Shoulder to Shoulder

by Jackson McNutt

It was June again. Finally! School was out, and my parents gladly sent me to my Uncleís ranch in South Eastern Oregon, where he paid me to run beef cattle.

The sun was shining warm on my face through the pickupís window as we rattled down the dirt path, and the rocky land of southeast Oregon stretching out to either side.

"The cattle usually wander down here to the canyon during the summer for the shade and water," he explained. "Which makes our job easy, Tim, because they just hang around the lake for awhile until they eat the grass down."

"Just like every other year, Uncle," I sighed. Paul had a tendency to repeat himself when it came to explaining the job. "Like I could forget."

"So weíre just going to camp out and count the calves." He continued. "I wanted to have a change of pace for you this year."

"Really?" I asked.

"Yep. After weíre down counting them, weíre going to tag them." He jerked his head backwards. "Thatís what we got in back, tagging equipment."

As the road came to an end, a white pickup truck with the Fish and Wildlife Management emblem emblazoned on the side came into view.

"Huh," Paul grunted. "I wonder what they want."

A tall, bearded man stepped out from the cab of the truck when we arrived.

"Iím Warden Gate," he said, shaking Uncle Paulís hand. "I got reports that wolves had been sighted in this area, and I came down to make sure that you started out ok with the situation."

"Wolves!" Paul spat the word out. "There arenít any wolves in Oregon. Theyíve been extinct in these parts for years!"

"Well sir, they have been," Warden Gate replied. "Until recently. I thought that you should know that it is a federal offense to kill them. If they are caught attacking your cattle, then itís up to your discrimination, but I canít guarantee it will hold up in court though."

"Theyíre a menace!" Paul snarled. "If I see any, Iím driving them out! But thank you for the information." He glared angrily at the warden, who shifted nervously. "You can be off now." The warden only nodded, and then left.

When the warden was out of sight, Paul walked to the truck, and started unloading some of the tagging supplies.

"What do you want me to do?" I asked him.

"Hold these." He said, fury edging his voice, and handed me two rifles. "I donít really care what he says. If we see a wolf, weíll kill it."

"But..." I began, but he cut me off.

"No buts. Whatever the law says, if a wolf takes a cow, thatís eight hundred bucks down the drain." He produced a box of bullets, and began loading the rifles. "Last year was bad, and we barely squeaked through. The wolf is the most cunning predator on the continent, and theyíll make short work of the cattle."

I glance around warily. "They ever go after people?"

"Well," Paul rubbed his chin, "I never knew anybody who got attacked, but I think your great-grandfather might have. He was a wolf hunter, and Iíve read some of his journals on how to do it. Made a living out of it, too. Got paid by the state. Now look where itís gone."

"Careful with the gun," he handed one to me. "Letís go before it gets dark."

We picked our way through the rocky grassland towards the canyon. Weíd only gone six hundred yards before we found the carcass of a dead calf.

"Yup," Paul said grimly, "this one was wolf-killed; the neck is broken where they bit it. Thereís probably only one or two wolves, or else they would have gone for an adult."

A few yards later, we found dog scat, but since we didnít have a dog, it was fairly safe to assume it was wolf.

"They sure are getting comfortable," he commented darkly, and then handed me a few bullets. "Might need these."

We made it the rest of the day without incident. We counted forty calves, almost ten below usual. A potential eight thousand dollars lost, and a sure sign that the wolves had been to work. The reassuring thing was that there were probably only two slightly aggressive wolves.

Night fell slowly, the day ending with a fantastic sunset, characteristic of the west. We cooked dinner, and as I leaned my head back against a log, the howling began. It was eerie and unnatural sounding. The hairs on the back of my neck rose up, and a shiver ran down my spine. We could only hear one wolf, but it was enough to cut through our nerves.

Paul grabbed his gun, cursing.

"Sounds like itís hunting season," he said, thirsting for a fight.

Three hours later found us stumbling through the brush, trying to follow tracks in the dark. It was not going well. First, flashlight was dying. Second, apparently wolves are very difficult to track. I was pretty sure that we were lost and our lupine quarry long gone.

Finally, Paul sat down on a lichen covered rock.

"This," he commented, "is not what your great grandfather described. I think we are doing something wrong."

"Well," I pondered, "if we are out here, we are probably drawing attention away from the cattle, since we arenít the normal wildlife. We probably merit some attention from the wolves. I bet theyíre watching us right now."

"Thatís ridiculous. Wolves wouldnít watch us, theyíd harass us. At least the howling has stopped." He shone the flashlight out over the scrubland, and then squinted at something. I turned around, and saw a pair of glowing eyes in the flashlight beam.

"Thereís one!" Paul cried, dropping the flashlight. He cocked his rifle, took aim, and fired.

