It was her leg I saw first, her hip. She was kinda half-layin on her side, twisted at her middle. Her skin what caught my eye: White like the belly of a deer. I remember thinkin it was a deer, in fact. Thought to myself: Probably got clipped on the highway and only could get but that far before it died, likely headed for the crick just behind that field where it was layin.
But then I could see it wasn’t no deer belly. I could see it was a leg. Then I could see she was layin half out of the tall grass, so the top of her body was still hidden. Only her legs stickin out. Then I could see she didn’t have no clothes on. And then I could see she was dead. Had been two days, my best guess. Up close like that I could see a sort of blue on her skin, figured from the cold last night. Might’n have been cold for you in town, but it was damn cold out there.
You notice anything else?
Yessir, I did. Her stomach was balloonin out and her eyes were blank. The color of em had gone out, and I didn’t know that happened when people died.
Mm hm. How many times would you say you been on that property?
Hell, I don’t know I can say just now.
More than ten times?
More’n ten, yessir.
Could be fifty times. Wouldn’t be much over fifty, don’t think.
And you hadn’t seen the deceased out there before that morning you found her, is that right?
Yessir, that’s right. Never seen that poor girl before in my life.
In all your time around them old mines, you ever see anything else out of the ordinary?
I can’t say what you think to be ordinary or not ordinary. But, yessir. I seen some things here and there that I prolly shoulda made mention of, and likely would’ve had I not seen them on account of my own law-breakin.
Well first thing come to mind is them calfs I seen. I don’t believe them fields surroundin the adits is used for cattle grazin, could be wrong, but bein that it’s private property I figured they weren’t sharin it with ranchers.
Anyway, there’s one time I was out there and came up on a calf been shot. But it wasn’t dead yet. Whoever shot it did so in the calf’s hindquarters, and death was a while off it yet. I watched it through my binoculars awhile, digging at the ground with its forelegs, tryin to work itself across an open field. I was sittin up against the tree line waitin for it to get dark, especially since I didn’t know how long ago it’d been shot, and whoever did the shootin might’ve been near me. But even at a distance I could see that injury would’nt’ve killed it.
When you say calf…
I mean bovine. Angus.
After dark I finally went to it and ran my Bowie across its throat. It looked at me wide-eyed, you know the way they do, especially the babies, but it didn’t fight me any. I think maybe it knew what I was. Seemed to be the most I coulda done for it.
You might be right about that.
I left after that. Went home. Didn’t even take nothin that night.
I can’t say why somebody’d shoot a calf and just leave it like that. I always reasoned some rancher’s herd musta wandered onto their lot, and somebody just took to target practice at em. Don’t know no other way to explain it.
Hell, that was twenty-odd years ago, and it still burns me up. Just wanton cruelty. Some men just like that, I guess.
That’s a fact. You mentioned calves before. Plural.
Yessir, there’s one other time I saw a calf on that property, this one years later than the first. It was winter, early winter but damn cold already. I was comin down that crick bank that runs through them fields and this calf laid frozen at the water’s edge on the side opposite me, its hind legs still in the few inches of crick water at the edge, turned by then to ice. I’d been countin snows since the first one of the year fell that September, so I know a few snows had fallen on the carcass, melted some, and then fell again, and the calf’s body was disappearin under all that heavy snow. It looked like it just laid there to take a rest while winter caught up to it, like that calf didn’t know winter was comin, but there it was, sneakin in in the middle of the night.
The calf was born to a world unforgivin and relentless, and that stab of cold, likely its first winter, proved more than the young animal could withstand. It laid there, likely numb and confused, lost without its mother, who all the while musta been searchin for her young blindly in the snow. I been in snow like that many a-times, like white paint over your eyes.
That calf didn’t know it would be like that, life on this earth. Hadn’t a clue what it was it’d signed on for. That one there hit its limit right early, and it gave in. It let winter have its way, while the ones more resolute walked out from that river’s edge.
You notice any ear tags on either of them?
No, I can’t remember seein any tags or marks on em. It is funny though, the personalities of them two. One of em strong-willed enough to get shot and try to keep goin, and the other just layin there and lettin itself go like that with no fight to it. Like two sides of the same coin, so to speak. Never thought about em together that way.
But you never saw any other men out there with you.
No sir. I tried to plan it so I wouldn’t come across none, ya see. I know the companies own the mines hire them security teams to watch at night, but they mostly get boys from out of town who don’t know the hills like I do. They’re pretty easy to get past. You been around as long as I been around, and you learn when to hide and when to move.
Look, I see you writin down what I say and I can guess that you prolly got lots of questions for me, and I want to help ya best I can, but I truly only just saw the girl there. I know I put myself in this jackpot. I coulda spent the rest of my life stealin like I was, but I couldn’t let her go out there, even if it does mean I’m locked up for it. I got a daughter myself and can’t imagine if that was her layin out there like that, frozen and naked.
All right. I think I have enough to work with for now. Why don’t we revisit this later then?
Thank you. Can I ask you a question?
You know who she is?
Yes. We were able to identify her.
She that girl went missin a few months back?
I can’t really say, but that’s what we’re thinking, yes.
I kinda thought it mighta been. She’s how old?
My God, sixteen. Just babies.
C’mon. Let me take you back to your cell.
Kevin Wayne Zerbe is a writer, photographer, and ecologist. His work is the welcomed burden of flowing water, cold hands, conservator of natal streams. His dedication to the conservation of natural resources informs all he does. The bodies of he and his wife are lost now in a megalopolis, but their souls roam the hidden valleys of the Northern Rockies.
Twitter: @kwzerbe Website: kevinwaynezerbe.com