First published in Walking the Twilight: Women Writers of the Southwest. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Publishing. 1994.
You have to understand, beef is my life. Me and my husband T, we breed it, raise it, sell it, eat it. My mom and dad that before me and so did his, and so did most all our grandparents.
I woke up early that morning and went to the window to see the morning star in what me and Dad called a hunter’s sky—a sky that made shadows of mountains and turned canyons into rivers of promise when we’d creep through sagebrush we could smell but not see, moving into position before the deer came down to feed in dawn’s light. But the sky at the ranch where T worked at the time was corralled by ponderosa pines, and though I loved to put my nose in the bark and breathe in caramel, and to hear the wind coming long before it got to me, I missed seeing the morning star. I went back to bed but not to sleep, something restless inside me wanting out, and I lay there with the ranch I grew up on floating above me like a cloud, or dream.
The phone call with the news about the accident came later in the day. I knew T wanted to go with me, and God knows I wanted him to, but we couldn’t both go—it was the middle of calving season and the boss needed T to help with the calving. But I had to go, because somebody had to calve out Dad’s cows. His big Beefmaster heifers especially—he’d bred them to an Angus bull that usually threw small calves but he had been worried about them nonetheless, and since Mom was staying in town to be near the hospital that left me.
T and the boss could spare me because I just drew day wages when they needed an extra hand, which was pretty often, so me and T had some money put away toward our down-the-road ranch, even though Dad kept telling us we already had a ranch if we could just wait long enough. I didn’t like thinking about waiting for Mom and Dad to retire or worse so I kept putting my wages, small though they were, away in a savings account. The boss’s wife watched Charlie when I cowboyed, but she didn’t charge anything for babysitting, said it was her way of helping out since she wasn’t about to get on a horse. I never did understand living on a ranch and not wanting to ride and cowboy, but I appreciated the help. And the extra money, though as it turned out Dad was right and we wouldn’t need it.
It was a neighbor that called, and I didn’t understand exactly what had happened, only that Dad had gotten hurt in a bulldozer accident somehow and was in danger of losing a leg. I packed the old leather suitcase with the corners worn clear off—the one Mom had given me for my honeymoon trip, that she’d had since hers—with enough clothes to last me and Charlie a week, folding his tiny Wranglers and snap-button shirts carefully on top, thinking Dad would get a kick out of seeing his little cowboy all dressed up. I heard Charlie crying in the front room and went in and picked him up, pressing our faces to the cold window where we watched T throwing my saddle, chaps, and ropes into the old Dodge down at the barn. The cold made Charlie’s cheek turn pink and his tears stopped flowing. I pulled him tight on my hip and went back to packing with him riding there. He liked me scooting around like a Kaibab squirrel, and he flung his hands out and squealed.
“Hold on to Mama,” I said, reaching into the closet for my dress boots. Sometimes I wore them outside my jeans to show off the red leather with its black stitching swirling up to my knees, but as I set Charlie down to take off my work boots and put the dress boots on, I decided that that might not be a good idea today. I snapped the suitcase shut and Charlie clapped his little hands. When I picked him up again he reached around me as far as he could, hugging his cheek to my shoulder, and I felt a pinch in my stomach.
T drove up to the house and got Charlie and put him in his car seat, and had a hug waiting for me when I got to the truck. “Colette,” he said, but I felt tears coming and didn’t want to cry so I pulled out of his hug and onto the dirt road leading toward the highway and Dad.
Two hours later, the big lady behind the desk at the hospital said Charlie couldn’t go upstairs. I paged Mom, and me and Charlie flipped through Outdoor Life, Charlie pointing to pictures of bucks and bull elk, saying “Deer” and “Ek” at most of the right ones.
“There’s my little cowboy!” we heard Mom say as she stepped from the elevator. Charlie climbed over the table covered with magazines and ran to her. She scooped him up and hugged him while I picked Outdoor Life and Sports Illustrated up from the floor, and even though she didn’t look at me directly I saw that her face wasn’t as round as usual and that the silver waves of her hair had flattened.
“How is he?” I said, reaching for Time, which had slipped under the table.
“He’s in Intensive Care. They haven’t made up their minds yet.”
Right then I really wished T was with me. He and Dad had always liked each other, and I figured T might know the right words to say. All I could think was Hang on to that leg! I found the stairs and climbed toward Dad, remembering the last time I’d been in that hospital—a year and a half ago I’d given birth to Charlie there, on that other floor with babies crying in the nursery at one end.
