Issue Forty-Three - Winter 2024

Cutting for Scent

by James Hessler

As I coasted down the hill in my diesel pickup, I counted the tall poplars that lined the driveway. I loved the poplars’ height, gray bark and manta ray shaped leaves. A spring breeze made the new leaves shimmer silver. I counted one, two, three, noting the height, leaf profusion and density of each poplar. At poplar number fifteen, nearly to the front gate, I looked right, into the west grazing field.

Clarice, my first cow, was separated from the herd, grazing just outside the dripline of a large old California live oak just 10 meters from me on the other side of the fence. I saw the big bulge on her right side, a sign of imminent delivery, though cervical dilation was a better predictor.

I loved Clarice.

Clarice came to me from our third generation cattle ranching neighbors’ herd. As Clarice was born her mom prolapsed, expelling not just the placenta, but the womb as well. She bled to death. Clarice was hand raised on bottled milk. She loved to be scratched. If I started to pull my fingernails up from her chest she would lift her chin, a signal that I should pull as hard as I could all the way. She usually hid in some remote part of the pasture to give birth. Typical cow birthing behavior.

My neighbors kindly tried to educate me with guidance on cattle care and stories about coyote threats to newborn calves. They said coyotes are drawn to the strong smell of the placenta that contains the calf in the womb. The cow will eat the placenta after delivering a calf. That’s a good thing, they said, because the placenta contains vital nutrients, including colostrum, necessary for the health of the calf. Consumption of the placenta also removes the smell that attracts coyotes.

Far out in the field, almost to the tree line at 400 meters, I saw seven cattle. The cows were head down, grazing. Three of my small herd of eight birthing mommas recently calved. Bovinettes bounced around each other and their mommas, learning to command their energetic bodies. I raised cattle because calves are adorable and cows are friendly. Community is important to them, and they allowed me to participate. I wasn’t a feedlot cattle producer. I raised cattle underfoot.

Today, Clarice looked up as my truck came close, stopped grazing and took a surprising stance. Spreading her rear legs, she hunched her back and lifted her head. It was the posture for calf birthing. The urge must have sneaked up on her. She’s always been a little absent minded. I stopped my truck, dismounted, and went around to stand at the passenger door.

At this close range I saw a small head begin to emerge from Clarice’s cervix, just under her raised tail. The nearly transparent placental sack kept the calf legs tucked up under its belly, making a package that was sleek as it moved down the birth canal to the cervix. As the calf’s shoulders and front legs appeared, the calf looked like maybe sixty-five pounds. That’s a healthy weight and easy delivery. The calf made a slow, deliberate exit and left some placenta behind. The calf emergence looked a little like an airplane coming in for a landing, if you can imagine, extending landing gear as it squeezed out. Rear hips emerged, legs first, and the calf dropped the last foot to the ground. Maybe just enough bump to start calf breathing. Some placenta followed.

Clarice turned and began to lick the new calf, removing the remains of the shiny sack. Licking stimulated the calf to breathe and begin to move. I counted licks just like I counted poplars, cattle in the field, hammer strikes to set a nail and other repeating events. As the numbers increased the object of my counting revealed rhythm, tempo, intensity, tone, pattern. After seven long powerful licks, clearing away the sack, the calf began to move its head, then stretch and unfold its legs. Licks along the calf’s back encouraged the newborn to roll on top of her folded legs. She pushed up with her hind legs and followed with the front. Three minutes after touching earth for the first time the calf stood, unassisted. A few moments of tenuous wobble and the calf started looking around.

Always astonishing.

The calf locked in on what must surely be hard wired: wobbly legs supported the three step walk to Clarice’s engorged udder and the dangling pink teat. She tasted milk for the first time and paused for one heartbeat. Eyes opened wide, she dove in. Sucking assertively in pulses. Milk dribbled down her chin. Her nose jutted forward, punching Clarice’s udder, encouraging full flow.

As I watched the calf, something twitched in my peripheral vision.

I turned my head and looked up the hill. Way up, before the tree line, was a granite outcropping. I have often stood there to get a view of mountain ranges, extending south toward Yosemite. It was my favorite perch. Three hundred meters from where I stood, fifty meters in elevation, I saw a dark spot move. I squinted. A lone coyote sat down on the outcropping. From the coyote’s head position it was looking toward Clarice. The calf was milking on the downhill side of Clarice. A coyote’s daytime vision isn’t great, but it might detect movement. As the sun goes down coyote image definition improves dramatically. I can’t match coyote night vision for either motion detection or black and white image resolution.

The scent of placenta might not reach the coyote’s powerful nose. He’s upwind. I’m downwind from both coyote and Clarice. Not much for the coyote to see or smell. The coyote didn’t move, but even the presence of the coyote shocked me.

