ďRob, wake up.Ē
I opened my eyes and tried to focus on Dadís face, inches from my own.
ďLetís go, Cowboy. Time to check the cows.Ē
In the gray dawn, I could see the wisps of Dadís breath. I burrowed my six-year old self deeper under the blankets, reluctant to leave the warm bed. I stuck out a foot and knew there was nothing for it but to leap out all at once. I jerked my stiff jeans on over my long johns and buttoned my shirt with uncooperative fingers.
Dad was stoking the woodstove, firelight flickering on his face as he shoved in pitchy chunks of spruce. I huddled beside him, watching sparks and flames dancing together. I wanted to stay for a few more moments, absorbing the heat, but it was time to go.
Morning was a crimson flush on the horizon. I followed Dad to the barn, avoiding dirty slush and ice-crusted puddles. While Dad saddled Sam, his big bay gelding, I tried to keep warm by hopping from one foot to the other. Then, he hoisted himself into the saddle and pulled me up behind.
It was springtime, but spring is a fickle season on the northern prairie. New grass creates a green blush on the far meadows, and poplar twigs bulge with the promise of leaves, but a sudden snow squall can obliterate a barb wire fence ten paces away. A late freeze can prove deadly, especially for calves born on the open prairie. On this spring morning, we going to see how our cows had fared during the night.
The cows were huddled together on the lower end of the calving pasture. We moved among them, Dad murmuring gently. A few cows got to their feet, and others milled about, lowing softly. Nothing was amiss, so Dad scanned the field for loners, a sign of pending or recent birth.
Sure enough, there was a shadow halfway up the field. We approached the cow carefully, not wanting to disturb her if she was labouring well.
The cow was nosing at a shadow on the ground. Inadvertently, she had birthed the calf into a pool of meltwater. Dad dismounted and squatted, drawing the calf out of the water. It was limp and cold but breathing. Dad slung the calf across Samís withers and remounted.
We headed back to the main herd, the cow following and bawling her displeasure. Then, Dad saw another smudge in the middle of the field, and we veered towards it. This time, there was no calf, just twisted bits of membrane and smears of blood. The cow looked at us with baleful eyes, as if demanding an explanation. How could we explain the she-wolf that had likely killed the calf to feed her own young, the same instinct driving both mothers.
We turned homeward. The cow still followed, mooing loudly, the calf responding with weak bleats.
At the barn, Dad threw the reins over the saddle, leaving me on the horse while he carried the calf to the house. It was Samís job to herd the cow into a holding corral. I scooted forward into the saddle and tightly held the horn. The cow was intent on finding her baby, but Sam countered her every move, lurching this way and that. I was jolted about, until it felt as though my arms would be wrenched from their sockets. I couldnít hold on and fell off into a puddle of icy, filthy water.
I yelped and leaped up. With a quick glance at the cow, now in the corral and bellowing with rage, I ran for the house.
Dad was by the woodstove, rubbing the calf with sacking. He laughed when he saw me and pulled me close, dragging off my sopping clothes. He rubbed me dry with the same piece of sacking. I was soon warm, and so Dad left with the revived calf, to reunite it with its mournful mama.
I dozed, warmed by the stoveís heat and the love in my dadís eyes. As I drifted off, I thought of the contrariness and contradictions of spring. Birth and death. Storms and sunshine. Mothers... and fathers. I couldnít have spoken the words yet, but I had already learned that for each new life, a seed must die. And with hardship, there comes renewal.
Deep thoughts for such a little boy, yet they would carry me through every season of my life.
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