Jimmy opened his eyes. It was a school day. He was in his own bed, in his own bedroom. It should have been an ordinary day, but for this fourteen-year-old everything had changed.
He laid under the covers and waited for the alarm to go off, announcing an early start to the school day. Jimmy threw his long legs over the side of the bed and stepped onto the carpet. I’ll check on the cows first, then feed the horses, and finish with the dog and cat. He checked the time on the phone. With any luck, I’ll still have time for breakfast before the bus arrives.
Just two weeks earlier, Jimmy had climbed out of bed just like today and helped his father with the morning chores. His memory crept back to reality. I guess it’s just me now. They had buried his father the day before. No one else is going to run the farm in his absence. Jimmy thought some more. I can’t tell from the way they talk if they’re going to let me keep the herd or make me sell it.
It was cold, even for March. Jimmy layered up and trudged out the kitchen door wearing oversized work boots. The air hurt his lungs, but even that didn’t penetrate as deep as the hurt in his heart.
The sun was low in the sky as he walked the short distance to the barn, his beloved Blue Heeler by his side.
“How many babies do you think we had last night, Tippy?”
The energetic heeler ran a full circle around his master in reply. Jimmy stuck his gloved finger out for the dog to sniff. “Hopefully, none that need assistance in this cold.”
Jimmy climbed into the cab of the John Deere and waited for Tippy to jump in beside him. “Buckle up, boy.”
He cranked the engine and listened as the diesel began to rumble. Just like his father had instructed, Jimmy sat patiently and let the engine warm-up before driving down to the silage pit.
Jimmy’s eyes were drawn to the hayloft where an old barn owl sat watching from his perch. Dad used to tell me that owl brought us wisdom and courage. He tried to remember the last talk they’d had about the owl. He said the owl is a seeker of truth and honesty. Jimmy’s memory carried him back to Christmas Eve. The owl had paid them a visit while they were doctoring one of the horses in the barn.
“That ol’ owl has been a resident of this barn for several years now. He’s made a nest in the haymow.” His father explained while working on a sore hoof.
“How do you know it’s the same owl?” Jimmy had asked the question while studying the bird from below.
His father stood and put his forearms over the mare’s back. His eyes focused on the owl. The bird gazed back at them with his white, heart-shaped face and black piercing eyes. “It’s just a hunch. But that owl has appeared to me in my darkest hours and given me a glimmer of hope.”
With that statement, Jimmy remembered seeing tears welled in the corner of his father’s eyes. “You can trust that owl, Jimmy. Don’t be afraid of it. He’s here to bring you hope.”
Jimmy allowed his mind to come back to the tractor. We didn’t even know Dad was sick then. He recalled seeing the tears. But looking back, I bet dad knew.
Shaking off the memory, Jimmy put the tractor into gear with the skill of an experienced farmer. He drove to the edge of the silage pit and lowered the bucket. The tractor lunged forward into the pile of chopped corn, fermented to perfection.
“It doesn’t smell that great, but the cows sure like it.” Jimmy talked to the dog as he raised the bucket, then put the John Deere into reverse. Tippy sat in the side window watching his every move.
The sun was slightly higher in the sky, but not high enough to warm the temperature yet. Jimmy stopped long enough to open the gate. Tippy jumped into the herd and began to round up the cows, circling them first in one direction, then the other. New and expectant mama cows began to move between the tractor and the feeding bunk.
I hate this part. Jimmy climbed back into the tractor cab and maneuvered very slowly toward the bunk. The cows were moving with the tractor and Tippy was dodging in and out of their legs. I’m always afraid I’m going to run over one of them. He positioned the bucket over the wooden feeder, then bumped the lever to dump the silage.
The low murmurs of the cows mixed with the higher-pitched voices of the new calves. Despite criticism from the adults, Jimmy honestly enjoyed working the cattle. I just didn’t think I’d be doing it alone so soon.
