After a chaotic Saturday morning at Dalton Veterinary Hospital, Stan collapsed into his chair with a sigh of relief. He was on call that weekend and desperately hoping for a quiet afternoon.
Irene walked into the office and handed him a note with a name and phone number. “Do you know Nina Bradshaw?”
Stan looked at the note and shook his head.
Everett leaned back and swiveled his chair toward them. “Was it Poochie Bartosh that called?”
“It was Raymond Bartosh.”
“That’s him. Don’t tell me—there’s a calf that can’t nurse, and Poochie wants us to come out.”
“That’s it, pretty much.”
Everett smiled. “Nina Bradshaw and two other gals from Houston jointly own a place out toward Almyra. They’ve got a dozen old cows that should’ve been sold a long time ago. Poochie takes care of them, but he’s too lazy and usually too drunk to do anything but call us. Knowing Poochie, the cow’s not in the pen.”
“I’ll head on out there,” Stan said. “Where is it?”
“You’ve been to Walter Orsak’s place?” Everett said.
“Walter is right there on the corner where Krupala Road meets FM 2644. If you keep going down 2644 past Walter, Nina’s place will be on your right. You’ll see an old farmhouse with a red barn and a big live oak. There’s an entryway that says Sunflower Acres, or some such shit. You can’t miss it.”
“You could use some help getting her penned. I guarantee Poochie won’t be around. I always block the cow up tight in the alleyway and have enough room to work between the boards. Make sure you tie her leg back though. Don’t get your arm broke.”
Stan’s last attempt to pen a cow had been a harrowing one-hour ordeal. He looked at Irene. Something in her expression boosted his confidence. “Hey, you want to come along?”
She looked at Everett and then down at the floor, shuffling her feet.
Stan stood up. “Dumb question. You have to get back home to Zach. I’ll manage.”
He started walking toward the exam room, but she touched him on the shoulder as he passed. “I can go. Zach’s on a Cub Scout camping trip this weekend. I’ll call Mom and tell her I’ll be a little late.”
Stan shrugged. “Okay. Let me get a few things together, and we’ll hit the road.”
It was a cool sunny day, late March. On the drive to the Bradshaw place, the roadsides were billowing with Indian paintbrush, bluebonnets, coreopsis, dandelions, and evening primrose. The post oaks were sporting their tender new leaves, while the more cautious pecans were still bare. Recent rains had left the pastures lush and inviting.
Stan stole a glance at Irene as he took a right turn onto Krupala Road. Her ponytail was resting on her shoulder, henna on green flannel. A few wayward strands of hair curled along the side of her neck, just below her ear lobe, pink and delicate.
“Maybe I need a nickname,” he said. “Since moving to Dalton, I’ve met a Tiny, a Skeeter, a Happy, and now a Poochie.” He turned to her. “Sneezy might work, if this pollen count doesn’t let up.”
Irene looked at him, her eyes twilight blue. There was kindness in them, maybe even a hint of playfulness buried beneath the layers of grief and worry.
After seven months, he had yet to see her smile.
The road followed the river for several miles and then climbed gradually to the summit of a broad grassy hill.
“So how’s your mom doing?” he said.
Irene sighed. “She’s having an okay week, but she’s up and down. Her doctor thinks her kidneys are failing. She’ll probably have to start dialysis soon.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
They drove on in silence, Irene staring out the window, the mood a shade or two darker than it was before.
When they pulled up to the gate at the Bradshaw place, Irene got out and opened the lock, using the combination Poochie had given her. “He told me the cow would be in the front pasture,” she said, as she got back into the truck. “Said she was an ‘old tiger-stripe with tipped horns,’ if that helps.”
They soon spotted a cow fitting that description standing along a fence line, and as they got closer, a calf’s head rose out of a clump of tall grass. The cow’s udder was distended with milk, and all four teats were much larger than normal. The calf got to its feet after Stan pulled to a stop.
“This is the one we’re looking for,” he said. “Let’s see…the pen is up there by the barn. How about you drive the truck and I walk? If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll get them in the pen.”
“Okay,” Irene said. She slid into the driver’s seat after he got out.
Stan approached the cow warily. Since leaving his dog and cat practice in Houston and coming to work for Everett, he’d been run over by one cow, almost gored by another, kicked by a horse, and nearly struck by lightning. Increasing his life insurance was high on his to-do list.
Stan waved the cow forward, and she started walking toward the barn, the calf at her heels. The pasture was treeless, and the only obstacle in their path was a large stock pond. When they reached the pond, Stan wanted the cow to go right, below the pond’s tall earthen dam. He shouted to Irene to drive on top of the dam, but the cow got there before she did. Deciding to push the cow along the dam, he motioned to Irene to drive around and meet him on the other side.
