Thursday, September 17, 2009

North to Alaska...Outside Influences

Early morning, the fourth of September. I was still trying to get Todo to eat some of Jack's oatmeal for breakfast, but not having any luck. Just as well; it left more for us, and it was warm, filling and welcome on a cold, crisp morning.

Rain was coming down steadily, making our rain gear and hip boots indispensable. They were the only way we had stayed somewhat warm and semi-dry. Clouds settled in and for some time now had prevented us from seeing the magnificent peaks across the bay.

We observed small, fast boats working the shoreline--hunting bear the easy way, we presumed. Todo and I pulled at the oars as we skimmed briskly across the surface of the bay. We shot toward the mouth of the stream and the area we had been hunting for the past few days. Two strangers in a speeding boat rounded the point, and seeing our intent, speeded up and raced to the beached barge, intending to cut off our access to the area.

They beached and tied off near the wreckage as one of them jumped out, rifle in hand, peering upstream. It was obvious they intended to claim the area and acted as though we did not exist. I forced conversation by asking if they were hunting. "Yep," one replied. "Good luck. We've been working this stream for the last three days," I replied. We moved past them and on upstream as if there had been no conflict of intentions.

Some half a mile beyond them we pulled the canoe into heavy cover, secured it and headed into the forest, working together for an hour or so before deciding to separate for a while. Todo took up a position settling into the crest of a sheer bluff overlooking our stream and a small opening below. I worked my way down the cliff face and used a fallen log to cross over without getting wet. Our stamina was improving. I looked over my shoulder, waved at Todo and moved off and away up the other slope.

The forest was beautiful, but thick. Had it not been for the temperature, I'd have sworn I was in a tropical rain forest. Finally breaking clear of heavy growth, I moved into an open meadow and took up a position on its far side with an active game trail in view. A light drizzle turned into a steady rain. I couldn't recall, hard as I tried, who had said "bear hunting is always best in the rain."

As the mantle of dusk settled around us, we had come back together and moved downstream in our canoe. The two men we had seen earlier had beached their boat on our island near our camp but were nowhere in sight. We struggled to reach the island quickly. We felt outrage and a degree of helplessness at the same time. Larry and Jack's canoe shot into view. They reached the island well ahead of us. They had already been aboard their canoe when they saw the strangers slide onto the rocky beach of our island. We saw Larry and his dad move into the forest immediately upon making shore. Their visit with the strangers was short, efficient and to the point. We saw the interlopers break free of the treeline, leap into their boat and leave a small rooster tail in their wake as they shot across the water, seeking only distance and refuge. They never bothered us again. Tomorrow was to be our last full day on the island. We wanted to make it count.

Friday, September 11, 2009

North To Alaska... Small Things

The rising sun had to worry its way through heavy, laden clouds this morning. It never really broke through. The light would brighten, then dim depending on the density of the clouds. We were kind of lazy around camp, and mid-morning were surprised to hear the distant hum of an engine slowly increasing in volume. A bush pilot dropped through the dense cloud cover and landed deep in the bay, much nearer to the mainland. He and a companion offloaded gear and set up their camp beyond the treeline on the beach. This cut us off from several tributaries we wanted to explore. There went the neighborhood!

Todo and I canoed to the same stream we had explored yesterday. I shucked my backpack and, using it as a pillow, stretched out on the bank, watching Todo through hooded eyes. With infinite patience, he cast repeatedly into the churning water. There were thousands of fish, but he never got a strike. A fine mist settled in, and water trickled off our ponchos and the brims of our caps. I dozed briefly, then sat up and stretched. An idea had formed. Protected by chest waders, I slowly eased into the water. Going out until it was knee deep, I turned and faced upstream. Resting my elbows on my knees, I looked into the water and waited.

Within a few seconds, a large bull silver salmon surged between my legs. I grabbed it just ahead of its tail, straightened up and threw it at Todo's feet. "Knock him in the head with a rock, would you, pard? I'll get another one," I coaxed. By the time Todo found a rock and dispatched the fish, I had thrown another at his feet and stood there grinning proudly. He frowned, staring at me, then looked at the rod and reel in his hand. After a couple of seconds, he glanced up at me, smiling around the cigar clamped in his teeth. He tossed the rod backward over his shoulder. Laughing out loud, he joined me in the stream. That's how we fished from then on.

We returned to camp with two good fish each. They were quickly filleted and fried up on the camp stove. Larry and his dad had stayed in camp to rest up from yesterday. Our joints and muscles were in revolt from what we had put them through the day before. The smell of the frying fish was intoxicating. It woke Larry, who came staggering out of his tent. He was a sight, with reddened eyes, tousled hair and knotted fists digging into the small of his aching back. Being extremely fatigued, his morning hunt started a bit late--around three o'clock that afternoon, as I recall.

Rain had settled in around nine that morning. It would come hard, then lighten up. It would not stop for the next 28 hours. Nothing stayed dry. Realizing rain was a constant companion, we returned to the mainland mid-afternoon. Todo and I worked our way once again up our stream. We stayed near the water and worked along the banks, zig-zagging from side to side using dead falls as natural bridges. We crossed back and forth across the water several times.

At one point we rested on the edge of a high-walled crossing spanned by a huge dead fall. An eddy had formed beside a large boulder in the churning rush below. Within that small, perfect pool of clarity, suspended and motionless, was the largest rainbow trout I had ever seen. Briefly, sunlight filtered through the prism of water and reflected a dazzling array of color from his scales beneath the surface. His tail undulated slowly from side to side.

Todo rested a hand on my shoulder and indicated with a whisper he was going to try to catch him. He inched down the bank and eased into the water a short distance upstream. I had never seen him show such patience. Ever so slowly, he approached the eddy. He seemed to become one with the rocks and the water. He eased forward and approached the fish an inch at a time. The depth hovered just above his waist. Almost too slowly to see, his right hand rose in the water. The palm faced up and was cupped slightly. He ever so lightly stroked the underside of that trout, sliding his hand gently back along its length. Then, his fingers locked around the trunk just before reaching the tail. Water exploded around and over him. Lifting the huge fish high over his head, he laughed aloud in delight, almost falling. For an instant, he transcended humanity and almost became a god of the forest. Larger than life, he had briefly touched perfection and rejoiced in it.

You know, he never did catch a fish with the $40 reel he purchased at the 'Hook, Line & Sinker' back in Valdez.

* This posting is dedicated to the 2,819 innocents murdered on this date in 2001 in a senseless act of madness.

