Tuesday last was tax day and as I usually do around April 17, I ponder taxes, money, accountants.
All of this, of course, fuels imagery that erupts from the past: characters, events, some funny, some sad, some unwanted, some I am glad I remembered.
In 1979-1980 I worked for a big corporation in the ag business; cotton, lettuce, ranches, feed lots. I was part of a team who ran a feedlot on the Gila River Indian Reservation at a place called San Tan, southeast of Phoenix.
When somebody from the Phoenix corporate office called and said “Audit,” images of three-piece suits came to mind. Imagine a suit (an auditor) on a cayuse. A twirling lasso cutting the breeze, stirrups, chaps, saddle (an auditor?).
When you work outside at a feed yard you fight manure dust biting the eyes, the ears, the nose. Flies, sweat, cattle wild with fear. Frightened cattle don’t eat. That stops them gaining weight. It costs money when they don’t gain weight.
Not making money…hmmm…the thought of an auditor causing loss of money seems an oxymoron, but a lot about the cattle feeding business is strange. Somewhere the task of providing protein for a hungry world gets caught up with the drive to make a buck. We all understand making a buck, but when keeping track of making bucks hinders the efficiently production of a t-bone steak, it causes a buckaroo to pull off his Stetson and scratch his head.
They’d be out on Saturday morning. That’s what they said. “Saturday.” It was going to be 105 degrees so that meant a dawn start. We’d need to chouse the cattle before they had time to eat.
My cohorts, Robert, the manager, and Ed, the cattle boss, showed up before the sun sliced the eastern horizon. We copied lists and lot numbers and waited for the auditor.
A dark blue BMW pulled up. Two men, one whom I recognized as the corporate controller and who was wearing fancy orange and gold Nikes, and another whom I had never seen, got out and stomped up to the front door. Both looked rough…hangover rough, pallid skins. A day’s dark whiskers glooming their faces. When the controller walked in, those orange and gold Nike’s cut the dim like the glint of coin in a counting house. I thought to myself, those shoes are a bit brash for knocking around in cow manure.
Robert said, “It’s going to get hot fast. And it’s hard on the cattle. We best be moving now.”
Two cowboys showed up on horseback. Flies began what flies do: eat, lay eggs, die and bother horses, cattle and humans. The sun grew surlier as the day swelled.
As soon as the auditor and Mister Controller picked a pen of cattle (we were trying to see if the actual count matched what the records said) the cowboys drove the lot into an alley between the pens and we’d count. Dust rose with the temperature. The auditor broke an early sweat and Mister Controller complained about everything: the heat, the flies, the dust.
If the count was off, we’d run the lot out into the alley again and count them a second time. The cattle didn’t like it. Once or twice, big hump-backed smoky-gray south Texas steers hurdled the sucker rod fences which dismayed the auditor, messing with his tallies. Ed and the cowboys cackled. Mister Controller spent a lot of time pontificating on cattle, especially south Texas, half wild smoky-gray hump backs. It sounded like a bunch of…how should I best say it?…like a bunch of manure.
We had eight or ten lots to tally and were keeping pretty close on our counts which made Robert happy…less chousing the cattle. It was hard to tell what the auditor thought. He looked to me like he needed a cool place to vomit up his hung-over guts. Mister Controller kept babbling about cattle this and cattle that.
On the last lot, we drove the steers out into the alley and threaded them back in. In the middle of the pen, a big wet spot about ten feet across marked the tan dust a dark brown. All of us, the cowboys, Robert, Ed and me, avoided that spot. There was a leaky water line down below the four or five feet of dried manure.
Robert and Ed told everyone to stay clear of the wet spot. As we finished the count, Mister Controller crossed the pen, wiping his hands like he’d just finished a big chore.
He yelled at the auditor, “What’s the count look like?” as he stepped into the big wet spot. Ed yelled, “Hey, don’t go there.” Mister Controller frowned and said, “I don’t take orders from…” and he began to sink. As if it was all a fantasy, he walked on into the middle of the spot with a look on his face like he couldn’t believe what was happening to him. He sunk past his knees. Robert yelled, “It’s like quicksand.”
Mister Controller stopped and glanced down as he sunk an inch at a time. He stuck out his hand. “Help me.” The auditor looked at me and I shrugged. Mister Controller looked at me, too, but I shook my head. He almost sobbed, “Why?” One of us, I don’t remember, said, “Because you’ll pull us in.”
One of the things a cowboy loves to do more than anything is build a loop and rope something. They will rope anything…a dog, a goat, a horse, a set of horns on top of a saw-horse. I don’t know if one of us suggested it, but before you could slap a blow fly off the side of your face, the two cowboys had their ropes in their hands building loops. Mister Controller sank deeper, his face paralyzed by the realization he was caught in the nefarious grip of cow shit.
One loop, then two, whirled in the hot air. Somebody chuckled, and then laughed as one loop, then two, flopped over the torso of Mister Controller. Drawn tight, trapping his flailing arms. He yelled, “Hey, wait a …” We laughed, even Mister Hung-over Auditor, as the cowboys pulled Mister Controller out.
I don’t know how much weight gain was lost as a result of the audit. But there were other rewards, wastes and squanders. Mister Controller lost one of his fancy orange and gold Nike’s. Sucked right off his foot into that manure sinkhole. I have often wondered what else he lost.