Switching gears back to the western series…
The usual caveats apply. Recommendations/comments appreciated, as always!
Icicles hung from the roof of the porch as Rio Bell stood looking morosely out the window. A month and a half removed from the shoot-out at the river, and a month from getting married, he was twenty-three years old today, standing a little under six feet tall, lean, with light brown hair and piercing blue eyes. He sipped the Arbuckle’s coffee and grimaced. Strong enough to float a damned horseshoe! Pronto can’t remember we aren’t on the drive now… But as cold as it is, it works. Damn, this sure as hell ain’t Texas.
A loud knock on the door startled him and he jumped as it opened, admitting Billy Purcell, the ranch foreman that had stayed on. He quickly took off his hat, revealing a head of salt and pepper hair. “Boss, we gots a problem.”
“What problem, Billy?” Rio asked.
“Cows are dropping calves. Three in the barn dropped last night and this mornin’. We need to check the range.” The housekeeper, Emily, an older lady in her forties, appeared with a steaming cup of coffee, handing it to Billy. “Thankee, Ma’am.” He took a grateful sip and continued, “How many hands you wanna send out, Boss?”
Pronto stumped in, white hair awry, pulling on a buffalo coat, and looked at Billy. “Cows droppin’?” Billy nodded and Pronto shook his head. “How many you figger you’re gonna lose in this weather?”
“Prolly half, if we’re lucky.”
Rio shook his head. “Then we need everybody out, but in pairs. I don’t want anybody out by themselves in this.” He waved his hand at the window.
Pronto said, “Bear Molina rode in last night. Him an me’ll partner up. I’ll go roust him now.” He went out the front door with a grimace as Anna walked in.
“Bear Molina?” She asked.
Rio shrugged. “Don’t know. Probably another mountain man. I guess words gone out about Pronto and the others being here.”
She nodded. “Give me ten minutes, husband mine, and I’ll be ready to go. Make sure you take your woolies.”
Billy snickered as Rio blushed. “Juan’s gone sparking Alice. I’ll ride with Jeb. That’ll give us six pairs with you and your wife. We might be able to save a few.”
Six freezing hours and three horses apiece later, Rio and Anna turned back toward the ranch from the northern line shack. Rio mumbled, “Not sure I’ll ever feel my feet again.”
Anna’s eyes smiled above the scarf she had wrapped around her face and head as she laughed. “Well, we do have a way to warm up later.” Rio chuckled until Anna pointed and said, “That doesn’t look good.” A chestnut cow walked slowly out of a patch of willows, trailing afterbirth.
“Dammit, probably another dead calf. I’ll go check,” Rio replied. They rode slowly over to the willows, and Rio dismounted carefully. He followed the blood trail into a little bower in the midst of the willows and saw a brindle calf lying there. Rio shook his head and reached down to make sure it was dead, when it suddenly moved, surprising him. He slipped and landed on his butt in the snow.
Anna heard the commotion and asked, “What happened?”
“This calf is alive, but not for long. Momma deserted it.”
Seconds later, Anna was there with the blanket off her horse, bundling the calf in it. “We can save it, I think.” She grunted as she picked the little calf up. “Get mounted and I’ll hand it up to you.”
Rio started to protest until he saw the look in her eyes. He’d learned when she got that look, he just needed to go along with her. He held the willows up until she could get out from under them, then mounted the bay he was riding. It sidestepped nervously when it smelled the blood on the calf, but he got it calmed down and between him and Anna, managed to get the calf and blanket in front of the saddle. It was dark by the time they got back to the ranch, and it took both of them to get the calf off the horse. Rio carried it up the steps, across the porch, and into the house as Anna led the way. “Right in front of the fireplace.” Emily had heard the ruckus and came into the room. “Emily, can you…do we have any milk left from Bessie?”
She nodded. “I was saving some to churn for butter.”
“Can you heat some of it and, no, I’ll go deal with Pronto. We need to make a bottle. Rio, make sure the calf doesn’t get in the fire, and wipe it down, if you can.”
She and Emily hurried out, leaving Rio on his knees with the calf. He sniffed. “Well, are you even alive?” He mumbled as he pulled back the blanket. The little calf bleated softly and seemed to stretch its hooves toward the fire. “Maybe this wasn’t all for nothing,” he mumbled, as the calf turned its head and looked up at him.
