Lingering Wires

Megan Ewald

Megan graduated with a B.S in Environmental Studies in 2015. She has worked as a science writer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Save the Manatee Club and her work has been featured in several creative publications. She is currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi.

“Herding cattle is much like trying to catch a stream in your hands. By the time you catch one drop the rest scatters, and barbed wire fences act like a dam.”
“But she doesn’t lie still, she continues to thrash and moan, spraying blood across the ground and staining the foam at her mouth red.”

In Wyoming, barbed wire does more than delineate the landscape—it defines it.

When I’m herding cattle it’s often the only way to orient myself in the infinite plains of sagebrush. The waist-high shrubbery scratches at my horse’s legs and the chaps around my knees, carpeting the mesa in flat grey-green as far as my eyes can see. In this monochromatic landscape I’m searching for cattle to move to a new pasture; looking for the black backs rising and falling through the brush as they run, like dorsal fins cresting from waves. Standing in the stirrups, I slap the reins against my horse’s neck and steer him upwards along a rocky slope. This vantage point puts everything in perspective. I can count the cattle as they run in clusters, and see the rectangular outline of the pasture. Would-be wild creatures, neatly parceled by straight lines of barbed wire fencing.

Focus Ranch’s million-acre property is crisscrossed by these fences: braided, razor-sharp barbs held aloft by wooden posts that mock the absence of trees. I use them to push the cattle to lusher pastures, and follow their lines back to the homestead. Losing sight of them makes me nervous, but so does the sight of their steel points.

This kind of navigation, and this ranch work, is new to me. I’m a college student and a hobby horseback rider. I found this job online. On my first day at the ranch, my boss, a grizzled old man who limps in cowboy boots and spurs, gave me a horse and told me to ride 10 miles west and fix length of barbed wire fencing. I accidently rode 10 miles south that day, but since then I’ve been learning the ropes. There are maintained fences that delineate pastures, as well as dilapidated lines whose rusted barbs stand testament to another age. By following the fence lines with my eyes and placing familiar peaks at my back I can find north, count the black shapes of grazing cattle, see the horses of other wranglers, and plan my path.

Herding cattle is much like trying to catch a stream in your hands. By the time you catch one drop the rest scatters, and barbed wire fences act like a dam. Fences provide a barrier that channels the fluid mass of running cattle. The cattle, inherently distrustful of horses, peek over their shoulders as they run from my horse and me. They moo hoarsely in agitation, waiting for a moment to escape, but are trapped between me and the fence they fear even more.

Barbed wire leaves a vicious mark on everything it encounters. Early on my boss yelled at me to get off my horse and close a goater’s gate, which is a length of barbed wire attached to a wooden pole. Fitting my shoulder between rows of wire and wrapping my arm around the pole, I pressed and angled it in, gashing my scalp against the barbs in the process. For a strange second I noticed how pretty my hair looked fluttering in the wind, despite the chunk of bloody skin harpooned on the wire. But then I met my boss’s eyes, and realized that I was not to mention it. Ranch work is not gentle, and working with cattle means burying the part of you that objects to brutality. You couldn’t do it otherwise. All cowhands have such scars, and you’d be hard pressed to find a horse with legs clean of barbed wire’s stains. But nobody, not my boss nor the other cowhands, mentions it. It’s part of the job.

But the deepest scars barbed wire leaves, are upon Wyoming itself.

Invented in 1856, barbed wire achieved the impossible, taming the great expanse of the American West. Land previously unmanageable was now parceled and maintained by individual ranchers. However, these fences did more than contain cattle. Migrating herds of elk, bison, and antelope were trapped by infinite threads of wire. Now at the mercy of rancher’s hunting rifles, they were slaughtered to near extinction. Property lines were distinguished, native pastoralists swept from traditional plains, and the frontier was no more.

For over a century the ranches did not change as much as they grew, and consequently wilderness shrank. My boss and co-workers often reminisce about this golden era, before the government and big business brought regulations that “make it impossible for a rancher to ranch.” But when technology advanced so factory farming was more profitable than grazing on barbed wire-studded plains, the government intravenously fed ranchers subsidies. With tax and law exemptions ranchers drained rivers, irrigated sagebrush to lush and artificial meadow, and continued their dated business models. Meanwhile almost every family rancher began injecting cattle with growth hormone and antibiotics. There is not a cattle rancher in Wyoming who does not hate the government and technology, yet has to rely on them for their existence.

For ranchers like my employer, herding cattle in this way is less a matter of business than a continuation of their perceived legacy. Like barbed wire, cattle ranchers are a remnant of a lingering past. While my employer brags about his “grass-fed” cattle, in November he ships the herd to a feedlot to fatten on corn before slaughter. When I inject calves with yellow capsules of growth hormone, I feel sick knowing their future will be labeled “Wyoming Organic Beef.” And still, every night at dinner my boss complains how each year brings in less profit than the last. Hiding behind empty labels is not enough to compensate for his selective use of technology.

