With all her big brothers and sisters off to school, our ranch became a lonely place for our three-year-old daughter, Becky. She longed for playmates.
Cattle and horses were too big to cuddle and farm machinery dangerous for a child so small. We promised to buy her a puppy but in the meantime, "pretend" puppies popped up nearly every day. I had just finished washing the lunch dishes when the screen door slammed and Becky rushed in, cheeks blushed with excitement.
"Mama!" she cried. "Come see my new doggy! I gave him water two times already. He's so thirsty!"
I sighed. Another of Becky's imaginary dogs.
"Please come, Mama!" She tugged at my jeans, her brown eyes pleading, "He's crying and he can't walk!"
"Can't walk?" Now that was a twist. All her previous make- believe dogs could do marvelous things. One balanced a ball on the end of it's nose. Another dug a hole that went all the way through the earth and fell out on a star on the other side. Still another danced on a tightrope. Why suddenly a dog that couldn't walk? "All right, honey," I said. By the time I tried to follow her, Becky had already disappeared into the mesquite. "Where are you?" I called.
"Over here by the oak stump. Hurry, Mama!"
I parted the thorny branches and raised my hand against the glare of the Arizona sun. A numbing chill gripped me. There she was sitting on her heels, toes dug firmly in the sand, and cradled in her lap was the unmistakable head of a wolf. Beyond it's head rose massive black shoulders. The rest of the body lay completely hidden inside the hollow stump of a fallen oak.
"Becky," My mouth felt dry. "Don't move." I stepped closer. Pale-yellow eyes narrowed. Black lips tightened, xposing double sets of two-inch fangs. Suddenly the wolf rembled. It's teeth clacked and a piteous whine rose from it's throat.
"It's all right, boy," Becky crooned. "Don't be afraid. That's my mama and she loves you too."
Then the unbelievable happened. As her tiny hands stroked the great shabby head, I heard the gentle thump, thump, thump, thumping of the wolf's tail from deep inside the stump.
What was wrong with the animal? I wondered. Why couldn't he get up? I couldn't tell. Nor did I dare to step any closer. I glanced at the empty water bowl. My memory flashed back to the five skunks that last week had torn the burlap from a leaking pipe in a frenzied effort to reach water during the final agonies of rabies. Of course! Rabies! Warning signs had been posted all over the county and hadn't Becky said, 'He's so thirsty?' I had to get Becky away. "Honey," my throat tightened, "put his head down and come to Mama. We'll go find help."
Reluctantly, Becky got up and kissed the wolf on the nose before she walked slowly into my outstretched arms. Sad yellow eyes followed her. Then the wolf's head sank to the ground. With Becky safe in my arms, I ran to the barn where Brian, one of our cowhands, was saddling up to check heifers in the north pasture. "Brian! Come quickly! Becky found a wolf in the oak stump near the wash! I think it has rabies!"
"I'll be there in a jiffy," he said as I hurried back to the house, eager to put Becky down for her nap. I didn't want her to see Brain come out of the bunkhouse. I knew he'd have a gun.
"But I want to give my doggy his water," she cried. I kissed her and gave her some stuffed animals to play with.
"Honey, let Mom and Brian take care of him for now," I said. Moments later, I reached the oak stump. Brian stood looking down at the beast.
"It's a Mexican lobo, all right," he said, "and a big one!" The wolf whined. Then we both caught the smell of gangrene.
"Whew! It's not rabies," Brian said. "But he's sure hurt real bad. Don't ya think it's best I put him out of his misery?"
The word 'yes' was on my lips, when Becky emerged from the bushes. "Is Brain going to make him well, Mama?" She hauled the animal's head onto her lap once more and buried her face in the coarse dark fur. This time I wasn't the only one who heard the thumping of the lobo's tail.
That afternoon my husband, Bill and our veterinarian came to see the wolf. Observing the trust the animal had in our child, Doc said to me, "Suppose you let Becky and me tend to this fella together." Minutes later as child and vet reassured the stricken beast the hypodermic found it's mark. The yellow eyes closed. "He's asleep now," said the vet. "Give me a hand here, Bill."
