Bull River Falls, Colorado
The old woman and the horse faced into the wind and together they watched the smoke rise and hang in gauzy white sheets above the valley.
The county sheriff had told her not to use the logging trail. She ignored the order, which came in a letter in a fancy government envelope folded under the windshield wiper of her truck back at the ranch house. But her family had been using the old BLM track for fifty years and this was the only way to get up Bellyache Mountain, most of it private ranch property, anyway.
The horse got skittish. She turned the animal with her knees and reined it away from the edge of the mesa. The valley stretched away toward the stony folds of distant foothills, the rubble of darker mountains beyond that. The smoke had lifted into a black anvil above the highest of those hills as the wildfire moved toward the town.
She leaned and spit. The hot wind blew her long white hair and bore with it gritty bits of ash and sand.
“If bad looks like that, I’ve not seen worse,” the woman said to the horse.
The lowest hills were bathed in reefs of lavender twilight and streaked with muted shadows in the late afternoon sun.
For Dora McCoy, the pleasant scenery did not match her gloomy mood.
Something about that fire was not right.
She said to the horse, a weary catch in her voice: “I wish you could see all this the way I see it. How it looks when that old sun goes down. Like the colors are dripping wet.”
She took the cell phone from her shirt pocket and in the dusky light squinted at the tiny buttons. She’d promised her husband to carry the gadget while she rode her fences; she being so old, he claimed, and liable to tip from her horse and break a leg God knows where on the 5,000-acre Last Chance Ranch.
She called the house and on the third ring his voice answered, halting nervously at first.
He said: “You’ve reached the McCoys and we’re not home right now. Wait for the little sound and say what you need. We’ll get back to you soon enough. Good-by, now.”
The ‘good-by, now’ was her favorite part. He sounded so bashful. She dialed again and waited.
“Oh, my,” she sighed, and turned the horse. She wiped her eye.
Dora McCoy hooked the impossibly small telephone on a rawhide loop hung from the saddle pommel. She spurred the blue roan into a gallop down from the mesa to a berm Hector and she had backfilled long ago to keep blowing dirt from the stock tubs that stood in the middle of her highest pasture.
She sat the horse and let it blow. She leaned into the worn Tapadero stirrups and looked at where her few remaining cattle stood bunched far below where the fire burned, black specks on a rolling sea of brown summer grass. Dust lifted and twisted like spindrift on an ocean.
The horse snorted and danced sideways. She sawed it around.
Dora watched the small low shape move through a field of hay stubble along a fence line that ran down from the lake. In the bunchgrass the creature hid behind some high skunk cabbage, which shook to mark the spot.
She steadied the horse and let it walk.
“So there you are, mister.”
She notched her husband’s rifle under one arm and sighted. She pulled the safety against the trigger guard, the way Hector had shown her. Smelling the wood of the Springfield Garand 30-06 beneath her cheek, a pleasant stink of hickory and sweat, she took aim at the animal’s head and fired, the sound echoing off the hills like a clapping hand. Two wild doves lifted and squawked off a cottonwood tree.
The horse looked away at a sage stump as if in deep thought and tossed its head and snorted as if disagreeing with the woman’s choice of target.
Horses, Dora McCoy thought, could understand the tone and weight of sentences. She had always talked to her horses. She combed her fingers through the roan’s black mane.
She whispered: “I told you yesterday something crazy was going on around here,” she said. “First that fire. Now these critters acting so strange.”
The old woman figured she had shared deeper thoughts with the horse than she had with most people, except for her dead husband, whose voicemail recording she could not bring herself to erase. It was the very last of him, alive inside that plastic toy wobbling from the saddle.
The horse bowed its head and stomped one foreleg.
“You,” she said, slapping the roan’s mouth with her gloved hand. “Don’t give me trouble today. You’ve seen this business before. Now behave.”
Dora McCoy eased ahead into a lazy canter, the rifle held loosely in one hand
at her side. The coyote was dog-sized with a white collie blaze on its head. It yelped when it was shot and had lifted puppet-like as if yanked from above by a string. The animal nipped at itself wildly and tried to crawl away, pulling with its forepaws through the short grass.
Dora reined the horse, steadied herself with her knees and fired again, the shot so poor it severed cabbage stalk and raised dirt a yard behind the wounded animal.