When I stepped out of the stairwell onto Dad’s floor I heard the beeps and hums of life-saving machinery and a voice on the loudspeaker calling for Dr. Milligan to come to the nurse’s station. I couldn’t help but look into the rooms as I walked by, at the gray heads on white pillows facing televisions with the sound turned off. A dark-haired nurse pushed a cart out of one of the rooms. She smiled at me and I tried but couldn’t smile back. I made the turn into ICU, thinking I’d be able to walk right up to Dad’s bed, and stopped cold. Someone asked me who I was there to see and pointed toward him, and without her help I wouldn’t have picked him out. He lay there as pale and lifeless as the sheets covering him; even his eyes, normally the brilliant blue of the high desert sky, were washed-out. I could see the shape of bulky bandages under the sheets, and when I stared directly into Dad’s eyes I thought I could see the future.
“I’ll take care of your cows, Dad,” I said, my throat tight. “They’ll be all right.”
“I know, Collie,” he said, squeezing my hand for a second with all his old strength. As I leaned over to kiss his forehead I couldn’t tell through the tears swimming in my eyes if there were tears in his, too, and when I left I felt as if I was leaving everything I knew behind me in that hospital bed.
I found Mom and Charlie in the cafeteria, eating “cafeteria cardboard,” as Mom called it. I told her Dad had gone back to sleep, and I hugged her quickly and headed out of town with Charlie as fast as the old Dodge would go. But when I came to the bridge over the big river I slowed to a stop right there in the middle of the road and watched the water roll and tumble away at the bottom of the canyon. Even at that distance I could feel it moving through me—that river had been running through my family for a hundred years, like the ranch I was going home to, like the love of raising cattle, like blood.
“There’s the river, Charlie!” I said. He strained against the straps of his car seat, said “Ribr,” and smiled, and I gassed the truck toward the cliffs, and the vast flat made by the wash that was our valley, and home.
The ranch house felt the same as always but cold. Charlie willingly settled for a nap, cozying deep under the goose-feather quilt on my old bed. As I built a fire in the woodburning stove I noticed things—the newspaper fanned out across the floor in front of Dad’s chair, his moccasins half buried beneath it; the earth-toned Navajo saddle blanket Mom smoothed along the back of the leather couch several times a day lying crumpled up on the cushions; two coffee cups on the antique end table, a black wolf painted on one and a gray wolf on the other, both peering through yellow eyes; Mom’s down jacket thrown over the horseshoe hat rack by the front door, one arm leaning toward the floor, the other up high, dark stains splotching the front of it.
I picked up the cups—the black wolf held black coffee, the gray wolf’s coffee swirled murky brown—and took them to the kitchen. After washing yesterday’s dishes I went back to the front room to check the stove, smoothed the saddle blanket in place, and picked up the newspaper. I took Dad’s moccasins to his bedroom, set them by his bed, thought better of it and put them away in the closet. Only Charlie’s face could be seen under the down comforter when I peeked in. Sleeping angel.
Warmth spread slowly through the front room. I meant to straighten Mom’s jacket up, even out the sleeves like she always did, but the blood stopped me. Snatching the coat off the rack, I checked the pockets on the way to the laundry, threw it and the bloody handkerchief I found into the washing machine, and left them to soak in cold water.
I wanted to go out and check the heifers before dark, but I could hear Charlie’s deep breathing. Warming my hands at the woodstove, I didn’t want to see the picture that came into my mind of Dad in the hospital bed, tubes poking into him in every possible place, his face ten years older than the last time I’d seen him. I thought instead of T a few years back, the two of us stretched out on the red and black Navajo rug, Mom and Dad off to a poker game. We’d turned so our feet were pointed toward the stove because mine were cold even in socks, so I didn’t see the lights coming up the long dirt road from the highway. T lifted his head during one of his pushes and said something like Holy Shit! and about ten seconds later I heard the door handle turning. I grabbed my Wranglers and ran to the bathroom, flushing the toilet like I’d already been in there, but when I went to put on my jeans I saw that my panties must have fallen out somewhere. I pulled the jeans on anyway, straightened my hair and makeup, and walked out like I hadn’t done anything wrong.
