Carmen woke with a start. Had she been dreaming or was Brutus barking? The throaty bark filled the air again and she rolled out of bed into the cold morning. Now what? She jerked jeans over her nightgown and waited until she reached the front door before tugging on her boots. The house groaned as a gust of wind bombarded it. She dived into her coat, snapping it as she opened the front door. The outline of the dairy was dim in the early dawn light, but the intermittent barking from Brutus was like a beacon. She sloshed through the slushy snow, splashing icy water on the legs of her jeans. A gust of wind tore the hood from her head and snatched at her hair. At least it wasn’t a cold wind, and the snow was melting. As she vaulted over the fence, the cause of Brutus’s excitement became obvious. The barn door was open and the goats were scattering, forcing the dog to race from one end of the lot to the other. His huge feet splashed through the wet snow, slinging it at the goats. The scene was total chaos, with goats dashing every which way in an attempt to avoid each spray of slushy snow. “Brutus! Stop!” The sharp command brought the dog up short. He tilted his huge head to the side and whined. He had no idea what he was doing wrong. As the airborne snow settled, so did the goats. The barn door was wide open, the latch torn loose - probably by the wind. “Come on, boy.” Brutus followed her into the barn, anxiously looking over his shoulder at his dispersed herd. Carmen poured grain into the feeders and the smell of oats and honey brought a tidal wave of goats into the barn. A quick count indicated they were still one goat short. A quick glance around the barn confirmed it was Tessa. Carmen closed the barn door and propped it shut with a board. Turning her attention to the hills, she saw a single trail leading up into the rocks. No doubt Tessa was in labor and searching for a private place to give birth - some place high in the rocks, away from the water but sheltered from the wind. There were a dozen such places, and the snow had melted over part of the rocky areas, making tracking almost impossible. She glanced at the house. The safe thing to do was to tell Katie where she was going, but the few minutes it would take might mean the life of the kid. Anyway, she knew every nook and cranny of her acreage. She sloshed down the trail, scanning the woods ahead as she neared. Yes, there was where the goat had entered, but how long ago, and where was Tessa now? The trail swerved only to avoid trees, and it was soon evident where the goat was headed. When the trail stopped at the edge of a rock strewn clearing, Carmen continued. She found the goat and her newborn kid exactly where she expected them - and barely in time. The kid lay on its side, legs stretched out. Carmen knelt beside it, ignoring the anxious mutterings of its mother. The kid had been cleaned and its copper colored fur was still damp. The air funneling up from the snow-covered hollows was frigid and the little doeling was dying of hypothermia. Tucking the kid under her coat, Carmen started back down the hill. Tessa followed, voicing her objection in annoyed bleats. The kid was heavy and Carmen stumbled several times. “Slow down,” she cautioned herself out loud. “You’re going to break your neck.” The rocks were slippery with half-thawed ice, and when she carelessly stepped on the edge of one, her foot slipped, wedging between two rocks. Her body continued its momentum down the hill and she fell, twisting so that she wouldn’t fall on the kid. She screamed as pain shot through her ankle and up her leg. A cold feeling constricted her throat and she convulsed in a dry heave. The kid struggled weakly, voicing a faint cry. Tessa scrambled over the rocks to reach her infant, stepping on Carmen’s fingers in the process. Carmen screamed again and Tessa danced a few steps away, calling to her kid. The kid tried to get up, but it wasn’t strong enough - or was it injured in the fall? Carmen rolled over and worked her foot out of the crevice. Was the ankle broken? She tried to stand, but the pain was excruciating. The kid needed shelter and warmth. She staggered to her feet again and hobbled to a large rock. Below, the house was bathed in the first rays of morning sun. Katie should be up by now.
A shout brought no response. She tried the foot again and found that it was less painful this time. Lifting the kid into her arms again, she hopped and limped a few steps, rested and moved again. Slowly she made her way down the hill and into the barn lot. This time when she called, Katie came from the barn.