Friday, September 4, 2009

North To Alaska... Into The Wilds

With the canoe pulled into heavy cover, we began to work our way inland. Walking beside the stream, we saw numerous bear tracks and partially eaten salmon. Moving away from the banks we encountered deep beds of peat moss. Various ferns and broad-leafed plants were profuse. Jack had identified one as broad leaf Astor, remembering seeing them on an earlier outing in Canada. More huge trees towered over us, and the undergrowth was dragging against our every step. We searched for more open country hoping we could see a greater distance.

Finally we broke free of the jungle and were somewhat startled to find ourselves on the perimeter of a huge open meadow. The thick beds of peat made walking extremely tedious and we tired quickly. On occasion, what appeared to be solid ground gave way suddenly beneath our feet. A leg could plunge into submerged pools of water, hidden until you stepped into them. For this reason, when away from camp we lived in chest waders and prodded ahead with staffs cut for that purpose.

We covered a considerable area, though resting frequently. Beautiful views emerged. Snow-crested mountains surrounded Fidalgo Bay. At one point, a group of mountain goats on a sheer bluff emerged some distance away. We enjoyed watching them through binoculars and observing their antics, but knew the range was too great. We could never pull off a successful stalk and pack out an animal before dark descended. After last night, we did not want to be caught out here by the setting sun.

Turning and working slowly downward, we reentered the dense forest growth. The peat moss was amazing. It embraced any fallen tree and absorbed it into a soft smothering blanket of green sponge. Forcing our way onward through the verdant growth, we could see no more than some thirty yards at best. Bear sign was very prevalent. There would be no room for error if we came upon one of the brutes now. The words of our boat captain rushed back to me. "Never hunt alone. A bear's heart only beats twelve or thirteen times a minute--you can blow his heart to bits and he still has two or three minutes to be thoroughly pissed at you before he cashes in!" Sage advice!

Completing the descent down a nearly sheer wall of some thirty feet, we walked side by side along a ridge that was ten to fifteen feet wide. Below and away, another wall dropped an additional forty feet into the rapids of the rushing stream beneath us. I saw Todo hesitate, then stop. We had hunted so long together, my reaction was immediate. I froze, looking to the spot his nod indicated. From the thicket ahead, I saw the vapor of breath floating in the still, cold air. Dropping to one knee, I rested my elbow and rifle on the other. We were hot and somewhat winded. I pulled in deep lungs full of air and waited for my pulse to settle. We watched the clouds of breath form and disperse regularly in the air ahead.

Breathing evenly, I gripped my rifle tightly, nodded at Todo, and we separated to approach the dense growth from different angles. We were now right on top of it. The breath disappeared as we eased into the lair. There was no sign of the animal. A limb snapped off to the right and we waited expectantly. The imprints of huge pads littered the area. We moved slowly ahead. The bluff below was rent by the passage of the large beast as it descended to the stream beneath. There was no visible sign of it. There was only the stillness and the lingering musky smell of its body hanging in the air. The sound of water gurgled below. We felt far more relief than disappointment. The encounter had not been on our terms at all. Some time later, we found our canoe and pushed off.

We relished rare steaks and scotch for supper. A simple meal, but one of the most enjoyable in my memory. Later, we sat on the shoreline of our temporary home with arms folded over our knees, smoking cigars and enjoying a symphony of the night. Not of sound, but sight, as the Northern Lights splayed their sparkling hews of magic across the silent velvet expanse of a flawless Alaskan sky.

Friday, August 28, 2009

North To Alaska... Staking A Claim

We had been told of a plywood platform constructed in the heart of a huge spruce grove near the center of the island. A prolonged study of bald eagles had been conducted from this site years earlier. It was there we intended to set up camp. Supposedly, there were no bears on this island. It was said one rested much more soundly knowing that a large Kodiak bear would not wake you digging a Snicker bar out of your shirt pocket in the middle of the night.

Sleet pelted us as we lowered our canoes over the side of 'The Alaskan Dream.' The four of us began to ferry food, camping gear, tents, weapons, bedding and a large variety of personal effects ashore. The wind had risen and the tides ran strong as we worked against the elements to achieve our goal. It proved impossible to hit the island shoreline at the same point with each transfer, so we ended up with supplies scattered up and down a 100-yard stretch of rocky beach. The tide was moving strongly out, and it proved quite difficult to locate the wooden platforms in the dark and driving sleet.

We finally established our campsite, and Larry and his dad began the work of constructing camp as Todo and I carried our supplies up from the various landing points along the beach. The trees and vegetation were extremely thick. Sweat soaked us from within and freezing rain sought us from without. Our breath huffed steaming plumes into the air as we moved through an Arctic jungle. A small dome of lantern light pushed back against heavy darkness that would have been complete.

There was no topsoil as such. A type of peat moss covered everything, making walking very difficult and tedious. The camp was finally assembled and secure. We fell into our bedding, completely exhausted, taken by sleep that was immediate and without dreams.

My eyes fluttered open just before the sky began to brighten the next morning. Slipping out of the tent, I soon had coffee boiling over the camp stove. During the night, the clouds had broken and bright stars were beginning to fade away into the early light of dawn. It was now in the mid-forties, and the others began to stir. We were in awe of the new world surrounding us. Huge spruce trees towered overhead.

Random droplets trickled from the boughs high above. When they passed through spots of air open to the rays of the newly risen sun, they would explode into flashes of brilliance in that golden light, then vanish passing again into shadow. Various ferns and smaller trees were abundant. Bald eagles roosted in the limbs above. Crimson streaked stray clouds in the sky beyond the canopy above. Bacon crackled in a cast-iron skillet on the stove top. Thoughts turned to breakfast, which was savored and unrushed.

Todo and I paired off in one of the canoes, stowed our gear and pushed off into the bay. Larry and his dad (now dubbed 'Yukon' Jack) moved to our right, moving east and deeper into the glassy waters. After several minutes, we approached the mainland. Ahead, a strong stream surged as its waters rushed to merge with those of the bay. Slack jawed, we observed silver salmon fighting their way upstream by the thousands, with the water roiling under their assault. We dug oars deeply into the water and pulled our canoe through the open mouth of that stream, passing what appeared to be an old mining barge beached some distance inland along the banks. Its timbers still appeared solid despite its obvious age.

Perhaps half a mile upstream, we pulled the canoe onto the bank into heavy cover. Bear sign was plentiful. Half-eaten fish, bear tracks and other sign littered the shore. Gulls swarmed overhead by the hundreds. They were joined by a good scattering of bald eagles. Everything seemed to be feeding on the glut of fish. Many of the salmon appeared healthy as I squatted to study them. They defied irresistible currents to fight upstream, find the perfect spot and lay their treasured eggs. This done, their bodies now battered by semi-submerged rocks and boulders, the salmon ceased to fight and drifted listlessly, slowly back downstream.

