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A Calf by Lightning
By margaret hodapp
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Rated "G" by the Author.

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A true story from when we were dairy farming . . .

The weather during the previous week had been miserable and cold. Several inches of snow remained on the ground in the barnyard from the last storm. The ramp leading into the dairy barn iced over daily, needing to be scraped and salted every morning and evening to keep the milk cows from falling as they came into the milking parlor. This morning the heavy predawn clouds hovered low over Peggy’s head, as she struggled to drag her booted feet through the knee-high drifts to the barn. She felt as though she could easily reach up in the sky and grab a damp handful of the grey moist mass. “Mornings come way too early around here; at least in the winter,” Peggy grumbled under her breath. She shivered inside her insulated carhart coveralls. Mornings during the summer were different. Those dawns arrived softly, gently and were pleasantly warm when the sun crept over the edge of the horizon. Winter’s harsh daybreaks, in contrast, were frigid, gloomy, and snowy in this part of the country. Fingers froze inside the warmest gloves, eyes watered and cold noses dripped endlessly whenever a person ventured outside the comfortable house. A wiry Australian shepherd came bounding across the barnyard, barking joyously to welcome her mistress. Peggy hesitated long enough to lean over and fondly pat the cattle dog’s head. Then she straightened and looked restlessly out over the bare corn fields that were sandwiched in between the dairy barn and the thick grove of trees surrounding the distant farm pond. A rapidly moving object nearly two thirds of the way across the field caught her eye and she frowned. She shaded her eyes with her hand to block the intense glare of the rising sun against the sparkling white snow. "What is that, Freckles?” The dog whined and watched Peggy, unsure of the answer. Peggy sighed as she realized it was one of their dairy cows. “Oh, no”, Peggy groaned. “Lightning is out again. How does that cow manage to escape no matter how well we shut her in? Lightning was one of the Holsteins in their herd. Solid black except for one white stocking and a curious white area over one bony hip that resembled a stray bolt of lightning. The replica of a lightening-flash on her hip was not the main reason for her interesting name. Lightning described the speed with which the bovine could remove herself from any structure or fenced in area where she was enclosed the second that she no longer wanted to stay there. Jack, Peggy's husband, swore daily that he was selling the cow. That she was nothing but a nuisance but the dairy farmer never carried through with his oft-repeated threats. The big-boned Holstein was one of his highest milk producers and always dropped big, healthy calves with no problems. He could not bear to part with her although even he had to admit that it was becoming more and more of an aggravation everyday to keep her. Jack was finished with the milking, slapping the last cow on the rump to hurry it out the door to the feeding floor, when Peggy entered the milk house. Water splashed through the pipelines to cleanse them and Jack had sprayed off the automatic milking machines. The barn was warm from the accumulated heat left by the herd of cows and the windows were steamed. Peggy pulled off her insulated gloves and leaned against the damp wall of the milk house to wait patiently until the cleaning cycle completed. She didn’t want to yell over the noise of the machinery. “Hi, Babe.” Jack grinned at his wife when the machinery shut down. Peggy smiled in return. She hated to give her husband the bad news that she knew would wipe the happy grin off his face. “Calves fed?” he asked over his shoulder. Peggy was responsible for caring for the bucket calves each morning and night, feeding them artificial milk in galvanized buckets with rubber nipples protruding from the bottom. The rich milk their mothers produced went into the bulk tank to be sold, adding to the farm income, and not into the children’s bellies. She enjoyed caring for the babies but it was a never ending job; this dairy farm. Sometimes Peggy longed to escape, if only for a day. “Everyone has been fed and given a ration of hay for the day. They’re growing and doing great. I have three that will be weaned from the bucket any day now.” Peggy was glad that she had good news to report along with the bad. “I was coming back to the barn after taking the dirty buckets back to the basement and I saw Lightning crossing the stubble in the north cornfield heading toward the pond.” Jack scowled. “That blamed cow. I had her locked in the upper barn lot with the other dry cows.” He used the hose to spray out the gutter behind where the cows stood to be milked. “I wanted her out of the weather since she is due to drop a calf any day.” Jack coiled up the wet, slippery hose and pitched it in the corner. “How do you reckon that fool cow got out? I’d better go check; if she busted the fence, the rest of the herd will be right behind her. Soon as she has this calf, I’m going to sell her- for real this time. I’m tired of messing with her.” He stomped furiously out the milk house to go find out how Lightning had escaped and to make sure that the rest of the cows waiting to calf had not followed her. Peggy wandered over to the barn door that Jack had left standing open. Snow was falling heavily again. The wind had picked up, rearranging last week’s snowdrifts into new shapes and sizes. Peggy shook her head in dismay. Lightning had chosen a terrible day to want to have her calf in the open instead of safely in the barn but Peggy could understand her longing to be free. She hoped that Jack would be able to get the cow back to the barn without having to sacrifice either the cow or the soon to-be-born calf to the raging winter storm. Breakfast was ready and was waiting