Anna came back into the room a few minutes later, shaking her head. “Men!” She knelt and added, “Here, give it to me.” He gratefully shifted the calf to her lap as he looked curiously at the thing in her hand. It was a whisky bottle filled with what he guessed was milk, and what looked like a finger of a glove wired to the end. She put the nipple in the calf’s mouth and stroked its neck. A moment or two later, it looked like the calf swallowed and she smiled. “It worked!”
Rio got up with a groan. “I’m going to go find coffee and something to eat. What do you want?”
Distractedly, she replied, “Whatever Pronto or somebody scared up. Biscuit and coffee is fine with me.”
Emily stuck her head in. “I will bring you food and coffee. And you need to get out of those wet clothes!”
Anna looked up. “Emily, this is working. We’re going to need more milk.” She bit her lip and said, “Rio, can you try to milk one of the cows in the barn? I…think milk from one of them might be better for this one than Bessie’s milk.”
“I’ll try. Don’t know if they will let me get close enough, if they’ve got a calf in there with them.”
“Just remember to warm your hands before you grab their teats. Maybe you won’t get kicked,” she responded with a smile.
Rio snorted as he pulled on his jacket, remembering how he’d learned that lesson. He tromped through the snow, cursing the weather, and finally made it to the barn. He was surprised to find it warmer than the outside, and a lamp hanging from one of the poles in the center of the barn. Billy and Jeb Green, a young hand that had come from Texas on the drive with Rio, were prowling the barn and he asked, “What are y’all doin’?”
Billy sighed. “Checkin’ on the calves. Makin’ sure they are all on their feet. Calves need to move and be able to feed. I seen you bring something in, in a blanket.” He cocked his head and looked at Rio.
“We found a calf the mother had deserted. Anna thinks we can save it, if we can get some milk into it.”
Billy snorted. “You gonna milk one of them? Good luck with that!”
Jeb walked over. “Boss, you need one milked. I can do it. Used to do it on our farm.” He grabbed a pail from the top of a stall and stalked around the barn. He finally settled on a big longhorn with a coal black calf and eased into the stall with them.
Rio and Billy walked over, both loosening the thongs over their pistols, just in case they needed to shoot the cow to save Jeb. He was crooning to the cow as he sidled around to the off side from where the calf was nursing, crouched and rubbed his hands rapidly together after he set the bucket on the dirt. “Don’t pay me any mind, girl, just another calf, wantin’ to nurse. That’s a good girl. Nice and quiet.” He continued crooning until the calf stopped nursing, and he quickly picked up the bucket and backed toward the door to the stall as the longhorn turned. Rio pulled the gate open, and Jeb stepped quickly through it as the longhorn turned and hooked with a horn. “Here ya go, boss. Ain’t but a half a pail, but better’n nuthin’.”
Rio shook his head. “Thanks Jeb. Dunno how you did that, but thanks!”
Jeb grinned. “My momma showed me how. ‘Tain’t hard, but they can be a bit protective if’n you don’t do it just right.”
Rio took the pail and nodded. “Billy, how many calves did y’all find?”
“Countin’ the one you brought back, that be ten. Three dead, six up and movin’. We gonna have to keep checkin’, cause I know there’s more out there ready to drop.”
“Set up a rotation, half the crew in the morning, half in the afternoon. All day in this cold ain’t good for man nor beast.”
Billy nodded. “Two, maybe three hours is enough for any horse. They ain’t got any way to warm up.” He cocked his head again. “Prolly gonna have to start breakin’ ice fore long, too.”
Rio replied, “We need to talk. I need your advice, since I don’t know anything about cold weather and working cattle. But right now, I need to get this back in the house. Thanks Jeb!” He shivered as he stepped out of the barn and moved as quickly as he could across the yard to the house.
As he came in, Emily met him. “Let me have that bucket to get it warming. Coffee and something to eat on the dining room table.”
He handed her the pail. “Thank you, Mizz Emily.” She disappeared toward the back of the house and into the kitchen as he shed his coat. Ducking into the dining room, he picked up both cups of coffee and carried them into the living room. Anna was still sitting on the floor with the calf in her lap. He took a quick swig of his coffee and set it on the floor. “Here, let me have the calf and you get some coffee in you and go eat.”
She said, “That sounds good. Did you get some milk?”
