Jo Ann Manning sat back on her heels. She knew what she needed to do. She had the tools and the knowledge. This was what she’d been born to be—a farm vet. The older folks might moan and groan over the changes the Ring of Fire had wrought but Jo Ann knew that back up-time she would have had neither the money nor the grades to become a veterinarian. Here and now, she could and was. Oh, she still had a year or so until she completed her studies but she’d advanced far enough to be sent out on jobs like this one. And she’d been given a couple of student helpers to “show the ropes.” They also served as muscle when needed. Given that she barely reached 5′ 2″ and weighed around a hundred pounds, she often did need extra muscle and mass to deal with farm livestock.

As for the job at hand, she’d done it a couple of times before. Whether or not she had the strength to do it tonight was the question. The barn was frigid. The straw under her feet wasn’t doing much to insulate the cold stone flooring and the icy wind blew through the cracks in and around the door like a frozen hurricane. She couldn’t feel her toes and her fingers were going numb. On the plus side, the cow lay quietly, exhausted from hours of fruitless labor, and gave off a good deal of warmth.

At least Herr Fuchs, the cow’s owner, wasn’t leaning over her shoulder. She’d observed that about half the time the owners hung around, getting in the way, asking questions that she couldn’t answer and generally keeping her from concentrating on her patient. The other half backed off and left the vets work alone. In this case, she didn’t think it was because Fuchs thought that she knew what she was doing but rather that the animal in question was a not very valuable skinny young cow he was expecting to die anyway. From the looks of the animal Fuchs was following the ancient classically approved advice of starving a pregnant cow. Starving the poor animal nearly to death supposedly improved her milk yield. No, Fuchs was sitting in his kitchen next to the fireplace, warm and cozy, waiting for her to come and tell him she’d failed completely.

“Karl! Hold that lantern higher. I need light here.” She reached into her bag searching for the required instrument.

“The calf is dead?” Karl Schell asked.

Behind him Hans Buche muttered, “Of course it is. How could it be otherwise?”

Jo Ann looked up at her assistants and shook her head. “No, not of course. Highly probable given that we have a small, two-year-old heifer who shouldn’t have been bred so soon and that Daddy was a very large bull. A lot of heifers have problems with their first calves without those complications. Add in that Herr Fuchs was dumb or desperate enough to breed her very late in the year and top that off with his not feeding her well . . . As a result we’ve got trouble in River City.”

Karl looked at Hans and shrugged. The two young men were a year behind Jo Ann in their veterinary studies. She guessed that before they had joined the program neither would have given a second thought to any of these problems.

“My father has done the same,” Karl said.

“And I bet he got the same results,” Jo Ann replied.

“Ah, both the cow and calf died.”

Jo Ann snorted and pointed at the cow. “This is a large calf. Way too big for our girl here. The calf is dead. There are only two ways to get him out and save the cow. Hans, what are they?”

“Ah, caesarian and cutting up the calf?” Hans answered hesitantly.

“Correct. Karl, why should we not do a caesarian on this little girl?”

“Because of the unsanitary conditions of this barn.”

“Half correct,” Jo Ann answered. She stood up, walked over to a bucket of frigid water by the wall. Taking out a well-wrapped bar of soap from her pocket she started scrubbing her hands and arms.

Both young men looked puzzled. Jo Ann was going to let them work it out for themselves what they’d missed.

Hans’ face brightened and he pointed to the cow. “She’s in too poor condition to survive.”

Karl looked around the barn and added, “She’s unlikely to get proper care after we leave. Infection or just lack of proper food will kill her quickly.”

“Correct, gentlemen!” Jo Ann returned to her position behind the heifer. “So I will have to cut up the calf to get it out. Watch closely because next time one of you will have to do this.”

****

An hour later Jo Ann was back at the bucket of water, washing up. Half way through the operation Herr Fuchs and several of the male members of the village had come into the barn. They’d crowded around, commenting noisily, getting in her way and demanding to know why she hadn’t performed some miracle of veterinary science to save both calf and cow. Karl and Hans had tried to answer as many questions as they could which had allowed her to concentrate on what she was doing.

Herr Fuchs stood in front of her, his face red with anger. “You,” he shouted in her face, “must pay for destroying my valuable bull calf!”

She stared up at him for a moment. “Your calf was dead when I arrived. I’m not Jesus, able to call the dead back to life. You still have the heifer. Next time breed her to a smaller bull. Oh, and call for a vet before the animal is past saving.”

