eased the Jeep onto the shoulder beside the corral. The boy had returned
already. I could sense trouble straightaway and he grimaced when I rolled
down the window. "Problems?" I asked.
"I'm missing two calves,
Pa." J.J. removed his hat and wiped his brow with the back of his coat
sleeve. "I don't know where they are." He looked like a midget, settin'
atop the buckskin. Then again, everyone looked small perched on that rangy
"Did you look for them?"
I asked, climbing out of the rig. Feathers of wind, sharp as glacier ice,
bit my jaw and neck. I zipped my jacket and hunched my way to the opposite
side of the road.
He shook his head. "Buck
was actin' kinda spooky, Pa, so I came on in."
I nodded and glanced
toward the pen, mentally counting. Twenty-six head but only five calves.
Nearly thirty percent of next year's veal still in the hills and the weather
turning worse by the hour.
"Climb on down, son."
John lifted a leg over the pommel and slid from the horse with the grace
and speed that only a fourteen-year-old could manage. He held the reins
while I lengthened the stirrups.
"You going after them,
I nodded and tapped the
Winchester in his scabbard. "You had the right tools, John. You should've
looked for them." He turned his face toward his boots. "Take the rig down
to the house," I added. "Saddle Denver and trail one of the mules. Bring
my rifle and meet me at the base of the canyon."
His eyes lifted to the
Winchester and then to me. I read his question before he could ask it.
"We'll save what we can and pack it out."
He swallowed and turned
away. After he climbed into the Jeep, I mounted Buck and swung the gelding
toward the trailhead. We climbed through the snowfields in silence.
My mind stretched backward,
traveling a road well worn, poking into crannies and holes. Recalling
a word or expression, a touch or laugh. Reviewing a decision as if it
might make a difference. Open country with solitary spaces often does
this to a man's way of thinking. The future hangs by a feeble thread.
Today stood bright and bold in my face. I visited the past from time to
time like an old friend seldom seen or family in distant places.
Folks I know in the Flathead
Valley call me J.C., short for Jack Callahan. My son, John, is J.J., a
likely contraction, all things considered. Henry Callahan passed away
the year before last, two weeks shy of a hundred. "Old Hank" sired me
at the randy age of fifty-six. My mother died when I was eight. In a tragic
echo, a semi driver fell asleep at the wheel and took my Sarah on US93,
north of Missoula, while she traveled home from the university to celebrate
our son's ninth birthday.
I knew that man, the
driver. While her loss seared my soul, I found no room for anger. Ted
was a neighbor, just a man trying his best to support his wife and kids
by pushing hard at the edges. Sarah's death plagued him too for he couldn't
face me nor look in the mirror. In a year, alcohol killed his liver and
he died soon after.
My boy has never been
the same since we buried his mother. He cuts and runs in the hard spots,
the tight places. Fear is strong in him, the fear of solitude, of change
and death. I never dared to let an echo show in my face. Truth was, I
felt it too. We were losing each other, John and I. Damned if I knew why
and that scared me most of all. I was certain the calves had expired.
I guessed that J.J. would take his time. Less than likely that he'd show
before I returned to the corral.
Buck's sudden rumble
and a toss of his head brought me back to the present. In the snow-covered
tracks before me, I could see where J.J. waited for the stragglers that
followed the herd from the canyon. I touched Buck's flank and we climbed
upward, backtracking the trail from our summer range. We hadn't gone far
when the gelding snorted and balked. Less than a hundred paces ahead,
two magpies lifted from a crimson stain surrounding the carcass. I turned
Buck toward the slope on the right, edging above the blood-washed breeze
drifting toward the lower elevations. He settled some and we closed on
Tracks led into the higher
canyon. I shucked the Winchester from its scabbard and dismounted. Bending
over the lion's prints, I levered the action and chambered a round. The
tracks measured nearly five inches from front to back…one big cat. I tied
Buck to a poplar upwind of the carcass, draped the Winchester over my
shoulder and started up the trail on foot.
I found the second calf
in less than a quarter of a mile. Clawed flanks and a crushed windpipe
told the story. The lion ran the calf to earth, clamped its jaws around
his prey's throat and strangled the animal. I studied the nearby terrain,
but the lion was nowhere in sight. I stood the rifle against a nearby
boulder and drew my knife. No reason why I shouldn't save the quarters
and backstrap. The cat had earned the rest.
I worked up a sweat peeling
back the hide. I doffed my coat, rolled the calf and started on the other
side. At some subliminal sound, I ceased my efforts in mid-stroke. A chill
unrelated to winter's breath traveled along my spine. Still on my knees,
I turned. On the ledge three paces distant, crouched the lion.
The Winchester stood
six feet behind me. It could have been in Boston. I stood and stared into
those yellow eyes and watched the facets of instinctive decision fall
into place, one by one. The big cat's hindquarters trembled. I turned
the knife edge-forward in my fist. I knelt facing an angel of death for
eternity, willing to trade places with anyone from North Carolina or Massachusetts.
An eruption of snow near
the lion and a heavy blast an instant later startled us both. The lion
whirled and sprang in the opposite direction. I shouted and lunged backward.
I tripped over the calf and scrambled on my knees for the Winchester.
By the time I climbed to my feet, the lion had vanished. I stood shaking
and not the least bit cold.
J.J. urged Denver across
the clearing, leading Buck and the mule. Wide as silver dollars, his eyes
marked a face as pale as the landscape. He worked the action of my rifle
and the empty hull melted into the snow. He dismounted. "Pa, he was right
Now I was cold. I handed
him the Winchester and donned my coat.
John's eyes searched
my own. "Aren't you scared, pa?" he asked.
Pride spilling tears
onto my cheeks, I found the will to grin. "Not any more."