I had been Dad's herdsman for two months. I knew everything about cattle. Their needs. Their peculiarities. Not.
But I loved the job.
Every morning, I would drag out whatever goofball horse I was currently riding, tack up, and be off to check the herd.
This is a bit more complex than the statement suggests.
Yes, I would ride around the field. (I'd like to point out here that the aforementioned 'field' was roughly the size of a good-sized town.) And yes, riding around it was pure joy to anyone as horse-crazy as I. But I also had to be on the look-out for any cows getting ready to calve. Having trouble calving. Already calved. And anything else remotely resembling cows, calves and all their antecedent and potentially fatal problems.
Thus, the most important of my duties was watching alertly for signs of a cow having trouble.
This wasn't always easy to spot. For one thing, a cow preparing to give birth will hide herself so completely that she cannot be found. Even with GPS.
Cows are funny that way.
Any other bodily function, they are happy to share with anyone and everyone. If they can do it, you are welcome to watch.
But when they are in labor (yes, they do experience labor) they head for nearest secret spot. Very, very secret. So secret that . . . well, let me put it this way. If bin Laden had been hidden by a cow preparing to calve, he never would have been found.
I must confess, I missed some of them in my travels.
Most of them were fine and I would ride out the next day and spot yet another little red and white baby 'hidden' in the tall grass.
Some weren't, and those either required immediate help.
Ranching can be a brutal business.
On this particular bright and sunny spring day, I had just started my sweep. I was feeling particularly cheerful because the days were getting noticeably warmer and most of the snow was gone.
I directed my horse along the north side of the pasture, heading east. There were less trees there and movement was easy. Then I swung back, just inside the tree line.
There! A suspicious patch of red! I slid off my horse and investigated. Sure enough, a cow. An almost completely exhausted cow.
I circled her quietly, trying to see the business end of things.
Yes, definitely calving. As I watched, she strained.
But something was wrong. She had obviously been at this a while, but was making no visible progress.
I finally got a clear view of her back end. I could see a pink calf's nose.
And one little white hoof.
I must point out here that a calf normally presents with a little pink nose and two little white hooves. All is well. It's two front feet and head enter the world together, followed immediately by the rest of the body, a stubby white-tipped tail and two little rear hooves.
The appearance of one hoof means that the little guy is trying to come through with one foot and leg tucked behind him, forcing the shoulder to bulge.
Making him entirely the wrong shape to come via the normal entrance.
There are only two solutions: Push the calf back inside and quickly, very quickly, get your hand around that recalcitrant hoof and pull it forward. Or find a vet for an immediate caesarian.
My dad was a vet and could easily have performed the needed surgery. But there was over a mile between him and my patient.
I considered my options for a very brief time. Then decided on option two. I jumped on my horse and proceeded to herd my uncomfortable mother-to-be towards the ranch buildings.
We made it halfway across the field.
She wasn't making any detours and the straightest route to the gate was over the last remaining snow bank. She tried to push through. She didn't get very far.
She sank into the drift with a groan and . . . stayed there.
I immediately slid off my horse again and approached.
By this point, the poor thing was oblivious to my presence. I had a very short time to do something and very few tools at my disposal to do it with.
I looked down at my shirt, a long-sleeved, button-up variety. It would have to do.
Placing a gentle hand on that little nose, I shoved the calf back inside it's mother.
Then I slid my hand in beside it and felt for that wayward hoof.
There it was! I cupped it in my hand and pulled it forward.
It slid easily.
I released my hold on the wet nose and it slid towards light and life once more. But this time, it was accompanied by two hooves.
I stripped off my shirt, tied the sleeves around each of those little feet and, bracing a boot against the mamma's backside, heaved.
The little, shivering, wet calf slid out.
Into my lap.
But any disgust or outright repugnance was immediately dispelled when the little guy (yes, it was a boy) shook his head and I heard those wet ears slap weakly against his head.
He was alive!
Belying the manner in which she had entered the snow bank, the mother immediately struggled to her feet and turned around to see her new baby.
Ignoring me completely (maybe I was a part of the landscape by now . . .) she started licking him.
He bleated softly and she 'mmmmm-ed' at him.
I was no longer needed. I took myself off for home.
And a bath.
There is a codicil.
My father raised only purebred Polled Hereford cattle. And each animal was required to have its own registration papers. I can still picture him seated at his desk, trying to come up with imaginative names that not only identified the animal, but also connected it in some way to its parents.
The naming of my little calf posed no such difficulty.
My husband, Grant, loves fire. Really. When we lived on the farm, our neighbours always knew when he was home. Inevitably, his presence was betrayed by the large column of smoke emanating from our property. And his tall figure silhouetted against the flames, happily stirring in whatever garbage he had been able to find.
Our farm was amazingly trash-free.