Jimmy parked the tractor back in the barn yard, then closed the gate to the pasture. Tippy was still keeping the cows in check.
“Good boy, Tippy.” Jimmy laughed out loud as one of the baby calves jumped in surprise when Tippy popped around the corner of the feed bunk. His breath hung in the air.
A dark shadow moved in the far fence line. Jimmy put his hand over his eyes to block the sun. “Tippy, it looks like we have a new baby this morning.” But why do they have to wander so far away to give birth? He watched for a few more minutes but didn’t see the little bump moving in the frozen grass moving.
“Let’s go check it out.” Jimmy whistled to get Tippy’s attention. “Go get ‘em, boy.” He pointed across the pasture and watched Tippy zero in on the wayward Hereford.
The frozen dew crunched under his oversized boots as he made his way toward the cow and calf. Mama was looking a little distraught and the calf still didn’t appear to be moving as Jimmy approached.
I hope it’s okay. The last thing I need to try to explain is a dead calf. He was already worried the adults were going to make him sell the herd, losing a calf was not going to work in his favor.
Jimmy patted the new mama and spoke gently to her as he dropped to his knees beside the new baby. Warm breath from its nose was visible in the cold, but the breathing was shallow at best. It’s too cold. I’ve got to get her into the barn. He judged the distance. Dad used to just pick them up and carry them. He sized up the calf. But I’ve never carried anything this big that far.
Tippy was sniffing around the newborn and mama was sniffing Jimmy. “It’s okay, Mama. We’re going to get you both inside. I promise.”
Jimmy rocked back onto his feet and tried to pick up the calf from underneath, but she squirmed enough he couldn’t get a good grip. “How am I going to do this, Tippy?”
His mind began to search the contents in the old grain bin they used for storage. A big red saucer came into view. Jimmy stripped off his chore coat and placed it carefully over the newborn, then gave his dog a command.
He was on the run toward the barnyard in an instant. Jimmy knew time was of the essence in that cold. The calf should be up nursing by now. He ran even faster as he thought about losing that calf
The rusty latch on the grain bin was frozen shut. Jimmy ran to the tractor and pulled a big hammer out of the toolbox on the back. This ought to do it. With one big swing, he broke the ice off the latch and opened the metal door.
There was just enough sunlight pouring in he could see the contents. His eyes went directly to what he’d seen in his mind’s eye. There it is. The old red saucer sled. Jimmy climbed up the pile until he could reach the sled. Dad used to pull me around in the snow with this sled. Surely it will pull a calf too.
Back outside, he realized the pulling rope was gone. Dang it. Jimmy glanced across the pasture at the small black lump in the cold grass. I gotta get her inside. He ran to the barn, grabbed a handful of baling twine off a hook, and strung it through the holes. With the saucer in hand, he took off on the run, hoping beyond all hope it wouldn’t be too late.
Tippy nudged the calf with his nose as Jimmy lifted it enough to slide it onto the saucer. He placed his coat around the damp hide and picked up the handle made of twine. He had only taken a few steps when he felt the hot breath of the mama cow on the back of his neck. She wasn’t sure what was going on and her mama instincts were kicking in.
Jimmy stopped walking and turned to face the cow. “Look, Mama.” He spoke directly to her. “The only way we’re going to save your baby is to get her inside so you’re going to have to let me drag her up to the barn if you want her to live.”
The mama cow dropped her head over her baby and gave it a single lick on the head, then murmured low in her throat giving permission for the boy to continue.
“Alright. Let’s do this.”
Tippy circled the entourage as they made their way across the grassy pasture.
“Almost there, Mama,” Jimmy spoke to the seasoned mother as they approached the barn.
Jimmy climbed up the steep concrete ramp leading to the barn door. He unhooked the latch on the top half and secured it with a piece of string his father had tied to a nail to keep it from banging shut. Then he stood on his tiptoes and felt for the hook on the inside of the bottom door. When he found it, he lifted the latch and swung it open as far as it would go then used a piece of twine to secure it to the top door.
