“It’s a boy! It’s a boy!” Zach shrieked.
“Oh no. Really?” I slumped to the floor, my elbows resting on my knees. “All that work for a boy?”
Carla grimaced. “Sorry, Stella.” “Stop. It’s not your fault.” “Poor old cow,” Howie said.
I sighed and leaned my head back against the wall. It was only mid-morning and already the temperature was in the high eighties. I wiped my forehead on my sleeve and looked at the mother, never one of my favorites. She’d just had a calf cut out of her side and now she stood there, dumbly chewing her cud, as if nothing had happened. I made a face at her.
“What now?” I asked.
“Now we sew ’er up,” Carla said. “Give me a hand.”
Doctor Carla Beaumont waded through the straw to her med kit and pulled out a hook-shaped needle and long pieces of thick thread. Her biceps-high gloves made the work cumbersome, but she handled the instruments with the deftness of an experienced veterinarian.
“Come on,” she said. “Hold this while I stitch. Keep the two sides out far enough I can get to them.”
I grabbed hold of the cow’s uterus, visible through the gaping incision in the side of the cow. It was slippery and warm, covered with blood and who knows what other kind of slime. I held on the best I could and Carla started closing it up, pushing the needle through the thick flesh and bringing the two smooth sides of the cut together.
Zach, my fourteen-year-old farmhand, sat on the floor with the bull calf, his first very own Holstein. Since I’m a dairy farmer, bull calves aren’t much use to me, lacking the necessary udders, and I’d promised Zach the next bull calf would be his. I usually sell them to a neighbor who raises them for beef cattle or veal, but one less sale this month wouldn’t be too much of a loss for either of us.
Wendy, the cow, lifted up her hind leg below the incision, and her uterus slipped out of my hand.
“Whoops,” Carla said.
I grabbed the uterus more firmly, and Carla had just found her place when Wendy lifted her leg again.
“Oh, stop it, cow,” Carla said. “I should’ve numbed more than her tail, poor thing.”
I got hold of the flesh and once more Carla started stitching. She had gotten a couple of inches down when Wendy started to shift.
“She’s going down!” Carla shouted. “Keep her up, keep her up!”
I leaned into the cow with all my weight, pushing her in the opposite direction until she got all four legs under her. The last thing we needed was for her to lie on her side and fill the incision with straw and afterbirth from the floor.
“Dumb cow,” I muttered.
“It’s okay, Wendy,” Howie said, patting her head. “Here, drink some water.” Howie, my family’s farmhand of twenty-some years, moved the bucket closer to her. She lifted her leg and the slippery muscle slid out of my hands.
“Stop kicking, you stupid animal!” I yelled.
Blood spurted over my shirt and face. I closed my eyes and spat.
“Come on!” Carla said. “This vein’s gonna bleed all over the place!”
I got a good grip just in time for Wendy to kick again. I grabbed at her uterus and squeezed it.
“For Pete’s sake, Carla,” I said. “Hurry up. My hand’s cramp- ing.”
“Shut up, Stella. And hold on tighter.”
“Yelling at Wendy isn’t helping, either,” Howie said. “Fine,” I said.
Zach wisely kept his mouth shut.
We had a few quiet moments and Carla got to the bottom of the incision. “Okay, I have two more layers to go. You don’t need to hold them together, but stay here in case I need you.” I tried to wipe the blood off my face, but my gloves were too messy and my shoulders were covered, as well. I looked down at my boots and they were hidden beneath birth muck and manure.
“She’s goin’ down!” Carla said.
I jumped forward and pushed against the cow, all of her five hundred pounds pressing my legs into the floor.
“Come on! Come on!” I yelled. “Stay up, damn you!”
She suddenly righted herself and I slipped and fell face first onto the floor.
“Oh, great.” The front of my overalls now sported a mixture of blood, afterbirth, and straw, just like the rest of me. “I knew there was a reason I didn’t like this cow.”
Carla tried not to laugh, and I pointed at her with a slimy glove. “Don’t you laugh, Ms. Vet. You’re looking way too clean.”
“Sorry,” she said, not meaning it.
“Are you about done? Or am I going to get covered in something else yet?”
“I’m on the last layer. If she doesn’t try to lie down anymore we should be fine. And she hasn’t kicked for about three minutes.”
“Stupid cow,” I said again.
“Why don’t you go clean up,” Howie said. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t go down.”
“No sense in your getting messy, too. How’s your calf, Zach?”
