Montana rancher Frank Redmond is ready to abandon both home and family. It’ll take a stray dog to remind him where his loyalties lie.
A pensively introspective but hard-hitting read, Stranger’s Dance delves into the challenges and desperation of Montana ranch life in the 1930s and how animals can prove the catalyst for human healing.
Of all the things Abby hated, cold was in the top three. On nights like this, it was in the number one spot, pushing out snakes and liars. The only good thing about calving season was that the stove was kept burning throughout the night. That meant the house was one toasty refuge.
Everyone took turns checking on the cattle every two hours, and catching sleep in five-hour shifts. Whoever was on call was responsible for making a careful loop around the herd and looking for any cows that were ready to deliver. These needed to be moved to the barn as it was far too cold to let them calve outside. The barn was also safe from predators—coyotes and cougars mostly. Once a calf was dry and standing up, the cow and calf pair were moved to a smaller field behind the barn. This made feeding and checking the herd a little easier.
It was two in the morning and Abby’s turn to survey the herd. She stuffed two logs into the firebox, then began to dress. This alone was a substantial chore. Over her long johns, she donned a sweater and a pair of Frank’s jeans. The latter she cinched with a scrap of rope, tightening it a little less than usual. She knew she was pregnant, about three months along, she figured. Abby was also scared sick it might not last. She’d told no one. Not even Patty.
On top of that first bulky layer, she stuffed herself into canvas coveralls and an anorak. Last, she pulled on boots and work gloves. The whole ensemble made coordinated movement a challenge, but it would help fend off the deep freeze waiting for her outside. She dressed entirely by lantern light. Rumor had it, Avon might get electricity next year. But there were no plans to run electric lines into any of the rural valleys. Two of the neighbors had acquired small generators and battery packs to power an electric light or two in their barns and homes. That was a luxury the Redmonds were doing without. The lantern alone was enough to reveal thick frost coating both sides of the single-pane windows. It had to be below zero for frost to form indoors even with the stove burning hot. March might mean springtime everywhere else in the nation, but it sure didn’t in their valley.
Abby wrapped a long wool scarf around her head and looked down at Stranger. He had been watching her bundle up. His three-inch thick coat must be uncomfortable in the heat of summer, but it was perfect for this time of year. Abby didn’t bother asking the dog if he wanted to come along with her. She knew he did. Stranger was often content to stay inside when Frank and Clay went out, but not so when it was Abby’s shift. Nothing could keep the dog from tagging along when she was making the rounds.
Even with her layers of wool and cotton, the harsh chill was enough to take Abby’s breath away. With every step, the snow squealed beneath her boots, and with each breath, the cold air stung her lungs. She didn’t bother taking the lantern with her. The clear sky and nearly full moon lit up the snow-covered landscape as if it were daytime. Trudging across the yard to the large field next to the barn, Abby crawled through the wooden rails of the gate, her garments making it hard to force her way through. Once through the gate, Abby circled around the field. The cows were calm; they were growing accustomed to the regular visits.
The moonlight was bright enough to cast shadows across the blue-grey landscape. Darkness held a firmer grip in the trees at the edge of the field, but even there the reflected light of the moon and snow allowed for easy progress. Abby saw a fresh trail into a grove of pines. She followed it to make sure an expectant cow had not sought shelter there to drop her calf.
Trudging through the deep snow, Abby grew warm inside her layers, but she knew better than to open her coat. Stranger followed behind her, using the trail she was breaking, instead of wasting energy making his own. The constant muttering of the cows carried across the field, their soft calls a comforting sound as Abby trudged closer to the trees. She heard also the unmistakable sound of rail cars connecting far off in the distance. It was a unique effect of the winter air—the noise coming from eleven miles away at the Mullan Pass tunnel was as clear as if it were only a mile away. Stranger whined, and Abby looked back at him. His ears were back against his head. Earthquakes and trains. These were the only things that could cause fear in the dog.
“It’s okay, Stranger,” she cooed to him. “It’s just trains.” She was sure his response to trains had something to do with where he had come from. Leaning down, she scratched Stranger’s head as much as her gloves allowed her to, then pushed on into the pine grove. There were indeed three cows in there, standing together for warmth. None were ready to calve, though. Abby headed back to the open field and walked another twenty minutes, inspecting the rest of the herd.
On her way back to the house, Abby paused to look up at the moon and at the shimmering hoarfrost that feathered every surface in the barnyard. God, what a beautiful sight! It was damn cold, but the beauty took the edge off her disdain for mountain winters. Taking care of the cattle felt poignant; strange to care for the lumbering creatures at a time when she felt subtle changes in her own form. Stranger whined and held one paw up in pain. The cold of the snow was finally taking its toll on him, even with his thick fur. Icicles formed between the pads of his paws. The only remedy was to head in and let the dog thaw out by the stove.
“I know, Stranger, it’s too cold to admire the moon,” Abby said and trudged on. Stranger did his best to keep up. Every few steps, she looked back and saw the dog holding one paw up and then another. As she got closer to the house, they crossed over their original trail out to the field. Abby could clearly see her prints and Stranger’s in the snow. What surprised her was the third set of tracks that paralleled theirs. Stranger’s frozen feet would have to wait a moment. Someone, or some critter, had followed them to the field. Bending closer, she could see that the wide prints were certainly not human or that of any cow. They were cougar tracks, and not more than thirty minutes old.
Stranger caught up after stopping to lick his frozen paws. Even he forgot about his paws once he caught the scent of the big cat. He paced back and forth along the trail. Abby looked around and was thankful not to see the shape of the hunter nearby, but it could easily be hiding in the clumps of bushes and trees in the rolling field. Calling Stranger off the cougar tracks, Abby moved towards the house, still over a hundred yards away. She kept looking back over her shoulder, both to look for the cougar and to make sure the dog hadn’t taken it upon himself to hunt the cat down. As she squeezed through the gate, she felt a little more at ease. But she didn’t feel safe until the door to the house was closed and locked behind them. Abby took off all her layers, and Stranger curled up on his bed licking his paws.
Sleep was precious; Abby debated whether to wake Frank or not. He was in the middle of his sleep shift. But, he’d want to know about the cougar. Abby added one more log to the fire, turned off the light, and went up to the bedroom. She touched Frank’s shoulder, whispered to him. Bleary, he woke and listened to her concern about the big cat. He was barely awake, but definitely not willing to wait till morning to take stock of the animal’s damage to their herd.
“We’d better head out then,” he said. Frank was careful to let Clay get all the sleep he needed, so the “we” meant Abby. She was a decent shot anyway. If they both headed out with Clay’s shotgun and Frank’s bolt action hunting rifle, they might have a chance to ward off the cat. Neither had any illusions about actually killing the animal; cougars were masters at disappearing. They might be able to give it a good scare, though.
Abby knew she ought to help. Really. But she loathed the idea of heading back out into the freezing night. Frank tucked in his shirt, pulled up his suspenders, and looked at her—she still sat on the edge of the bed, not making any motion to get dressed again.
“Please, Abby,” he said. “You know I—”
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
So that was how she told him. Poor Frank didn’t believe her, then felt awful for not believing her when she insisted it was true. Then, entirely flustered, he had the fun of heading out alone for an unsuccessful cat hunt. His extra shift confirmed the cat’s damages—one calf gone, one miserable cow. They shared that unfortunate news with Clay in the morning. But even Abby could not refrain from sharing the happier bit. Frank insisted that only the men would check the cattle at night from that point on. He’d take an extra night shift to allow for that. Abby didn’t argue. The house was warm and cougar-free.