Summary: Birthing waits for no man.
Word Count: 2674
Slim started and opened his eyes warily, unsure what had awakened him. It was pitch dark in the bedroom, but as he glanced around the room, a shadowy figure crept past the slightly lighter square that denoted the window. Quickly Slim leaned over the edge of his bed and reached for a boot, just in case the shadow had malicious intentions.
“Easy, Slim,” Jess’ voice came out of the darkness. “It’s jest me.”
“Jess! What in thunder are you doing awake? It ain’t even light yet,” Slim grumbled, dropping the boot and pulling up the covers as he lay back in bed.
“Wind came up an’ woke me. I got to thinkin’ ‘bout them cows up in the north range an’ couldn’t go back to sleep,” Jess explained in a whisper.
Slim bit back a groan. The herd to which his partner referred was right in the middle of calving and a wind like this was just the sort of thing to prompt some ornery cow to bring her baby into the world; why, heaven only knew, but with every contrary wind or stormy night seemed to come at least one new calf.
“You fixin’ to ride out an’ check ‘em in the middle of the night?” Slim asked, already knowing the answer. “Why, Jess, it’s darker than the inside of a cow out there, an’ most of them critters are black. You won’t be able to see a darn thing.”
“I know it,” Jess grumbled back, fastening his belt, “But I got this feelin’…”
Slim ran a hand through his hair and then flung back the blankets and swung his legs out of bed. “Alright, you win. I’ll get dressed an’ heat some water, just in case. You get the horses,” he said, reaching for his pants with a yawn.
Jess nodded and crept from the room, carrying his boots. Slim heard the kitchen door open and shut, and shuffled from the room tucking in his shirt. He stoked the stove and pumped a kettle full of water, which he set on the stove to heat. Yawning again, he fetched down two storm lanterns from the top of the hutch and had just sat down at the table to make sure they were filled and in good condition when he heard a sound behind him.
Jonesy, attired in his nightshirt, shambled into the room. “What’s up, Slim?” he asked.
“Jess has got a hunch about the herd, so we’re gonna take a look.”
“In this wind an’ in the dark?”
“Yeah, well, better be safe than sorry. We need all the calves we can get this year.”
“I reckon.” A particularly nasty blast rattled the shutters, and Jonesy shuddered in the middle of his yawn. “What time is it, anyway?”
“‘Bout three, I guess,” Slim replied, getting up to check the water that was just beginning to boil.
Jess blew in with a chill wind and handed their two canteens to Slim. “Brrr!” He hovered over the stove rubbing his hands over the warmth. “You an’ yer Wyomin’ springs,” he grumbled.
“Don’t thank me; this wasn’t my idea.” Slim poured the boiling water into each canteen and fetched his winter coat, scarf, and gloves from the rack by the front door. “You ready?”
“I guess. See you, Jonesy.”
Bundled in their heavy winter coats, with scarves tied around their throats, mouths, and noses, and their hats pulled low over their ears, the two ranchers urged their mounts into the bitter wind. They found the herd bedded down in a small gully, somewhat protected from the wind. Jess and Slim split up, each taking a lit storm lantern to circle and count the sleeping cows.
“How many you got?” Jess shouted against the wind, reining up beside Alamo, Slim’s horse.
“Sixty, just like there should be. You?” Slim hollered back.
“I think I got sixty, but that can’t be. Let’s make one more pass.”
Slim sighed. He was cold and tired and wanted nothing more than his own warm bed, but he knew Jess was right. Better be safe than sorry. He could always sleep later, but if they had a cow in trouble, they could lose both her and her calf. So he nodded and kneed Alamo into a walk, carefully riding around the bedded cows and swinging the lantern light into each face, counting silently.
He and Jess met for a moment in the middle of the group, and as they came abreast, they each heard a sound that made them rein in and listen hard. It was the bellow of a cow, someway off from the main herd. Not the sound of a mother calling her calf, nor the call of a lonely cow; this bellow was filled with a pain that made the two cowboys look at each other comprehendingly.
“Old Blue.” Slim said. Between him and Andy, they had all sixty of the mama cows named with titles such as Frozen Ear, Short Tail, and Old Blue.
“How can you tell?”
“I’d know that voice of hers anywhere.” Riding into the wind made it easy for the rider in the lead to be heard. All he had to do was turn his head and let the wind carry his words to his follower’s ear. “Hear how she goes sorta breathless at the end?”