“I will not pay for your butchery! Someone must pay for my bull calf!” Fuchs howled. A couple of his fellow villagers muttered in agreement.

“When you get our bill you can take your complaint up with the Grange Veterinary Committee,” Jo Ann said, flatly. “I doubt that they will support your claim.”

Karl pushed through the villagers and loomed next to her. He loomed effectively, being a head taller than Herr Fuchs. Hans, smaller but sturdier, moved up on her other side, clutching her bag and her parka. The two glared at Herr Fuchs.

Behind them the heifer got to her feet and let out a long, lowing sound. Jo Ann stepped back toward her. The animal attempted to retreat from the men crowding around her. Two men grabbed her horns. She was in no mood to be managed, not after what she’d gone through over the last hours. The heifer shook her head and kicked out, catching Jo Ann in the stomach. As Jo Ann crumpled to the ground a second kick crushed her temple.

****

Karl reached down, grabbed Jo Ann under her arms, and dragged her away from the cow. She made no sound. He saw that her eyes were dull and fixed. Hans dropped beside her, feeling for her pulse. He looked up at Karl his face a stunned mask.

“No pulse,” he whispered through a tight throat. “There’s no pulse!”

Karl knelt beside him. The head wound was bloody but it wasn’t bleeding. Head wounds should bleed profusely. He could see bone fragments among the blood and hair.

“CPR!” Hans muttered and began trying to breathe for Jo Ann. He tried to do a chest compression but stopped when her ribs cracked under his hands. A slow trickle of blood escaped her head wound.

Karl rocked back on his heels, his mind churning. He reached out and tapped his fellow student’s shoulder. “She’s gone, Hans. There’s no point.”

Hans stopped and looked down at Jo Ann’s face. Tears started to flow and he sniffled.

“What do you mean, ‘She’s gone’?” Herr Fuchs asked in a aggrieved voice.

“Your cow killed her is what I mean,” Karl said. “That kick to the head . . . it hit her where the skull is thin. Broke the skull and stopped her brain functions.”

“If she’d known her job she wouldn’t . . . ” Fuchs complaint was cut short as Karl lunged to his feet and loomed over the farmer.

“She knew her job, old man!” Karl snarled. “Leave off your complaining if for no other reason than that a human being has died here. Show at least that much respect!”

Fuchs backed away, muttering something that Karl was careful not to hear. His attention was on the young woman’s body. Hans was still kneeling beside her, carefully wrapping her in her parka.

“She didn’t like the cold,” Hans said.

“I know,” Karl answered. He picked her up, amazed at how little she weighed. “Open up the truck. And don’t forget her bag.”

The men in the barn backed away, clearing a path to the door. One held the barn door open against the wind.

After placing Jo Ann’s body on the seat Karl climbed behind the pick-up’s wheel. He sat for a moment while memories flooded in. Either he or Hans drove it when going out with Jo Ann. She was so short that she needed blocks on the pedals and a large cushion under her to manage. She hadn’t been a very good driver either, so Dr. Blocker had insisted that she let one of her assistants do the driving. Karl could hear her usual protests and her back-seat-driving echoing in his brain.

“We’re closer to the hospital than her home,” Hans stated. He slid in beside Jo Ann’s body and reached out to hold it.

“It’s no use.”

“They’ll want to do an autopsy.”

“Probably.”

“And someone else will break the news to the family. I don’t feel up to facing Liz and telling her that her sister is dead. I really do not wish to face Herr Parker either.”

“A point,” Karl switched on the truck and drove slowly and carefully out of the village.

****

“According to the doctors,” Lannie Clark said, visibly holding back tears, “that first kick did a lot of damage internally. Jo Ann would have bled to death before they could have gotten her to the hospital. The second kick killed her instantly. The two young men who were with her tried their best to get her to the hospital as fast as possible but they knew it was too late. She was dead from the moment she hit the floor.”

Liz Manning couldn’t force sound past the lump in her throat. The Ring of Fire had left their mother behind. Then their father had died. Uncle Ev and Cousin Lannie had taken both sisters in, providing family, shelter, comfort, support and love. And the sisters had had each other—until now.

Uncle Ev held her as the tears came. “We’ll put her next to your dad,” he said softly, “on the other side of your Granny and Gramps.”