By Shannon Fox
Ira remembered it as the coldest winter in Colorado. It was 1890 and he was just nineteen-years-old. Mr. Courtney Evans, who kept a ranch in the valley below Leadville, had been in need of a ranch hand, with Ira’s predecessor having drowned the previous summer. Mr. Evans had walked into a busy saloon late one afternoon in the early autumn. He’d heard about Ira through an old friend; Ira had spent the previous autumn relaying floorboards in the man’s hotel. He described Ira as an uncomplicated boy, who did his work well and learned quickly. In the saloon, Ira had listened to Mr. Evans’ offer, nursing his afternoon drink. Mr. Evans could afford to pay him well. Attracted by the money, Ira packed up his few possessions from his childhood home in Central City. He said goodbye to Anna Forster, promising to return in the spring with the money for their wedding. He thought of her often during those first weeks on the ranch.
Ira arrived at the ranch in early October. The trees had just begun to turn their harvest golds and reds. Mr. Evans, a long and thin man of about thirty, met Ira at the wooden gate. Besides the barn, in whose loft Ira was to sleep, there was a chicken coop, a large pasture, and the main house where the family lived. Mr. Evans, his wife, and their young daughter, Gemma, kept a small place with a few horses, cows, and chickens. They sold milk and eggs to travelers on the road up to Leadville. During the summers, they went into town and sold directly to the miners. Ira’s primary duties were to care for the animals and make repairs around the property.
Gem was all of eight-years-old, but she had pluck and spirit by the handful. She was growing up tall and straight like her father. Her own mare, a pretty spotted horse named Pala, was one of the four the family kept on the property. Gem rode Pala all over the ranch, often for hours at a time.
“When I’m old enough, I’m gonna ride around hunting outlaws,” Gem declared one afternoon. Ira was resetting a section of rusted barbed wire along the front of the property. From atop Pala, Gem rubbed a free hand on the powdery white bark of an aspen tree. She clapped her hand to Pala’s neck, leaving a white handprint on the pony’s fur. Pala now resembled an Indian war pony.
“I bet your Pa has better plans for you than that,” said Ira. He stood up and stretched.
Gem wrinkled her nose. “He wants me to get married.”
“What’s so bad about getting married?”
“Boys are gross.”
Ira laughed. “Am I gross?”
“You ain’t a boy,” she said. Gem tugged on the reins, forcing Pala’s head up out of the grass, and nudged her in the direction of the thin creek that cut across the ranch.
Ira went back to fixing the fence. When he and Anna had a daughter, he hoped she’d be as spirited as Gem.
The snows came early and hard. The nights routinely plunged into freezing temperatures. It was often so cold that Ira couldn’t sleep. He lay awake in the loft and waited for morning, listening to the soft moos of the cows outside.
Despite the sudden cold and the thick snowdrifts, Gem continued to follow Ira around the ranch. When it was too deep for Pala to move around easily, Gem trudged after him on snowshoes, her rabbit fur coat wrapped around her. Her mother had taken to schooling her in front of the stove after the snow made the road to her school impassable.
As the winter lengthened, Ira saw more and more evidence of starvation amongst the wild animals. Every morning, he saw more and more coyote tracks. Sometimes he discovered the remnants of a kill made during the night, the snow reddened with blood, and spotted with tufts of rabbit fur. But these finds became fewer and farther apart as the months went on. There simply weren’t enough rabbits.
Ira ate breakfast and dinner up at the Evans’ home. When he’d first arrived, Mrs. Evans often made a stew with hot rabbit meat or roasted a wild turkey over the coals. As the months passed, Mr. Evans’ trips to town became more infrequent. They resorted to eating salted meat and other preserved foods. Ira checked the traps every morning and sometimes they were lucky enough to catch a rabbit. But not often.
Ira paused to stomp the snow off his boots before knocking on the Evans’ door, a clump of letters in his other hand. As he waited for someone to open the door, he faced the horse pasture, watching Pala and Mr. Evans’ riding horse groom each other. The sun glinted brightly off the snow and he had to shield his eyes.
“Ira?” Mrs. Evans stood in the doorway, an apron around her waist. She was the opposite of her husband and Gem: squat and heavy.
“I just wanted to add these to the basket you have,” he said, holding up the letters.
She motioned him inside. Gem was sitting in a wooden chair beside the stove, a small slate in her lap and a piece of chalk in hand. She smiled when she saw him.
“Don’t know when we’ll be able to get to town to post these,” Mrs. Evans said, taking Ira’s letters and putting them in the too-full basket. “Hope your family isn’t worrying too much about you.”
