All in a Day's Work

Andy halted on his way to the house and watched as Slim loped Alamo down the hill into the yard. He may well have just been coming in for supper, but from the way he rode in, it sure looked as if something had gone wrong. Breaking into a trot, Andy hurried to meet his older brother.

"What's up, Slim?" He called.

"Jess and Jonesy here?" Came Slim's response.

"Jonesy's fixin' supper; Jess should be in soon…"

Slim barely allowed his brother to finish before hollering for their housekeeper cook.

"Andy, I'll need your help," Slim added, while Alamo drank deeply from the horse trough. "Get some empty feed sacks and some of those rags we use in the barn and put 'em in the buckboard. Fork some hay in there, too. Then run out and catch up the work team."

Andy nodded and ran to obey, the urgency in Slim's voice providing reason enough. As he disappeared into the barn, Jonesy came from the house and hurried toward Slim, greeting him halfway with a question.

"What's the matter, Slim?"

"Got a cow and her calf in trouble. We've gotta go up and bring 'em down."

"Okay, Slim. I'll go put supper on the back of the stove."

"And tell Jess when he gets back ta come up to the swamp in the Long-Neck and give us a hand," Slim called after the retreating cook. Jonesy turned to reply and a movement over Slim's head caught his attention.

"Tell him yourself, here he comes."

"Hi-ya, Andy," Jess greeted the passing boy as he dismounted next to Slim at the water trough. "Where ya goin' with the team, Slim?" he added, following his boss who had taken one of the horses from Andy and was leading it to the buckboard.

"Brocko calved right next to the swamp in the Long-Neck and keeps pushin' her calf into the water. We're gonna have to bring 'em down an' put 'em in the corral." Slim explained to his brother and partner.

Jess pushed his hat back and sighed aggrievedly. "Good thing we turned Blue out today, then," he said, referring the most recent occupant of the corral.

"Hey, Jess, saddle a horse for Andy will ya, an' grab a lantern or two," Slim requested. "I don't know how long this is gonna take."

Jess pushed his hat forward again and, catching up a halter from the barn, headed for the gate where the rest of the horses were clustered.

By the time the team was hitched to the buckboard, Andy's little bay was saddled and ready, and he and Slim mounted while Jess took the reins of the work team.

As the dark-headed cowboy drove along in the wake of the Sherman boys towards the narrow stretch of pasture ground between a steep hill and a meandering little creek known as the Long-Neck, he was thinking less than complimentary thoughts about a certain mother cow that was keeping him from his supper.

They found the cow on the very farthest side of the swamp where the hill circled around to form a miniature box canyon, standing obstinately on a small spot of dry ground between the marsh and an overgrown wild rosebush. As the three cowboys watched, the scrawny, wet, black calf scrambled out from the muddy water and made a shaky charge for his mother's udder, only to be brushed back into the water as the anxious cow turned away, pivoting her hips into her little calf.

"Dad-gum, cow, hold still," Jess hissed to no one in particular.

"He's a plucky little feller," Slim stated, "if his mother would only give him half a chance."

"What're we gonna do, Slim?" Andy asked, his eyes also on the cow and calf.

Slim glanced around, calculating their options.

"Jess, you take the buckboard up as close as you can to the swamp. Andy, you an' I'll ride out there, an' I'll see if I can get the calf up on Alamo while you hold her attention. If you have too, chase her out toward Jess. Okay, let's go."

The riders let their horses pick their own way through the watery mud as the animals instinctively followed the trail made by the cows through the cattails and marsh grass. The brockle-faced cow watched the approach of the horses with casual disinterest, chewing calmly on a mouthful of grass, moving only when her calf made an attempt to nurse.

"How come she won't hold still, Slim?" Andy asked as they plowed through the swamp.

"Oh, I dunno, Andy," Slim sighed. "Sometimes first calf heifers are like that. They just don't know what to do with their calves."

They had reached the cow now and the horses surged onto the dry ground, muddy to their knees. Since the cow seemed unconcerned by their presence, Slim positioned Andy between her head and the calf and then dismounted beside the calf, thinking to just scoop the little fellow up onto his saddle and swing up behind him. Life has a way of undoing the best laid plans, however, and things started to go awry from the moment Slim locked his arms around the muddy body of the calf.

Offended that his milk-hunting operation had been interrupted and surprised at being suddenly grabbed, the calf let out a healthy bleat. His mother, taken aback by the unfamiliar sound, stepped forward, knocking her calf back toward the swamp and sending Slim along with him.

Andy grabbed Alamo's reins, resisting the urge to look for Slim, and keeping his attention focused on the confused cow. Hearing splashing behind him, he called out to his brother.

"Slim?"

"Get her outta the way, Andy!"

Clucking to the cow, the boy pushed her away from the edge of the water toward the rosebush, dragging Alamo along with him. He glanced over his shoulder just in time to see Slim manhandling the protesting calf onto the shore, his chaps black with mud almost to the waist.

