|Author: Cornish, Rick
Good morning from Whiskey Creek, where the spectacular arrival of springtime that Lynn and I and the dogs have been enjoying all week will, according to the National Weather Service, take the weekend off. Clouds and showers and maybe even a little thunder and lightening. It could be worse, I guess, things always can.
Last week I was sent by my supervisor to Covers, (pronounced coa as in coal or coax), Apple Ranch to pick up three pies, all apple of course, that she would take to a training being offered by her meditation group here in town. (Nothing better to get the meditative juices flowing than freshly baked apple pie.) Covers is a working apple ranch, a very well known bakery, a one-special-a day restaurant and a unique tourist stop for visitors to the county just outside the little town of Tuolumne City. The first thing you notice when you arrive at lovely, pastoral spread is that all the women who live and work on the ranch are wearing bonnets and cape dresses. And the men all wear beards. This, you learn from one of a stack of pamphlets kept next to the cashier, is the traditional dress of the Old Brethren church.
The second thing you notice…or at least the second thing I noticed on my first visit over ten years ago, are the farm animals. Name a farm animal and you’ll find it in the spotlessly well-kept and clean barns and stalls and fenced pastures, which are the heart of the Covers complex; its an agricultural version of a petting zoo and there are always kids around to do the petting. Among the goats and horses and ducks and sheep and chickens and pigs and geese is a single and awe-inspiringly massive cow named Doris. She’s so large, in fact, that at first you think she’s further away from you than she actually is; it’s an optical illusion, of course. Doris is just one damned big cow. She’s not used for milk production, nor is she bred and there are no plans to slaughter and serve her in the Covers’ restaurant. No, Doris’ soul responsibility is to be petted, and I’d like to tell you the story of how she got the gig.
It was in the fall of 2008, I was at the CBA’s Fall Camp Out, sitting on the tailgate of my F-150 pick up truck under the shade of a giant Elm tree sipping a cold Guinness with my good friend Rich Evans. I’d grown to know Rich pretty well once he was elected to the Association’s board and I liked and respected him. Liked because he was easy to be around and easy to laugh and respected because he’s one of those guys who knows a lot about a lot of things but doesn’t insist that you know that about him. It seemed that invariably our talks would, at some point, gravitate toward my asking his advice on one thing or another, and our chat that mid-Saturday afternoon while we waited for the legendary Lisa Burns potato soup to be finished was no exception.
“So, here’s the deal. Two weeks ago a coyote killed and drug off Sammy, our pygmy goat. That’s the last of the goats. We lost the boar goats, Ted and Joey, this past spring; one to a pack of dogs and the other to a mountain lion. At least that’s what Ernie Gore said it was.”
“Ernie Gore?” my friend asked.
“Yeah, perfect name for the owner of an animal carcass disposal business, eh? I’ll tell you what, Rich, old Ernie could send his kid to a very nice Ivy LeagueCollege with the money he’s made from us in the last year and a half. Three goats and two sheep in less than eighteen months. Only the two llamas left.”
“You’ve always had this problem? With predators, I mean.”
“No, that’s the thing. We had Joey and Ted and the two sheep for over six years with no problem. Then, all of a sudden, they start going down…one by one. Then we got Sammy and he didn’t last a month. All gone, and not even by the same animals. Dogs, coyotes, lions and who knows what else. So, anyway, that’s what I wanted to ask you about.”
“Ask away, Rick, but I couldn’t tell you why your animals are all of a sudden being taken.”
“That wasn’t gonna be my question. You see, Lynn and I have just pretty much had it with having our animals eaten. We take pet ownership very seriously and…”
“Pets,” Rich interrupted, “I’d hardly call sheep and goats pets.”
“Trust me, all five were pets.”
“Well, you know, I grew up on a farm in Kansas and pets is what we called our dogs. Hell, cats weren’t really even pets…they were mouse control machines.”
“I know that you were raised on a ranch…”
“Yeah, farm. And that’s why I’ve come to you for advice. You see, Lynn and I have been talking and neither of us want to have to deal with Ernie Gore even one more time. So, well, we were thinking. Ah, what do you…what would you think about us getting, you know, a cow?”
