How Not to Raise Llamas

By  |  May 24, 2016
“Jackass Wedding,” by James H. Evans “Jackass Wedding,” by James H. Evans

The Boer goats gazed up from their peaceful dimness through yellow slit eyes. They’d belonged to my late cousin Barry, who’d died six weeks prior. As trustee of his three young daughters and executor of his estate, I’d traveled out to his four-thousand-acre West Texas ranch to survey what he’d left behind. The goats were massive-headed, riding low like mongrel dachshunds. The mamas wore pregnancies so misshapen it seemed they’d swallowed oil drums. I stood at the corral fence, watching, my urban origins offering not a shred of expertise for judging the health of livestock, my thoughts seeded with doubt that I was ready to care for another man’s world. Something was clearly wrong with the goats; they looked like characters of fantasy migrated up from inner earth. As a dozen billies followed their noses between the tails of the nannies, I realized they were all inbred.

Cruz, the longtime foreman, drank heavily, especially on Sundays when his wife was at church, and he hurtled through the canyons in an old mail jeep to shoot rattlesnakes and check on pet catfish he kept in the stock tanks. Barry had died of heart failure at forty-six, in Houston, six hundred miles east. He had left the mountains years before to enroll his daughters in better schools and to avoid the grim prospects afforded a bachelor in a vast unpopulated county. His distance from the ranch, called Clevel, allowed Cruz to explore his darker urges, and his work the past five years had consisted primarily of stealing Barry’s Brangus cattle. On the evidence I gathered—some $25,000 in checks cashed from a livestock auction house in Roswell—the Texas Rangers carted Cruz off to jail for cattle rustling.

Because Barry’s three girls had moved to Oklahoma to live with their mother, because my life was in San Francisco, and because there wasn’t enough income to pay a full-time hand, all animals requiring daily care had to go. Mountain lions would eat the Boer goats if they went unsold. An emu, whom Cruz had jailed in a derelict tennis court, I freed to earn a living in pasture. So long as they had water and grass, the cattle more or less took care of themselves until roundup.

That left the llama.

Barry, dreaming of a llama herd in the years before his death, had bought the stud for two hundred dollars and thereafter ignored the fact that a wool empire could not grow on the back of a single male. His idyllic first year in pasture with the aged horses ended when the llama, who was as large as an adolescent giraffe, ran down Cruz’s granddaughter. The llama had spent every minute since in a corral as ugly as he was: an assemblage of railroad ties, chicken wire, and metal from the old runway in Marfa; so much was cobbled together with the messiness of lives.

Each morning that February I stayed on the ranch, I dumped feed into the llama’s trough and reached through the fence to stroke his neck, leery of the spiked teeth pointing back into his throat. With a malformed upper lip and bottom teeth like porcelain shards, the llama might have made a more attractive insect. I did try to warm him to me, as I’m wired to befriend even finches. Inevitably, I walked away wiping llama spit from my face.

I spread word of a llama for sale—cheap—figuring I could lure in a buyer who owned a female and the calmative cure. Jeff Davis County offered few options for steady work beyond laboring at the hat shop in town or driving a truck for the hydroponic tomato farm; the opportunity to sell a small pile of scrap metal could set men in motion. People, scratching for profit, came to see Barry’s llama. But each time I led a buyer to the corral, the llama charged the fence, reared up, and sprayed us with a hot shower of spit. The whole system of his existence he seemed to loathe.

My asking price dropped from fifty dollars to fifteen dollars to fifteen pesos.

“Just take him,” I begged.

The State of Texas had charged me with the task of protecting Barry’s daughters from liability, but little in probate law could be interpreted as giving rights to llamas. Yet abandonment in the corral meant starvation, and freeing him into pasture conjured visions of a demon flying over and crashing through fences to wreak havoc on creation; he was angry enough to break backs and too dumb to avoid a smashup with some cowboy cruising the highway, tossing Coors Light cans into the grass. Still, I imagined Barry shaking his head, saying, You think you know so much that everything on the ranch has to change?

I had no options. Until Troy came.

Troy was a cousin, a lawman, a Western singer, and a rural boy from North Texas better versed in the code of ranching than I. “As country as chicken shit,” his wife said of him, with love. Troy had made the trip to inspect the tractors, and I peppered him with questions about livestock, now that I had a herd in my care. We were just back from checking grass in Merrill Canyon when I forced the question out.

“Troy, will you kill my llama?”

Troy’s face was pink from the cold. He didn’t laugh.