“Okay, Mama. You’re going to have to let me pick her up and carry her inside.”
Deep down Jimmy wished his dad were there to do the heavy lifting, but he was resolute on doing all he could to save the baby calf.
This time when Jimmy slipped his arms under her, the calf didn’t flinch. She’s getting weaker. He hefted her up and held her tight to his chest. Tippy led the way up the ramp into the manger.
I got her up, but how am I going to get her down without dropping her? Jimmy looked around. I’ll put her on the hay bales first, then lower her the rest of the way. He bent his knees and slid the calf onto the first row of bales.
“Tippy. Get the Mama.” Jimmy pointed to the door.
The Heeler cocked his head to the side.
“Go on. Get the cow.”
This time Tippy disappeared down the ramp. Jimmy could hear him rustling up the Mama cow. I need to make her a little bed. He used his pocketknife to cut the twine on a bale of hay. When the twine let loose, the hay fell in a heap. Jimmy maneuvered the baby calf into the deep pile of hay and covered her back up with his coat.
The sound of hooves on the concrete alerted Jimmy to the fact that Mama cow was entering the manger. He jumped out of the way just as Mama arrived. She went right to her baby and nuzzled it with her nose. A low murmur from deep in her throat gave a word of encouragement to the freezing cold baby.
Jimmy knew he had to keep working to get that baby warm. He called for his dog then secured the bottom barn door closed. The school bus was just pulling away from the house. Obviously, I’m not going to make the bus this morning. His mom’s car was still in the garage. She’s going to think I’m crazy, but I’m going to do this my way.
Jimmy made a mad dash for the house and rounded up all the stray blankets he could find, including the afghan that his grandmother had made him for his thirteenth birthday. I’m never going to use that anyway. He stuffed them all in the dryer and pushed the button indicating: Heavy Duty. That should do it. While the dryer heated the blankets, he ran to the basement and pulled his insulated sleeping bag out of the camping gear.
“Jimmy.” His mother met him in the kitchen. “Why aren’t you at school?”
Oh, boy. “It’s kind of a long story and time is of the essence, so I really don’t have time to go into it.” Besides, who goes to school the day after their dad’s funeral?
His mother tipped her head. “I have time.”
“You might, but I don’t.” Jimmy was afraid she was going to make him get ready for school. “There’s a new calf. She was born this morning, but she got too cold. I’m going down to warm her up.”
His mother’s eyes softened. “Did you get her in the barn?”
“Yep. Me and Tippy.” The dryer buzzed. “But I need to get these blankets out there.”
His mom stepped out of his way.
Maybe she’s going to let me off the hook. He decided not to wait for her to change her mind. He started stuffing the warmed blankets inside the sleeping bag.
“Where’s your coat?” His mom suddenly noticed he was only wearing a flannel shirt.
“Um.” Jimmy hesitated. “I took it off and gave it to the calf.”
She turned toward the kitchen. “Like father, like son.”
“Pretty much.” Jimmy smiled to himself. He taught me well.
Without any further delay, Jimmy headed back to the barn, carrying the sleeping bag full of blankets over his shoulder.
“Here you go, little girl.” Jimmy unpacked the blankets one by one, layering them on top of the newborn, using the sleeping bag on the top. She blinked her big brown eyes as he fluffed her nose and the top of her head with a stray towel. “You are going to be just fine.”
Tippy sat watching, his tail perfectly still. Mama was also watching.
Jimmy positioned himself so he could lean against the stacked hay. Then very carefully, he rested the baby’s head on his lap. Time passed. Jimmy massaged the calf’s body with the blankets hoping to get her blood circulating.
Late in the morning, his mom brought him a sandwich, two bottles of water, and a thermos of hot chocolate.
“I don’t want you to be disappointed if she doesn’t make it, Jimmy. Sometimes this happens. They get too cold, and they can’t recover.”
Jimmy ran his fingers over the velvety ear of the baby. “I know, Mom. But I think she’s going to be okay.”