The birds dove with tireless beaks striking at the salmon broken bodies. The assault continued as they drifted listlessly back toward the bay, finally dying. Many were consumed by the birds and animals on shore. Others gently settled back into the still depths of the bay to feed other aquatic life. Otters frolicked and feasted across the bays in large numbers. Fleeting shapes of larger fish would flash by our canoes, just below the surface. Before our disbelieving eyes, an amazing panorama of life, death and rebirth was playing out its great drama.

Friday, August 21, 2009

North to Alaska... We're There!

It was just after eleven p.m. on August 31st as we crossed the state line into Alaska. The lone custom agent at the remote post had once been stationed in El Paso and even knew of our hometown of Premont. He flew into his current post daily in a single-engine Cessna. He was so thrilled to have people to see and talk with that it was difficult to break off and continue onward. He had answered many of our questions, providing us with a wealth of information.

Two hours later, we rolled into the settlement of Tok, Alaska. A red and green neon light flashed its welcome to a motel constructed to serve the workers brought in to build the great Alaskan Pipeline. It retained the feel of the boom days. The rooms were small and snug with clean sheets over beds that cocooned you in comfort. There were common showers for men to scrub down in. Amid steaming plumes of steam we sluiced away the grime of the day and eased the strain of muscles knotted and sore from prolonged abuse. It was a perfect respite from our long journey. Photographs of the construction work and nameless men lined the hallways.

As late as it was, Todo and I shared a toddy and reflected back over experiences we had shared and how unique this one was proving to be. The history of the place was strongly woven into its very fabric. It was a tangible, living thing surrounding us. I noticed in mid-sentence that Todo was snoring softly. Turning off the bedside lamp and closing my eyes, I was swept away. We slept like the children we had once been.

It's daylight now and we are pushing south out of Tok. Rested and refreshed after a good night's sleep, Larry and Jack look like different men. We still had a good drive ahead of us, with the port city of Valdez our goal. Streams and rivers flowed everywhere. Beautiful snow-capped peaks surrounded us. We were amazed and stopped to gawk at Bridal and Horsetail Falls.

Finally, we climbed through a saddle between two peaks and saw Valdez resting around a sparkling bay below us. There were gulls and bald eagles working the air over that shining bay as we slowly drove into the town. Various boats were tied along the docks, where sea otters rolled and chirped in the crisp sheen of the water. The clarity was such that you could see giant crabs prowling the floor of the bay just off the docks. Huge storage tanks held oil flowing from the great pipeline to the port to be loaded onto tankers for the long journey to fuel industry around the world.

Just after four o'clock that afternoon, we moved off the docks and into a sporting goods store called 'The Hook, Line & Sinker.' We purchased hunting and fishing licenses, then made contact with our boat captain, Jeff of 'The Alaskan Dream.' He was set to ferry us and our supplies some 37 miles southwest of Valdez into an area along the coast where we would be fishing and hunting bear. Captain Jeff and his first mate Chuck helped us load our gear aboard his boat.

Captain Jeff wanted to wait until morning to depart and was more than a little reluctant to chance the passage in darkness. We, however, wanted to waste no time in establishing our base camp. Time was a factor in our calculations. Our arguments prevailed as our possessions were stowed in the hold and strapped onto the deck of the boat. We labored beneath towering glacial ice straddling saddles in the mountains around the harbor. Their ancient frozen hues of bluish green were pierced by the slanting rays of a sun riding ever lower on the western horizon. The waters of the bay were like gazing into glass. The clarity was amazing.

Before boarding, I called Bonnie from the docks and was thrilled to hear her voice over the impossible distance. Our voices lagged a couple of seconds due to available technology. I tried to describe and will her into my surroundings, though that was impossible. Finally, saying goodbye, I slipped the mooring lines, then leaped aboard the boat as we began to maneuver through the harbor toward our destination of Fidalgo Bay and the island that was to become our home for the next five days. Todo took a fierce ribbing as we discovered his tendency toward sea sickness.

As the light faded, we passed a land-locked Indian village, which Captain Jeff told us had been constructed entirely with federal funds. There were no roads in or out of the community, making it accessible only by water. He related that the Indians apparently nurtured a strong distrust of whites and only allowed three outsiders to live in the village. Two of these were a married couple who taught school and the third was a Russian Orthodox priest. The golden dome of that church glowed brightly in the twilight. Necessary supplies were offloaded on village docks, and only rarely did any of their people venture into Valdez.

We surged into a heavy fog bank. A steady drizzle soon turned into freezing rain. Our sense of time and distance began to blur. Darkness fell. We seemed to crawl over the surface of the water. Much later, an island slowly materialized within the fog. We dropped anchor some 200 yards offshore. The captain would venture no closer. He feared running aground on submerged boulders and breaching his hull. The sleet grew heavier and the clouds denser, robbing us of any trace of lingering light. Our island was now a smudge on the horizon. Penetrating cold chilled us to the bone. I glanced back over my shoulder. The captain's face was illuminated in the soft glow of a lantern. He arched his bushy eyebrows and grinned. It was time to go ashore.

Friday, August 14, 2009

North to Alaska . . . Above the 49th

On August 31st around five o'clock in the morning, we crossed from British Columbia into the fabled Yukon Territory. Streams and rivers ran fresh and clear. Flashes of fall colors exploded in the golden sunlight of early morning. Grandeur seems an inadequate word to describe being visually overwhelmed by the shades of red, bright yellow and hues of brown scattered through varying shades of green among the juniper, spruce and pine. Random bursts of fall blossoms rippled in the cool breeze flowing over the slopes.

We viewed herds of wild horses or mustangs that still ran free in this rugged country. A bunch of bighorn sheep cascaded off a steep slope as we rounded a bend in the crusted road. We ground to a stop as they did, briefly, and stared in surprise and wonder at each other. The leader slowly turned and huffed. Their hooves thundered and they were gone. A young bull elk regarded us calmly as we paused again, then moved on.

We had just completed the most difficult stretch of our journey. It traversed some 320 miles spanning the distance between Fort Nelson in British Columbia and Watson Lake in the Yukon Territory. The road was full of curves and layered in gravel rather than paved for the most part. We slowly pressed forward through the darkness along the treacherous route. A chilled, persistent mist settled over us as our headlights punched ahead and jerked from side to side. Numerous beaver were seen along the road throughout the night passage.

It grew quite cold. The rear window of the Wagoneer shattered when one of the rear tires slung a rock into the front of the trailer, which ricocheted forward through the glass. Stopping to clear shattered glass from the rear of the vehicle, we noted ice was forming on the tarp covering our possessions in the trailer. Freezing slush and dirt formed into blocks of ice in the wheel wells and had to be broken and cleared away periodically.

