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Buck in evening light

In the Rut

By Kathryn Wilder
Terrain.org 13th Annual Contest in Nonfiction Finalist

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“My friend’s following his blood trail. It leads to your fence.”

   
I cowboyed through the summer high in the San Juan Mountains on my grulla mare, Savanna, often alone, sometimes with my elder son, Ken, who rode his sorrel mare or bay gelding as we checked cattle and fences, feed and water, and kicked out trespassing cattle. That part of the job seemed constant—apparently people think that because it’s public land, their cattle can graze grass we paid for. Other than neighbors who let their cows invade another’s grazing allotment, it was lovely up where grass grows green, and purple and yellow columbine grace the shadows of aspens, where elk ghost through the trees and bears watch us or ignore us as we ride along.

That’s what we were doing one day when a man revved up a steep hill on a four-wheeler, going cross-country, which, like cattle trespassing, is against Forest Service rules. Clearly he meant to fly right past us. I stepped Savanna in front of him.

Forced to a stop, he said, “We’re short about 25 cows. Have you seen ’em?”

“Every day,” I said.

The man cut his engine. He looked older than me. Old enough to know better.

Ken rode closer.

“I’ve been pushing them back onto your side of the fence,” I said.

“I wish you’d just push them across the neighbor’s pasture and onto the road. We can’t gather them if you head them back through the trees.”

“Get a horse,” said Ken.

“I have a horse,” he said. “It’s just too old to ride.”

I didn’t say maybe you’re too old to ride, because in five years I might be his age and reduced to straddling a quad. I sat Savanna comfortably, looking for better words.

“Your cattle have been grazing this pasture for weeks,” Ken said.

“Oh, it’s no big deal. They do it every year.”

It was our first year on the Forest Service permit. We were learning. I found my words. “You’d better fucking get them off of here.”

His face reddened, setting off the tones in his gray hair. He wore no hat. Not a real rancher, I thought. “It won’t matter,” he said. “They’ll be back the next day.”

“Because your place is fed off,” Ken said, meaning overgrazed.

The guy was fuming now. “You have to fix your fences,” he said.

Ken and his brother, Tyler, had gone around miles of perimeter fence before we turned our cows out. And, while Colorado is a fence-out state, meaning that if you don’t want cattle trespassing on your private land you need to keep your fences up, that law doesn’t apply to Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management land. When it comes to public lands, the cattle owner is responsible for keeping his cows home.

“They’ll just do it again next year,” he insisted.

“No, they won’t,” Ken said.

The man lost his red glow and turned a tepid gray. He started his ATV and sped off across our pasture, trampling our grass, breaking federal law all the way to the county road. Ken and I rode on through an aspen grove to a far hillside where the man’s cows grazed freely. We trotted our horses at them, startling them into the trees and onto the trail home they had made.

Ken opened the gate for them. “He’s right,” he said. “They’ll be back tomorrow.”

“Bastard.” I was tired of wanting to do right in the face of a culture that insists on making its own rules. And perhaps already tired of Covid, though it had only been a few months.

We raise Criollo cattle. Small, horned cows that have a lower impact on the land than popular European breeds like Angus and Hereford. Our cows weigh in at 750 to 1,000 pounds, whereas the mature cows of the above-mentioned breeds can easily tip the scales at 1,300 to 1,400 pounds. Criollos graze grass when it’s available and are heavy browsers, munching on greasewood and fourwing saltbush as a matter of choice in our corner of Colorado, or prickly pear and mesquite in southern New Mexico and Arizona. This makes them a more versatile, hardier breed than any other, except what are commonly called Corrientes, a branch of Criollo cattle selectively bred for thicker horns and lighter weights for rodeo events.

I love our Criollo cows, and believe in the ethics of low-impact grazing. I also love the work the cows give me—all the hours ahorseback through the summer and its shoulder seasons, like late fall when I follow them into Disappointment Valley, where the cattle winter on bunchgrasses and salt-desert shrubs, neighbors are few, and I live in a cabin on a 160-acre inholding surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands. My writing retreat.