for Jack to come in from the barn. Peggy peered out of the window over the kitchen sink searching for a glimpse of her husband. The wind had increased again and the snowflakes had grown larger. She could no longer see the five hundred feet from the old farmhouse to the barn through the heavy snowfall. Then she heard the outside door on the back porch slam shut. Good, there was Jack. Peggy could hear him kicking off his wet, dirty barn boots as she set the platter of bacon on the table beside a plate of buttered toast. Pint mason jars of homemade strawberry jam and apple butter bumped the frosty jug of orange juice. The tantalizing aroma of strong coffee filled the room. Jack sniffed appreciatively as he came in the door and grinned fondly at his wife. He absentmindedly reached back to hang his navy knit toboggan on the doorknob behind him. “After we eat, you bundle up good and we’ll drive back the lane to the pond and look for that fool cow. I just hope she hasn’t started having her calf yet.” Jack slid half the bacon on the platter over on his plate to join the pile of scrambled eggs already there. Waving his fork for punctuation, he continued talking in between bites of food. “We’ll have to get the four wheel drive out of the shed to bust through the drifts in the lane. It’s still snowing. Why did that idiot cow pick today of all days to run off?” Peggy sipped her coffee and munched on a piece of toast. Jack was riled up and she had learned that when he was upset, the best thing was to leave him alone until he worked it out of his system. She worried about Lightning alone out in the snow. The temperature was supposed to drop all day, ending in the single digits by late afternoon. If the cow went into labor and they could not locate her in the storm . . . well, Peggy did not want to consider the possible outcome of that sad scenario. Peggy felt a close connection to Lightning’s adventurous spirit. There were days when Peggy resented the fact they were tied to the farm by the dairy herd and the never-ending morning and evening milking. The couple had not left the dairy farm, the cows, and the heavy responsibilities the herd required, for years. Peggy longed desperately for a vacation. Jack ate swiftly, gulped the last swallow of hot coffee, and abruptly shoved back his chair. He had lost all patience with that cow; had put up with enough. As soon as possible, once her calf was delivered, the cow would be hauled to the sale barn and sold. Jack shrugged into insulated coveralls, stepped out on the back porch to jerk on his boots, and slammed out the back door. Peggy quietly gathered up and stacked the dirty dishes, stored the leftover food in the refrigerator and wrapped up warmly. She then fought the fury of the storm to follow Jack to the truck shed. Jack already had the old Chevy fired up and waiting. Peggy was glad that the truck heater had kicked in and the truck was at least half way warm. Jack aimed the nose of the truck at the first pile of snow blocking the lane leading back to the pond. The engine growled angrily and the truck swayed and bucked as the drifting snow sucked at the wheels but they continued moving forward. A quarter of a mile from the barn, the lane turned sharply left and went downhill as it approached the clump of trees that hid the small pond. As luck would have it, the wind had blown the snow off this length of the lane and the road was covered with a thin glare of ice. Peggy had her hands resting on the dash and her nose pressed against the windshield glass scanning the woods and pond edge for a black shape in the snow. Suddenly Jack stopped the truck, slammed his fist on the steering wheel, and cursed heartily. The day had not reached the noon hour, yet the visibility in the near blizzard was similar to the gloom of the twilight hour. The truck’s headlights cut through the swirling snow and clearly shone on the prone body of the wandering cow stretched out on her side. She was under the bare branches of a straggly wild rose bush with her mouth open, moaning, as her body strained in labor. Peggy jerked the truck door open and ran to the cow while Jack unloaded the bed of the truck. Peggy’s throat ached from breathing the frigid air and her fingers tingled inside her gloves. She stood helplessly watching Jack unload several bales of hay from the bed of the truck that he had wisely brought to stack around Lightning to insulate her from the chill of the ferocious wind. The cow made two feeble attempts to get up on her legs when Jack approached her but neither was successful. Peggy wanted to cry. Jack swung around, yelling at Peggy to make himself heard over the wind. She could not hear him. He yelled again, louder. “Take the truck. Go back to the house and call the vet. Bring back an old blanket, flashlight, and break up a bale of straw and scatter it over the floorboard on the passenger side of the truck. Hurry! Be careful.” Peggy stumbled as she ran back to the truck and went down on one knee in the wet snow. Grabbing the bumper of the old truck, she dragged herself up and slid quickly around the truck body to the driver door. She wrenched it open, climbed in, and headed the vehicle out of the grove of trees and up the slight incline. The wind had switched direction. The section of the lane that had been clear was drifted half shut by the time Peggy drove back toward the house. She made it to the turn in the road without getting stuck and could see the faint glow of the light on the pole barn in the distance through the dancing snowflakes. The clock on the dash of the truck said eleven-thirty in the morning. It had to be wrong. It seemed as though days had passed since she stood near that same barn light earlier that morning and watched Lightning escape across the cornfield. Peggy called Dr. Stanford’s office and was told that he was on a service call but she succeeded in reaching the vet on his cell phone. She threw an old canning blanket and a large flashlight from the house into the truck and drove to the barn. Precious time was lost dodging