The clouds burned away as the day progressed, then flowed back in late in the afternoon. We approached the end of our journey through the Yukon Territories. How to describe it? Sheer, towering mountains layered and colored by varying strata of tundra or grass. Kluane Lake was huge, to the point of seeming to be a bay, complete with whitecaps, with a surface area encompassing more than 150 square miles. The mountains dwarfed the Rockies that Bonnie and I have known and loved so long in Colorado. We passed through the city of White Horse, capitol of The Yukon with a population of 18,000--almost two-thirds of the people living in the entire province. We pushed on.

Twilight settled in at 10:20 p.m. as we rolled into the entrance to a lodge and inquired about supper. The owner was a polite man with an expansive, ruddy face and a beaming smile. However, he refused to serve us as he had committed to an early-morning grouse hunt the following day. We thanked him, changed drivers, grabbed a couple of candy bars and pulled back onto the road, threading west and a little north. It seemed that the fading sunlight had to be streaming from the mythical land we pursued with such determination--a boyhood dream called 'Alaska.'

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

North to Alaska . . . Heading Out

On August 27, 1988, Todo Myane, another friend Larry, Larry's father Jack and I left the sprawling metroplex of Dallas, setting our sights to the north and the fabled 'Land of the Midnight Sun' . . . Alaska.

Planning an early start, unexpected delays and extended preparations extended our departure until around six that afternoon. The temperature was still hovering around 102 when we found ourselves headed north. We drove a Jeep Wagoneer with two canoes strapped on the top, with a tarp-covered trailer in tow. As we rolled northwestward across a barren Texas landscape, dust devils and shimmering waves of heat created mirages in the distance. The air was hot and arid, and it felt as if we were breathing air from a furnace when we left the air-conditioned comfort inside our vehicle.

The sign read 'Welcome to the Land of Enchantment' as we crossed the border into New Mexico. The last light of the sun bled into the barren landscape and cast the few fleecy clouds in crimson as it slowly melted into the distant horizon. We continued the push toward Raton Pass in the fading twilight. A strong gust of wind slammed into the side of the Wagoneer, and the vehicle rocked against the force as we slowed to a stop to change drivers. Stepping out onto the shoulder, I felt the fresh chill of a strong north wind flowing around me. We pushed north into it, thrilled that the heat fell away into the lower sixties. The climb up to Raton brought us briefly into the realm of granite, pine-covered mountains. Light snow fleeced the very tops of some peaks. We rolled down windows a bit and pulled the cool sweet air into our lungs. All too soon, we descended back to the desert floor, pushing on through Pueblo, Colorado Springs and into Denver.

We had remained to the east of the Rockies, moving through sparsely vegetated foothills. Small groups of antelope were spotted occasionally along the way. We stopped briefly in Denver for vehicle maintenance, then moved on north through Colorado into Wyoming. I had not been here since a young boy on vacation with my family, and a young boy's memories came flooding back--log cabins with wood heaters burning compressed one-pound coffee can sized chunks of pine sawdust, black bears rummaging through trash cans outside looking for snacks, Old Faithful spewing plumes of steaming water high into the frigid air, a moose walking, unconcerned, along the side of a lake with impossibly blue water, his great antlers and strange beard rocking gently from side to side. These bits and pieces flowed unbidden from the past and lived again briefly in my mind.

We only paused to eat or change drivers, stopping briefly in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to check the possibility of an antelope hunt. We discovered that all available buck permits had already been issued, so we pushed forward into Montana.

Todo and I never tire of each other's company. We entertained Larry and his dad with tales of growing up together in the small town of Premont, deep in the Brush Country of South Texas. We had gotten into and out of so many situations that the telling of one story would trigger the memory of another. Our childhoods had been touched by magic. On the rare occasions when conversation lagged, we would break into an off-key chorus of "North To Alaska" by Johnny Horton. Apologies to him!

The Montana foothills slowly gained in height. Even here, we saw and smelled smoke from the great wildfires in Wyoming that were ravaging so much of the Yellowstone country. We heard a news report of a father who had taken his wife and two children camping in the area of the fires. That night the wind changed and flames swept over and through their campsite. He dragged his wife and children into a nearby stream and shrouded them in soaking sleeping bags to filter out the smoke so they could breathe. He was hailed as a hero. We viewed him as a complete fool. Who would take his family into the proximity of an inferno consuming tens of thousands of acres?

A beautiful mule deer buck crossed in our headlights. We later saw a freshly killed bear on the shoulder of the road. It had been hit and killed by a vehicle. Due to the steep cuts on each side of the road, we were unable to turn around and get a good look at the huge animal. We had driven almost continuously and crossed from Sweetgrass, Montana, into Canada just after sunrise on the morning of August 29th. This part of Canada appeared similar to West Texas. The crops were either wheat or alfalfa.

Entering Calgary, we witnessed a large, beautiful modern city. The roads and highways were excellent and exceeded ours back home in some respects. Farther north, we had an excellent meal near the community of Red Deer, meeting wonderful, gracious people along our way.

August 30th. Our first stop for showers and sleep under clean sheets was last night. The trip is taking a bit longer than planned due to a couple of maintenance delays, but is still going really well.

We have driven into beautiful forests. I see juniper, aspen and birch in abundance. The air is clear and sweet. Small lakes and ponds are numerous, many created by beaver dams of various sizes. Canada, thus far, is beautiful beyond description. We have just passed through Dawson Creek and embarked on the Alaska Highway. Images conjured by Jack London through 'The Call of the Wild' and 'White Fang' begin to materialize. Home stretch! There are only about 1,500 miles to go. We passed through Fort St. John. The Peace River overwhelms!

Friday, April 17, 2009

An Unexpected Outcome

A cool, gentle breeze had moved through the windows and screen door of the cabin since Bonnie and I had dozed off a couple of hours earlier. I rolled onto my side in my bunk, enjoying the comfort of the unzipped bedroll and the soft movement of cool air around me. Bonnie shut the front door with some force. The noise hung on the fringe of my awareness. "Bill, wake up!" she insisted in a voice just above a whisper. She repeated the phrase a couple more times as I reluctantly opened my eyes and attempted to focus in the darkness.

"There's a large dog just outside the screen door, and it's wearing a collar!" she asserted. Coming fully awake, I swung my legs over the side of the bunk. My pistol was in my hand as I reviewed the implications of what my wife had just told me. Dogs meant people, and we were very far from any known neighbors. The family ranch in McMullen County, Texas, was remote by any standards. I whispered her into silence, assuring her that I was awake. We were five locked gates and miles from the nearest highway. The Rio Grande and city of Laredo were less than 100 miles away. Drug traffic, smuggling guns and money, murders between rival gang factions and illegal immigrants flowed across the border near this area in record numbers. People should not be on this ranch or around this bunkhouse this time of night nor during the day. I told Bonnie her pistol was on the shelf nearby, and we sat quietly as we strained to hear any noise or catch a glimmer of light in the silence and absolute darkness that surrounded us. There was nothing. I moved quietly to sit at an angle rather than in direct line with the open window.

