It's February, midmorning, a few years ago in southwest Oklahoma. After feeding the herd on the Stearns place and busting ice on the pond-edge so the cows can drink, I'm driving to the west eighty to tend the next herd, when I meet Byron. Billows of road dust close between his pickup and mine as we slow, each of us easing necessarily off the roadway and onto a shoulder, nearing at a crawl. Then we brake fully—to visit, as we sometimes do, each leaning a left elbow on the pickup door.
We barely know each other—I don't even know Byron's last name. But if he should happen by when I have cattle out on the road, like any neighbor he'll help me get them back in. And I do the same for him.
We park in the road. Because it's February, and not deer season or warm weather, it's likely that no other vehicle will show up before the mail-carrier comes through at noon. The roads here are red dirt. You keep a shovel on hand because a three-inch rain overflows the bar-ditch, cutting a jagged trough a pickup can't cross till you break the sides and fill it in.
Byron works for my neighbors, the Cleburns. Brothers Kyle and Don Cleburn, and Kyle's son Danny, oversee the operation, but the greatest part of day to day ranch work they leave to Byron, their only hired man. They run herd on him by way of two-way radio, a whip antenna waving from the cab of every Cleburn truck, tractor, and pickup. Byron ranges over their several thousand acres--feeding cows, fixing fence, tending the herd at calving time—and knows more of those grassed hills and bare gullies than all three Cleburns put together. He lives in a trailer the Cleburns plopped down on the Franklin place. He's shy and mostly stays away from town. They pay him next to nothing.
Byron fills the window of the pickup—he's big, weighs maybe two-sixty. The sun has colored his skin like a saddle; up close the texture of his face looks like water-smoothed pebbles. His dark brown hair bushes out from under a stained and dirty felt hat. It would have been called a cowboy hat once, but now looks like the cowboy had hung it on a post and forgotten it for six months. Byron's hair overruns his collar, unkempt as the field-edge no one has cared for since Eisenhower was president.
I kill the pickup motor. It's a cue, as in I can afford a little time to visit--you? Byron leans forward to kill his, the seat screaking when he settles back against it. Perched at the front corner of his pickup's flatbed is Pete, a blue-heeler, leaning out toward Byron's elbow. When the motor quits, Pete lies down and settles his chin on front paws.
Beyond the pickup, across the bar-ditch and the barb wire, is an expanse of Cleburn grassland flecked with black cows clumped around the remains of a round bale of hay that Byron rolled out. A cow, mouth full of hay, slings her head toward another who poked its muzzle too close to the sweet patch of hay she's claimed.
Byron tells me about a cow that calved a few days ago and her calf is sick, has the bloody scours. For two days Byron's been trying to catch the little devil to doctor him, but mama's been leading it into the woods. Everything in her wants away from outsiders interfering with her baby. Not even choice alfalfa hay would bring her into the fenced lot where Byron could corner the calf.
Byron smiles, looking forward through the windshield. His mustache grows like brush, and his neck, chin, and jowl germinate a walnut-brown growth that he'll slice away come the weekend. "Yeah," he says, "every day she's been running off in the timber with her baby." His brow furrows and he turns toward me—"Another day or so, and them pills wouldn't help none. So today I fed the herd near a wash—it's a blind gully. I fed 'em right close to the gully, and I worked her around the edge of the herd, so when she made her break, her and that baby run right up into where she could climb out maybe, but not him. The little guy's too weak."
Not Byron nor anyone else can fend off a half-ton of hormonally super-charged maternal instinct. But while following the cow and calf between the narrowing red dirt walls, Byron had whistled for Pete, the blue-heeler riding behind the cab. "And while I throwed the calf and jammed the pills down his throat, Pete kept mama busy to where she didn't even know what I was up to."
It's ten-thirty. The sun has burned off the frost. Byron laughs, and one last wisp of frosty breath vaporizes. "Let me tell you about Don and that new dually pickup of his," he says. He turns to glance at the road behind him, as if his boss, Don Cleburn, might materialize suddenly. Byron's mustache spreads with his smile; his eyes lengthen, and small furrows track away from the corners. An unruly crop of dark curls spills like weed growth from the vee of his open collar. The grimy arm of his quilted nylon jacket has several small tufts of white fiber-fill escaping, mostly near the cuff—a history of scrapes with barb wire, dead branches, and cedar posts.