Cow and calf, nursing.
Photo by TJ Holmes.
I have thought that what I missed most in these days-months-nearly a year of pandemic were hugs, visiting with girlfriends on a deck in the sunshine, a lover, but that is not it. Social distancing is not new to me, and by that I don’t mean physical distancing, which is what six-feet-apart really is. To me, social distancing is a valley nearly 40 miles long in which only seven people live—two couples and three single women, one recently widowed, one working on a mustang sanctuary, and one me.

Fifty-five hundred feet above sea level at its low end near the Dolores River and rising in the east to 7,200 feet, surrounded by high cliffs and fins and cracked and broken rimrock, huge buttes, and a long line of mountain called the Glade, Disappointment Valley shares its geologic makeup with other valleys in the Paradox Basin—nearby Paradox Valley in southwestern Colorado, and Moab and Castle Valleys in Utah, among others. It has a history of overgrazing, a wrong we’re trying to right (records tell of sheepmen annually running tens of thousands of sheep from the high end to the low end, leaving the valley as shorn as sheep after shearing; many of the native grasses didn’t grow back); of hiding outlaws (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid); and of early Spanish explorers riding through a sea of grass that reached over their boots (as Juan Antonia María de Rivera wrote in 1765). The older stories of the earliest people are carved in stone.

I don’t live out here full time, though I want to; instead I spread myself between this high-desert valley, cow camp at 9,220 feet, and the ranch headquarters near the town of Dolores and its 854 people, including those on outlying farms and ranches, like my son Ken, his wife and children, Tyler sometimes, and sometimes me.

I live where the cows live, which has me in Disappointment Valley loosely from October to June, with trips to headquarters and town every week to ten days or so to pay bills (I don’t get mail out here, though I could—it gets delivered on Tuesdays and Fridays), and do laundry (I don’t have a washing machine, though I could, but I’m on catchment water and solar power and in times of drought I don’t have enough water to wash clothes and in times of storms I have to conserve power for more important things, like refrigeration and my computer). I also go to town for groceries and fuel (the closest gas station and grocery store are 47 miles away). And I go to see my grandkids and family.

These trips are usually planned around what work needs to get done, and where. Tomorrow, for example, Ken and his wife, Kathy, will go to Farmers’ Market, taking our grass-fed-and-finished beef and, masked and physically distanced, sell our product while I stay at the ranch with the kids, washing machine at work.

I’m 65, at the beginning of that category of at-risk older people. But even before Covid restructured our lives, I was happy to stay with the grandkids and let my son and daughter-in-law talk to strangers. Of course, many of our customers aren’t strangers anymore, as they’ve been buying our beef for years, and truth be told I actually enjoyed the social fix in the seasons when farmers’ markets were open before we were all shut down. Now my son and Kathy are the only essential workers allowed. And I am content spending the time with my grandchildren—my nonessential but ever-important task.

After a third summer of no monsoonal rains (which adds to Covid depression), the parched hillsides and dusty arroyos of drought have encouraged us not to put any more stress on our Disappointment country this year, even though BLM says we can still run our normal numbers. Instead, we haul the cows to the ranch headquarters, where we will sell many and feed the rest. Which puts me in Disappointment only for hunting season, when I patrol for human trespassers—every year someone crosses the line and shoots at a buck on land I wish to be a sanctuary for wildlife as well as for me. I have yet to catch anyone in the actual act of killing, though I have chased armed men off my property with threats of trespassing charges and calling the game warden. Which I also have done. Armed with cell phone and voice, fear doesn’t occur to me, only the violation.

While at the cabin for these few days, I hope to indulge in writing time away from interruption and not think about the winter solitude I will be missing.

I’m surprised he’s not down yet, losing that much blood. We’d smell him if he was down. With this wind, we’d smell him.”

