Dawn belongs to the heifers. Six of them wait every morning near the bottom of the hill. In fair weather a pickup truck brings alfalfa and sometimes meadow grass. On rainy days, the man tugs a cart full of the same down to them.
They range from just under a year old to three. The three-year-old, a cow called Wanda, acts like the leader. She stands and strides and looks like a horse with horns, marked with a tiger-striped brindle coat; her mother a Jersey milker, her sire a gargantuan Black Baldy. Wanda greets the truck or cart first. She doesn't get in the way of the truck, doesn't push at the cart. She often waits where the road passes the remains of a cabin, built more than a century ago by the man's second oldest uncle, Charlie.
Names from centuries past hold a place here: the big orchard, the picnic grounds (where friends and family gathered on the Fourth of July for a hundred years), Louie's ( a spot by the stream where a family friend camped during summers more than fifty years gone by, grown over now by willow and alder).
Even in summer, fog masks the rising sun in those bottom lands, only capitulating at mid-morn in ascending smoky puffballs. The mists of winter glisten in the foreground of the headlamp the man wears when he arrives early to head start the day.
When the light shadow of a big moon keeps the heifers grazing deep into the night, they make up for it by snoozing past the break of day. It's then the man finds the bigger of a pair of Herefords snoring like a babe, her huge polled head lolling on her two front hooves. She shares the name Lillie with one of the man's grandmothers, who spent the second half of a long life answering to Bama or Bam because her son Charlie's only child couldn't pronounce Grandma.
Last summer, Lillie retreated to a grove of hefty second growth redwoods to calve by herself. Fathered by the Black Baldy, and though the black features usually dominate, the boy calf arrived with his mother's red and white colors on its face and back. He did retain an extra long and broad white coat on the underbelly.
Lillie tucked the calf under ferns and redwood duff on a steep side hill while she went off to feed herself. During the calf's second day it somehow ended upside down on the slope, apparently drowned in its own fluids. Lillie stayed with the dead baby day and night, licking it clean over and over, occasionally lowing in as soft a tone as could still be heard. Eventually, she gave in to hunger, returning to the herd to graze. For several more days, however, she traced her steps to the decaying calf to sit beside it while chewing her cud and napping.
Lillie and the other Hereford nuzzle up to the man at feeding time and sometimes just because… There are scholarly studies, now, on the socialization process of cattle. One scientist has broken down the intonations of various mooing to the degree we may see those sounds translated into human speech on our computers in the not too distant future. Examples of cross-species socialization are being documented far and wide. So a Hereford seeking a hug from its human is far from unusual or unique.
Wanda, on the other hand or horn, has tried to gore three different humans. Each instance occurred during feeding time. Jealousy appears a common thread. Her third go at it happened as the man hand fed her younger sister, Brownie. The man almost always keeps one eye on Wanda, her reputation having already been established. A second or two or three of lapsed attention gave Wanda the opportunity, a head down charge into the man's blind side. She raked her horns from belt line to arm pit, but barely broke the skin. She left him with a good bruise or two. Harsh words passed and Wanda was chased from the feeding grounds until the others had consumed every last blade of alfalfa and meadow grass.
Justice is a hard thing to mete out fairly from human to animal. Wanda gets some special dispensation. She was double orphaned within a fortnight. Her mother slipped and skidded on the slightest slope, snapping her neck only two weeks after Brownie's birth. The accident occurred at nightfall. While the rest of the herd shied away from the dead matriarch, the Hereford who has never calved lay down beside Brownie for hours in that first long night of separation.
Bovines display grief in methods unique to the individual. Wanda walks up the hill alone, now and again, to travel down a logging road, over a bank, and off into the brush to stand beside the remaining bones of her mother. Sometimes sniffing at them, other times simply gazing into the distance.
Lillie stood sentry-like in early fall over the body of an ancient Hereford, the last direct link to the herds that roamed and grazed the lower Albion in the 1800s. The elderly one had taken refuge in a burned out stump barely big enough for her to curl up inside. Though the man hand fed her bits of alfalfa and pans of water she wouldn't get up, she made no attempt to revive and stand. In turn each of the others, from six-month-old calf to Wanda, took their turn visiting, licking at her head and ears, sniffing then stepping back. When the elder finally passed late of a morning, one by one respects were offered, some touching her, others recoiling from the smell of death. Eventually, each wandered off to graze, leaving Lillie to stand vigil by the stump. Maybe it was because she had experienced the mourning process only a couple of months before with her calf. Who knows for sure… Finally, at some point in the afternoon, Lillie walked slow, yet steady, away from the stump to resume her life's chore, grazing in the grass.