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Tomorrow had to be betterif only he could make it through today. In weary frustration, Jon Rider wiped the sweat off his forehead with his upper arm. The anxious mother-to-be in front of him, held immobile by the headgate of the calving pen, lowed in distress and kicked at her swollen belly.
"Yeah, I don't blame you," Jon muttered. "I wouldn't want to be in your position."
His own position wasn't ideal, up past the elbow in the slippery birth canal of a first-year heifer. His hand measured the breadth of the two hooves stuck in the pelvic opening with little room for them to push through, and none for the calf's head. Jon's bare chest gleamed with sweat, blood and sticky amniotic fluid. For most of an hour, he'd been trying to turn the big calf so he and Clint could pull it, but he had resolved himself to the hard truth. This baby wasn't coming out the back door any way you looked at it, and a C-section was out of his league. If he didn't get help soon, he stood to lose both mother and calfsomething he couldn't afford just now.
"No luck, huh," Clint said, striding loose-jointed down the aisle of the calving barn.
Jon extricated his arm and got up. "Not a bit. Is the vet coming?"
"Got the answering service." He raked his tousled sandy hair back and reset his hat. "Said she'd send out could."
"Great," Jon said. "Must be the young vet that took over old Doc Adams's practice. Know anything about him?"
"Naw, no reason to." Clint Ford had been foreman at the R-Bar-R ranch for thirty years. The veteran cowhand held to the old way of doing things, hands on and without outside help.
K. C. Calloway. Sounded like an outlaw's name. Hopefully the new vet could handle the job. Having learned from the besthis dad and ClintJon prided himself in rarely needing a vet. Birth was a natural progression on a ranch, as was death. Repositioning and pulling a calf was routine. But this narrow heifer needed help he couldn't give her. He had an excellent calving setup, so a C-section on the premises wouldn't be a problemif the vet ever arrived.
"I'll finish feeding in the other barn unless you need me for something here," Clint said.
"I don't know anything we can do right now. Go ahead."
In the washroom, Jon lathered his chest and arms, toweled off, then slipped his flannel shirt on, letting it hang loose over his jeans. Pacing to the end of the barn, he scowled down the empty road leading to the ranch, then glanced toward the house.
Hopefully, things were going better there than with the heifer lowing behind him. Jon still expected Alison to walk out, waving for him to come in for breakfast. He shook his head. Impossible. She was gone.
And so was the last housekeeper. So, maybe the twins had locked her in the cellar and maybe they had threatened to burn her at the stake if she didn't bake cookies. Was that really a good reason to walk out on him? They were five years oldthey couldn't even reach the matches. A smile twitched at his lips. They were just boys.
Clint joined him at the door, restless, shuffling his six-foot-four frame from foot to foot.
"Aren't you supposed to be somewhere with Claire this afternoon?" Jon asked.
"Some kinda music recital she's in. Don't matter. You need me here ."
"And what are you going to do if you stay? You can't get that calf out any better than I can." He knew how much it meant to Clint to make up for lost time with his daughter. She'd only come to live with him this year, to attend Montana State University in Bozeman. They'd been separated by distance since Clint's divorce when Claire was nine. "Once the vet comes, the section won't take but the two of us. Go on with Claire."
Gratitude and relief swept over Clint's leathery face. "You sure, Jon? You know I'll hang around."
"Claire's more important. Clean up and get out of
Clint bobbed his head once and disappeared around the corner. Alone in the shadow of the barn, Jon's gaze drifted to the wild beauty of the high country, but even with the sun glinting off the snowcapped peaks, it didn't touch him today. Only hinted of early floods.
Everything about this winter had bitten him hard. Stunned into slow motion over the past year, he'd inadvertently let some things slip between the cracksimportant things, things he'd never been careless of before. This heifer for example.
He always bred a first-year heifer for a small calf, but during breeding season, his in-laws hit him with that lawsuit over custody of the kids .
Jon pivoted on his heel toward the suffering heifer, his jaw clenched so hard the muscles ached. He couldn't absorb many more losses.
Where the hell was that vet! He strode to the phone on the post and was punching in the number when the crunch of tires on gravel followed by the slam of a door caught his attention.
"Well, finally," he said, hanging up. Silhouetted against the bright sunshine outside, the vet walked into the dark barn holding a large metal case in either hand. Jon couldn't make out any features but he noticed the vet's frail frame. Somehow he had a hard time picturing this guy pulling an obstinate calf out of a cow's backside or manhandling an irate bull.
As the vet approached, Jon's gaze traveled slowly upward, taking in coveralls tucked into Justin boots, shapely legs and sleeves rolled to the elbows displaying smooth, well-muscled forearms. A baseball cap shaded one of the prettiest faces he'd ever seen.
Just showed how much he got into town these days, else he'd have heard about this. The new vet was a woman. And she was watching him with intense green eyes. Her light brown hair was swept back into a ponytail and looped through the hole in back of her cap, but a few curling tendrils had escaped.
She smiled as she put down one of the medical cases and held out her hand. "Hi, I'm Katherine Calloway, Kaycee for short. I believe you're Mr. Rider?"
"Yes. Jon Rider. Glad you're here." Impressed with her firm, confident handshake and enthralled by her soft-spoken Southern drawl, Jon reserved judgment about her vetting ability.
