Long, short story set in rural Kansas
| The Wolf
This part of northwest Kansas is not quite as flat as most folks outside imagine it to be. It is not table top flat, not as flat as Midland-Odessa anyway. There are at least some contours in the landscape - gullies and little mounds, rock outcroppings here and there, an occasional stream or pond. It is really quite pretty to my eyes, hauntingly beautiful at sunset: its vastness, the seemingly endless plains circumscribed by the circular arc of the horizon where the earth meets the sky and all contained within the dome of the sky itself - a space that is really infinite, if you know what I mean; and in May it is as green as the Irish spring. For a month or two each year, it really is beautiful. The one major drawback weather-wise is probably the wind, especially in the winters, which are cold enough even without the old hawk. The wildlife is rich and diverse: deer, antelope (it is at the eastern end of the Pronghorn range), coyotes, wild turkeys, migrating birds of all kinds and the ever present hawks, lots of little creatures like rabbits and prairie dogs; and people have even seen a mountain lion or two over the years. In fact, I saw one myself in the late seventies. I was driving alone one night on U.S. 4O and it scampered under a bridge when it saw my car coming. I wondered if it was real for a while. I thought for a second that it might have been a bobcat, and then I thought, no it was too big.
So the first thing that most people assumed when Ray Koenig lost a calf to a predator of some kind in the spring of 2012 was that it must have been either a coyote or one of those elusive cougars that had killed it. If that had been the end of the story, it probably would have provided the breakfast crowd at Deke's Café in Herrick a topic of conversation for about a week. "Ever figger out what got yer calf, Ray?" "No, but I expect it was a coyote. Nobody's seen a lion in this country for a good thirty years." But that was not the end of the story. This story was just beginning.
It just so happened that the same day that Ray discovered the carcass of his calf, a colorful local character came forward with a very surprising assertion. His name was Milford Patton; and although he was a very good friend of mine, ne'er do well would probably pretty much describe him (he did odd jobs, cashed government checks of various kinds, and drank, but not necessarily in that order). He was absolutely adamant that he had actually seen a wolf jogging down Stanton Street in Herrick early that morning. The animal sniffed the ground as it went, Pat claimed (he prefers Pat to Milford of Milf, but some people call him that latter name anyway), stopping at a garbage can here and there, and then eerily vanishing into the foggy twilight as it trotted out of town to the north. I wondered aloud if maybe he'd seen a wolf-dog; and when old Deke asked him what he'd been drinking the night before, Pat got a little defensive, "I swear to god it was a wolf. It was way too big for a coyote. A gray wolf. I seen 'em when I was working up in Canada. And this was a big gray, damnit."
Well, that was the first day, Day One, as I now think of it. That evening I had stayed at Deke's a little longer than I normally do; the conversation was so lively, and Pat was so adamant about what he'd seen earlier in the day. At a little after nine o'clock, the time when Deke is accustomed to closing the place down, the three of us were still gabbing away. Everybody else, including Ray and the kitchen help, had left at least an hour earlier. "You two plan on staying for breakfast," the old man gibed when he finally decided that it was time for him to wrap things up and get on home to the wife. He picked up a rag and started wiping down the already clean lunch counter where the two of us were seated. "Naw," Pat replied. "I'm just goin' acrost the street for a minute before I head for home." Across the street (not directly across, but up Main Street a few addresses and then across) was the Golden Acre, one of two local saloons, and the only one with any kind of a dance floor.
Pat left first, on cue; but I figured correctly that Deke wouldn't mind if I hung around and read the paper while he closed. We had an understanding; and since I was the owner and editor of the semi-weekly Herrick County Times of which Deke's Cafreceived a couple dozen complimentary copies per issue, he rarely chased me out until he had one foot out the door himself.
"So what do you think, Deke? What do you really think?"
"I think it's just like you said, probably a wolf dog."
"That killed the calf, or that Pat saw?"
"Both," the old fellow said abruptly as he finished counting out the days receipts.
"Yeah, I've never known Pat to tell stories. If he says he saw a wolf, he really thinks that he saw a wolf," I replied.
"I know that. He's a good boy for the most part, just too much of a slacker; and I can't abide people that don't pull their weight. The day he quits drinkin' and gets off the dole, is the day I'll start showing him a whole lot more respect."
