By Diane Lechleitner
It snowed all night but now bright morning sun beamed through the large front window of the barbershop. Kel Abendroth leaned back in the same worn red leather chair he’d sat in the first Saturday of every month since he was four-years old. He was relaxed and drowsy, enjoying the warm sunshine while the barber lathered his face and made small talk with several men who were sitting off to the side, waiting their turn.
Kel breathed in the sharp scent of shaving soap, vaguely listening to the soothing buzz of conversation, lulled nearly asleep, and thinking back to his childhood on the ranch.
Ranching toughens you up. Nobody knew that better than he and his brother, Jud. Their father had made sure of it. He expected a lot from his sons, but in the end it was only Jud who grew hard-bitten enough to run the ranch. Early on he seemed to view people and animals in the same impassive way, keeping an emotional distance from both. Animals were for profit and people were just part of the process.
For Kel it was different. He formed attachments, and often got hurt. Some of his fondest memories were of the animals on his family’s ranch, but thinking back, what he remembered most is the exact day that things changed for him…the day he decided he wouldn’t be a rancher.
He was nine and Jud was twelve. It was near the end of calving season, a time they always looked forward to. Cows were easy keepers. Fresh grass in the warm months, hay and barley cakes through winter, and they stayed healthy. And, if a calf came out feet first like it was supposed to, cows gave birth on their own, making it possible for everyone on the ranch to relax and enjoy the first mild afternoons at the end of a long winter.
Kel loved all the calves, but that year one was special. Smaller than the rest, she was wobbly and affable. Solid black with a perfect white star on her wide forehead. From the moment her mother dropped her in the tender spring grass alongside the calving barn Kel couldn’t take his eyes off her.
He called her Sweetheart, although he never spoke the name out loud. His father wouldn’t have liked it. Except for dogs and barn cats, Kel and his brother weren’t supposed to name the animals. “They’re raised for slaughter,” their father often told them, “not for pets.”
Kel didn’t even tell his brother about Sweetheart. But one sodden afternoon when he was riding in a pickup truck with his father’s sixty-year old, surly ranch foreman, it slipped out. Some of the calves and their mothers had been moved out of the calving pasture to a field further away from the barn and the foreman was doing a routine check on the herd to make sure all was well. Kel had asked to come along, secretly hoping he’d see the little black calf.
They’d nearly made their way down a long, steep hill when, before he could stop himself, Kel shouted, “Look, there’s Sweetheart!”
“There’s who?” The gruff man frowned disapprovingly. He downshifted the truck and steered across a washed out section of road. Maybe he hadn’t heard right, “What?”
Kel didn’t answer. He bit his lower lip and slumped into the passenger’s seat, shame washing over him like the April mud.
After checking some fencing and taking a quick look at the herd they headed back along the narrow, rutted dirt road to the house. The foreman drove in silence, but several times shot a disgusted glance Kel’s way and muttered under his breath.
That night he and two other ranch hands had dinner with the family. Kel’s father, Karl, was going on about a half-dead heifer they’d found several days earlier, tangled in some sagging, rusted barbed wire fencing.
“Should’ve seen it,” he said. “Been laying there for a while…full of maggots. I put a bullet in her but she kept moving. Had to shoot once more.” He helped himself to some fried chicken. “Damn near broke my heart…dollar eighty-six a pound. Prices haven’t been that high in years. Ain’t that right, fellas?”
The men agreed with their boss, but Kel burst into tears. “Why’d you shoot her, Dad?”
“Sit up and stop blubbering. It’s just an animal. Cows are for eating, not crying over,” Karl scowled at his son, not bothering to explain further.
Kel wiped his eyes. His mother circled the table, dishing up hot food. She scooped potatoes and vegetables onto his plate and patted his shoulder reassuringly, but didn’t say anything, just kept going around until she came back to her chair and sat down, avoiding her husband’s gaze. She knew he was angry about the loss of valuable livestock, and Kel’s crying had just made it worse.
After eating in silence for a few minutes the conversation turned to feed and fuel prices, but part way through dessert the foreman smirked and cleared his throat, “Hey, Kel…you tell your old man about Sweetheart?”
Everyone stopped eating and looked up.
“What’s he talking about, Kel?”
When Kel didn’t answer, the foreman said, “I think it’s a cow. Sweetheart the cow.” He looked around the table, rolling his eyes and shaking his head.
Karl squeezed a napkin in his fist, glaring at his son. “You named a cow?”
“A calf,” Kel whispered, staring down at his half-eaten slice of apple pie.
“Look at me, boy.”
Kel looked up.
His father pointed a fork at him, lowered his voice to near calm, “Tomorrow, first thing, you and me are taking a ride. You’ll show me that calf.” He looked at Jud. “And you, too. Might as well make sure you both know what’s right.”
The next morning Karl was downstairs in the kitchen, waiting. Didn’t take time for breakfast, just walked them out to the pickup, drove to the end of their long driveway, and turned west toward the mountain.
The ride took longer this time. The truck slid and sloshed through the mud, splattering the windshield, forcing their father to slow down, but finally, they saw the cattle, steam rising off their backs in the cool morning. Kel had no trouble spotting Sweetheart. She and several other cow-calf pairs were milling around the streambed where they’d been the day before. A few were lying down, still sleepy-eyed.
Karl stopped the truck. “Well, which one is it?” he asked, turning off the ignition.
Kel pointed to her.
“The scrawny black one with the star?”
His father sat there a while, staring straight ahead, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, thinking. The calf looked sickly. Probably wouldn’t make it to next month, let alone the feedlot. “Let’s go,” he said, opening his door to get out.
Jud and Kel jumped down from the cab of the truck. Their father reached back inside and lifted his rifle off the gun rack.
They walked upstream until they were in front of the cow and her calf. Mother and baby were standing about fifty yards from the rest of the herd, warming themselves in a dappled patch of sunlight. When the calf saw the man and boys she began prancing towards them, cheerful and unafraid.
Karl raised the gun to his shoulder. “That, boys, is not Sweetheart. It’s sweet meat, and don’t you ever forget it.”
Kel squeezed his eyes shut when his father pulled the trigger. It had rained heavily overnight and the swollen stream gurgled loudly. He tried concentrating on the rushing water, but he heard the calf collapse on the ground, and then the mournful sound of the cow bawling. When he opened his eyes he wouldn’t look at the calf, but Jud did, his expression fixed in a blank stare.
It seemed to Kel he’d seen that look on his brother’s face many times since.
“All done,” the barber said, scrapping the last of Kel’s whiskers and handing him a hot towel.
Kel kept his eyes closed and pressed the cloth hard against his face, waiting for the steaming warmth to ease a sudden sting of tears, surprised at how painfully vivid the memory of that spring morning was. He grasped an armrest and slightly changed position in the barber’s chair, sliding easily on its smooth surface, much the same way he’d slid across the cracked vinyl seat in the foreman’s pickup that day they skidded around muddy turns.
His father was gone now. Dropped dead several years ago, hunting elk on horseback. Early November. Already bitter cold in the high country. Kel imagined that when his father toppled from his sure-footed sorrel mare and hit the frozen ground there must have been a dull, lonely thud, the same as a calf falling on bluebunch in the hushed, early morning.
Copyright Lechleitner 2015