When the cow started forward, the calf suddenly darted to the left, and Stan watched in disbelief as it plunged into the water and started swimming, heading toward the center of the pond. Thinking it would drown, he frantically pulled off his boots and waded into the murky water, which was soon up to his waist, and then his shoulders, so cold it took his breath away. He swam out to the calf, grabbed it around the chest, and began paddling back to the shore. The calf kicked and wriggled out of his grasp, but he managed to get it back into shallow water.
The cow charged into the water, snorting in rage. Stan released the calf and lay with his arms over his head, feeling the cow’s breath on the back of his neck, thinking his luck had finally run out. But with the calf safely ashore, the cow retreated.
Stan crawled out of the pond and sat on the bank as Irene came running up. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he said, gulping for air, “but it’s a little early in the season for a swim.”
After he’d caught his breath, Stan retrieved his boots. “Excuse me while I get out of these wet clothes.” Standing on the other side of the truck, he changed into a pair of coveralls, wrung out his socks, put his boots back on, and washed the mud off his arms and face.
The cow and calf were standing at the far end of the pond. When Stan and Irene continued driving them toward the pen, the cow slipped between them and ran below the dam. Unable to keep up, the calf lost its footing and fell down. The cow stopped and looked back, but the calf was too exhausted to rise.
Stan ran over to the calf, picked it up, and carried it to the truck. While he was struggling to lift the wet slippery calf into the truck bed, the cow came running back, bellowing loudly. His heart pounding, he tried one last heave, but he lost his grip and the calf slid halfway to the ground. Carrying the calf, he quickly ducked around the rear of the truck just as the cow arrived. She caught the heel of his right boot with one of her horns, nearly tripping him. He yelled to Irene, “Open the door!”
She leaned over and pushed the door open, and he scrambled into the cab with the calf in tow, slamming the door behind him.
Irene’s eyes were wide. “What are you doing?”
“Go ahead,” he said, pointing to the pen. “She’ll follow us now.”
Stan held the kicking calf across his lap as Irene drove to the pen. The cow trailed them, still bellowing. When they were inside, Stan got out and closed the gate. Then he had Irene drive into a corner so he could get the calf out of the truck.
After a few minutes with the calf, the cow settled down. Stan ran her into the alleyway and blocked her off, tied her right rear limb to a post, milked all four quarters until the teats were smaller, and then held the calf up and let it nurse. Afterward, while he was letting the cow back into the pen, a mud-splattered white truck pulled up.
“Impeccable timing,” Stan said, just before Poochie Bartosh lumbered out and shuffled over with a bow-legged waddle. He had bushy black hair, a ruddy oversized nose, and a watermelon gut. His eyes were small and bat-like, well suited for his natural habitat—the shadowy beer joints of DeLeon County.
“Well hell, it looks like y’all got her done already,” Poochie said, extending his hand. “I’m Raymond Bartosh.”
“Stan Holub. And this is Irene.”
“Pleasure to meet you.” He took his cap off and scratched behind his ear. “You know, I didn’t think we’d have a problem with this cow. She had a calf last year, and it sucked good.”
“I’d leave them here in the pen so you can keep an eye on them,” Stan said, figuring Poochie knew the drill. “The calf will hopefully keep it sucked down now, at least one or two quarters.”
Poochie put his cap back on. “That sounds good, Doc. I really appreciate it. Send the bill to Miss Bradshaw, if you would. That’s Miss Nina Bradshaw, 1493 Willow Trace in Houston, Texas 72192.” He enunciated the name and address clearly, making sure no mistake was made in the billing, and just to be certain, he started to repeat it. “Miss Nina Bradshaw, 1493 Willow—”
“I believe we’ve got the address on file. Thanks.”
While Stan and Irene were walking back to the truck, Poochie said, “You didn’t have any trouble getting ’em in the pen, did ya Doc?”
Still walking, Stan turned his head. “No, not at all.” He glanced at Irene and gave her a wink just before they got into the truck. He started the engine, put the truck in gear, and started driving down the lane. “What are we getting for aquatic rescues these days, anyway?” he said, as he turned left onto the farm-to-market road.
When Stan turned to Irene, he saw something totally unexpected…something wondrous…something that made him momentarily forget about his fears, his failures, the nagging sense of impending disaster that constantly permeated his thinking. Somehow, despite it all, everything might just work out.
Irene was smiling.
Brian Porter lives in College Station, Texas. The first twenty pages of his novel, Long Road to Arcadia, was a finalist for the 2016 Northern Colorado Writers’ Top of the Mountain Book Award. A previous excerpt of the novel was published in THE BOILER online literary journal.