With that Deke took his apron off and hung it on a hook to the side of the grill, and I knew that it was time for me to get up and move towards the door. When I turned that direction, I saw the neon "Caf light go dark above the cursive "Deke's" painted on the plate glass window.
"Well, it should be interesting to see what develops," I observed as I opened the door and stepped out onto the sidewalk.
"Night," I heard from within as the door swung shut.
Main Street was pretty dead, which is normal for a Monday night after about eight in this town of around one thousand. There were just a couple of pickups forty-five degree parked in front of the tavern on the other side of the street, and on our side only my and Deke's trucks and Pat's twenty year-old rusted out tin can of a Mazda, a fairly unusual ride in these parts, and one which I had thought five years ago already had one wheel in the junkyard. But Pat is a pretty good mechanic. I guessed that he was about half way through his first beer at that point, and I suspected that he would close the place. If he did, the Mazda would still be in the same spot when I got back there for breakfast about nine hours later. The forty-something Pat would stumble the few blocks to his mother's house on Stanton Street at one a.m., and quietly enter his room in the basement through the back door without waking her up.
Then came the moment that I nightly dread - it lasts just a very short period of time. It is that moment when I pull open the driver's side door (I never lock my truck in Herrick, don't really need to) and it hits me right between the eyes. It is actually a physical sensation that I started to experience a couple of years ago when my boy, Perry Jr., my second child, left for Manhattan to study at my alma mater, K-State, and play on the baseball team there. My daughter Emily had married and moved to Denver two years before that, and I lost my wife Marie to cancer the year after Emily left. She was way too young, just fifty, and she never even got to know her granddaughter. Just for that split second the thought of driving those four miles in the dark to my empty three bedroom ranch house on my little farm feels like the sudden receipt of tragic news. It hits you in the pit of the gut first, and then it rushes up to the eyes. Daunting. For a second I am paralyzed, but it always passes. I turn on the radio, and I start to look forward to a snack and the ten o'clock news. As I drive home, I think about my friends and my kids. What are they doing now? What's the weather like in Denver? I'll bet you Ray's watching TV and sipping a Heineken or maybe talking to his son in Salina. His wife Terri is probably cleaning or ironing, or maybe she's on the phone to one of the kids. This night I thought a little bit about the next edition of the Times, due out on Wednesday, which I normally wrap up on Tuesday afternoons then have Devin down at the print shop run off a couple hundred copies and give most of them to Pat to deliver the next morning. It is just your basic small town newspaper - obituaries, accidents, announcements of upcoming local events, weather and sports - but I (or one of my few unpaid contributors) write articles and editorials from time to time. Each issue is almost always eight pages long exactly. I wondered if I should write an article about the calf; but then I decided, 'No, let's wait and see what happens.'
Well nothing happened for the next couple of days; and on the morning of the fourth day, Thursday, no one at breakfast at Deke's even mentioned Ray's calf. Then later that day the news about the sheep rancher in the next county over started spreading around town. He has a pretty big plot of land about ten miles north of Ray's place, which is just up the road from mine. Right about the time we were eating our breakfasts, this fellow was discovering that four of his sheep and two lambs had been attacked and partially eaten the night before. I remember his name was McIntire, but I have never met the man. I have seen him from a distance, though; he's a big guy, like Ray, and he has a dark beard, but I also remember him being kind of slump shouldered and seeming sort of introverted. At any rate, one of his neighbors saw some Husky-like dogs running near the scene of the crime early that morning. Mr. McIntire was reported to have concluded that it was a pack of dogs that had killed his stock, and he was said to be going around trying to find out which families in the area owned Huskies or Shepards.
As might be expected, news of this latest incident set the town abuzz. The next morning there were probably twenty men that showed up at the café for breakfast or just for coffee and to shoot the breeze and that was about double the size of the regular group. The lunch and dinner crowds were a lot larger than usual as well. Then the very next day - Sunday, and the sixth day since Ray had lost his calf - right after she got home from church, Rhonda Barney was out walking her German Shepard, Pal, on a trail north of town when he suddenly froze and started growling, his hair standing on end. Pal darted off in front of her so far that she lost sight of him, and a minute or so later she heard a terrible commotion in the distance with a lot of yelping and growling. She picked up her pace to get to the aid of her pooch, but when she found him it was too late. He was pretty badly mangled. She saw what appeared to her to be a pack of big dogs jogging away to the north, but they might have looked a little bit like wolves, she said. She couldn't be sure from that distance.
