Both fiction and nonfiction, the stories in this collection get us inside the heads and hearts of numerous four-legged critters—dogs, horses, burros, goats, cattle, deer, coyotes, and more. “The Old One,” for example, shows us the world through the eyes of a prairie dog as she watches her latest litter of pups rolling and tumbling around the mound and thinks of all the things she will need to teach them. And in “The One-Eyed Sky,” an aging cow with a new calf and an old coyote with a litter to feed circle each other warily, trying to protect their young, until a rancher intervenes. Not one to shy away from difficult subjects, Evans also delves into the “animal nature” of human beings, as in “The Heart of the Matter,” where two Vietnam vets and friends kill a deer and then turn their rifles on each other.
These captivating tales display Evans’s trademark mix of raucous humor and vivid, poetic descriptions of the high plains of West Texas and his beloved Hi-Lo Country in northeastern New Mexico. He reminds his readers of simpler times and more honorable people even as he evokes the merciless environment in which his characters, both animal and human, struggle to survive.
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About the Author
Keith Walters is an artist and movie property master living in Springer, New Mexico.
Luther Wilson is retired as director of the University of New Mexico Press.
Read an Excerpt
A Lifetime Collection
By Max Evans, Keith Walters
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2013 Max Evans
All rights reserved.
The Old One
The grass was short, but growing a fine, virginal green, now that the rain had begun to take effect. It had been cool and windy for some days, the flecked sky racing shadows across the earth. Now the sun was coming through again. The clouds were edging off to the far horizons.
The old prairie dog, a lone figure in the enveloping warmth, sniffed the air for the last time. She beckoned to her young to come forth. Two small heads jerked into sight, beady-eyed, motionless. Suddenly they were on top, scampering about with quick, short jumps. It was their third time above.
The Old One bellied down, watching them patiently as they chased through the curious world. It was her fifth litter. They had so much to learn in so short a time. They must beware of the enemies. The enemies who rode the horses and drove cattle before them. A short time back they had thundered over their home. The ground had quivered under the trampling of a thousand hoofs, and part of the den had fallen in. At first she had thought her young were injured, but out of the dust they had crawled, scared but unharmed.
She shifted her weight, grunted. Her eyes still followed them as she lay head to the ground. The young ones were picking up the track of some new bauble in a clump of grass.
She stretched her flattened form, sighing comfortably in the sun. The hay she had stored away the fall before had made her milk rich and nourishing. They were rolling with fat and bursting with energy.
Soon she would begin teaching them what all young prairie dogs must learn in order to survive. They would have to learn how to cut grass with their sharp teeth. There were small holes to be dug and dirt to be carried. The Old One would show them how to weave the blades of bear grass into mounds of dirt that walled their cavelike homes. The grass would act as a binder, keeping the mounds intact so that the summer cloudbursts would have no way of running into the holes. The young would also have to learn to store grass hay for the long winter ahead. All this was important and necessary. With two as bright and healthy as these, she would have no trouble.
Yet all this was as nought in the face of that one terrifying threat. Old One raised her head, sniffing the air. They were safe for the time being. It was not now as it had been before—many times before—when the two-legged enemy had suddenly borne down upon them. She even would not now be alive if she hadn't known how to disappear into the secret depths of the earth at the first approach of this being whose smell was danger itself. It was midsummer now, and the days long and hot. The young were more than half grown. In a few days, she would start each of them on a hole of his own. It would then be time to start putting up hay for the winter. She would help them with this task this one summer. The next spring she would have another litter and they would need her undivided attention.
While this was going through the Old One's mind, a figure was crawling slowly and stealthily closer. Suddenly, a warning chatter came from one of the neighboring home holes. With a staccato bark at her young, she dived into the hole. The hole dropped in a fast vertical fall for about eighteen inches. There was a flat place to land before it descended at an easy angle down into the living and grass storage space. Crack. Crack! Crack! Three times the stick spoke, filling the air with the deadly acrid smell. Her heart stood still with terror. There was not long to wait—all were safe. They were learning fast. She felt the ground quiver slightly as the two-legged being came close to examine the hole.
For two days, she didn't come out of the hole. She grew sick with fear for this being, so cunning, so relentless, with whom she had no power to contend except her own awareness.
For weeks after that, the Old One dared venture out to the terrifying upper world only for a few moments at a time. She gathered just enough food for her young ones and a mite for herself. She was starving slowly.
The time to store hay for the cold winter ahead was long overdue but the Old One could not conquer her fear long enough to work at it. Tragedy had been much too close to her young ones. The slightest rustle or off-scent would fill her with trembling terror. She would go scurrying down into the dark hole.
She fought her fear one day after a spring shower. Coming to the top, she worked desperately packing down a new mound. It would bake in the sun to a concretelike hardness, protecting their den from another cloudburst. For this work she did not have to venture far. She felt tremulously safe.
She was aloft some weeks after that, foraging for their food, when she saw the enemy in the distance. She remained for a moment, tensed, watching them. Suddenly she saw they were riding this way again, with cattle.
