“Meal Ticket to Survival” — a chapter from my novel, Hardpan (WGA #1571253)

Linda peeked at the icy windowpane from under a pile of covers. “Sissy! Let’s go downstairs. It’s freezing up here.”

Jean squirmed on her side of the bed. “Okay. I’ve got to go potty.”

Clad in flannel pajamas and cotton socks, the two girls slid across the smooth pine planks toward the stairwell, skidding to a halt outside David’s room.

Linda cracked his door open. “You awake?”

“Go away. I need more sleep.” He moaned from beneath the mountain of army blankets. “Dad and I were up half the night watching the ewes.”

“Did they drop any lambs?”

“No. Not one! Dad says they’re ready, but nothing happened.”

A shaft of sunlight from the frosty north window crossed his bed.

“Oh my gosh, David. You’ve got snow on your bed,” Linda said. “It looks like powdered sugar!”

He poked his head above the covers and swept his finger across the thin layer of snow, licking it like a lollipop. “Wind must of blasted the snow through the cracks in the window frame. Those ewes and lambs are better off than I am!”

The girls giggled. Jean scooted to his bedside and tugged at his arm. “Come downstairs with us. You’re awake now.”

“Alright. You two get going. I’ll follow.”

They trailed each other down the narrow staircase to the kitchen. A wave of warm air welcomed them as they burst into the room. Their father had stoked the big coal furnace in the living room with extra coal before going to bed. He had expected outside temperatures could drop to twenty degrees below zero with the wind chill. Once in a while, they lucked out when a Chinook wind blew in and raised the outside temperatures by fifty degrees within a few hours.

Linda opened the door to their parents’ bedroom. “Dad! Mom! Are you awake?”

“Now we are,” Kurt said. “Good morning, Seagulls.”

David pushed in front of his two sisters. “’Morning, Dad.”

Kurt blinked. “Thought you’d sleep in, son.”

David shrugged. “I don’t need much sleep. Besides, it’s too cold up there.”

“Yeah. It’s freezing upstairs, Daddy. David’s bed is covered with snow!” Jean said.

“Well, that’s not too surprising. David and I could barely stand upright when we walked back from the lambing shed last night. The snow was blasting us sideways.”

“Yeah. It pummeled my face.”

“Did you know your dad found twin lambs after you went to bed?” Jo winked at Kurt. “Right, honey?”

“Really, Dad? After all that time we watched them?” David’s low tone gave away his disappointment.

“Yep! You kids should go check on those lambs. Make sure their mother’s tending them.”

“Bundle up! It’s below zero out there,” Jo warned.

When the children were out of the house, Jo hugged Kurt.

“Thanks for going along with me on that, honey. We could use a little more sleep.”

He chuckled. “You never know. They may find a lamb or two.”

*      *      *

Jo and Kurt could hear the children return from the lambing shed. They were breathless from running across the frozen ground outside.

”We found the twins,” Linda squealed. “But one looks dead. It’s stiff as a board. The mother didn’t finish licking it.”

“Yep. Only one alive, Dad,” David said.

Jo shoved the covers back. “Kurt!”

Kurt reached for his Levis. “Lambing season has started kids! You’d better go with me, son. Sounds like the stoves may be low on coal.”

The stoves at either end of the lambing shed kept the newborn lambs from freezing to death during winter storms. Even in their dugout below the river bluff, it took only minutes for a newborn lamb’s slimy skin to freeze in the frigid air before the ewe could lick him off.

All day long, ewes were dropping their lambs faster than Kurt and David could move them from the holding pen above ground to the lambing shed below the bluff. The shed, a low-lying structure dug into the riverbank with weathered plank walls along the sides and a slanted sheet metal roof, provided protection from winter blizzards during lambing season that stretched from early February into March.

The ewes were bred to deliver late winter so the lambs could go to early market in the fall. Like other ranchers in the Clark Valley, Kurt had to weigh the risks of lambing during the bitter cold winter months versus the advantages of being able to hit the market early for better prices.

When Kurt returned to the house in the late afternoon, traces of snow lined his thick eyebrows. His nose and cheeks were reddened from the cold. A baby lamb draped over his right arm, its spindly legs dangling mid-air. He placed it in the cardboard box set up next to the wood stove in the kitchen. Linda had layered the box with newspapers and some straw from the barn.

“Here you go, Jo. A bummer. He’s weak; needs some warm milk. We lost the ewe in the outside pen before we could get her to the shed. She fell from her own weight, big belly and all, shaking from the wind chill. We got her lamb out but couldn’t save her. It’s damned cold out there.”

Jo sighed. She had heard stories from the neighbors about how bummer lambs were either rejected by their mother because she was too weak, or orphaned when the ewe died during delivery. They had to take quick action to save the bummer.

“David and I cut the cord and wrapped him in that big terry cloth towel of yours and took him straight to the shed.”

“Poor thing! I’ll get a bottle ready.” She filled a glass bottle with milk from the fridge and put it in a saucepan of hot water on the wood stove.

Jo motioned to Linda as she stuck her spoon into her bowl of hot oatmeal at the kitchen table. “Get ready. I’m going to need your help. You can hold him still for me while I give him a shot. Vet’s orders.”

Linda squirmed. “Do I have to?” She hadn’t bargained on helping with the shot.

“Silly, girl. ‘Course you do.”

Linda held the lamb’s front legs while her mother injected his skinny rump. He bawled so loud Linda jerked, making the needle rip through the lamb’s skin. Linda shuddered and looked away.

“You’ve got to hold him still,” her mother ordered.

“I hate this!”

Jo plunged the needle in again, finishing the job.

“Okay. You can let go now.”

“But he’s shivering.”

“He’s just hungry. Here you go.” Jo handed her the tall slender glass bottle with the elongated black nipple. “Hold him under his belly so he can stand up while you feed him. Hold on tight or he’ll pull the nipple off.”

The lamb wobbled on his spindly legs, latched onto the nipple, and started sucking as Linda steadied herself. She held tight as the lamb rooted for milk, his little tail whirling as fast as he drank. He tugged at the nipple so hard it nearly came off the bottle.

“There isn’t a drop left!” Linda said. She patted the lamb on its head. “Good for you little fella. You were hungry!”

They kept the lamb indoors for another day of feedings, until he was strong enough to go back to the shed. Her father or David would have to drape the bummer with the skin from a lamb that had died during delivery so the ewe would recognize the scent of her dead lamb and accept the bummer as her own.

At times that winter there were three or four bummer lambs in cardboard boxes in the kitchen. It was their refuge from the winter storm blasts and their meal ticket to survival.

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