I follow my dad, a version of me twice my size and bravado, up the hill towards the cattle corral, iron once painted red, now dulled pink from sun. My dad used to drive through Lexington every Friday and Monday on his commute from Austin to Houston. He promised himself that once he quit lawyering he would raise cattle here, and he did. Lexington is forty-five minutes from Austin but far enough that it seems a different, emptier world.
The surrounding ponds are half as full as they should be and the grass is so brown that it is hard to tell plant from dirt. We’re halfway through the worst drought on record. I unstick my shirt from my chest and take care to avoid stepping on the ever-present cow patties. Why cowboys wear jeans in the summer I’ll never understand, but I want to fit in so I do too. I just got out of a disciplinary hearing at my middle school and this is not what I want to be doing on a Friday afternoon. My dad had sat next to me stewing, as the committee members listed my crimes and I pretended to look remorseful for what I thought were harmless shenanigans.
The corral is full of six month-old calves, shades of black and brown. They take turns lifting their tails and relieving themselves on each other, deciding that now, the only time of the day they don’t have access to thousands of acres of pastureland, is the time to defecate. The stench is overwhelming. My eyes water and my nose runs from the dust the calves kick up.
Phil, a lanky man born to be an extra in a John Wayne movie, rides up on a mangy brown horse. My dad spits out some tobacco and gives Phil an evil eye. Phil is always late because he insists that, as a cowboy, he should ride a horse instead of a pick-up truck. Even though, like everyone else here, Phil does own a pickup. He hops in the back of the corral and gets ready to force the male calves into a narrow enclosure where the brothers Big Carl and Big John wait. Carl is one of the biggest human beings I’ve ever seen, six foot seven with forearms the size of my thighs. John looks exactly like Carl if you pushed that heft into a six-foot tall box, and gave him a blond mustache only a thirteen year old might be proud of. They all went to Lexington High and Phil’s related to them somehow.
“Dad, I really don’t want to do this.”
“Well you’re going to.”
He doesn’t answer, but instead steps through metal pipeline fence, like the boxer he once was, ducking through the ropes of the ring.
“Carl, let me take over here,” my dad says. “Tell Treeman what he’s got to do.”
Carl hands me the scalpel and explains the procedure.
“Got it?” Carl asks.
My dad doesn’t wait for me to answer. “He’s got it. Bring one in Phil,” he says.
A black calf comes forward, moving towards us with no idea of what’s coming to him. My dad and Big John let the calf move between them before pinning it down on its back.
“I’m so sorry,” I say as I kneel down next to the calf and begin to cut its scrotum. The calf moans out, louder than it ever has, feeling the imminent loss of his bullhood. The cutting though only gets rid of its nutsack. The real act comes with grabbing the slimy, round balls, at this age, roughly the size of a human adult male’s, and yanking them away from the calf’s body. They are connected to the calf’s insides by some tendon-like material. The right one slips through my fingers on the first try.
“For shit’s sake hurry up,” Big John says. “He’s getting loose.”
“Calm down. Put a finger on either side, and pull smoothly,” my dad says. I do, and the tendon disconnects.
“Stick him with this. Keeps him from infection,” Carl hands me a needle full of a cloudy liquid, and I stick the needle into the calf’s shank where the fur is slick with blood.
The men let the new steer calf free. He scampers to the empty pasture as fast as he can, but has no one there to comfort him. I stand by the fence trying not to vomit. I turn around a few minutes later and see the calf frolicking around, eating grass, without a care in the world.
“You know their lives are better off,” my dad says. ”Without worrying about fighting or screwing, they can just eat and sleep and get fat until we sell them.”