“Of all the passions, sadness causes the most injury to the soul.” – Thomas Aquinas
The news of the missing steer brought me to reflect on the universal curse of sin and the unlikely prospects for happiness while still in this mortal coil. But as Emile Cioran said in ‘A Short History of Decay’, “We change ideas like neckties.”
My thoughts moved from the existential to the practical. Where were my 3yr old and my 5yr old daughters who, 15 minutes earlier, were directed to remain on the porch? And how quickly were the temps dropping and the daylight fading? And how far could a 500 lb steer have gotten in a quarter hour? And how much time was I morally obligated to spend in the predictably fruitless task of searching for an escaped steer possessed of the spirit of Houdini? What would Aquinas say about that one?
I found the girls and we piled into the cab of the truck. My son climbed onto the flatbed and we rumbled out into the field. Slowly, we traced the perimeter of the six acres of thick, brushy woods. Occasionally, we thought we heard the animal calling to us, like a siren through the splash and foam of the breakers. But we were only fooling ourselves.
We completed our circuit and began to slowly cruise the country road, peering into the neighbors’ fields, examining the barbed wire fencing for breaches. We came up with nothing.
The children loved it. We made U-turns in the road, circled the block, criss-crossed our earlier paths. Eventually, we parked the truck and went inside. Bathroom breaks were in demand and the girls needed long sleeves. We then began a search on foot; perhaps the diesel engine spooked “Brownie”.
We began strolling down the road- again. We saw the same cows from earlier, but no steer with the necessary markings.
Then our neighbor came by. He hopped out of the truck and began a search on bicycle. While he did that, we decided to go back to the truck and interrogate another neighbor. So even if we never would find the steer, we were still building community!
After making no headway with the other neighbor, darkness had covered the sky and we retired to the house. No steer. That night we slept.
Sunday morning came. Still no steer. We went to church. “Call the sheriff.” “Maybe someone has him penned and reported him missing.” “Put feed cubes in a bucket and shake them while walking around the field. He might come out of the brush when he hears food.” “Cows can smell sweet feed anywhere.” “He might be stolen.” “Cows can break your heart.”
We left church. On the way home, we saw him. We were two miles from the house and, on the shoulder of a long, sweeping bend in the road, our steer was tossed in a pile, dead. I stopped to examine him.
It was curious, and I’ll never know how it happened. It looked like a gunshot wound to the head. There were no tire marks on the road, no tracks in the grassy shoulder. Had the steer been wounded but not killed by a truck, and then mercifully put down with a gun? Had a hunter mistaken him for a deer and then disposed of him on the road? Was I simply misreading the signs? I still wonder, even today.
We finished the drive home in silence. We had found the steer. Our search was over.
Ranching is pain, and yet we return to it. We are turned to destruction. Even so, for all that we ranchers lost, Brownie lost more.