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Rancher Juan Aragon has begun to revive the Pleistocene, and everyone must pay the bill. In the high country of southern New Mexico, home of the oldest wilderness and the biggest roadless area in the lower 48, ghosts are stirring, waking shadows of things that haven’t been seen for a hundred years. Reports of iconic beasts and mysterious carcasses filter down from the mountains, while something the newspapers call "The Bosque Bigfoot" is killing cows down by the Rio Grande. Soon the world’s attention will be fastened on the wildlands of New Mexico, as more than the fate of a single native species is at stake. In his first novel, acclaimed natural history and travel writer Stephen J Bodio, whose 1988 memoir Querencia depicted the landscape and ways of southern New Mexico, and gave many readers their first glimpse of this faraway country, imagines the rebirth of big predators like the grizzlies and jaguar, in his own back yard. All too often discussions of "re-wilding" are abstract, with little thought for their unfolding in the real world, as though the country were a park. In Tiger Country, the effects are real. As viewpoints and people collide, the media, ranchers, naturalists, activists, politicians, and ordinary people must take their stands in the real world, not just in theory. Respectful of all the actors, especially the non-human ones, and in debt to none, Bodio shows the heartbreak of unintended consequences. At times suspenseful, lyrical, hair-raising, and even funny it is a worthy fiction debut, and Bodio is uniquely qualified to tell it. Biologist, falconer, dog breeder, literary critic, and hunter, born in Boston but a rural New Mexico resident for almost forty years, he knows the wildlife, people, and cultures of his chosen Querencia. Malcolm Brooks, author of Painted Horses, says: "Steve Bodio brings his legendary Renaissance vision to this startling first novel, a work so mammoth in scope and elegant in execution it makes me wish he’d been writing fiction all along. Recalling the edgy best of Ed Abbey and Jim Harrison, and reminiscent of James Carlos Blake’s contemporary border noir, Tiger Country throws modern heroic renegades into the gravitational pull of the ancient past, to encounter the origins of the human condition."
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ABOUT THIS BOOK
RANCHER JUAN ARAGON HAS BEGUN TO REVIVE THE PLEISTOCENE, AND EVERYONE MUST PAY THE BILL.
In the high country of southern New Mexico, home of the oldest wilderness and the biggest roadless area in the lower 48, ghosts are stirring, waking shadows of things that haven’t been seen for a hundred years. Reports of iconic beasts and mysterious carcasses filter down from the mountains, while something the newspapers call “The Bosque Bigfoot” is killing cows down by the Rio Grande.
Soon the world’s attention will be fastened on the wildlands of New Mexico, as more than the fate of a single native species is at stake.
Acclaimed natural history and travel writer Stephen J Bodio imagines the rebirth of big predators like the grizzlies and jaguar, in his own back yard. All too often discussions of “re-wilding” are abstract, with little thought for their unfolding in the real world, as though the country were a park. In Tiger Country, the effects are real. As viewpoints and people collide, the media, ranchers, naturalists, activists, politicians, and ordinary people must take their stands in the real world, not just in theory. Bodio shows the heartbreak of unintended consequences.
At times suspenseful, lyrical, hair-raising, and even funny it is a worthy fiction debut, and Bodio is uniquely qualified to tell it. Biologist, falconer, dog breeder, literary critic, and hunter, born in Boston but a rural New Mexico resident for almost forty years, he knows the wildlife, people, and cultures of his chosen Querencia.
Malcolm Brooks, author of Painted Horses, says: “Steve Bodio brings his legendary Renaissance vision to this startling first novel, a work so mammoth in scope and elegant in execution it makes me wish he’d been writing fiction all along. Recalling the edgy best of Ed Abbey and Jim Harrison, and reminiscent of James Carlos Blake’s contemporary border noir, Tiger Country throws modern heroic renegades into the gravitational pull of the ancient past, to encounter the origins of the human condition.”
Behind the Ranges Press
A division of Perkunas Press
2635 Baughman Cemetery Road
Tyrone, Pennsylvania 16686
Author contact: BehindTheRangesPress.com/stephen-j-bodio
© 2018 by Stephen J Bodio
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Published 2018. First Edition.