Jess nodded and spurred Traveler forward as Slim now took the lead, following the sound of the cow. They found her on an open stretch of ground, flat on her side and straining hard. Slim instantly dismounted and approached her on foot, sweet talking her gently, hoping she remembered the sound of his voice from the days when he bucket fed her after her heifer mother had abandoned her.
“Easy now, Blue, let’s have a look now. Light, Jess,” Slim added in the same tone of voice with which he addressed the cow.
Jess lit the lantern and held it high, and the sight it disclosed was not a pleasing one. No sign of a calf showed, but it appeared as though the cow had been in labor long enough for something to have happened, had it been a normal birth.
“I’ll bet it’s a breech. Get the canteens, Jess,” Slim ordered in a voice of gloom, beginning to unbutton his coat.
“I’ll do it, Slim,” Jess volunteered bravely.
“Thanks, Jess, but no. ‘Sides you’d get cold too fast.” Slim attempted a grin, but it was hard coming.
A breech birth meant the calf had somehow got turned around before it reached the birth canal. Had he been right side around, his pointy nose and forward reaching legs would have streamlined his body, but being backwards put his hips in the way. One way to remedy the situation was to reach into the cow, push the calf back, turn him around, and pull him out, a task that required its operator to strip to the waist and, in this case, lay on the cold, cold ground behind the cow.
Slim had discarded his coat, scarf and shirt, and had just braced himself to pull his red flannel undershirt over his head when Jess returned with the canteen of still slightly hot water. The shorter cowboy unscrewed the lid and poured it over Slim’s bare arms while the tall cowboy scrubbed with a cake of soap wrapped in brown paper he had taken from the washstand in the bedroom.
Handing the soap to Jess, Slim dropped to his knees and then lay down on his side behind the straining cow, inserting his hand into the cow and reaching down the birth canal until he encountered the tail of the little calf, affirming his prognosis.
Inch by inch Slim eased the calf back into the uterus. To Jess it seemed an eternity. In hopes of blocking at least some of the wind, he was squatted upwind of Slim, holding the lantern aloft with a numb hand, his shoulders hunched against the blast, and his head tucked between his shoulders as he watched his friend turning blue from the cold.
At last Slim raised his tousled head. “Jess,” he hollered above the shriek of the wind, “There’s a long, skinny piece of rawhide in my saddlebag. Should be in the right one. Get it for me, please.”
“Sure, Slim.” Jess took the lantern with him, leaving Slim in darkness. Laying his head back on the ground, the only warm part of him was being squeezed to utter numbness within the cow; Slim gazed up into the inky darkness, searching in vain for any hint of starlight.
“Not much longer now, girl,” he sighed, mostly to himself, and then Jess was there, holding the string above his head. Slim withdrew his now filthy arm and tried to tie a slip-knot in one end of the four-foot long string, but his hands were too mucky and too cold to be of any use. It was Jess who set down the lantern and pulled off his heavy winter gloves to tie the required knot.
By this time, the cow had decided she had worked long enough with no results, so she lay still with only a weak contraction now and again to interrupt the heave of her side in time with her regular, heavy breathing.
String in hand, Slim again reached into the cow, reaching out until he was able to place the loop around the calf’s lower jaw. The calf closed its mouth on his fingers, taking off the hide with his sharp teeth, and bringing a grin to Slim’s half-frozen face. “He’s alive!” he slurred happily. “Help me pull.”
Jess grabbed the other end of the string and began to pull slowly and steadily while Slim guided the head and forelegs around until they were at last pointed in the right direction.
Coming out was easier than going in. With Jess on the string, Slim’s hand on the feet, and the occasional effort from the mother, it was not long before first the hooves and then the little nose of the calf met the outside world.
Once the feet were visible, Slim sat up and, bracing the heels of his boots in the rough ground, pulled with both hands, drawing the calf out in his lap and tumbling over backwards in the process.
Jess seized the calf with gentle hands, cleaned the mucus from its mouth and nose, and sent several deep breaths down its lungs before it coughed and began to breathe on its own. He dragged it around to its mother’s head, who, relieved of her uncomfortable burden, had rolled onto her chest and swung her head around to greet her baby.
