The Dinosaur Hunter

A Novel

Homer Hickam

Thomas Dunne Books


Old Bill Coulter used to say a quiet day in Fillmore County is a temptation to God and sure enough, come sundown after a day of blue skies and fair winds, distant pulses of lightning began to play along the horizon, heralding a big storm on its way. Our barn cats, Rage and Fury, came scratching and begging for entrance, and when I answered the door, they flew past me and disappeared inside. Those old cats weren’t scared of much but when a real thunder thumper was bearing down on us, they seemed to prefer the doubtful safety of my dented old trailer to their sturdy barn. Since I was suspicious of mice under my refrigerator, they were welcome. “Just hold it down, boys,” I admonished them. “This old cowboy needs his sleep.” Which, because of the time of the year, was the unvarnished truth.

Since the heifers had started dropping their calves in March, sleep was a precious thing on the Square C and I sure didn’t plan on losing any shut-eye over bad weather, especially since there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. I shooed the cats off my bunk and climbed under the covers, intent on proving that old saw that cowboys could sleep through anything but a stampede.

The storm hit us around midnight with a flash of lightning and a mighty rumble of thunder. Then came the rain with a steady rattle on the skin of my metallic domicile while more heavenly electricity flew through the air. The next boom of thunder shook the trailer so hard, the door on my little micro wave oven flew open. Rage and Fury jumped up on my bed and hissed at me like it was my fault Montana was trying to kill us. I yelled at the cats and they slunk off while I pulled the covers over my head, doing my best to ignore the storm, which kept banging away. I might have succeeded except the vision of a small, black angus heifer formed in my mind. Some bull had nailed her late when we weren’t looking and she was about to drop her calf. My boss lady had advised me to keep a sharp lookout for trouble. “Every two hours on this one, Mike,” Jeanette Coulter had commanded. “She’s got a small pelvis and that looks to be a big calf.”

Lying there beneath the covers, all nice and cozy, I realized I had failed to check on that little heifer even once, mainly because I’d spent the day focused on Jeanette’s pride and joy, a John Deere tractor, which had thrown a cog. I took an entire minute trying to talk myself out of getting up, but I finally gave in. That almost-mama might be out there in awful pain. I had to check on her, storm or no storm.

The cats watched me from atop the refrigerator while I pulled on my rubber boots and slung on my yellow slicker. “Hold down the fort, boys,” I said, then pushed out into the howling rain and wind. My trailer was slanted down a dirt road about a quarter mile from the main house so by the time I got to what we call the turnaround, I was muddy to my knees, soaked to the bone, and generally miserable. Another way of putting that, I was a cowboy ready to go to work.

I headed over to the holding pen with my fingers crossed that all was well. But it wasn’t. In fact, it was a pretty desperate situation. I allowed myself the pleasure of a string of fine curses, then headed to the house, pounding on the door and yelling for Jeanette to get up. Her bedroom window scraped open and I stepped back off the porch. “What the devil do you, want, Mike?” she called.

I only had a moment, in a flash of lightning, to see that she was naked as a jay. Her breasts were a wondrous sight, even as I stood in the mud of the yard, rain flowing off the curl of my hat like water out of a pitcher. The lightning flash died and before the thunder reached us, I collected myself and yelled, “That little heifer in the pen, her calf’s stuck!”

A bolt from above lit everything up again, and I saw her mixed expression of anger and disappointment. I knew what she was thinking. I should have caught this earlier and she was right. “Chains do?” she demanded.

She was referring to the chain-and-pulley system in our barn that we used to pull a stuck calf out. I waited for another rumble of thunder to finish, then yelled up the bad news, “Gotta cut her, I think.”

Jeanette stared at me for a long second, then said, “All right, Mike. Get her in the surgery,” and then slammed shut the window, cutting off the finest view I’d had of her in the ten years I’d worked on the Square C.

I headed for the holding pen. By then, the heifer was down in the mud, breathing hard. My heart went out to her, poor thing. She had always been an outsider to the herd, standing alone most of the time, feeding on the hay left over after the other cows had their fill. Now she was in trouble, big trouble, her calf jammed in her birth canal, a situation, which would kill them both if we didn’t do something about it damn quick.