We were being watched. I looked back at the calf and Clarice. The calf was already sleeping, exhausted from her journey, colostrum enriched warm milk filling her belly. Clarice stood close, casually grazing.

I tried to imagine how many generations of mutation it took for colostrum in momma’s milk to take its place as post partum immunology builder in bovine phylogenesis. It’s pretty clear from studies I read that the placenta doesn’t contain colostrum. Maybe the cattle just like the taste. Removing a coyote bait tag is just a collateral benefit.

I had seen coyotes passing through. I know they are predators. I found fawn carcasses on remote parts of the property from time to time. Coyotes are known to be crafty critters, excellent hunters, omnivores and opportunistic scavengers. Moose is on the list of meals, but so are mice, insects, fruit and vegetables, as are cats and cat food, rodents, rabbits, lizards and birds. All easier than taking on a protective mother cow. Coyotes are very wary of humans. If they see or smell a human they will keep their distance. Our little herd is very close, rarely out of vision from the house. There had been no coyote attacks on calves in the 15 years I lived on my ranch. The coyote may have already factored that into its assessment of risk and reward.

The coyote was barely distinguishable from the background of granite. I watched for several minutes. If I had my Ruger .243 rifle, I might make the shot. I had some range time with paper targets on the back side of our property. A Swarovski scope made targets large at 300 meters. One hundred grain cartridges produced high velocity. Very accurate within 300 meters. I remembered Army training sergeants explaining about the gross tissue damage of the M16 bullet, tumbling on impact.

My rural ranch neighbors described the coyotes as killers of calves, vermin to destroy. I thought there might be exceptions. I had not lost any calves, nor even placenta, to a coyote. The rural ranch community was strong in mutual information sharing, support and protection. The scent of fresh placenta and prospect of a new born calf could be trouble.

I didn’t have my Ruger and there were reasons I didn’t want to kill this coyote.

I qualified expert on the US Army M16 in Vietnam, but never fired a round in combat. I was in a combat zone but I only carried a firearm when required. I feared I could not shoot another human being whether Viet Cong, NVA or any other. My job was intelligence analysis and report writing. Psychological Operations worked to dehumanize the enemy, to remove the guilt of killing in war. I knew my work could get people killed. As a conscript soldier opposed to the war, I tried to focus on lives I might be able to save, particularly GI lives, but considering Vietnamese as well.

The west wind brought the scent of blood and bile from the fresh placenta to my nose. Clarice might have sensed the threat. I don’t know if placenta tastes good to a cow, but while the new heifer slept, Clarice consumed the placenta the same way she grazed the field, sampling, moving, sampling again until it was all gone. I wondered if she knew what my neighbors told me about placenta attracting coyotes. It seemed doubtful, but maybe I wasn’t giving Clarice enough credit.

Up on the granite, the coyote stood, paused, stretched out its legs, turned up the hill and walked through the tree line. Maybe no sign was detected – no motion of interest, no smell – and it was time to move on to other prospects.

Maybe it smelled me or knew what a truck meant. If the latter, he might return as the sun faded and his vision improved. That would be smart, and coyotes were known to be smart.

In civilian life I was not a hunter, even though I enjoyed shooting at paper targets. My hunter experience was limited to stopping woodpeckers from destroying the wood siding of my home. Even that bothered me. Eventually, I replaced wood siding with Hardie Board. Looks like wood. Made from concrete fiber.

I returned to the driver’s side, got in and started my diesel engine, waved to Clarice and headed down to the ranch supply and feed store to do my errands. At the feed store I counted out six 2 X 6 X 8 fence posts, four 25 pound solid salt licks, a box of three inch exterior wood screws, an 8 ounce jar of local honey for allergy prevention and a case of locally grown and produced Sangiovese wine. Stuff to keep me going a fortnight. One stop shopping for ranchers.

The ranch had close to a mile of three rail wood fence dividing sections of pasture and the Poplar lined driveway from the fields. I replaced three broken fence posts and few damaged 2 X 6 corral board rails in a section of fence on the opposite side of the driveway from the cow pasture. I looked across the driveway and up toward the outcropping a few times as I worked.

When the late afternoon sun just touched the tops of the Ponderosa pine trees to the west, I went to the house, dialed in the combination to my gun safe, retrieved my Ruger .243 and selected five cartridges from a box of twenty. I opened the breech of the Ruger and checked to be sure it was empty and the barrel was clean. I walked down the driveway toward Clarice and her calf. Clarice tended her newborn heifer in the same spot where the calf was born, just across the fence from the driveway. The remainder of my small herd was still three hundred meters further out west, almost to the tree line. It was 7 pm. Dusk approached.