“It’s not them I’m worried about,” he said. “It’s my fiancée.”
Mrs. Evans gave him a peculiar sort of look. “That is different then.”
“How many letters did you write Anna this week?” asked Gem, appearing at Ira’s side.
“Go and practice your letters, Gemma,” said Mrs. Evans. To Ira she said, “Are you warm enough in the barn?”
“Let me see if we have an extra wool blanket for you.”
When Mrs. Evans left, Ira turned to Gem, who still staring at him expectantly. “You should do as your mother tells you.”
“She’s not my mother.”
“That’s not a nice thing to say.” Ira frowned.
Gem returned to the chair and picked up the slate and chalk. “She’s not my mother.”
“Then who is?”
“My mother’s dead,” she replied, eyes back on her work. “I like her, but she isn’t my mother.”
Mrs. Evans returned and handed him a thick blanket. “It has a few moth holes in it, but it should keep you warmer.”
Ira thanked her and with a nod at Gem, headed back to the barn.
It was early in January when the large animals began to move down off the mountain. He saw deer and elk tracks where previously he had only seen coyote. Their hooves punched down through the hard crust of the snow. Mr. Evans and Ira spent quite a few days ranging across the game trails, hoping to catch up with the herd and pick off a lone animal.
They had only one success in those early days of 1891. It was growing towards dusk when they heard the bellows of a wounded elk. They found the poor creature lying in the snow, his haunches torn and bloodied. Mr. Evans set the rifle to his shoulder and fired off one clean shot. The animal fell silent.
He was a young buck, with only a year or two of growth on his antlers. Still, he would be enough to feed the four of them for a time. Mr. Evans and Ira heaved him across the back of Ira’s horse. They turned back for the ranch, Mr. Evans riding and Ira walking beside his horse, steadying the cooling body of the elk.
After dinner, Mr. Evans set his pipe between his teeth and lit the tobacco. He took a few reflective puffs. Gem had already been sent to bed despite her protests. Ira didn’t doubt that she was listening upstairs.
“Is it always like this?” asked Ira.
“The winter? About five years ago, they lost whole herds of cattle in Wyoming and Montana. Temperatures like you wouldn’t believe. Froze horses and cows and cowhands where they stood. It keeps snowing here, but the days themselves aren’t too perilous. Even still, I want you to look over the herd. Pick some healthy ones and the ones that’ll fetch a good price next summer. Bring those ones into the barn at night.”
“And the horses?” Ira asked, thinking of Gem.
“They’ll be alright. Wild horses have lived on this land for hundreds of years. They’re tougher than those dairy cows.”
A wolf howled in the distance.
“They’re hungry,” said Mr. Evans, as much to himself as Ira. Both men stood in front of the stove, warming their hands.
“Won’t be long before we see the wolves,” he continued.
“They won’t come here though,” said Ira.
“They will. When they get hungry enough.”
Only once had Ira glimpsed the yellow eyes of a wolf through the trees. The beast had sent a shiver across his skin. What would it be like to come face to face with a pack of them?
“Tomorrow we’ll set out the big traps.” Mr. Evans took a deep puff on the pipe. “Shore up some more barbed wire around the fences. If it gets warmer, we might be able to chop up the ground and build some proper traps for them.”
“What kind of traps?” asked Ira.
“Pit traps. They don’t know the difference. Walk over the top of it and fall in. Skewer themselves on the stakes.”
“Do they work?”
Mr. Evans shrugged. “They’re pretty smart. But you catch a stupid one every now and again. And one less wolf is one less wolf.”
As January drew closer to February, Gem became increasingly sulky. She was frustrated that she couldn’t ride. She brought Pala up to the barn every afternoon and brushed her coat free of mud and ice. The pony was grateful for the rich hay in the barn. Ira could see her bones beginning to poke through her skin, despite the thick coat of hair. All of the animals were hungry, even the ones that were provided for. He thought again of the wolves and shivered.
“When do you think it’ll be spring?” asked Gem.
“Few months maybe,” said Ira. He was checking over some of the older dairy cows. Mr. Evans thought they probably all wouldn’t make it through the winter. The road to town was all, but impenetrable. They were running low on food themselves. As he looked over the cows, Ira had the thought that he was picking out his next meal.
“This winter ain’t never going to end,” Gem said. Her grooming task through, she sat on top of the hay, feeding handfuls to Pala. “It keeps snowing and snowing. It ain’t ever snowed this much before.”
“They all have to someday,” he replied.
