Snow falling through quaking aspens wasn’t pretty. It was gloomy, wet, and cold. There were still plenty of leaves to hold the early snow until it fell in icy clumps on top of Cal hand his horse Tiny. He kept the animal at an easy walk. They were a good seven miles from home and might well be searching the river bottom for the better end of the day.
Home and help were too far away. It was better to go easy and not risk getting hurt.
They’d made the decision to bring the herd back to the home place last week. His dad and brother Horace had been there to help. They’d worked all day and still come up a few head short. There were always a couple of stragglers, but as long as they got them found before winter everything would be fine.
Dead or alive, the missing cows were down here somewhere.
It was so quiet he could hear the fat snowflakes falling. The nearby river added a little sound of its own, and together, the sounds had covered up the wail of one of the missing cows.
She was in trouble.
He could help her, if he could find her.
Helping mother deliver her calf wasn’t a problem. What came after was another matter entirely. Home was out of the question – it was too far to go this late in the day. He could camp here. He had a bedroll and enough food to get by. The calf was the problem. The little guy wasn’t doing too well in the snow.
Cal made his decision. The calf hardly struggled when he scooped him up and put him across Tiny’s back just behind the saddle. He climbed into the saddle and started a slow trek farther up the river bottom with mother following protectively behind her baby.
Cal sang. He started with a song Dad had taught him about cowboys and buffalo. It wasn’t long before he ran out of words, but he did his best to keep up with a melody even if it was the wrong one.
The noise was important. He hoped it would let any bears in the neighborhood know he was coming. Coyotes and wildcats wouldn’t be likely to bother him. If surprised, bears could be a problem.
He was relieved when he smelled smoke in the air. He was just plain happy when the woods opened up to reveal a big cabin with a smaller shack out behind it. The flicker of firelight in the window was unmistakable.
Vlad thought Calvin was interesting. The rugged young cowboy was unlike anyone he had ever met. In all honesty, Cal thought the burly man from the other side of the world was a little odd. Now that Tiny, mother the cow, and her new calf were warm and safe in the Koslov barn, the two sat with a dwindling supply of whiskey and firelight getting to know each other better. It was a little part of life on the frontier, where strangers simply came together.
“So, how is your father? I have not seen James Henry all year long. When last I saw him, it was before Christmas a year ago in Antelope. You must tell him to stop when he is near by. We will forget the whiskey and have the vodka.”
“He’s well. I’m able to help him now that I’m out of school. My brother, sisters, and the cows are all doing well. My mother keeps busy trying to feed us all.”
“You are having sisters? Vlad asked. “James Henry never spoke of this to me. I’ve never met your brother or sisters. Are you they older than you?”
“Sure. I’m the youngest.”
“And you are so far away from home on your own looking for a lost cow,” Vlad said. “I think it is very brave of you. Are you not afraid of being out here on your own?”
Cal shook his head. “Not at all. I grew up around here. This country is my home. Coming here from your home was brave, Vlad. I’m just out on a little trip. You traveled to the other side of the world.”
The first half of the trip home was rugged. Experience was Calvin’s guide as the trail worked its way though the trees and up out of the river bottom. He led the calf with a loose rope and mother followed simply to keep her baby in sight.
The calf had far more energy than Cal did today. Vlad’s warm reception last night had left him feeling more than groggy this morning. Even at that, the hospitality had been more than nice. There weren’t many new people to meet out here, and Vlad had certainly been entertaining.
The quakies and serviceberry thickets gave way to the occasional homestead once they got up onto the bench. Each homestead had a cleared field of some size near them. Most were bare since the crops had been harvested, but one or two had a bit of winter wheat growing on them. It made for easier going on the short cattle drive.
The Turner place, the Cliburns, the Jensens… The farms were by no means back-to-back, but they definitely got closer together the closer he came to Antelope. His family’s place was just around the other side of a small hill from the little town, a stone’s-throw away from Antelope creek. His father, James Henry McMurtrey, had homesteaded the forty acres specifically so Cal and his siblings could walk to the Antelope schoolhouse when they were younger.
It was a good place to call home, and it was always nice to see it again.
“Where’s Horace?” Cal asked as he sat down at the table.
“You’re not the only one that disappears around here, you know,” Lena said.
Cal didn’t back away from the glare on his older sister’s face. “I was doing work. I’m not sure that’s familiar to you.”
