Harriman lives about a half mile down the road on the left, in a big white farmhouse that is much too big for him. He always likes to says he’s “rattlin’ around in it.” He has lived alone since his brother died, but he still has land on both sides of the road. A few years back he had a fairly big operation. He had over a hundred milk cows, and besides having about sixty acres of pasture land, he grew his own hay and corn for silage. After he got rid of his cows, he sold a parcel of land to some developers, but he continued to grow some hay and corn, mostly to sell on the other side of the river, in Pennsylvania.
We saw Jason’s red Toyota pickup and Joni’s bright yellow Volkswagon parked along the road across from Harriman’s barn. If only we could herd them into his empty barn for the night, I thought. After we pulled over I looked across the road, beyond the barn, into the overgrown pasture that stretched past it. No sign of anyone. Then we heard the echo of a shout coming from our side of the road. We ducked between strands of rusty barbed wire into that section of pasture, now with three to four-foot cedars springing up. We climbed up to the crest of a small rise, where we could see what was happening. Rick was about one hundred yards to our right, still in the dress sweater he wore to the funeral, guarding the fence that lined the parcel on which three new, identical houses were going up. Joni in her black dress about fifty yards farther off. Harriman and Jason were on the other side of the field. Right in the center were the three young buffalo, grazing among the cedar saplings, but in a nervous way. They would bend their large heads, nibble at something, and then dash forward a ways before pausing again. They knew they were being watched. But they had not noticed Chris and me. They were slowly moving toward us.
“Hey, Dad, maybe we better circle around and join the others. It looks like they’re trying to herd them this way.”
“Think we can do it, Chris? If we could just get them across the road and into George’s barn.”
“We could cut the fence right down here, and then over on the other side of the road… Sort of an incentive for them to go that way. They’d probably rather walk through than have to jump. Mr. Harriman would understand.” So, we went back to the truck for some wire-cutters, and I thought to take off my tie and jacket and leave them on the seat of the truck. We snipped an inviting opening for the buffalo on each side of the road. We hoped they would exit the field here, then immediately see that they just had to cross the road and go into the pasture on the other side. Then from there maybe we could coax them into Harriman’s barn.
“Wanna run over there and open up the barn doors too, Chris?”
“Yep.” And I watched my youngest son run over and struggle with the big swinging doors of Harriman’s barn. He finally managed to keep them from swinging shut by rolling a rock in front of each one.
As I watched him I realized this was the first time I had been alone since the funeral. And it dawned on me that I had been having a conversation inside myself the whole time. It was like I had been rehearsing the story I would tell her when I got home that night, that I was mentally recording the way they looked grazing out there… the way everybody was getting involved… how funny it was that we were all wearing the wrong clothes for this kind of work… And then this awful feeling hit me in the stomach… I felt like throwing up… I sat on the ground…
“You okay, Dad?” Chris was tugging me by the elbow. Our eyes met for a moment. Then he glanced away. “We better get outa here before we spook them. But first maybe we should move them.” He gestured towards the Volkswagon and the two pickups. “I hope they left their keys.” But before we could move the vehicles from the openings in the fences, we heard a shout.
“Yah! Yah!” It sounded like Jason.
“Let’s go back and see!” I said. So we climbed back up the little rise. There we could see the problem. Harriman and Jason were very close to us on the left, Joni and Rick on the right. But the calves had turned the other way and were now going back beyond where Chris and I first saw them. Jason lifted his arms in exasperation, dropped his head, and they all approached us.
“Man, oh man, they’re too smart and quick for us,” Jason said. “We thought we could get them to jump the fence over toward the barn. But there’s no way.”
“Well,” Harriman said. “I don’t know how you’re gonna get them back, Andy. They don’t behave like cows, I tell you what!” He pulled off his old-fashioned fedora and was wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. It seemed strange to see him without his battered John Deere hat. “It might be these critters ‘ull just spend the night here,” he said.
“Looks like they spend the night wherever they want to!” Chris said.
“But you better call that fella you got ‘em from, Andy. See what kind ‘a bright idee-uhs he’s got!”
The sun was pretty low in the sky. So we gave up for the time being, but first we began to repair the damage Chris and I did to the fence. Harriman interrupted us.
“Don’t bother with that, Andy. I ain’t keepin’ anything in pasture anymore. And, who knows? Maybe they’ll move on across into the barn for the night.”
We thanked him and were climbing back into our vehicles when Douglas pulled up with his wife and children, explaining that he wanted to get back sooner but got held up for one reason and another. We let him know it wouldn’t have made any difference. Then we formed a small procession back to the house. I waved to Harriman as he stood by his front door watching us.
I did call Bill Bevins that evening. He was surprised to hear from me.
“Well, Andy, that’s happened to me two or three times over the years, you know, but never with calves. You know what I always ended up doing?”
“We sure could use some advice, Bill.”
“Well, since they’re being raised for meat anyways, I just got my rifle and shot ‘em! Right behind the ear, though, always right behind the ear.”
“I’d hate to have to do that, Bill, especially since they’re calves and we just got them. There must be some other way.”
“You might wanna call your game warden over there, or that Game Farm you have a ways north of you.” He pointed out that the County Game Farm once had a head of buffalo or two and had experience with keeping other wild animals. I thanked him for his help and wished him a good night. “Anytime,” he said. He paused, then added, “I’m real sorry for your loss.”
We were all gathered in the kitchen, though Doug and his little family left early to put the children to bed. We wanted to do something, but there was not much to do once it got dark.