The silence stretched on. One hour. Two. The dog did not growl or bark. We could hear his pads and claws slide over the concrete surface outside. Occasionally he would shake all over, and the noise of his ears snapping against his head was audible. These were the only breaks in the gentle sound of wind drifting through the mesquite branches in the moonless night. Our vigil was approaching three hours. The prolonged silence reassured us. We knew we were relatively safe in the cabin. The darkness we shared inside was even deeper than the inky blackness outside the cabin. It would be impossible for a person to move about outside without some kind of light or stumbling over one of the many obstacles scattered around the yard. We were reasonably sure we were alone, except for the dog. Our eyelids grew heavy. We slept.

When Bonnie next woke it was still dark outside. She needed to step out of the cabin. I approached and slid the bolt out of its setting on the door, and extending the revolver slightly ahead of me, I followed it outside. There was no sound or motion. Bonnie eased out behind me, the beam of her light cutting a sharp swath into the darkness as she moved it left to right. It settled on our chairs which sat before a dimly glowing mound of embers emitting the faintest of glows from beneath a fleecy layer of ash that now layered them. "There he is," she whispered.

The head of the dog rested on the arm of my chair, where he had taken refuge for the night. There was a look of infinite weariness in his eyes. He made no move toward us. He made no sound. I approached him slowly with the barrel of the pistol extended toward his head in the event he showed any signs of aggression. I spoke to him quietly as Bonnie rounded the side of the house. I allowed him to smell my hand before laying it gently on his head. His head remained on the chair arm as I gently scratched his ears. His tail began to thump against the chair back.

Bonnie moved back around to the front of the cabin and noticed me stroking the dog. As she entered the bunkhouse she thought that he appeared to be a Boxer, but I noted two things immediately. One was that he was a Pit Bull, which can be a ferocious breed, and second, that he was fully encased in heavy canvas body armour. I mentioned neither of these things until Bonnie had gone back inside, and when I told her I thought he was a Pit Bull, her eyebrows arched up in surprise as she watched us through the screen door.

I slowly unbuckled the six-inch wide collar that protected his neck. Then came the line of buckles running down the length of his spine that held his chest and abdominal armour in place. As the kevlar reinforced shield fell away, he released a huge breath of relief. He scratched at places he had been unable to reach for days and rolled freely in the dirt.

After gathering an armload of firewood, I fed it to the smouldering bed of coals in the fire pit. The rich aroma of mesquite smoke lifted into the stillness that preceded the dawn. I drained water into the coffee pot, noting the layers of soot feathered across the lower third of it. Fresh coffee went into the bail and I rested the pot over the blue flame of the stove top, waiting for it to come to a boil. I then retrieved scraps of steak left over from our supper the night before and set them before our new friend. My hand searched out a cigar from the inside pocket of my brush jacket. It bloomed to life as I leaned over, placing its tip into the blue flame beneath the coffee pot, and drawing the sweet taste of it into my mouth. Slowly easing into the rocking chair in front of the dancing flames of the campfire, I studied our visitor.

He quickly finished his meager meal, looked up at me, walked over to the chair and placed his head on my knee. There was pure gratitude in those beautiful amber eyes. His tail began to wag slowly. He won my heart as I stroked his head and scratched his ears. Soon the coffee began to gurgle in the pot and Bonnie joined us with her own cup of coffee. She, too, was entranced by this amazing dog. Searching through the chuck boxes, she found several cans of stew and prepared a makeshift breakfast for him. What a magnificent animal.

We inspected his heavy, discarded collar and discovered a name and phone number from the town of George West, some 45 miles away from the ranch. Bonnie studied the dog closely, noting how emaciated he was. It was obvious that he was a hunting animal from his protective gear. Wild hogs would have difficulty penetrating it to do him serious injury. Hogs roam the brush country in large groups or packs, seriously damaging the few dry land crops put in and preying on newborn calves and wildlife. With maturity, hogs produce enormous tusks and represent what can be a vicious, destructive force. Hunting them and thinning their numbers is an ongoing effort on the part of area ranchers.

Bonnie prepared a wonderful breakfast of tortillas and huevos rancheros as I began to pack away supplies and load the truck for our journey home. We would pass through George West on the way, so I called the number off the collar and left a message to the woman's voice on the recording. The dog stayed with Bonnie step for step. He would occasionally lie down and follow our motions with those bright, intelligent eyes while we moved around the camp. Bonnie expressed concern that he be returned only to decent, caring hands. He had won her heart as well as mine. We called him Mac, as the ranch was situated in McMullen County. It seemed to fit him.

With the truck finally loaded and the camp squared away for the next visitors, we prepared to head out. I dropped the tailgate to let Mac jump into the bed of the truck, but he was too weak so I lifted him in. He curled up and seemed happy to be moving. We made it through the five locked gates and worked our way back to the pavement on Highway 16. The trip to George West went fairly quickly as we journeyed to the east, then north for the final run into town.

About three miles south of our destination we saw two women stranded on the shoulder of the road in an old pickup. They were waving frantically at us in hopes we would stop. I looked over at Bonnie as I hit the brakes. She knew there was no way I could leave them stranded. As I came to a stop across the highway from them, one of the women crossed the road to explain she was trying to get her passenger to a doctor and they had blown a tire and had no spare. Would we send help from town?

She wrote down her cell phone number and I assured her help would arrive shortly. We continued into town, judging that the truck stop at the main intersection as we entered George West would be the surest place to secure help. I pulled up to a bay where two mechanics were working on a vehicle, quickly explained the situation to them and asked for their assistance. They were willing to help but wanted assurance they would be paid, which I guaranteed for them. I inquired if they knew the man's name we had found on the dog's collar, but they had never heard of him.

Waving to Bonnie, I entered the adjacent cafe to secure a phonebook and hopefully find the address of Mac's owner. The name was not in the book. One of the mechanics had followed me in and approached a nearby table where two men and a young woman were eating. He asked the men if they knew the man I sought. One of the men's eyebrows rose in surprise as he looked over his fork in my direction. "My son's best friend," he said. "Why are you looking for Evan?" he asked. I explained the dog to him, and he shook his head in amazement.