This morning at the cabin I am doing just about my favorite thing—working while still in bed at 8 a.m.—when I hear two shots, not exactly close together but close enough that I can guess it’s one man, one rifle, one deer.

Quickly I’m standing naked and cold in the pre-winter chill, looking out the window through binoculars. This is the third rifle season in southwestern Colorado, the only remotely busy time in Disappointment Valley. Road traffic increases tenfold—I might see as many as 20 moving vehicles on a given day, pickups or Honda and Kawasaki side-by-sides peopled by men, and a few women, dressed in camouflage and hunter orange. Foot traffic also increases, though not as much—the bow hunters of the earlier season were all afoot, needing to get close to their prey, but third-rifle-season hunters stick close to the road, 30 miles of which is a gravel-and-dirt county road that meanders mostly through public lands but also bisects the few private holdings, which keeps residents like me on the alert for people hunting without permission.

I know a hunter fired the shots; what I don’t know is if he’s trespassing. The sun has just cleared the rimrocks of Dakota sandstone, lighting needle points of piñon pine, making auras of one-seed juniper, and I see a white truck parked half a mile away, reflecting the morning light, which bounces off hunter-orange bins on racks above the cab of the truck. I’ve seen this truck before. Hurrying to get dressed and investigate, I don’t bother to braid my hair, instead wrapping it into a sloppy bundle at the nape of my neck, strands tucked beneath a knitted cap. I grab my gloves but don’t even think about a mask—my neighbors live five miles east, seven miles west, and farther. We never get within six feet of each other.

The white truck is parked near my gate. In my thick down jacket I hope I look as puffed up as I feel, stepping out of the safety of my old Toyota to open the gate.

A man in camoulflage down to his boots, with blaze orange trimmings here and there, a knife in a sheath hanging from his belt and strapped to his leg, and a rifle in a sling over his shoulder, walks along the BLM side of my fence. He’s not doing anything wrong, far as I can tell, so I drive west, watching in my side-view mirrors as he climbs into his slightly lifted, white, newish Toyota Tacoma with Utah plates, details I will remember. The man himself: slender, young (late 30s?), his hair straight, shoulder-length, Norse-blond. Dropping over a hill, both truck and man now out of view, I continue west on the part of my property through which the county road runs looking for signs of trespassing, and then farther, because this is not only deer and elk habitat but also mustang country, and I might as well look for wild horses while I’m out.

No trespassing hunters, no mustangs, I turn around and head back east. The blond man in his white truck and I pass each other on the graveled road, which, though bisecting my property, is public domain. In my mirrors I see the flash of his brake lights and reverse lights. Clearly he’s looking for deer. I puff up again and stop, my fieldglasses trained on his Toyota.

When the white Tacoma again disappears, I creep after it, thinking I might see him before he sees me. But it’s hard to put the sneak on someone driving the county road when we’re both in pickup trucks and the only ones out here so far today. Besides, he’s already coming back. I slow, pull to the side. He stops abreast of my open window. Blond, but older than I first thought, with gray in his beard, his hair matted in places from a week of hunting, eyes blue, a round, kind face. I deflate a notch.

“We wounded a deer,” he starts.

And restarts. “My friend wounded a deer. I think it might be on your place.”

Crippling game is the worst thing a hunter can do. “Not good,” I say, re-puffed.

“No,” he says, “not good.” He looks at me, waits. I wait, too. “My friend’s been tracking him,” he says. “I’m wondering if we can see if the buck is on you. He’s packing a back leg.”

Injured. Three-legged, or almost.

“What can I say?” I say.

“My friend’s following his blood trail. It leads to your fence.”

The buck must have crossed onto my property through the wildlife-friendly fence—strands of smooth wire on the top and bottom making it easier for elk and deer, and for me, to go over or under, but cattle and horses still respect it.

Now I know what to say. “Fuck, you have to find him. The buck. You can’t leave him.”