“I’m gonna try that Game Farm,” I said.
“Maybe we should notify the state police,” Jason said. “Just so they’ll know, in case there are reports.” I let Jason make that call. They had heard nothing but thanked him for calling. “They said they want us to get them corralled as soon as possible,” Jason said.
“It’s like this was meant to happen or something!” Joni blurted out. Then she started crying. Rick put his arm around her.
I did not want to stop working on the problem, even after it started getting late. So I kept making calls, first to all the neighbors I could think of, warning them to be on the look-out the next day. Then I dialed “Information” for the numbers of the Game Farm and the State Fish and Game Office, but the one didn’t answer, and the warden’s office just had an answering machine.
The next few days we spent in ridiculous attempts at herding wild animals, discussions with the Game Farm about the wonders of black polyethylene, and attempts to pacify local farmers, especially Shumacher, who was, he said, just getting ready to bring in his soybean crop and wanted there to still be something worth harvesting.
I do not believe I ever slept for more than twenty minutes at a time.
None of our plans worked. Finally I got a number from Bill Bevins, for a man down in Virginia, a Mr. Neff, who had quite a large herd of buffalo. Well, it turned out that Mr. Neff used to have a herd but that he had retired and sold his farm. But when I explained the problem, he put me in touch with a Mr. Click, who had worked for him for many years.
“Well,” he said, in a slow, southern style of speaking, “what ya’ll want is…” He mumbled something that sounded like “Rompum.”
“What’s that called again?”
“If yer fixin’ to keep ‘em alive, ya want Rompum. That’ll trankalize ‘em so’s ya’ll can git a rope round ‘em.”
“Could you spell that?”
“Well, I don’t know exackly how it’s spelled. Prolly jus the way it sounds.”
“Where might I get some of that?”
“Ya’ll got veter-narians up there, don’t ya? They deal with it quite often.”
Of course. Why hadn’t I thought to call a veterinarian? “Mr. Click, what is it I’m asking for again?”
Later that day I called Harriman, who gave me the name of a veterinarian he used to use. A Dr. Wexler. Once I got him on the phone he said he thought he knew exactly what the man in Virginia was referring to, that he had the appropriate rifle, and could probably help us out. The only problem was, there was no way he could call on us until the end of the week.
All our hopes now rested on Dr. Wexler. If we could just keep them reasonably contained until then.
Late that night I heard noise outside, a steady banging sound. I put on my shoes and went downstairs and out onto the porch. It was a bright, late-summer night, very mild, the moon high in the sky. I knew it was the young female. It sounded as though she was slamming against the feeding trough we had erected just on the other side of the fence from the storage shed. I walked down towards the pasture. And then I saw: the other three buffalo were right in the middle of the driveway. In the bright moonlight, their eyes flickered like headlights. When they noticed me they bolted out of sight down the long dark driveway, towards the road. But then I saw six glowing embers turn towards me. The captive calf continued her banging. I could see her, head down, rhythmically backing up and then charging against the side of the trough. It was as though she had been wound up, or was running on batteries, always backing up about four feet and then slamming the crown of her head against wood.
“Sh, sh, now, now, girlie,” I said. I worried that she would hurt herself. She did not seem aware of me. She just kept up the regular banging.
I thought I would try some feed. There was a sack of grain inside the shed, so I opened the door, waved my hand through the air until I found the light string, and went in. Then I heard another sound, coming from the shed, like voices, and I realized that someone must have left the radio on. They must have turned down the volume instead of turning it off. You could hear a station coming through faintly. For some reason, I turned it up. Immediately I knew it was Jason who had left the radio on, since he was the only one who listened to country music. I never really listened to it myself. I kept it on while I took a scoop of corn down to the feeding trough.
This will sound crazy, but I think the music calmed her down. I say that because before I spread the grain out in front of the calf, the pattern of her banging altered, became less determined. Right away I wondered if it was the music, so I went back and turned it up a little more. It was a song I never heard before, in a woman’s pretty voice, singing about “eighteen wheels and a dozen roses.” And sure enough, when I looked back towards the buffalo, she was calmly gobbling up the feed I had left for her.
I remembered the other buffalo when I heard a snort coming from down the driveway. They were still there, occasionally visible from the glow of their eyes. “Come on, be good now, you others!” I called out. We would have to hope they would not do too much damage or cause an accident before the vet showed up. But I took heart in the fact that they were still attracted to the fourth one. Maybe that meant they would never wander off too far.
I found a lawn chair in the shed and set it up a few feet outside the pasture fence, and after I shut off the light, the little calf and I just stared at each other in the moonlight, listening to country music. And I talked to her a little. Good girl, good girl. Go to sleep. For the most part the music was soothing. There was one song that was a little rough, with some twangy electric guitars and some words about whiskey, and the buffalo seemed to get a little agitated. But then another woman’s voice came on, a real sweet voice, singing, “these memories of you still haunt me, every night when I lay down.” It didn’t have electric guitars, just a nice soft sound. When the singing stopped I learned from the man that it was a song by three women, but the main singer’s name was Dolly, so that’s what I named the buffalo. Dolly.
My mind relaxed in a way it hadn’t since she died. I thought of how she would find something funny about our chasing buffalo across the countryside day after day under these circumstances.
“Good girl, good Dolly,” I whispered. The calf was standing calmly, her head a little drooped. I wondered whether buffalo sleep standing up like horses or whether they lie down. There was quite a bit I was going to have to learn about them. For the time being I just leaned back in the chair and tried to drift off to the music.
Everything You Need