The Gentile Cow

by Rhoda Lewis Behunin

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    The state of New Mexico has a dot-to-dot line called Highway 66. This line comes across the state boundary near the northeastern corner and connects dots Gallup, Bluewater, Grants, and Albuquerque. Although Bluewater is the smallest of these dots, to me it is the most important. Here 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.”

    In Bluewater, nature is not a soft, sweet, green Mother who gives of her bounty. Here she is a rugged individual who demands the utmost of man’s endeavor for the yield she lets him have. She does have a strong beauty here, however. Mt. Taylor stands to the east and the range of Rocky Mountains to the west. North, toward Gallup, are red sandstone bluffs and black jagged malpais (volcanic ridges). Much of the level valley floor is covered with red soil. When it is dry, which is nearly always, this sandy loam is sifted around fence posts in miniature mountains by the ever-present wind. It used to be a delightful experience to walk barefooted through the sand, but the Russian thistles that thrive here made walking pleasant only for the wary. It was a status symbol to have feet tough enough to walk barefoot over thistles.

    An arroya (deep gully) begins from the northwest hills and zig-zags diagonally across the valley. This arroya is usually dry, but in rainy seasons it holds a red, raging torrent. Near the head of the arroya 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 hoped 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 gas pump. There also was a small Union Pacific Depot and the United States Post Office. Southward, the Mormons had a little concrete church house 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 gas tanks 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 or dances.

    During the depression of the 1930s, we lived mostly on potatoes and pinto beans. The ultimatum was, “If you don’t raise it, you don’t eat it.” Momma could make potatoes and beans taste like gourmet food, but she couldn’t 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 cent 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 smoldering 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 arch-gentile. He owned the General Merchandise Store.

    “Why was he here?”

    Their 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 aghast. But lightning didn’t strike, and the earth didn’t swallow her up, so my brother took the shovel and covered the remains 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 got supper, I worked on my 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. Then 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 prima donna ever had a more appreciative audience.

    Daddy milked the cow. We stood there listening to the sharp zing of the stream of milk as it hit the pail, beating itself into a standing foam that soon muffled the zing to a mellow swish. We all filed 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 broke 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 saved face by offering Daddy a job to pay for the cow and also to draw “store 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 ten feet 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 many fine lines on the map 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.”

    Illustrated by Craig Poppleton