Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Hunter

Chapter One

The cloud cover was dense and forbidding. The humidity was so thick it was hard to breath. The atmosphere felt charged. Instinctively you knew thunder and lightning were immanent. Monsoon season in the desert wasn’t anyone’s favorite time of year. It was especially disliked for those who are on the hunt!

This weather really sucked Eli thought, as rivers of sweat ran down his spine. Sweat drops constantly fell from his forehead onto his dark cheek. His long black hair was pulled back into a tight braid that hung half way down his back. He listened intently to the sounds around him. The birds and ground squirrels as they headed for shelter before the sky unloaded on them. In the distance he could hear faint sounds of traffic on the far off highway.

He sensed that the wind would soon turn and begin blowing from the north. He’d seen it before, however usually from the comfort of his adobe style ranch house. In that moment he wished he was there right now. He wished that he was anywhere actually other than lying here prone. His elbows were dug into the soft Arizona dirt as he positioned the binoculars on his target. The wind began blowing harder and the creosote bush began slapping the side of his face. Days like this sucked Eli thought focusing on the small encampment that sat roughly two hundred yards from his position.

He was an expert hunter and tracker one of the very best in the entire country. He was often hired after others had failed. He was like a dog with a bone persistent and ruthless at the same time. This day he’d walked five miles in the dark, keeping off all the county maintained dirt roads. Usually that insured he would avoid both dogs and coyotes and the noise they made. He didn’t want his presence known. Some folks in the business called him the ghost. Not to his face of course but he’d heard the talk. It was said that he had no footfall, that’s how and why he did what he did.

The rumors and speculation he often heard about himself amused the big Indian. It gave him an always needed chuckle. There was no real mystery to him of course. He was flesh and bone like the rest of us. He’d grown up just outside Phoenix in a rural area known as Cave Creek in the eighties. He was half Mescalero Apache the other half Pima. After his parents were killed in an automobile crash he was sent to live with his maternal grandfather on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, when he was twelve.

He had not been raised in the Indian culture that his parents had both escaped. He’d been raised like every other American kid without any emphasis on his obvious Indian heritage. Moving to the reservation was a bit of a culture shock for the boy. His life had been very middle class. He’d lived in a rural subdivision, loved baseball and riding his bike. He played on the local little league team as the short stop. Back then Eli had been out going and funny, often times pulling pranks on his parents and friends. His parents both had good jobs. They drove nice cars and their life was full and happy. The reservation was nothing like anything in his point of reference.

His grandfather was wrapped tightly in his Apache culture. He was wary of whites and modernization. He preferred the old ways. The old man who was respectfully called White Owl was a massive figure standing nearly six feet four inches tall. Eli’s mother always said that he would be tall like his grandfather. White Owl was angry with his daughter for leaving the reservation although he understood that many from her generation had done so.

Standing here looking into the saddened face of his twelve year old grandson he felt reawakened. The old man could pass on his culture and his beliefs to the boy. He could not know in that moment that Eli was making plans of his own. There was poverty everywhere he looked. The entire area appeared to be broken and in disrepair. There were a few actual houses most were singlewide mobile homes or aging travel trailers. Collarless dogs of all sizes ran loose sometimes growling as he tried to pass.

The Indian School was a cinderblock building without heat or air conditioning. The teacher was as apathetic as the building she taught in. As far as Eli could tell no one cared much about anything. Quickly he learned why many of the men did not work. He discovered that they received checks from the government not large ones mind you but enough to scrape by on. It was enough to buy all the liquor they wanted and that is exactly what most of them did with the money. Previously he’d never seen a drunken adult but that changed on the very first day he arrived.

His grandfather wasn’t a drinker but he did like his pipe. He smoked the herb often and sometimes he saw things. Sometimes he talked to his ancestors. Mostly that scared Eli. He was beginning to think the old man was crazy, but he said nothing. After all what could he say he was just a boy? It was then that Eli turned inward he rarely spoke. That was not to say that he wasn’t paying attention because he was. He was an amazing listener having the opportunity to hear his grandfather’s stories again and again.

In every season his grandfather took him out into the desert or the mountains for at least two weeks. It was like camping trips he’d been on with his parents but without the amenities. His grandfather taught him to read the stars to use them as a sort or road map in the sky. He taught him to fish without a rod and reel. He’d make Eli sit by the edge of the stream for what seemed like hours on end. He would instruct him to be patient and watch the fish to learn what they do and how they move. “Let them become used to your presence” he’d say again and again. When Eli reached in and grasped his first fish successfully bringing it onto the rocks beside him, both he and his grandfather were ecstatic. His grandfather told him if you can fish you will never go hungry.