T stood with his back to the stove, his hands clasped behind him, and I saw the edge of black lace in his fist. Dad settled himself into his chair near the picture window, gazing at T.
“Who won?” I said, reaching my arm around as though to give T a squeeze.
“Nobody,” Dad answered, his eyes twinkling like the night sky behind him.
Deciding to unpack while Charlie slept, I went outside and grabbed the old leather suitcase from the faded green Dodge. A cold wind blew in from the west, which means a storm coming in this country, and with a storm come the calves. For some reason I never figured out, cows like to drop calves during or at the tail end of bad weather. Of course Mom had me during a blizzard and I had Charlie in the middle of the year’s biggest hailstorm, but that didn’t give me any insight. Shuddering, I faced the different directions and prayed for easy calving.
Like a ghost roaming the house, the warmth of the woodstove had drifted into the room Charlie and I would share, the room that would later become his own. I took his Wranglers and cowboy shirts and put them in the top drawer of my old oak dresser, looking into the beveled mirror I grew up in. Pulling a blouse out of Mom’s honeymoon suitcase—the red one with the swirly black stitching across the yoke that T got me to match the boots—I held it up to my chest, seeing Dad’s blue eyes and Mom’s round face. I never thought I was at all pretty until T told me so in tenth grade, and now what I saw was Dad’s pain and Mom’s worry in a face that seemed much older than my own. My mind wanted to think about what Dad would do without a leg—how he would ride, rope calves, rodeo, or even drive the damn ‘dozer—but my heart couldn’t allow it. Shaking the thoughts out of my head and the wrinkles from the blouse, I hung it up in the closet and lay down next to Charlie to wait for him to snuffle awake.
“Mama?” he said, touching my face, stroking my cheek as he would a cat.
“We at Gwamma’s Mama?”
“Yes, we are. You have a good sleep?”
“Gwamma and Gwampa here?” he asked, his eyes getting bluer as sleep slid away.
“No, baby. They’re at the hospital, remember? Grandpa’s hurt.”
Charlie raised up on his elbows, his head poking out from beneath the quilt like a prairie dog’s. “Mama cry?” he said.
“No,” I said, a smile breaking through. “Time to go check cows!”
“Boots!” Charlie said, emerging quickly from the quilt to stand up on the bed and point to the little red Ropers beside it. Charlie would not go check cows without his boots on.
Four days at Mom and Dad’s and the house got quieter with each one. I kept Charlie and me busy as best I could. We’d bundle up and hike up to the water tank on the hill behind the house, and if I got Charlie interested in building miniature rock corrals I could hurry up the ladder on the side of the tank and sit for a minute on the platform on top. From up there I could see weather coming, clouds rolling in across the high desert from as far away as California, and if I snuck out when morning was still mixed with night as I used to do when I was a kid, I could watch the morning star hover in a hunter’s sky that covered the world. Dad had showed me how big the sky was from up there when I was a little girl, packing me up on his shoulders; I had shown T one moonless night; and I would soon show Charlie. But for right then, with Dad in the hospital and T at a different ranch and Charlie too little, I kept that hunter’s sky for mine.
We watched TV, too, and listened to Willie Nelson and Merle, and the phone rang some—Mom calling from the hospital, friends and neighbors wanting news and to offer help—but other than that the house sounded like a library. Except inside my head. Inside my head the noise was like the locker rooms in high school—the chatter never stopped. Sometimes it was so loud that I couldn’t hear Charlie; once I didn’t even hear the phone ringing until Charlie tugged at my knee, saying, “Mama, phone; Mama, phone!”
Every day we drove the hour to the hospital, and every day we checked the cows and heifers. We did the other chores, too, feeding the horses and chickens, gathering eggs, splitting wood, tidying the house, but that never seemed to take more than about ten minutes. I stopped soaking Mom’s jacket after the first two days, deciding to throw it away instead. I took it out to the big trash cans Dad hauled to the ranch dump on Sundays, and by the next day it had frozen in there. The dark stains stared out at me like eyes and I climbed in and jumped up and down until the other garbage covered the jacket. Then I pulled it out, shook it off, folded it neatly like Mom would, and placed it back in the can, thinking that for sure I was going crazy, or had already gone.
