Cold and weary, I trudged up the hill to the birthing place where we'd first found the old cow. Coyotes, buzzards and crows had thankfully not gotten to the placenta yet, so I bent over to scoop it all up and slide it into the bucket. As I stood erect and straightened my aching back, I noticed something across the creek.
A big, gray calf lay dead in the snow over there with the mother cow hovering close by, licking its hair and trying to bring life back into it. I could not believe what I was seeing.
Another dead calf? No! This can't be! This is too much. I won't stand for it.
Leaving the bucket with the bloody, slimy (yet precious) cargo where it stood, I strode purposely toward the calf, again jumping over the small creek. Snow started to spit and the wind came up a bit. What a day to be born, I thought.
I knelt next to the big calf, looking him over. He was dead alright. No breath coming out of his nostrils, no life in his eyes. I tickled his nose with a dried weed stalk but no startled sucking in of breath. Nothing.
For some reason, this was simply unacceptable to me. I took off my coat and placed it over the torso of the calf, and I began rubbing hard on the side of his chest, behind his right front leg.
My mind racing with thoughts of what could be done, I leaned in closer, covered one of his nostrils, still wet from his mother's licking tongue, held his mouth shut and then covered the remaining nostril with my mouth. I blew in hard and then paused. I blew in again. And repeated about five times. Then, I returned to the area where his non-beathing heart was and started rubbing and compressing again.
When I went back to blow more breaths into his lifeless lungs, I noticed that every time I blew in, his staring eyeball would roll back into his head, and when my breath came back out of him, the eyeball rolled back to its neutral position. Over and over, the sightless eyeball would roll back as I urged breaths into one of his nostrils, then it would roll back. Seeing nothing, aware of nothing. Dead. But the rolling of the eye was what kept me going.
The mother cow was sure I was the one who had killed her baby and she was blowing snot in my back pockets, as they say. I kept shooshing her away....while giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, then alternating with chest pumps....while knowing Pete was down in the barn wondering where I was with the afterbirth.
As subtle as a the whisper of a snowflake, as gentle as a prayer, I saw the calf take a very shallow breath on his own! I kept rubbing his heart area, scaring off the protective cow and with every one of my prayers, his breath became stronger and stronger. He blinked an eyelid while still not moving a muscle of his body or head.
Right then, I heard the motor of the old, flatbed truck. Pete had seen me up on the hill, bent over a calf, and had driven up to help. He got out and came around to where the calf lay with my winter jacket over him, scooped him up in his arms, and placed him quickly into the cab, safely away from the old cow who was becoming madder with each passing second. I jumped in with the calf and we drove back down to our house, the cow hot on our heels.
We carried him into the kitchen, laid him out on the floor and placed an electric blanket over him. He still was lying flat out and not moving any muscles at all.
I needed to go up to the ranch owner's house to pick up our paycheck and ended up visiting there for about an hour. When I got back, the big-boned, gray calf was still lying down, but he was up with his front legs curled under him, his eyes bright and looking around. I have a picture of him and when I find it, I'll add it here.
We briskly rubbed him down with one of our bath towels and then carted him back out to a stall in the calving barn where his mother had been awaiting his return. She accepted him lovingly. In the meantime, Pete had rubbed the afterbirth on the other calf, and after a few days, that mother cow came to accept that calf as well.
A final postscript to this story. We worked so hard, as all ranchers do, during calving season. This story shows how much work and dedication it takes to get these calves on the ground, healthy and ready for life. We didn't own the ranch. We didn't make a dime on that calf. We wouldn't have lost a nickel if the calf had died that morning. But, sometimes, there are right things to do.
In the Fall, after the cows had all been gathered off of the Wilderness and their calves were weaned off of them, I helped load the calves onto the semi-truck as they headed to the feedlot. When that big, chunky, healthy, gray steer trotted up that ramp into the truck, I recognized him easily. His back was broad and his loins were muscled. He carried the air of victorious survival, or maybe that was just the way I saw it. I wiped away a few stinging tears, turning away so the other cowboys would not see my weakness.
The boss never knew what we had done six months before on a freezing, foggy morning to save his calf's life. He never knew that calf from any other on that day we shipped them.
But we knew. And felt the reward of doing the right thing.