One of my favorite purveyors of Western humor is the author Patrick McManus (1933-2018). His childhood fears were one of the wells from which he would draw for laughs, and one of his biggest fears was of the dark. He wanted to become a mountain man as a child but realized that it would be hard to be a good mountain man and still be back at the fort by dark. He came to understand that he may have to find a different career.
As for me: I don't like spiders and snakes. I would not say I fear them; disdain may be a better word, but the disdain comes more and more to resemble fear as the spider gets bigger and bigger. The same applies to snakes, as the small ones seem to fear me slither away at my approach. The bigger ones, however, the ones that coil and hiss, well they can raise the hair on my arms faster than static electricity during a thunderstorm.
One day my border collie, Waif, was barking her guts out and looking out the corner of the fenced yard. I noticed her positioned just outside the window below the stairs at my back door. I cautiously opened the door, to find the would-be guest. It was a giant rattlesnake coiled up on the sidewalk. I'm glad my dog is scared of snakes, and it all could have had a different ending if she wasn't on duty that day. God forbid she bite one of the kids, perhaps.
At this point, I must mention an often-overlooked benefit of living in Montana: the ready availability of heavy-duty show shovels. Though it was near the first of August, mine was still within easy arm's reach. I'm not ashamed to admit that, with heroic valor befitting a knight in shining armor protecting his damsel in distress, I advanced on the nasty critter and dispatched it with extreme prejudice.
However, I did find the snow shovel rather inadequate in hand against the writhing, hissing snake. So the next day I hung a new close-quarters 12-gauge shotgun over the door jamb. Now, I was set up for the next combat episode.
I have used it since, many times, in defense of my ranch. From more snakes to skunks, to raccoons, to coyotes, all these battles (not all of them lethal, lest you should imagine I'm some sort of homicidal Rambo) occurred just right out my door.
But I must tell you that my fear of snakes pales in comparison with one monster that haunted my childhood: my Dad's dairy bull. In one of my previous stories, I divulged that my Mom and Dad had a small dairy. Dairies in 1957 did not use A.I. yet, and no, A.I. does not stand for Artificial Intelligence, you city slicker. It stands for artificial insemination, which was not yet a common practice in 1957, so to keep the cows fresh the dairy required a bull.
Now dairy type bulls were, and are still, the meanest sons of b****es you'll ever encounter. They are mean enough that in those days, the most common way to die on a ranch was to be stomped by the bull. It is rare to go that way now since the only part of the bull that matters, if you know what I mean (and I think you do), is stored in ampules submerged in liquid nitrogen tanks.
For some reason, known, I presume, only to God or the dairyman, the meaner the dairy bull, the more desirable are his daughters to the dairy. It turns out the geneticists have found that the gene for milk in cows, and fertility in bulls are the same chromosome. In essence, a real bastard of a bull means more milk in the cow, and besides, mean bulls breed more cows because of higher testosterone. Odder still is the fact that the meaner the sire, the more docile his female offspring. At any rate, suffice it to say that Dad had the meanest damn bull you've ever encountered or heard tell of and that as a result, he had some truly choice dairy cows.
This bull was about the size of a buffalo, at least from my vantage. He was webbed with nasty veins and had a perpetual drool of quivering, enraged snot hanging from his ringed nose. His hooves looked the barrels of howitzers, and his tail would begin to wag almost like a dog's when he saw you, only out of sheer hatred rather than good-natured greeting. Between his legs, if I may be so crass, hung something like the Washington Monument, only sharper and probably bigger. The overall effect was of staring at a creature of the abyss, the Leviathan, a diabolical hell-spawn. I can still see it, vividly; the memory of him springs readily to mind.
Dad, knowing the danger, had put a ring in the nose of the bull, and attached to the ring was a length of chain. Please note that my dad was not particularly cruel and that this was (and is) a common practice. I would guess the chain was 8 to 10 feet long and fairly heavy, which made it so you could be as near as, say, the next pasture from him without him going off on you like an atomic bomb. Did I mention he was mean, and dangerous? Frankly, though I never asked him, I suspected the chain in his nose didn't improve his mood any, either.
My dad lectured me again and again until it sunk into my thick skull that the bull was dangerous.
"Never, never turn your back on that bull. In fact, just stay far away from that bull."
And so I did!
Until one day, that is, when I got off the school bus, and there he was, about 15 feet the other side of the cattle guard to the ranch. The bull was never allowed in that pasture since kids had to walk through it to get home, but somehow he had gotten loose. I had a half to three-quarters of a mile to walk yet to the house and the bull, livid, eyes red, stamping the dirt with his formidable hooves, blocked my path.
My only weapon, really my only chance, was that I'm at least marginally smarter than a bull, which meant I knew about the creek.
It was only about a half-mile down the county road to the creek, and the fence at the end of this pasture didn't extend all the way. So I thought I would follow the road down to the creek and then take it home. I was, after all, in the first grade back then, which in 1957 was like being about forty-five in 2021 - nearly old enough to take care of yourself. So I started down the road toward the creek.
But so did the bull, just on the other side of the fence. Bulls make a rather scary bellowing noise when they are mad, and this one was fit to be tied. As I walked, I could hear that bellow just behind me.
I started getting nervous but am comforted by the fact that, at six years old, I had developed an absolutely fool-proof plan. But the bull, for his perceived intellectual inferiority to yours truly, has also come up with a plan, which is to do anything it takes to annihilate me. I came to the creek and looked back. He stared after me, rumbling like a freight train. I crawled under the fence and headed for home down the creek, looking over my shoulder all the while.
He started down the fence again, only this time following the creek instead of the road. Now you remember he had a 10-foot chain hooked to a ring in his nose. And even though there was nothing on the other end, it still produced some drag as he walked. So he had to lift his head to take some slack, walk a couple of steps, and repeat steps 1,2, and 3. Each time he did this, his mood deteriorated further.
Down the creek I went, running now, toward the ranch house. My nervousness turned into terror when I saw him come through the fence and onto the creek bank. I hauled my little rear, with all the speed a horror-stricken six-year-old could muster, up the steps, past the "lover's swing" on the porch, and into the ranch house.
Well, I'm here to write about it, so it must have ended well. He followed me right onto the porch of the house. Yup, right onto the half-open veranda-type porch, complete with the lover's swing, as we called it. But between his bellowing, the hysterical dogs barking, and my wracking sobs, there was enough commotion to bring Dad running from the barn.
Just a few days later, he sold that bull. To this day, the bellow of a bull sends shivers, causes goosebumps, and generally freaks me out.
I remember my dad telling my mom over the dinner table that the damned fool who bought that demonic bull from him was of the opinion that the ring and chain in the nose were cruel and that he wanted them out. Dad obliged him in this ill-advised notion, running the bull through the chute and taking them out for him, though Dad knew it was a bad idea.
And a few days later, God help me, that bull killed the man, goring him, trampling him, and leaving his broken body in the dairy pen for his wife to find.
It was not for nothing that they invented artificial insemination; and though I am covered in unpleasant substances by the end of a day using the Electrojac 6 A.I. system, I am thankful that some imaginative so-and-so invented it. You can rest assured that there are no bulls on my ranch.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.