As the cowboy deposited the little creature under her nose, she set quickly to work, heaving to her feet and applying her large, rough tongue as rapidly and thoroughly as she possibly could.
Hurrying back to his partner’s side, Jess relieved him of the remaining canteen and unscrewed the lid, hoping it would still be hot; he poured the liquid down Slim’s long, filthy arms. The yelp from his friend informed Jess the water was not warm, but Slim scrubbed down anyway, splashing the cold water over his dirty chest and arms as his teeth chattered like castanets. He dried on a piece of flour sack from the saddlebags and dressed as quickly as a near frozen body and an overly helpful partner would allow.
“T-t-thas w-w-worth it, th-th-though.” Slim shivered, nodding to the scene before them. “B-b-beats m-m-me h-h-how th-th-they al-always kn-know.”
Weary of his mother’s robust attention, the calf had stumbled to his feet and toddled toward the cow’s hind legs where he immediately discovered her udder and began nursing away as though he had been doing it for weeks.
“Sure is,” Jess said in awe, and then he shivered. “Yeah, well, it ain’t worth it enough for you to ketch pneumonia. C’mon, let’s get home.” He slipped an arm around Slim’s waist and helped him walk stiffly to his horse, steadying the cowboy while he mounted, before swinging up on Traveler.
The horses were happy to ride with the wind, especially as it was blowing straight toward home, and they made good time. Nevertheless, the sun was beginning to lighten the eastern horizon by the time the two very cold cowboys dismounted and lead their mounts into the barn.
Jess easily convinced Slim to let him take care of the horses, and Slim stumbled bleary-eyed and numb to the bone into the house. Jonesy met him at the door and directed him to a wash basin full of wonderful, clean, warm water without so much as a how-do-you-do, before marching him off to bed. He followed with a bottle of hot water to place at Slim’s feet, a cup of coffee — with a little extra to it, for his insides — and several quilts that had been toasting by the fire.
Slim had drifted off to sleep by the time Jess came in. Blowing on his hands, he huddled over the stove until Jonesy chased him off to bed as well to receive the same treatment as his boss.
The two cowboys slept through breakfast in spite of Andy moving around the ranch house, rousting out just in time to change the team on the stage that took the boy off to school; both looked much the worse for wear.
Over cups of steaming coffee, they filled Jonesy in on their adventure, reflecting that turning a breeched calf is far easier said than done.
“It’s a miracle you were able to save that calf, Slim,” Jonesy said, setting a plate of hot flapjacks on the table between the two young men. “I don’t reckon I’ve seen or heard of more’n two or three breeched calves survivin’.”
“Well, I guess we got there just at the right time, Jonesy. But if Jess here hadn’t insisted on goin’ out to check ‘em, we’d of lost that one, too.”
“Oh, yeah, well, that’s ‘bout the last time I’m doin’ any more insistin’. Next time they can jest wait ‘til mornin’,” Jess grumbled.
Slim polished the syrup from his plate with a last bite of flapjack, drained his coffee cup, and pushed back from the table. “‘C’mon, let’s go,” he said, standing.
“Go? Go where?” Jess demanded, but he too drained his cup and shrugged into his heavy coat.
“I wanna bring down Old Blue an’ that calf before she hides him out some where an’ forgets where she put ‘im, like she did last year, fool cow,” Slim explained, pulling on his gloves.
“Good ol’ spring,” Jess muttered, slamming the door behind him. It was still cold, but the wind had died down some, making it not as biting. The teasing breeze held a promise of new life and fresh, growing things, and carried the scent of drying earth and growing grass. Jess took a deep breath and couldn’t help but grin. Yes, it was a good spring after all.
A breech can be corrected by simply lifting the hind legs into the birth canal and pulling the calf from there. This method, according to Colorado State University, is best done when the cow is on her feet, as two hands are required. However, turning the calf is also an accepted practice.
Many thanks to “The Cattle Pages” for validation on turning a breech birth, “Beef Magazine” for information on just what a breech birth is, and the very helpful article published by Colorado State University, “Correction of Common Abnormal Presentations, Positions, and Postures” on the alternative method of correcting a breech.
Also, many special thanks to Veterinary Surgeon James Herriot, author of the All Creatures Great and Small series, for his many vivid descriptions of problem calving. The method used for turning came from his books.
And to Mother, for her help with our heroes’ grammar, great advice, and encouragement.