Bewildering Stories

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Country Matters

part 1

by Beverly Forehand

Used to be that we didn’t have much trouble with our flocks around here. Sure, we’d lose a sheep or two to the winter, or falling down a ravine, or sometimes even to wild dogs. But nothing like this. Nobody’s seen anything like this since the times of my great-grandfather, maybe even further back than that and I’m not a spring chicken these days. Last month I lost three lambs to the wolves. Doesn’t seem like too much, but I only have a few hundred. Lose three or four each month and you’ve lost close to fifty by the year’s end.

And I’m not the only one. Ranchers up and down this valley have been complaining. Nothing much to be done apparently. Can’t shoot ’em, can’t trap for the things... besides trapping would catch as many lambs as wolves I guess. Sheep aren’t the smartest animals on this earth, but the still don’t deserve to be torn apart by wolves. Fencing doesn’t do much good either. Wolves are smart as dogs — smarter maybe. They can slink under a fence quick as anything.

I was in a pickle. I’d tried watching the sheep more, but it’s hard work and I don’t really have the manpower. I tried getting more dogs, but dogs aren’t stupid and any self-respecting dog’ll take off with a wolf pack on its heels. But a neighbor of mine said to try the Old Culley Place. Swore by it, he did. Said the Old Woman’d given him a remedy a few years ago that kept the wolves off his place since then. I can’t say I believed it. I mean, witches, in these days. Seems like something out of an old movie or a fairytale. We have satellite and John Deeres around here. And though some say the Almanac’s one step above witchery, well, I still buy one every year. Though, it’s more fluff than it was in the past. Too may ads now and all that flower gardening nonsense. Anyway, I was at my rope’s end, so I figured, what’s the harm in seeing.

Now, the Old Culley Place is not so easy to get to. You can take the state highway up to Grange Road, but once you hit it, you’re on pure dirt and gravel. That’s bad enough on sunny days, but in the mud or snow, it’s a job even for a four wheel drive. Of course, the Old Woman wouldn’t care, I figured. She never went anywhere that I knew of. She had her groceries delivered in bulk from town. Let the delivery trucks and UPS hassle with that horrible road, I guess was her thought. She was the Old Woman when I was a boy, and it’s been years since I was called anything except Old Farmer Craig or Old Man Craig.

Well, anyway, I got my dog, Clover — I don’t go anywhere without her — and fired up the truck for a day trip. Figured I might hit the Co-op on the way back through town. I’d heard they had some new hybrid seeds that were worth having. Anyway, me and Clover hitched in and made the drive in less than 2 hours — most of it spent navigating pot-holes on Grange Road.

It wasn’t even lunch yet when we saw the Old Culley Place looming up ahead. Old Miss Culley was always known for a cook, and I was hoping for something to eat, I don’t mind telling you. Driving in dust is hard work. So, it was a more than welcome sight to to see the old farmstead, neat and as kept as it was when I was a boy. The flower beds even looked good — if you care for that kind of thing. And I always liked these better than most laid out wild as they were and not in neat little rows like the houses in town. I could smell lavender and rosemary on the air, which is better than red dust any day.

The barn lay off to the side and I could see a couple of old cows lazing about. Miss Culley never kept much stock — just a few cows and a fat old horse that I doubt ever saw a plow or a saddle in his life. She kept cats though, by the hundred, I’d say — well, at least a dozen, and there were always half a dozen dogs. Big dogs. I asked what they were once, there’s nothing like them around here. And she told me they were Irish Wolfhounds. She brought them in as pups and generation after generation they loped around the place, big as ponies.

Now, if you ever drive up to the Culley Place, the first thing you usually see, besides all those cats and the giant dogs, is Miss Culley herself, sitting on the porch, knitting or shelling peas, or doing one of the things that old women do on hot, dry summer days. But no one was on the porch when I drove up and that gave me a bad feeling. Old folks die. And Miss Culley couldn’t be less than a hundred by my reckoning.

I stopped the car and gave the horn a tap before me and Clover got out. Those big dogs perked up their ears, but they didn’t look like they minded us about so I climbed down and hoisted Clover out behind me. Right away, Clover crinkled her nose up and let out a low growl. Warning growl’s what I call it. She lifted her head twice like she was tasting the wind and hopped back in the cab. “Come on, Clov,” I coaxed. But she let out a huff like she was annoyed and edged back toward the window. I rolled down the window on my door. “Suit yourself,” I said, “I reckon you’ll come out quick enough if it gets hot.” But Clover lay down on the seat keeping one eye on the door of the Culley Place.

I closed the door behind me and yelled out, “Miss Culley?” But no one seemed to hear me but the dogs. One of them got up and padded over to give me a sniff and then lay back down.