Suddenly a heifer breaks away from the group. Spurring my horse as I’ve been taught, I loop around, blocking her with my horse’s flank. She pauses for a half-second. Turning on a dinner plate, she pivots and runs. She bolts straight through the scattering herd and leaps to jump the fence. A crack, a crunch, and then a feral scream. I feel the sound reverberating in my stomach. I don’t have to be a rancher to know that it means.

At first only her front leg is entangled. I step forward, radioing my boss, my co-workers, for anyone to help. The more she moves the deeper the barbs tear into her. Soon both of her front legs are snared and she falls to the ground with an unnervingly human-like scream. But she doesn’t lie still, she continues to thrash and moan, spraying blood across the ground and staining the foam at her mouth red. Another crack reverberates through the air, as the fencepost snaps in two and falls backwards away from the heifer, stringing her bonds even tighter.

Every instinct tells me not to approach this injured thing, but I have to. Pocket knife in hand, I try to reach over and cut the bonds. But my knife, like myself, is not made for this work. It bounces back from the thick wire. She’s on her side now, her legs beating wildly at the air. Trying to get a second shot I kneel on her neck and attempt to strike at the wire, but a cloven hoof smashes into my forearm, sending my knife flying high into the air behind me. Somehow, despite the pitiful screams and pulsing blood, despite my frantically beating heart, everything slows as I focus. I drop in the mud near her beautifully chiseled face, her white-rimmed eyes straining upwards in a vain attempt to reach mine. With shaking fingers I caress the thin, velvety hide of her ears, her nose, and pale eyelids. Whispering softly, I tell her everything is going to be okay, and that if she would just lie still I can get her away from this place. But she struggles on; I don’t know how to make her listen.

For what seems like hours I kneel beside her, until her fear wanes to fatigue.

Too weak to struggle any longer, she accepts her bonds, lying still for moments interrupted by halfhearted moans. Staggering backwards I crawl on my hands and knees through the mud until I find my Swiss Army knife. Using the bottle opener I pry the wire from her deep gashes. They look like cuts of raw steak, but still connected to living flesh. My horse, who has stood nervously nearby this whole while whinnies, and with a jolt I remember the tools in my saddlebag. Cursing my own stupidity I fumble through the sack and retrieve a pair of sturdy pliers. Kneeling on her again I grip the fenceline with the pliers and wiggle it until, fragment by fragment, it breaks. Very slowly, I’m able to cut her free. As I snap the final bond, the heifer stands with surprising strength. Pitching me backwards into the mud, her wounds bleeding freely, she staggers away through the sagebrush and out of sight.

For a split second there’s relief, replaced almost instantly with nausea. Rolling over I retch again and again, emptying myself onto the Wyoming earth until there’s nothing left inside. Shaking, my clothes drenched in blood and bile, I want nothing more than to go home. To return to the real world where beef simply appears on a dinner plate. But I know now that ranch life is reality, it’s just one I never cared to think about before.

Breathing deep I take stock of my body. Flexing, I note the bruising of my right arm and a cut across my palm. My hair is matted with mud and congealing cow blood, and my thin flannel is soaked in sweat. My jacket lies ruined on the ground. Now that it’s over, I start to feel cold. But my arm will become less sore with movement, and the bleeding will clean my hand. So I walk over to my mount and swing myself back in the saddle. I radio to my boss to meet me at the north end of the pasture and I spur my horse into a gallop. As we run I turn my face upward, centering myself in the smell of sagebrush crushed under hooves, and in the vastness of the great Wyoming sky.

I know what will happen next. My boss will panic for a moment at the sight of me drenched in blood, and then focus on finding the scattered herd when he realizes it’s not my blood. I’ll work for a few more hours today, and get up at the crack of dawn to do it again tomorrow. I wish I could say that we would look for the heifer. That we would call immediately for the vet to stitch her gashes, spend weeks applying salve to treat her slowly healing wounds. That she would live a long and pleasant life, or as long and pleasant as any heifer’s life can be on these windy peaks and mesas.

But I know this is not the case.

There is too much blood along the fence line for me to believe that. The soil is drenched in it, the grass stained. She was unable to escape the snares of the rancher’s past. Struggling to be free only dug the barbs deeper, ripping apart flesh and sinew that could not stand contest to factory-forged steel. Somewhere in those beautiful pastures of grass and sage she will succumb to her wounds and die a slow and agonizing death. Wildlife and weather will strip her, until her bones shine like polished pearl. For years they will lay thus, a marker, like lines of old barbed wire fences, to a life that no longer exists.