Chris DiCicco. Why Wolves Take the Calves First.

2 Dec

WHY WOLVES TAKE THE CALVES FIRST

She should’ve been the one.

From atop my horse I scanned the mountainside, sweeping my eyes over the herd of cattle navigating down its bend.

If Mother Earth had a son, he’d be named Montana. She’d watch over him, never let anything happen.

But it would anyway.

Watching the last head of cattle, a small steer, become part of the moving train, I’m reminded of the missing calf from last night. His mother weighed eight times as much as him, moved slower.

It never seems right.

The wolves come down the mountain. They separate the herd—and they take the calf every time.

You never see it, only imagine how they do it.

Except when I play it out in my mind, it’s not always the calf they take. It’s her.

Even if it never really is.

***

The torn ground where the herd spent the night, the trampled grass, the blood, it tells me what happened.

The small hoof prints stop. From the looks, the wolves dragged the calf the rest of the way, pulled him off his feet. The imprint of the poor thing’s body across the mud looks like it goes on for some five more yards. The mess of blood, it’s an easy enough trail to follow. No point in arriving at its end.

The wolves are somewhere on the mountain, somewhere between the very bottom and the very top—I’m somewhere between that, between a herd of free roaming beef and them—so I reload my rifle because it makes me feel better.

Somewhere else, between all of this, is my wife Sue.

I wipe my leather saddle glove across the mud-caked denim of my work jeans, smearing the calf’s blood on myself.

No point in staying clean. Sue’ll know.

Should have sold the mother. Now she won’t eat because her calf’s gone.

Should have sent her off with the last order. Would have, if Sue hadn’t been convinced that time spent with the mother would guarantee the calf’s success on the mountain.

She was wrong.

Shouldn’t have bothered trying to keep a calf anyway. Not our business.

***

We make a living raising free-range cattle. Beef rich from the green Montana grasses they feed on. Our card says so.

It isn’t Chicago.

It isn’t a life either of us expected. Not at this point. The costumes fit though and the work keeps us busy. I put on the boots, ride the mountain. I wear what I’m supposed to. I keep doing it, all that I can, what I can, keep my mind away from cities, whatever memories lurk there. No more Chicago.

This. I hope it can be enough. It needs to be. Enough to make us smile once and awhile when the weather seems nice or the sun dips down behind the mountains.

A redefining of tranquility, if never peace.

***

The calf’s dried blood on my leg reminds me of the crushed red stone in the Montana quarry we passed when we first drove from Chicago to the ranch, when we rode in silence because Sue didn’t say a word to me the whole drive.

The red in those open mountain veins looked so natural and deep. It’s easy to mistake it.

I need to get off my horse, back in a car before I forget how to tell the difference between quarry dust and blood.

How natural it all seems here in Montana.

The herd has moved on. Maybe to put space between them and what happened last night. Maybe to eat.

***

A deep winkle forms on Sue’s brow at the news.

I don’t want to tell her it was one of the two calves, and I don’t have to. She knows.

The loss makes her face twist and show something. What it is depends on how well you know her. Whatever it was on her face disappears as quickly as it surfaces.

Where does she bury it?

Does it matter?

“Well, that makes three,” Sue says, sitting down at the kitchen table, pulling out her yellow legal pad.

“It does.”

“We’ll have to replace our loss and make up the difference by selling higher. Fatten them up.”

“Hard to fatten up free-range beef, Sue.”

“Well, they’ll have to range longer. Maybe go up along the northern side more.”

“Can’t. The wolves.”

“The Jonsons do it.”

“Yeah, the Jonsons sent the wolves our way.”

“They’re managing because they stay out there, camping, keeping an eye on their property—protecting it.”

“Sue, do you think any other Montana rancher who loses a calf to a wolf would begin protecting his livestock by sleeping with them up in the hills?”

My wife stands up, stares at me. She thinks it’s my fault, that I can’t protect them.

“It’s not possible, Sue. You know that. If wolves want one, they’re gonna get it.”

“The Jonsons stop ’em.” Her eyes refuse to meet mine.

“Yeah, and they do a much different business than we do. They raise calves. Their whole world is calves and making them into something the rest of us can decide what to do with.”

I sit down at the table, wrap my hands around Sue’s.

“We decided to sell free-range beef, that’s steers and heifers. The occasional calf is something we can handle. It happens. But we’re better off selling that last one to the Jonsons.”

“No. We’re not selling it to the Jonsons and losing a good investment. It’s a natural gain. And you want to throw that money away on the basis that it won’t survive here on our ranch.” She flings her words. Her eyes are wet.

I understand.

“Alright. There’s no reason we should throw away good money. It’s our good fortune to have a calf. Free money, right?”

“Why don’t you take the rifle up there, Mark? Just see if you can find them.”

“I’ll try.” Something flashes across her face with my last word.

“They’ve got a den somewhere on the north side,” Sue says, “where the pines get thick. I know it.”

***

Trotting off in the distance, disappearing further up the mountain, the wolves melt one after the other into the tree line, leaving her behind.

I check my rifle, pick up my binoculars.

***

We packed up our small Chicago apartment. We tried downsizing to a smaller, one room, but it wasn’t enough. We left. It was better than a divorce.

We didn’t save any of his things. No boxes full of toys. Possible hand-me- downs.

A friend came, took everything while we checked out the ranch.

We moved.

***

I lined her up. Put my finger on the trigger. She pushed her muzzle back and forth over her meal, not finished eating.

I almost shot. Refocused to be sure of the kill.

The wolf rested her muzzle on her dead pup. I was wrong. Then on another. She licked and nudged their small paws. Her entire litter. Three little pups. One moved, vomited, was still again.

I put down the rifle.

With my binoculars, I watched the wolf brush her nose over the last dead pup, holding it there until there was nothing left to do.

She melted into the forest away from the den. I would have left it at that, but she came back to stand over them, nuzzling and waiting.

I picked up my rifle, aimed and shot.

***

There was no way I could’ve known it’d be the last time I’d see him. In Chicago, they told me, reassured us. It wasn’t our fault he was taken. It wasn’t Sue’s.

***

“Don’t look so upset Mark.”

“It’s illegal.”

“Well, what if it is, there are plenty of other ways you’re allowed to kill them.”

“Poison, Sue?”

“Yeah, and we’re safer for it. We can keep the calf. I took care of it.” “Just the cubs.”

“What?”

“The cubs got to it first, I suppose.”

“What? How?”

“Did you put it by the den? That would do it, Sue.”

“The others?”

“Out hunting or too smart.”

“The mother?

“Can’t be around all the time.”

“Oh my god, she’s still alive?”

“No.”

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