The Paris Review

Hybrid Vigor

KELLI JO FORD

By the glow of the headlights, Reney counted again. A calf was gone. A bawling cow trotting ruts into the fence line confirmed Reney’s count. She shoved her work gloves into the back pocket of a pair of Wes’s greasy coveralls. She’d slipped them on over her underwear and a Dairy Queen polo, and now static electricity popped as she climbed into the idling diesel to get the shotgun.

With new babies dropping by the day, neither the feral hogs nor the coyotes would be far off. The hogs had pretty much planted a flag and declared the rooted-up land around the river their own, and the coyotes had grown brazen in the drought, killing two neighbor dogs and countless goats down the road. Still, she didn’t think it was hogs or coyotes. Her mule, Rosalee, was gone, too.

Shotgun cradled in the crook of her arm, Reney whistled, squinting toward the pale sliver of sunrise, hoping to see her mule’s big ears come bobbing over the hill. Wes’s sweet but useless stock dog, Rowdy Rotty, munched on a dried piece of cow shit.

Even Wes held a small appreciation for the mule, now that he’d heard stories of mules protecting cattle from predators and seen for himself how Rosalee kicked the shit out of a neighbor dog that had gotten too close to his calves. The calves, he’d said time and again, were the only thing keeping them off the dole. Reney had been working toward a degree for years, but it didn’t take a degree to see that Wes was full of shit. She did the paperwork in the evenings and wrote the checks to the feedstore and the vet. The cattle did little more than break even. But the money left in a steady trickle and came in chunks, and Wes, for all his tenderness, had become a man fond of a big chunk of money, or at least the appearance of such.

When Rosalee didn’t come after a few sharp whistles, Reney killed the truck’s chugging idle and left the shotgun barrel to the floorboard. She took out the cattle prod and lead shank and started walking the fence. “Where are they, girl?” Reney said to the dog, who gave her quick lick. Reney hung wide around the momma cow in her manic vigil, all swinging udders and mournful cries, and nearly lost her boots in the mud suck crossing what was supposed to be the creek.

Most every spring the river devoured huge chunks of sandy loam. Scrub oaks crashed into the water like imploded high-rises. One good thing to come of the drought—they wouldn’t lose any more worthless land to the river. But less rain meant more feed bills—their leased thirty acres were grazed to the root—and that meant more beery moping out of Wes.

Reney balanced on the second row of barbed wire and whistled again. Nothing. Their part-time neighbors from the Metroplex had forty acres of bramble and bluestem that sat empty except for a couple of deer feeders and the dirt-bike trails Wes had bladed into the land for free. A whole day’s work, wear and tear on their sputtering Farmall, not to mention the cost of fuel, for two cases of beer and some good old-fashioned Dallas backslapping. She scanned the empty field and climbed over.

THE FIRST TIME ROSALEE TOOK a calf, Reney had been scrubbing green scum from a water trough when the mule’s slow, purposeful movement caught her eye. Reney stopped what she was doing and smiled at the silly creature, who made her way over to a baby calf napping in the sun. Suddenly, Rosalee snorted two times in the direction of the grazing momma cow. Before the cow could get over there, head lowered and bellowing, Rosalee took the calf into her mouth by the nape of the neck. Then Rosalee turned and ran across the pasture, baby calf a clenched ball. Reney never would have believed it if she hadn’t seen it.

Rosalee jumped the creek, calf swinging like

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