They would sit in the mountains silently. The animals would appear as if by magic. He learned the names and tracks of every indigenous creature in both the mountains and the desert. Once in the desert, down near Tucson Eli found a set of tracks he had never seen before. His grandfather told him he was tracking the black ghost warning him to stop. Eli confident that his grandfather was over reacting continued. He found the cat and her cubs. He stood frozen she was so beautiful. Her coat lush it was this amazing blue black color with only a hint of a pattern hidden in the lush darkness of her fur. He’d never seen anything like her. She was muscular and compact roughly two hundred and fifty pounds Eli was awe struck.

The cat roared as she took in the sight of the large boy. Their eyes met hers were as black as coal and shown like diamonds. He stood watching as her cubs peeked out from behind her wondering curiously about the stranger. With her large paws she kept them back. Eli remembered that something in her demeanor changed which immediately made him relax. He wasn’t certain how long he stood there watching her and the cubs but he knew in his heart he had been allowed to witness something very special.

His grandfather was proud telling the young boy he had a gift. Few men could hunt the black ghost and be successful. In all his years he had not heard a story like the one his young grandson told. He was a born hunter or so his grandfather told him. Their trips included hunting with snares for small animals like rabbits and other small rodents. Traps and snares were made from the things around him. He was good with his hands and a quick study.

He graduated to a bow and arrows traditional and very affective. His grandfather helped him make the first one. The boy had a good eye and a steady hand. They started small first rabbits, then pronghorn working up to the larger mule deer. Over the course of two years and daily practice the boy was the best on the reservation. His accuracy became far superior to anyone in his age category. Soon he was competing against the adults and winning often. His grandfather was terribly proud of his grandson happy that he had embraced his Apache culture.

At fourteen on their spring hunting trip his grandfather brought along a rifle. Eli had never seen it before and didn’t know his grandfather kept a rifle. The brass was beautifully engraved and the stock was made of oak. He would learn later that it was a Winchester 30-30. The first time he fired it the noise scared him as he had not known what to expect. The barrel had risen up with the shot being wild and without purpose. They were camped on the edge of a creek under tall trees where the earth was soft. He laid the gun down for the day and went off to fish for their dinner.

His grandfather had a way of explaining things that were filled with hints of his ancestors. His Indian culture over time became easy for Eli to interpret. His grandfather did not want killing things to be done easily or taken lightly. He told him that all creatures have a purpose and a meaning in the world. We must take game to eat but never for sport. He remembered that his grandfather seemed very far away before he spoke again that night. When he did he told him that in life there are times that men must kill one another. Though not for food or sport but in war or for self preservation.

White Owl was wise and well respected in his community. He had seen war as a younger man. He served in the army in 1943 and was sent into combat in the south pacific. He never spoke of the things he had witnessed there. However his presence there had changed him forever. He returned home married and settled in raising his family. He worked for a time off the reservation in a mine where he found equally the same amounts of prejudice and ignorance as he had encountered in the military.

He raised his family in the Indian way he hunted and farmed allowing nature to provide. He lost both his son and daughter to the influence of the sixties and the pull of white culture. His son left first. He died in his early twenties of a drug overdose somewhere in northern California. His daughter who previously had been an obedient child wanted a different life off the reservation. Soon she followed her brother. Her path was more defined leading her to nursing school, marriage and a family. His wife a beautiful woman called Sweet Water, died of a fever in the late 1970’s. His daughter remained in touch and visited with her family every year but years later he would lose her too.

He felt redeemed with the arrival of Eli. He felt a strong sense of obligation to insure he remained on the right path. Taking another man’s life is a great responsibility as well as a heavy burden to carry through life. The old man explained to Eli that death was never to be taken lightly and killing although it may occur naturally should never come easily. Eli had heard it at least a thousand times. He thought he understood the message but could not entirely until much later in his life.

Like the bow that Eli loved so much he soon learned to adapt to the Winchester equally as well. His grandfather set up targets at a variety of distances for him to practice shooting. Slowly and carefully he aimed the rifle sighting the target in. He inhaled deeply then gently and smoothly squeezing the trigger. Time after time his bullet hit its mark. With each success his grandfather made his next target more difficult.

Eli was deadly anything stationary was at his mercy. Now it was time to move on to moving targets. First it was rabbits and squirrels. Then he moved onto birds like quail, pheasants, ducks and the occasional goose. Moving targets were much more of a challenge for the young marksmen. Yet he always had to take into account that he could not take down more game than he could eat.

