It takes just a split second of inattention to tear Jerry Duggan away from a lifetime of caring for his herd of Jersey cows. The dairy farm’s best chance for survival is a young man who has done a tour of duty on a battlefield and finds similarities… life and death situations with hidden dangers. To save the farm he’ll need to master the give and take dance with the cows at the heart of the job. Can his choices bring him satisfaction and serenity or will they lead to loss and tremendous heartache.
Dairy farming was one of two loves of Jerome Duggan’s life. The one he loved best was gone already and this day threatened to take the other.
Three notes of the top country tune were all he needed. Hitting the alarm and sitting up, he was instantly alert and aware. He untangled himself from the blankets on the daybed in the kitchen. Flopping there regularly was the norm.
Using a slant of moonlight through the window, he added a flannel shirt slung on the end of the bedframe over his thermal sleepwear. He stepped into a pair of workpants, all a uniform, faded style with bagged out knees, from the pile in a corner. Fingering under the bed for his boots, he felt for the socks tucked deep into the toes.
Crossing the kitchen, he opened the faucet and waited till the well pump brought up icy, cold fluid. Putting his hand in the stream, he caught mouthfuls lapping it up from the cup made of his thick, callused palms. A quick rinse and spit, a rub of his face with the wet fingers, he was all done with his morning bathroom routine.
Barely lingering a moment, he added a John Deere cap that substituted for a comb through his crop of wiry, grey ringlets. To complete his outfit, he pulled his threadbare barn coat from the row of hooks by the door.
He stepped out to a 4 a.m. world deeply asleep, at its darkest point before the dawn. This was the realm of cottontails, foxes and owls. He sensed the purity of the air as something tangible. His nose caught the aroma of early morning moisture strong with the scent of damp earth mixed with a topping of decayed leaves. A cool breeze with a warm promise caused him to hesitate in making a weather forecast. What wide swing of temperatures would this late, fall day deliver, he wondered, sensing the ache in his gauge, a long ago broken wrist.
The smells of the farm were Jerry’s favorites, the hay loft one of his top picks. He sometimes found a few minutes to linger up there, sitting on a stack of bales, soaking himself in a sunbeam. The light added crispness to the hay’s wildflower potpourri with an undertone of dirt. The nutty grain bin was nice, hinting of a multigrain toast but it paled in comparison to the strong corn relish odor of the silage. He had tasted all of them at some point, putting a touch of some especially tempting bits to his tongue through the years.
As he moved toward the barn, a short walk from the house, he enjoyed the feel of his body responding, revving up to the day’s demands. With every step, he mentally planned his to-do list.
A running, continuously updated list was a hallmark of his father. Jerry had marveled at the never-ending chores his father wanted him to do. He avoided catching his dad’s eye when he was younger. The list was not a suggestion but a requirement.
He’d missed some great days for hitting baseballs with the guys but acquired valuable skills. As a teen he learned to repair plumbing, weld simple joints, do straight forward wiring, caulk windows and shovel just about anything out of anywhere, developing core muscles that served him well for many years. He was well-versed in the list and its contents by the time he decided to make dairy farming his life.
After flipping on a series of lights in the milk room to guide him, he filled a dozen black, rubber feed bowls then put them in place in the milking parlor. Cold stainless steel equipment awakened his hands and fast work warmed them. The assortment of paraphernalia needing assembly was waiting to be flushed through with detergents and rinses. He connected the central milk chamber of the claw to the four eight-inch inflations and attached the equipment to the vacuum line to draw a disinfecting chlorine solution through it.
Then he headed out toward the pastures. The barn and house sat at the bottom of a circle of rising fields spiraling around the buildings with stands of large trees in the center and marshy woods left wild on the edges. From the top of the highest field, the view and air were the best.
There had been an urgency in his step when he was younger, always a half run he’d sustained for a long time. He wasn’t sure when it had slowed just that in his sixty-eighth year, it definitely had and he was forced to accept it. Not without worry though. How in the heck was he going to stop a back slide of things? He had considered hiring one of his helper’s “cousins” on a regular schedule but knew there wasn’t enough in the milk check to make that realistic.
He was mulling those options when he came to a stop on the path that gave him his first look at the herd. They were the sight he lived for and they didn’t disappoint. Those girls were as close as Jerry would ever get to seeing his late wife, Joan, again,
For more than three decades he had enjoyed the same memory at this point in his morning. He was leaving her warm side with a joke that he was off to see his girlfriends. When he’d mouthed those words he was living the heaven-on-earth period of his life. Those moments ended when the cancer took her.
“Come, Bos, come,” he called. A number of golden heads lifted, the usual group that couldn’t wait for their next meal, the first to respond to the call. “Come, Bos,” Jerry repeated and the herd of Jerseys started moving toward the bar way. He lifted off the two cedar posts and the first few ambled through. They knew their way to the barn and he walked into the pasture to urge on the older and younger cows who both tended to bring up the rear.