Monday morning at Deke's, Ray suggested to me and everybody else in the swollen breakfast crew that we all meet at the Golden Acre that evening for some kind of an informal town meeting where we could talk things over. "Just men," he said, "Don't tell any of the ladies, there's no need to get them upset." We all agreed to be there at eight, and we all committed to spend as much of the rest of the day as we were able to informing the area's farmers about the business. "Everybody needs to know what's going on, and we need to get everybody involved," Ray said. As an advocate of participatory democracy myself, I could scarcely have assented more wholeheartedly. And I admit that for the first time in months, my life was full of anticipation. I almost couldn't wait for the hours to pass.
That evening Pat, Ray, and I walked across the street to the Acre with a couple of Deke's other regulars after our suppers at the café. It was about seven-thirty, and we were the first arrivals for the meeting. Earlier in the day we had talked to Bob Lee, the owner of the place, and he had agreed to let us use the private party room for our meeting. We told him that we expected about thirty men to show up, and boy were we surprised when there were at least fifty. The party room was jammed packed, and there were only enough chairs for about half the people that crowded into the room. Old boys in coveralls were leaning up against the walls; and a couple of men were squatting on their haunches the way old farm neighbors used to when they chewed the fat: side by side, looking straight ahead, but talking to each other. That struck me as an image from the era back when they killed off the last of the wolves in this area. Fortunately nobody was chewing tobacco and spitting on the floor, but it might not have looked too out of place if someone had done that.
A few minutes after eight an air of uncertainty began to pervade the room. It was at that point that I realized that there really was not anyone who would naturally take charge of the affair. Ray was our putative leader, but he was only comfortable taking the lead in small groups of men; and he seemed to need to know most of the people in the group when he did put himself forward. There was a certain critical mass for him: too many people that he did not know, or simply too large a group, and his instincts were to blend in with the rest and follow someone else's lead. He had been our quarterback in high school when I was an undersized guard - the year he was a senior, I was a junior - and we won the conference that year; but when I went to K-State, Ray joined the army. A few years later he was working on his dad's farm, which he now owns, and which he has worked ever since. He is a big man, a strong man, and a thoughtful man; but he is naturally cautious, and he really struggles to handle criticism. In fact, the few times that I have seen him chastised with any severity, I have feared that he would either blow up and start hurting people or just find some hole to crawl in. Still, in this circumstance, since he called for the meeting, he felt that he at least had to get the ball rolling.
"I guess we ought to get started," Ray said, and glanced around the room apprehensively - though I am sure that most of the men in the room did not pick up on the nervousness. He paused for a few seconds, and looked down at the floor, slumping a little in his chair in the center of the room as the murmur of the attendees subsided and all eyes turned toward him. I realized right then that if I was going to save him, it was time to act. Now I am not exactly a public speaker, but I did take communications in college, I have been a supervisor more than once in my life, and I have spoken to my Methodist church's congregation quite a few times. I know a few techniques. Just relax, take your time, enunciate your words pleasantly, but firmly, and look directly into the eyes of the people in your audience.
"Yeah, I think we should. I suppose you all know why we're here tonight," I said from my standing position at the back of the room. "I'll just catch you all up on what's taken place for those of you who might not have heard about all the incidents." I paused strategically, gathered my thoughts and continued.
"A week ago this morning Ray here lost a calf to a predator of some kind. At first he thought it was a coyote, but that same day our friend Pat here," and I paused again and nodded to Milford Patton who was standing behind Ray and a little to his left, "swears by all the Olympian gods, most particularly the god of hops and barley, that he saw a gray wolf jogging by his mother's house on the outskirts of town." I smiled and winked at Pat and he shook his head good naturedly and grinned slightly. Ray appreciated the comic relief and laughed out loud as did a couple of the others, but the old guys in coveralls just stared blankly. "Now I thought that this was a little bit unlikely, but events that have transpired since then have caused me to reassess."