Fortunately, many people on the reservation now counted on him for their meat. He soon graduated from small game to much larger game. Sadly in a moment of survival he was forced to kill a female black bear that charged him. He did not know in that moment she was only trying to protect her cubs. No matter the 30-30 ended her life. He took the young cubs to a wildlife preserve he’d heard of not wanting to leave them on their own. He knew with certainty that they would not survive.

To this day he cannot eat bear meat. The experience of killing the mother bear had stayed with him just as his grandfather hoped it would. Presently Eli was nearing his sixteenth birthday. He had grown strong and tall standing, almost six feet two inches. He roamed the mountains and desert in his free time. He loved learning all the nuances of each place more intimately. His grandfather trusted his judgment and his skill in tracking and survival. He had taught him well and encouraged the outings. He was growing older and the mountain trails had become more difficult for him to climb.

Eli although very quiet was popular amongst the other teenagers on the reservation. They admired his skills and his independence. Many of the kids his age were dabbling in drugs and most had been drinking for years. Neither drugs nor alcohol interested Eli he was much more enamored with the nature that surrounded him.

He was a fair student who took his school work seriously. What he lacked were inspired teachers unlike his grandfather who never tired of teaching him the Indian ways or about the world that surrounded him. In spite of the lackluster instructors he managed B’s and C’s in all his subjects.

His grandfather gave him the prized 30-30 rifle as a sixteenth birthday gift. The gesture touched the boy much more than his grandfather knew. The two had become friends and over the course of time they had become family. The old man had earned Eli’s respect and in return gave him respect back. It was 1991 and the world had changed drastically since his grandfather was Eli’s age. Now there was something called the internet that linked the world together in an instant.

That August while listening to the radio, it was reported that a six year old boy was missing. He’d wandered away from his parent’s campsite in the Tonto National Forrest. Eli's grandfather looked up from his pipe. “You are the only one who can find him. Get your things I will drive you to the park”. Eli was always up for one of his grandfather’s challenges but this time a kid was involved. Small waves of uncertainty washed over him as he assembled his gear but he refused to give into to it.

At the base camp of the ranger’s search party the grandfather spoke with the man in charge offering his grandsons services but was promptly rebuffed. “They had the matter in hand and did not need anyone else becoming lost in the large park” the man answered cutting to the heart of the matter.

Eli saw a young woman crying nearby and assumed she was the child’s mother. Cautiously he approached her. “I’m sorry mam but I’m certain we’ll find him” he said gently. Continuing in the same tone he pressed on asking her the boys name and where the campsite was. He asked what the boy was wearing and what time they noticed that he had gone missing. Not knowing one searcher from another the grieving and worried woman gave Eli all the information he’d asked for.

He knew the boys name was Tommy and he was wearing jeans and a red and white striped t-shirt and that he was carrying a navy blue backpack. She said he’d only taken it off when he went to sleep. It contained his camping gear and he was pretending to be a ranger. He also learned that the boy was bright for his age and very interested in nature. He would sometimes pretend to have discovered Big Foot she told Eli trying to make him understand her child in that brief moment.

It was late afternoon thankfully the sun wouldn’t set until seven-thirty so there was plenty of time to begin his search. The weather was unseasonably warm and therefore the boy was in no danger of freezing. The parks wildlife, well that was another matter. Eli found the campsite although now abandoned it was easily recognizable from the hundreds of footprints that had trampled away any evidence of which direction the boy might have taken.

Looking around the beautiful spot he heard the breeze rustling through the pine trees and he could hear the faint babble of a nearby stream. He turned his attention in that direction knowing that when he was six years old a creek or stream made for hours of fun. He knelt near the waters edge and there he spotted the knee impression of someone small.

Looking in all directions trying to take in all the boy had seen. Carefully he looked for small footprints in the soft soil at the waters edge. The earth has a way of telling you things that you need to know. Eli could hear his grandfather saying this inside his head. The tracks wandered aimlessly for about thirty feet before they stopped abruptly. Looking into the creek there he spied a set of stones. They were perfect stepping stones just begging for a young boy to cross.

On the other side the small tracks reappeared. The way they moved the pattern of the prints told Eli that the boy was watching something or someone. The tracks were purposeful and determined. In that moment Eli wondered what he had seen that had attracted his attention so thoroughly that it would cause him to wander away from his family.

He widened his own search pattern first moving to the right and then to the left. That was when he saw them cat prints and not small bobcat prints these were large. He knew this print. He’d seen it once before. It wasn’t a cougar or Puma as they are sometimes called in the southwest. The prints are similar in size but the black ghost has a larger back pad and their toes are much closer to the pad.