I heard a rustling in the brush, and then caught a glimpse of a massive, canine shape, loping at an incredible speed across and open patch in the scrub. Paul fired again, and then started running.

"Come on Tim!" He cried "Theyíre not going to get away!" At this moment I suspected that Paul had an unhealthy obsession with wolves. The range was dangerously rocky, and filled with ravines and canyons. You simply didnít run helter-skelter across it in the dead of night. Generally, you didnít run at all on the range, but Paul was my employer and family member, so I scooped up his flashlight and followed.

It wasnít a very long chase. The wolf easily out paced us, showing remarkable speed and endurance for a creature its size. We watched it disappear, not fifty yards off, into a canyon. Paul, wheezing, slowed to a walk.

"Looks like weíll have to go in there and get him," he gasped. "Be careful though, wolves are vicious. Donít get separated from me. If there are two of us, we should be able to handle him fine."

Without giving me a chance to protest, he stepped into the canyon, and unwisely, I followed. If it wasnít dark enough already, the canyon cut off whatever moonlight that we had, but my flashlight gave sufficient light.

The only noise was our boots scraping on the rocks.

And then there he was, silhouetted for a brief moment against the moon, and flashing us a lupine glance before disappearing like a ghost.

Paul gave a cry, and dashed off after it, scrambling up over a boulder. I followed dutifully. We ran up a small spine of rock above the canyon, and then started heading down again, the bushy tail of the wolf waving tantalizingly around every corner.

And then I was falling. I hit the rock with stunning impact. My vision blurred for a moment, and then cleared as the pain hit me. Iíd landed with my arm at an angle, and it felt badly broken. I rolled over, and saw that far above, the rock had collapsed. Turning my head, I found that I was in a narrow branch of the canyon. To one side, the rock ended in a small conclave, and to the right it opened up onto the shrub land.

I gritted my teeth against the pain, and propped my self up against the wall. A few feet away my rifle lay shattered on the rocks. And I felt fear arc through my chest. Without the rifle, I had no means of defense, not even my pocket knife. I grabbed a hand-sized rock, the pain jolting me with every quick movement.

Then I heard a slight noise, to my right, where the canyon opened up into the shrub land. The wolf loped in, and I was frozen with fear. I was too easy of a target for the predator to ignore!

But it did, and as it trotted calmly pass, I saw a thin wound on its head dripping blood, caused by one of Paulís shots. The wolf disappeared into the cleft, but soon reappeared, another wolf by his side. Both held pups in their mouths.

I watched, more curious than afraid, These two lupines were supposed to be a rancherís worst nightmare: huge, deadly, efficient, and utterly ruthless. They would kill you on sight. Yet, as they paused in the cleft, they handled their young with the utmost care, like a young couple with their first children. They began to pass.

I leaned out to touch one of the animals, fascinated by the dangerous creatures that seemed so caring. But maybe I was disillusioned.

The male set down the pup gently, but swiftly, and rounded on me, teeth bared, snarling and knocked me over. I lost my rock, and fell on my broken arm, face up. I whimpered in pain, and felt the heavy weight of the wolf as it snarled in my face, but for whatever reason, did not strike. This is what the ranchers feared. This was the fabled, furious fiend that haunted their nightmares.

The wolf stooped, sniffed my neck, and then turned around, taking the pup, and began to leave. Shaking, I propped myself up cautiously; shaken, I watched the wolves leave.

As they left, the male turned his gaze back to me, and for a moment, our eyes connected, and I found myself immersed in his golden eyes, and there I saw an everlasting, primitive calm, but also fierce pride that exemplified the power of the animal they belonged to. But there was something else there, a sadness that didnít belong to a creature capable of such grace and prestige, a sadness that I had seen occupying the refugees in the paper.

And then he was gone. Without a sound he had disappeared into the night. I fell back exhausted, pain clouding my mind.

Then, in the distance, I saw Paul, bringing his rifle to his shoulder, to aim. He was hardly twenty yards out from the canyon. He wouldnít miss.

"Paul!" I screamed, pain etching my voice.

He fired, and all was still for a tense moment, and then he dropped his gun, and ran towards me. He had missed.

"Tim!" He cried, true concern giving a grieving edge to his voice. "Tim!" He said again when he saw my arm, broken and twisted underneath me. I saw tears come to his eyes.

"Oh, what have I done?" His voice broke. "Your mother is going to kill me. I should have been more concerned. I heard you fall, and..." his voiced trailed off. "And I just couldnít stop. I wanted them dead, and that was more important to me than my own family. Iím so sorry." He tenderly helped me up.

"Paul," I groaned, "Itís ok. Just donít forget me again." Remembering the pupsí protective father, it hit me, that there was a surprising contrast between Paulís negligence and the wolvesí care.

And in the distance, the family trotted shoulder to shoulder, till they faded out of sight in the moonlight, carrying their young while Paul carried me.