"Three days later, a sheep man in the south part of Cairn County had four sheep and two lambs killed and partially eaten. That could have been dogs; packs of delinquent dogs have attacked sheep before, but yesterday after church our organist Rhonda Barney was out walking her dog north of town when he too was attacked and killed. A group of canines that looked like Huskies were observed near both scenes. Since Huskies look a little like Gray Wolves or wolves look a little like Huskies, that lends some credibility to what Pat says. At least we ought to seriously consider the possibility. You said you've seen wolves in the wild before, right Pat."
"Yeah, a bunch of times I seen 'em," Pat informed the group, looking around the room with great seriousness as he spoke. "I worked in a mine up close to Calgary for three years, and I used to go out deer and elk huntin' in them woods up there; and I seen Gray Wolves a whole bunch of times. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind. This animal I saw last week was a big Gray Wolf. And I wasn't drinkin' the night before either. I'd gone to church with my mom that day, and we came home and had a roast dinner with my aunt and uncle. All I did that Sunday night was set around and watch TV."
"There ain't been no wolves in this country for a hunnerd years," an older fellow in coveralls who was standing near the entrance exclaimed. "They killed 'em all off back in the early nineteen hunnerds."
"True enough," Ray added, "but they have been re-introduced in Wyoming, and they have been popping up all over the west ever since then."
"Yellowstone's eight hundred miles away," another standing man added from the front of the room.
"Yes it is," Ray replied, "but there is not a whole heck of a lot between here and there. Just wilderness and farm and ranch country, big spreads."
"Are you telling me a pack of wolves could travel all that way without anyone seeing them? Without them killing some stock?" The first man responded. "No, this had to be dogs. Or coyotes."
"No, this wasn't a damn coyote," Pat said with irritation. "It was way too big."
"I mean, what are the odds?" Another guy in coveralls interjected.
"The odds are probably improbable," Ray added.
"What's that supposed to mean?" The guy responded.
"It means that whatever did in fact happen, whatever animals are responsible for these attacks, we are talking about a very unlikely scenario. Plus, I've never heard of dogs attacking calves when there is a herd of cattle around them. They are certainly not going to hang around and eat them afterwards. That's for sure." I came to Ray's defense.
"I think what's most important," I continued, "is that we decide on a course of action. Because whatever the case is, whether it's wolves or dogs or something in between, it has to stop. That means locating the animals that are doing it and eliminating them. Either that or bringing in the authorities."
"Authorities! You mean the feds or the state? Hell no," said one of the men who had been squatting at first.
"I'm with you there," Ray said. "Unless maybe we get the Sheriff involved."
"Not even that," the fellow replied a little less fervently. "I say we just take care of it ourselves, and your 'authorities' are none the wiser. They can't find nothin' wrong with whatever actions we gotta take. What they don't know won't hurt 'em."
"Suggestions?" I asked.
"Yeah, poison," Ray added. "It's worked on coyotes. And if it happens to be dogs, then whoever's letting their animals roam around like that have only themselves to blame."
"That might work," Pat chimed in, "but I'd rather go huntin'. That way we find out for sure what's doin' it. Get a bunch of men with rifles a little before dawn in the areas where the attacks has been. Go out ever night until we get 'em all. That way nobody's pet gets poisoned."
One dissenter, a man in slacks, said: "No, call fish and game. It's their responsibility."
"I think it's the BLM," said another guy in coveralls.
"See nobody knows for sure what agency is supposed to deal with wolves, and by the time we have it figured out and have brought those bureaucrats in, some more stock's going to be killed," Ray offered.
"Or, God forbid, kids," the erstwhile dissenter threw in.
"Well, let's take a vote, why don't we. Is everybody ok with that?" I asked.
