We had to build a much sturdier fence than they use for cows, of course. We started work right after the Fourth of July—not working on it every day, trying to stay out of the sun when it was too hot or when the boys couldn’t get free, knowing we had until mid-September, when the fellow from Lancaster would be delivering three female calves, one male. Some days Jason and Doug managed to postpone their work for other folks, those people wanting a new kitchen put in or a hole dug for a new septic tank. On those days Chris would report earlier in the morning for his postal route, so he could join us around two in the afternoon. At first I was glad to be out there with the boys digging holes and stretching wire. Usually we could pry out the old cedar posts, left from when the field between the house and the road was a cow pasture, and then we’d have the hole for the new post half dug for us. And old George Harriman would come by to inspect what we were doing.
But we were just a few days into the project when the test results came, and then the work just became a kind of distraction between my trips to the hospital. What would normally be work with a lot of talk and laughter became just a solemn ritual. We kept it up until we were done—all except for the gate—when my wife passed away.
When they called that morning to say it was going to happen, I knew I could not go, even though I had been to the hospital every day since we first took her, on the fourteenth of July I think it was. Joni and Rick went, with Chris and Jason. I called over to Douglas, who lives on the other side of the road with his wife and their two children. He said if I didn’t want to go to the hospital he would stay with me.
I don’t want to think about that walk we took across the fields…
The day before the funeral I heard yet another vehicle coming up the driveway. I got up off the bed upstairs and looked out the window to see who it was this time. We got a lot of cars the first couple of days—people, good people, stopping by with casseroles and cakes and things. But this was a pick-up with Pennsylvania plates, pulling a horse trailer, its green paint giving way to rust in a lot of places. By the time the driver pulled up and got out, I was already downstairs.
“Buffalo Bill Bevins, at your service!” It was the fellow from Lancaster. Then I remembered the way he laughed about his nickname when we met him in the spring. And I recognized him from the same straw cowboy hat and soiled sheepskin vest he was wearing then.
“Uh, how do you do, Mr. Bevins? I didn’t know… I mean, we thought you’d come around the fifteenth. It’s… what is it, just the sixth?”
“Well, I spose I should’ve called first. Sorry if it’s a bad time. But I remember you said you’d be home the whole month of September, so as soon as I knew they were all weaned and ready, I loaded them up and rolled on over.”
“Oh, it’s all right, I guess, but…” This was the second time in two days I had this kind of conversation. It happened the day before, when Joe Ortley, over in town, called to ask Jason about putting in a carport for him. I mean, people are caught up in everyday affairs and assume that I’m just going through a normal day as well.
“I’m awfully sorry, Andy, awfully sorry.” That’s what Bevins said when I told him. But what was he supposed to say? “Awfully sorry… I had no idea. I spose I could come back another time, you know.”
“No, that’s quite all right, Bill. We can take them, I guess. We managed to get the fence up. See?” I gestured down toward the pasture lined with an uncommonly high fence, with heavy-gauge hog-wire and posts stout enough to stop a truck.
“Yep. That oughta do the job. But if you don’t want to think about it now…” By this time, Chris had wandered over and was listening to us. His eyes were real puffy and red. Though I’m sure I looked worse. Then he spoke up.
“Dad, remember the gate? We’ve got to slap that together yet. The hinges can wait till another time, but I’d need about a half hour to get something in place.”
“That’s fine, son, fine. I’ll even give you a hand, if you like.” And then Bevins ceremoniously removed his hat and with his other hand patted Chris on the shoulder. “Sorry about your mom, son. Real sorry.”
“Well, Mr. Bevins,” I said. “Can we have a peek at them?” I could hear a lot of banging from inside the closed-in trailer.
“Sure, but I don’t want to open the doors until I back into your field. But you can hop up and peek in through the opening on top. They’re healthy and frisky, I can tell you.”
I was not prepared to see how big they were already. I expected them to be about the size of, say, St. Bernards. One of them was just a little bigger than that I suppose, but the other three were already starting to form humps above their shoulders. The young bull’s horns were starting to show on his uncommonly large head. All four were breathing heavily, snorting. Their eyes were big white circles, with deep, dark centers. They looked wild and scared. There was something else about them too. It was like I was looking at ghosts from the past.
We had left an opening in the fence wide enough to drive through. So, after Chris tacked together the boards he’d already cut for the gate, we got some rope ready so he could lash it in place once the bison were out of the trailer. I expected them to bolt right out once Bevins dropped the ramp, but they shuffled backwards towards the front wall of the trailer when they saw us gathered outside. It wasn’t until we moved to the front of the truck and Bevins starting banging on the hood that they came skidding down the ramp. Then they galloped in circles as one, frantically, making thumping sounds with their hooves even in places where the grass was thick.
“They’ll settle down in a day or two,” Bevins said. “Just got to discover the dimensions of their new home.”
The church was good enough to allow us to use their basement for a meal after the service and burial. Douglas arranged the whole thing, being that he’s a regular member of the church.
I didn’t know how I’d get through that day. I thought it would be impossible. But somehow having the whole family there, and friends and neighbors, made it bearable. When they all started to leave it was another story. I was glad, though, when Harriman wanted to come back with me to get his first look at the buffalo calves. I would have done anything to postpone climbing those stairs up to the bedroom by myself.
We noticed one of the calves right away. I recognized her as the smallest one, the one still without much sign of a hump. Earlier that morning when Jason and I went to check on them and shake out some hay, I also noticed she was a lighter brown than the others. Here she was, just standing about ten yards inside the pasture, alone, staring towards the gate.
“Well, that’s funny,” I said. “I wonder why she’s not with the others.” I just assumed that the other three were down among the trees where we couldn’t see them.
“This ‘un looks real skittish,” Harriman said. “Ever’ once in a while we’d get a calf that’d have that look in its eyes. Always bull calves, seems like.” He was interrupted by the sound of Jason’s pickup spitting up gravel on the driveway. He and Chris skidded to a stop next to us. The little buffalo calf bolted away from us.
“Dad, we just saw them! They got loose! Right down by your place, Mr. Harriman! Joni and Rick parked over there to keep an eye on them.”
“Oh, no. What a thing to have happen today,” I said. “We’ll have to get them back here somehow. But how the heck did they get out? This other one might get loose too.”
“Maybe if we get enough people we can kind of herd them back this way,” Chris said. “I’ll call Doug over at the church. He can come when they get done cleaning up. But, yeah, maybe we should figure out how they got loose.”
Harriman went back to his place with Jason. Chris left word for Douglas, and then he and I each went a different way around the pasture fence, looking for some clue as to how they got out. The fence was in tact. When we met again, we just shrugged. After we circled back to the gate, Chris pointed to its top edge. He noticed a little tuft of brown fur stuck on a splintered patch of the rough-cut lumber. I never would’ve seen it. But that explained it, all right. The gate was about a foot lower than the rest of the fence. We guessed that the one remaining calf just didn’t have the leaping abilities of the others. Just to be sure, we quickly cut a strand of barbed wire and stretched it about eight inches above the gate, wrapping each end around the gateposts before nailing the wire in place.
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