We were working cows, and I was running them down the alley to the chute. Older cows have been through this before and know what to do. The cows are brought into a smaller pen where they can be examined. Then the gate man sends them through one at a time down the alley, where the man on the parting gate will swing gates to different pens, depending on the signals he receives. Some cows are turned out; others are put in a pen to sell, and others are sent to the chute to be doctored.
Heifers (young female cows that have not yet had a calf) are new at this. For most of them, the last time they went down the alley to the chute, they were branded, given a shot and ear-tagged. Not the kind of experience you want to repeat. Most of the heifers are understandably a little slow and merely need a slap on the rump or poke with a hot-shot to get them moving in the right direction. However, there are always one or two that have a glint of crazy in their eye.
I've seen heifers try to jump a six-foot fence to avoid the chute (one succeeded, pulling off the top board. I suggested we enter her in the Cow Olympics). Sometimes heifers will try to turn around. This isn't as easy as it sounds. Most alleys are 30 inches wide. For a cow to turn around, it has to turn its neck back, climb halfway up the fence and come down facing the opposite direction.
One of the last heifers we were working had that touch of crazy cowmen dread. She hesitated in front of the open gate. I came behind her and gave her a touch with the hot-shot. She went ahead into the alley and stopped. I came up behind her and slapped her rump. She took two halting steps forward, then stopped again.
Sometimes a cowman has to get right up behind a cow and use his weight. I was skinnier in those days and leaned as hard as I could. I was more annoyance than motivation. Some helpful soul leaned over with a hot-shot and gave her another charge. She lashed with a rear hoof, just missing my knee.
When all else fails working cows, occasionally preaching helps. I said, "Come on darling (can't hurt to be charming to females), move on up. For heaven's sake, move on up!" I pleaded with her like an old sawdust tent preacher. Finally, the spirit moved her, and she took another step forward. Then she decided to turn around. She bent her neck, and I saw her eyes, bulging at me, that crazy light glowing brighter. She climbed the fence with her two front hooves and got her whole body around in seconds. I saw blood flowing where she cut herself on the fence. Now we had a standoff.
I tried to reason with her: "Darling, if you will just back up into the chute, we'll pour a little medicine on you and then you will be just fine. We'll turn you loose, and you will be back eating grass in a hour."
For a moment, I thought I had persuaded her. She took two steps back. This would be easy, I thought. I'll back her into the chute. It won't matter which way she's facing when she gets the medicine poured on her.
Her back hoof hit the floor of the chute. Then she reached the end of reason. Whatever was back there, she wanted no part of it. Her crazy self took over. She charged right at me. Keep in mind she and I together are wider than 30 inches. I had no time to climb the fence. The best I could do was turn sideways to present a narrower target. She made for the gap between my backside and the fence. Her head and neck cleared me just fine, but then her rib cage and mine were filling all available space. Her ribs became a bulldozer blade, pushing me against the fence and dragging me along.
I must have been dragged about 10 feet, though it felt like 10 miles. When we reached the gate, her speed accelerated, and her momentum pushed me to the ground. Every cowman will sooner or later be run over by a cow, and this was my time. There's nothing to do but pick yourself up, make sure all extremities are intact, and go again. This time, I ran (limped) after her, and she went straight down the alley into the chute. Miraculous.
It's easy to get scared about the direction God wants you to go. Even if you get so scared you turn around, God gives you another chance. Even if you've run over some people along the way. But your life is better when you go God's direction the first time. It's easier on everybody.
There's a reason a favorite hymn of cowboys is "I have Decided to Follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back." Turn backs leave everybody banged up.
The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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