The General


The General

Saturday morning, when Dad said he had to cut Brother Ballard’s hay, I told him that I could take care of things at home. Ever since I had turned nine, I had been bragging that I was almost a man and could handle things on the farm about as well as Dad could. “I’ll be all right,” I insisted as Dad headed for the tractor. “Just let me look after the farm.”

“What about taking the cows and the General to the meadow?” Dad asked. “Can you do that all by yourself?”

I swallowed hard. The cows were no problem, but I’d forgotten all about ornery old General.

“I can help Jacob drive the General down the lane to the meadow,” Mom spoke up from the steps. She knew I was a little afraid of our big roan steer, General, and she’d always been the one to drive him to the meadow when Dad wasn’t around.

“I don’t need any help,” I insisted. “A man doesn’t need his mom herding the cows for him.”

“The General isn’t mean or anything,” Dad pointed out, “but he does have a mind of his own.”

I nodded. I knew all about the General. I was the one who had practically raised him. I’d fed him from a bottle and later taught him to drink out of a bucket. And when he got older, I brought him lots of grass and grain. What he liked best, though, was carrots, so I often got a handful of carrots from the cellar and let him eat out of my hand. He’d close his eyes and munch on those long, crisp carrots like they were orange candy bars.

When the General was still a calf, he even let me ride him. But then he grew to be more than 450 kilograms.

I still liked him, but I liked him from a distance, and I always wanted a fence between him and me. Even so, I said, “I’ll be able to handle the General.”

Dad nodded. “I know you can do it. You’re a good worker.” He started the tractor, then called to me, “Now, remember, Jacob, after you take the cows to the meadow, make sure that you close the gate at the top of the lane. I don’t want those cows in the alfalfa. They’d get sick for sure from eating it, and we could lose every one of them.”

“I know,” I said.

I fed the calves their grain and hay. I carried slop to our three pigs, Dandy, Pandy, and Mandy. I gathered the eggs from the chicken coop and gave the chickens their grain. I scattered fresh straw in the shed so that the cows would have a soft bed that night. Then I opened the corral gate so that I could herd our seven milk cows and the General to the meadow.

About that time the General decided that he wanted a drink from the water trough, so every one of those old cows decided she wanted a drink too.

Those cows always did everything he did. I yelled at them and waved a stick and threatened to throw a rock at them, but they didn’t care. They just followed the General. I had to just wait until that stubborn old steer decided he wanted to go to the meadow.

He sniffed at every clump of grass, every fence post, and every rock between the corral and the lane. And what did the cows do? Why, they sniffed at every clump of grass, every fence post, and every rock, too.

Since I couldn’t hurry those cows and the General along, I started daydreaming. Then a big old green frog came jumping through the tall grass and landed right in front of me. Well, I never let a good frog get away, so before long I had it in my hands.

I was looking for something to put my frog in, when right there, sunning itself on a flat rock, was the biggest water snake I’d ever seen. I dropped the frog and grabbed the snake right behind its head. It wrapped itself around my arm and stuck its red forked tongue out at me, but I just smiled and headed back to the barn for a bucket to put it in. The General and the cows were starting down the lane toward the meadow, so I decided to look after my snake then and close the gate later.

I didn’t think I was gone very long. I did stop for a drink at the water trough and let my snake take a swim, and I checked on our cat and her four kittens. That just took a few minutes, though. But when I got back, that ornery old steer had decided that he didn’t want to go to the meadow after all. Partway down the lane he’d turned around and headed toward the alfalfa field, and the seven cows had followed.

When I saw the General wandering toward the alfalfa, I dropped the bucket. My snake slithered out of it and off through the grass, but by then I was running for the gate.

I was too late. The General and the cows were through it and wandering along the ditch bank that led to the alfalfa field. Luckily he wasn’t in a big hurry. He’d sniff at fence posts, munch clumps of grass, and swish the flies from his back with his tail. I knew, though, that if he ever made it to the alfalfa field, he’d never leave. He’d stay until his belly was clear full; then he’d lie down, get sick, and die. And those silly cows would eat and get sick and die right with him.