By now the cow was beginning to get agitated and was looking for a way around Andy. Alamo was picking up on her excitement, making it difficult for Andy to keep him and the cow out of trouble. As trying to pilot an unwilling calf is similar to pushing a limp cotton string, Slim quickly abandoned that idea and lifted the struggling calf in his arms.

Knowing that he would never be able to get the calf up onto Alamo in the present nervous state of both calf and horse, Slim set the calf on the ground beside his horse and directed his younger brother to get that cow out of there, appropriating Alamo's reins as he did so.

Andy urged the cow forward, whistling and slapping his hand on his leg. It didn't take much more to excite the cow into forsaking dry ground and taking to the swamp, and once started, she knew better than to try to retrace her steps.

"Here she comes, Jess!" Andy hollered above the splash of the cow.

Jess, who had been standing on the bank watching the proceedings, sprang into the buckboard and grabbed up the lines, murmuring soothing words to the team. The cow clambered out of the swamp and whirled to look back toward her calf, bawling loudly.

Once the cow was out of the way, Andy had hurried back to hold Alamo steady while Slim hoisted the objecting calf over his saddle and swung up behind it.

"Thanks, Andy. Alright, let's go.

Following the broad, fresh trail left by the cow, the brothers returned to the buckboard, and Slim deposited the calf in the back of the wagon. He then handed his reins to Jess while Andy kept an eye on the curious cow and proceeded to towel the calf dry with the rags before wrapping it warmly in feed sacks.

"Okay, Jess, take us home," Slim said when he had finished, and Jess tied Alamo to the back of the wagon before vaulting over the back of the seat and clucking to the team.

The sun was almost gone when they pulled up at the corral and penned the mother and baby inside. Jonesy and Andy unhitched the team while Slim and Jess roped the cow and held her still while her determined calf made a wobbly rush for her udder. After a few minutes of searching, the calf had found a teat and latched on, the sound of his excited nursing filling the yard.

"Well, sounds like that little feller's gonna be alright," Jonesy grinned, leaning on the gate and pushing his derby back on his head.

"Sure will be, once his mother learns how to stand still," Slim grinned back, his teeth showing white in his mud-splattered face in the fast gathering darkness. "Let's give her some slack, Jess, and see what she does."

Both lariats were loosened accordingly, and, to her credit, the cow remained motionless.

"Looks like she's learnin'," Jess said, flipping his loop off her head.

"Good thing. I'm hungry," Slim replied, shaking his rope until it fell loosely around her hind feet.

"Supper's ready when ya want it," Jonesy offered, heading toward the house to set the table.

"We'll be in shortly. Andy, haven't you got homework?" Slim left his rope on the ground behind the cow not wanting to disturb her as he and Jess rode out the gate his brother held open.

"Not very much, I can do it after supper. Ya want me ta feed her?" The boy asked, swing the gate shut behind them and making sure it was fastened securely.

"I'll get it, Tiger. You take your horse," Jess replied, handing over his reins.

"Okay, Jess."

The Sherman brothers unsaddled the riding horses and turned them loose to roll, and while Slim tossed their ration of hay over the fence, Andy pumped the water trough full of water.

Sounds seemed to carry so much better after dark, Andy mused, leaning on the corral and listening to the plop of Jess' boot-steps in the soft dirt as he carried a pitchfork load of hay into the corral and set it directly under the cow's big nose. The horses stomped and whickered over their evening meal, the hens clucked in their coop, and the calf was still making contented sucking sounds as he pulled at his mother's udder, his tail swinging in rhythm. The lantern shade in the barn squeaked as Jess raised it to blow out the light and Slim's big boots thumped on the hard ground behind him while the muddy water inside them squelched damply.

"Feels good, don't it," Slim said softly, resting his hand on Andy's shoulder and looking at the homey scene before them.

"Sure does."

The cow paused her eating to take a swipe with her large, rough tongue at her calf's rump, almost knocking him off balance, and Andy's chuckle was joined by Jess' as the cowboy came up to rest his arms on the corral rail beside the boy.

"Looks like she'll be alright after all," Andy added.

The kitchen door swung open and Jonesy peered out into the darkness. "You all better come an' get it 'fore I throw it out," he threatened.

"Comin', Jonesy!" Slim called back. "C'mon, I wanna go get outta these wet clothes."

"We should be able to turn her out tomorrow," Slim announced at the supper table. He had changed his clothes and was in his stocking feet while his boots dried upside-down by the cook stove.

"Yeah, an' then we'll probably have to bring somebody else down ta take her place," Jess grumbled, stabbing a second helping of potatoes.

Slim chuckled. "Well, you gotta have somethin' to keep life interestin'. And like the man says, it's all in a day's work."

Author's note:

"Brocko" is a mispronunciation of the term "Brockleface" denoting a solid colored cow with large markings of another color on her face.