October 2012
Through the Fence

Ethel Plows the Cowboy

When we got into the cattle business, we were ill-equipped to say the least. We had no cow dog, no squeeze chute and not enough pens. My husband had worked cows since he was a kid, so what he lacked in equipment, he made up for in experience. Although I was willing to learn, I was no ranch hand. We were buying small, orphaned calves at the local cattle auction. But with all the calf milk, medicine and time we spent, we only made a modest profit.

My husband would climb into the dark trailer and move each calf into the back section. Then he’d slam the dividing gate shut, carefully grab the calf by the head and pin it against the side of the trailer. I would hand him loaded syringes through the bars of the trailer. He would give the calf two shots, tag it, insert a growth implant and squirt some sticky goo into the calf’s mouth to help its digestion. Afterwards, I would carefully open the back gate of the trailer and shoo the bewildered animal into an empty stall for the night.

My husband hauled in a load of bovine bargains one evening as I was putting supper on the table. I always named calves and goats immediately; cutesy names were easier for me to remember than ear tag numbers. The new ones were Neg, Dot, Eggnog and a fuzzy brown heifer I dubbed Ethel.

We didn’t have an easy method for unloading the calves that, by this time, were cranky from being in the trailer all afternoon and separated from their mothers. Cowboying was new to our three small children, so when their daddy drove up with a trailer, they always made a beeline for the barn. As we attempted to unload the calves, the kids watched excitedly from the far stall. That night they’d conned my mother into sharing this moment with them.

We successfully worked and unloaded the first three candidates. Ethel was last in line. We must have felt over confident and let down our guard. That little heifer spied an escape route that we hadn’t seen and dove for it. She leaped out of the trailer and galloped through the dusty barn, her tail high in the air. She wasn’t about to spend the night in an old horse stall with three noisy strangers or have her ear pierced with a tacky plastic tag.

My husband grabbed her on the second or third pass through the barn. He was holding her in a headlock when she broke free. She trampled right over him – her sharp hooves plowing his starched white shirt and cowboy hat into the dust. We scrambled after her, grabbing at an ear, a leg, a tail or a clump of fur as she’d pass by at full tilt. We finally corralled her after lots of cussing, kicking and bawling, but Ethel still hadn’t had her treatment yet. When we finally got a rope around her neck, the real fun began.

She proved to be quite the acrobat, lunging and leaping into the air. Her big round eyes were wild and bulging. Her tongue lolled out as she belted out a panicked bellow. She ran around that stall squalling. She almost cleared the top slat a couple of times. But my husband hung on to that rope, digging his boots into the ground, practically skiing through the dust.

The hullabaloo must have looked terrifying to our kids on the far end of the barn. They had stopped asking my mom 20 questions and only stared wide-eyed. Occasionally, they’d glimpse a human or bovine leg or head between the slats. It must have looked and sounded as though Ethel was pulverizing us both.

On silent cue from my 6-year-old daughter, all the kids dropped to their knees in the dirt, folded their hands and started praying for us in earnest. Mom said she couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she could see the intensity on their little faces. Years later, she couldn’t retell this story without shedding a tear.

Our children’s prayers were answered. We survived and eventually tagged and doctored that calf, and no one was even bleeding. However, I think Ethel could have benefited from a chiropractor the next morning. I know we could have.

Lisa Hamblen Hood lives near Priddy, Texas, where she teaches English, Art and Spanish. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..