Dad didn’t want to look at me or talk much during my hospital visits, and I guessed he couldn’t what with the drugs dripping into his veins like a leaky faucet. I’d tell him the ranch news—who had calved out and who was ready—and watch his eyes get hazier and his thinning body turn toward the wall. It seemed as if he pulled farther away each day, and I’d think Hang on, Dad, hang on! And I’d want to say something about how they could customize the Cat so he could drive it again; and trade the Chevy in for an automatic, no matter how much he hated them; and teach old Bulldog, his retired rope horse, to respond to one real and one fake leg; and, hell, that he could humble himself and hunt from the damn truck! And maybe I should have said all that—maybe it would have made a difference—but the fear in me would get so big at my throat that all I could do was kiss him on a cheek the color of a December snowstorm, mumble, “I love you, Dad,” wait for a minute hoping for an “I love you, too, Collie,” and meet Mom and Charlie in the lobby downstairs when the words didn’t come. Then I’d hug Mom goodbye and head back to the quiet ranch house and the noise in my head.
On the fourth day the call from Mom said that Dad’s leg was infected bad. I called T even though I figured he’d be out on the ranch somewhere and listened to the phone ring for a long time before finally putting the receiver down. I picked Charlie up and held him close, squishing his round red cheek against my wet one. “S’okay, Mama,” Charlie said, his little hand patting my back. “S’okay.”
I knew T would call later, after nightfall, and told myself it was okay to be alone, me and Charlie in Mom and Dad’s house, all the parts of me that were connected by blood held together the way the river connects the country and the people it runs through. I made hot chocolate and sat with Charlie in Dad’s chair, sipping out of wolf cups and fingering the chair’s frayed arms.
Everything in the room held a scene from my memory. I could see Dad loading river rock into the bucket of the front-end loader, and him and Mom on their hands and knees fitting rocks like puzzle pieces into the frame of the hearth. I could hear him sneaking down through the sagebrush ahead of me to shoot the perfectly symmetrical four-point mule deer, whose head now crowned the oak bookshelf he’d built. I could feel him racing up the roping arena behind me, yelling “Atta girl, Collie!” as my loop fell round and flat over the steer’s horns, Dad wheeling two hind feet just as I turned the steer off and winning us the mixed-teamroping championship.
“More?” Charlie said, the yellow-eyed black wolf cup suddenly interrupting my vision. A horse’s whinny floated up from the barn.
“No,” I said. “No more. We gotta go check cows.” A big Beefmaster heifer had been springing pretty strong, her sides swelled out and bouncing with each step like a huge water balloon. According to Dad’s records and her belly, she was due any day.
“Boots!” Charlie said.
The pickup bounced over the road heading south toward the calving field, the potholes lulling Charlie to sleep. When I was little we didn’t have car seats and Dad would lay me out on the seat next to him, his right hand resting on my shoulder to keep me in place as he drove. “Go to sleep, Collie,” he’d say. “I’ll wake you when we get there.” But sometimes he didn’t, and I’d wake up mad when we got back to the ranch house. “You were sleeping so peaceful,” he’d say, “like a little angel. I couldn’t wake an angel.”
Charlie’s head fell over onto his shoulder, his lips parting slightly. Through my thoughts I could hear his soft breathing. I passed the rock outcropping where T had proposed to me, its lone juniper standing tall but crooked in the wind, and then the calving field spread open between sage-covered hills.
The heifers lingered near the corrals, which was a good thing because I could see right away that the big heifer was in trouble. She stood off to one side under an old cottonwood near the sometimes-creek, and as the pickup rolled over the cattle guard into the field the heifer arched her back, her sides tightening and her tail lifting, one dark hoof parting the loose skin beneath.
“Damn it!” I said.
Charlie stirred, raised his head to drop it on the other shoulder, didn’t wake up. I eased the Dodge as close to the corrals as I could, cracked a window so I could hear Charlie if he started crying, tucked a blanket around him, and stepped out into the cold.
The heifers were used to Mom and Dad and didn’t spook as I opened the gate into the corral. They ambled toward it before I even asked, the big heifer among them. “Dad’s spoiled you rotten,” I said, smiling at pictures of him hand-feeding hay to his cows. I’d often teased him about it, but I’d always been grateful.
As soon as the big heifer passed through the gate I stepped in front of the others, cutting them off. “Sorry, girls,” I said, “no time to play.” And as I sorted the heifer off I thought about how I talked like Dad. The heifer didn’t appreciate being singled out and started to get huffy, and I remembered how I felt in the hospital with Charlie trying to come out and I didn’t blame her.