The roan huffed and crow-hopped into a canter as if cutting an imaginary calf. Dora swung her leg, dismounted, dropped the reins, and walked to where the animal lay. The roan spiked its ears and stood and watched and snorted.
For no reason she could understand Dora McCoy dropped to one knee, took off her gloves, and touched the trembling coyote gently as if it was a sick pet. She could feel its heart beat beneath the warm hide. Gray eyes followed her hand as the rancher reached to where the bullet had torn away the coyote’s hip, the bright red wound deep and meaty as if a spoon had scooped away fur and flesh. The animal made no sound.
She had seen it earlier that day as it loped in a circle around a grazing cow and her calf at the underground spring hole. She’d never seen such a decrepit creature so far from its pack running open-mouthed in bright daylight, tongue hanging and fearless.
Dora had followed on horseback for a while, tracking spoor, catching sight of watery black scat where the coyote had ignored a cyanide trap she kept baited outside a fenced wallow that the herd used during calving season. The old woman had lost three calves that week, each neck-gnawed and left bleeding. The coyote had eaten nothing, and so she figured it had killed for sport.
She squatted. She pressed her hand against the coyote and looked at the horse as if expecting advice. She spoke to the horse. The roan’s eyes opened wide as it snapped back its head and whinnied. It turned on the pivot of the dropped reins and shot out one hind leg as if defending itself from an invisible enemy.
“Nag, you got another opinion on this?” Dora said. The horse pointed its ears and glared at the coyote.
The painless bite came like a nuzzling coolness, as if a dog’s wet nose had touched her. Dora looked down and was surprised to see the wound between her thumb and forefinger, a pink oval, as if the sharp edge of a coin had pressed a frown into her skin. The arc of teeth marks looked perfect and pencil-drawn, the blood dewy and pink. A hot numbness tickled up Dora’s arm.
“Oh, my,” she said, shaking her hand. “Ain’t I one stupid old rancid shit.”
She looked up at the roan. “You ever see me do a dumbass thing like that before?”
The horse stomped. It pawed. Dora McCoy studied the coyote’s watery eyes, the normally black outline of its thin lips now red and puffy, flecks of white saliva spattered on the tan fur of its wrinkled muzzle like it had taken sloppy sips of milk.
“Don’t give me that goddamn look,” Dora said, turning to the roan. “You saw what he was fixin’ to do. Why didn’t you warn me?” The horse pawed again and stepped back, dragging its reins. It jerked up its head.
She lifted the rifle to finish things when the coyote calmly lowered its jaw and breathed deeply and regarded Dora with a sideways gaze. With a soft growl it closed its eyes.
“Varmint,” Dora said as she stepped away and lifted herself into the saddle. Bracing herself against the stirrups, she stood and shouted at the dead coyote.
“Didn’t you have it coming? Killing my cows that way, you sorry sonofabitch. Shame on you.”
The roan had not liked the blood smell. But that puzzled Dora McCoy because the old horse had dragged away a hundred carcasses in its time.
“Don’t you spook on me,” she said.
The roan’s withers bunched and trembled as if preparing to bolt.
She pouched the rifle. The horse kept studying the coyote as if it might come to life. She dallied her rope, swung a loop, and took the animal by one foreleg and dragged it from the fence and into the sagebrush so her cows wouldn’t see it.
“We’ll burn it later,” she said. “Don’t want anything to get what it had.” The ranch house was two miles away, a difficult ride down the steep logging road, so Dora figured she would instead wash the wound at the old family homestead cabin, which she could now barely see at the edge of an aspen grove near the river. She had not been there for many years.
She turned the horse and pulled off her belt and looped a tourniquet. She pulled it tight above her elbow until the brass buckle bit into her skin. The blood moved in her arm the way the coyote’s heart had fluttered, like a clock ticking beneath a pillow. She felt dizzy, sick.
When she came up on the cabin it immediately stirred old memories. She tugged the roan into a walk, and the horse kept twisting back its head, still upset by the shooting.
Her grandfather had come to these mountains when it was wild frontier filled with lonely 160-acre homesteads. Not like now, Dora thought, with the new supermarket and the shopping center they were building near the Interstate. And the fancy houses spreading from town like weeds. And there was the big ski resort they wanted to build next to the ranch itself. The god awful ski resort. She slapped her heels into the horse. The thought of the resort made her angry.