His mom gave him a wary look. “I’ll be back to check on you. Did you feed the horses?”
“Not yet.” I kinda forgot about the horses this morning. “I can go do that now.” He started to get up but felt bad moving the baby off his lap.
“You stay here.” His mother rose from the bale she was sitting on. “I’ll get them this time.”
Jimmy was surprised. “Thank you.”
“Are you warm enough?”
“Believe it or not, I’m very warm underneath this calf.”
His mother smiled. “Okay. Come get me if you need something.”
The day passed and the calf stayed burrowed under her blankets. Mama checked on her from time to time, munching on hay in between. Tippy bounced in and out of the manger, but Jimmy stayed next to his charge, watching, hoping, and praying.
His mother returned at suppertime. “How much longer are you going to stay out here, Jimmy? It’s getting dark.”
“I don’t know.” I was really hoping she would be up and nursing by now. He noticed how swollen the teats were on the mother cow. She is going to have to be milked if the baby doesn’t eat soon.
“Have you been sitting there like that all day?”
“I’ve been up a few times. I came in and got a couple of bottles of water, but you weren’t home.”
Jimmy watched his mom arrange a hot meal on the hay bales.
“I ran over to Aunt Gina’s for a bit. I left a note on the refrigerator.”
I got the water out of the fridge but didn’t check for a note.
“Grandma brought dinner over tonight. It’s your favorite.” She lifted a cover to expose mashed potatoes and pork roast. “Have you tried to get her up yet?”
“Why don’t you eat, then try to get her up. Maybe she needs a little encouragement.” His mother patted his hair. “You are going to smell like the barn when you come in.”
Jimmy grinned. “Won’t bother me.”
“I’m going to leave the light on when I go.” She turned around at the manger gate. “Please don’t stay out here like this all night.”
What she really means is, if I don’t get this calf moving, she won’t make it.
Dinner smelled good. Jimmy climbed out from under the calf and stretched his legs. “I’m going to eat, then I’m going to make that little bundle of beef get up and eat too.” Jimmy picked up his fork about the same time his beloved Tippy bounded over the top of the manger. Jimmy rubbed him on the head. “I bet you’re getting hungry too.” He gave the dog a bite of pork.
The calf sat up taller while Jimmy was eating. He watched her, hopeful she was strong enough to stand. “Okay, Tippy. Here’s the plan.” Jimmy finished eating as he explained the strategy to his dog.
With a hot meal in his stomach, Jimmy uncovered the calf and exposed her to the cool evening air. Mama cow came to observe, giving her approval with a nod of her big head.
“Alright, little one. Let’s see if you can stand.” He lifted her under the belly and tried to get her legs extended, but the calf wriggled out of his hold and dropped back into the pile of hay.
Jimmy dropped to his knees, so he was at eye level with the newborn. “Look. You have to get up if you’re going to live.” He ruffled the fur on her neck. “Up and at ‘em.”
Tippy ran around the calf with enthusiastic encouragement.
“Come on, girl.” Jimmy pounded the floor with his hand. “Get those legs under you.”
One of the barn cats appeared on the manger. She sat at attention, watching the activity.
The mama cow started to murmur with a deep rumble. She nudged her baby under the chin.
Mama has been patient, but she knows it’s getting critical.
The baby blinked her big brown eyes and leaned forward onto her bent front legs.
“That’s it, that’s how you do it.” Jimmy felt encouraged. “Come on. You can do it.”
The calf made her first sound, causing the mama to answer back. Tippy barked in response, startling the calf so she fell back into the hay.
“That’s okay, little one.” Jimmy jumped up and straddled the calf. “You push with your back legs, and I’ll lift you onto your front ones.”
With an awkward lunge, the baby got her back feet under her. Jimmy let her get balanced, then lifted her so she was putting weight on all four feet.
“This is how you do it!” He felt a surge of new energy.
Two more barn cats appeared.