Cover: “Cloud over Ladron Peak” December 2016, A. Jackson Frishman
EPUB ISBN-13: 978-1-62962-064-0
EPUB ISBN-10: 1629620645
Publisher’s Cataloging-in-Publication Data
provided by Five Rainbows Cataloging Services
Names: Bodio, Stephen, author.
Title: Tiger country : a novel of the wild Southwest / Stephen J. Bodio.
Description: Tyrone, PA : Behind the Ranges Press, 2018.
Identifiers: LCCN 2018954409 | ISBN 978-1-62962-063-3 (pbk.) | ISBN 978-1-62962-066-4 (hardcover) | ISBN 978-1-62962-064-0 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: New Mexico--Fiction. | Rural conditions--Fiction. | Environmentalists--Fiction. | Ranchers--Fiction. | Wildlife reintroduction--Fiction. | Extinct animals--Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Small Town & Rural. | FICTION / Animals.
Classification: LCC PS3602.O32566 T54 2018 (print) | LCC PS3602.O32566 (ebook) | DDC 813/.6--dc23.
ALSO BY STEPHEN J BODIO
The Art of Shooting Flying
An Eternity of Eagles
Good Guns Again
The Hounds of Heaven
On the Edge of the Wild
A Rage for Falcons
A Sportsman’s Library
Living in the west for years and hearing a lot of opinions causes you to write a book like this. Those who have lived in the southwest for years have strong opinions on such things as the return of predators. That they don’t agree is no surprise, as they don’t agree on much except that this is still “the last best place.”
I attended my first meeting about the reintroduction of wolves over thirty years ago. Then, the commander of the White Sands Missile Range generously offered to use the range as a soft release site for the wolves. At this point a fellow got up and said, “Thank you. This way we'll be able to two kill birds with one stone. We can get the wolves back and shut down the U.S. War Machine by closing the base so that it will not interfere with the wolves.” Needless to say, his suggestion was withdrawn, and we’ll never know what a population of wolves that had to adapt to an abundant, delicious, and dangerous source of food, Frank Hibben’s vagrant oryxes, might have done when it finally left the base.
Nor would I want to misrepresent anyone’s view, or get anyone into trouble, but still I’d like to thank a few friends who have kept me entertained on this subject for many years. Emphatically for the predators: Doug Peacock, king of the grizzlies, and his wife Andrea; Dave Foreman; Yvon Chouinard; and artist Thomas Quinn. Against them, or at least against their unregulated presence in the human environment: Val (Dr. Valerius) Geist, dean of the wildlife biologists, polymath, and inveterate letter writer, a voice “against” wolves who wants to give most of Canada back to them; C J Hadley, English cowgirl and editor of Range Magazine; Tom’s Montana rancher brother Dan Quinn; and Mike Kelly, government trapper, who used to get an unholy kick out of introducing me to environmentalists as “an environmentalist who wants to bring back wolves, and kill them,” and who claims that the problem wolves are the ones who come up and watch TV through your` windows. (His father, Tom, purports to think that both the wolves and the astronomical telescopes on the top of the mountain are a plot to drive ranchers out of business. This sounds so exactly like a paranoid rancher plot invented by an eastern novelist that I suspect Tom doesn’t believe it any more than you do, but loves being thought of as a paranoid old ranch fossil by those who see him as a living stereotype.
Most of us just muddle along doing the best we can with the information and the changing rules. This is especially true of pastoralists, who must now cope with bureaucracies and their changing rules as well as the old dangers of the stock-rearing way of life. Chief among them are my dear friends Cat and Jim Urbigkit who have raised sheep on public land in the Yellowstone ecosystem for over thirty years and written eloquently about it. They have also pioneered ancient Asian and European techniques using stock protection dogs in the U. S. public lands. Down here, Mary Helen “Sissy” Gianera Olney, the first female brand inspector in the United States, her husband Tom, and her siblings on the Pound Ranch have given me similar perspectives from a south¬western point of view, and Pieter Ditmars runs stock protection dogs successfully against predators here. And I don’t want to forget John Davila, who gave Juan Aragon his distinctive voice; or Pat Cooper, who helped with all the computer work. As the cliché goes, all the book’s virtues are theirs; the vices are my own.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ONLY A MOUNTAIN
LIONS AND TIGERS AND BEARS
THE MULE’S EARS
In Tiger Country the protagonist is responsible for the introduction of the Mexican wolf. Everyone knows that the government actually did that. But before the government action, even before they offered to put them in White Sands, there were over fifty sightings of wolves in the Gila by biologists and ranchers.