Finally I clanged the gate of the squeeze chute shut behind the heifer, and, hating to do it, pulled the lever, tightening the steel bars of the chute against the heifer’s ribs so that she couldn’t jump forward or back and break my arm. When the bars tightened the heifer pushed, and I could see that the hoof belonged to a back, not a front, leg. Breach. Shit.
Throwing my jacket over a juniper post I climbed the fence and stepped in behind the heifer, pushing up my sleeves and then pushing my hand into the hot depths of the heifer, the heat almost burning after the cold air outside. I followed the course of the calf’s leg and a rush of panic washed up from my stomach into my throat as I realized the second leg wasn’t there. Double trouble. I should have tried T again, I thought; he could have been here in another hour. But I knew I might not have that much time—the sack on the hoof sticking out was dry.
In the tightness of the birth canal I followed the one leg to the calf’s hip, my fingers sliding along slick fur, until I felt the second leg pointing forward. Tears pushed up behind the panic in my throat. I can’t do this, I thought. I was up to my shoulder in the heifer, my cheek resting against her warm red hide, the smell of blood and cow manure thick in my nose. Beyond the corrals, the field, the sage-and-juniper hills, the sky shifted and changed in strange gray shapes. “You gotta help me,” I said.
The heifer grunted and pushed, and the calf’s rump slid toward me. If Dad were here, I thought, remembering other times, and I knew I had to get the second leg parallel with the first or turn the whole calf around. I strained into the heifer as she groaned and strained against me. The mucous helped me inch forward until the heifer stopped pushing and the calf slid deeper into her, my hand slipping on the hot jellied placenta, my arm cramping from the strain, from the muscles clamping down on me.
“Come on, heifer, help me!” I begged, and she bawled long and low with another big push and I knew life hinged on my efforts and I pushed, too, reaching into the depths, my arms not long enough, not man’s arms, but I got it, got my fingers wrapped around the hock and the heifer pushed and I slid forward enough to grasp the bone below the hock and bend the hock and ease the bent hock backwards.
I prayed for time and strength and breath, easing the hock around. The calf started slipping away and I hung on, hung on to everything I had with everything I’ve got, my body straining as if in my own labor, my shoulder mashed against the heifer’s rear, my cheek against her tailbone, feet braced behind me, not feeling or smelling or tasting any of it; not remembering pulling other calves with Dad, not remembering the results; not hearing Charlie cry out as he slid into the world, or woke in the pickup to find himself alone; or was it Dad’s scream in the hospital; or mine as Charlie tore through me; or mine now as I pulled the leg backward to join the other one and felt the shudder of life slipping away.
I knew I’d lost the calf and I almost lost my grip, but the heifer was quitting—I could feel it, could feel myself saying “I’m done” after Charlie’s head ripped through me, and the room rallying against me: “Go Collie!” and I’d had to suck in and push, push the rest of Charlie out of my body and into my life. I had to get the calf out to save the heifer.
I groped about and found my grip on the leg. I pulled slowly at first, and when the heifer felt the calf moving inside her she joined me and pushed, and the calf slid and the heifer paused, me resting with her, and then the heifer pushed again. And I pulled, each hand on a leg now, feet braced against the chute, body leaning backward, watching the heifer doing the same, hearing her strain, remembering, knowing, and with a giant effort the heifer pushed and I pulled and the calf slid all the way out. And I fell back on my butt and the calf landed on top of me, slimy and warm and deep dark red.
The weight of death heavy in my lap, I hugged the slick fur, resting my cheek on the wet fuzzy forehead, short red calf hairs and long stringy blond hairs curling together. When the heifer bawled again I squirmed out from under the calf and picked it up, its head drooping over my arm, its eyes closed, sleeping angel. Struggling under eighty pounds of dead weight and the wonder about the weight of a dead leg, I carried the calf into the corral for the heifer to grieve. Letting the heifer out of the squeeze chute I showed her the calf, turning away as she started trying to lick life back into it. I would bring her some hay later, after I got back from the hospital, let her mourn overnight, and dump the calf in a ditch for the turkey buzzards and coyotes tomorrow or the next day. By then its spirit would be long gone, and the heifer would know it. And, I decided—cows and fear and death dry on my teeth, the river and a hunter’s sky tight in my heart—I’d go ahead and tell Dad we’d lost one.