At the halfway point of the driveway, 100 meters before Clarice, there was a gate to the west field. The fence turned 90 degrees right to form a runway for loading and unloading cattle at the entrance to the field. I thought the east west section of four rail fence was an ideal rifle rest, 250 meters to the granite outcropping up the hill. The outcropping was already in the shade and the sun was just above the horizon.

I rarely carried a rifle in Vietnam, 30 years ago. I was pegged as a smart kid in my Psychological Operations unit. I liked that feeling until I was tasked with evaluating the PSYOP risks and rewards of a possible tactical operation mission to attack multiple POW camps in North and South Vietnam with the objective of retrieving all US POW’s. I was told to assess the propaganda side of the mission – could it improve the morale of our troops and revive support for the war back home. I was terrified of the responsibility the project carried. Many lives could be saved or lost. The task was well beyond my experience, training and pay grade. I counted POW sites, numbers of prisoners, length of time held, number of NVA soldiers defending each camp in the north, Viet Cong soldier numbers defending camps in the south. I focused on the risk, wanting to save lives – POW lives, US military attack team lives, innocent civilian lives. I developed multiple scenarios and described PSYOP opportunities and threats in each scenario.

The rifle reminded me of its weight and balance as I laid it on the top rail of the fence. I sighted toward the outcropping. I might see something with the light gathering scope. I removed the lens cap and brought the rifle into line with the outcropping. It took a little scanning. I had forgotten how crisp the images were in magnification. The horizontal crack on the front face of the granite was clear as a dark line. The slightly rounded top surface was lighter on the right side where dried lichen appeared gray away from the sun. The hill above the rock was mottled light and dark. I looked a little left and a little right, then up and down. I returned my view to the top of the largest part of the outcropping. A dark spot in the center of the image seemed to move. I increased the magnification on my scope to maximum. The light section of the outcropping was larger. The coyote sat where he had been in the morning.

I wondered if this might be how a sniper felt in Vietnam, looking at a clear image of a living target, following the technical process of locating, adjusting for distance, elevation, weather, wind. The process of setting up for an accurate shot was devoid of feeling. Physics controlled everything. Maybe a sniper could just think about the numbers. I looked through the scope and saw the coyote. Face and body similar in shape to a German Shepherd, but half the size. Tan coat underneath gray, black, and a few patches of white. Short, pointed ears focused forward. Small eyes set close together half way from ears to small black snout and white muzzle. The eyes looked my way. The expression on the coyote’s face was not fear, not glee. Concentrated, intent. Penetrating, I’d say. As if he could see right through the scope into my head.

With my left hand I pulled back the bolt on my rifle, pushed the bolt forward slowly, hoping to avoid detectable motion or noise. I watched a cartridge slide into the chamber. On level terrain the rifle’s distance compensation, adjusted for 250 meters, would lift a bullet a few centimeters at 100 meters. At 300 meters the bullet would likely be just a little below the crosshairs in the scope. I aimed for just below the throat of the coyote, expecting the round to strike in the upper chest.

I took a breath and exhaled. I felt my heart pound. I took several more breaths and willed my heart rate to relax. I didn’t know how long the coyote would hold still. I saw his face clearly in the setting sun, still attentive.

Perhaps this coyote was different. I saw something in his eyes as I looked at him. Not vermin. Hunter, cutting for scent. Survivor. This was real life and real death, by my hand. My finger was on the trigger. Just a coyote, considering the seductive smell of afterbirth, or of Clarice’s calf. Coyotes don’t go on holiday to observe calf birthing. Even a coyote has a motive, I thought.

I squeezed the trigger.

The coyote jumped, twisted in the air, and came down. I heard a yelp. The coyote disappeared up the hill in a second.

I looked through the scope and around the rock, left and right, up and down. I looked further right and up the hill, the directions I thought him most likely to go. He wasn’t there.

Shit, shit, shit, I said to myself.

I went through the gate and into the field. Clarice and the calf watched me go. I headed north, toward the hill, through another gate and up the slope. It was too steep to go straight up. I had to traverse left and then back to the right. I reached the outcropping sucking wind. I bent over and breathed hard for a minute before I could look around. There were no signs of the coyote. No spot of blood. No footprints. No chip of granite. No sign I could find of bullet impact. It was getting dark.

I took a direction I thought the coyote might go, up the hill to the east. There was a trail close by. I made semicircle sweeps gradually moving north and east.

No sign of the coyote.

I stopped and listened.

Watching from cover, the coyote could easily out wait me. My vision faded in the advancing darkness. I sat down on the hillside trail. The woods were silent. I heard my own heavy breathing. I didn’t hear a crackle of coyote feet on forest floor. I heard only the occasional background noise of chirping birds and soughing breeze. There was nothing more I could think to do. No coyote cutting for scent. Nothing I could count. No rhythm to discern.

Copyright Hessler 2024