It turned out that our new friend, Rusty Williams, owned the truck stop and cafe. He was also the county tax assessor and apparently knew everyone in a 50-mile radius of George West. Bonnie and I liked the man instantly and formed a friendship through our conversation. Rusty called his son and explained our need to speak to Evan, who called in within a few minutes.

Evan told me that he had been hunting on a ranch near ours over two weeks ago and lost the dog when he chased a hog through a game-proof fence. Evan had returned to the site each day after work to search for his dog, but after a week of fruitless effort, he gave him up as lost or dead. We left the dog with Rusty who assured us that he would soon be back where he belonged. He also assured us that the women we had stopped to help south of town would be fine, able to pay or not.

Evan called me back at home the next day. His thanks were profuse. He explained that the dog was an American Bulldog, not a Pit, which was a much more gentle breed. His four-year-old daughter had been overwhelmed with his return. So had the dog. Evan seemed to be a truly fine young man.

After our conversation, I fished the cell phone number of the two ladies with the flat tire from my pocket and was reassured to hear they had completed their journey and were safely back home in Bruni. They were surprised to hear from us, but very pleased for the chance to thank us again.

Bonnie and I shared a cup of coffee over the kitchen table at home and reflected on a very special trip. We had greatly enjoyed the ranch, saved a very special dog and ensured two stranded women could complete their trip safely. Unexpected outcomes. Had we not made the trip--which had been quite spur-of-the-moment and spontaneous on our part--things could have turned out very differently with a tragic outcome certain for our friend "Mac."

Do bad things happen to good people? Absolutely. However, when we give of our time and extend an effort, the result can be a happy ending.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Intruder, Part Three, Requiem

Vicente cupped the old porcelain mug of steaming coffee in gnarled fingers, lightly tracing the hairline fractures lacing the mug's surface. Warmth radiated outward, easing the arthritic ache in his knuckles.

Dawn's golden light played through the latticed foliage of mesquite trees in the yard, contrasting with the sharply defined shadows angling into the ground from the weathered pine boards and cedar posts of the corrals. Inside the house, soft footsteps slid across the hardwood floor as Vicente's niece set his breakfast plate before him. Refried beans, scrambled eggs and freshly baked tortillas brought a smile to his face.

The voice of his niece had an almost musical quality as she reminded him of the strange events of the previous evening. He tore a hot tortilla in two, pushing a mixture of eggs and beans into one folded half with the aid of the other. A sip of sweetened coffee aided in the chewing and swallowing of his first bite.

Outside, the smell of rain still dominated the coolness of morning. The hooves of lowing cattle made sucking sounds as they pulled free of mud on the way from their bedding ground near the house into the pasture to browse for morning grazing.

With an effort, Vicente's attention returned to the words flowing from his niece. Who had driven the strange truck past them into the driving rains so deep into the ranch in the dead of night? What had become of him, or them? Why had they not returned? His niece asked if she could she use Vicente's truck to follow the tracks into the ranch and see if help was needed. After some serious consideration, he reluctantly nodded to her. Whoever had passed was almost certainly in need of help.

Finishing his meal, Vicente admonished her to use extreme care with the truck. She was to use caution in the areas where water stood. If anything looked suspicious, she was to return for him immediately. Rhythmically tapping the table top with his forefinger, he went over the eccentricities of the old truck. Instructions on how to best start and operate the pickup were received by his niece with a serious, focused expression on her face. Though she had already learned these things by heart, she kept a respectful focus on the face of her uncle. When Vicente was satisfied, he pointed to the keys hanging on a peg just inside the door.

He had to smile, shaking his head as she bolted through the door and off the porch toward the truck. The screen door slammed loudly in her wake. His sister poured more coffee into his cup, then joined him at the table with her own. They heard the truck's engine cough to life.

Through a worried expression, his sister uttered her hope that the girl would be safe. "Con el favor de Dios," Vicente responded ('with the favor of God'). He stared through eyes clouded with cataracts at his sister and smiled, once again.

Meanwhile, back in the brush . . .

Dan awakened with a start. The closed windows of his pickup were heavily fogged with his breath and body heat. Covered in sweat, his shirt clung sullenly to him. Seeing that the sun was up, Dan quickly opened the door and stepped from the cramped cab of his vehicle. He found himself standing in a mixture of sludge and water some five to six inches deep. The air was fresh, and a gentle breeze stirred, cooling the shirt plastered to his back. Dan stretched and twisted to relieve cramped muscles confined to the cab overnight.

He squinted into the brightness of the early morning and immediately began to assess his situation. Wading to the rear of the truck, he dropped the tailgate and sifted through the materials inside. He settled on a set of small ramps used to lift the front end when changing the oil. Wedging them in tightly against the front tires, he slipped the truck in gear, placed a pipe wrench against the accelerator and ran to the rear of the truck to add his strength to the push forward. The wheels spun and the truck inched slowly forward about two feet before coming to a sudden stop. Walking around to the front of the truck, Dan saw that the ramps had sunk completely into the soft mud. He killed the engine and returned to the rear of the truck to lower the tailgate once again. It was difficult to drop, so Dan freed the side supports and lifted it from its hinges, tossing it behind him in frustration. He stacked his possessions neatly on slightly higher ground just off the sendero and some 30 yards behind the truck to keep them dry.

The voices, somewhat muted, still softly whispered instructions. Dan hoisted one of the rucksacks on his shoulder, picked up a rifle and moved back up the hill he had descended in the darkness. When he reached the crest he surveyed the view offered from a hunting stand that sat atop it. Noting the ranch house to the west, he pondered it. There seemed to be no activity there. He climbed back down the steps to the ground. Dan moved down the sendero so he would be less visible and sat down, unzipping his rucksack and retrieving a beer and a map from it. Draining the beer, he focused on the unfolded map before him. He soon formed a rough idea of his location and made the decision to head southwest. A road lay in that direction that would be impossible to miss. Mexico was still well within reach. The map went into his back pocket. He then stepped into the brush lining the sendero and set the rucksack behind a sage bush before returning to the pathway and making his way back to the truck.

The vehicle was hopelessly stuck. Dan checked to be sure he had removed all necessary supplies and then removed the license plates and a five-gallon can of gasoline from the bed of the truck. He doused the cab first, leaving both doors open, before soaking the engine. Tossing the nearly empty can back into the truck bed, he stepped away, struck a match and tossed it at the cab. He backed quickly away from the heat and smoke.

Vicente's niece came to an abrupt stop atop the hill. Her mouth opened in amazement as she looked down upon the flames and billowing cloud of black smoke erupting into the air above the truck. She noted the man standing beside it.

Motion tugged at the side of Dan's vision and he gazed quickly up the hill at the newly arrived truck. Grabbing the barrel, he pulled the rifle from his shoulder and began to bring it up into firing position.