The murmur that my question generated seemed to have a positive hum to it so I suggested a show of hands from those who thought that we ought to call the authorities in. They amounted to no more than ten percent, so that motion was tabled. Next I asked for a vote on whether to poison or hunt - "all who think that we should organize hunting parties raise your hands," then "all who think we should put out poisoned meat." The pro-hunting party won hands down. We then agreed that I would write an article for the Times that would come out Wednesday, Day Ten, requesting that interested parties come to Deke's that day or the next and sign a sheet which was to be divided into numbered groups of hunters. Ray had expressed some concern about this plan, suggesting that it might be best to keep it on the QT; but he acquiesced when it was argued that since we weren't going to break any laws, it was best to keep it all out in the open. If the sheriff had a problem, he'd let us know. The federal authorities likely would never even find out. The assumption was that men would sign up for groups that included their personal friends, hopefully guys that they had actually hunted with in the past. If the groups required some modification, then we would deal with that at the café Thursday evening. At that point it would just be a matter of waiting for the next predation event and sending people out in their trucks as required. Everybody was exchanging cell phone numbers to facilitate these responses. I figured that Ray, Pat, and I would form the nucleus of one group. The next day I called the Sheriff and informed him of the plan and he gave us the okie doke.
Of course, I now see with the clarity that only hindsight can provide, that publishing our plan in the paper was not the best of my ideas. I had not thought about my ancient flame Ellen and the inevitable complications that her intervention would engender should she happen to peruse my well-intentioned journalistic endeavor. And of course, with my luck, that perusal was inevitable. If Ellen Lazar read The Herrick County Times only once in the entire year of 2012, fate would demand that it had to be the Wednesday, April 4, edition.
Ellen was the Arts teacher at Herrick High School. She was my age exactly, and she had returned to rural Kansas five years earlier after spending most of her prime years in such exotic places as New York, San Francisco, and Wichita. She had never married. We had actually gone out on a couple of dates when we were in high school, and I still have a troubling memory of the time that I awkwardly tried to kiss her at the end of our last date. Ah, it was not to be! But more than once in these latter days have I marveled at how closely Marie, my wife of over twenty-five years, resembled the young Ellen. Both were slender brunettes with blue eyes and light complexions, though in her youth Ellen was more striking than Marie; both were about five foot six. And furthermore, both played the piano. In fact, Ellen was famous for her local recitals. It seems her father, the town's only dentist when I was growing up, went to great lengths to put her talent on display. Eventually she landed at Julliard, but apparently things did not work out so well there. That was something that you did not want to talk to her about. She got her degree in Secondary Education from Wichita State. I met Marie nee Callahan in Manhattan, Kansas my junior year and we married the year after I got my Psychology degree (a field that I have never actually worked in, by the way). At that time, I did not even think about the superficial similarities between her and Ellen - they never even crossed my mind.
It was quite a surprise to many of the long time residents of the area when Ellen returned to Herrick in the summer of 2007 and took a teaching position at the high school the next fall. Her only sibling, Bill, who was a year older than her and a high school friend of Ray's, had left long ago and was now a married-with-adult children CPA in Tucson. Ray had given Bill the nickname, The Laser, for his shooting proclivities on the basketball court. Ray and Bill were the varsity basketball co-captains my junior year, and I am pretty sure that the nickname was, shall we say, tongue in cheek, since Bill's shooting percentage for the year couldn't have exceeded forty. He certainly was not reluctant to shoot the ball, however, and that is probably what Ray was trying to convey with the moniker. The good dentist and his wife had recently retired to Florida when Ellen returned; and she would live in the family's old house, which was one of the nicer one's in town.
Ellen had not maintained contact with anyone in town during the time that she was gone. Furthermore, when she had left for what everyone thought was the last time, when we were in our twenties, she had begun to cultivate a reputation for being somewhat of a fly in the ointment - someone who just loved to oppose the will of the majority in any controversy. In 1980 she had threatened to move to Canada if Ronald Reagan was elected, and that got her some negative attention from the predominantly pro-Reagan townsfolk. Well, she did not follow through on her threat; but the next year she did move to Wichita and enroll in the state university down there.
As a middle aged woman, Ellen was nowhere near as pretty as she had been when she was young. She was not bad looking, mind you; she was simply not a knockout anymore, pretty average looking. The piercing blue eyes had dulled; and though they could still flash with intensity, they no longer danced and they often appeared to be a little bloodshot. Worse, they had come to project a kind of hardness, maybe at times even meanness, like, well, an old maid schoolmarm from a previous era. Her formerly taut and slender body had grown pudgy and soft - not fat really, but very middle-aged. I must say that I did not expect that of her. She was someone who I had thought would stay young forever. Ellen had kept to herself since her return, though she did occasionally have an out of town guest. Her family had never been church goers; but they had always participated in civic activities - from music and sports to the annual March of Dimes drive - but she no longer did. By the time of the article, I think that most of us had pretty much forgotten about her.
