Eating Local column: Beef on the lam
On Colby Farm, our new yearling steer Buttercup seemed content to lose himself in the deep grass, nap in the shade of an apple tree, and while away the days in the peace of his own company. At least for the first three weeks.
Ed and I left town to attend a meeting of a new association of commercial Colorado beekeepers in Broomfield. We arrived home late from the bee meeting. Early the next morning Ed went out to check on the steer. Returning to the house, he announced breathlessly, “Buttercup is missing. I think rustlers came and got him.”
We’d heard about modern-day cattle rustling right here in Garfield County from Al who helped us bring the steer home when Ed bought him. It must have fired Ed’s imagination.
We searched the 2-acre farm — Buttercup is pretty big, but the grass is high, and he does disappear — then Ed came inside to call the brand inspector.
By then he’d spotted a 6-foot stretch of ordinary wire mesh fence spanning a gap between an electric fence and our neighbor Eldon’s towering impenetrable deer fence to the west. It was bowed down by some great weight. Buttercup had found the one flaw in Ed’s fence.
I took Pepper the cattle dog and headed up to the ditch. There was Buttercup, under a juniper tree on the other side.
Soon Ed, Eldon, Pepper and I gathered to drive Buttercup back to Colby Farm. The heeler and I crossed the ditch and gingerly approached the enormous animal. Pepper has tenacity, but he weighs in around 40 pounds.
It was Pepper’s finest moment. He circled the bovine and closed off his escape routes. As I eased him closer on a long lead, Buttercup stepped toward us menacingly and dropped his big horns. I was torn between sending Pepper into the fray and holding him back to protect him. But he rushed in and nipped at Buttercup’s heels, who turned tail and kicked as Pepper dodged. Buttercup moved toward Eldon’s driveway to cross the ditch with Pepper nipping and feinting behind him.
This is where I lost control of Pepper, who rushed straight at the steer instead of flanking to turn him back onto the other ditch bank. I thought for a moment Buttercup would trample Eldon. Next thing I knew the steer had reached the big unfenced field on the other side of Eldon’s place. Pepper was wild with desire, leaping like a trout out of the deep grass to get a glimpse of his quarry. Then he slipped out of his collar and tore off after the steer, chasing Buttercup across the field to the next house down the county road, where Dawn rushed her 4-year-old grandson inside and flew back out to face down the marauding beast.
Pepper was retired, and soon we gave up on herding Buttercup home.
“We need a cowboy,” Ed said.
“And a good dog,” I said. “Pepper can watch.”
I looked up the number of a cattle rancher I’d heard of near Carbondale named Tom Turnbull. It was an auspicious name. Buttercup is castrato, but a man who can turn a bull should be able to steer a steer, right?
I explained the situation, and Tom said, “Sounds like you need a cowboy!”
He asked where we lived, and I could hear his wife in the background chiming in with advice. Tom said, “Call Ed Colby! He’s in Peach Valley.”
“He’s in the next room,” I said. “This is Ed’s steer.”
The next day, from my house in New Castle, I thought I heard lowing on the banks of Elk Creek. Could Buttercup have followed the irrigation ditch around the mountain? I walked down to Rita’s house closer to the creek. Rita was sitting on her porch. I asked her if she’d heard any cattle lately.
While we chatted, she gestured toward the ridge of the Grand Hogback above her house. A steep patch of bare ground marks where infernal flames smolder inside the mountain after a coal mine exploded a century ago. Sometimes wisps of smoke escape.
“A sheep lived up there all by itself. We’d see that woolly figure up there all the time, summer and winter,” Rita told me.
“Really?” I asked, incredulous. I imagined her grazing the hillside, drinking at the ditches below in summer, scrapping with predators, cantankerous and free. So unlike a sheep. She ruled her domain from on high.
Eventually our neighbors the Matthews hiked up the mountain and found her remains, killed by coyotes. “She lived up there for three years. Two years ago they found her,” Rita said.
I could scarcely believe my ears. I was remembering the ewe that escaped Colby Farm the first year we tried grazing animals here, the one we never saw again. That was four summers ago. Three escaped, but like bandits, they split up. We heard word of two together roaming the Hogback. Eventually the pair crossed I-70 and put themselves into a corral on the Colorado River.
We always figured the one who’d struck out on her own was a goner. Now I wasn’t so sure.
Ed was pleased when I told him what I’d heard. “Three years? For a domestic animal gone wild, that’s a happy ending,” he said. “As good as it gets.”
Marilyn Gleason writes Eating Local for the PI’s Good Taste pages.
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