I heard Ray Coulter calling my name. Ray’s a good kid. Seventeen years old, tall like his daddy with fine features like his mother, smart as paint and a hard worker, too. There aren’t too many places left where they make them like our local boys and girls. By the time they’re eight years old, they can ride a horse and drive a tractor, crack open the block of a truck engine, and shoot a rifle or a handgun and hit what they’re aiming at. They respect their elders, too, even when we don’t deserve it.

“Over here, Ray,” I called back.

Before he could get to me, Ray slipped in the cold wet swamp of the holding pen and went down hard in the mud and manure. If that had happened to me, I’d have turned the air blue with some elaborate cussing, but not Ray. He just picked himself up and made his way on over. Like I said, a good kid. A ranch kid.

By then, it was a wild scene in the corral, the rain roaring and the thunder hammering and the lightning strobing us in stuttering blue-white flashes. “Help me get her up!” I yelled, trying not to sound too hysterical. Together, we grappled with the heifer, both of us going down a couple of times before we finally got her on her feet. She stood there trembling, her mouth foamy with drool, her eyes rolling, and her nose flared. All bad signs. Then she started to moan. “She’s trying to push her calf out,” Ray said.

“Well, she can’t,” I replied. “And I don’t think chains are gonna work, either.”

“A C-section, Mike?” I saw his eyes light up. “I’ve never seen one of those!”

“Well, Ray, I think tonight’s your lucky night. Your mom’s probably already waiting for us.”

Ray and I pushed and pulled the heifer through the double doors that led to the surgery, then clamped her neck in a steel rail catch. This, of course, didn’t make her happy, and she rattled the walls with panicky squalls. I kept talking soothing cow talk to her but she wasn’t much consoled. Cows are smart. She was in trouble, she knew it, and she doubted a couple of idiots like me and Ray were going to get her out of it. Truth was we couldn’t. Only Jeanette could and the operation she was about to perform in that cold, concrete room didn’t allow much error. I didn’t know another rancher in Fillmore County who would attempt what she was about to do. But then, they’re not Jeanette Coulter.

Jeanette was in her green scrubs. She finished washing at the sink and gave me and Ray the once-over. “Well? I can’t do a thing, you two covered in gumbo and cow shit! Get yourself over to the sink and wash up!”

Ray and I slunk past her, stripped off our rain gear and shirts, scrubbed our hands, faces, and upper torsos, then pulled on clean white T-shirts that were kept in a cabinet beside the sink for just that purpose. Jeanette watched us, then said, “Not that I don’t trust you, Mike, but we’re gonna check this little mama before I cut her. Ray, you do it.”

I confess I was grateful that she’d picked Ray over me. Pushing my hand up inside an expectant mama cow isn’t exactly my favorite thing to do. But Ray smiled like his mom had done him a favor, got out the K-Y, and ran his arm up to his shoulder.

When Ray did his duty, I made certain I was a good piece away from that heifer’s head. I saw a cowboy lean in close to a cow’s head one time, just to scratch her ears while the vet was inserting his hand in the other end, and he got his clock cleaned for his trouble. Three cowboy teeth went flying and everybody, including the vet, laughed out loud. Even the cowboy grinned, showing the big, bloody gap in his teeth. “You gonna buy me thum new teeth, bossth?” he asked before spitting blood. The boss rancher provided a long stare at his employee before replying “Nope,” and he didn’t, either.

“Calf’s backward, Mom,” Ray reported. “Its legs are all tangled up, too.”

Jeanette pressed two fingers to her forehead, closed her eyes, then shot me a look like it was all my fault, which I guess it was, me and that damned bull. “All right, looks like we got to do this thing. Mike, you set me up. Ray, you shave. I’ll do the epidural.”

Ray got to work with the electric razor, and I set out the hemostats, scalpels, needles, and sutures our surgeon would need. When Ray was finished, I applied antiseptic over the shaved area. By then, Jeanette was done with the epidural and the little mama’s legs were quivering. I released the catch and Ray and I did our best to let the cow down easy. “You hold her, Ray,” Jeanette ordered. “Mike, you get over here and help me.”

I took up station beside Jeanette. When she glanced at me, I gave her a reassuring smile, which earned me a full-bore, Jeanette Coulter frown. She turned back to the heifer and cut decisively. “Lidocaine,” she ordered and I squirted it in, numbing the separated tissue. She cut deeper, a spray of blood erupting from the wound. I patted the droplets off her face with a damp cloth while she applied a hemostat to the bleeder. When she took up the scalpel again, she cut delicately into the muslin-thin wall of the uterus with her reward being a pair of black hooves that pushed through the opening. “Get it, boys,” she ordered and Ray and I immediately complied, lifting out the slippery calf and swinging it clear. It had to weigh at least a hundred pounds, a lot of calf for such a small cow.