Kaycee cocked her head slightly. "Yes, I'm a woman. Yes, I'm a vet. Yes, I can pull a calf."
Jon hoped the dim light hid the embarrassment he felt. She smiled again, released his hand and picked up the metal box.
"Let's see what we can do for you."
Jon cleared his throat and tried to clear his head as he led the way. "Pretty sure she needs a C-section. Calf's huge, she's not." He stepped aside when they reached the heifer.
Kaycee didn't look around, but she could sense Jon Rider watching her every move as she opened her cases. She'd learned to get on with the job before the ranchers had time to object to her being a woman. Generally, once she successfully treated their animals, they grudgingly accepted her.
Although he hid it well, she sensed Jon's skepticism, but to his credit, he hadn't been rude to her like some had. No snide comments, no come-on for a date or worseat least not yet. Whatever he might think of a young female vet, he was keeping it to himself and Kaycee appreciated that.
Or maybe he was just worried about his livestock. With good reason, Kaycee saw at once, as the heifer strained. Kaycee slipped on a shoulder-length OB glove and did a quick exam. This calf was locked solidly behind the mother's pelvic bone.
"You're right, she needs a Caesar. Let's prep her." Kaycee pulled a pair of electric clippers from her equipment chest. "Where can I plug these in?"
"I can shave her while you wash up," Jon said. He pointed out the washroom across the aisle.
"I'm going to give her a sedative to calm her, then a paravertebral block on the left side. Shave along her spine and from here to here and down her side." Kaycee indicated with her hands the area from the heifer's top midline to low on the flank.
By the time she returned, Jon had done an expert job of shaving the cow. Kaycee prepped the area, injected lidocaine along the edges of the vertebrae to block the nerves and laid out her instruments beside Jon's pulling chains. By now, the barn smelled strongly of antiseptic mingled with warm animal hide, sweet hay and human tension, the familiar scent of the career Kaycee had chosen long ago. Clean hay had been spread around the calving area.
Kaycee cast a glance at Jon. "Nice spread. How many head do you run?"
"Thousand to fifteen hundred, year to year."
Kaycee raised her eyebrows as she calculated the range necessary to graze that big a herd. Forty or fifty thousand acres. And this was the first time she'd been called out here.
Kaycee's scalpel sliced smoothly just behind the ribs, through thick hide and muscle. The anesthetized heifer munched contentedly on a sheaf of hay, unconcerned that her side now lay open under the surgical drape. "How long has she been in labor?"
"Couple of hours before I called you, maybe. We had her on close watch since yesterday. She was fine through the night, started showing signs of trouble this morning," Jon said, his voice edged with concern. "Calf locked up. I tried to turn it, but she was pushing too hard. Couldn't budge it."
"It's way too big. Sometimes Mother Nature plays tricks like that."
A careful second cut opened the peritoneum. Kaycee gently moved the rumen aside, then reached into the use as a guide to cut into the uterus. Finding it, she made a precise incision and extended the opening enough to deliver the calf without tearing. As she drew the foot out, Jon passed her a pulling chain, which she popped over the calf's leg above the fetlock adding a half hitch below to give surer purchase on the slippery legs. Handing the first chain off to Jon, Kaycee groped through the warm blood until she found the calf's other hind leg and attached the second pulling chain. Once the uterus was open, there was precious little time to get the calf out alive.
She worked quickly, with deft, practiced hands, ignoring the trickle of sweat down her forehead. She didn't want to admit that this baby's life might already be beyond saving. She sensed that same dread in Jon Rider, as he watched in silence.
Kaycee nodded. "Okay, let's get it out."
Jon set his full weight against the chains. She grabbed the calf's slippery hindquarters. Together they struggled to tug the sodden calf out of the steaming
"Daddy! Oh, yuck, what are you doing?"
Startled, Kaycee hazarded a quick glance at the breathless little girl pushing long, sun-streaked hair out of her eyes and staring in disgust at the cow's bloody side.
"Not now, Michele."
"But, Daddy, you have to come in"
"Not now," Jon said in a sterner voice.
"But, Daddy, Rachel says"
"Is Bo worse?"
"Is the house on fire?" Jon shot the questions at her in staccato succession, his voice choked from the effort to free the calf.
"Then it can wait. Go back in the house."
"Go!" Jon ordered, repositioning his weight, subtly changing the direction of the leverage. "Good," Kaycee said. "It's coming. Just slow." The wide-eyed girl turned and ran. Kaycee concentrated on her work, but it worried her that the child had seemed frightened. Maybe it was just the shock of coming upon a cow with her belly slit and a calf hanging half out.
Jon made no further comment as he strained harder against the chains. knuckles white as she gripped the slippery skin. muttered between clenched teeth. "Stubborn little fellow."
Kaycee dug her heels in, knowing her strength would fail soon. Stinging sweat trickled into her eyes. Jon braced a booted foot against a support post and widened his stance. Sweat streamed down his face, too, veins popped out in his neck and his hard thigh muscles swelled beneath his jeans as he grunted with the effort. The chains inched back, digging into his leather gloves. gave way with a soft whoosh. The massive black calf squirted into Kaycee's arms, its weight staggering her backward. Jon caught her against his chest. He reached around her, grasped the big calf by the hind legs and hauled it out of her grip, gently shaking it to clear the mucus.