An unseemly symphony


My job is to go to the front, lance the abscess and flush it out.

I'm 40 now, and there just are not many things left to surprise me. I'm not saying I've seen it all, but most things fit into categories, and few things strike me as being unexpected. A few days ago, I did see something that was remarkable.

Working cattle is one of the last reminders of the Old West. In many ways, it has been done the same ways for the last 100 years. A few modern conveniences have entered the formula: like working alleys and squeeze chutes. A veterinarian's role in this well-orchestrated ritual is usually marked by palpating the cows for pregnancy. This entails wearing a plastic sleeve and running one's arm up the fanny to check for a calf in the womb.

This is a time when neighbors, day workers and ranch hands get together to round up the cattle, run them through the chute to administer vaccinations and other annual necessities. The day worker is a crucial cog in the process. These people go from ranch to ranch and are paid on a per-day basis to assist in working cattle. These folks are quite a breed. They are about as rough and tough as they come, and they've seen it all.

We go to many of these workings each year, and every ranch has a little bit different way of getting the same jobs accomplished. It really doesn't matter to me how they do it as long as they don't get me smushed or otherwise injured in the process. Most of the time, one of these day workers run the squeeze chute. Typically, they draw a good amount of concern from my end. If they don't secure the cow well enough, she will back up and smash me against the gate. It has happened many times, and it often leads to a very hard time getting out of bed the next morning.

On this particular day, two day workers were running the chute. They were moving a bit slow, perhaps from a bit of overindulgence the night before. They appeared to be a little green around the gills. I guess a few beers in the evening must soften some of the pain from a hard day in the saddle, but this pair likely had more than a few.

The cowboys at the back of the line hollered "lumpy jaw" as the old Hereford cow entered the chute. This is a condition that causes the accumulation of puss around the bottom-jaw area. It is pretty gross, and it could have as much as a pint of thick, greenish, smelly juice in it. My job is to go to the front and lance the abscess and flush it out. I've done it 1,000 times. It stinks a bit, and sometimes the cow slings her head when you lance it so it sprays everything within 15 feet or so.

This lump must have had some pretty good pressure because it flew in every direction. It triggered a reaction not commonly displayed by cow folk. A deep, building, retching sound began all around me.

As it happens, the two day-worker dudes had a weak stomach when it came to lumpy jaw juice.

That, coupled with a few too many beers the night before, led to a rather unseemly symphony. But they weren't alone. The ranch owner was doubled over, too, which was unusual behavior from my experiences with him. It turns out that the only thing that makes him vomit is watching someone else go first.

But his noises were a bit different. He would retch a second, then laugh a second ... retch a second and then laugh a second. This, of course, made me laugh. Soon, everyone around was laughing except the two day workers, who were not amused at all.

I guess it surprised me to realize that even these two hardcore dudes had a weak spot. They got better in a few minutes, and we went right back to working cattle like the spontaneous symphony had never happened.

Dr. Brock owns the Brock Veterinary Clinic in Lamesa, Texas.

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