Could Juan Aragon have brought them in? We should consider Tiger Country
You ever meet my karate instructor? He doesn’t talk much. He’s a big Korean, probably about sixty-five, and still moves like a cat. His body looks like it was built with an axe out of hardwood, and his face is like a granite boulder. He has about as much hair as a bowling ball. We were driving from Silver City to a ranch in northern Catron County that day and stopped at the Aldo Leopold Overlook to stretch our legs and see the country. We went back to the truck for the binoculars and spent a long time looking over the land, glassing it carefully. Finally he said to me “You got tigers up there?”
“No, sir,” I said. “Lots of deer and more elk, and we got more antelope than anyplace but Wyoming. Little bears that go up trees, and we used to have big bears that won’t. We have a thing they call a lion, but it isn’t really, and a rare thing called a jaguar–it’s more like a leopard. We used to have big wolves. What we don’t have is a tiger–never had and never will.”
He spat at the ground, looked me in the eye like I was a little slow, and growled, “Looks like tiger country to me.”
ONLY A MOUNTAIN
“Virtue and the wild share no common universe.”
----James Hamilton Paterson
“I became intoxicated by their company, and was hard put to keep up, pretending that I, too, had always lived dangerously.”
Born in the fifties, coming of age in the sixties, Nick Sharpe had always wanted a life that was not mundane. He had grown up in a dreamy small town in the cranberry counties south of Boston, spending endless solitary happy hours amidst the old natural history books hidden in the neo-medieval library, a strange building designed by H. H. Richardson and donated to the town by its plutocrats, a bunch of shovel manufacturers turned to squires and scholars by time and money.
Mostly he disliked other kids, preferring books, dead explorers, frogs, snakes, birds of prey, and his dog. He kept a raccoon, a kestrel, and a Cooper’s hawk, though his parents drew the line at a Blue Hills rattlesnake. Unlike his romantic idols—Beebe, Roosevelt, Finch-Hatton (he read Out of Africa at eleven despite the disapproval of the librarian)—he had no inherited fortune, though at first he did not realize that they did. Nor did he have any interest in making money. He did know that only the life of an artist or a scientist was likely to provide him with travel, adventure, and access to wild things, things he craved with a deep unaccountable longing that had everything to do with the shadowed vaults of the library and the woods, and nothing at all to do with his family. His father was an unhappily stable Boston businessman, a golfer and martini drinker; his mother a 1950’s homemaker of Swiss-Italian and lace-curtain Irish descent, whose not so secret hope was that he would become a Jesuit.
He had a little of his father’s caution, though he would never admit it. He was a skilled careless sketcher and painter, but he opted for biology at Harvard over art, despite a scholarship at the Museum School that tugged at him. He was married at nineteen to a rich girl. He thought she shared his passion because she talked well, and because she drank and danced and loved to go birding on Plum Island when they took acid. It was 1969.
He and Carole drank and gave parties and went to school. It seemed in retrospect that was how they spent all of the seventies and a good bit of the eighties. They never considered children; Carole very seriously said that they were their own kids. She wrote poetry and sculpted large vague bronzes. Nick moved through phases. For a while his passion was ornithology. He watched nesting terns off the elbow of Cape Cod, secretly and nobly executing herring gulls with his 20-bore double gun, to protect the terns’ eggs. He did a stretch of sorting pickled fish from Bermuda for the Museum of Comparative Zoology. He collected invertebrates from the mucky floor of Boston Harbor, and built a huge refrigerated salt water aquarium for his living room which he decorated with bryozoan-encrusted Budweiser bottles found in the same places that he caught his specimens. Carole considered it too deliberately whimsical but everybody would stare into it when they got drunk.
