Precisely at eight in the morning they began. For Sam Walters, the scion of one of the first ranchers to homestead the valley, the sound of the D-8 Caterpillar bulldozer that ripped into the old barn was a shot to the heart. Seeing it coming years before, Walters was no less inured to the implosion of his feelings watching his ranch being transformed into a subdivision. A tall, but gnarled and wiry man, who limped on his right leg from a rodeo misadventure, Walters had called the valley home for his forty-four years. He stood on his front porch, sipping a hot cup of coffee, watching the D-8 Caterpillar tear apart the family barn as though it were built of matchsticks. Jesse, his wife, joined him holding a pot of coffee.
“You always knew it was going to happen,” she said. She topped his cup with coffee.
“Don’t make me feel a whole lot better about it.”
They watched in silence as they were joined by their children, Beth, and her younger brother, Ethan. Looking puzzled, his children appeared they were no less moved by the specter of the barn being demolished. Tuffy, Sam’s Border Collie, kept barking all the while making sortie after sortie at the bulldozer, each time pulling up short. Sam finally put his cup of coffee down and half dragged, half pushed the canine back to the porch where he put a leash on him.
For Sam and his family, they had already bought a ranch across the state line just outside Red Lodge. They had moved all their livestock and ranching and farming equipment, but had not the time to collect some more of the intimate objects of their existence on what had been their ranch on the North Fork of the Shoshone River.
They heard a second bulldozer start up, tearing out one of their fence lines of barbed wire. Tuffy tore at his leash, time and again to no avail.
Ethan, who was just eight, came over and stood next to his father in the front yard of the ranch house.
“How much, you say they paid for the place, Dad?”
“Not enough, not nearly enough.”
On the slim shard of earth that formed a peninsula of land beneath Jim Mountain, the tallest and easternmost peak on the wall of mountains that had poured over the Continental Divide on their way east out of Yellowstone, all the ranchers agreed to sell their land to the land developers from Billings. All of them but Val Paradis had moved their livestock before the construction crews came in. But that was Val. He always had to be different. When Sam and Ethan mounted the steps of the porch, Jesse was just coming out of the kitchen. She had a plate of bacon that Sam hadn’t eaten that morning. “It’s going to be a long day for Tuffy.” She placed the plate down next to Tuffy who was still infuriated with the earth movers. When she came up the porch, standing by her husband, she said, “It’s for the best. You’ll see.” Coming on five years of drought, he knew she was right. They and the other ranchers only had a few months to prepare.
On a late, blustery cold February night, when the moon was so full it betrayed its own age, two land developers held a community meeting at Wapiti Lodge, farther up the canyon. These men who’d come to steal their land from them wore business suits, with Lizard or Ostrich skin cowboy boots. They even gave a Power Point Presentation. As the two men proceeded to talk, the ranchers were told how much their land would go for. Val Paradis was the first to go. He had another ranch far up the South Fork of the Shoshone. The others, including Walters said they have to sleep on it. But in the end all caved in. They had no choice.
The good town fathers in the nineteenth century zoned the valley as agricultural to avoid just what was happening. Then, over the years as regulations will accrue, the Park County commissioners kept the valley for agriculture, but at the same time allowed the ranch land to be sold off in fifteen acre pieces. The next set of county commissioners, added an appendage to this: the first party to buy the land had to buy it in fifteen acre parcels, but they were allowed to sell it to a second buyer in any size they wanted. For this reason, Walters knew what he held onto so preciously was to be transformed into something as ugly as a subdivision. In the old days, they built grandiose houses on large sweeps of land; now they squeezed the houses in for maximum profit. What a sad irony that people trying to escape the congestion of the cities would care to live in these scaled down dwellings when there was so much land.
The ranch house had a wrap-around porch, and Sam, still holding his coffee cup, walked like he would in a trench at the opposing forces, to the back of the house that faced Jim Mountain. Tuffy finally calmed down. Instead of barking, he paced back and forth. Sensing he had calmed down and would not stray, he unleashed the dog. Having raised the pup, he was used to Tuffy following him around his spread. His children loved the dog no less than he did. Lacking sheep, the dog spent his time trying to herd his children together. Sam began packing up the last few boxes they would take to Red Lodge. He had to oversee his livestock on the new ranch.
It was all but codified in the Code of the West, that if a neighbor’s dog was bothering their livestock, they had every right to shoot the animal. When Walters first bought Tuffy, he took him by all the ranch owners. “If he ever gets out, call me and I’ll come running to keep him from bothering your livestock.” Walters was a stand-up man, a man who stuck by what he said, and was there as a neighbor all the other ranchers could count on when the winds were shifting. And indeed, Tuffy being a dog, he didn’t know or respect other’s property.
Then as he made his rounds, he knocked on Val Paradis’s door. Walters had never cared for Paradis, a swarthy man, one with a perpetual five-o’clock shadow, and close-cropped dark hair that was almost as black as his small bituminous eyes. Claiming an Acadian heritage, he reminded Walters and his family as being gypsies marooned in the Absarokas out west. It was not unusual for him to run into the man stripped down to a muscle man t-shirt working on his pickup in the front yard. When he rounded the other ranchers to tell them about Tuffy, Val was the last one on the list. After Val showed him in, he offered him a beer. Paradis brought two cold cans of Budweiser from the kitchen. With pride, Paradis showed him his antique shotguns and rifles that he kept in two old-fashioned bank safes. Each was as tall as the front door of the Paradis’s home. His covey of dark-haired children with even blacker eyes, gazed at Sam as if he was a circus freak as Sam watched, a little abashed, as Paradis polished a shotgun with oil as he showed it to him.
“Remember, keep your dog off my land,” he said as he rubbed linseed oil into the stock of the firearm. “Or I’ll shoot him.”
Sam never doubted Paradis. Paradis had let Tuffy wander onto his property once, chasing him away with a shotgun loaded with salt peter. That curbed Tuffy’s rambling on the Paradis property for a couple of weeks. In the bewildering wiles of western Wyoming, where they truly believed in the code of the west, it was every man for himself. He had just loaded the old oak rocking chair into the back of his Ford pickup when Ethan came running up, shouting, “Paradis shot Tuffy. Paradis shot Tuffy dead.” Sam had failed to hear any gunshot.
Before he could question his son, Paradis rode up on his Appaloosa holding the rifle that dispatched Tuffy. Perched limply on the horse in front of the saddle horn lay the body of the dog. Paradis said, “He was on my land. He was mucking about my livestock. I warned him before with the rock salt, but the lesson didn’t take. So I shot him. I had every right to do it.” Paradis grabbed the dead dog by the loose skin of his upper back and heaped the body down on the ground.
Sam, trying to tamp his temper down, walked over to Tuffy. “Val, I truly hope God can forgive you, because I sure as hell can’t.”
By Joseph Dylan