“Looks to be a heifer,” Ray reported.

“Wipe the mucous off its face before it suffocates,” Jeanette ordered. “Then get some burlap and clean her up. Mike, you get back over here and let’s get this little mama sewed back together.”

While she sutured, I sprayed antiseptic. “Don’t drown her, for gosh sake,” she scolded after I got a little too enthusiastic.

The uterus stitched, Jeanette took up a bigger needle with a thicker gut and began to lace up the hide. When she was half-finished, she said, “Ray, why don’t you put in a few sutures? Try to do it like you saw me. Not deep, just catch the hide.”

Ray eagerly came over and took up the needle. Jeanette inspected his work and said, “Not bad,” which was high praise from her. She took the needle back, finished sewing, tied the thread off, and announced the end of the operation, saying, “Let’s see if she’ll get up. Mike, go give her a nudge.”

Imagine a doc expecting a human female to stand up after a C-section! But Jeanette knew if the cow didn’t get up, it would die. I knelt beside the fresh new mama and nudged her but she didn’t take the hint. For a minute or so, she just laid there, looking dazed, but then something clicked in her brain and she suddenly got up on her own, staggered a little, her eyes wide and glittery. She looked at me, then at Ray, then at Jeanette, and then started bawling. “She wants her calf,” I said.

Jeanette was stripping off her gloves. “Then let her have it. Put them in one of the stalls. We’ll let them have a night in the barn. And make sure there’s plenty of water. She’s gonna be thirsty. Come on you guys. Stop grinning and get moving. I got to clean up in here.”

I checked my watch. It had been a little over two hours since I had yelled up at Jeanette as she stood in the window. Nude. That was a hard image to get out of my head. Anyway, she was both a fast and good surgeon. She was also a damn fine boss. I was in love with her, of course, but I wasn’t about to let her know that. Too many complications and, anyway, I knew she was never going to get over old Bill even though his ashes had been scattered across the ranch five years ago. Heart attack. At the funeral, a cowboy who’d once worked on the Square C confided to me he was surprised Bill had a heart. Well, he had one and still did. Jeanette’s.

Ray and I shepherded mother and child into the barn, picked an empty stall, got them in it, and it didn’t take two seconds before the calf was suckling the heifer’s teats, a very good sign. I tagged the calf’s ear and Ray gave it its shots. When Jeanette came into the barn, we were putting everything up. She said, “Ray, you get back to bed. Did you finish your homework?”

“Yes ma’am, but it’s gonna be hard getting to school with all this rain.”

“We’ll see about that. Mike, I guess I’m done with you.”

Ray pulled on his coat and went out. I went back into the surgery and got my slicker. I knew Jeanette wasn’t going anywhere. She would spend the night with the heifer and the newborn, just to make sure they were OK. “Well, good night, what’s left of it,” I said as I passed her.

“You were supposed to check that heifer every two hours,” she said to my back.

I stopped but I didn’t turn around. “Yeah. Guess I got distracted working on your tractor.”

“Cows come first on the Square C, Mike.”

Jeanette had me dead to rights and there was nothing I could say so I just nodded and went on outside. The rain had stopped, but there were still distant pulses of lightning, enough to light up my way as I carefully slogged through the mud to my trailer. I kicked off my galoshes at the door, shucked off the slicker and wet clothes, and crawled beneath the blankets on my narrow bunk. There was no sign of the cats. A few hours later, when I woke, it was just starting to get bright outside and a glance out my window told me the storm was done. I could even make out some stars. Montana weather can do that, turn on a dime and leave you nine cents change.

We’d saved the heifer and her calf, I had seen Jeanette naked from the waist up, Ray had gotten to see a C-section, and Montana had scared us all half to death but hadn’t managed to kill us. I was content but that was because I didn’t know a young man was on his way to us, bringing with him a knowledge of the astonishing creatures that had once walked our land and an ancient and present reality I knew all too well called murder.

THE DINOSAUR HUNTER Copyright © 2010 by Solomon Jones