He somehow acquired a taste for nice stuff. If anyone asked he would have admitted to, no, bragged, that the life of a mildly intellectual yuppie connoisseur fitted him like his English-cut suits. And then, about the time he installed two color phases of tree vipers from the Yucatan in the living room by the tank, Carole left him for her, their, accountant, a soft vague man who played tennis and had one eyebrow running the width of his forehead. He cared about security, and money, and her, unlike Nick who dreamed of mountains and junipers and jeweled snakes and Victorian shotguns more than he did of their future.
Three weeks after she left, Carole died driving her vintage MG into a patch of black ice in upstate New York, in the company of an old friend of hers he didn’t know existed. Suddenly he was bereft, rootless, and rich. It was to his credit that he did not also consider himself lucky, especially since he had finally had the wit to realize that he had been trapped. He cried sincerely at the funeral, but, in a sort of emotional double vision, he felt as free as a secret agent. He was twenty-seven years old, and ready to do something; he was terrified that he would die before anything real happened, and was not sure it had, yet.
The only question was what. He did not want to talk to anyone who had known their lives. He sold everything he owned but two pieces of art—a Rodin sketch, and a terrifying Bruce Kurland oil of zombie sea ducks—plus a couple of shotguns, a tent, his hiking clothes and (in case he changed his mind) his best English suit and shoes. He rented a car and drove into the sunset, not so much as slowing down until he reached the plains. Somewhere west of Miles City, Montana, he stopped and stood beside the road in the enormous empty dawn, naming the things he could see: meadowlark, juniper, arroyo, barbed wire fence, white faced cow, West. A magpie started the world again, rowing past, trailing a shining ribbon of tail. When he regained the car, his face was wet with a different kind of tears.
But Montana, as spoiled by people like him as New England had been, was no answer. All his friends went to Yellowstone, Paradise Valley, and the Bighorn to fish. They tended to regard Montana as a backdrop for casting nymphs while dressed in the right clothes. He himself had once flown to Bozeman, rented a boat on a spring creek south of Livingston, caught and released forty “decent” fish, and ended the day eating something called Navajo Shiitake: grilled mushrooms over what looked like chips of blue cardboard, served by a smiling surfer with an earring. The conversation had run toward the necessity of getting rid of ranchers, who despoiled the streambanks. Although he could recall no objections to any of this at the time, something about the memory made him turn sharply left before the mountains, down past the Indian reservations and coal mines, toward Sheridan, Wyoming. Wyoming mesmerized but failed to hold him. Endless stretches of sage and grass and dry streambed were populated only by drifting white specks that resolved into antelope, flaring marsh hawks and, once, a great black eagle that stood at the side of the road like a proud child. He felt as though he were driving in the sky. Colorado’s front range was an endless suburb of traffic, precisely spaced state troopers, and too many radio stations. He didn’t slow down until he dropped over Raton Pass into New Mexico.
Raton was a funky old mining town hidden in a crack in the mountains with no tourists and a preponderance of Italian names in the phone book. He spent an idle evening in a bar, enjoying himself. He was thinking about New Mexico: Ernest Thompson Seton, rough riders, Aldo Leopold, grizzlies, Apaches.
He asked the bartender for a road map, with a vague recollection of place names from Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. The southwestern quarter of the state had plenty of place names, but almost no roads. His finger traced a roadless square; thumb and index finger held against the scale of miles, then bounced along the roads, north and south. There was a piece as big as Connecticut down there with no lines through it. Luna, a name from Leopold, on the west; Kelly and Santa Rita on the east.
“What’s that area there called?”
“Not much. The Gila, I guess. I got a brother-in-law who goes hunting down there.”
The Gila. A vision came to his mind then for a moment, from nowhere: blue mountains, lion-colored plains, big animals. He wandered through the door into a cold black night full of stars. Six hours after sunrise, he ascended a series of switchbacks out of the Rio Grande Valley, to top out in the land of his vision.
Six months later Nick met his new best friend, on a cold blue fall morning after the flowers had died but while the aspens still made gold impressionist slashes against the slate of the mountains. He had hoped his dreamed-for life of action would just naturally evolve from being in such a fine place. First, he reactivated his old falconry permit and bought a huge restless gyrfalcon from a breeder in Sheridan. He found some work painting birds for a neotropical specialist at the university, rented a four-room house that had once belonged to a ranch foreman, and painted the inside a stark white, deciding to wait until meaningful possessions suggested themselves.