“Jeb did, half a bucket. She’s warming it.” He got down, making sure the cup of coffee was out of the way, and took the calf from her. “It’s lookin’ like this one might make it, if we can get it to stand up.”
Anna got up, stretched, and sighed. “Oh, that feels good. That one,” she pointed to the calf, “is a boy. And he took the entire bottle, seemed to be getting stronger, too. But not quite strong enough to stand on his own. He needs to be kept warm.”
The calf mooed plaintively, and Rio petted his head. “Gotta wait, buddy.” He stuck his finger in the calf’s mouth and jerked it back in surprise. “He sucks hard!” Absently he petted the calf’s head and neck as it moved around in his lap.
A few minutes later, Emily came back with the newly refilled bottle and handed it to Anna. She looked down at him. “You think you can do this?” He held out his hand for the bottle and she passed it to him. “Put about two inches of the nipple in his mouth directly under his nose.”
Rio did so and heard the calf start sucking. “He’s taking it. Go eat. I’ll sit here with him for a while.”
Anna smiled down at him. “Thank you. One heck of a birthday, isn’t it?”
His laughter startled the calf, and it quit sucking to look up at him. Sticking the nipple back in its mouth, he said, “Not the way I’d planned to spend it, that’s for sure.”
They took turns nursing the calf through the night, and early the next morning, finally got him on his hooves. Wobbly, but standing, the first thing the calf did was pee all over the floor as Rio scrambled to get away from the splash as Anna laughed. Rio grumbled, “Just what I needed.”
Anna said, “I’ll go get a mop and some lye soap. Maybe we can get him to nurse on one cow in the barn. You want to take him outside before he does the rest of his business?”
Rio snagged his coat off the floor where he’d been using it as a pillow, sniffed, and checked to make sure nothing had gotten on it. He slipped into it, pulled his gloves out of the pockets, and put it on, then scooped up the calf. “Get the door.”
Anna, still chuckling, opened the door and said, “I’ll go get the mop.”
He carried the calf down the steps and set him on the ground. “Okay, Buddy, do your business.” The calf looked up at him, wobbled around for a minute or two, and raised his tail, depositing a stream on the ground in a steaming pile. “Damn, you stink, Buddy!” Rio bit his lip as he looked between the house and the barn. I wonder. He’s up, maybe…I can shove him in one of the stalls with another calf and he…all I can do is try. He picked the calf up and tromped over to the barn, got the door open, and entered. Jeb was sprawled out on a haybale, covered with a couple of saddle blankets, and Rio said softly, “Jeb. Wake up.”
Jeb jerked awake, dark hair full of hay, looked around and smiled. “Got it up, didn’t y’all?”
“Yeah, and it’s a he. He pissed all over the floor in the living room and just dumped out in the yard, but he can stand. I was thinking of trying to put him in a stall with another calf.”
“Let’s try that longhorn. She let me in.” They walked down to that stall and saw the longhorn up and the calf nursing. “Now’s as good a time as any.” Jeb opened the gate and said, “Just put him on the ground just inside the stall and get out.”
Rio did, and the longhorn cow turned, sniffed at the calf, and licked it once. It tottered over to the teats and started nursing immediately. The longhorn raised a hoof, looked back at the calf, but put the hoof down and let it nurse along with her calf. “There you go, Buddy. That’s your new momma.” Rio sighed. “I just had a thought. If that cow’d killed the calf, I’d never have heard the end of it.”
Jeb scrubbed his black hair, scattering hay detritus everywhere. “Cows are strange. Dumb as anything, but they’ll occasionally do somethin’ that just flat surprises me.” He swung his arm at the other stalls. “The others are doin’ okay, but I don’t know about the ones we left on the range.”
“I don’t know. Never had to deal with this kind o’ cold down in Texas. I got a lot to learn.”
Jeb laughed. “Don’t we all?” He glanced at Rio. “Boss, Juan, say anything to you?”
“Bout him and Alice?”
Rio shook his head. “Something I should know? I know he’s sweet on her.”
“I think it goes both ways, if what Juan says is true. Think they wanta get married.”
Rio stretched and scratched his head. “Um, I dunno what…hell, Juan’s what, twenty? And I think Alice is eighteen, so she’s practically a spinster by account these days.” He shrugged. “Guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” He yawned, his jaw cracking. “I’m going to eat and get some sleep. Been up all night with that calf. Who is relieving you?”