The article appeared Wednesday morning, and early in the afternoon that same day, I got the call. She was at school on her lunch break, I surmised; and she did not waste any time getting to the point.
"Perry," she said abruptly.
"Yes," I said, not quite recognizing the voice on the other end.
"Do you know who wrote this article in today's Herrick County Times - the one about the wolves?"
"Yes," I replied. By then I had figured out who I was talking to, even though the voice still did not remind me of the Ellen of my memory. "I did."
"Well I think you guys need to proceed with more caution. After all, wolves are still endangered, and the Department of the Interior might not look too kindly if any more are slaughtered."
"Really. This is Ellen, right?" I asked.
"Yes," she confirmed. "I think I need to meet with your group and talk. Is there any way that could be arranged?"
"Well, I suppose you could come to Deke's tomorrow evening around seven. That's when we're supposed to finalize our plans, and your input would certainly be welcome." I said.
"I'm not so sure about that, but I'll be there," she said and without further ado ended the call.
This might not be good, I thought, and planned to tell Ray and some of the others that evening at supper. I did not quite know what Ray would think, after all, he had been good friends with her brother as a youngster; and he had spent a fair amount of time over at the Lazar house. Back then I had often wondered if there had been anything more going on there, but I had decided that there probably was not. Nevertheless, the thought entered my mind again for the first time in decades.
That evening Ray said that he had warned me not to write the article. "I knew that was a bad idea," he told me.
"No you didn't," I objected, misremembering just a little bit. "You didn't say anything at all when I suggested writing the article." And even though he had, he also had acquiesced pretty easily.
"I said that we should keep it quiet, and we shouldn't get the women involved. Putting an article in the paper ensures that everyone finds out." And he had a point there, but he had gone along with the rest of us Monday night.
"... so the important point is this: whether it is wolves or packs of dogs or even coyotes, these predators have killed a family pet, and they have killed stock. They must be stopped, and that, I am afraid, almost certainly means killing them. For that reason we are asking all interested men in the area who are experienced hunters skilled in the use of a rifle to come to Deke's Café in Herrick and sign up for one of the hunting parties that we are going to organize and send out to track these animals down the next time that an attack is reported. We also encourage citizens to be aware of the whereabouts of their livestock and pets at all times and to report anything suspicious to Sheriff Randolph's office or to Perry Ryan at the Times."
"There is only one problem with this, fellows," Ellen continued to speak to the twenty or so men seated at booths and tables at Deke's that Thursday evening, Day Eleven. She had just read verbatim from the Times article of the previous day. "And that, of course, is that if these 'predators' are indeed wolves, then you would be violating federal law by shooting them. You would be taking the law into your own hands."
"How's that?" Pat asked. "If the sheriff is ok with it then what's your beef?"
"I have no 'beef'," she responded, her voice softening noticeably. She seemed to look at Pat more sympathetically than she did the rest of us for some reason. "I just want to make sure that an endangered species is protected and that none of you get too trigger happy and use this as an excuse to shoot every canine-like creature in the region."
"Ah, come on Ellen, nobody's going to do anything like that," Ray interjected. "We just want to protect our animals."
"And our kids," Deke chimed in from behind the counter. "If they'd kill Ray's calf when it hadn't gotten away from the herd, then I am sure that they could kill a child."
Ellen glanced briefly at Deke, and then shot darts at Ray. Next she looked at the fiftyish out of town woman who was staying with her at the time. The woman was slender, wore blue jeans, had long, light brown hair, and she sported wire-rimmed glasses with circular lenses; she sat on a lunch counter stool just to Ellen's right. She had certainly come along to provide moral support. Ellen next glanced down at the floor and took a step or two into the center of the room then lifted her head and stared at the far wall, which contained a picture of a younger and smiling Deke shaking the hand of a congressman from thirty years ago.
"Well, nobody wants any unnecessary loss of life, but there are laws that we are obligated to abide by. I suggest that you make a call to the Office of Law Enforcement of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They are in the Department of the Interior, and they have jurisdiction."
"Over dogs?" Someone at a booth questioned.