“He’s great!” Zach’s face lit up the room. “Thanks. Thanks a lot. His name’s Gus.”
I grunted. “Just make sure you get him colostrum as soon as his dumb mother can give it.”
“Oh, I will, I will.”
I knew I didn’t need to tell him about the mother’s first, and most nutritious, milk. I couldn’t use her first three milkings after delivery, anyway, so we’d save it for this and any other calves we had out in the hutches.
Zach continued using a towel to wipe down the calf, even though it was completely dry. I had a feeling Gus was going to turn into the farm stud. The way Zach’s face looked, there was no way the calf would ever be sold for beef.
“There’s a hutch all ready for him out back,” I said. “You can move him into it when you’re ready.”
“Do I have to? Can’t he stay in the barn?”
“You know he’ll be safer out there. It’s clean, there aren’t any big cows to step on him, and besides, there are two chick calves out there to keep him company.”
“Okay, Stella, she’s all sewn up.” Carla stepped back from the cow and stripped off her gloves. She threw them on the ground and felt around in her med kit until she came up with a can of antibiotic spray. She covered the incision with several yellow coats of medicine.
“This should kill whatever happened to get in there,” she said. “But I’m going to leave you a can to spray on tomorrow, too.” “Great. Thanks a lot, Carla. I appreciate your coming out so quickly.”
I had awakened earlier than usual that morning to Wendy’s keening. Cows usually moan when they’re giving birth, and since Wendy is one of our more dramatic cows I figured she was just playing it up. Unfortunately, after several hours of her wailing and me rooting around in her uterus, I knew there was no way she was having the calf without the help of a vet. That’s when I called in the pro.
“Hey, it’s my job,” Carla said. “Besides, I only get to do three or four of these a year, so I got some variety in my day.”
I put my hands on my waist and rolled my head forward, trying to loosen my tight shoulders. A very pregnant barn cat sat on a bale of hay, watching.
“You’d better have an easier time of it, girl,” I told her. “I ain’t going through this with you, too.”
She stared at me, unblinking.
“It looks like you’ve had some happenings this morning.”
Another voice entered our conversation and we all looked to see who it belonged to.
My stomach turned. “Well, well, if it isn’t our local land poacher.”
“Stella,” Howie said softly.
Hubert Purcell put up his hands. “Hey, now, I came on friendly terms.”
I heard a threatening, guttural noise and realized Queenie, my dog, had followed Hubert into the barn. Hubert jerked back against the wall, and I smiled. Not many people are afraid of collies, but Hubert is one of them. Of course, it didn’t help that my dog disliked the man, and she was baring her teeth.
“It’s okay, Queenie,” I said. “He’s leaving now.”
Hubert Purcell, owner of CHP Properties, was a little man in every sense of the word. He stood about five feet five, even with the cowboy boots he liked to wear, so at five nine I towered over him. I probably outweighed him by thirty pounds, too, and I’m not even close to fat. Hubert made his living by buying out farmers and putting as many cheap houses as he could over the entire acreage. He’s been after my farm since the day my father died when I was three.
His “communities,” as he liked to call them, all looked pretty much the same—full of white bread yuppies and money. Hubert loved Republicans as much as he feared everyone else—blacks, Koreans, bikers. All in all, he was a pretty pathetic specimen.
Queenie growled again, and I enjoyed the pale fear on Hubert’s face. But I’m not cruel. At least not much.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Sit.”
Hubert looked around at the bales of straw.
“I meant the dog, not you. What do you want, Hubert? You can see I’m a little busy here.”
He smiled. “I brought someone to meet you. That’s all.”
I felt a quiver of unease. It couldn’t be that simple, I knew, because Hubert wouldn’t waste his time coming to talk with me unless he had a reason. I’d told him in no uncertain terms he would get my farm when the world ended or everybody else in the world, including me, was dead.
“I’m not exactly in my hostess gear,” I said.
“She’s not going to care. Besides, you don’t look that much different from usual.”
I scowled at him.
“Should I bring her in?” Hubert asked.
“No. I’ll come out there.” I wasn’t going to discuss anything with him in front of Carla and Zach. Howie knew everything that happened at the farm, but the other two didn’t need to be subjected to Hubert’s crap. Besides, I didn’t want Hubert, let alone his friends, invading my barn. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
Hubert smiled again, setting my teeth on edge, and went outside.
I peeled off my gloves and grabbed a paper towel, rubbing it over my face. I wouldn’t look beautiful for his friend, but I didn’t care. I stomped out of the stall, and Howie gently grabbed my arm.
