GEORGETOWN — Peter Carter doesn't know why his pregnant heifer panicked as his son George was walking her. Cows can be alarmed by anything from a sneeze to a rabbit hopping nearby.
But as the animal bolted, her rope wrapped itself around the 8-year-old's waist, dragging him about 500 feet. The boy was also trampled.
Carter feared spooking the heifer further, so the only thing he could do was wait for her to calm down, then cautiously approach to loosen the rope from his son's body.
As he carried George in a desperate effort to get help, Carter's left knee buckled under him.
"I was trying to rescue my son," he said, during an interview in the farmhouse where he and George had been together Saturday before his son was killed in what he described as an accident. "They called 911, everybody was in route, and I started CPR on my son."
Peter Carter sat Sunday in his family's living room, elevating a broken left leg on a couch. Relatives and friends surrounded him, and he spoke softly, with tears in his eyes, as he recalled the confidence with which his young son handled the family's cows.
George and Peter Carter had been engaged in what was supposed to be a routine practice, he said. The two were working with George's grandfather to exercise the cows before the Barnstable County Fair, where they planned to show them off in a few weeks.
After practice, Peter Carter had planned to take George and his 3-year-old sister Bellah to Greenfield to see a fireworks show for the Fourth of July weekend.
Looking back, Peter Carter wondered whether there was anything else he could have done in that moment.
"Could I have done something different?" Peter Carter asked, shocked. "Why am I burying my only son?"
His son knew the cow, Gretta, well. George was a "farm kid" like his father before him. He and his sister were raised on the family's small, 5-acre farm in this Merrimack Valley town.
"They're in the barn as soon as they can walk," Peter Carter said. "Farm kids learn responsibility from day one."
He said adult cows "are anywhere from 1,400 to 1,900 pounds, and he's walked every one of them out there."
George participated in showings at fairs across New England: Deerfield, Sterling, Topsfield, Spencer. The Barnstable County Fair was going to be his first eligible year to show a cow under his name. "For him to lead an animal was second nature," Peter Carter said.
Reminders of George were on display Sunday throughout the home. An orderly play set of a corral, which he dubbed "The Farm Yard," rested in the living room. In the home's lower level, wooden houses, train tracks, and toy trailers were stacked on a play table. Photos of George hung on the walls and leaned against furniture.
Charlie Carter, George's grandfather, was behind him "when hell broke loose." He has worked with cattle since 1969, and owns the farm land with his wife.
"I'm thinking about my grandson and the times we had together," he said quietly.
Jacalyn Carter, George's mother, was at the farm with Bellah on Sunday to arrange George's funeral. She and Peter Carter divorced earlier this year, and the children would stay with her in Methuen during the week. They visited their father on weekends.
She dropped George and Bellah off at the farm Friday. "He gave me an extra couple of hugs and kisses," Jacalyn Carter said, recalling the fun week they had together before he was set to begin summer camp.
The farm has about 20 Pinzgauer cows for beef and breeding. Jacalyn Carter lived at the farm for 15 years, and said she never saw the cows act violently. "I've been dragged, I've been stepped on. . . . I've been knocked over," she said. "But this is just beyond anything that they would normally do.''
The family started a fund-raising website to help with George's funeral costs; the page had raised almost $6,200 by early Monday morning.
The Carter family plans to hold a wake for George from 3 to 8 p.m. July 7 at Conte Funeral Homes in Georgetown. His funeral is set for 11 a.m. July 8 at Georgetown's Saint Mary Church.