Life was as pleasant and peaceful as could be in the cow paddock over the next few months. Harsh summer mellowed into sweet autumn, the grass grew thick and green, while the hills west of the farm transformed into glorious shades of leafy red and gold. The calves grew taller and fatter, and wandered around the paddock as they pleased, independent of their mothers. The great bull was content. No beetles bothered him anymore. In fact, within two weeks of the spider webs defending his stall, the beetles stopped invading the barn. Now, only one or two beetles a week were caught in the webs. Most of the spiders had returned outside to build new webs in the trees and fences and under the eaves of the barn.
But as the days began to shorten and the nights began to cool, an uneasiness pervaded the cow community. The older cows, as was their habit at this time of year, became quiet and introspective; the mother cows seemed agitated. Even Hector’s stoic demeanour began to falter. He lost his temper over small things, and he ceased his familiar jokes with Esmerelda. Only the younger cows seemed immune to the anxiety. Esmerelda spent most of her time with the other calves, enjoying the extra food Mr McGinley delivered especially for them each day. She stopped following Hector around.
One late afternoon, with grey clouds blotting the sky and a chilling wind blowing from the south, Esmerelda went to see the great bull. He was standing up by the cow paddock’s north fence, where he had been spending much of his time, looking out across the horse yard and down the long dirt path to the wide front gate of the farm. “Hello Hector,” said Esmerelda.
Hector was surprised to hear her voice, but kept his eyes focused on the gate in the distance. “Hello Esmerelda. What are you doing up this end of the paddock? Where are the other calves?”
“You know where they are,” said Esmerelda. “Down at the barn. And I came here to talk to you.”
Hector glanced at her, then turned back toward the gate. “You haven’t come to talk to me in a long time.”
“I know.” She stood beside him and followed his gaze. “What are you looking at? The horses?” The Clydesdale and her foal were grazing near the stables.
“No,” said Hector. He swished his tail.
“I have missed these stimulating talks of ours,” said Esmerelda.
The hint of a grin broke through the bull’s grave expression.
Esmerelda went to a nearby fencepost and scratched her neck against it. “Remember when you knocked the fence over?”
Hector watched her silently.
“I thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen,” she said. “It probably still is.” She stood there by the fence a minute, then turned to Hector. “Mr McGinley is going to send me away, isn’t he?”
Hector shifted his hooves and chewed some cud.
“I know that’s what happens to the calves,” said Esmerelda. “One of the old ewes told me. That’s why the cows are sad. I’ll be going soon, won’t I?”
Hector swallowed. He looked Esmerelda in the eye and gave the slightest nod. “Any day now, a long truck will drive through the front gate, then you and the other calves will get on the truck, and then the truck will leave the farm.”
Esmerelda turned and looked down to the front gate. “And I won’t come back?”
“You won’t come back.”
Esmerelda exhaled a long breath. “The old ewe called it ‘going to slaughter.’ She told me what slaughter is.” Esmerelda looked at Hector. “Is the old ewe right?”
Hector cleared his throat, then said quietly, “She is right.”
Esmerelda stared at the grass a moment, then nodded. “Okay then.” She walked back past Hector, nudging his belly with her head. “You shouldn’t eat so much corn, Hector. You’re getting fat.”
Hector grunted, spun around and swung his horns at her (while keeping them raised enough to pose no danger). Esmerelda ducked his playful attack, laughed and trotted back down the paddock.
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