“Horton. Billy and I will ride out this afternoon to check calves.”
“Tell Billy I’ll see him in a few hours.”
“Will do, Boss.”
Three days later, it warmed up and Billy reported five more calves found, all of them alive. They were sitting in the kitchen with Pronto and Bear Molina. Rio could understand how Bear had gotten his name. He’d never seen anyone with so much hair. His beard came halfway down his barrel chest, and when a sleeve of his doeskin shirt rode up, a pelt of hair reminiscent of an actual bear covered his arms. But Bear was soft-spoken and as polite as anyone. Anna had commented that he and Isom Griffin, another mountain man, were both highly educated.
Pronto grumbled, “Need a brand. You thought about that?”
Rio was busy buttering a biscuit and dribbling honey over it. “Thought about it. Don’t really know what to do about it.”
“Much as you’re eatin’, it’s a good thing I’m goin’ to town today. You need to come up with somethin’ you can register with Denver.”
Rio reached over and grabbed a small piece of wood that had been burned on the end. Finishing the biscuit, he bit his lip. “Well, I think—”
Anna came into the kitchen. “Riders coming from the north. I think it’s Juan, Alice, and some of the mountain men.”
He looked up at her. “What do you want for a brand on the ranch? I was thinking something that…honored your father, too.”
“B for Bell and N for Nevell?”
He sketched it on the table and Pronto shook his head. “Don’t look right.”
Bear Molina said, “Too hard to make an iron for that.”
Rio rubbed it out and doodled a bit. Finally, Anna took the piece of wood. “What about this?” She drew a figure and said, “NB connected? That does what you want, right?”
Pronto nodded and glanced at Rio. “There’s yore brand. Ain’t never seen that one afore.”
Rio got up and stepped back, looking at it. “Yes, that can be done. Although it would be easy to cover, but it does what I want.”
He hugged Anna. “Thank you! You said riders coming?”
“They aren’t far out.”
“Guess we better go meet them then.” He took Anna’s arm and headed for the front door, Pronto and Bear Molina following.
They stepped out on the porch as Juan, Alice, Monte, Fat Jack, Isom, and Arapaho Joe clattered up. “I wonder what happened?” Anna breathed.
“No idea,” Rio answered. Unless it’s about them getting married. And I said nothing to Anna about that. Dammit…
After the ritual hugs and greetings, the mountain men disappeared with Pronto and Bear while Rio, Anna, Alice, and Juan sat in the dining room. Emily brought a pot of coffee and a plate of biscuits as Rio sat looking at them. Anna was just a little shorter than Rio, her long brown hair swinging loose, with sparkling eyes and a trim body. Alice was shorter than Anna, blonde, and almost angelic as she looked at Juan. Yep, this is… Emily left the room and Juan said nervously, “Señor Río and Señora Anna, I would like to ask the hand of Alice in marriage.”
Anna put her hand over her mouth as she looked sharply at Alice. “Alice?” Alice blushed as she looked at Anna, but she nodded. Anna turned to Rio. “Did you know about this?”
Rio shrugged. “Not in detail. There was a rumor, but—”
Anna sniffed. “Juan, why come to us?”
“Señora Anna, Señor Río is my boss. I must ask his permission, and I ask you as the senior in the family.”
“How old are you, Juan?” Anna asked.
“I have twenty years, Señora.”
“This is not an infatuation with Alice? How will you take care of her?”
“I do not know that word, Señora. Rio pays me a fair wage, and I have money put aside. I am a good horseman, and I know cattle and horses. It will not be easy—”
Alice bristled. “Anna! Stop it! We are going to get married. I love Juan and he loves me. It is not like we are going to be paupers. I—”
Anna held up her hands, smiling. “I just had to make sure. What say you, Señor Río?” She looked at Rio with a smile on her face that worried Rio.
He held up his hands. “I…don’t object. I know Juan is a good cowhand, steady, and not a drunk.” He thought for a second and asked, “Is that why Monte and the others are here?”
Juan nodded. “If you agreed, we are going to ride to town and get the padre to marry us tomorrow.”
Anna shook her head. “Not without us, you aren’t. You will stay the night, in separate rooms, and we will all go in tomorrow.”