“Oh my gosh! What happened? I came out here and the dairy was cold - I wondered where you were. Are you all right?” Carmen nodded. “Here, take the kid. Get it in by the stove while I put Tessa in a stall.” She limped a few more steps. “Did you get the stove burning?” Katie shook her head. “No, but I’ll do that right now.” She darted for the barn, the kid’s feet dangling like limp ropes. Carmen managed to get Tessa into a stall, and then hobbled to the dairy for some warm water. Katie was kneeling beside the stove, her soot smudged forehead wrinkled in a frown as she lit another match. A pile of burned matches on the stove pad suggested a problem. What she wouldn’t have given to see Alex walk into the barn at that moment. It was a contradictory thought - and totally unfair to Josh. If he had known what was happening, Josh would have unselfishly given his instant support. In fact, he had always been there for them. “Here, Katie. You get Tessa some warm water. I’ll get that.” They quickly switched places and Carmen checked the kid. Not much time left. She rearranged the fuel and added some pine needles and leaves. Striking a match, she dropped it into the middle and gently blew on the flame. In a few minutes the kindling was burning. She shut the stove door and picked up the kid. Tucking it under her coat, she limped to the cabinet and drug out a few towels. She rubbed the kid vigorously until it bleated a complaint. The stove was beginning to warm so she lay the kid down in front of it on some towels. Now Tessa needed a rub down. Katie met her at the door. “She’s shivering and she’s really upset. Maybe you should put the kid with her.” Carmen nodded. “As soon as I dry her off. Did you put some more hay in her stall?” Katie shook her head. “No but . . .” “Never mind,” Carmen moaned. “Just get the milking started. You can do that, can’t you?” Katie stared at her. “Of course.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “I’m sorry. I never know what you want to do next.” Carmen sighed. “It’s all right. I didn’t mean to be such a grump.” Katie smiled sympathetically. “You’re hurting pretty bad, aren’t you? You’d better go in and get out of those wet clothes. Your lips are blue and your teeth are chattering. I’ll take care of the milking.” “As soon as I dry Tessa off and get the kid in here, I’ll go in and change. Then I’ll come back out and we’ll finish the milking.” It was brave talk. She wasn’t sure she could even make it to the house. She rubbed Tessa down and carried the kid back to her. When Carmen left the barn, the kid was nursing. She managed to get to the house without falling more than five times. Her clothes were soaking wet and her backside was numb with cold. She lit the stove in the house and went to the bedroom for some dry clothes. The last thing she remembered was sitting down on the bed to tug her wet jeans off her bare feet. The next thing she knew, Katie was pounding on her door. “Carmen? Are you all right? Carmen!” “I’m all right,” she heard herself answer weakly. Her bare body was ice cold. She must have blacked out. She grabbed a pair of thermal underwear from her drawer and pulled them on with shaking hands. Next, she crawled into some sweats. The best thing she could do now was soak in some warm bath water, but there wasn’t time. How long had she been out? Katie was huddling over the stove when Carmen entered the living room. She took one look at Carmen and headed for the kitchen. “I’ll get you some hot coffee.” Carmen dropped into the chair beside the stove and pulled some heavy socks over her cold feet. “What about the milking?” Katie came from the kitchen, balancing a full cup of steaming coffee. “I finished it. What happened to you? Did you pass out?” Carmen took the cup of coffee and sipped it, feeling the warmth all the way down to her stomach. “I guess I must have fallen asleep.” Katie stared at her. “Are you sure you’re going to be all right? Do you want me to get you something else? Some toast?” “Toast would be fine.” Katie was in her element now. When it came to managing the house, she was a master - with the exception of lighting the stove. But then, most people didn’t have to deal with that. Bill was going to get himself a fine helpmate.
She called after Katie. “How about some of those left over biscuits instead? They were delicious.”
Katie stopped at the door and smiled her relief. “Coming right up.” ,Something about her expression reminded Carmen of Alex. A pang of loneliness swept over her. Three weeks, and they hadn’t heard a word from him. Josh’s words crept through her mind like an icy wind. He’s a walk away Joe if I ever saw one. Josh had always been a good judge of character. By the next day, Carmen knew she was in trouble. Her throat was sore and she was sneezing and coughing. Inside of a week the bad cold went to her chest. Katie tried to keep her inside, but there was too much to do. Katie could never handle the place on her own and Carmen refused to let her recruit Josh. Nights were sleepless bouts of coughing, and days were endless hours of work. If she wasn’t better by Friday, she’d go see the doctor. At last, the first signs of spring were evident. The crocuses were in full bloom and the daffodils along the fence were swollen, ready to give birth to their bright yellow blossoms. Even the ground was beginning to green with new shoots of grass. It wouldn’t be long now. Carmen paused on her way to the house, the breath rattling in her chest. Her hacking cough had become unproductive, and even breathing was a chore. The rain trickled down the back of her neck and she pulled up her hood, sloshing toward the house again. A cup of hot coffee and a nap - then she would feel better. The house looked so far away as it shimmered in heat waves. No, it wasn’t hot. What in the . . .? The sky darkened. Too late she realized she was going to faint. The last thing she remembered was the wet ground rushing toward her face.