The hunter in the white Toyota knows this—he seems genuinely upset. I turn my truck around in the road so that I’m behind him. While he’s radioing his friend to tell him they have my permission, I write down the information I’ve memorized plus the Utah license plate number. Just in case.

As the hunter and I step out of our trucks, his friend pops up over a rise. He’s also tall and white but he wears a brown beanie and jeans, and not nearly as much camo. He beckons.

“May I go with you?” I ask the first hunter, though it’s my property we’re about to cross.

“Of course,” he says, and mutters as we walk up a sloping gray hill of Mancos shale, “I wish he was a better shot.”

“So do I,” I say.

We slip under the fence to the BLM side. The friend shows us a pool of congealed blood. “That’s blood from the lungs,” the first hunter says. I don’t ask how he knows.

“This isn’t my first rodeo,” the second hunter tells me. As I’m thinking that the metaphor doesn’t quite work in this situation, he adds, “It’s often a rodeo when I hunt. This isn’t the first time I’ve wounded a buck.”

“Then you’d better get better,” I say.

A slight grin crinkles the first hunter’s sunburned cheeks. His blue eyes shine.

Working the fenceline.
Photo by TJ Holmes.
Hunter 1 and I track the buck, and the doe the buck was pursuing, to my fence. No blood.

“You can see where the buck jumped,” Hunter 1 says.

I point out where he landed on the still-frozen soil on my side, and this hunter and I slip again under the smooth wire. The second hunter steps over with his backpack and rifle.

Hunter 1 and I move slowly, carefully, across the frozen ground, my gloved hands out before me, palms down, scanning as if I’m water witching, hoping for a vibration, a sign.

“Here’s the doe,” Hunter 1 says. The track is a faint imprint on the hard dirt, narrow, toes close. “And here’s the buck.” A wider track, the animal bigger, heavier, dewclaws pressing the earth behind the hoof. We continue to follow the sparse tracks closely, sometimes me pointing, more often him. We reach a second fence, there to keep my cattle and horses off the road. Hunter 1 and I go under near where the buck and doe jumped it.

The tracks keep sloping downhill, showing between clumps of warm- and cool-season grasses and gray shale. We move around greasewood and big sagebrush toward the creek and coyote willows, leaves crisp and falling, rabbitbrush mostly beyond bloom, the spent stalks of cattails yellow and waving. Though drought has kept the creek dry much of the spring and summer, we had snow last week so trickles connect the puddles. And the riparian area is rich with growth despite drought, the Fremont and narrow-leafed cottonwoods pulling enough moisture through their taproots to shelter riparian oases thick enough to hide deer.

Hunter 1 stops, looking over the terrain. “He’s fully in the rut,” he says. “His neck was swelled out like this,” his hands spread apart, showing a thick, bulging neck, “and he smelled like a buck in the rut. They piss all over themselves.”

And a doe finds that attractive? I’m thinking, when I see that Hunter 2 has worked his way ahead of us, following his own path, while Hunter 1 again stoops and bends.

“Blood,” he says, and I see it on the crinkled coyote-willow leaves. “Keep looking,” he says, “about two feet high.”

I do, missing much of the blood but pointing out tracks.

Hunter 1 nods. “He’s still with the doe. I’m surprised he’s not down yet, losing that much blood. We’d smell him if he was down. With this wind, we’d smell him.”

I sniff. My nose runs. It’s still cold, but the ground is softening with the morning. I find a track of the doe, then of the buck.

“He’s sticking with her,” Hunter 1 says. He returns to the last place he saw blood on a willow shoot. “See,” he says, “it’s from here to here.”

“The stalk bent with him as he passed.”

“You’re right.” He pushes the willow over, and we see the way it swept across the open wound. “I can’t believe he’s still going.”

“What we do for sex,” I say.

He looks at me. I shrug.

“You’re right,” he says again, and slowly, carefully, follows the blood path on leaves.