She was light-headed. She imagined harmonica music drifting from the log ruins of the cabin. The music seemed so clear. She tried to remember the illusive melody, a plaintive diddy her father had played in Dora’s childhood. The memory came in flickers, like a jittery movie. For a moment she thought she shouldn’t visit this place.
She tied the horse and stepped onto the creaking porch. The iron hand pump, bearded with tangled honeysuckle her mother may have planted so long ago, primed up perfectly. She drew water and let it pool in the grass and watched the roan drink and lift its dripping mouth. She peeled off her denim shirt and slapped the cold water up her arm and onto the aching shoulder. She’d seen dogs taken with rabies many times and was sure the coyote had been afflicted. Poisoned mutts would run blind off cliffs, they got so crazy. Chew their paws off and bite their rumps bloody, spinning like tops until they dropped dead. Dora McCoy knew the coyote had killed not for food but because it needed to answer a darker hunger.
Oddly, she felt sorry for the animal and wondered if she should have let it die on God’s time. Nature had a cleaner way of handling things.
She sat. The old woman was all tight skin and muscle. Her husband had joked that she was long and bony and that he had married a tomboy. Her neck was ropy, tanned. Her square hands looked like they had been whittled by someone who didn’t know how to whittle. Her fingers were stubby, the nails worn into buttons from a lifetime of twisting leather and cinching rope. She wore her long white hair gathered up behind a lady’s Stetson that was pinched into a worn beak. There was the occasional backache when she stooped to lift a bale of Timothy hay and she occasionally got winded late in the workday, but Dora McCoy could still ride a horse hard and string a mile of wire fence without complaint. On a one-woman ranch like the failing and nearly bankrupt Last Chance, there was no choice. “Never could shoot straight,” she told the horse. “Lucky I was never in a war. Wouldn’t have come back alive.”
The roan stretched its neck at the grass that stuck up between the cabin porch boards and started to chew.
“Go ahead, don’t listen,” she said. “You’re sure not much to talk to lately.”
Dora McCoy wished now for a good poultice for the bite, the kind her Hector would have made from one of his Indian remedies.
He’d been gone now for three years. But in her memory he was forever handsome and young and strong, that voice always with a little gravel in it, like it sounded on the voicemail. She remembered how he’d kiss that hollow on the back of her neck and how she’d purr like a cat when he did. She recalled how they’d sat embracing on the floor of this same ancient cabin, even then abandoned and filled with ghosts, their hungry hands all over each other. It had been their private courting place so many years ago, after he’d come back from his war. Dora McCoy remembered how they each slid from their clothes. They would sit afterwards on the steps and she would curl into his arms.
I don’t want to remember this, she thought. I don’t want to remember this at all.
The damp, pail-water smell of the abandoned cabin reminded her of how quickly the years had drifted by.
One of Hector’s poultices would be the perfect thing now, she thought. Going to the doctor was not what Dora planned to do. But she was worried about the coyote’s bite.
The cabin, fragile and teetered like you could kick it down, made her unexpectedly nostalgic. She was surprised by the sudden heat of her feelings, which seemed girlish and not what a woman her age should allow. Dora tried to forget the coyote and the way those rheumy eyes looked at her when it died, as if it had been grateful to be murdered.
She squinted and imagined her mother and daddy sitting by the old woodstove, yellow light from a kerosene lamp licking across the wallpapered ceiling, her father’s boot tapping the puncheon floorboards in time to the music whose name she could not remember.
Dora’s throbbing shoulder seemed to pulse like the heart of the coyote. On the porch the sound of the horse pulling grass seemed thunderous.
She thought sweetly of her mother, smiling then as if there had never been a happier moment, nodding across the room as Dora sat on folded legs by the bed, chin in her hands, evening smells breezing through window curtains that lifted and fell like the hem of a dress.
Dora had wondered those many years ago if other little girls felt the same happiness, and she guessed they did because God surely could not be so thoughtless as to plan it any other way. She remembered believing that the cabin and this ranch and the town of Bull River Falls and these mountains were the center of a perfect world.
Shirtless, she stepped inside.