They didn’t. Life soon came to consist of drinking Black Jack and beer in and out of the Stockman’s Saddle Saloon. His substitute for action became falconry. Every day, he flew his silver gyrfalcon Cara on the Plains of St. Augustine, where there was no game, only the ravens that were both illegal and, in Nick’s mind, immoral, to kill.
He had had a hangover that day, but thought breathing cold air and seeing horizons might go a ways toward curing it. He climbed a rise west of dirt-road 70 until he could see the Datils rising twenty miles away across the old dry lake bed, a Tibetan flat seven thousand feet above sea level. A line of chalk-white radio telescopes in the distance were the only man-made features in the landscape; the bartender at the Saddle called them “Golf-tees of the Gods.”
He unhooded the hawk and stood with his head bowed until she ruffled her feathers, filled her wings, and floated her three and a half pounds off his fist as lightly as a dandelion seed. She turned down wind, then began to beat her wings, rowing for the horizon like a slow-motion movie suddenly snapping into real time. Although she looked as though she were running away, he knew better. Soon the hawk was a swallow-sized silhouette two thousand feet above, beating forward into the wind, sliding back down, beating forward again.
She knew as well as he did that there was no game; this was basically jogging on a track. He had a wicker crate of pigeons in the truck. Real athletic training for falcons demanded real pigeons, Belgian racing homers so fast even a jet-propelled arctic gyr felt challenged, missed, climbed higher and tried harder. Nick had not been able to summon up the concentration to build a sky-racer’s stable; the basket contained mere fodder, fat grain-fed commons from a farm in the Bosque. Releasing them under Cara was like feeding lab rats to pythons; still, she had to be served. He groped blindly in the basket, pulled one out, looked it over one last time for signs of disease, bowled it aloft, yelling “HAAAH!”
Cara dropped instantly as though shot, then began to beat her wings as she flew head- first toward the ground, corkscrewing, accelerating past gravity. A hundred feet above the ground, she turned her suicidal plunge at right angles and hit the bird like a baseball bat. Feathers trailed out over fifty feet of air as the pigeon crashed to earth with all the grace of a ruptured pillow. But instead of claiming her kill, Cara was heading up in a curve, out toward the Datils, where a pair of ravens was climbing toward a mutual battle front above the plain, croaking and circling.
Shit. Not only did he not want to kill a raven—he considered them as intelligent as he was and believed in spite of his skepticism that to kill one could bring on some obscure doom—but they were good enough fliers to take her the sixty mile length of the plain before she won or gave up. They could pull her into the mountains and make him chase electronic blips from her miniature leg-mounted transmitter for a week. They could even make him lose her forever. But not this time. In a moment one raven seemed to slide off even as the other rose. The falcon in turn abandoned her climb to peel off after the first. They dipped and flared and menaced, black and white shadows mirroring each other’s every move, then fell out of the sky together like stones, into a little grove of juniper back near the road. When they didn’t rise, he hopped into the truck and gunned it over the washboard, vibrating to the edge on every curve. He skidded to a stop as his dust caught up to him, and saw a black Suburban with mirrored windows parked between two of the neatly spaced trees. As he climbed out, the occupant rolled down the window and raised a hand. “They’re right in front of you. God damn. I’ve wanted to see that all my life. Can I buy you a drink?”
Caught between relief, disgust at the unwanted kill, and an almost sexual embarrassment at being caught in the death, Nick was never sure if he answered. He raised one finger in acknowledgement and stepped forward. The raven lay on its back, its black wings spasmed into a stiff upward curve four feet across. The gyr stood solidly on its breast, one fluffy black feather grasped firmly in her bill. She looked up at him, shook away the feather, said “kack,” clearly and with consonants, and stepped to his glove, her stout little hands shifting and gripping. He murmured meaningless endearments, fished around in his hawking bag for a hunk of pigeon, and handed it to her. Only then did he turn to the intruder.