"Couple days ago, I'm down on the Sluder place checking fence. Don comes out there and buries that pretty, new dually—it looked like a damn blue duck sitting there in the mud. He tried to drive through a low place over near the pond. And he's stompin' around, all pissed off. He says, I followed your tracks. It's one of them places where you can drive through there early in the morning on a real cold day—you know, while the ground's still froze. But it's like four in the afternoon when Don shows up. And I mean he buried that thing!—trying to get out. Hell, I had to go get a tractor to pull him out."
The homely white feeding pickup that Byron nearly lives in from November into April is a ten-year-old Chevy. It's white, as in eggshells-in-the-trash-with-coffee-grounds white. It's a one-ton flatbed with a hydraulic round-bale carrier mounted on the back, the white cab a relief map of splattered mud and manure. You can see where it's been banged and dented, the marks of countless brushes with tree branches and with cows that broke suddenly from the hungry crowd clustered around feed. Mornings I meet Byron on the road—he's roaring along, the bed squatting low under the weight of two round bales, just over a ton of hay. Or else he's headed back empty, for another load. Sometimes he's loaded and pulling a trailer with five more bales, chugging along like a train. Always the window wide open, no matter what the weather.
Looking at him framed in the window, someone might wonder what keeps Byron in a job like this, other than it's all he's done, all he knows to do. I know myself it's not the money—there isn't any to speak of. No, it's the little rush of joy at seeing a glistening new calf flop out in a gush of hot juice, and its mama go to licking. It's gathering a crop of weaned calves in September, or yearlings in March, knowing what it took to get them there. It sounds all wrong if you've never been out there alone, but sometimes the herd is like family. Sure, it's not Daddy's home! at the front door, but sometimes it's damn close. You can't imagine, until you've pulled up in a pasture with a bale of oats or alfalfa that was cut right, cured right, so you open it up and it smells like tobacco and molasses, and the hungry mob descends on it. You hear only jaws working furiously, grunts of pure delight—so busy with their feed they forget to jostle. They hear the pickup, know which one's yours by the sound of it coming over the hill, even before you lean on the horn to call them. After a wedding one time, someone honked a bunch, and cows came thundering over a hill and lined up at the fence waiting.
Of course sometimes in this business you wonder what you're doing here, kneeling half-frozen on wet ground in a bad wind, your hands buried in a cow's prolapsed uterus, trying to force it back where it belongs as she pushes against you, driven by self-destructive, blind instinct. But then some spring morning the sun slips over a hill, huge and orange, and your shirt's open to air that smells like jasmine from the black locust bloom, or it smells of an indescribable perfume from the softly mounded windrows of alfalfa hay you're raking, a web of rows that wend through a tree-ringed meadow on the creek, the rake clicking along through the morning and the tractor barely more than purring. Then you wonder if there's any other work worth doing. It's a life of small rewards, small but genuine, and too easily romanticized beyond reality.
I don't have to ask Byron if he likes this work, or if sometimes he hates himself for doing it. These are givens. I don't have to ask if he knows the places like the narrow draw where you walk through and feel the air ten degrees cooler. He knows which cows are wild, which ones raise a big calf. And he knows a calf that needs doctoring, he'll pick it out from among forty head. Its barely drooping ears register on Byron like a parked car with its headlights burning. He knows where the deer run, and the cedar tree where the roadrunner hangs out—things the Cleburns don't. He knows that after a north front comes through and it's been ten or fifteen degrees for a couple days, you can open up a round bale, half unroll it, and feel the heat trapped inside—ten, twenty degrees warmer—feels like packaged sun. On each of the Cleburns' places, he knows which bit of timber opens onto south-facing ground forming a windbreak where the herd shelters from the north wind. He knows the same animal comfort as the herd. Some winter afternoon when he's done feeding, he'll nap in the warm pickup, parked behind the windbreak where he rolled out hay.
Byron worked eight years for the Cleburns before he got fed up and moved on. After that they averaged one new hand a year, guys it looked like they'd found at the bus station. And the Cleburns had a litany of complaint—calves dying because the dumb bastard couldn't spot a sick one, cows dying because the lousy help wouldn't bother to care for them, or didn't know how.
They used to send Byron out to feed, knowing he'd tend the herd right. After he moved on, they had to follow the other hands. Besides meeting their feeding pickup on the road, I met a good deal more Cleburn traffic. Not every day of course—that's the purpose of hired help. And they suffered more death loss, too. I wondered, when I saw a dead and bloated cow lying with feet in the air, how few of those still walking would have paid Byron a living wage.