Eli realized instantly upon seeing the fresh tracks that the boy was following a large female jaguar. The boy was in serious danger. From the moment he first saw the black ghost it had captured his imagination. He’d read everything he could on the mysterious animal that wasn’t supposed to exist in Arizona.

He’d studied everything he could get his hands on and knew more about the animal than most. He understood that the black ones were rare the melanstic allele’s only occurred in roughly six percent of the jaguar population. Most had patterns that resembled that of a leopard but the rosettes on the jaguar’s patterns are much larger.

Jaguars are serious and skilled hunters they are usually careful to steer clear of humans. Yet Eli knew that a small wandering boy would be an easy kill. The tracks continued further into the woods then began climbing steadily Eli’s pack was large and heavy he stopped momentarily to reposition it before he continued on. He’d brought along food and supplies for a week and extra for the boy. He was certain he would be hungry and thirsty.

As he proceeded a little further the tracks merged. The jaguar had cleverly circled back and stopped beside the last complete tracks left by the boy. After that he followed the cat tracks with the occasional small tennis shoe print intermingled. Eli wasn’t certain of what to make of this. If she had killed him there the place should have been blood soaked. He was puzzled. He was beginning to think she was carrying the boy. He was heavy and periodically she would set him down only to pick him up again continuing on her way. The pattern repeated until the steeper part of the climb.

The sky told Eli that it was nearing seven o’clock he knew the big cat would continue to move until she had the boy exactly where she wanted him. He wondered why she had not taken him earlier. Why not kill him and have her meal then she could move on? This was not usual behavior for any cat and especially a successful hunter like the jaguar. Something inside told him he must continue to move on because if he didn’t it would be too late.

Reaching the top of the second tree covered hill he stopped to take in the area. He strained in the poor light to see in front of him. He listened to the sounds of the forest at dusk. The rustle of the trees, birds bedding down for the night, rabbits heading for their burrows. Then he heard a distant sound. The sound was not part of the natural sounds he expected to hear in the forest at this time of the evening. He headed towards it climbing further up the mountain side in the darkness.

The mountain became rockier and the trees in this area became sparse. He did not want to use the flashlight not wanting to spook the animals or give him self away. The starlight would have to do. As he struggled to maintain his balance as the grade became steeper he heard the sound again. He was getting closer. The sound was a small whine and not that of an animal but that of a very frightened boy.

Further up the now treacherous path more so in the darkness, Eli continued on slowly and steadily. The land leveled out and there not thirty feet in front of him were several cave openings. A perfect place for a cat to eat her meal in peace. It was so far from where his search began at least nine miles maybe a little more. He stood bone still listening with every part of his being hoping the boy was still alive.

The breeze was on his side blowing his scent in the opposite direction. Stealthily he made his way one painstaking step at a time. Quieting his breathing outside the first cave he listened but heard nothing. Summoning his courage he peered into the darkness then shown his flashlight finding it shallow and empty but for bird nesting materials.

He moved onto the next cave listening in the darkness. Then he heard that faint whining sound. It was a child trying not to cry, trying not to be afraid. He could hear the child sucking in air trying to calm him self in the blackness. He focused his attention on that cave listening for sounds of the cat. Maybe an hour passed before he heard her. It was an almost purring sound.

Eli didn’t have a plan and he needed to have one and soon. He poked his head into the cave for a split second but could not see a thing. His nose told him the cat was in there he could smell her muskiness. The cave did not smell like blood or a fresh kill although he could smell the child’s fear. If he was right they were at the back of the cave. He figured the cave to be about seven feet deep, four feet high and four feet wide. Eli realized that he would need to wait until morning. If he tried anything tonight he just might get the boy killed.

He slept some sitting up outside the cave with his trusty 30-30 in hand. He heard a raven caw as the first crease of sunlight rose directly across from them. Wiping the sleep from his eyes he listened hard for an interminable amount of time. Then he heard the boy. He was talking to the jaguar. “I won’t hurt you girl. I don’t know why you brought me here, but I like your house” the boy said in a soft whisper.

Eli could not hear any sounds coming from the cat. He edged slightly closer to the opening then carefully peered inside. The cave was just slightly larger than he calculated in the darkness. To his surprise on a small ledge of granite lay the jaguar her blackness making it nearly impossible to see her in the early light. She was stretched out, her legs and belly facing outward. He could not see the boy but he could hear him now and in an almost sing song voice it seemed he was trying to sooth the big cat.

She had placed the boy behind her as if to protect him. How odd Eli thought she’s acting like he’s her cub. How that could be he did not understand but his instinct told him he was right and that made the situation all the more volatile. That meant she would protect the boy as if he were her own. Another quick peek told him that her teats were fully engorged. He could only assume that she had recently delivered and lost her cub or cubs they generally bore two.
Her hormones must be out of whack and she took the boy as a replacement.