Taking everything in, she slammed the truck into reverse and, almost immediately, backed out of his line of sight.

Dan cursed his slowness and listened to the muted sound of the engine fade rapidly into the distance. The huff and roar of the nearby flames had covered the sounds of her approach.

Moving quickly, Dan put some distance between himself and the burning vehicle and hid parts of his valuables in a couple of obscure locations. He returned to the truck and checked the progress of the consuming flames before hoisting a final rucksack onto his shoulders and heading southwest into the brush, moving at a measured pace.

Within minutes of her return to the old homestead, Vicente, his niece and sister were headed out of the ranch, onto the highway and north toward Tilden and the sheriff's office. Based on the information they related to the authorities, the sheriff gathered a posse and returned to the ranch to investigate.

Dan finally emerged from the brush on a highway some five miles southwest of the ranch and followed the pavement west. A sheriff's deputy spotted him walking along the shoulder and eased to a stop beside him. Dan produced the requested identification papers, which indicated he was in the U.S. Navy. Dan affirmed the deputy's guess that he was headed for the naval landing field a short distance down the highway. Dan provided a plausible story to the deputy, saying that he had been on leave, had mechanical problems and was trying to return to base before being listed A.W.O.L. Dan dropped his bag into the back seat and was given a ride to the base entrance by the deputy. Dan thanked the officer and waved as he pulled away.

The posse found no trace of anyone around the smoldering truck and began to expand the net of an organized search.

Some time later, word came from the naval landing field that an individual had taken control of the base at gunpoint. The gunman had secured all base personnel in a conference room and had attempted to disable all radios on the base. A pilot had slipped through a window and used a transmitter in a jeep to call for help before being captured and locked up with the other base personnel by the lone gunman.

The deputy who had given Dan a lift to the landing field responded to the call for help. Returning to the base and discovering the staff locked in a conference room, he was informed that the gunman had commandeered a dump truck. The deputy reasoned that he had headed toward Cotulla since he had not met him on his return trip to the base. The officer caught up with Dan near the Nueces River and captured him without incident. He no longer had any weapons or possessions on him, and none were ever recovered.

Dan chatted amicably with the deputy on the way back to the landing field. He was keenly interested in survival tactics and ways of living off the land in the area. The deputy explained that snakes were the best meat to eat at this time of the year due to problems related to various diseases flourishing in the heat of the summer. He also pointed out various types of plants, including cactus that were edible.

After returning to the base, Dan requested permission to use the men's room. While inside, he apparently took some sort of chemical or drug. Upon re-entering the room, Dan proceeded to dismantle that part of the base and the personnel along with it.

Desperate, coordinated efforts finally subdued him. Dan was securely restrained and later flown out, back east where he began undergoing psychiatric evaluations. It was documented that his condition was considered so delicate that he was restrained in a padded cell, and his hold on any semblance of sanity so fragile that he could not be questioned about the circumstances of his behavior.


Driving back to the ranch, I reviewed the many unanswered questions about Dan:

Why had the Secret Service been involved?

Had this been an element in some sort of drug or smuggling operation that had gone awry?

Why had he questioned the deputy sheriff about survival in these harsh brushlands?

Was he really psychotic, or incredibly clever?

Had he left something behind for which he planned to someday return?

Since that time, we have found various other personal effects scattered around the ranch in Dan's wake, additional diving gear and a tattered Texas flag among them. Many questions remain about Dan that I am sure will never be answered.

We had always felt the ranch was such a secure haven. Living in today's world, I'd like to think that the violent history of the South Texas brush country is a thing of the past.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Intruder, Part Two, Into Darkness

A serious attempt had been made to get the truck back on solid ground. It had obviously been futile. I moved slowly forward, scouting the area carefully. Thinking back on the damaged gates behind me and the charred remains before me, I felt certain the vehicle had been stolen. The confusing array of footprints seemed to have no real pattern. There were several different men who had moved around making them. Spent 30 caliber rifle casings littered the area. Why the shooting? A search in an approximate 100-yard radius revealed little more. A couple of sets of tracks seemed to be moving generally south.

Where had these men gone? Had they backtracked to Vicente's house, taking the old rancher and his sister hostage, or worse? Had they circled back to the west to the hilltop headquarters of the neighboring Poenisch Ranch? What had brought this man Dan from Virginia to this lonely, remote ranch in the middle of nowhere? Who had come with him, and why?

The tailgate lying some 30 yards behind the truck had not been consumed in the flames and was a light blue in color. I picked it up and laid it in the bed of my pickup with the other personal effects. It was time to head to Tilden and the sheriff's office.

Driving back through the gates and leaving our family ranch behind, I passed Vicente's ancient family cemetery, then his weathered old ranch house and working pens. I barely touched the brakes as his house slipped by. If he and his sister had been taken, I would not help the situation by stopping at this point. Better to secure help.

Reaching the blacktop, I floored the accelerator on the old truck for the entire 26 miles into Tilden. At the courthouse, a cloud of caliche dust roiled over the truck as I came to a stop. Stepping out and slamming the door, I jogged up the steps and into the lobby. I crossed the hardwood floor and approached a young woman at a desk. It was just a short wait until a deputy sheriff arrived after being summoned by the dispatcher. He was tall and double jointed, and his runover cowboy boots settled into a cadence as he strode toward me.

"Problem?" he asked, offering his hand.

"Yep," I responded, taking it. "There's a burned out truck stranded on our ranch in the south end of the county."

A puzzled look turned quickly into a smile. "Out just past the old Hasette place?. . . We got him," he asserted, still smiling.

"Are Vicente and his sister all right?" I asked, liking him.

"Sure, the old man's fine. They're both fine," was the response.

I slid the duffel bag across the floor to him and indicated it might contain the personal effects of the man we were discussing. His eyebrows arched in surprise as he prodded it with a boot, then he lifted it onto a desk top and began to inspect the contents.

"It's him," he confirmed. "I'll need to call this in to the Secret Service. Where'd you find it?" he questioned.

"To the west, up the hill behind the truck," I said, puzzled as he picked up a phone and began to dial. "The Secret Service?" I pondered to myself.

"I thought we searched the area thoroughly," he muttered with a shake of his head. He finished his inventory report and wrote down some instructions before dropping the receiver back into its cradle.

"When did all this happen?" I asked.

"Sometime back in May," he responded.

"No way," I said. "These receipts in his bag place him only as far south as Louisiana on June 11th. That means he couldn't have made it down here before June 13th or 14th at the earliest!"

He let a lopsided grin escape and shoved his hat back on his head. "Could have been off a week or so on the date," he conceded. "Been a while back now, in any case."

