CALVING is a cruel season in Wyoming. My father always brought the pregnant cows, in their last weeks, up from the far pastures so he could keep an eye on them in case they needed help, but instinct always moved each cow, in her own time, down to the cover of cottonwood trees by the creek. The rare calf would come by daylight and warm weather, but far too many dropped soaking wet from their hundred-degree mothers into subzero air by the dead of night. The first part to freeze was their ears.
In the morning we'd bring the calf up to the barn, if the coyotes didn't find it first, and do what we could to warm it. I'd hold the frosty fur of its ears between the palms of my wool mittens while Dad weighed it and fussed about where to drive the earring spike that would hold its brightly colored ID tag. Eventually, the dead flesh along the crests of the ear would fall away, and I would try hard not to love the calf, because bad ears meant it almost always grew up to be meat.
Our neighbors thought my father daft. They left their cows in the pastures and slept soundly, figuring that the loss of a few calves was simply Nature's way. Life was tough, after all, and a rancher's love for the land didn't mean he had to get sentimental.
Perhaps it was from holding those calves' ears--and the endless kidding from other ranchers that followed--that I learned a sensitivity for all creatures who get caught by the extremes of life's experiences, beast and human alike, and come to think that they need me. But that may be my ego speaking, and instead, those who face the challenges of lifebeyond the edge are the strongest. If I hadn't found my own way to the edge, life might have been quite different for me. I might have had what it took to stay on my parents' ranch, or found myself married up to a neighboring spread, instead of heading off into these other lives of mine. Certainly in my girlhood dreams I never imagined I'd become a geologist, and if anyone had told me I'd make a name for myself as a detective, I'd have laughed in his face. But here I am, footloose Em, making my way looking for rocks and other things that lie hidden.
No matter. It's just that all these thoughts get stuck together--those of calving, and of female needs and instincts, and of trying to make it alone and fly in the face of one's fears--when I think of the time I went looking for Miriam Menken.
She was already dead when I started. Had been for eight months, and I knew that, and at first it was not for her sake but for her daughter Cecelia that I took up the search. To me, Miriam's death put Cecelia out in the night air by herself, with the temperature dropping and the coyotes on the hunt, and she'd be lucky to get out of the whole mess with something as metaphorically simple as frozen ears.
Copyright © 1998 by Sarah Andrews Brown. Excerpt from Bone Hunter © 1999 by Sarah Andrews Brown.