Summary: Mothers come in all shapes and sizes.
Word Count: 2236
Slim broached the subject one evening at supper after a day spent checking the cows they expected to calve soon. “That ol’ horney cow calved,” he sad, casually enough.
“Yeah, what’d she have?” Jess asked, reaching for another biscuit.
“Little red heifer.”
“Ain’t she the one with the bad udder?” Jonesy asked.
“Yeah, I’d hoped ta sell her last fall,” Slim explained to Jess. “But somehow she slipped by us in the sortin’.”
Andy choked on his milk. He remembered quite well just what that “somehow” had been. It had taken them almost two days to put the corral back together, and when they’d gone to round up the yearling calves again, nobody had tried too hard to get that old cow back.
“I reckon we better bring her down tomorrow an’ lock her in the corral. Andy, how’d you like to stay home from school tomorrow an’ give us a hand?” Slim offered.
The grin on Andy’s face answered that question clearly enough.
“Slim, one of us could probably ride up an’ carry the calf back on horseback. She’d probably follow pretty good,” Jess suggested. “I don’t see how it would take more’n two people at the most.”
“Sure she’d follow. She’d follow right up onto yer horse. Nope, I figure we’ll take the buckboard. I’ll drive; Jess, you can pick up the calf and hold ‘er; an’ Andy, you can make sure the cow goes where she’s supposed to. We’ll take off right after breakfast. Jonesy, d’ya think you can handle the stages alright with the drivers’ help?”
“‘Course I can, Slim.”
“Fine. We’ll leave first thing in the morning.”
They left on schedule the next morning just a few hours after sunup. Slim and Jess rode in the buckboard while Andy ranged alongside on his little bay mare. As they approached the place where Slim had last seen the cow and calf, Andy galloped on ahead, bringing back the report that the cow was near an old fallen tree, and the calf was nestled up in the branches against the trunk. Thankfully, the cow was about fifty feet away, grazing.
“Thanks, Andy. Alright, here’s what we’ll do. Jess, I’ll pull up between the cow and the calf, an’ you can hop out and put the calf in the back. Andy, you keep an eye on the cow. I doubt she’ll try anything with the buckboard between her an’ her calf, but just watch her.”
“Sounds easy enough,” Jess replied while Andy nodded.
It would have been easy, but by the time they had crested the rise, things had changed. The old, brindled cow watched them approach, head held high, her crooked horns menacing, and she was now standing over her calf.
“Andy.” Slim pulled on the lines, slowing the team to a slower walk. “See if you can’t git her out of there.”
Andy spurred his mare forward, slapping his leg and whistling, then growling at the protective mama cow. She tossed her head and backed away from her calf, but for every two feet Andy pushed her back, she moved forward a foot and a half. At last Andy gave up, riding back to the wagon.
“Whadda think, Slim?” He asked.
Jess spoke up. “Jest git the wagon as close as you can, Slim, an’ while Andy keeps her attention, I’ll run in an’ git the calf.”
“Might work. Okay, Andy?” Slim replied, calculatingly.
Andy waited until the buckboard was almost in position before riding up to the cow again. Because of the branches on the ground, riding in toward the cow was careful work, and it meant the buckboard couldn’t get as close as Slim would have liked.
Jess didn’t know the difference, not having worked with this cow before, so when Slim stopped, he hopped down and approached the baby calf at a walk, sweet-talking her.
“Easy now, baby. Ain’t nobody gonna hurtcha, there’s a good baby.” Easing his arms around her chest and behind her back legs, Jess slowly straightened and began to the return to the wagon, stepping carefully over the dead branches. Suddenly the calf started to squirm and bawled plaintively to her mother. Jess looked up in time to see Slim’s eyes widen and simultaneously heard Andy holler.
“Run, Jess!” The Sherman boys yelled, and Jess looked over his shoulder.
That big, mean-horned, mama cow had somehow slipped past Andy and was coming at him fast, irregardless of the debris on the ground, her huge, swollen udder swinging between her hind legs. Jess started to pick up his pace, but another glance over his shoulder convinced him to light a shuck for the buckboard, without the calf.
As with most mother cows, this one stopped when she reached her calf, sniffing her up and down and licking away the peculiar scent left by the two-legged kidnapper.
Jess scrubbed his head with his hat, and looked up at Slim, who was looking over his shoulder at him, a sort of shaky smile on his face. Andy was positioned in front of the team, who were fidgeting nervously.
“Didn’t know you could run so fast, pard,” Slim said.
“Yeah, well, I prefer to win the races I run, especially with mama cows.”
Andy left the team and rode back beside the wagon, on the opposite side from the cow. “Now what?” He asked.
Slim and Jess exchanged glances.
“Git her outta there, Andy,” Jess said, removing his jacket which he stowed under the seat and moving to sit on the sideboard of the wagon, his feet on the wheel, ready to jump down when the coast was clear. Slim nodded at his brother, who rode around the back of the buckboard and began to harry the cow.
When Jess figured she was far enough away, he hit the ground running, scooped up the calf and made it back to the buckboard inches ahead of the calf’s mother who had again evaded her herder. The din was earsplitting. The cow bellowed in Jess’ face as he grappled with the frightened, bleating heifer, trying to keep her in the straw-covered bed of the wagon, Slim shouted above the clamor of the cow, trying to settle the team down, and Andy hollered at the cow, trying to push her back from the wagon.