“Thank you for not walking in.”
“I know better than that. I’ve read the book and seen the movie.”
“Whatever.” An impatient wave. “That’s a gyrfalcon, right?” He pronounced it as two words. “Gyre-falcon.”
“In that case I have to buy you a drink.” The face was long and pale and narrow under a dusty black cowboy hat. A rooster tail of straight black hairs fell over the collar of an ancient brown canvas jacket as the driver withdrew into the wagon’s tinted-glass gloom. In a moment it returned over an outstretched hand, holding a shot glass full of golden liquid. “Unless you have some kind of principle against it.”
“Not at all, no.” Suddenly it seemed the best of all possible resolutions. Holding the heavy bird high with his left hand, he reached out with his right and tossed back the shot. The smell and taste of the tequila burned through his awkwardness. “How the hell does anybody out here know what a gyrfalcon is?”
“Don’t be a Yankee asshole. Get that bird fed up and I’ll tell you all about it.” He paused and extended his hand adding, “Johnny Aragon.”
Their friendship was based on mutual admiration, mutual cultural incomprehension, and mutual immediate excess, and consisted of wide separated marathons of drinking, eating, talking, and chasing animals. They shared a fondness for tequila and brown liquor, not to mention the outspoken conviction they were smarter than everybody else except for a few tough articulate women who enjoyed the same, especially Juan’s difficult sister Cecilia.
The Aragons were local kids, born ten miles south of the pavement in Leon County. They were the product of an unlikely liaison between a land-grant scion from northern New Mexico’s insulated society and a Welsh-Jewish heiress from California. It had been a Romeo-and Juliet affair, and their residence in far-southwestern Leon County was considered by more conventional ranchers to be a kind of exile. Ostracism never bothered the elder Aragons. With her familial connections and his savvy they had made a modest fortune in oil and real estate, with which they had built a private empire in the mountains. They died together in the crash of their Cessna, probably drunk, when Juan was seventeen. Drink was a family trait, its excessive indulgence as inevitable an Aragon character as hawk noses, blue eyes, good manners, and horsemanship.
Aragon once described Cecilia, to Nick’s secret dismay, as a “bug zapper—you know, one of those blue-light boxes that buzzes and burns up everything it touches.” She was a vegetarian and style-queen, an even narrower and more elegant version of her brother, with premature silvery black hair and New York clothes and the kind of deliberately frenetic wit that Nick found almost heartbreaking.
They ran through a year as passionate and furious and thoughtless as children. They slept in the woods, drove all day to rodeos, talked and drank all night in motels, and never got hangovers. They saddled up and rode to the top of ten-thousand-foot Escondida peak in April, wallowing through belly-deep snowdrifts to celebrate what Juan called Aldo Leopold Day with tequila and champagne. The Aragons showed Nick his first lion that afternoon, hurrying nervously through the melting drifts, shaking drops off a forepaw, looking over his shoulder, leaving tracks the size of coffee-can lids.
And, of course, they chased things. Cecy would cast a number-22 dry fly, an artificial dust-mote almost invisible from ten feet away, on the nose of a rising trout that she would then release. She led Nick to the tiny headwater streams where the nearly extinct Gila golden trout still spawned, protected by walls of willow, beaver dams, and the indifference of industrial sportspersons. Juan scorned such effete sport. He taught Nick to fish for catfish in the tamarisk bayous along the Rio Grande. They’d go at night, with lanterns and cigars and plenty of mosquito repellent. The surroundings were eerie, the sounds extraterrestrial, the bait scary.
Juan scorned the stinking lumps of chicken guts, “buzzard bait” that worked for channel cats. He was after bigger game: carnivorous “flatheads” that weighed from twenty pounds up past one hundred, monsters that resembled whiskered tadpoles the size of dogs, above all, hunters that only ate things that moved. To attract them, Juan favored neotenic tiger salamanders for bait: axolotls. They were a foot long, cold and mottled and vibrating, with staring eyes and bushy gills and hands like tiny humans. Nick thought they looked like embryos, didn’t even like catching them in cattle tanks, never mind sticking hooks in them. Juan laughed, and cast them into the black water, where they swam in tethered circles. Cecy would watch and shake her head, but she too would stay all night.