“Stella. Don’t do anything you’ll regret.”
I shook off his hand. “Stop mothering me, Howie. I promise I won’t kill anyone.”
His face closed and he turned away.
I sighed. “I’m sorry. You know how he gets to me.”
Howie nodded but didn’t look at me. I told Queenie to stay, and walked outside.
The sun beat down on the farmyard, and I shaded my eyes with my hand. Hubert and a woman were standing over by Carla’s truck, peering into her Port-a-Vet. Her F250 sparkled amidst the dust of the farm, and the large storage cap on the bed was open, revealing her medicines, syringes, and other tools. I was sure she wouldn’t have appreciated the scrutiny her property was getting.
“I hope you’re studying to be vets,” I said. “I would hate to think you’re snooping.”
The woman spun around at the sound of my voice, and I grinned. “Pam Moyer. Since when are you back in town?”
She held out her hand. I held mine up to show her the filthy condition of it, and she laughed.
“Wait a minute,” Hubert said. “You ladies know each other?”
I snorted. Ladies, indeed. Wouldn’t my mother have laughed at that one. Howie, too.
“Of course we know each other,” Pam said. “Stella used to defend me from the white collars on the bus.”
“And the playground,” I said.
“Oh, God,” she said. “Don’t bring up that time on the jungle gym.”
“You mean when Jacky Landis ended up with his shorts wrapped around the bars?”
Hubert grunted, reminding me of his presence.
I gestured to him. “So, Pam, what are you doing traveling around with that?”
“Hey,” he began, but Pam shushed him. “I somehow let the town council drag me into duty. Well, more like Sonny Turner talked me into it.”
“The council president? Isn’t he the Turner Enterprises guy?” “And the richest man this side of Philly. Can’t hurt to listen to his advice and jump on board. So here I am. The Agricultural Liaison.” She waggled her eyebrows.
“Eh. Anyway, I’m supposed to be ‘reacquainting myself with the farming community.’ Hubert’s on the council and volunteered to drive me around.”
“Who else have you seen?” “Actually, you’re the first.”
“Figures. Hubert can’t seem to get me off his mind, can you Hu?”
Pam grimaced. “And I’m not sure who else we’re visiting.”
I opened my mouth to make another smart comment but was interrupted by a large milk truck rumbling onto the driveway and backing up to the milkhouse. The truck stopped and the driver hopped out of the cab. He looked from Hubert and Pam to me, then smiled.
“Wayne. You’re looking cool today.”
He had on a uniform of a red shirt and shorts, with the trucking company’s emblem of a happy milk-drinking cow on the left breast pocket. He wasn’t even sweating.
“You betcha,” he said. “And you’re looking…especially attractive. Hard calving?”
“C-section. Carla’s just finishing up.” “Hope it was worth it.”
“Oh well. Better luck next time.”
I glanced at my watch. “Running a little late?”
He rolled his eyes. “Got tied up at one place. No biggie. Just means I’ll have my lunch a little later. I haven’t decided if you’re my favorite or least favorite farmer, since you’re right before lunch.”
He pretended to tip a hat, and got on with the business of getting the milk from our tank. Our milk gets collected every other day, sometime in the late morning. Wayne was responsible not only for collecting our milk, but for procuring samples and measuring how many pounds of milk we had that day. He’d been our milk hauler for about ten years.
I turned back to Pam, noticing she looked a lot the same as she had fifteen years before on the school bus. About a head shorter than me, but not a weakling. Brown hair, tan skin. Her years at school had done nothing to turn her farm girl muscles into fat.
“So what’s your real job these days?” I asked her. “Or is the council a full-time gig for you?”
“Yeah, right. I’m working part-time at the University of Penn. Crop research. I only have to go down a few days a week, so I’m helping Dad on the farm, too.”
“You graduated from Penn, didn’t you?”
She put a hand on her heart. “My dear alma mater.” “And your degree is in what, exactly?”
“You sure you want to know? I shrugged.
“I have a Ph.D. in Genomics and Computational Biology. It basically means messing with DNA and computers.
I raised an eyebrow. “So do I have to call you Doctor Moyer?” “Only if you want to send me into a fit of giggles.”
“Don’t knock it,” Hubert said. “You’re our town’s only Ivy Leaguer.”
She wrinkled her nose. “In a sense. I was just a scholarship kid.”
“Doesn’t matter how you paid for it,” Hubert said. “You’re still one of them.”
