Monday, December 20, 2010

First Pages From Little Joe

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Little Joe


A Special Delivery

Little Joe came out on Christmas Eve, when he wasn't supposed to. Larger than most and trembly, with only Eli there and Grandpa. Pa had gone to fetch the in-laws and some ice cream to go with the pies.
"Fancy's been like this for over an hour, son," Grandpa said to Eli, stroking Fancy's matted hair. "She's gonna need some help with this one."
A nervous hen fluttered a wing, then clucked. One of the barn cats purred. But their movements were blurred by the darkness. All Eli could see in the barn was what stirred beneath the pen's only lightbulb: two little black hooves no bigger than Eli's wrists, peeking out of Fancy. Then a head, black and furry and shiny, with two slits for eyes shut tight.
Eli stared at the hooves just dangling there. He'd seen calves being born before-- even twins last year, back when he was eight. But they were little Holstein heifers, not Angus like this one. And they'd come out right away, splashing slick as a waterslide onto the bedding and bawling for their mama.
"Push against Fancy's side," Grandpa told Eli. Grandpa took hold of the tiny hooves and pulled while Eli pushed against Fancy. But the calf stayed put.
"Looks like you're gonna have to pull on a hoof with me, Eli, just like you would a wishbone. You pull thataway and I'll pull this way," Grandpa said. "Now make a wish and when I holler three...pull! On a count o'three. One..."
Eli clenched his teeth, grabbed hold of a hoof and shut his eyes tight as he could.
Then he wished for the calf to come out right.
Eli yanked on the hoof. Grandpa tugged hard on the other. Then Eli heard a plop and the rustling of straw.
"You can open your eyes now," Grandpa said, grinning. "It's a fine bull calf, Eli."
Lying on the straw bed was a shimmering black clump of a calf. Perfectly shaped and nearly as long as Eli, he'd come out right and big.
"Your pa says this one's yours," Grandpa said.
"Pa said so?" Eli looked down at the newborn and fought back a smile. His own calf! And Pa was giving it to him.
Grandpa stopped smiling. He got down on his knees again and stroked the bull calf's side. Its eyes were closed and it wasn't moving. Not like the heifers. The heifers moved, Eli remembered. The heifers tried to get up, raise their heads. The heifers tried to do something--anything--to get a feel for the outside. This one did nothing.
"He's not breathing." Grandpa knelt closer and felt the calf's nose. "It's too late to get Doc Rutledge. Breathe into this nostril while I close off the other. Now, Eli!"
Eli grabbed hold of the bull calf's head, took a deep breath and blew into the shiny gray nostril, hard as he could. The nostril was slippery cold, and Eli was sure it hadn't moved.
"Again!" Grandpa shouted as he felt for the calf's heart. "And through the mouth, too."
Eli drew in another deep breath and forced it into the gray nostril. This time he pressed his lips against the calf's mouth, too, blowing through a tiny row of baby teeth.
"Keep going!" Grandpa yelled.
There was pounding in Eli's ears now. He was sweating and sure his face must be red as a summer radish. His hands had gone all shaky, too. Eli worried they might not be any good to the calf. His calf. Still, he took another gulp of air and fed it into the bull calf's nose.
"He's got a heartbeat," Grandpa said.
The bull calf coughed and sputtered, then spit up a big wad of goo into Eli's face.
Eli didn't know what to do so he swiped at the goo and just sat there, leaning against the wall of the pen until the coolness came back to him. Grandpa always said those stone walls held history and the stories of all the Stegner seasons. That they soaked up the cold and kept it there, year-round, soothing you in summer and forcing you awake in winter to get your chores done. Eli couldn't imagine going to sleep now. He shivered as the stone's cold bore through his chore coat.
"Feel the heart, Eli." Grandpa took Eli's hand and placed it under the calf's left foreleg, below the rib cage. The heart was warm and restless. It kept fluttering, just like the monarch butterfly Eli'd cupped in his hands last spring.
"It's beating because of you, Eli. You got it goin'!" Grandpa smiled and looked at Fancy. "Come, Mama," he called. Fancy got up, turned around and smelled her calf for the first time.

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