I found a big stick and filled my pockets with rocks. Then I circled around in front of the General. I waved the stick over my head and stomped my feet. I tried to shout to get his attention, but my throat was so tight that all I could do was squeak.

Digging into my pocket, I pulled out a good throwing rock, reared back, and let it fly. It hit that old steer right on the nose. His head jerked up, and he shook his head and blew angrily through his wet nose.

I didn’t figure there was any need to get myself killed trying to keep those crazy cows out of the alfalfa. I dropped my stick, jumped the ditch, sprinted to the fence, flopped on my belly, and scrambled underneath the bottom strand of barbed wire.

When I finally opened my eyes, I expected to see the General on the other side of the fence, snorting and pawing. But he wasn’t anywhere around! He was still along the ditch bank, ambling closer and closer to the alfalfa field.

I thought of running to the house to ask Mom to help me, but after telling Dad that I was old enough to take care of things around the place, there was no way I could do that.

Then I thought about praying. Heavenly Father would help me out! I dropped right to my knees and asked Heavenly Father to get that stubborn steer straightened out and headed back to the meadow, away from the alfalfa field.

When I finished my prayer, I figured I’d just wait until Heavenly Father had a chance to get the job done. When I thought I’d waited long enough, I looked toward the meadow. There wasn’t a single cow in it. I looked up and down the lane. No cows. I looked along the ditch bank. And there they were, ambling along toward the alfalfa field behind that ornery steer.

I couldn’t believe it. Hadn’t Heavenly Father heard me? Wasn’t he going to help me out? Maybe I prayed for the wrong thing, I thought. I dropped to my knees again. This time I prayed that Dad would finish Brother Ballard’s hay and get home before the cows were dead.

It was a pretty long prayer. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t leave anything out. When I finished, I waited on my knees and counted to 200 to give Heavenly Father plenty of time to get the message to Dad.

As I got to my feet, I listened for the growl of Dad’s tractor, but I couldn’t hear anything. And all I could see coming down the road was a truck. I waited and waited, but Dad didn’t come. And the General and the cows were almost to the alfalfa field.

Tears were running down my cheeks as I ran past the barn, looking for a place to hide so that I wouldn’t have to watch the General kill himself. There was only one place I could go—I dashed down the cellar steps.

Once more I knelt down. This time, though, I just prayed that Heavenly Father would help me to know what to do and to be brave enough to do it.

When I finished praying, I sat down on a sack of carrots to think. I pulled one of the carrots out of the sack and absentmindedly wiped it off on my pants and started chewing on it. Then it came to me—I could turn the General around with carrots!

I hurriedly emptied the rocks from my pockets and stuffed carrots in their place. With my arms full of carrots, too, I raced up the cellar steps, past the barn, and over to the ditch. The General was still munching along the ditch bank a little way from the alfalfa, and the cows were munching right behind him.

I said one more quick prayer, then marched right up to the General and dropped the biggest, fattest carrot under his nose. That old steer didn’t even look up at me. His big long pink tongue just wrapped around the carrot and popped it into his mouth. That carrot gone, he looked to me for another one. I held one out and started walking backward toward the gate in the distance. The General watched me slowly walk away. At first he didn’t move. He took a long look at the alfalfa field and a long look at me. And then he came.

My heart was thumping wildly, but I kept moving closer to the open gate and dropping a carrot every few steps or so. As always, those silly cows stayed right behind the General.

I don’t know how long it took me to get to the lane, but by the time I got there, I was so worn out that I could hardly walk. As soon as the seventh cow went through the gate, I dropped the last two carrots and ran and closed it and even tied it with a piece of wire. Then I knelt right there and thanked Heavenly Father.

That night at supper time, I didn’t brag about taking care of everything. In fact, I just sat quietly and ate. When Dad asked me how things had gone that day, I mumbled something about getting along pretty well; then, to change the subject, I asked for another slice of bread.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Jerry Harston