Later in the bird season Juan and Cecy took him to a vast flatland ranch in the prairies south of Portales, where the only things that broke the oceanic horizon were windmills. The owner was an eccentric red-headed millionaire from the Midwest who now devoted his time to bird-banding, ballistics research, raising emus, and hunting Cape buffalo. They entered through a mile-long dirt drive with the emus racing beside the fence like reanimated dinosaurs. Jim’s ranch house was full of nineteenth-century English weaponry, dogs—field-trial pointers, Russian wolfhounds, Jack Russell terriers, heelers—and what seemed to be a complete collection of original Audubon lithographs by Havell.
He managed the place for cattle and deer, but above all for Prairie chickens, which he preferred to call “Pinnated grouse.” These were rare and local, legendary in bird-hunting history, high-flying flock birds with headdresses that danced like Plains Indians in the spring. Like them, they had followed the buffalo; like them, they were broken and scattered.
But not on Emu Ranch. They walked into the gray afternoon skies with the falcon bent like a bow against the wind five hundred feet above their heads. They were an incongruous hunting party. Nick looked appropriate with his moth-eaten gray fedora in an antique Stetson pattern, and a game vest over his denim coat. Jim resembled a farmer, with bib overalls and lace-up boots, his unshaven chin and bare head. By contrast, the Aragons were their usual elegant nearly-twin selves: black jeans, black packer boots, meant for riding more than walking, silver-belly hats, silver at their wrists and buckles. Juan also wore his ancient brown canvas barn coat and somehow seemed more in place for that. After a few hundred yards Jim sent his little black-and-white female pointer out to race back and forth in the precise arcs of a windshield wiper. As she bounded across their bows, arcing and disappearing in the shin-oak like a spotted porpoise, Nick felt exultant, all his cares flowing out and behind him downwind, to be replaced by clean prairie air.
Just as he tugged his hat more firmly onto his head the pointer slammed to a point as abruptly as if she had run head-on into an invisible wall. They trotted up to the dog, a sudden statue, only a vibrating tail to show she was alive. She rolled her eyes back to watch her human companions. Juan whooped, sprinted past the dog, and sailed his hat forward into the wind with a cowboy YEEE-HAH! Nick had been expecting a covey flush, a burst of four or five birds . Instead, an acre of dark grouse bigger than pigeons erupted from the stubble, first ten, then fifty, more and more, finally stragglers in twos and threes. Distracted by the thunder of the wings and the plaintive calls, Nick momentarily lost sight of the falcon. He caught her as she slashed across a grouse with a burst of feathers. It staggered, recovered, and headed for the horizon with the falcon in hot pursuit. In a moment they had vanished over the hillocks on the fence-line.
“What do we do now?” asked Jim.
“Follow that bird!” whooped Juan. They raced to the truck. Nick turned on the radio receiver, then paused.
“How far do those things fly?”
Jim squeezed his chin. “They can fly forever. But they usually head for trees or structure. There’s an abandoned homestead just past the section line… right over that little ridge.”
The sun was below the horizon and the colors were draining fast as they bumped along the rectangular grid of section roads. Jim turned on the headlights as Nick, holding the receiver’s earphones with both hands, tried to balance and interpret the beep at the same time: “louder… even louder… WAIT!”
They stopped where two straight dirt tracks intersected at right angles. Nick hopped out, waved the hand antenna up, down, left, and right. “North!”
“That’s where the homestead is.” Jim, smiling. Nick climbed in. In a moment the truck’s headlights illuminated a ghost building, gray and shivering, with black holes like eyes in a skull, a tattered elm shading the walk. The beeper was so loud it hurt Nick’s ears. He stepped from the truck to see the silver hawk glowing incandescent in the beams, bent in a curve over a gray- barred bird with splayed black head plumes. She reached down for a mouthful of feathers as he watched, shook her head irritably in the wind to clear her beak, bent again. She continued to ignore him as he picked her up with her quarry, pulled the grouse through his glove, and hid it behind his back. She was calm, almost in a trance, after the flight’s storm. After a moment she seemed to come to. She rearranged her feet, stood erect, polished her bill on the glove, and shook down her feathers. Nick looked back and his friends burst into applause. Cecy, the vegetarian, was clapping too, face solemn, eyes as black and enigmatic as the falcon’s.
