Kay and her cowboys had already separated the heifers by the time I pulled onto Cross Prairie Road. The morning was still early and although it would surpass 100 degrees later in the day, the air down in the glen was still cool. I backed the trailer to the squeeze shoot and the two men, weathered from years of working cattle, slipped into the holding pen, clutching long prods and measuring their steps as they approached the young bulls. The Brangus heifers were jet black, muscular, and blowing hot air through their wet nostrils.
These were Kay’s babies, raised almost like pets from the day they were born. A year of hauling hay, moving them to new pastures, watering and keeping a watchful eye – all the caring was abruptly over and these boys knew it. They were scared at first. Then they were angry.
After we got the biggest one loaded and the squeaky door slid shut and the trailer shook and rattled with bull madness, the older cowboy interrupted our chatter. “You better get some air in him before he bursts.” He saw our confused looks and added: “You need to get on the road and cool him down.”
Yes, this was no time to linger.
“I told him he was going to the cattle auction,” Kay joked.
Staring at this beautiful beast, smelling the cud from his flared nostrils, watching his eyes searching for a way out, I could understand why she didn’t want to take him to the butcher. Her attachment had only grown stronger after the herd had survived the Bastrop fire. Just a few hundred yards up this hill the fire had finally died, but not before destroying her house and barn and surrounding woods
Like most Bastrop residents, Kay had to come to terms with the chard landscape and make a decision. To rebuild or move. To quit farming or trust that the drought would end soon. And now nearly two years later that black ghost still returned on days like today when a hot dry wind blew up in the afternoons. When suddenly yesterday was today and flames were rolling down like a wave and how in those precious few minutes before fleeing empty handed she ran to the pasture and opened the gate.
“You want to say a last goodbye,” I said half teasingly as I pulled the trailer past her.
“Noooo!” She forced a smile and then I heard in a quiet voice. Goodbye, Bull.”
The ride to Smithville Meat Locker is only 10 miles. In 20 minutes, I would be pulling to the rear of the yellow brick building, past stacks of split oak and the smokehouse. Everything in reverse now – backing up to the squeeze shoot, a sticky tag with the number 12 slapped on the rump, the squeaky trailer door reopened, and all 800 pounds of flesh swishing past me until another rusty gate closed. Even before I had pulled away there was the switching sound of the prod and the Heh Heh Heh of a man’s voice. A heavy door shut and all quiet outside. Just the smell of smoked beef floating through the shade trees and drawing my dog’s nose to the window.
I’m telling you the story of this beef because I want you to prepare it as best you can. This meat deserves no less. With those first delicious bites, close your eyes and listen to the sound of rain, of teeth ripping grass – that greenest of grass that covered the blackened fields. Think for a moment of the joy and sadness this animal brought its owners. And how all across this land, so profoundly diminished of its herds, the ranchers and the cowboys and their cattle need to be remembered.