When I went out to work, every calf that lived or gained another pound put money in my pocket, groceries on the table. But when Byron spent a wet or frozen hour or two in the timber hunting a missing cow, he still earned only six bucks an hour. If it were late and cold and he overlooked a missing cow, he would have gotten away with it, no one would have known any different. But he worked like it was his place, his cattle. I'd see him way off in a pasture somewhere, hiking up a hill hauling an armful of steel fence posts, stopping only to drive one into the ground where the wires sagged.
Another thing about Byron, whenever I saw him buzzing along on a three-wheeler, he was going somewhere not chasing something. A lot of people go chasing after cattle, buzzing around on three-wheelers like a pack of bees. But Byron, by himself, could lead a herd into a lot, a corral. He might chase an outlaw steer or two, but the three-wheeler was always a last resort. He didn't need the whip or electric hotshot either.
Byron picks idly at the steering wheel. "I don't know what it is with them guys," he says—meaning Kyle and Danny Cleburn. "We was gathering steers off wheat pasture th'other day," he says, "off that lease-place next to the river. An' I told 'em, Give me about twenty, thirty minutes to get them steers in the lot, an' I'll holler at you on the radio. So I've just about got 'em all put up. They follow me in the lot, nice as you please, all but two spooky ones—and they're coming." Byron had laid out hay in the lot and led the herd in. They followed him because he feeds and works with them every day. He's part of the scenery, no more threatening than daylight. Someone else exactly his size could climb out of that Chevy flat-bed, get out among the herd—and he wouldn't move the way Byron does. A steer would look up, ears forward, and then another—they'd be on alert. The first squawk of a rusty gate-hinge and you'd have thunder and dust and an empty lot. Byron moves easily in the herd; it's second nature for him not to move suddenly among them.
Byron had all but these two wary steers in the lot. It's a scene I've been in a hundred times. You calm your pounding heart and act like nothing's up, grease up the old prayer machinery, and nine times out of ten those two leery ones with their heads lowered come sniffing at this and studying that, until they're inside with the others and you can slip around behind to shut a gate. Given time, their fear of being alone, their instinct against being apart from the herd, overcomes all sense and caution.
"So I'm watching these two," he says. "One's got his nose inside the lot—they're coming—and here comes Kyle and Danny, wheelin' in with the stocktrailer." Byron doesn't have to finish the story. A truck and trailer bumping across the field sounds worse than three frying pans in a clothes dryer.
Byron: "I said, Hey, I told you guys I'd holler, and they said, Yeah, but you said thirty minutes, and it's been about that.
Byron says he takes hay down to that lot, "and I feed 'em in there, but they don't all come in till I'm gone. It'll be a week or so before we can get them up again." In the meantime, he now has one more daily chore, hauling hay to that lot.
A quick "brr-URRB" draws my eye to its source across the road—the startled bawl of a yearling, shouldered aside for having wandered too close to the herd bull.
A view of Byron, framed by the Cleburns' land behind him, suggests an irony. According to a few slips of paper in the county courthouse and somewhere in a safe-deposit box, this acreage belongs to the Cleburns. Byron has no claim to it, he's here at their whim. But in some other realm, some natural state of things, Byron inhabits this land in a way that makes the Cleburns intruders.
"You got the time?" he asks me.
As if on signal, Byron's radio crackles. Kyle Cleburn asks about the pump on the Grimlett place that he and Byron fixed yesterday afternoon. Kyle's voice, flattened in the radio, says, "I wonder if the float valve cut off all right?"
Byron speaks into the mike, "Yeah, I went by there first thing, fed there early, just to check on it. Everything's up to snuff."
We wait quietly a moment, listening, but there's nothing more. A breeze rustles the dry clump of big bluestem grass in the bar-ditch, and the leaning sunflower stalks bow further to the north. I hear birdsong, though I don't know what kind, and the muffled whirl and clink of the windmill on the Franklin place.
Byron lifts a hand and points (his thick finger is half curled, as if molded around a tool handle). "Look there," he says. I turn and see three deer far across the field. They have emerged from cover in the oak timber and traverse a green strip of wheat. Then several more appear. They keep coming. The first few disappear behind a hill, and the procession continues.
I'm struck by the sight. "What do you think, Byron—twenty-five? thirty?"
Byron says nothing. He shakes his head absently. I know guys who fidget at the sight of deer and they itch for a rifle, but Byron goes the other way.
Pete chirps in his sleep on the pickup-bed. Byron sits motionless, gazing across the field. There's something in his eyes—or something that's not there. He watches the deer as if there were no Cleburns, as if even I were not there.
I'd like to imagine Byron, wherever he is now, looking the way he did just then.