LION

        I 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 gelding.
         "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, Pa?"
         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 the remains.
         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 behind you."
         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."