I started up to the house and opened the screen door, but before I could give the door a big knock, it came flying open. I nearly tripped into the room I was so surprised. A tall girl was standing there in a yellow tee shirt and jeans. Her red hair was twisted up on top of her head and little strands of it fell around her face. She was wiping her hands on a dishtowel and leaning on the doorframe impatiently.

“Well,” she said, “What do you want?” sounding for all the world like Miss Culley.

I pulled my ball cap off real fast, “I was looking for Miss Culley,” I said.

“Well, you found her,” said the girl, flinging the dishtowel onto the sofa behind her, “I guess you’d better come on in.”

I stepped inside the room, hat still in hand. “Actually,” I said, “I was looking for Old Miss Culley.”

“Oh,” she said smiling, “Well, she’s not about today. Maybe there’s something I can help you with? I’m taking care of things while she’s gone.”

I looked around the room. It looked the same as I remembered. Drying herbs lined the ceiling on neat string lines. An afghan was thrown in the corner with two fat gray tabbies lounging on it. I could smell something sweet and full of vanilla baking in the other room.

Seeing my nose lift, she asked, “Want tea cakes? They’re just coming out of the oven.”

“I can’t stay long,” I said, “I’ve got my dog, Clover in the truck and it’s a hot day.”

“Wouldn’t budge, would she?” she asked walking into the kitchen. I followed. She opened the over, an old cast-iron contraption, with use stains around the burners. “Well,” she said, lifting the tea cakes out of the oven, “I reckon she’ll come out if she gets hot enough. The other dogs don’t mind.”

“No,” I said, “Miss Culley’s dogs have always been friendly enough to strangers, dog or man.”

She put the cookies down on the table after she had spread a dishtowel to shield the linoleum top. Using a big iron knife, she cut apart the cookies that had grown into one another. “So,” she said, “What is it you came here for?”

I twisted my hat, “You’ll think it’s silly, a young girl like you’d probably laugh at country superstitions, but... well, a friend of mine said that Miss Culley helped him with a wolf problem.”

The girl looked up eyes flashing, “Wolves, is it?” she said, “I suppose you want them killed.”

“Not really,” I said, “I don’t mind them so much, only I want them to stop killing my sheep and move off somewheres else.”

“Wolves kill sheep,” she said flatly, “If I get them to move off your property, they’ll only be hassling someone else. A wolf’s got to eat, don’t he?”

I nodded. “I reckon a wolf’s got to eat same as anything else, but I’d rather he eat something besides my sheep.”

She smiled. “Well, maybe I can do something about that after all.” She put down the knife and slide the hot cookie tray into the sink. The sudsy water made a low hissing sound. “There’s several things, actually, that might work,” she said. She reached into a drawer and pulled out some dried herbs in small vacuum sealed bags. “If you have a little problem, you might want to use a deterrent — something like wolf’s bane — aconite’s its Latin name. They don’t like the smell of it. You might tray scattering some of it dried, but it’s better to grow it fresh. Course, that won’t stop something hungry. That just stops a browser, someone interested in taking a look.”

She put the herbs down on the counter. “For hungry wolves, you need something strong, something fierce as they are.” She squatted down and pulled open a low cabinet. There were several big jars all sealed with wax and labelled. She pulled out a big one with a clear yellow liquid in it. “This is from the zoo. A friend of mine gets it for me and I don’t ask how. Smells something awful,” she said wrinkling her nose.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Tiger pee,” she said, “Nothing that a wolf hates more than a cat bigger than himself.” “ You might want to get yourself a dog too,” she said. I opened my mouth to mention Clover, but she continued “A wolf dog, is what I mean. That dog in the car is fine for sheep herding and eating biscuits, but it takes a dog with a wolf’s spirit to stand up to a pack.”

“Well, there aren’t many dogs like that around here,” I said.

She smiled, “Well, maybe bring mine around and let them mark up the place, and Briseis is expecting pups in a month or so. Maybe I could hold one for you.”

I glanced back toward the door where I could see one of those big dogs peeking in through the screen. “Don’t worry,” the girl said laughing, “They don’t bite — much!”

I frowned, “I was just wondering how Clover’d like a dog that big,” I said.

“It won’t start off so big,” she said, “It’ll have to work up to it.” I nodded. “I’ll bring them around first,” she said, “See how the wolves like that, and we can see if your dog takes a liking to them. They’re particular. They didn’t like the smell of me much at first either, but they got used to me. A dog will even get used to wolves in time, and run with them.”

I knew that. I’d seen wolf-dogs before. They were dangerous — as bold as any wolf without any fear of man. Like she was reading my mind she said, “Wolves weren’t always afraid of men, you know. They had to learn it, just like anything will if it’s hunted enough. You ever hear of the Seine?” she asked.

Proceed to the conclusion...

Copyright © 2005 by Beverly Forehand

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