Human/Animal Bond

In the Hollow

The downed cow's owner somehow thought "over the ridge, just before the trees" was a near reasonable address to give the vet at 5:30 on an October evening.

October 31, 2023 (published)
By Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM

Photo of vultures in a dead tree

The purple shadows of dusk were already dipping into the hollows of dead grasses as my truck bumbled along the dirt track. Each bump stuck a knife into my left sciatic nerve, adding to the mattered litany of curses filling my lonely cab. I was questioning the mutual ancestries of both my patient - a "down cow" of indeterminate condition and location -- and her owner, who somehow thought "over the ridge, just before the trees" was a near reasonable address to give the vet at 5:30 on an October evening. He'd sworn he'd meet me by the bovine in question, but given the audible crack of a bottle cap and the crack of helmets and bodies from the TV in the background, I had my doubts.

Sighing, I leaned over my steering wheel to get a better view of the dimming sky. Sure enough, a black-shadowed trio circled over a copse of mongrel trees with scraggly branches and brush. Vultures, the livestock veterinarian's signpost.

I gave vent one last string of curses as, yards from the first trees, my truck gave an explosive - and fatal - jolt, leaping into the air like a wounded pony, only to flop down onto three legs. Having exhausted my dictionary of the profane, I settled for a sigh, disembarking from my wounded steed to see the inevitable - a sizeable rock I'd missed seeing in the fading light, nuzzled into the maw of my shredded rear tire.

I pulled my cell out of my pocket, hoping vainly for a stray bar or two. Changing tires on a fully-laden F-250 is unpleasant, even on a nice, level gravel shoulder. On a hilly pasture with fading light, it was going to be the stuff of nightmares. Plus, there was still the reason for the current predicament - my patient, somewhere in the trees to my right and, if the increasing attendance at the vulture convention was any guide, in dire straits.

I looked at my phone, which was helpfully displaying my mood - No Service. I turned around, held it aloft, and muttered a few maledictions about its electronic forebears, but the powerful pocket computer remained an obdurate brick.

Great - triage time. The truck was going to have one flat no matter how late it got, but the cow would only worsen with time.

Hoping for an easy fix - a simple stuck calf or maybe just low blood calcium, I filled my stainless-steel bucket with warm water and a dash of disinfectant and tossed in OB chains and handles. Throwing an assortment of medications, syringes, needles, and IV lines into my plastic tote, I looked sideways at the fetotome, a long tube through which one threaded stiff braided wire for the grisly but often necessary purpose of dismembering a dead calf to remove it from the cow's womb. Hoping I wasn't jinxing myself, I left the fetotome in its slot and picked up my bucket and tote.

Wobbling unevenly downhill, I winced at the repeated splashes against my knee that trickled into my boot. Warm water turns cold fast, especially on a darkening autumn night. The vultures were barely visible against the bruise-purple sky. They had ceased their spiral hunt and had dropped to the highest barren branches to set up vigil.

Dry rustles whispering away from my passing feet spoke to the evening commute of snakes back to their holes. Everyone was going home but me, the idiot tromping away from civilization toward a mythical patient. By this time, I'd given up on my supposed human partner in this endeavor, not having heard evidence of another truck or even a horse.

Dreading the empty echo that comes when we disturb the silent spirits of isolation, I forced a crooked "H-lo?" from my throat. Nothing but a startled blackbird noticed, so I tried again. "Hello. Anyone there?"

This time, my voice filled the miniature valley and bounced back to me, dwindling into watchful silence. Who or whatever was out there, it wasn't a rancher eager to return to beer and game.

I pushed through dusty, fruitless brambles and what I fervently hoped was not poison oak toward the theoretical pond in the navel of the valley. Sure enough, facing me, a darker shadow on the dimming ground was the rump and tail of a recumbent cow. I had hoped the fetid smell was coming from a stuck and decaying fetus and that I could still save the cow, but the lack of fluids, a protruding hoof or nose, or even a swollen vulva spoke otherwise. Damn, I had really hoped I wasn't stuck out here on a fool's errand with a dead cow and dead truck. 

I swung the now lonely beam of my headlamp over the dark lump of body as I approached her. The light flashed across the cornea of her eye staring upward, then dropped onto a glistening pink and purple mass. Shooing away one late-dining vulture, I took a closer look at the mess of intestines in front of me. Something had torn the cow from chest to udder, spilling rumen, intestines, and fat into an oozing mass on the dark ground. The hairs on my neck stood to attention. There was nothing for the cow but to confirm death, which I did with a trembling finger pressed to her unresponsive and clouding cornea and a stethoscope that echoed only the pounding of my own pulse through my ears.

I swept my light once more around the brush and across the black stain of the pond, praying not to see any tell-tale paired reflections. Whatever predator had disemboweled a mature beef cow was not one I wanted to encounter in daylight, let alone in the somber dark. Even mountain lions, which will happily take down smaller hoofstock, think twice before messing with a half-ton of irked Angus. The thing that had done this would be more than content playing with 150 pounds of veterinarian, no matter how perturbed.

Taking one last glance into the shadows over my shoulder, I stumbled up the hill, the bucket bashing my knee and drenching my leg. A stray vine grabbed my left ankle, and I went down hard, bucket and all. Biting back tears, and heedless of the mud and grass, I scooped the chains back into the now empty bucket and picked myself out my self-created puddle.

A crunching of branches to my right drove me across the hill to the pit, deeper into woods that seemed more substantial than the small copse I had seen at dusk.

Something simultaneously thick and insubstantial muffled my face as I plunged through the trees. Swiping out a hand, I brought down a web whose strands mimicked cashmere yarn and sent hot waves down my spine. I could cope with the local black widows, but whatever had built this web was to a black widow as the creature that killed the cow was to a coyote pup.

Too afraid to scream, I jolted back to my right, heading uphill to the frail sanctuary of my broken truck. Sure enough, my headlight bounced off white paint and a faded blue stripe. My feet slowed in relief. I'd never been so glad to see that ugly rig. At least I could lock myself in until dawn. But my light caught something else, twin glowing orbs anchoring the face of a black and silver mass perched on my cab - the last face I ever saw.

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