"Yeah, let's make sure that we know what we are dealing with before we bring in the feds. Like Pat said, the sheriff knows about our plan, and he approves of it. In this county, he would seem to have some jurisdiction," I finally added something to the discussion.
Ellen said nothing, but offered a half smile and exhaled audibly. She did not even look at me. In fact, I don't think that she had looked at me once since she had started speaking.
"There is a bigger issue here," Ray interjected.
"What on earth could that be?" Ellen spoke with an air of sarcasm.
"Well I'll tell you what it could be," he continued. "It's that every since the beginning of civilization mankind has always depended on farming. We've had to protect our livestock and crops and families from threats from the wild, be they human or animal or Mother Nature herself. Once we've fixed a problem and we know how to deal with it, it is a shame if we let it come back. When you start doing that kind of thing, it seems like the beginning of the end of civilization itself to me. You have to be able to learn from experience. Look at Ancient Rome. They forgot what made them a great empire, and the barbarians overran them. You wouldn't let smallpox come back after you'd cured it, would you? That would be crazy. Therefore, you shouldn't let wolves come back either. If they stay in Yellowstone, ok; but when they come into farm and ranch country, they have to be taken out."
"That's about the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Since when did you become a historian, Ray?" Ellen barked, her eyes flashing with a tinge of that lately acquired meanness that I had seen once or twice before. "You're comparing wolves to smallpox and to Ancient Romans. Talk about apples and oranges! I think you need to stick to cattle ranching. All you guys have to do is call that office - I'll even give you their number - and they will take care of the problem. If they need to, they will tranquilize the wolves and take them back to the wilderness areas out west."
Ray slumped a little in his chair and looked sternly at her, but he said nothing to her or to anybody else for the remainder of the meeting. I looked at him to make sure he wasn't hurt, but no, he was stewing - and planning. I could tell.
"Still, Ellen," I spoke slowly, but more forcefully this time. "We do not know for sure if these attacks have been done by wolves or not. Pat thinks he saw one wolf. Witnesses near the scenes of attacks could not be sure. Before we call in federal authorities, which is opening a can of worms, I think that you certainly must agree, let us find out for sure what types of animals are responsible. Can you accept that?"
Ellen gave no verbal response, but glanced at her woman friend and seemed to sort of half shake her head. At that I suggested: "Well, I think we ought to take a vote. Let's have a show of hands. Everyone who thinks we ought to call the enforcement people at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, please raise your hands now."
Only Ellen and her friend raised their hands. The latter's effort prompted Pat to exclaim, "She don't get a vote; she don't even live here."
"Don't worry about it," I said. Ray glared sullenly at nothing in particular. "Now, those who think that we should find out what species of animals are behind these killings before we call in any more 'authorities' please raise your hands."
Every man in the room quickly shot his hand up. "It looks like you are overruled, Ellen," I informed her rather blandly. "I think that we should now designate a leader for each of the ten hunting groups, and that each designee should be responsible for organizing and preparing his group to go out in the field when required." Three or four people had signed up for each of the ten groups, and many of the men who were likely to be named the leaders were presently in the room; but this new motion was interrupted by Ellen and her friend's stormy departure.
"You had better not take the law into your own hands!" She warned us as she left.
"Don't worry about it, bitch," Pat yelled at her receding posterior.
"Hey, Pat! That was not necessary!" I chastised his outburst.
"Maybe not, but neither is she!" Pat was fuming.
By then she and her friend were out the door and out of view. 'Well, we'll see what happens,' I thought as I took a deep breath and told myself that I needed to stay calm.
When I got home at about ten that evening, I received an unexpected call from my son. He said that he was coming home for the weekend. It was Spring Break; the baseball team had just finished a road trip, and he had a couple of free days. It was kind of strange; he seemed troubled, but I did not ask why.
"Ok, son, I'll be happy to see you. We'll go to Easter services then have Easter Dinner Sunday. I'll get a ham."
"I'll be home tomorrow afternoon," he said. Tomorrow was Good Friday. I did not quite know what to think. I hoped that everything was ok. There was so much going on right now.