“Enough,” James Henry said as he took the seat at the head of the table. “You know where your brother is, Cal, and you’ll go check on him tomorrow. You don’t know what help Lena was to your Ma while you were gone, so eat your food and be glad to have it.”
Cal chewed down a good portion of his food and his embarrassment at being chastised by his Pa before he opened his mouth to let more words out. “Vlad asked after you Pa. He said you should stop if you’re near.”
“Only a foreigner would expect a call up there in the wintertime,” James Henry said dismissively.
“You saw Mr. Koslov?” Cal’s younger sister Sarah asked.
Cal nodded. “He gave us shelter while the calf found his legs.”
“What was he like?” Lena asked.
“Honestly, he was a little odd,” Cal said as he took another bite of stew. “I suppose it comes from being alone to much.”
“Or from being a gentleman from Eastern Europe,” Lena said defensively.
“One more step and you’ll have another hole in you.”
“Horace! It’s me! Put the damn gun down!”
“It’s either me or Herbert Hoover. Don’t shoot either way!”
“I’m not carrying anyway,” Horace said. “Come on ahead.”
Cal stepped around the last few trees and into the small clearing in front of a dugout cabin. More storage than home, Horace had built the little structure himself with trees from the clearing he now stood in. “You’ve done a lot of work getting this all set up.”
“Well, it’s not like I could do this at the home place, is it?” Horace asked. “If the Bishop didn’t find out what was going on, the Prohis would. I don’t need a fuss with either one.”
“Ranching isn’t so bad, Horace. Is this really worth the trouble?”
Horace’s smile was radiant. “Have you seen what old lady Cooner pays for a jar?”
Cal’s eyes widened. “You’re selling shine to widow Cooner?”
“Little brother, you’ve got no idea who I’m selling to,” Horace grinned.
The jars in the saddlebags clinked together every time Tiny took a step. Cal had stopped to try to rearrange them twice, wrapping them in what cloth he had. It didn’t help. It was just another thing to not like about this business. The truth was, he didn’t want to help Horace. He didn’t mind risk, but this wasn’t the sort he was used to taking. If it weren’t for James Henry, he wouldn’t be in this mess, but his father had told him to help, and his father didn’t cotton to being questioned by his children.
Coming back to Antelope didn’t help Cal’s disposition. The world began for him in the scattered meadows their cattle grazed in and the trees along the river bottoms. Being around town and other people certainly wasn’t his preference.
He rode straight on past his family’s home place on the way into town. It was just getting dark, and even though he didn’t know his way around the community of Antelope nearly as well as the upper country they ranched in, it was the perfect time to make the delivery for Horace. Everyone knew Old Lady Cooner’s place. As long as he announced himself, she probably wouldn’t shoot.
Cal hesitantly stepped into the kitchen. He sat the jars he’d cradled in his left arm carefully on the table.
“Will you drink with me, Calvin? Horace does.”
“I need to go -“ He saw the hope die in the old woman’s eyes and realized she was lonely. “Do you have some water? It was a long ride.”
Cal had refilled and emptied his glass by the time Ms. Cooner spoke. “My Karl was a good man, Calvin. He worked hard to take care of me. We never managed children, but I never imagined I’d lose him to something I couldn’t see.”
“He took sick?”
“He said he was fine, but I knew something was wrong. It was winter when it got bad. We couldn’t get to the doctor, and…”
Cal tried to imagine losing a love, watching them take ill and being unable to help. He thought about the life filled with loneliness that followed and realized he couldn’t see it. As much as he loved the wilderness, he still had family to go home to and suddenly appreciated that fact very much.
She was alone.
She got up both unexpectedly and unsteadily. After rooting through a small crock on a shelf on the wall, she came back and put more money on the table in front of him than he had ever seen before.
Somehow, even though he thought his heart couldn’t twist more than it already had, taking her money to pay Horace made Cal feel even smaller.
Cal paid extra attention as he fed the cattle. A winter storm had blown through last night, leaving a fresh cover of snow behind. He’d heard some commotion even over the wind – something had stirred the cattle in the corral up.
He watched as best as he could, and he never did see the little calf he’d led home from Vlad’s bottom last week. On the scrawny side anyway, Cal had seen the little brown calf with the white spot on his throat every morning.
Cal finished his chores before he went back to looking for the calf. His first clue came when he looked the calf’s mother over more closely and found she had deep scratches on her front legs. She’d been in a fight, and it hadn’t gone her way.
He figured that answered the question of where the calf was.