Everybody wants in on the action. Jimmy started to let go but felt the calf start to lose her footing. I’ll hold her a little longer.
Mama was actively engaged in her baby’s progress, encouraging her with soft murmurs and nudges. Tippy seemed to understand the delicacy of the situation and planted himself in the hay next to one of the cats.
Very slowly, Jimmy felt the calf try to take a step. He gave her a little leeway but continued to hold her weight. She’s trying. She stood still, then took another little step. This time Jimmy carefully released his hands, making sure she could stand on her own power before stepping out of her way.
The barn cats moved a little closer, and Tippy tapped his tail wildly.
“Come on girl, this is all you.”
Mama stepped closer and nudged the little one toward her first meal. With wobbly legs and little confidence, she nosed around her mother’s teats, then latched on. It only took her a moment to get the hang of sucking. Soon frothy milk was building up around her mouth.
Jimmy couldn’t believe his eyes. He dropped to his knees, tears streaming down his face. “She’s going to make it, Tippy.” He wiped his tears with his shirt sleeve. “She’s really going to make it.
The barn cats took advantage of the spillage and started to lap up the fresh milk at the calf’s feet. Tippy bounded off the hay and landed at his master’s feet, licking the tears off his face in happy rejoicing.
The emotion started in Jimmy’s feet and rose through his whole body until he could feel it radiating in his chest. He leaned back on a bale of hay and let the tears come. Everything he had bottled up over the past few weeks flowed from his heart into the hay.
When the calf had her fill, she wobbled back to Jimmy. He took her in his arms and hugged her hard. “I knew you were going to make it.” At least I hoped she would make it. “I need you to live.”
Jimmy felt a sort of power coming from above. I don’t know what that is. He put his hand to his heart and sat back on the hay. Ever so slowly, his eyes were drawn to the ancient beam that connected one side of the barn to the other.
Sitting on the beam directly above the manger was the old barn owl. The heart-shaped white face and the piercing black eyes were looking directly at Jimmy. Time passed, but neither creature dared to move.
I should be afraid, but I’m not.
The wise old bird kept watch over the boy who had to become a man much too soon.
Dad said I could trust the owl.
The calf nudged Jimmy as she curled into a ball to sleep.
And he said it would bring us courage. We’ve certainly had our fair share of that today.
Mama cow dropped to her knees beside her baby, then lay down for the night.
Now Jimmy could hear his father’s voice speaking. “The owl is a seeker of truth and honesty.”
But there is something else. Jimmy waited, listening hard into the stillness of the manger. The owl was still watching from his perch above.
“The owl is here to bring you hope.”
Jimmy’s eyes went from the owl to the calf in the hay. Hope. All the tears he’d cried into the bale of hay suddenly released to a new understanding.
We’re going to be okay. He crawled off the hay bale over to where the calf was sleeping. I’m going to be okay.
The wise old owl kept his eyes on the boy. But Jimmy wasn’t afraid.
Jimmy laid down next to his calf and put his head on her warm body. “I am going to name you Hope, little one.” He christened his calf with a new understanding. “You brought me the hope I thought I lost.”
With that statement, the barn owl left his perch and swooped down to the opening that led to the pasture. He landed on the lower door and turned his head for one more long look at the boy.
Jimmy nodded at him. “You can go now. I found what I needed.” He watched the owl disappear into the night. “Hope.” He pressed his face into the calf.
One of the barn cats curled up next to the calf and another found a warm spot in the hay.
“Come in, Tippy.” Jimmy climbed off the floor and patted his leg for his dog to follow. “Let’s go to the house. We’ll check on Hope in the morning.”
Jimmy exited the manger through the walk-in gate and made his way down the aisle between the stalls. He reached overhead and clicked off the single light that illuminated the lower level of the barn, then slid the door closed over the entrance.
Light shone through the windows, inviting Jimmy to join the rest of the family who had gathered at the house. Everything had changed, but this was no ordinary day.