“Pa said you saw a wolf print the other morning.”
“I did. It was up at the north end of the property.”
“Think they’ll come down here?”
“I doubt it,” said Ira. “They like easy prey. Not horses or cows.”
“They get elk, though, don’t they?”
“Only the really sick ones. Or the babies. Large animals are usually too much trouble.”
“What would you do if you saw one?” Gem asked. She scratched her pony’s ears.
“Shoot it,” said Ira.
“I wish I knew how to use a gun.”
“You don’t need to know, Gem.”
“How am I going to hunt down outlaws if I don’t know how to use a gun?”
Ira sat down in the hay next to Gem. “Maybe one day your Pa will teach you.”
“He never will.”
She put the end of a hay stalk in her mouth and chewed it, contemplatively. “You could teach me.”
“He’d fire me if he knew I taught you that.”
She shook her head. “He can’t fire you. He needs you.”
“Don’t be so sure,” said Ira.
Ira lay awake the first night after the storm. He couldn’t stop thinking of Anna. Did she still love him? Had she found someone else in his absence? Some days it seemed he would never get home, never get off this farm. He hadn’t seen anyone other than the Evans’ since he’d got to the farm. They were cut off, completely. If the rest of the world were to end and everyone else to die, would they even know?
His musings were interrupted by the eerie howl of a wolf. It was picked up by a second and then a third. They sounded close, much closer than he expected. His heart sped up.
The wolves howled again, louder and closer. They’d changed positions. He sat up, gritting his teeth against the night chill. He slipped his feet into his boots and got his coat and gun.
The few cows in the barn were restless. They mooed plaintively and jostled each other. They smelled the wolves outside.
Ira was almost to the barn door when he heard the whinny. It was like nothing he’d ever heard before. It was filled with so much pain as to be otherworldly. It cut into his bones, calling to some primal part of himself, the cry eliciting compassion as one living being to another.
He hastily lit a lantern and slipped through the barn doors, charging off into the snow towards the sound. The light illuminated his way no more than a few steps ahead. The snow was so frozen, it was as solid as the hard ground far beneath. He ran on it as easily as he did on the earth in the summer.
The wolves howled. They were somewhere in the darkness ahead of him. The animal cried out again, the sound rending the air like a cleaver. A light went on at the house, the glow spilling from the windows.
Ira crossed into the pasture, paused and fired the gun into the night sky. As the noise faded from his ears, he heard the rumbling of horse hooves and the startled moos of the cows. Ira prayed the animals wouldn’t trample him in their panic. The front door to the house banged open.
Upon reaching the other side of the pasture, Ira discovered the wooden fence broken, just as he’d feared. This time, when he heard the cry, it seemed no farther than a few hundred feet ahead of him.
When his lantern finally illuminated the carnage, the image burned itself into his retinas, imprinting itself into his nightmares.
Pala lay on her side, just past the remains of the barbed wire fencing, writhing in the snow. Her intestines were splayed across the rich-red snow, dark and thick like snakes. Her sides heaved with pain, her eyes rolled back, the whites clearly showing in the lantern light. Seeing him, she lifted her head and screamed.
Ira once more set the rifle to his shoulders. He focused on the space between her ears, the spot where just days ago Gemma had scratched the mare with fondness. He pulled the trigger. The sound of the gunshot ricocheted through the still air. When it died away, he could hear Gem calling his name.
“Ira! Ira!” she cried, her voice carrying on the sharp chill of the wind.
It was her voice shouting his name he heard in the night for the rest of the winter, even when she had long fallen silent around him, a state that endured for all the days he remained on the ranch. And her voice he carried back to Central City.
He thought of this now as he found himself face to face with Gem Evans. It had been more than ten years since he’d left the ranch, married Anna, and taken over his father’s store in Central City. Gem had grown up tall and slender. She was a lady now. A flicker of recognition passed between them. Ira opened his mouth to greet her just as he saw her jaw tense. It seemed that time had not elucidated that night, had not cast Ira’s actions into a more favorable light, had not brought the realization that he had done her a great service.
As she stared at him across the counter of the little General Store, her eyes were as flat and dull as river pebbles.
“Two pounds of sugar, please.”
Shannon Fox is a recent graduate of UC-San Diego. Previous publications include Mania Magazine and Hoot. Her work will be featured in an upcoming issue of Prompt Literary Magazine. She was also part of the inaugural editorial staff of UCSD’S translation journal, Alchemy. When not reading writing, or spending time with her horse, she blogs at isleofbooks.wordpress.com.