A distressed heifer and a grub bag

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Former north shore doctor reflects on an interesting experience from his youth

In the spring of the year, when all the fields were planted, the family milch cow (and her recently born calf) were kept back in the fishing village of Long Beach.

Dr. William O'Flaherty

In the spring of the year, when all the fields were planted, the family milch cow (and her recently born calf) were kept back in the fishing village of Long Beach, and all the other animals, except for the horse, were driven onto the Crown lands back of the communities of the Conception Bay North Shore.

It was done out of necessity since all the land in the various communities was fenced — needed for growing vegetables and hay crops — and the animals had nowhere to feed, other than scrounging in the ditches along the roadsides and on a rare unfenced pasture.

We had a yearling heifer, now 14 months old, but still attached to the mother cow, which creature had no time for her, what with a new calf just arrived; indeed, the only reason that the heifer was still with us was because she was a heifer. If she had been born a bull there would have been lots of fresh and frozen veal on the kitchen table the winter gone by.

“Boy, come Saturday, we’ll drive her into the Fairy Woods, in there by Upper Pond,’’ my father stated. I was 11 years old and soon to be let out of school for the summer holidays. “We’ll boil the kettle in there, before we come back home.”

“Gus, you know that animal may be in calf,” cautioned my mother; “late last fall, during that mild spell, I saw the bulls after her.”

“Can’t keep her here; no place to feed her; she’s goin’ in the woods like all the rest of the animals.”

Packing the grub bag

And so it was, that Saturday, we, the two us, he with the halter on the heifer and me behind with a birch switch, managed with some difficulty to drive the animal several miles inland where, as expected, we found a small herd of bulls and young heifers, in there for the summer, and for the same reason as was our young animal.

Fast forward, now, and we are into early October. I am back at school and the forecast is for a sunny Saturday in the offing.

“My son, I think we’d better go in and bring out the heifer; I hear tell there’s a bunch o’cattle in there by Jinniper Brooks. Joe Delaney got his cow in there yesterday.”

We packed the grub bag with the usual: sliced homemade bread, dried caplin, and a watered rounder (my Dad liked to roll that in several layers of wet brown paper and bury it in the flaming campfire embers for five minutes or so), and, of course, the flat-assed kettle, tea, sugar and a small amount of milk.

“Bring along some line and a couple o’ trout hooks; there’s big trout in the Jinniper Gullies.”

When we reached the area, about five miles inland, there were no cattle to be seen. We had passed, on the way in, a small flock of sheep that were being herded out to the coast by a man from Lower Island Cove who told us that he had seen an animal fitting the description of our heifer in the Jinniper Brooks area “a few days ago, that looked like she was heavy in calf.”

All we found there was fresh cow manure and nothing more. Cattle had been there, and had moved on.

We ate our food, and talked over what to do.

“If she’s goin’to calve, she’s lookin’ to go off by herself somewhere; cows do that, you know.”

A feed of trout

We caught a few big trout, using a piece of alder for a trouting pole. The gullies there are narrow and very deep — lowering a hook down a few feet from shore was enough for us to get a good dozen.

“We may have to eat them, later on.”

I climbed to the top of a high hill so I could scout out the surrounding countryside. There were no cattle to be seen; it was now getting into the late afternoon when we came upon two boys who had been trouting in Little Norther Brook Pond and were now heading home, their fishing baskets filled with fingerlings.

“Yes, we seen a cow up there, all be herself.”

When we reached the foot of the pond, a good three miles from where we had caught our trout, over very rough terrain, we knew we had little hope of finding her because it was now beginning to get dark.

There were trees there, strung out along the whole length of the eastern border of the pond; we were hoping she was in there, somewhere.

We lit a fire, boiled up some tea and, using a pocketknife, cleaned and roasted the trout over the open coals. We ate them, though they weren’t fully cooked.

“She’s here somewhere, boy,” he said.

Bursting with milk

He always had a good relationship with the animals under his care; the caress, the soft talk, the potato in his pocket (one of the horses loved tobacco, and ate many a goodly handful).

He stood up and off into the twilight of the night he shouted “HERE, BOSS!! HERE, BOSS!!”

From a half mile away, we heard a low moan of a cow answering back.

Out of the trees she came, her udder bursting with milk, dripping from her teats.

“She’s calved.”

She was in good shape, larger by a hundred pounds than when I had switched her hind quarters in the spring.

“Something’s wrong here. The calf should be with her, and her udder shouldn’t be bursting; something’s wrong. ”

We went to where she came out of the trees; there was no sign of a calf.

What to do? Leave her and go back tomorrow, at which point she could be miles away, or bring her home, tonight, and go back, with her, tomorrow?

He opted for the latter; he placed the halter on her head and, as docile as an old dog, she followed us home in the dark of the night. A cow with a living calf, back there, doesn’t do that.

On the Sunday, when I woke, he was gone back into the woods. My mother had milked the animal, and, man and beast, the two went back to the foot of Little Norther Brook Pond.

He brought her back that day, for good this time, but no calf found.

When I came home from school on Monday for lunchtime break, my Dad was sleeping on the settle; he had risen that morning and went in again, for the third time, and found a dead calf close by the afterbirth (placenta). The calf had been born dead.

That cow lived on for many years and gave us lots of good milk, and calves, too.

She never again went beyond the confines of the fences of Long Beach. But I often wonder, if she could, what stories she could tell about that summer in the wilds of the hills and valleys of Conception Bay North.

— Dr. William O'Flaherty is author of a best-selling memoir entitled "Tomcats and House Calls: Memoir of a Country Doctor." He worked a 40-year career as a country doctor in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. He was the country doctor in Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay, from 1967 to 1989, and was born in the tiny fishing village of Long Beach, at the lower end Northern Bay. He writes from Moncton, NB.

To read Dr. O'Flaherty's earlier submission, click here


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Recent comments

  • PaulStJohn's
    December 03, 2013 - 08:43

    What a fine read!