The Gentile Cow

On a map, the town of Bluewater, New Mexico, is just a small dot near the northeastern corner of the state. But to me it is a very important town, because it is there that I was born and raised. It was my world. Here I learned many lessons, not the least of which was one taught by the episode of the “gentile cow.”

The countryside around Bluewater is beautiful, but beautiful in a harsh way. It is a dry region, and much of the level valley is covered with sandy red soil which the constant wind piles around fence posts and other objects. A deep gully runs across the valley.Only during the rainy season does it hold any water, and then it is a raging torrent colored red by the soil. Near the head of the gully where there is a runoff from the hills, some cottonwood trees have managed to send their roots down deep enough to be sustained by underground water. They are so firmly situated that they are not affected by wind or drought. As a child I had hope my testimony of the gospel would become as deep-rooted and as unbendable as those cottonwood trees.

Bluewater was really a community divided between the Mormons and the gentiles. Northward lived the rich (we thought) gentiles. They owned the General Merchandise Store and the garage with a gasoline pump. There also was a small Union Pacific Railway Depot and the United States Post Office. Southward, the Mormons had a little concrete church meetinghouse and a red brick four-room schoolhouse. There was not much socializing between the groups. The Mormons went up to the store to get produce and to fill their gasoline tanks in their cars at the garage and get their mail at the post office. Few trains ever stopped at the depot, so few people went there. The gentile children came down to school, and the gentile adults came occasionally to Church socials and dances.

During the depression of the 1930’s, we lived mostly on potatoes and pinto beans. The ultimatum was, “If you don’t grow it, you don’t eat it.” Momma could make potatoes and beans taste like gourmet food, but she could not make them into milk for the children. In this little town there were no telephones, sidewalks, electric lights, or paved streets—and no dairies. There wasn’t even any money to buy canned milk. A milking cow was a necessity for a family. Our cows were all dry. My parents worried about their eight children. As the oldest child, I worried too.

One day as I helped Momma with the dishes, I asked, “Are we going to starve?” She countered, “We haven’t starved yet, have we?” I knew we hadn’t starved, but we had hungered for variety, and now we needed milk. She continued as much for herself as for me: “So long as we pay our tithing, I can’t think the Lord will let us starve. He has always looked after us.” I knew this was true, and I knew that my parents always paid an honest and cheerful tithe on every thing they received. Every tenth calf went for tithing. I saw Momma write on the calendar each night the number of eggs she had gathered that day, and each month a tenth went to the Lord. I was reassured. Besides, it was spring and new crops were being planted.

One day not long after this, I hurried home from the school bus. As I came up the path to the house, I saw my two little brothers and my sister looking at something by the gate. It was a smouldering cigar butt. I could not think how a fat cigar butt could have gotten inside our gate. The only smoking Mormon I knew smoked thin cigarettes.

“Where did it come from?” I asked.

The answer could only make more questions. “Mr. Thigpen threw it there.” Mr. Thigpen was the foremost-gentile. He owned the General Merchandise Store.

“Why was he here?”

The next answer did nothing to solve the mystery: “He’s going to give Daddy a cow.”

My sister reached out her foot and kicked the cigar butt. We stood horrified. But lightning didn’t strike, and the earth didn’t swallow her up, so my brother took the shovel and covered the remains of the cigar with sand.

Daddy came out of the house and put a bridle on the horse that was in the corral. Momma came out and said, “Are you going now?”

“Yes, Mr. Thigpen said to come get a cow. He’ll change his mind when he sobers up, but we’ll milk her tonight anyway.”

He threw the saddle on the horse’s back and fastened the cinch. “I’ll be back in a little while.” He got on the horse and trotted off to the north. I was too mystified to ask if I could go too.

While Momma prepared supper, I worked on my school lessons. I had to get them done before dark because we were out of coal oil for the lamp. Momma put wood in the stove. She stirred the food in the kettles, then pushed the kettles to the back of the stove where they would keep warm but not burn. She took the bread from the oven and turned it out of the pans onto the sideboard by the stove. The she set the table.

By this time the children who had been watching at the gate came running through the house. “Daddy’s home! The cow’s here!” They ran out of the kitchen door. I ran out, too. Momma followed with a milk pail. My brother quickly opened the corral gate. We all watched as the beautiful little Jersey cow with the big milk bag stepped daintily inside. She stood waiting to be milked. No famous opera singer ever had a more appreciative audience.

Daddy milked the cow. We stood there listening to the sound of the milk filling the pail. We all walked into the house behind Daddy who carried the milk pail. He opened the stove door to light the darkened room. He strained the milk and set the pitcher on the table. Momma sliced a warm loaf of bread and set the beans, potatoes, and bread on the table. We all sat down, and Daddy said the blessing on the food and thanked the Lord for his kindness to us that day.

Mr. Thigpen did come back a few days later. He was a bit chagrined by his generous offer. However, he covered his embarrassment by offering Daddy a job to pay for the cow and also to receive goods from the store for pay.

“Well,” said Momma, “we don’t know in what way the Lord will help us. I never thought a drunk gentile could answer a prayer.” The roots of my testimony anchored about three meters deep.

It has been many years since we sat around that table eating our supper by firelight, but the scene is as bright to me as an unshaded light bulb. I have traveled to many places in the world and eaten many remarkable meals. I have sampled milk that has been pasteurized, homogenized, pulverized, refined, and vitalized, but no milk has ever surpassed, or even equaled, the soul-satisfying milk that the Lord sent to us by that gentle “gentile cow.”

[illustration] Illustrated by Craig Poppleton