That night, when Jim took two more grouse from his freezer, Cecy reached in for another. “There’s still meat I’ll eat. I want Cara’s though,” she added, looking at Nick who nodded his assent, as solemn as she.
Later Nick was to assign that evening any number of meanings, ones that shifted and would not come into the same focus twice. That night it only seemed to be more fun than he had ever had… the friends, the food, the electricity, the aftermath of action, even the fact that Cecilia had chosen the bird. He was high before he ever touched his wine. The wines were magical old Bordeaux from Jim’s amazing cellar. The table was lit by candles that illuminated his companions’ faces below, so they seemed to glow softly in the dark.. The conversation bounced like a ball tossed higher and higher. One moment they would be laughing madly at the sound of a word—“javelina” nearly reduced them to hysterics, as though they were stoned teenagers; the next moment they would sit and shiver as Juan told of a beloved horse he had shot when he thought it would never regain its feet, who had returned to stand blood-drenched in the moonlight in front of his door after he had had to drink himself to sleep, forcing him to, as he put it, “kill him again.” Juan described his ninja-style dispatch of a persistent poacher: he had ambushed and beaten him while wearing a black hood over his head, then dumped him hogtied at his favorite bar after pissing all over him.
Juan grinned. “Kill them all and let God sort ’em out—Amary, at Beziers.”
Nick shook his head. “Pretty overeducated for a Mexican redneck, aren’t you?”
“No stranger than a Yankee painter with an arctic falcon. Brother.” He raised his glass again. “To the old ways! Prairie chickens forever… and Comanches and cowboys…”
“Grizzly bears and wolves!” Jim.
“Lions and tigers and bears.” This from Cecilia. “Well, our own tigre, anyway.”
She stared darkly at Nick who felt compelled to raise the ante. “Imperial mammoths and dire wolves!”
“Thunderbirds and moonhorn buffalo!” Jim again.
“Revive the Pleistocene!” hollered Nick, remembering a poem. They all raised their glasses to that one, yelling and hooting as the prairie wind rattled the windows.
When he made his way to the guest house under the cold moon, he felt the heat was being sucked out of him into the black void above him, as if the world were falling under his feet. The air was unbearably sweet and cold, breath boiled out like smoke, and the hair stood up on the back of his head. He walked toward the wind again, knowing he couldn’t sleep yet. When he turned back toward the little adobe he saw Cecilia standing by the door like a ghost. When he approached she put her hand over his mouth, then turned and led him to the narrow bed. When he opened his mouth she touched her finger to it again, not smiling. “No.” She pushed him down backward onto the bed, stood, and began to remove her shirt, never taking her eyes from his. After a moment he sat up and unbuttoned his shirt.
They made love strenuously, almost painfully. Every time he began to speak she put her hand over her mouth, harder each time. She gritted her teeth and bit her lip and his and refused to scream when she squeezed her hips against him so hard it hurt, though at the end he had no such inhibitions.
A few minutes later he jerked, jumped awake from his post-coital daze to see her gathering her clothes in the cold gray light. “Quiet, don’t worry,” she whispered, and was gone. In spite of the cold and his puzzlement he was asleep again in an instant.
In the morning only her smell remained to tell him her presence had not been one of those half-waking dreams that plagued him when he was drinking too much and sleeping too little. At breakfast, he and John and Jim ate venison sausage, tortillas, eggs, and chile while she carefully dismembered a tangerine, washing it down with several cups of black coffee. She did not seek or avoid his eyes and seemed if anything more hyper and sardonic than ever, making quicksilver references to Nick’s “attack fowl,” Jim’s feudal empire, and her brother’s love life. When Nick tried to speak to her in the hall, she gave him a long and enigmatically sad look, saying only “Later, maybe.”
When they returned to Leon county Nick found himself unable to call her. He would not ask himself if he feared rejection or commitment more. Juan invited him for dinner the next week, where he was introduced for the first time to Marguerite Rossi and her brother Tom.
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