Sky showed through the broken ceiling. There were floor scars where the woodstove once sat on iron stumps. Stripes of pale twilight came through the cracked wall chinking. Over there, from a wall peg, there once hung her mother’s splint broom. A stubby iron pike mortared into the fireplace wall was where the dutch oven once stood braced in its tripod. Stove embers had long ago stained parts of the floor black. Scrapes from a vanished trundle bed mapped where Dora had slept as a girl beneath sheets that smelled of lye soap and what the family had suppered on that night. The grouse flavor was minty, like sage.
Drying herself with her denim shirt, she stretched and twisted the arm to see if the ache would fix itself. She sniffed imaginary smoke drifting from the stove that was no longer there. It was as if her mother had just stoked her cooking fire.
She could hear her daddy play his tune, the melody lifting through the splintered roof where the evening’s first star now twinkled.
Overwhelmed, her thoughts were a parade of faces of everyone she had ever loved. Hector as a young soldier. Herself as a bride. Her husband dead and so small beneath the white hospital bedsheets. The doctor’s departing footsteps in the empty hallway. Medical contraptions wheezing from the wall.
Looking up at the star, Dora McCoy let out a sob and when she saw the roan raise its head she was embarrassed.
“You’re lucky you can’t think, you gelded sonofabitch.”
She wiped her tears with the shirt. “Just you keep eating and mind your own damn business. Maybe I’ll just send you to France. They eat horse sandwiches there, you know. See how you like it.”
The roan stared blankly at Dora as if they had just met, and kept eating.
She looked across the valley toward where they were building the resort. She could see the half-framed roof poking from the trees. There was an American flag drooping from a pole atop the enormous lodge building. She could see the town lights from here, the mountains dark and blue in back of that. The dim red glow of the distant burning wildfire. And enough stars in the sky to make her cry all over again.
The thought of such a perversity — the hotel and the golf course and the condominiums coming up to the very edge of the ranch — it angered her all over again. She thought about the new folks in town driving around in fancy cars she didn’t recognize, everybody with a ski rack on the roof. Talking on their cell phones. More Golden Retriever dogs than one town could possible need. Fools in white gym shoes jogging around in those tight circus pants.
She sat on her boot heels in the wrecked cabin doorway and dropped her head into her good hand. She looked up and stared at the crippled fence posts leaning in silhouetted rows away from the cabin, the day’s last red light like a curtain behind them.
There was a sharp ache now under her arm, where a pebbly swelling had begun. Her heart raced. The bite had turned dark, the skin around it hammy and swollen as if there was now a life apart from her own growing inside the wound.
Her head felt icy, heavy. Briefly, like a beery intoxication had overcome her, she did not know where she was.
For one of the few times in her life, Dora McCoy was frightened.
How she wished she could remember the name of that harmonica tune her father had played.
The evening breeze carried the roan’s smell into the cabin. Her mother sang softly from somewhere in the dark. She recalled the press of Hector’s rough hand on her naked back. She stepped over to the horse and angrily pulled the rifle from its pouch.
In the valley she could see the top floors of the partly built lodge. A row of maintenance buildings were lined up along the river, along with parked construction equipment. Her numb arm throbbed as she lifted the rifle to her cheek and fired at the building as if to kill it. She kept shooting until the empty eight-round military clip ejected past her ear with a metallic pinging sound.
She thought she heard the rounds smack home, deciding instead that it might be another gunshot clapping up from the river. Hunters, maybe, though there was no season she knew of.
Another shot was fired from somewhere and the startled horse stomped its foreleg, but Dora McCoy wasn’t sure of what she’d been hearing.
She wasn’t sure of anything anymore.
She unsaddled the horse and took the blanket pad and lay it on the cabin porch. With fallen roof shingles she made a fire and used the saddle for a pillow and curled up her arms. Through the flames she watched the moonless night gather around her.
She tried to think about all that had happened up to this exact point in her long life, but she could not.
Coyotes cried unseen out beyond the fire’s glow as if they were scolding her.
She took the cell phone and once more dialed up her dear Hector’s voice. She spoke to him and hoped he would answer, but he did not. She pulled down her hat and brought her shoulders together against the cold night and closed her eyes and wept.
She should not have shot at the lodge, she thought. Crazy old lady.
Somebody could get hurt.