Kathryn Wilder
Photo by Tyler Lausten.
Social distancing comes to me naturally. I have not gone to a bar in nearly 30 years. Parties are family birthday parties. Readings I’ve gone to, and a low-residency MFA program where social interactions were packed into 18 days per year. Enough, yet not enough—just the right amount for me to miss it during the down times in between. But this down time is stretching long—no in-person readings by faculty and students. No bookstore excursions. While under normal circumstances I do enjoy outings to restaurants with friends or family, those are infrequent enough not to be missed.

So my life is not much changed, pre-Covid to now. Running the ranch with my son, some days together, many days apart, in summer I ride the aspen groves and mountain meadows on Savanna, looking at cattle, looking for cattle. Now it’s November and we’ve finished gathering the high country, but because the drought is severe, “exceptional” the official term—the worst drought category, meaning there’s just not enough feed or water anywhere—we’re in a quandary about what to do, how many head to sell. Selfishly I lament because I won’t have the winter work the cattle give me out here: breaking ice in the creek in the mornings, or hauling water and breaking ice in the troughs; hiking deep into the backcountry to search for a missing cow; noticing how elk and cattle eat the same bunchgrasses, down to the same length, how they leave the plant alone once that mouthful has been taken; watching cattle browse the salt-desert shrubs, the elk not so much. Following mountain lion tracks across the snow, just because, or watching a bobcat stalking a rabbit, the eye-patterns at the backs of the tufted ears staring back at me. Writing about it all. It’s only November and already I feel lost without that work to look forward to. Perhaps that’s why I’m thinking about missing hugs.

Others out here have lived way more isolated than me. Used to be that Coyote Don occupied a hunting shack behind an old barn, not leaving the valley in the winter or seeing anyone for months. They say come spring he would have to learn to talk all over again. He had no kin, no possessions of any value to speak of other than hunting knives and guns, and he hunted whatever, whenever, and wherever he wanted. He was someone I might have had the sense not to confront, but he died in a fire in that old shack long before I moved to the valley.

Two horseback riders on pasture with mountain
Photo by Tyler Lausten.
Hunter 1 reaches down to examine a yellow stem of cattail. His left leg trembles when we pause, and he moves stiffly at the hips. I’ve reassessed his age to maybe 50—too young for stiff joints earned with years. But I think that’s why he goes under the fences despite being tall enough to maneuver easily over the tops the way my similarly tall sons do. Under is easier for me, too, despite bending down on my own compromised leg—no wire snagging my jeans as I stretch to clear it.

I hear something, a thud, hooves on dull earth. “Shhh,” I say, cocking my head to help my ears pick up sound. Ears help me a lot when I’m looking for cattle or wildlife—mine and Savanna’s—telling me location, size, Savanna’s ears usually finding bears or calves before I see them. But the sound doesn’t come again. Only Hunter 2, over in the willows, not tracking, really, just hoping, probably, as I am, that the buck will jump up and be okay, or that he has already died without too much suffering.

Again Hunter 1 returns to the place he last saw a distinctive mark, the brush of blood already turned the color of rust in the dry desert air. I curve around to the largest Fremont cottonwood. Toward the sound. Beyond are steep bank and trickling creek. I follow above them.

Hunter 1 comes up behind me. “Too steep,” he says.

I nod but keep looking. “There.” Tracks where the earth clumps soft and moist at the base of the bank, which slopes more gradually following a cattle trail.

“I wouldn’t think he’d leap down that,” he says.

“I have a three-legged dog, back in the truck,” indicating my own Toyota Tacoma, a decade-plus older than his, the exact color of the Disappointment Valley dust that covers it like paint. “He’s missing his back left leg and can go down much easier than up.”

The hunter nods. I think he’s thinking about his own range of motion. He offers no information. And why should he? We are two strangers thrown oddly together in an intimate search for traces of blood on willow branches, our heads bent sometimes so close together that I am glad I brushed my teeth if not my hair in my rush to leave the cabin earlier in the morning. And wonder about not wearing a mask.