They were closer now. Down in their hole, Old One crouched in terror, the young ones nuzzling up close. The thundering came nearer and nearer. They were overhead now. The walls quivered. Dust and a few small pebbles showered down into the living room.
The Old One stayed below for two days as she had done before. Weakness and hunger finally drove her to the top. Her small head appeared at the opening, cautiously. She listened for perhaps five minutes. Her nostrils worked busily on a faint, familiar scent.
The hole mound had been ripped off on one side, taking some of the earth with it. A horse's hoof had evidently struck there, tripping the animal.
The little ones sniffed curiously at the damaged mound while the Old One for the first time in almost two months foraged freely in the not unfriendly open. The top of the hole where she had packed the mud had held. They were all safe for now, but there was more knowledge for the young to gain yet. There was the coyote and the bobcat who would hide in the grass or bushes and wait until the prairie dogs were hard at work, then they would dash in with fangs bared. The Old One, wise in her ways, showed the young how to clip the grass near the hole so nothing could hide, and then too, they must never dig near the clumps of speared yucca for that was a favorite hiding place for the coyote.
Once, an eagle dived from the blue sky, claws outstretched. The Old One saw this just in time to chatter a warning to her young ones.
They learned by doing and by experience and were growing into husky, healthy specimens. At the least sign of danger all would scatter to the top of the hole and form a circle so they could watch in all directions. The last golden days of fall were upon them. The Old One watched her young as they carried the grass hay to their own homes. Her job was well done. They would someday have families of their own and the Old One knew they were capable of handling the job.
She reared on her hindquarters and let out a happy chatter. The earth lay peacefully about them.CHAPTER 2
The One-Eyed Sky
The cow lifted her muzzle from the muddy water of the tank. She must go now. Her time was at hand. She could feel the pressure of the unborn between her bony hips. With the springless clicking tread of an old, old cow she moved out toward the rolling hills to find a secluded spot for the delivery.
It was late July and the sun seared in at her about an hour high. The moistureless dust turned golden under her tired hoofs as the sun poured soundless beams at each minute particle of the disturbed earth. The calf was late—very late. But this being her eighth and last she was fortunate to have conceived and given birth at all.
The past fall the cowhands had missed her hiding place in the deep brush of the mesas. If found she would have been shipped as a canner, sold at bottom prices and ground into hamburger or Vienna sausage. Not one of the men would have believed she could make the strenuous winter and still produce another good whiteface calf. She had paid the ranch well, this old cow ... seven calves to her credit. Six of them survived to make the fall market fat and profitable. The coyotes took her first one. But she had learned from that.
She turned from the cow trail and made her way up a little draw. Instinct guided her now as the pressure mounted in her rear body. It was a good place she found with the grass still thick on the draw and some little oak brush for shade the next sweltering day. The hills mounted gradually on three sides and she would have a downgrade walk the next morning to the water hole. She had not taken her fill of water, feeling the urgency move in her.
She found her spot and the pain came and the solid lump dropped from her. It had not taken long. She got up, licked the calf clean, and its eyes came open to see the world just as the sun sank. It would be long hours now before the calf would know other than the night.
It was a fine calf, well boned and strong, good markings. In just a little while she had it on its feet. The strokes of her tongue waved the thick red hair all over. With outspread legs it wobbled a step and fell. She licked some more. Again the calf rose and this time faltered its way to the bag swelled tight with milk.
The initial crisis was over, but as the old cow nudged the calf to a soft spot to bed it down, her head came up and she scented the air. Something was there. As the calf nestled down with its head turned back against its shoulder, the old cow turned, smelling, straining her eyes into the darkness. There was a danger there. Her calf was not yet safe. Nature intended her to eat the afterbirth, but now there would be no chance. She stood deeply tired, turning, watching, waiting.
The coyote howled and others answered in some far-distant canyon. It was a still night. The air was desert dry. It made hunting difficult. It takes moisture to carry and hold a scent. Her four pups took up the cry, hungry and anxious to prey into the night.
She, too, was old and this, her fourth litter, suffered because of it. She was not able to hunt as wide or as well as in past years. The ribs pushed through the patched hair on all the pups. They moved about, now and then catching the smell of a cold rabbit trail. Two of the pups spotted prairie mice and leaped upon them as they would a fat fowl, swallowing the rodents in one gulp. It helped, but still they all felt the leanness and the growling of their bellies.
The old coyote turned over a cow chip and let one of the pups eat the black bugs underneath. They could survive this way, but their whole bodies ached for meat.
They moved up to the water hole as all living creatures of the vast area did. The old one had circled carefully, hoping to surprise a rabbit drinking. But there was none. They had already worked the water hole many times before with some success, but now its banks were barren. They took the stale water into themselves to temporarily alter the emptiness.
The old one smelled the tracks of the cow, hesitating, sniffing again. Then she raised her head to taste the air with her nostrils. The pups all stood motionless, heads up, waiting. There was a dim scent there. Not quite clear. The distance was too far, but there was a chance for meat. A small one indeed, but in these hard times the mother could not afford to pass any opportunity. With head dropping now and then to delineate the trail of the old cow, the old coyote moved swiftly, silently followed by four hungry pups copying her every move.