Far off in the distance he could hear dogs. Most likely search dogs, maybe blood hounds. Eli was afraid if the other search party stumbled on to them they would surely kill the black ghost. He knew from his studies that their population was few. He couldn’t allow them to kill her. He would need to think of a way to save them both.

Fortunately opportunity comes to those who wait patiently and it shinned its light on them all that morning. There was a rustling below and from nowhere appeared a pronghorn he was limping. As quietly as possible Eli climbed above the cave. He realized that the sound of the animal in distress would most likely attract the jaguar. Only a moment later he was proven to be right. The jaguar stealthily exited the small cave her eyes focused on her next meal.

In her mind her cub was safe inside the cave and the pronghorn was an opportunity she could not pass up. He watched as she silently and gracefully made her way down the mountain towards the injured animal. Once he was certain there was enough distance between them he jumped down from his perch. He entered the cave seeing the startled look on the child’s face. “Tommy its ok, I’m gonna get you out of here”.

Carrying the child piggyback he carefully maneuvered down the steepest part of the descent. In the distance he could hear the cat claiming her meal. Further away still he heard the sound of the dogs as they loudly proceeded up the mountainside. This would soon scare off the jaguar her self preservation would supersede her hormonal imbalance and she would flee.

After they had traveled half the distance they needed to cover Eli stopped. He set the boy down realizing he hadn’t spoken to him or checked to see if he was injured. His attention had been solely focused on getting him away safely. “I’m Eli” he said smiling at the dirty child. “Are you hurt? Did she hurt you? He asked already knowing the answer. “No’ the child said meekly. “I got scratches and stuff from when she carried me by my backpack. I think that’s ruined. She licked my cuts and scraps and kept me warm. I think she thought I was her baby or something” he wisely remarked.

The boy drank from Eli’s canteen and ate a piece of a chocolate bar. Then wiping his face he asked” are you an Indian or something?” “Yup I’m half Apache and half Pima on my father’s side.” “Wow” the boy replied “I’ve never met a real Indian before”. The boy walked some wanting to prove to Eli that he was a good ranger but after a mile it was easy to see the ordeal had taken its toll. Eli hoisted the boy onto his broad shoulders then they began making much better time.

Just before eleven in the morning Eli walked into the searchers base camp. He immediately spotted his grandfathers pickup truck and the blonde woman he’d spoken with the day before. The boy had fallen asleep almost before Eli had taken the first few steps that would bring him back to his parents. His mother was sitting at a picnic table when she spotted the pair striding towards her. She jumped to her feet running for all she was worth toward her child. Who in that moment appeared lifeless.

She screamed out an anguished “Nooo” as she approached. At that sound the rangers and everyone in the base camp turned their attention towards Eli and the boy. Eli reached up and shook the boy gently. “Tommy your back, your Mom’s right there”. The boy sat up bone straight on Eli’s shoulders. “Mom” he cried. Eli set him down and watched as mother and son hugged and cried, each talking at once.

Eli did not see his grandfather approach but found him at his side as the lead ranger strode towards them. He looked carefully at Eli and the old man. Looking directly into his grandfathers gray eyes he said” I’m very sorry that I dismissed you so abruptly the other day. I am grateful that your grandson found the boy and brought him back safely. You both have my sincere apology and my gratitude.” Then he extended his hand to the old man and then to Eli. “Well done son, well done” the ranger said.

After more thank you's and a full explanation of the boy’s ordeal Eli and his grandfather headed home. Both were filled with a sense of pride and satisfaction. That day left a mark on Eli that would follow him throughout his life. It was then that he knew what he wanted to do. His grandfather had told him for many years now that his destiny was as a hunter. Though not of animals but of men. Until that moment he’d never really paid much attention to the old man because he said a lot of things. Although the older he became the more those things began to make sense.

Later that year Eli graduated from the reservation school at seventeen. Collage did not seem like an option for him. He preferred studying in his own way and in his own time. Knowing what he didn’t want to do was easier to understand than what he did want to do. He didn’t want to be a miner preferring to be above ground. Sometimes he worried because his future seemed so uncertain. He did not want to end up like some of the men on the reservation. They were lost, broken, devoid of hope or ambition and chronically unemployed.

Talking seriously with his grandfather over time had become a comfort. He wasn’t embarrassed to share his fears. The old man was a careful listener and he had come to know his young grandson well. He thought for a long time before he spoke knowing that his words would send the boy far away from him. Part of him selfishly wanted him to stay but his virtue won out.

The rest of the story maybe be purchased at Smashwords.