“You mean for a pet? You’re asking me if a cow would make a good pet? Because if you are, Rick, I gotta tell you that the answer is…” Rich paused for effect, “yes. An emphatic YES.”
I studied my friends face to see if he was joking; he clearly wasn’t.
“But you said…”
“I said that when I was a kid pets were pets and live stock were live stock. But what I didn’t tell you was that there was one exception. Her name was Sharon. I named her after the young Jode family mother in the Grapes of Wrath.”
And with that Rich Evans told me the touching and funny and ultimately heartbreaking story of his 4-H project in the ninth grade.
“So you see, yes”, he concluded at the end of the Sharon tale, “cows can make great pets. You can teach them tricks, they’ll follow you around like a dog would and, like a dog, they can and do show affection. But would I recommend having a cow as a pet? Not if you plan on butchering it. Too damned hard. To hard for me, anyway,”
“But wait, that’s the point, man. We’d have no more intention of eating our pet cow than we would our llamas or our dogs or cats.”
Rich took a long pull on his Guinness and then sort of stared off into space.
“Hmm,” he said, half to me and half to himself, “cow as pet. Interesting.”
At that precise moment Lisa calls over to tell us soup is on. And here’s where the story gets a little foggy. Rich and I continue our cow-as-pet discussion, but now we’re in a big group of fifteen or so people and our attention is being pulled in half dozen different directions. It was during this phase of our talk, in the midst of a boisterous crowd and after three or four beers each that Rich Evans, farm boy turned cow-poke turned agricultural engineer, made is fateful pronouncement on the best and the worst breeds of cattle to turn into a pet. Is it any wonder that, under these circumstances a miscommunication could occur?
I don’t know that I’ve ever met two people whose names were as unlikely as Maurice and Celeste Dubois. Lynn and I had driven by the dilapidated assemblage of outbuildings and barns and feed stalls and cattle shuts a hundred times on our drive to and from Modesto without ever dreamin we’d be stopping there to cattle shop. The sign along Albers Road was, in its day, no doubt elegant. “M&C Cattle Company” it read, the m and the ampersand and the c in curly cues of rusted wrought iron. Underneath the sign/metal sculpture was a second, hand written sign, black lettering on whitewashed plywood announcing “CHAROLAIS…ROYALTY ON THE HOOF.”
“Now, little girl, say again what is it you want ta be buyin’ this here beast fer?”
“Ah, she aw-ready told you, pa, for Christ’s sake. They’re wantin’ to keep her as a pet. God damned best cattle you could have for a pet, them Charolaise are,” said Celeste Dubois. She was a woman in her mid to late eighties, dressed in a pretty flowered print smock, leggings and black, high-top sneakers and still holding the broom she’d been using to sweep the front porch when we drove up.
“Well, now, I don’t know about that,” her husband said, “I don’t know about no cow bein’ used for no pet.” He was Maurice Dubois, the “M” in the wrought iron curly cue. He stood on the front porch, dressed in a robe and slippers, an ancient man with a nose so enormous that it overshadowed everything else about his facial features, the sort of nose that was huge at birth, grew steadily into adolescence, and then after a seventy-five year break, had begun to grow again.
“That’s right, old man, you sure don’t know. You don’t know NOTHIN’. Fact of the matter is that Charolais, they’re from France and there’s nothin’ that they ain’t pretty much perfect for. You take one home and use it for a pet or whatever and then, say later on, you decide to slaughter her and I’ll tell you, nothin’ on this earth is as good eatin’ as one of these gals.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw my wife cringe.
“Now, pa, would you go inside and put on some f___ing pants and boots so we can help this young couple load up their…ah…new…ah…pet.”
Maurice started to protest, thought better of it and shambled into the house.
“You two look around while I go in and help my husband. You just look around…all the stock you see is for sale. And you git a awful good price break if you take more than one.”
“I don’t know,” Lynn whispered after Mrs. Dubois had disappeared behind the screen door, “don’t you get the feeling she’s trying a little too hard?”
“Sure,” I said, “the old guy told me when I spoke to him on the phone that he and his wife are retiring, selling off everything on the farm…er…ranch. Nothing strange about her wanting to sell her cows.”
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