Ode to an ox outstanding in his field

He caught my eye one late-summer day as I was driving down a quiet, country road near home. He was tall and very muscular, but it was his sweet brown eyes that melted my heart.

He was as big and handsome a bull as I'd ever seen - a monumental Holstein whom I called Buster.

Holstein dairy cows are a large breed. They are a fairly common sight here in northern Connecticut, but a Holstein bull like Buster is not. He was all alone in a small shady pasture across the road from a mixed herd of Angus and Herefords. I slowed, then stopped my car and rolled down the window to get a good look at him.

He stood stoically just behind an electric fence, and as he watched me, his fuzzy ears twitched back and forth, revealing a slight uncertainty. Or maybe it was just the flies. As his eyes blinked slowly and shyly, I wished for my camera and imagined the close-ups of his quiet, soulful gaze.

I confess that I spoke to him. "Hey, who are you?" I said in the singsong way usually reserved for babies or anything cute. Yes, I talk to animals. Not just cats and dogs ... and cows - but to any creature that will listen. And that day, Buster seemed willing. I continued to sweet-talk him until I noticed traffic lining up behind me.

My younger son's school was just down the road from Buster's pasture, so I passed by quite often. His striking Holstein markings were impossible to ignore: big black splotches scattered on a sea of pure white. I pointed him out to my sons every time we passed by. "There's Buster," I'd say, and we'd stop the car, say a few words to him, and admire his piebald magnificence.

As summer disappeared into fall and the days grew cooler, I noticed Buster's coat becoming thicker. On rainy days, his stocky knees and broad hooves the size of dinner plates were always caked in ebony, hay-flecked muck. He reminded me of a puppy or young child, oblivious to society's disapproving view of a good roll in the mud.

Another bull soon joined Buster in his brook-side pasture - an average-sized Red Angus that I nicknamed Rusty. Their lean-to was big enough to shelter two bovines ... but only one Buster. So, some mornings I saw Buster asleep under the lean-to, and on other days it was Rusty's turn.

A day came in late fall when I drove by their pasture and the bulls were nowhere to be seen. Dread quickly set in. I reminded myself that a farmer raises animals for practical reasons. He doesn't usually feed and shelter them for their furriness, cuteness, and good listening skills.

The likelihood that the bulls, especially Buster, had been sent to market saddened me no end. I thought Buster was worth far more than just the going price of beef.

For days afterward I scanned the pasture each time I drove by, hoping to see the pair of bulls standing behind the lean-to or a cluster of trees. They could have just wandered down into the brook, out of sight, I thought. Maybe I had just missed them. Soon, though, it became clear that they really were gone.

My heart ached every time I saw that small, vacant pasture. So I tried hard to shift my attention over to the cattle that dotted the expansive, hilly pasture on the other side of the road.

There were scores of them - some were black, or black with touches of white. Others were reddish-brown and white. Sometimes they grazed very close to the road but on this day, they were at the far end of the pasture and difficult to see.

The following day, I picked up my son from school and as we passed the farm, I spied an incongruity amid the black and brown cattle far out in the field. I slowed down and focused on the large patches of white that flashed in the afternoon sunlight.

"It's Buster!" I gleefully yelled, pointing him out to my son. Seeing him among the other cattle, I was struck by Buster's impressive stature. He truly stood head and shoulders above the rest. Outstanding in his field, if you will. A quick glance across the pasture and we soon spotted Rusty, too. My spirits soared. Life was good.

Almost three years have passed, and Buster still seems to be enjoying his bucolic life on the farm. I recently drove by, and when I saw the farmer I decided to stop and ask him about his cattle - something I'd wanted to do for a long time.

He was busy haying some horses, and when I inquired about his big Holstein bull, he stopped and matter-of-factly said: "Oh, you mean the ox." "The ox?" I said, stupefied. "Yeah ... been an ox about all his life."

All this time I'd thought Buster's bullhood was the very reason he had been moved over to the other side of the road, though the idea of mixing dairy and beef cattle had always struck me as odd. Things became clearer when the farmer told me the rest of the story.

It turns out I'm not the only one who is a sucker for big brown eyes. Years earlier, Buster had been owned by a local restaurant and was going to be the main course at an upcoming barbecue - until someone in the restaurant owner's family fell hard for Buster's charms and bought him to keep as her very own pet.

So Buster now lives out his days on the farm as a boarder - roaming the pastures, dining on hay and green grass, and lazing in the mud of his choosing. I'll continue to admire him from afar. I doubt he's interested in any more of my idle conversation. But if ever I chance upon him grazing close to the road, I'll stop and tell him that he's still the sweetest bull I ever saw.

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