Marking the beginning of a new year on January first is a foolish thing. January is a cold, wet month filled with gloomy skies. Check the obituary page, more people give up the ghost in January than any other month.
March, of course, marks the true beginning of spring, blossoms and calves arrive and life renews itself. I could settle for February as the first page of the calendar. In these parts there is almost always one full week of brilliant sunshine in February, bringing the hope, albeit generally false, of an early spring.
Several years ago, I spent the last afternoon of January searching for cattle. Recent rains flooded the river bottom and split the herd. Some clopped a half mile up the steep north hill, others hid under redwoods. By the last day of the month none of them were anywhere in sight.
Afoot, I headed down and around the slick hillside; passed the rock fireplace, all that remains of the log house I was raised in. Beyond the Gravenstein trees the folks planted seventy years ago, I stopped short of the dive the dirt road takes below a spread-armed pepperwood, and gazed down the grassy slope just west of Uncle Charlie’s cabin. That's where I spotted the curly white head and thick red back of the one-eyed Hereford bull, Orlando.
He lay still where the slope bottoms out in a flat spot, his head sprawled forward like a damp St. Bernard in front of the hearth. I called his name and thought I could see his chest heave slightly. Stepping off the road I noticed the path his hooves had carved out of the grass as he’d slid helplessly down the length of the slope.
Both of his left legs had snapped completely forward. My mind raced: I’ll have to run up and get the gun. The rifle’s out of commission, don’t think there’s any long rifle shells for the twenty-two. Jesus, I’m gonna have to go to town.
I crouched beside him and saw he wasn’t breathing, no need for a gun. The light breeze shifted and a hint of his death rot pushed me to my feet. I walked around his lifeless three-quarter ton body. His good right eye was closed and only a couple of flies flitted over his face. A hint of red tainted his nostrils and a few inches of grass left and right of his huge mouth had been rubbed away, down to the dirt. How long had he struggled there, unable to rise?
He was thirteen and a half years old, but I whispered, “The baby bull’s dead.”
He was called Orlando after Orlando Cepeda, a ballplayer nicknamed “The Baby Bull.” He had been a gentle calf, bossed by his father and older cows in the herd when he was a growing yearling. An open human hand pressed firmly against the knot of curls on his white forehead taught him one of the most basic laws of physics: to each and every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. He learned to push his head back against the pressed palm and overcame a tendency toward passivity that can be fatally dangerous to a free ranging baby bull. Of course, full grown and well over a thousand pounds, he still wanted to have his curly locks rubbed and he wanted to push against the hand that petted him. Through some innate bovine sense he never shoved back too hard.
When greedy cows in his herd caught wind of an apple bucket they rushed to get the first one, the most, and moo-ed pleadingly for more after the last was tossed out, Orlando stood back and patiently waited his turn. Though he preferred to be fed by hand, he never bit the fingers that fed him, though his slobber weighed in by the pint and took prolonged scrubbing to wash off.
I sat on a rock a few yards up the hill thinking about the old baby bull. He was prone to finding or creating holes in the fence and running (actually full grown bulls of his size seldom run, their high gear is a slow lumber) two or more miles down river. More often than not he crossed the river. He learned a few swear words on some of his more recalcitrant return trips through high tides.
A buzzard circled, then perched atop the pepperwood. Half a dozen others took up positions in nearby trees. I hoo-rahed them and they flapped away.
I walked up the hill as fast as I could, got a five pound bag of lime and a shovel, then made my way back. The buzzards had not returned yet. I emptied the bag, sprinkling lime all over him, then stuck the shovel blade in the ground. Immediately, I found a new appreciation for the rains of January. The shovel sliced through the soaked half clay soil and chunks of turf came out easily.
Even at the end of a rainy month or year it takes a lot of digging to bury a three quarter ton bull under a mound of dirt. If there’s treasure on that slope, they buried it darn deep. I dug trenches on either side of him big enough that I began worrying about the other cattle tripping in them.
After digging for an hour and a half, I began talking to Orlando. “Gotta make a thick pile on your back so the next rain won’t wash it off.
“Leaving your head for last.”
Dirt rolled down over his red and white face. “Covering your blind eye.”
I piled thick chunks over him, back to front, so I could see the curly locks of his face until the end. I thanked the sky for softening the earth and for holding back the next storm while I dug.
As I covered his good eye with dirt clods, half the herd grazed into view slightly below and to the east. I tamped down the dirt piled over Orlando’s head and the nearly two year old bull-to-be looked up from the edge of the floodwater and lowed.
I leaned on the shovel and watched him return to grazing alongside his mother. His father had already taught him how to assert himself by pushing, lowered forehead to forehead.
Dusk crept through the river valley and a few raindrops spattered the caved in shingles on Uncle Charlie’s long abandoned cabin. I thought of Orlando lying under the mound of earth and about a hundred-twenty-old photograph of Charlie as a boy with his little sister and a huge curly haired dog standing bigger and taller than either of them. He’d buried that dog a third of a mile down river, one of the first in the family dog cemetery. The little sister died a few years later when diphtheria swept through the farms and ranches hereabouts in nineteen-one and two. It was the last of January, or first of February, I can’t remember which. That time when things come to an end.
I said goodbye to Orlando and placed a handful of flowers at the head of his grave. They'd bloomed early, perhaps glimpsing something like that distant ray of light in the western sky as I trudged up the hill once more. Shovel over my shoulder I passed the other half of the herd bedding down for the night. Another lowing from the baby bull turned their heads. A faint glow on the horizon hinted of something, a hope for more than a false spring, a beginning rather than an end.