With the help of his Pa they doctored the wounds on mother’s legs as best they could. Together, the men walked the corral fence until they found the depression in the snow that marked where the calf had been drug underneath. The calf’s carcass was visible in the trees beyond the edge of the clearing.
“Mountain lion,” James Henry said simply. “You need to do some hunting, Cal.”
The snow did nothing to cushion Cal’s fall. Knocked windless, he would have considered passing out altogether except Tiny had spooked and thrown him. The simple knowledge that his horse seldom panicked forced him to stay lucid. Only the proximity of a true predator brought out that kind of behavior in his horse.
Cal struggled to his feet and cast about for the mountain lion. It might not be visible but it had to be close if Tiny had scented it and startled.
The brush rattled behind him. He turned and started yelling, trying to climb the snowy incline in the direction he’d heard the noise as he hollered. His rifle was still in the scabbard on Tiny’s saddle. If he couldn’t scare the predator away, he’d never catch his horse and could even be attacked himself.
All trace of the cat was gone by the time he crested the rise except the tracks it had left behind in the snow. Nearly as broad as his own hands, the paws suggested an animal large enough to be fearsome even to Calvin.
He wouldn’t have called himself scared, but he was definitely concerned. Mountain lions weren’t uncommon, but they shied away from humans – both their settlements and people themselves.
This animal was acting different, and so far, that wasn’t working out to the better for Cal at all.
“What happened to you?” James Henry asked, not particularly kindly.
Wet, cold, and well past dinner time, Cal settled into a chair as close to the fire as he could. “Tiny spooked and threw me.”
“What spooked him?”
“He scented the mountain lion,” Cal said.
James Henry looked hopeful. “Did you kill it?”
“Tiny took my gun with him. It took me most of the afternoon to find him. I chased the cat off as best I could.”
“And now you’re here. Sitting.”
“I’m hungry,” Cal shrugged.
“So is the cat, Calvin. It ate your calf. It tried to eat your horse and it sounds like it might’ve come after you.”
“What am I supposed to do, Pa?”
“Sit here and flap your gums, evidently. Maybe after it eats your dog, Sophie or your Ma will handle it.”
Cal was exhausted. He wasn’t even seeing his father, just staring past him through the log cabin wall and to his bed.
“Fill your belly and sleep like a baby, Calvin. I shouldn’t expect you to do a man’s work.”
Cal stood, rage fueling his steps toward the door. He stopped just long enough to put his sodden coat and hat back on before he opened the door and stepped into the snow filled darkness.
The calves started bawling as soon as Cal got close to the pen. It wasn’t the most pleasant task, but he found a fresh pile of manure and rubbed it on his face and neck. The smell would cover up his own scent, and hopefully help his plan to come together sooner.
Cal had a time getting a rope tied around a calf’s neck so he could try to lead it. The little guy was far from cooperative, and given his plans, Cal couldn’t blame him. After a quick stop to retrieve his rifle from inside the barn door, Cal trudged out of the yard and back into the wilderness he had already spent the day in.
The moon was rising and the stars were already bright, but Cal could have found his way in complete darkness. Tugging and pulling on the calf’s rope most every step of the way, he still managed to get back to where Tiny had spooked in about an hour.
If anything, the calf bleated louder once he was tied to the tree in the center of the draw. Cal understood his concern. He was, after all, bait. James Henry would make him wish the mountain lion got him as well if this plan failed.
Cal started climbing the other side of the draw to find a clear vantage point, hoping very much for success but feeling less than certain of finding it.
Waiting was cold.
The rise the mountain lion had used as a vantage was now straight across from him and the calf continued bawling away, tied to the tree at the bottom of the draw between. It was colder than anything Cal had ever been forced to bear. Ordinarily, he would have built a fire, gone inside and warmed, or at least stuck his hands in his pockets.
So, he waited with his rifle in his arms, and failed to focus.
Lena was sweet on Vlad Koslov. No question about it. Had she ever even met him in person? Cal thought about it, and couldn’t remember a time that would have brought them together.
A shaking tree jerked him back to reality. Shaking with cold, he raised his rifle to his shoulder. There would only be one shot. If he missed, the cat would never fall for this again.
He aimed and squeezed the trigger in between shakes from the cold.
The shot rang out and the animal disappeared. Warmer than he had been all day, Call took off running. He had to know it was dead, or he had to figure out how to continue the hunt.
The only thing he knew for certain was he couldn’t give up.