He crouched over the carcass of the young calf and studied the story of its short life. JD stayed close, anxious to learn what Vin could tell him about tracking the killer.
"Well, it wasn't a cougar, JD."
"Look at those prints, Vin; it's gotta be."
"Those are cat prints all right, but it wasn't a cat. It was a wolf. Cat probably run the wolf off his kill. And you probably run the cat off his meal." He looked up at JD and smiled.
"How can you tell?" JD scrunched down in the dirt beside him.
"Cats kill by bitin' on the top of the neck--from above. Wolves grab 'em by the throat."
"Just doin' what he's got to survive."
"Can you catch him, Vin?" Nettie asked. "I reckon I'm lucky they didn't get the cow, too, but I don't know what we're gonna do, losin' her calf like this. And my neighbor's have lost calves, too."
"There's not a pack, Nettie. And that's good. This one's probably hurt his leg. He's got a funny gait, only puts that right hind down every few strides. So, yep, I guess we can git him. If he's hurt he's gonna be lookin for more easy meals like this."
Vin stood up and stretched. "Leave the carcass here. I can get a trap set and bring it out later on. He'll probably come back to see if the cat left anything. We'll have to hope the cougar doesn't get any ideas about making cattle a regular meal."
Nettie nodded, and JD helped Casey and her aunt into the wagon. "We'll be fine, if you boys are going back to town."
Vin and JD nodded and mounted their horses. "We'll stop out later when I get the traps set, OK?"
Nettie nodded and turned the team towards the homestead.
As they rode off, JD had more questions for Vin.
"How do you know there isn't a pack?"
"This wolf is different from the rest of the pack. He's hurtin'. He costs the pack more to feed than what he can help with feedin the rest of 'em. Maybe he got shot, or hurt in the hunt, I don't know. Sometimes they kill one that's different. Sometimes they just run 'em off."
"Kinda like people, aren't they?"
"Just like people, JD; just like 'em."
Later that afternoon, as Vin bartered for the right size trap from Mrs. Potter, JD excitedly told the other men what Vin had tried to teach him.
"He says this one's different from the others cause he's hurt. So he can't be in a pack any more. And he's having trouble hunting, so he killed the calf. We're going to go set a trap for him, else he'll probably kill again."
Josiah listened with interest to what JD said. "And Vin is going to kill this wolf, then?"
"Yep. And there's a bounty on wolves, too, so he'll get paid for it!"
"Did he tell you that?" Josiah asked.
"Well, no, but there is. I think it's $20. And he'll still have the traps, so he can keep trapping more."
"I wouldn't count on that, JD. Just this one, that's all." Vin had come in on the last of the conversation as he exited the store.
Vin didn't answer, just walked away carrying the number 6 traps towards the livery.
When the traps were arranged to his satisfaction around the dead calf, Vin begin to dig and set the stakes that would hold the traps in place. JD was still there, right by his side, studying every move he made. It had started to annoy Vin earlier in the day, but by now it was rubbing him raw.
"Get outa my way, JD!"
He had never heard Vin Tanner lose his temper with anyone like that; it startled JD and he stepped back and fell silent. He watched Vin dig in the stakes, and dust sand and dirt over the trap pans. He watched while Vin sliced the carcass open a little more and spread the entrails between the set. Finally, he watched as Vin sat back and studied his work. The tracker looked up the ridge and watched the treeline. Then he did an odd thing. After all his work, he cut a small piece of fringe off his jacket, rubbed it between his hands and threw it down on the ground near the set. JD couldn't resist.
"What's that for?" he asked quietly.
Vin shrugged. "Just tellin him I been here."
And he looked back at JD and jerked his head towards town. "Come on Kid, let's go."
Even before dawn the next morning, Vin Tanner was walking into the livery to get his horse. Surprised, he found Josiahs horse saddled and ready, and Josiah dozing in the straw in front of the box stall where he kept his horse.
"You goin' somewhere's Josiah?"
"Thought you could use a little company. You're out pretty early, aren't you?"
"Figgered maybe I could get away without JD."
Josiah nodded and smiled. Then he swung into the saddle and waited for Vin.
A few miles out, Vin reined in his gelding and looked into the trees. He sighed.
'Are we close?" Josiah asked quietly.
Vin nodded. 'Just the other side of those trees. He's caught."
"Can you see him?" Josiah couldn't see a thing in the half light, but he wouldn't have been surprised if Vin was seeing something he had missed.
"Nope. I can feel him."
Josiah turned to look at the tracker. Even in the shadows of dawn, the sadness was unmistakable. He didn;t move. The preacher waited a few moments, but he had the feeling Vin was rooted to the spot. Finally, he spurred his horse forward towards the trees that Vin had indicated. Reluctantly, Vin followed. And sure enough, when he crested a small rise and came through the trees, his horse started at the smell of the wolf in the trap.
The two men dismounted and watched the wolf, who uttered a deep growl and dragged the trap back away from them as far as he could reach. The stake held fast.
"Raggedy ass little wolf to be causin so much trouble, ain't he?" Vin asked quietly.
"To truly see beauty, one must not only open one's eyes, but one's heart."
Vin shot him a look of bitterness. "What the hell's that s'posed to mean. It's just a wolf, Josiah!" He shouldered his rifle and sighted on the wolf from the few yards that separated them. But he didn't fire.
He lowered the gun and looked at the preacher questioningly.
"I'll do it."
He shook his head. Turned back to the silver shadow that laid there in front of him, the shadow whose eyes never left his. And raised his rifle and fired.
When they returned later that morning, JD intercepted them as soon as they rode into town.
"Did you catch him? Bring his ears?"
Josiah took JD by the arm and redirected him away from Vin. From the boardwalk, Chris heard Josiah speak softly but firmly.
"The wolf is dead, JD. Vin isn't collecting any bounty on it. And that is the end of it, understand?"
Chris looked back towards Vin, who pulled a set of traps off his shoulder and dropped them in a pile of metal next to the smithy's forge. Then he headed towards the saloon. Chris, JD and Josiah all followed.
Inez set a bottle on the table and a glass in front of each of them. Chris poured. Vin turned the glass slowly back and forth in his fingers, finally holding it up so that the light coming through the doors reflected the amber liquid. Chris and JD both mistakenly thought he was raising a toast, and they lifted their glasses to him. But Josiah knew what it was Vin saw. The drink in the glass was the exact same color as wolf's eyes, in the breaking dawn, right before Vin killed him.
"Wolves remind us that we find life, take life, and live life neither in the barren black forest nor on the flawless white plain, but, rather, the tracked gray hillside where dark blood weeps into white snow and leaves a trail of red."---Renee Askins, founder of the Wolf Fund, which closed on March 21, 1995, when the gate was opened and the first wild wolf in 60 years ran free in Yellowstone Park.
-- dedicated to my friend -- Four Socks
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