Stampede!

* A story from the old days

I’d only seen stampedes in John Wayne movies. The kind where 2,000 longhorns run through camp and guys in long johns jump on their horses while firing guns into the air. The kind Chris LeDoux sings about: the cattle rise up, and go to runnin’, I spur my pony on and take the lead, and across the herd I can hear Willie yellin’, Hey stampede! The kind that make you think stampedes only live on the big screen and tucked away in song lyrics.

I was…eleven? Thirteen? Seventeen? I don’t remember (clearly), but my first – and last – stampede I was in has certainly been a memory stuck to the insides of my brain like duct tape on glue.

We had just weaned calves. It was pushing November, and it was another late night working in the glow of the corn crib yard light. They were restless. Spooky. Wanting their mamas, pacing the unfamiliar lot, and feeding off the anxiety of their pals.

Dad and I were walking through the lot after having flaked out alfalfa squares in the bunks. There was silence, mostly, as I remember. The snorting of the calves, the occasional beller from a far-off cow. Nothing out of the ordinary considering the freshly separated calves.

And then there wasn’t silence. Maybe it was the shadows. Maybe it was one calf who jumped and the rest went with him. Or maybe they just felt like it. Whatever the reason, the low, thunder-like rumble behind me caused me to turn around to a sea of red calves headed straight for us.

It was a short lot, but they were at full run when they reached us. It couldn’t have been more than a second and, in reality, was probably a fraction of a second from the moment I comprehended what was happening to the moment I was surrounded.

Just as well, there was no place to move to, and no time to do the moving. They brushed past me so closely I felt the whisper of fur on my arms.

And then it was over. They turned at the fence, shot down the length of the lot and then stopped.

Dad had turned too and looked over at me. “Well,” he said.

“Yep,” I replied.

Often the newly weaned calves will spook. Sometimes the fence holds them, and sometimes it doesn’t. But usually I’m not standing in the middle of them when they do spook; I think I’d prefer stampedes stay on the big screen and tucked away in song lyrics.

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