We were dealing with the worst flooding in over a hundred years, on ranch land that was flat as fuck and had just endured one of the snowiest winters on record. We worried about flooding every spring, and did everything we could to minimize the damage.
The problem was that we had two rivers coming together in the county --one of the sons of bitches making a dogleg right where it ran up against the other one-- and all manner of feeder streams and creeks. Every year it seemed like there was no telling how things were going to shake down or where all that water was going to end up, but this time it was clear we were in uncharted territory.
I was 22 years old and didn't know shit about how moving water worked, and the truth was I hadn't been anywhere or seen much of anything yet, but I knew for damn sure I'd never seen anything like this. I'd started working in high school for a rancher, the father of a girl I'd been dating since we were sophomores.
In this particular instance there'd been some sort of serious miscalculation, and the place where they stashed close to 300 cattle turned out to be exactly the wrong place. I never understood quite how it went wrong, or why, but it was a major fuck-up, and we needed to get every one of those cattle to the other side of a swollen, rapidly cresting river in a hurry.
This had all come up in a hurry, and in the early hours of the morning, and because we had so many guys working damage control elsewhere --and it was a huge ranch-- we went out in the dead of night with fewer than a dozen members of the crew. The water had already overrun the banks on the side of the river where the cattle were huddled, so horses were useless, or at least too risky.
We had two guys in motorboats, and another couple guys in a motorized raft, and they were over there battling the rushing water and trying to herd the cattle into the main channel of the river. Six of the more experienced hands were on horseback on the other shore, doing their damnedest to get a rope on anything they could and coax the cattle across and get them moving to drier ground once they'd struggled out of the water.
When the cattle were in the river, though, they were pretty much on their own. And once the guys in the boats had gotten some of them moving into the river, most of the others were pretty quick to follow. It's the way the animals were, the way they naturally reacted, and I don't imagine most of them had ever been harassed by boats.
It was raining like hell, and absolute chaos. I was the young guy, and I still didn't know much about either cows or horses. It turned out I never would. At any rate, they stationed me well up the bank on the safer shore, standing under a tarp with a video camera on a tripod. I was supposed to keep tabs --and a tally-- on the cows that didn't make it, the cows that were swept away or drowned.
I'd never seen a cow drown before, but by my count I saw 37 drown that day, and I'm sure I'll never again see anything like it. The damn things swam with just their heads extending above the rushing water, their eyes wide with obvious terror. They were just following the mass of bodies in front of them. And then one of those heads would go under, usually for just an instant, but that was all it took. I learned pretty quickly to be on the lookout for those instants, because almost immediately after their heads went under they would flip completely upside down in the river --their legs would actually bob above the surface for a moment-- and then they would either sink like a stone or get rolled away on the current.
After awhile that's all I could see; I was no longer even really aware of all the cattle that were thrashing in a panic up the muddy banks not thirty yards from where I stood. I was just locked in on the ones that weren't going to make it. Sometimes I watched them with the naked eye; other times I found myself taking refuge behind the camera's viewfinder.
This was years ago now, and I'm no longer working at the ranch, but it seems like every time it rains hard, and every spring when the rivers start to rise, I wake up from nightmares of drowning cattle, and all I see are those eyes, and then they're gone.