Eight miles to the north a cowboy sixty-years-old, maybe seventy—he had long ago forgotten—scraped the tin dishes, washed them briefly, and crawled in his bunk against the line camp wall. He was stiff and he grunted as he pulled the blanket over his thin eroded body. The night was silent and he thought.
Outside a horse stood in the corral. A saddle hung in a small shed. In the saddle scabbard was a .30-30 for killing varmints. If he had a good day and found no sign of strays in the mighty expanse of the south pasture he could ride on into headquarters the day after next to company of his own kind. It really didn't matter to him so much except the food would be better and the bed a little softer. That was about all he looked forward to now. Tomorrow he, too, would check the water hole for signs. He slept.
She couldn't see them, but they were there. Their movement was felt and the scent was definite now. She moved about nervously, her stringy muscles taut and every fiber of her being at full strain. When they had come for her firstborn she had fought them well, killing one with a horn in its belly and crippling two more. But finally they had won. The calf—weak as all first calves are—had bled its life into the sand of the gully. She had held the pack off for hours until she knew the calf was dead and then the call from the blood of those to come had led her away to safety. It had been right. All her other calves, and the one resting beside her now, had been strong, healthy.
The scars showed still where they had tried to tear the ligaments from her hocks in that first battle long ago; she had been sore and crippled for weeks. A cowboy had lifted his gun to relieve her misery. But another had intervened. They roped her and threw her to the ground. They spread oil on her wounds and she recovered.
She whirled about, nostrils opening wide from the wind of her lungs. Her horns automatically lowered, but she could see nothing. She was very thirsty and her tongue hung from the side of her mouth. She should have taken on more water, but the enemy would have caught her during the birth and that would have been the end. She would have to be alert now, for her muscles had stiffened with age and the drive and speed she had in her first battle were almost gone. Then too, in the past, many parts of nature, of man and animal enemy had attacked her.
In her fourth summer, during a cloudburst when the rains came splashing earthward like a lake turned upside down, a sudden bolt of lightning had split the sky, ripping into a tree and bouncing into her body. She had gone down with one horn split and scorched. Three other cows fell dead near her. For days she carried her head slung to one side and forgot to eat. But she lived.
Later she had gotten pinkeye and the men had poured salt into her eye to burn out the disease.
And she had become angry once while moving with a herd in the fall roundup. She had been tired of these mounted creatures forever crowding her. She kept cutting back to the shelter of the oak brush and finally she turned back for good, raking the shoulder of the mighty horse. The mounted man cursed and grabbed his rope. She tore downhill, heading for the brush, her third calf close at her side. She heard the pounding of the hooves and the whirr of the rope. Deliberately she turned and crashed through a barbed-wire fence, ripping a bone-deep cut across her brisket. In that moment the man roped her calf and dismounted to tie its feet. She heard the bawling, whirled, charged at the man. She caught him with her horn just above the knee as he tried to dodge. She whirled to make another pass and drive the horns home. Then another man rode at her and the evil, inescapable snake of a rope sailed from his arm and encircled her neck. Three times he turned off, jerking her up high and then down hard into the earth, tearing her breath from her body until she stood addled and half blind. Then they stretched her out again and turned her loose. She had learned her lesson hard. During the stiff winters and wet spells she limped where the shoulder muscles had been torn apart.
But the worst winter of all was when the snow fell two feet deep and crusted over, isolating the herd miles from the ranch house. During the dry summer they had walked twice as far as usual to find the short shriveled grass. She and the others had gone into the winter weak and their bellies dragged in the drifts. When they tried to walk on top of the white desert the crust broke and they went down struggling, breathing snow and cold into their lungs, sapping their small strength. The icy crust cut their feet and they left red streaks in the whiteness. And the wind came driving through their long hair, coating their eyes and nostrils with ice. They'd wandered blindly, piling into deep drifts, perishing.
Finally the wagons—pulled by those same horses she had hated so much—broke through the snow. They tailed her up and braced her and got some hay into her mouth. Once more she survived.
The old cow had a past and it showed in her ragged, bony, tired, bent, scarred body. And it showed in her ever-weakening neck as the head dropped a fraction lower each time she shook her defiance at the night and the unseen enemy.
The moon came now and caressed the land with pale blueness. It was like a single, headless, phosphorescent eye staring at the earth seeing all, acknowledging nothing. The moon made shadows and into these she stared and it would seem to move and then she would ready herself for the attack. But it didn't come. Why did they wait?
The night was long and the moon seemed to hang for a week, then the sun moved up to the edge of the world, chasing the moon away.
Excerpted from Animal Stories by Max Evans, Keith Walters. Copyright © 2013 Max Evans. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword, by Luther Wilson,
The Old One,
The One-Eyed Sky,
Don't Kill My Dog,
The Matched Race,
The Heart of the Matter,
A Man Who Never Missed,
Once a Cowboy,
The Far Cry,
The Sky of Gold,
The Orange County Cowboys,
The World's Strangest Creature,
A Horse to Brag About,
The Cowboy and the Professor,
Showdown at Hollywood Park,
An Equine Montage,
Ghost Horses of Tulsa,
The Horse Who Wrote the Stories,