Irritation flashed across her face, to be quickly replaced by a tight smile. “Well, Hubert, I’m sure Stella has better things to do than stand around yakking with us all day.” She turned to me. “I guess officially I’m the one you call now if you have any concerns or questions about farm stuff.”
“You know me,” I said. “As long as I’m left alone to run my place and take care of my herd, I’m happy as a pig in shit.”
Pam chuckled and they turned to go. I touched her elbow. “How’s your dad doing?”
Her face dropped, and her eyes swiveled toward Hubert. “Give us ladies a few minutes, Hu,” I said.
He put out his hand. “No problem, no problem. I’ll see you soon, Stella. I wait with anticipation for the day you call me.”
“Then you live for disappointment. Get lost.” He dropped his hand and stalked to his car.
“So what’s up?” I asked Pam. “Your dad’s still farming, isn’t he?”
“Turning the ground over every year. I swear one day he’ll die sitting on top of that damned combine. If the vultures don’t run him out first.”
I grunted. “Developers?”
“If that’s what you want to call them. Hardly a week goes by he doesn’t get some kind of offer. Wouldn’t you know I have to put up with the worst of them driving me around today.”
We glanced over at Hubert’s Lincoln Town Car, where he was feigning disinterest.
“Your dad holding up okay?”
“He’ll keep the farm if it kills him. Every day I see him grow older and more determined. Breaks my heart. If Mom were still around he’d be living off Social Security by now.”
We watched a cow meander up to the paddock gate and sniff at the lock, turning her lip up at the smell.
“You?” Pam said.
“Same old, same old. I drive Hubert away every chance I can. I won’t sell, either, but I can’t say my checkbook’s happy about it.”
She shook her head. “Dad goes into debt deeper every year. Has a bad crop, has to borrow to make up for what he didn’t make. Then the next year the bank won’t lend him as much because his profit was so low. In fact, we have an application in at the bank as we speak. Should be hearing any day. Not that I expect anything.”
I sighed. “I’m right there with him.”
We stared at the cows some more until Pam shook herself. “Guess I’d better crawl back over to the Devil’s car. Can’t believe I have to spend the day with him.”
“You’re a strong woman. You can handle it.” She smiled. “I learned it all from you.”
I laughed and jutted my chin toward the car. “Just don’t sign any papers he gives you.”
“Don’t worry. He gives me papers my dad’ll run him over with a tractor.”
Now that was a pleasant vision.
Pam smiled again and trotted over to Hubert’s car.
I crossed my arms over my chest, then regretted it when I felt more slime from my coveralls transfer to my skin. I stayed that way, however, and watched while Hubert and Pam drove off in the Town Car, kicking up a cloud of dust. The CHP design on the door looked incongruous with the expensive vehicle. CHP, meaning Communities of Hubert Purcell. I thought of it as CHeaP.
Queenie came running, barking at the departing car, and I went back into the barn, musing over Pam Moyer and hoping she wasn’t being played for a fool by Hubert Purcell.
By this time, Carla had packed up her tools and was squatting on the floor, checking out the calf and talking to Zach. Howie was gone, off to do some other chores. Wendy stood lazily munching some hay Howie had put out. I glared at her, then grabbed a pitchfork and started cleaning up the mess around her feet.
Carla pushed herself up and gathered her bags. “Isn’t it about time you got ready for lunch?”
I poked the fork into a cake of sticky straw. “I want to get this cleaned up first. Why? What time is it?”
“It’s already noon. Weren’t you supposed to be there by now?” “Be where?”
She looked at me with exasperation. “Your birthday dinner, you dope. Ma Granger said we’d eat as close to noon as possible.”
I smacked my forehead with my hand, which was a mistake, given the spray it produced. I had forgotten all about the dinner. I had forgotten all about my birthday.
“Well, I’ve gotta get this taken care of—” “Stella!” Zach yelled. “Watch out!”
Before I had a chance to react, Wendy lifted her tail and sent a stream of urine gushing out, splattering off of the floor and onto my legs and arms. I jumped out of the way and slipped on a pile of manure, Wendy’s other most recent gift, and fell right into the pouring stream.
Zach and Carla stood open-mouthed and silent as Wendy’s tail lowered and the river stopped flowing. I opened my eyes and took a deep breath through my nose. If either one of them showed a hint of laughter, I was going to have to deck them. Luckily for them, their eyes showed not a flicker.
We all looked at each other without moving.
“Well,” Carla finally said. “I guess we’ll tell Ma you’re going to be a little late for dinner.”