“I know I’d be asking for trouble in giving him away,” I said. “Though there’s no one to give him to.”

“Don’t know what it says about me,” said Troy, “but I ain’t got a problem doing it.”

Troy dipped such massive plugs of tobacco that he talked with a lisp.

He said, “I’ll go to the truck for my pistol.”

I’d felt intimacy with life and death in all my time at Clevel: watching a mama goat spin to free her baby from the birth canal, dragging a dead calf away from the house pens. Barry had grown up on the ranch, stashed ammunition on it, fought his siblings for it, and then moved away. The grandness of the mountains, the irreplaceable patrimony in thousands of open acres, had doomed him to never find an identity of his own. He spoke of himself as a rancher but then didn’t participate much in its workings. Blame for his sadness he laid at the feet of his mother, my great-aunt Lavelle, and he’d cursed her with drink. Seven years after her death and one month after his, I found her ashes in a cardboard canister against the rear wall of his Houston storage unit. I drove west to Clevel with two sets of ashes, and Barry’s daughters scattered them one windy morning on a hill as Santana played through the open doors of a pickup.

The llama’s ears shot back when I stepped to the edge of the corral and looped a rope around his neck. He glared at me, not with the terror of a calf going to market, but with hatred. Baring foul, broken teeth, the llama seemed to call on some old knowledge of animals meeting their end.

Troy returned wearing a holster. We got a second rope over the llama’s head, opened the rear gate of the corral, and walked him into the horse trap, pulling from opposite sides as though handling a lion. The llama coughed against the tension of the ropes, bucked, reared.

“Troy, I don’t know. I’m not sure. I don’t want—”

“Whatever you say. I’ll do whatever you say.”

The winter wind hit us as we climbed the hill behind the barn. We steered the llama through prickly pear and cholla. One night during my first stint of living on the ranch, in my twenties, when I was fresh from leaving a job with Goldman Sachs for the writing life, Barry and I stood beside his pickup. A glow on a distant mountain ridge looked like the orange light cast by a wildfire. And the fire, as we spoke, seemed to grow. I pointed, said, “Barry, what is that?”

“City boy—it’s the damn moon.”

Rising.

A tension had remained between us, perhaps because of my liberal politics and perhaps because my father had been adopted into the McDannald family, meaning Barry and I were not related by blood. He’d named me trustee because he knew I loved his girls and because of my experience in finance. But I distrusted the power the law gave me to undo his legacy. No matter how ill-conceived the purchase of a lone male llama, no matter how inbred the goats, these animals were the character of Clevel, its odd but living spirit. And they were far more of the place than I.

“A barn without animals,” Cruz said before his arrest, “is a sad place.”

A ranch without people was a ruin.

The llama’s hooves crunched gray gravel and grama grass as we walked him beyond sight of the barn. He sneered, writhed against the tightening ropes, his black eyes bulging. How guilty I’d felt for betraying Barry’s father—my deceased great-uncle Cleaves—by hauling thirty dead pickups and tractors off the ranch, some that dated to the glory years of the old McDannald ranches. What to me was a junkyard had been to my great-uncle a universe of spare parts, a workspace. He’d hidden something of himself in the debris, I figured, his brain alone holding a blueprint of the pipe fittings, air filters, and vaccination guns filling a half-dozen buildings at headquarters. I felt a deep, even biological, joy in cleansing the land of the wreckage my family had left. But I imagined Cleaves stomping around, spitting, cursing me as I hauled all his machinery away. I’d dreamed that Barry was alive again and had returned to retake control of the ranch. And I imagined him furious as I stopped his llama on the backside of a hill.

Yellow grass waved for miles in the wind.

The llama wheezed.

“Troy, I know I’ll regret it when he attacks some neighbor next week, but I’d rather let him roam.”

“David, I’m not sure we can get the ropes off his neck.”

The llama’s eyes were so wide he seemed to be witnessing the evil of another world. A rumble sounded in his gut, a great frothing. He swung his head toward me and spit in my face. Then looked away, cheeks twitching, teeth clenched, as though the anger in him he couldn’t express.

“Drop him,” I said.

Troy held the pistol to the llama’s skull, and one shot returned the animal to the earth. Four days on there was little left but hide and bone. Only later did I realize that I hadn’t thought to ask Troy for the gun.


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David McDannald cowrote The Last Great Ape, a book of non-fiction about Africa and activism. His work has appeard or is forthcoming in the American Scholar, TriQuarterly, Subtropics, and New Letters.