“I have to go.” Hunter 2 interrupts the moment, having returned from his meandering.

“He has a five-hour drive,” Hunter 1 says.

I don’t know what to say, without saying so fucking what.

“I’m going to make a sweep around these willows and then I’ll give you a ride back to camp,” Hunter 1 says.

Hunter 2 turns to me. “Thank you for letting us do this. What’s your name?”

I tell him. “And yours?”

“We’re both Todds.”

So instead of thinking of them as Hunters 1 and 2 all this time, I could have been thinking Todd 1 and Todd 2. But it doesn’t matter. The buck crippler needs to go. He and I turn toward the road. As he tells me about knowing the other Todd since high school, Todd 1 is suddenly behind us. I didn’t hear his approach. He and I go under the fence. Todd 2 still has his pack on and wants to step over. He hands Todd 1 his rifle.

“Is it loaded?” Todd 1 asks, and then checks for himself, expelling rounds. The first hunting accident I ever knew about happened like this—two boys going over a fence with a loaded .22. We could hear the siren from streets away as the ambulance passed through the neighborhood. The next day the teacher of my big sister’s third-grade class told her students that Billy Cook had died. The teacher cried, my sister says. I was six.

At the two Tacomas, one newer, white, cleaner, with Utah plates, the other smaller, older, Colorado plates and the color of dirt, we part ways. I drive to the cabin with my dogs and the reassurances from Todd 1 that he will return to search the rest of my property until he finds the buck. I eat a quick snack and brush and braid my own matted hair and step back outside. Because the day has warmed enough to allow it, I sit on the porch in my puffy jacket and start to write this down, all the while listening for the rumble of a truck crossing the cattleguard—the hunter returning to finish the hunt—but the few vehicles that bump across have no orange bins on their roof racks that would let me know it’s him, and they go on up the road.

I write, and wait, and write. Hunter 1 does not return.

Finally I think I’m finished, or ready to give up like Hunter 2. Hopefully the buck is dead, or will bleed out soon. If he’s crossed the fence back onto public lands he might aid hunters as bear bait—bear hunters will soon be prowling around—but if he’s here, on me, he will be safe eating for coyotes and foxes, ravens and eagles, and maybe a bear or two readying for winter.

Like me, in a normal year—building up the woodpile, filling cracks in the doors, fixing weather stripping, caching a supply of canned goods, and fixing lots of fence before the cattle come—but I won’t be at the cabin this winter. At the ranch headquarters there will still be ice to break each morning, and feeding will take hours; I will be close to my family, my grandkids. There’s pleasure in all that, and in this time of Covid I could rejoice at being in the proximity of people. But the longing is deeper. It’s more than hugs I want. This cabin, with my two dogs, one three-legged, and my sightings of birds and bears and mountain lion tracks and mustangs, rarely a truck on the road once hunting season is over, quiet returning to my life the way it has to this day. Still…

He said he would come back and find that buck no matter how long it took.

I give up on waiting. On hope. I have to pee. And eat a real meal. I stand and stretch and turn to head inside to warmth and food, to comfort. In one last glance at the road I see tucked in near my gate the white truck with its blaze orange roof. I scan the flat below the cabin, the sagebrush that grows tall with age on the other side of the puddled creek, the deer trail that angles past chunks of sandstone fallen from the cliff above, and up through junipers and piñon pines toward another sagebrush flat.

I don’t see the hunter. But he’s out there. Todd is there.

 

  

Kathryn WilderKathryn Wilder’s memoir, Desert Chrome: Water, a Woman, and Wild Horses in the West (Torrey House Press, 2021), won a 2022 Colorado Book Award and Nautilus Book Award. She lives next door to the wild in southwestern Colorado, which she talks about with Rebecca Lawton in “Disappointment Was What I Needed”, a conversation appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo by Tyler Lausten. Photo of Kathryn Wilder by TJ Holmes.

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