and deliver him 200 feet west. In the end I had more time and expense tied up in getting that damn steer to market than he and five brothers were worth.
    The old practice of working a fist into the side of a cow to determine the presence of a calf is generally considered to be the origin of the term "cow-puncher." I think it's more likely that cowboys actually punched cows out of frustration, simply because there was nothing handy to throw.

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