There's nothing like a relaxing evening at home. There's also nothing like breaking it up with a phone call just before 10:00. Since it was my land line, I figured it was either my mother or some brain surgery patient calling with a question.
Nope, not even close.
"Jeff, this is Officer Don Knotts with the Winneshiek County Sheriff's Department."
Yep, that'll pretty much remove any drowsiness you may have at that hour.
"We have a report of some cattle out in the 3200 block of Highway 9. I looked at the directory here and we show a Roger Ryan and a Jeff Ryan pretty close together in that area, so we figured they might be yours."
Whoa, hold on a minute here, Deputy! You got a call about loose cattle and your default assumption was to peg me as the source? REALLY?! Has it come to that? Did you even look at the map first, or did you kinda ballpark it and assume?
I told Deputy Knotts that I would run out and take a look.
"Okay," he replied. "Usually the best thing for us to do is to call a farmer. You guys all know one another, and whose cattle they are, and you usually know where they're supposed to go, so you can get it figured out better than we can. There's not much we can do from the office here, but if you need us for anything, I mean, don't be afraid to call."
Duly noted. I hope that your evening marathon of Everybody Loves Raymond reruns on TVLand isn't interrupted by other calls. Hate to see you fire up a cruiser to go investigate something and blow the budget clean out of the water.
Off the top of my head, I was puzzled on multiple fronts. I'd been outside not that long before the call and everything was in its place. The feedlot cattle had been fed an hour or two before and seemed quite content. The cowherd had been rotated to a new pasture a couple days before, and it was at the other end of the place, so any escapes from there should have either gone west into Howard County or encountered traffic on the gravel road before they made it to Highway 9.
I hopped on the Polaris Ranger and made a quick trip around my own building site to ease my fears. Everything looked fine. The bunks were lined with dozens and dozens of contented animals with lots of feed in front of them. The gates were all upright and chained shut like they should be. There wasn't even any bellering going on at the moment.
I headed east for a different look. The first thing I saw when I got to the pavement was exactly what I had hoped for. Nothing! No flashing lights, no random headlights or taillights pointed in directions different than the lanes of traffic, and no roaming herd of cattle. I was feeling good, but I was intrigued. Motorists can mistake foxes for dogs and cats for skunks, but they usually don't call in reports of cattle by mistake. Don Knotts didn't give me any details on cattle color, size, type, ear tags or any other distinguishing features. All I knew about them was that they were out, which was enough to get me out the door in a hurry.
With nothing to show yet for my search, I went to headquarters and refueled the Ranger for a potentially longer trip. Then I grabbed a flashlight and a 12-volt spotlight. Another trip around the block yielded nothing. Correction. With my million-candlepower light, I spotted five different raccoons, several cats and dozens of fireflies hovering at cow's-eye-level just to psych me out. What I did not find were skid marks of any kind on the highway; swerving marks on the shoulder; three-point-turn marks on any of the gravel roads; or livestock evidence of any kind. If my cattle were involved, they were in total stealth mode for the whole gig.
Not that I wouldn't put that past them.
Then I decided to head toward Ridgeway. Just before I hit the 3100 block, I saw a couple pickups in the yard of a neighbor. They did not belong to the neighbor. I drove in and found just what I had been looking for the last 45 minutes or so — people in position to herd cattle. You can spot those people right away. Their hands and arms are active and never hang at their sides. They look alert and will whip their head around at the slightest sound or light. They are frequently pointing directions at someone else nearby. Their vehicles are parked completely at random, frequently with the engine running and the lights on. If the door or doors are open, you know the prey is close at hand. Toss in a pair of tall boots on someone who is otherwise not remotely dressed for livestock work and you know the fuse on this bottle rocket has already been lit.
I walked up to the two closest neighbors and got some disappointing news.
"Holstein heifers. They're _________'s." (Another neighbor who lives close by.)
Well that sucks the fun right out of it. Had they been beef cattle, we'd be looking at some serious handling in front of us. Our herding instincts would be put to the test. Beef cattle are rugged individualists. A mind of their own. Free spirits with not a care in the world. No respect for rules or order. It would be like rounding up inmates after a prison break.
Holsteins, on the other hand? Yeah, well, they spend the better part of their life being cared for individually or in small groups. They're friendly animals that see people pretty much every day, multiple times per day. On the prison break scale, they’re more like Uncle Clarence slipping out of the nursing home just before mealtime on Pudding Thursday. Even so, the heifers were still loose, so why not put the assembled crowd to good use?
The escapees were currently inside a small pasture around the building site, maybe an acre or two at the most. It was next to the highway and not really designed to hold cattle, so the decision was made to move them into a pen in the nearby feedlot.
We positioned trucks and people and got ready for the herd to be brought to us for their relocation. Whatdyaknow, these Holsteins ran a shade to the independent side! They went in about three different directions as they approached the corner of the barn and should have turned right to enter the feedlot. A few went right, a couple went straight ahead, and one or two others kind of went right and then gave us a Barry Sanders move toward the end and faked their way around the defender/truck to scamper down the field and keep the play alive.
Luck and fences were on our side, though. We repositioned a few items and persons and made another attempt at getting them in the feedlot, this time coming from the opposite direction. All but one of the 20 Holsteins were now in the feedlot. Another trip around the block of buildings and she was also back in the herd.
Then we got down to the real business of the evening — telling stories about all of our respective cattle gatherings, handlings, un-gatherings and mishandlings. The consensus was that this stuff is way more fun when the corn is knee-high rather than cab-high; it's better in the daylight; and it's better in direct proportion to the proximity of the pavement. Sirens and flashing lights just add pressure, not advantage.
We also got around to the fact that no law enforcement ever showed up to help or even provide plenty of intermittent, multicolored light. That's when I told them about the call I got and how Deputy Knotts just assumed the cattle were mine. That was met with ZERO surprise from all corners.
"Oh, yeah . . . yours were out on the highway before, weren't they?"
People, people, PEOPLE! C'mon, that was TWELVE YEARS AGO! One time. One dead critter. One totaled car. And now there's apparently a big circle drawn all the way around me for a couple of miles at the Law Enforcement Center (and mentally in the heads of my neighbors, it appeared). The circle probably has a red flag push pin in the center with a note: "Chances are, this is the guy to call."
So go ahead, make my day.
Guy No. 2