A bovine brawl, but what's the beef?

I've never been to Spain, but I have watched a bullfight. I didn't intend to get as close to the action as I did. I thought I might be trampled in the melee, but John rescued me and took me to lunch.

Early that morning, before I knew there would be a bullfight, I parked my pickup at the southeast corner of the ranch I took care of in northeastern Oregon.

I carried my tools and supplies and walked north along the fence that ran through the edge of timber, just above the meadow, at the base of the rapidly rising, forested ridge. I stopped, removed my backpack, and repaired fence that had been damaged by the previous winter's snow. Then I picked up my tools, lunch, and water bottle and walked to the next spot that needed work.

Midmorning, the crew from the owner's home ranch, on horses, moved cattle down the trail outside the fence, on their way from one Forest Service allotment to another. No one rode point, so the first cattle tromped, bellowed, and mooed down the outside of the fence far ahead of the riders. I kept working on the fence from inside, and the cattle began to pass by me.

Two bulls walked heavily near the leaders of the herd. One must have said something insulting to the other, or perhaps one, avoiding a stump or a tree, got too close to the other. In any case, one bull took umbrage over something, turned, and pushed the other bull.

Not one to take aggression lightly, the second bull pushed back, and the fight began. The two bulls placed forehead to forehead and began pushing. They seemed evenly matched. One brown-and-white Hereford bull pushed for 50 feet. The second bull found traction, stopped backing, and pushed for 50 feet.

They skidded, chopped the ground to dust with their hooves, and roared at each other too close to where I was working. I left everything on the ground and retreated down the fence. I was fascinated enough to want to stay close enough to watch. And I didn't want to abandon my tools, lunch, and water bottle.

That put the bulls on my side of the fence, but it didn't slow down their contest, which seemed to test their strength without hurting either of them.

However, I, much smaller and much more breakable than one-ton bulls, could be trampled just by coincidence, the way bushes, fence, lunch, and tools were being trampled. I started to leave, and one bull pushed the other into my planned path out of the arena. I thought I'd pick another direction to retreat.

Just then, John, the owner of the ranch, rode out of the forest, high up on his old gray mare. He rode between me and the bulls, stopped, and let the mare take responsibility for watching the bulls, which she did well and carefully.

John said to me, "Looks like they're making a lot more work for you."

"Does look like that."

"Have you had lunch yet?"

"No. Not yet." I didn't mention that my lunch had been bull-stomped. John missed little in the world around him, and he had probably already seen that.

"Well, why don't you climb up here behind me and ride down to the gate with me? We're going to put the herd through the gate and then have lunch. You can eat with us. We always pack extra."

So I did. He moved his foot to give me an empty stirrup and offered me a hand up. I scrambled up behind him. I felt much more secure up on a mare that knew how to stay out of the way, behind an old cowboy who'd been around bulls all his life. We rode down the trail, cows all around us, and ate in warm sunshine with the whole crew.

By then, the two bulls had settled whatever it was they had fought about by shoving each other around and walked side by side again.

We finished lunch and visited awhile in mountain sunshine. Then the crew gathered all their gear together and rode on down the river to load horses into trailers and head back for the home ranch. I headed back up the fence, gathered everything together, and went back to the work area again in welcome solitude.

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