They hauled the massive body out of the stump. The animal must have been over five foot long and well over one-hundred pounds. The hip and leg had been mutilated by bullets. Doc did what he had to in order to clean the wound and then gave the patient a dose of penicillin. Next day he returned and inserted a metal rod to replace the missing bone.
"Well, it looks like you've got yourself a Mexican lobo," Doc said. "He looks to be about three years old and even as pups, they don't tame real easy. I'm amazed at the way this big fella took to your little gal. But often there's something that goes on between children and animals that we grownups don't understand."
Becky named the wolf, Ralph and carried food and water to the stump every day. Ralph's recovery was not easy. For three months he dragged his injured hindquarters by clawing the earth with his front paws. From the way he lowered his eyelids when we massaged the atrophied limbs, we knew he endured excruciating pain, but not once did he ever try to bite the hands of those who cared for him.
Four months to the day, Ralph finally stood unaided. His huge frame shook as long-unused muscles were activated. Bill and I patted and praised him. But it was Becky to whom he turned for a gentle word, a kiss or a smile. He responded to these gestures of love by swinging his busy tail like a pendulum.
As his strength grew, Ralph followed Becky all over the ranch. Together they roamed the desert pastures, the golden-haired child often stooping low, sharing the great lame wolf whispered secrets of nature's wonders. When evening came, he returned like a silent shadow to his hollow stump that had surely become his special place. As time went on, although he lived primarily in the brush, the habits of this timid creature endeared him more and more to all of us. His reaction to people other than our family was yet another story. Strangers terrified him, yet his affection for and protectiveness of Becky brought him out of the desert and fields at the sight of every unknown pickup or car. Occasionally he'd approach, lips taut, exposing a nervous smile full of chattering teeth. More often he'd simply pace and finally skulk off to his tree stump, perhaps to worry alone.
Becky's first day of school was sad for Ralph. After the bus left, he refused to return to the yard. Instead, he lay by the side of the road and waited. When Becky returned, he limped and tottered in wild, joyous circles around her.
This welcoming ritual persisted throughout her school years. Although Ralph seemed happy on the ranch, he disappeared into the surrounding deserts and mountains for several weeks during the spring mating season, leaving us to worry about his safety. This was calving season and fellow ranchers watched for coyotes, cougars, wild dogs and of course, the lone wolf. But Ralph was lucky.
During Ralph's twelve years on our ranch, his habits remained unchanged. Always keeping his distance, he tolerated other pets and endured the activities of our busy family, but his love for Becky never wavered. Then the spring came when our neighbor told us he's shot and killed a she-wolf and grazed her mate, who had been running with her. Sure enough, Ralph returned home with another bullet wound.
Becky, nearly fifteen years old now, sat with Ralph's head resting on her lap. He, too, must have been about fifteen and was gray with age. As Bill removed the bullet, my memory raced back through the years. Once again I saw a chubby three-year-old girl stroking the head of a huge black wolf and heard a small voice murmuring, "It's all right, boy. Don't be afraid. That's my mama and she loves you too."
Although the wound wasn't serious, this time Ralph didn't get well. Precious pounds fell away. The once luxurious fur turned dull and dry and his trips to the yard in search of Becky's companionship ceased. All day long he rested quietly. But when night fell, old and stiff as he was, he disappeared into the desert and surrounding hills. By dawn his food was gone. The morning came when we found him dead. The yellow eyes were closed. Stretched out in front of the oak stump, he appeared but a shadow of the proud beast he once had been. A lump in my throat choked as I watched Becky stroke his shaggy neck, tears streaming down her face. "I'll miss him so," she cried.
Then as I covered him with a blanket we were startled by a strange rustling sound from inside the stump. Becky looked inside. Two tiny yellow eyes peered back and puppy fangs glinted in the semi-darkness. Ralph's pup! Had a dying instinct told him his motherless offspring would be safe here, as he had been, with those who loved him? Hot tears spilled on baby fur as Becky gathered the trembling bundle in her arms.
"It's all right, little...Ralphie," she murmured. "Don't be afraid. That's my Mom and she loves you, too."