~~Linney Merritt loves her life in the Florida scrub where she assists her Pa in raising and taking cattle to market. The new cowman, Cyrus John, appreciates the chance to start over. Marrying holds no interest for either, but they can’t help but be drawn to each other. And then, just before Christmas, they find themselves fighting together to save the life of a calf, all while discovering the One who can remove fears and provide forgiveness.
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~~Linney Merritt watched the pearly white face emerge from the mother cow. She sighed as she remembered Grammaw’s words: “A pearly face comin’ into life and a pale face goin’ out.”
The cow bellowed. Linney, startled, bellowed too. “Pa, hold her tight. She been thrashin’ mighty hard.”
“I know, Linney. This may be her last calving.” Pa’s eyes were just a couple inches from Nellie, the mama cow. His thin face covered by a salt and pepper beard didn’t hold back the jutting chin, which jutted more when he worked hard. Linney teased him that it grew when he concentrated. Pa’s gnarled hands, strong and scarred from cow hunting and handling since he was a boy, gripped Nellie’s head and forelegs. Nellie settled. Pa sure had a way to calm his animals.
“Can’t believe she’s birthed so many calves.” Linney reached into the slippery canal past the head and grabbed the calf at the shoulder area. “I got a good grip, Pa.”
Nellie moaned, and Linney pulled. The emerging calf licked her face. “We better hurry, Pa. He just done licked me. Don’t want him thinkin’ I’m his mama.”
“You’ll make a good one someday.”
“That ain’t happenin’. Why would anyone want to go through this?”
Pa looked around Nellie’s bulk. His eyes found Linney’s. “For the likes of you, girl. It’s worth it.”
“Oh, Pa, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to bring you sad remembrances.”
Pa’s chin jutted further. “I see your Ma when I look at ya, Linney, and it brings me joy.”
The calf was out, lying on its side in the grassy area just outside the barn. It struggled to get up. The mama cow turned and faced her calf.
She licked the little one. The calf shivered and shook his head, then stilled as his mother wiped every inch of him clean.
Linney leaned against her father’s arm as they stood and watched.
She only reached his shoulder. She always wondered how he could be so muscularly strong yet so lean. Most Cracker cowmen were skinny, but never could be found a stronger breed of men.
“Nellie looks right proud, and she should be. He’s a fine bullock.” Pa put his arm around Linney.
“Pa…” Linney looked away for a moment. “Did Ma struggle? Was it hard? Did I hurt her when she birthed me? Did I kill her?”
Pa took one finger and lifted her chin. “Girl, don’t you go blamin’ yourself for nothin’. If anyone was at fault, it was me. I worked her too hard. She was cookin’ and cleanin’ and birthin’ all the cows and whatever else was on the farm right up till you were born. She was plumb wore out. I never shoulda let her work so hard. She tore a little, and Grammaw and I couldn’t stop the bleeding. She was too weak to start with, and she just bled out. ’Twas me to blame iffen anybody. Now, when your time comes, your man is gonna keep life easy right before birthin’ time, and I’ll make sure of it.”
“No, Pa. No man for me. That way there ain’t no birthin’. Ain’t no birthing, ain’t no dying. Another birthin’ might kill Nellie. It’s time to keep her alive.”
“Nellie’s old and tired. Your ma worked too hard and was weak. You’re young and strong, Linney. I do hope you come to change your mind.” Pa winked. “Just past your twentieth birthday. Most young ladies are settin’ their sights—”
“Got work to do, Pa. All kinds of cookin’ for these hungry Crackers.” Linney sauntered back to the house. It was sturdy like Pa. The walls were constructed of cypress logs, and cypress shingles covered the roof. Crackers had hauled the solid trunks from the cypress swamps that populated the wilderness scrub in central Florida, where they lived.
Linney read about fancy cities and fancy clothes in magazines from the supply store in Kissimmee, but truth be told, she loved this life. Raw and real, full of life. Yes, full of death, but that was inevitable. She chose to live strong. That meant no birthin’ for her, and that meant no marryin’. She was fine with that decision. Besides, in that same supply store, the few women she met always had a story to tell of someone dying in childbirth. Loss of control was not her cup of tea. And a child ought to grow up with a mama. Grammaw had been great, but she had died when Linney was ten.
Linney stepped back to see which way the smoke was moving out of the smokehouse, a building set back from the house. She’d soon have a good supply of smoked hog meat for the cattle drive. Still had to slice it up. But right now, she needed to pick more huckleberries for some pies and was glad to see the smoke rising straight up. That meant good weather for a day or two, plenty of time to finish a good supply of meat and pies for the drive. After the drive, she knew what she needed to stock up on for Christmas. It was the most festive day of the year. Still a long way off, but she liked planning, being in control.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw someone approaching from the west. Pa told her he hired a new Cracker to replace Billy, their hand who’d married and went to work with his wife’s pa. The new guy was Billy’s distant cousin. Raised here in Florida but worked cattle all the way out in the Texas territory. Wanted to come back to Florida.
That must be him riding a marshtackie, the horses the nearby Seminole Indians raised. Spanish soldiers left the small sure-footed horses behind, and the Indians continued the breed. Fast and strong, the marshtackies were known for their endurance and their intelligence. Linney had always wanted one. She stood and admired the muscular lines of the horse. Just like Pa, the horse appeared slight but so strong.
Her eyes shifted to the rider. He appeared to be a few years older’n her. She caught her breath. What was that? His square shoulders and square jaw made him much wider than most Crackers. But there was something else. It made her feel jittery. She must have overeaten, or that new calf licked her too much. Her stomach didn’t normally flop around like a snake hit by a cowman’s whip.