Freckles, who was jumping and romping around her feet, as she carried the bale of straw to the truck. The local veterinarian arrived as Peggy locked the dog in the milk house and he led the way down the lane, busting through the drifts with his heavy utility van. Peggy was glad to see the wind had died down and the day had brightened considerably. She prayed feverishly that they would arrive in time. Jack was kneeling by the cow’s head and hardly glanced up when Peggy and the vet arrived. Lightning had stopped thrashing and lay quietly. Too quietly. Peggy looked at Jack with a question on her face. He shook his head; not dead yet. Dr. Stanford lifted a metal case holding medical supplies from one of the compartments on the side of his van and squatted by the cow’s side to examine her. When he finished with the examination, the vet rocked back on his heels and wiped sweat off his forehead. Opening his case, Doc withdrew a small vial and a syringe. As he carefully filled the syringe, the vet explained what was coming. “There is no way to get this cow up and back to the barn. She’s too weak. She’s not going to live much longer and we have to save the calf.” Peggy felt her stomach churn. She dreaded what the vet was going to tell them. “I will inject the drug in this bottle into a vein and it will kill the cow almost instantly. I know that sounds cruel but if I don’t, we’ll lose the calf, too.” Lightning made a low sound and Peggy wondered if the cow was approving or protesting the proposed plan of action. Tears filled Peggy’s eyes as she listened to Doc Stanford finish describing what he wanted them to do to assist him. The vet was going to deliver the calf caesarian but would have only minutes to accomplish this before the drug took effect on the cow’s bloodstream and affected the calf. Jack and Peggy had to be ready to help bring the calf out of the womb and rush it to the truck and on to the barn before it froze. The cow was doomed; saving the calf was now the primary objective. “I grabbed a few feed sacks in the barn while I waited on Doc. We can use those to dry the calf off.” Jack nodded at Peggy, pleased with her ingenuity. The snow continued to fall. Peggy knelt on the ground, brushing the wet flakes off the cow’s muzzle and out of the cow’s eyes with her gloved hand. “Poor old girl.” Peggy whispered softly in the cow’s ear. “I wish you had stayed in the cow lot this morning. Too independent for your own good, aren’t you? Good-bye Lightning, sleep well.” “Peggy! Stop daydreaming and help. We’ve got a little heifer, here.” Jack and the vet were struggling to bring the calf into the world. Jack was trying to see his watch. Two minutes gone; only a few left before the medication affected the calf. Time was of the essence in removing it from the womb. Not a minute too soon, the calf was out, steaming in the frigid air. The body seemed all legs and wetness. Slippery to grasp and difficult to hold but finally delivered. Doc Stanford tied and cut the cord and the men lifted the calf to carry it to the truck. Peggy jumped to her feet and rushed past the men and their burden to open the door on the passenger side of the truck. The truck interior was warm. The floor was covered with straw, waiting for the calf. Outside in the truck bed, the calf would freeze to death before they had covered half the distance to the barn. “It’s your job to hold the calf, Peg and I’ll drive.” Peggy nodded her understanding, said a mental farewell to the mangled corpse left in the snow, and climbing into the passenger seat straddled the newborn. This was easier said than done. The feisty calf was fighting to get to its feet in the cramped space under the dash. Peggy braced her knees against the dash and gripped the calf around the neck. Jack turned the truck around and headed for the barn with Doc. Stanford close behind. It was a frantic trip to save the animal with the truck bucking and swaying through the huge snowdrifts and the calf struggling between Peggy’s knees. The gloves and coveralls that she had taken from the cupboard clean that morning were dirty, wet and covered with bloody afterbirth. She battled the newborn all the way to the barn. “Well, Lightning’s baby seems healthy. It’s all I can do to hold it down and keep it from climbing into my lap. Hurry - there is not enough room on this side of the truck for me and the calf, too.” Jack heard his wife groan in pain as one small hoof made contact with her knee. “I’m doing my best but I think the calf is winning.” The truck lurched to a skidding stop by the barn. Jack ran around to the passenger side. Peggy pushed the release lever to shove the seat back as far as possible before she crawled out. A combination of pulling, pushing and prayer by the three humans managed to transfer the animal infant from the floorboards of the truck to a calf pen in the barn. Peggy mixed up an energizing bucket of starter milk for the baby. Once fed and warm, the animal curled up in the straw seeming no worse for wear considering the unusual delivery. The men walked outside to talk a few minutes before the veterinary was called away to help another farmer in distress. Inside the quiet peaceful barn, Peggy sat on a bale of hay listening to the wind howl outside and watching Lightning’s baby sleep. She wondered if this seemingly contented offspring had inherited any of the mother’s wild restless spirit. The farmwife decided that in the record book the couple kept for the herd, she would list the calf’s name as Storm out of Lightning - delivered by Sacrifice.  

       Web Site: Margaret Hodapp Books

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Reviewed by Karla Dorman, The StormSpinner 2/14/2006

Entertaining, compelling read; well written!

(((HUGS))) and love, Karla.

methinks you've captured Lightning's spirit in your words. :)
Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 2/14/2006

Wonderful, compelliing story; very well done! BRAVA!

(((HUGS))) and much love, your friend in Tx., Karen Lynn. :D

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