As soon as he had half a chance, Slim looked over his shoulder to discover the whereabouts of his friend. Finding him in the wagon, he gave the team their heads, and they took off with a jerk. Jess bent double over the calf, knocking his hat brim on the large, moist nose of the anxious mama.
Slim had been right; the cow had no problem following the buckboard back to the barn. All Andy needed to do was make sure the other curious cows stayed where they belonged, and then follow along close enough be able to help should the need arise, but far enough back so as not to agitate the cow even more.
The team had worked themselves into such a nervous state that Slim took the return trip to the house standing, feet braced, and arms straining to hold the horses at a prancing jog.
Jess had the hardest part of the whole deal. The calf was, for the most part, content to lay still under his knee and be petted by his broad hands, but Jess saw more than he had ever wished to see of the inside of a cow’s mouth, and his ears were ringing from her deep-throated bellowing by the time Slim pulled into the ranch yard.
Andy swung the corral gate open and his brother drove right into the enclosure and circled back to the gate. Jess understood the maneuver and was ready when they again approached the gate which Jonesy was holding closed. Andy pushed the cow back from the back of the buckboard while Jess lowered the calf to the ground. He had to leave the safety of the wagon bed to do so, and as soon as the calf was steady on her feet, he put his hands on the top rail of the corral and vaulted to the other side. Taking the gate from Jonesy, he ran it open for Slim and Andy to exit, and then closed it with the same alacrity.
“No more’n two people at the most, Jess?” Slim asked, folding his arms on the top rail of the corral and giving his partner a mischievous smile. They had unhitched the sweating team and turned them out to pasture, and the cow had calmed down in the meantime.
“Well, maybe three. She don’t look like much now, though.”
“You wanna milk her, Jess?” Jonesy queried, joining the boys at the fence.
“No thanks! I had all I want of her to last me a long spell,” Jess stated emphatically.
“What are we gonna feed that calf, Slim?” Andy asked, perched on the rail between Slim and Jess. “Are ya gonna try an’ milk her?”
“Feedin’ the calf’s easy. We’ll just give her some of the milk cow’s milk. As fer milkin’ that ol’ horney cow…” He pursed his lips and looked past his brother. “Jess, do ya think if we put some ropes on her we could hold her still enough to try an’ git some milk outta her?”
Jess eyed the cow. “I reckon we could give it a try. If we head ‘er an’ heel ‘er, she couldn’t go too far. Let’s go git the horses.”
While Slim and Jess went for their mounts, Jonesy fetched the milk pail from the barn. When they were ready, Andy swung open the gate and they rode in, shaking out their loops. Slim caught her head, and Jess looped her feet and between them; they stretched her until she was unable to move in any direction.
“Andy, come hold her head,” Slim called. His brother slipped through the rails and mounted Alamo as Slim stepped down. Taking the tin pail from Jonesy, he eased up beside the cow and squatted down just in front of her hind leg. With a gentle hand, he squeezed a swollen teat, and the cow made a futile attempt to kick him.
Slim glanced at his partner, who gave him a nod. “Jonesy, bring the calf up, let’s see if she’ll nurse.”
Jonesy wrestled the little red heifer into position and Slim guided her mouth to the udder. The calf made a few listless attempts to latch onto a teat, but soon gave up.
“Does she have any milk?” Jonesy asked. Although the cow’s udder was heavy and swollen, because of her age, and the fact that she had been a victim of mastitis the year before, it was very possible that the udder had reached such a state of degeneration that what ever was in it was unfit to drink.
Slim motioned for him to move the calf back and again tried the teat, garnering the same result from the irritated cow. After a few more tries he gave up and moved to the other front quarter, still finding only kicks and no milk. The far back quarter produced a watery liquid, but when he tried the last remaining quarter, he was at last rewarded by a thin stream of reddish milk. Jonesy brought the calf forward, and, since it refused to latch on, he held it still while Slim squeezed the milk into the side of her mouth.
The heifer seemed to think this was a worthless pursuit and squirmed until she was lying on the ground beside the cow. Slim helped Jonesy set her out of the way and then reached for the milk pail. Settling back on his heels, he proceeded to milk out the quarter. As he stripped the last of the milk out, Traveler, bored with his job, shifted. The cow, sensing the slight loosing of the rope, took advantage of the slack and kicked with all her might.
Slowed as she was by the lariat, her kick lost both its momentum and its aim, and the cow only succeeded in catching Slim’s knee with the top of her hoof and knocking both him and the pail off balance. Slim picked himself out of the dust, gave his partner a baleful glare, and then ruefully surveyed the milk making rivulets through the powdery dirt. “Well, there goes that. Looks like ya got yerself a bucket calf, Andy.”
“That’s okay by me,” his younger brother declared. “Shall we turn her out?”
Slim tossed the empty bucket to Jonesy, who was by now on the other side of the fence, and swung up behind Andy on Alamo. “Nah, we’ll give her one more chance. That calf may git life figured out yet, but I doubt it.” He shook the noose loose from the cow’s head as Jess did the same on her feet.
“Sorry about that, pard,” Jess apologized as they rode out the gate.
“No harm done. Just glad that was the worst of today’s accidents.”
“Yeah, I thought you was a goner there for awhile, Jess,” Andy piped up.
Jess grinned. “How’d you say that cow got away from you last fall?” he asked.
The Sherman’s exchanged glances.
“Well now, that’s a whole ‘nother story, Jess,” Slim answered.