Today's Reading

November 1922

The little baby was four hours old. Still unwashed. Barely crying. But Joe Spain's old ears recognized the sound. A human infant. Somebody's mistake left in the Colorado cold to die.

He twisted his mouth, pulled the reins on his cutting horse, Barrel, and turned into the freezing wind. Barrel's ears stood straight up, trembling. The horse heard it too. On the cold, open plains, the wide early morning silence rendered every sound bigger, as if magnified.

The cry was half a mile away. But Spain still heard it clear as a bell.

"C'mon, girl," he said to Barrel. "We best go see."

He let the big horse pick her way through the frozen scrub and prairie grass. A light snow the night before had dusted the ground, leaving a far and white horizon under the blinding blue sky.

The horse was fresh and eager, but already both of them were breathing hard, their breath turning to white vapor in the sharp, bracing frost.

Spain, a part-time cowboy, stood up in his stirrups and scanned the prairie with narrowed eyes, peering in all directions. His lean body, still skinny after sixty-odd years, steeled itself against the cold. As a Negro man, he knew some considered him out of place in such environs. But he had known no place better or longer than these High Plains, and the pure respect he felt for the rough landscape bordered on its own kind of adoration, if not sheer awe.

Scanning the terrain, he stood in the freezing wind, the brim of his worn wool Stetson pulled low and humbled in the shining, cold glare.

Then he saw the tracks. Footprints in light snow. He looked beyond the traces and saw the county road. Right away, he figured what had happened. Before daybreak, somebody drove their vehicle down the road until it turned to dirt. Then they hopped the low, barbed-wire fence that bordered the road, trekked a cold mile into Lazy K pastureland, and looked for a dip in the flat landscape.

There in the open, in a draw in the middle of the range, they left the child. No attempt to bury it. Coyotes would eat the evidence. Or a family of foxes.

As for the snowy footprints, they would melt in the dry air and blazing sun—just as they were doing right now. By noon, the cold prints would all be gone.

Spain nosed the horse to follow the tracks toward the sound.

If the child was going to make it, he'd have to find it now.

Sure enough, the cry was growing fainter. Barely a whimper now. But finally he saw the bundle, wrapped in a torn piece of dirty tarp.

The horse saw the dark bulge and pulled up, dug her hooves into the cold ground.

"It's okay, girl," Spain said. He patted the animal's neck, slid out of his saddle, and dropped the reins. Barrel stood alert, agitated but waiting.

Sighing, Spain crunched across the frozen grass and looked down at the tarp. He pushed the hat back on his head and knelt in the snow. Pulling back the tarp, he felt his gloved hands go cold.

It can't be. Not again.

The tiny child was wrapped in a man's white dress shirt and nothing else. Blood on its slick black hair had started to ice. The baby was shivering, lips almost blue. A low moan, no longer a cry, emerged from its tiny, perfect mouth.

"Lord Jesus, pretty little baby," Spain said.

He reached down, picked up the child, flicked the bloody ice off its head, letting the tarp fall off. "Good grief, what a hateful way to enter this ol' world."

He opened his old shearling jacket, pressed the baby onto his chest, breathed hot breath on its face, took off his gloves with his teeth, and rubbed his large hands on the baby's ice-cold back. Coaxing it. Scolding it. "C'mon, little bit. Ol' Joe's got you."

For half a second, he considered how easy it would be to leave the child and turn back. Nobody would ever know. These were bad, bad times. He didn't need the bother. Besides, he was leaving by train tonight to visit his only daughter, his Annalee. In fact, after too many years, they finally were making some kind of peace. His own sweet "little bit" girl, as he called her—grown now and working hard and smart at barely twenty-three. Why start trouble now with somebody else's child?

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