I had just drifted off at about midnight when the phone rang. "Perry," Ray said with a tone of urgency. "There has been another attack. It's up at old John's place, just north of mine. His boy, Trevor, was in the army, stationed in Alaska for a time. He saw the attack while he was driving around in his Jeep in the early evening. He said for damn sure it was wolves. He didn't have a weapon with him so he couldn't do anything; he followed them for a while, and he said they were heading up towards the creek." The creek was one of the few places in the area that had brush and some trees that people had not planted. "You get up to my place quickly and bring your aught-six, and we'll go wolf hunting. I'll bet you they're hanging around that creek tonight."
I was kind of groggy, but I quickly agreed. "Ok, I'll get there as fast as I can." I was out the door in ten minutes with my rifle and plenty of ammo. Ray and I had been hunting buddies off and on in the past; we had hunted deer with our 30 06 rifles, rabbits with 22's and birds of various kinds with our shotguns. So we worked together pretty well.
"Did you tell anybody?" I asked when we got into Ray's pickup.
"Oh, hell no, you think I'm crazy? Did you?"
"Of course not, I didn't have time," I replied.
"I had to ask," he responded.
From that point on we were silent, just watching the fields. We turned down a dirt road that went by old John's farm, and then headed down a jeep trail that angled slightly downhill towards the creek. It was a clear night, moon bright; the next evening would be the full moon. When we got to the creek, we decided to shut the engine off and get out and look around. There were no signs of wolves in the immediate vicinity.
"Let's just wait here for a while," Ray said. He had good instincts. We crouched among some trees and let the sights, sounds, smells and tactile sensations of the night envelop us.
After a few minutes had passed, Ray said, "Listen," and pointed his rifle to the northwest.
"I don't hear anything," I replied.
"Keep listening," and after a while, "You hear it?"
I concentrated as hard as I could and tried to let the constant background sounds like the creek and the wind, amplify, as it were, anything that was out of the ordinary. 'No,' I thought; then about a minute later: "Yes, I do!" I nodded in the direction that he had pointed his rifle. There were barely audible whimpers and growls, and they seemed to be coming from directly under the almost full moon - I could not tell how far away they were.
"Let's go," Ray commanded gently; and we crossed the shallow creek, getting our blue jeans wet up to a little above the knees. We crept along quietly, downwind from the growing sounds of the feast, up the slow, uneven slope until at about sixty yards we could clearly see five or six big wolves dining on something that had recently been alive. They were slightly above us elevation-wise and in the bright moonlight what they were was certain. 'It wouldn't be a calf way out here,' I thought. "I think it's a deer," Ray whispered, then, "Let's get down."
We lay there for a few seconds and sized them up. "You think you can get a kill shot?" I asked.
"For sure, how about you?"
"Definitely. You take the big one on the right, and I'll get one of the others."
We sighted in our targets. "One, two, three," Ray whispered, and then two reports rang out as one. One animal fell immediately and another appeared to try and drag itself away from it knew not what. The rest of the pack raised their heads as if in wonderment and then, sensing danger in our direction, ran off to the northwest. We crept cautiously up to our victims, and soon could see that my target was certainly dead. Bloody at the neck, it lay with its head touching the torso of the doe that the pack had been consuming. The wolf that Ray had shot was lying down, breathing heavily. When it saw us coming it began to whimper pathetically and it desperately tried to drag itself away from us. Its hindquarters were obliterated. Ray walked toward the animal, stopped at a safe distance - maybe ten feet - and put the poor beast out of its misery with a shot to the neck.
"What are we going to do with the bodies?" I asked.
"Let's just drag them down to the creek and hide them in the brush. We'll go back home and get a couple hours of sleep, and then tomorrow morning we'll come back with shovels and bury them. I'll also bring some poison for the deer - get the rest of them."
For some reason I suddenly felt compelled to glance to the east even though the sun would not be rising for a few more hours and the nearly full moon was still high in the sky. I then moved my eyes gradually across the sky to the southwest. There was the Big Dipper in its expected position. I then traced the line that its three highest stars made to the Little Dipper. I had to hold my gaze for a second to make out the corner star in that smaller constellation that is less brilliant than the others. "What is it, Ray?" I said, sensing that something was wrong.
He put on his leather gloves, grabbed his animal by the front legs, and started dragging it down the shallow slope in the direction of the creek. His head was down, and he was moving along at a steady pace.
"They're back," he said.