Thursday, January 10, 2008

Behind the Ring...

Smells of pungent manure and sweet alfalfa mingle this morning,
Aged by a gentle whiff of charcoal and hickory smoke now and then.
The overcast skies have opened a little,
Letting the sun show her pale face a bit,
Warming man and beast alike on this cool March morning.
Final drags on cigarettes are carried away on frosty breaths,
Swirling, then disappearing, over the backs of the penned animals.
Folded arms resting on the cold steel rail of the cattle panel,
Chin perched on gloved hands; I take in this moment of peace.
As I watch calves suck the last of their breakfast,
I know this is the calm before the storm.
As I wait, I listen…

I hear the crushing of straw as cattle shift their stance,
Taking another bite of hay or licking a calf.
Behind me I hear the hurried crunch of gravel,
As booted feet shuffle past, headed for the sale barn.
The quiet din from inside the building gets louder,
Then slowly grows vague again as the door opens then closes,
Allowing passage for someone in or out.
The voices from small groups gathered around are a soft buzz,
Broken by occasional bursts of laughter as some tale is told.
Impatient animals rattle metal gates and chains,
As a final test of their confinement.
A bellowing bull or a bawling calf,
Drowns out the song of the mockingbird,
Which has taken the stage in a nearby redbud tree.
As I listen, I watch…

Cowhands sit, stand or mill around the places they will work today.
Older men and young ones too, all colors, shapes and sizes,
All equal in the job at hand, all ready to do their duty.
Confident men with quick eyes, legs and wits,
A Godsend, in that moment of truth, should an animal go wild.
Fathers and mothers walk the pens, talking quietly amongst themselves,
Pointing here and commenting there as they move along their way.
The eager ears and curious eyes of sons and daughters close behind,
Clinging on every word of the lessons being offered up today.
An old man with a garden hose wets the ally between the panels,
Filling the air with the smell of a new plowed field after a rain.
It won’t help much and it won’t last long, but it will settle the dust a bit.
As I watch, I think…

Nervous sellers greet anxious buyers with smiles and handshakes;
Much of their livelihood is at stake here today.
The sellers have the past year of their lives on the block,
And the buyers gamble their futures.
It is what they do, it is who they are, these Herdsmen,
Raising cattle as a vocation of total commitment.
The stewardship of these massive, fragile beasts,
It is a way of life to those born to it.
Bulls breed, cows calve, calves grow and are sold,
And the endless cycle is repeated again and again.
The blood, sweat and tears of years past and yet to come,
Sweeten the pot to be played for here today.
The ante is up and the cards are dealt,
Let this hand begin…

“All right, girls! Is everybody ready?” shouts the yard boss.
Startled cowhands jump to their feet and face the old man.
Grinning through his gray stubble he yells, ”Then bring `em on!”
Coats are pulled off and flung across fences, as the first gate opens.
Daydreams shatter against the wall of reality as cattle sticks are found.
Shouts and whistles fill the air!
The first group of cattle runs past me in the ally.
The cowhand pushing them turns back for the next bunch.
I close the gate behind him with a metallic clank.
The cattle are driven up into the working chute.
Sliding gates close behind them.
I open my gate again, just in time for the next group to pass.
Over and over again the cattle are driven past me.
Over and over again I catch them in front of me with the cut-off gate.
The pace is furious and the pulse is rapid,
I wipe sweat from my brow, keeping it from my eyes.
Soon the chute is full, as are the pens formed from cut-off gates.

Taking a moment to catch our breath, we rest and wait.
But there being no rest for the wicked, as they say,
The ring door opens and the first cattle up disappear through it.
“Keep `em movin’, girls.” shouts the yard boss, over the song of the auctioneer,
“That auctioneer charges by the hour, and he can’t work if it ain’t in the ring.”
The pace has slowed some, but remains steady as we advance one group at a time.
Cows with calves are sold, bred heifers, bred cows, open heifers and cows.
All are moved through, sold and returned to their pens.
“All right, ladies,” hollers the yard boss, “Now you earn your keep.”
We all know what he means, time for the bulls.
“Work `em easy now, don’t need anybody gettin’ hurt.”
“Just remember the boss man’s policy, if you get killed, you’re fired!” he chuckles.
The laugh that leaves my mouth is replaced by the taste of brass,
As the first bull moves down the ally towards me.

I face the fence, avoiding eye contact with the big animal.
As he lumbers past me, I can feel the ground move,
And feel the heat coming from his body.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a passing glance from him,
As he seems to almost float by, sniffing the air as he goes.
He knows who owns this ally today and it isn’t me.
Straight up in the chute he goes without a hitch.
What a magnificent, majestic creature!
One by one, the other bulls are moved forward,
Filling the chute and the catch-pens at last.
The ring door opens and the sale resumes.
One by one the massive beasts are moved forward.
One by one they enter the chute and then the ring.
Several of the younger bulls balk at the chute, trying to turn back,
But relent and go on at the behest of cattle sticks and twisted tails.
As the last bull enters the chute, I climb the gate out of the ally.

I pull my bandana from my pocket,
And wipe the sweat and dust from my face.
I light a cigarette and take a deep drag on it,
Just now realizing how warm the day has become.
Picking up my coat and cattle stick from the fence,
I turn to walk to the sale building.
As I enter through the passage door,
The last bull enters the sale ring.
“Hell,” I grin to myself,
“I wanted to see at least one of `em sell.”

Copyright © WML 2007

1 comment:

David Wayne Hampton: said...

Great narrative poem! I believe you are describing a cattle auction? I remember going to one around Hendersonville with my step-grandfather when I was 13, except it was raining. Even though the main ring was inside a huge barn, I had mud and manure all over my boots and pants by the day's end. I don't remember him buying anything that day. I think he went mainly to socialize!