After our move to the city, his love of fire had, of necessity, to be squelched. For the good of the neighbourhood. And our own personal safety. Neighbours can be notoriously crabby when it comes to garbage fires in their back yards.
For these reasons, he commuted his love of fire to a love of fire . . . works. They sizzled. They sparked. They exploded. They were a budding ‘pyro’s’ citified dream. They filled the void left by his unfortunate, but necessary, separation from fire.
He began a tradition. Fireworks on New Year’s Day. It was a relatively safe time. The world heavily coated in fire retardant – commonly called snow. Everyone in a festive mood, ready to celebrate.
Permits and regulations were disregarded. One merely had to invite the mayor and his family over for dinner and a show to get around those. Who’s going to ticket the mayor?
We won’t go there . . .
There was a large snow bank in a field just outside of the town limits. Perfect for the display. An array of fireworks, chosen specifically from the abundant possibilities, were thrust, carefully but firmly, into this bank to hold them steady before their spectacular flight.
Grant had things organized. Our second son and his friend were on hand to light things up. Strictly in order. Chaos controlled. Explosions only on his command.
The stage was set.
The first sparklers went off without a hitch. Starlight exploded in the sky. Red, Green, White, Blue. The display was dazzling. We oohed and aahed on cue. Everything was proceeding well.
Then the event.
One candle had ideas of its own. Not a good thing when you’re a firework. It went up, but before it could fulfill the measure of its creation, its trajectory . . . changed somewhat. Straight down, in fact. Into the box of remaining fireworks.
For a moment, Grant stared at it, perhaps too shocked and surprised to really take in what had just happened. The firework spluttered warningly. He screamed. Not a good sound in the middle of a fireworks display. In an amazingly graceful leap, he cleared the snow bank, taking the two boys with him. The three of them landed in an ungainly heap. Then, totally abandoning dignity, they scrambled frantically for the nearest shelter as the real fireworks display began behind them.
It was like a scene out of a movie. For several minutes, the crackers fizzed and shot everywhere, sending up showers of sparks from wherever they happened to land. A few even made their way skyward. It was spectacular. Amazing. Fun. Everyone screamed and laughed . . . and ducked.
Then . . . silence.
After waiting several minutes, Grant finally figured it was safe to move. He crawled behind the snow bank, using knees and elbows. Sort of like a soldier approaching a bunker. A very cold, snowy bunker. With exploding things inside it.
Yes, just like a bunker.
He emerged some time later holding the still-smoking box, with the remnants of his collection and a very chagrined face.
Fortunately, no one was injured. But Grant never again held a fireworks display. For one thing, he was out of fireworks. For another - how could he ever top that?
Not using a saddle really did pose certain challenges. Being unable to use a rope being the most notable. Unfortunately, I had to learn that particular fact by experience.
I had been Dad’s official herdsman for . . . about two weeks. A job that had hitherto been the responsibility of one or more hired men.
Our operation had shrunk in size until we no longer needed hired men. We kids could do most of the work. And did. 24 hours a day. Seven days . . . but that is another story.
I was checking the herd for prospective, or recent, mothers. My horse stumbled, literally, over a small, newborn calf lying in the tall grass. Abandoned. At that early point in my new career, I didn’t know that the calf certainly wasn’t in any danger. Mama was nearby.
All I could see was a small, defenceless little creature that needed my help. I picked it up. And somehow got it across the riding pad on my horse. And then managed to get up behind it. No mean feat for someone without stirrups.
Or a brain.
I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of the cowboy bringing home the small, half-frozen calf. The tiny creature lying helplessly across his saddle. I had always pictured myself doing just that. It seemed . . . romantic somehow. And was. Until the calf peed. All down my new riding pad. You never saw that in the pictures.
I managed to make it to the corrals in the corner of the pasture. I set the little cretin down in a corner and went off in search of Mama. There. The cow running around and bawling. Now all I had to do was reunite them. Simple. Not. She didn’t want to vacate the area where she had last seen her baby. He must be here. If she ran back and forth a few . . . thousand . . . more times, she was sure to stumble over him.
I had an idea. I would rope her. She certainly wouldn’t be able to argue with that. Genius! I rode back to the corral and returned with my Dad’s brand new lariat.
Getting the loop over the head of the frantic cow was easy. Then I would just . . . dally . . . I looked down in consternation at the place where the saddle horn should be.
Where it . . . wasn’t.
The rope slid through my hands, along with the cow.
I managed to reunite cow and calf. Finally. By bringing the calf and putting him back where I had found him originally. The cow wore Dad’s expensive new lariat for several months. I called her ‘Ring Around the Collar’. I though it was funny.
Born and raised on a ranch in Southern Alberta, Diane is a prolific reader . . . and writer. Her interests, in no particular order, are her hubby, children and grandchildren, computer and fellow writers. Cattle and ranching are what she knows. The rest, she makes up. And what joy it is to do so!