It’d been several months since Frank Colville and his wife, Lynn, moved to Missoula and settled in their new home. Both sat in their living room, he in his recliner, she on the rug in the middle of the wooden floor with a giggling granddaughter reaching toward a toy giraffe that she held in-between her outstretched legs. The smell of baked chicken, cornbread, and sprouts emanated from the kitchen where his son and daughter-in-law cooked the Sunday dinner they had offered to come over and make-- all of this after Frank and Lynn had attended service, walked along the Clark Fork River, and watched the Bronco’s game.
Outside the widow, the sun descended beneath the blunted tops of the distant mountains, and in their yard, oak and maple burned with color. It was, in every way, a beautiful fall day, Frank thought, as light filtered between the blinds and streaked across his brow. And yet, he remained troubled. There was a feeling he had carried all his ranching life, and most strongly on that day, a premonition, that either something deep in his own mind or the haunted landscape itself had finally given shape to in the pitiful image of that boy, slumped dead on his range.
They had had a tough winter that year, last year, even by the Front’s standards. The temperatures plummeted, the snow piled up, and characteristically, the clouds, as though trapped, would grow to such monumental proportions behind the Rocky Mountains that there seemed one continuous wall extending from the earth to the heavens until the wind’s terrific roar broke them free and swept massive drifts across the plains. It was just after such a day, in the icy stillness that followed, that Frank heard the wolf, its long and solitary howl issuing from a void.
“I’m going to check on the cattle,” he told Lynn, who simply smiled from the kitchen where she was cleaning up after supper. Frank put on his riding boots over his thick wool socks, his quilt lined Carhart over long underwear, his felt cowboy hat over fine, grey hair. He took his Winchester .308 from the cabinet, opened the lever to check the chamber, and loaded several rounds. Finally, he opened the door to cross the threshold between his home and the immensity beyond and was nearly blinded by the sun shining directly over the mountains.
Frank pulled his brim down, zipped his coat to the collar, and put on the gloves from inside its pockets. He walked to the barn, saddled and bridled his horse, led the horse from the barn, out of the corral and mounted. With a thrust forward in the saddle, he started the horse toward the mountains, toward a pine grove beneath them where the cattle bedded down, and to there he rode for over a mile, frost numbing his cheeks, breath condensing each time he exhaled.
Along the way he imagined the first settler on these parts, a man who, inspired by the Homestead Act, had driven his team of mules to these reaches in search of the paradisal plains he’d read of in the eastern papers, and instead, encountered the same wall that had caused Lewis and Clark to despair. So, forced to end his journey, he rode out his first winter there, sleeping beneath his wagon, using his furniture for fire, and eating those mules for food. This according to Frank’s grandpa, who bought the parcel of land from the man’s son, as well as several surrounding parcels, which was the only way he could make a successful ranching operation of it. And so it was, and so it was passed down, grandfather to father, father to son, and destined to stop there, for Frank’s own son had pioneered his way to the university in Missoula on a rodeo scholarship, and after meeting his future wife, determined to remain.
But, there was something else in that landscape too, the shades of Blackfeet warriors moving across the earth on powerful horses carrying buffalo lances, bows, and shields, these royal knights of the plains in barbaric regalia, inciting both awe and terror. He could see their slow departure from the land in the clouds’ giant projections upon the ground. He could hear their voices’ ancient timbres in the wind, a low and sullen murmur.
Frank’s horse startled. He patted her on the neck, pulled his rifle from the scabbard on her side, and brought the scope to his eye. The cattle had congregated to the northern edge of the pine grove. A few stood in the open hoofing the ground for life beneath the frozen surface. Frank glassed toward the south but only found dark between the trees. He dropped the rifle, pressed the horse slowly on, and squinted against the sun, as it now eclipsed the mountain tops. There was something.
Frank caught the wolf in his periphery and again raised the scope in time to see it fully emerge from the tree line, its body thick in winter coat, its blue eyes, portals to a world he could never imagine. Together, they stood locked in a gaze, frozen in an eternal moment. And for some reason, for all the wolves Frank had shot, he could not bring himself to pull the trigger on this one. He couldn’t even bring himself to put the crosshairs where they needed to be. The horse turned, Frank’s sight dipped, and when he raised it again, the wolf was gone.
Frank kicked the horse into a trot and dismounted at the pines grove’s edge where he picked up the wolf’s tracks. He tied the horse off to a tree, and rifle at the ready, followed the tracks in, pushing past limbs, further and further until he spotted an opening. He stopped. A raven cawed and flew past with a wild beating of wings. There, the tracks left off. There, the image appeared before him, a dark indistinct mass contrasted against the light flooding through the canopy. And the closer he crept, the more it became clear. It was the boy.
The boy was leaned against the tree wearing only a long sleeve shirt, basketball shorts, basketball shoes. He was frozen dead. And though, there weren’t any tracks to indicate where he’d come from, as they’d blown away, it was clear. He’d come from the little community on the reservation, nearly eight miles away. Frank removed his hat and said a prayer, took off his coat and gently wrapped the boy in it. He noted that no animal had touched him.
Getting the boy onto the horse was not easy. Not at Frank’s age. At over 150 pounds and stiff as the boy was, Frank struggled to drag him out of the clearing, and the whole time he felt remorse for his inability to exercise the proper respect and care he thought the body deserved, as he stumbled over the trees and snagged on their branches. But, he made it out and thus began the even more exhausting task of lifting the boy onto the horse—a task he only believed was made possible by God’s grace.
With the boy across the saddle, Frank was forced to walk back, leading the horse by the reigns. By the time he was ready, the sun had all but set, and the first stars had dotted the sky. While walking, the sweat that had dampened his body during the heated struggle began to freeze. He tried to control his shivering, but this only seemed to make him break out in even worse fits, to the point he felt might lose all control and sink to his knees to suffer the boy’s same fate. “Good, God,” He said beneath his breath without thinking, then after several more steps forward, he repeated the phrase louder, almost questioning it, and searched the sky.
The Milky Way now spread from horizon to horizon, the great glowing spectacle of it indicating every act great and small, from that vast firmament’s creation in all its explosive glory and power to him trembling on the precipice between life and death. All of it, he thought, amounted to this. The boy there, me here, and the light of our home in the distance. He had no control over any of it. And considering this, he felt something in the center of his being shift.
When he reached his home, he dismounted and took one step inside, removed his hat, and asked his wife to call Jim, the Pondera County Sherriff. She didn’t need to hear him speak to know that something was terribly wrong. The next day the heard they identified the boy and his family. But what had caused him to run away like that, into that blinding cold oblivion, that he would never know for sure. Maybe, he had simply wandered out and gotten lost, Lynn had said. “Maybe so,” Frank replied. And in that same conversation, they decided yes, it was time for them to sell the property and move.
Frank, Lynn, their son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter all sat around the table. After grace, they passed the food around. Lynn insisted on feeding the baby. Jake related the news from his business, that it was going “well enough,” but Sarah was looking at a promotion. Now, they were only trying to decide on a new vehicle. Of course, he wanted a truck, but that wasn’t practical, she said, not for around here, not if they had another kid. Frank observed it all silently. He noticed his son’s red cheeks, and he noticed every time he refilled his glass.