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E X C E R P T

April 24, 1906

I used the rifle to part branches as I ran. All I heard for a time was the rhythm of my boots scuffing gravel. My horse was standing where I’d left him–his reins held by my niece Mary Pearl, who’d been out checking stock with me since dawn. I knew not to ride a horse into that commotion. I thought I heard her hollering “Aunt Sarah?” but I didn’t quit running toward the sound that had stopped us. As I tore through brush, an ironwood tree clutched at my clothes; thorns ripped my skirt. The troubled bellow of a cow was accompanied by a pitiful, higher-pitched bawling. Along with that, a pack of coyotes yipped.
I cleared the rise. The mother cow whirled around at that second, hooked a coyote on one horn, and threw it high over her back. They were half hidden by a thicket of greasewood and cholla, in a clear place just wide enough for the pack of killers to trap the mother and baby. The calf had blood running down its legs and it whimpered. The mother cow dashed and whirled, fending off another and another coyote, as others circled behind her and nipped at her baby.


I tried to yell, but had no wind left. My throat was parched as old rope. I slung the rifle to my shoulder and picked off two coyotes. The crippled one had made it back into the path of the cow. As she tried to fight the coyote it bit into her ankle, and she dragged it, clinging to her foot like a rag, before she got it loose. Fierce as she was, the coyotes knew their game was to outlast her, and while the mother cow thrashed, three more closed in on the calf. I ran again, this time finding my voice, shouting the whole way. Mary Pearl told me later that what I was hollering would not be fit talk for her mother’s parlor, but I don’t remember it.


I pulled up the rifle again, chambering a shell as I did. With a shot, I dropped another coyote in his tracks, and he squirmed when he fell, but didn’t get up. The little calf dropped to its knees, and then lay on its side. I could see then that the mother cow was torn in the milk bag. Streaky red liquid oozed from her wound. She stomped and shook that animal off her ankle as I shot another. When one coyote remained, he turned tail and lit out into the brush, gone like a drop of water in this hot desert. Well, I started to move toward the calf, then the panicked cow decided to come after me. She put her head low and scuffed at the dust. I took up part of my skirt and flapped it at her, waving my hat in the other hand, and she backed up, mooing, looking for danger from all around. The poor old girl was bleeding from the nose, too. I whistled and Mary Pearl came riding this direction, leading my horse. Two baldhead buzzards looped in the sky overhead.


The calf made a human-sounding wail. I knelt at its side. Poor baby was not two months into this hard world. I picked his little head up and laid it in my lap, coddling him as if he was a child. . . I saw his eyes sink and knew he was dead. The cow bandied her head and groaned. Mary Pearl tossed a rope around her neck and tied it off to the horse’s saddle, then backed the horse, pulling that mother cow around. The coyotes had been at her worse than I could see before. I’d figured I could doctor up the milk bag–I’d done as much before. Not this… Mary Pearl went to my horse and from the saddle, she slung another rope over the cow’s horns. She picketed the two horses so the cow was held between them.


The cow thrashed, limping on her mangled hoof and ankle, and shook the second lariat from its loose hold on her horns. Mary Pearl backed her horse more to keep the line taut while the animal jerked against it. In mid strides, the cow collapsed, breathing hard through a spew of blood and sand and slobber. Mary Pearl rode closer, easing the tension on the rope. She asked, “Aunt Sarah? Has she given in?”


I wiped my face with my sleeve, and hung my head. Shock and fear had done what the coyotes couldn’t. I’ve known cattle to outlast amazing things. Some don’t. Maybe their hearts burst. Lord knows I’ve felt that way, watching my own child die. The old girl pitched in the dirt and bellowed, but it didn’t get up. I said, “Ride on back to the house. Take my horse. I want to walk. I’ll bring your rope by and by.”


I reckon Mary Pearl knew better than to fuss with me right then, for she did as I said without her usual commotion. I walked around the cow, talking to her, soft and low. “You fought ‘em off, didn’t you, old girl? Don’t you go giving up now. You’ll have another baby round the bend.” Suddenly struggling to her feet, the cow made another threatening stance, lunged toward me, but fell into the dirt, banging her great head against a rock outcrop. She moaned: a pitiful, agonizing noise. It is a hard step for me–always somewhat a surprise–to stop hoping and accept that there is no hope for an animal but a slow, suffering death. My foreman shrugs and says it’s part of ranching, but I hurt for my animals. I lifted the rifle and in my mind drew an X on her skull midpoint between both eyes and the base of both horns. It isn’t kind to do it poorly.


The shot was loud in my ears, echoing as the cow slumped and went quiet. Then I sat between my dead cow and her dead calf, right there in the scrabble and brush, pulled up my knees, and cried. These last three years have seemed like an eternity of drought and poor harvest and dying animals. My boys are off at school, and to tell the truth it’s cheaper to send them to town where they can pick up work than to feed them here. I need money and I need rain. Both of them in good order and flowing over.


After a while, I coiled Mary Pearl’s rope and hung it over my shoulder. The rifle was heavy. My feet hurt. I beat the dust off my old hat, put it on my head, and started walking. I shook my head and didn’t look back. The buzzards and the coyotes will have their day, after all.

April 25, 1906
I knew soon as I spotted the riders and put names to them they were up to no good. I laid into the rug draped across my front porch rail with an iron beater, watching two men amble toward the house. Both were carrying good-sized packs tied behind their saddles. It was early afternoon, and I had plenty of chores tallied to this day already. No sense waiting on a couple of slow pokes. I kept on whipping that rug, and let them get as close as the gate before I looked up and showed I’d seen them coming. “Charlie? Gilbert?” I called. “You two know what day it is?”


“Yes ma’am, Mama,” they said together. 


 © Sarah's Quilt  - Nancy E. Turner 

 


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