"Tell me who he was and what happened," I urged. "Why weren't we called?"

He began to relate a strange tale of a man who had been originally from Portland, Oregon. Dan had joined the Navy and came to be stationed in Portsmith, Virginia, where he underwent training as a Navy SEAL. He became one of their best, specializing in covert high risk operations.

Over time, he began to ingest a variety of drugs. Becoming progressively more unstable mentally, he started to hear and respond to voices that existed only in his mind. The voices told him to head south to Mexico. There was no explanation of his purpose in doing this.

Winding his way across the southern states, he dropped down into Texas. Dan apparently became fearful of being apprehended. As he drove south through the night on highway 16 into a steady rain, he came upon the obscure road leading into our ranch.

He pulled over to the side of the pavement and stared into the darkness punctuated by rainfall, occasional lightning and the steady, slapping rhythm of his windshield wipers. He judged that he was now close enough to the Mexican border to reach it by cutting directly west and driving cross-country on ranch roads. It was a serious error in judgment--one that would cost him dearly.

Thus began his frenzied effort; crashing through locked gates and working his way ever deeper, westward into the desolate, sodden terrain. The collisions left bits and pieces of his vehicle along the way. A few miles into his push through the night, he passed the glow of kerosene lanterns in the windows of an old ranch house. He barely glanced toward the light, so intent was he on maintaining progress through water filled ruts and keeping his truck centered on the slick ruts defining the road. Mud sprayed into the air behind his spinning rear tires.

Vicente sat on the front porch in an ancient chair, canted back against the wall. He loved the sounds and smell of the rain. It was a rare blessing in this arid land. It brought life and sustenance to his parched pastures and cattle. It renewed hope. His sister and niece were in the house, so he called them to step out and see the crazy man driving deeper into the night over rain soaked roads. Who would be so unwise? With muttered expressions of surprise, they watched as the swaying red tail lights of the truck gradually fishtailed away into the darkness and rain. The sound of the racing engine blended and merged into the steady splatter of raindrops on the roof. Shaking his head and muttering in Spanish, concerned about damage to the roads, Vicente and the women re-entered the house. They turned off the lanterns as they prepared for, and slipped into their beds. Each drifted toward sleep, lungs caressed by the sweet coolness in the air and the fresh scent of rain.

When he finally moved out onto and across our ranch, Dan became engaged in a desperate search for a route that would allow him to continue his push west to the Rio Grande and refuge in Mexico. Frustration built within him as he worked his way around the pasture and came to the realization that the road west stopped here, on this ranch. There was no gate leading beyond our land.

Dan tried to double back toward the entrance behind him. He found himself sliding down a rocky hill toward a flowing creek that suddenly emerged from the darkness and rain. The truck slid into the water and promptly sank up to the frame in the silt. The fractured beams of his headlights tilted down at an angle into the mud and slowly moving water.

In spite of his efforts, the truck remained hopelessly stuck. A sense of rage grew. The voices harried him. The air was cool and damp. The rain eased as a knee-high blanket of thin mist settled in, clinging to the earth. Dan was forced to wait, seething helplessly, for the coming dawn. He sat, alone in the darkness. . .

watch for the conclusion in
The Intruder, Part Three, Requiem

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Intruder, Part One, The Odyssey

Something caught the corner of my eye. Glancing to my right, I was surprised to see an olive canvas duffel bag. Astounded, I cautiously hefted the object and noted slight signs of insect activity beneath it before gently lowering it back into its original resting place.

I scanned the nearby drought stunted trees, then beyond to the horizon. I wondered where the person to whom this belonged might be? In my mind, nothing could have been more completely out of place.

After passing through eight gates after leaving Highway 16 between Freer and Tilden, Texas, finally, you were on the ranch. Three of those gates were always kept locked. I noted on this trip that all three had been damaged. The gravel and caliche roads in had been bladed and the shoulders graded, so I figured the gates had fallen victim to a careless equipment operator.

My purpose on this outing was to do a bit of scouting preceding an upcoming bird hunt. I wanted to make sure the bunkhouses and camp area were in good shape and ready for guests that would be coming in shortly for the annual event. Beyond that, I just loved being on the ranch. It is rugged, extremely remote, and the only material comforts are those you bring in with you. It is a great place to release distractions and re-focus on the basics.

This pasture in McMullen County has been in my wife Bonnie's family since her great-grandfather, a Confederate veteran, came to view it with his sons in a mule-drawn wagon back in 1912. The story is that he brought a bottle of whisky because the seller liked it and a revolver because Mexican revolutionaries, or bandits, like Pancho Villa were still making excursions into "The Wild Horse Desert" or "The Nueces Strip" as the area was known. The plan was to create a town and sell off lots when the railroad came through. That never happened, but the ranch has remained in the family some 96 years now. It is still untamed, remote and beautiful country.

The camphouses seemed to be in good enough shape after months of neglect. No sign existed that anyone had tampered with them. However, something had me feeling vaguely uneasy. The dried hide from a freshly skinned javelina had been hung like a wet towel from a nail near the corner of one of the bunkhouses. It had dried and stiffened in the arid heat. Where had it come from?

Leaving the camp behind, I drove deeper into the ranch. Summer rains had been unusually bountiful and the brush was lush. The two tanks in the center of the pasture stood brim-full of water, shimmering in the afternoon sunlight. The wings of a grey heron billowed outward and lifted it gracefully into the heat of a clear blue sky. I moved on along the main ruts of the sendero leading to the northwest corner of the land.

Passing the stand at the "Big Tree" I saw that it had been reduced to a pile of rubble. It was strange that it had fallen to the southeast, as prevailing winds come from the opposite direction this time of the year.

I noticed that corn had been planted in a neighboring field just beyond our land. It would provide a source of food for birds and wildlife in the fall and winter to come. The crop stand was just right. Plentiful enough for feed, yet too sparse to combine.

Rounding the northwest corner of the ranch, I eased up the incline of the "Rocky Hill" to hunt for arrowheads. Stopping in what had proven to be a productive sendero, or right of way, I had stepped from my pickup truck into the stifling afternoon heat to search for points when I found the duffel bag.

Frowning, I set the bag on my tailgate and leaned over to unzip and then study its contents. It contained a puzzling array of items; two dark blue jump suits, a wooden box holding 15 to 20 heavy metal rock eight-track cassette tapes, about a six-week supply of beef jerky, vitamin supplements, a coil of hemp cord, black military laceup boots, a small survival flashlight, face mask and snorkel with diving instructions, a Pentax 35mm camera with four exposures taken, various items of underwear, two unopened cans of Bud Light beer and what appeared to be a backgammon set.

I cautiously pried open the lid of the backgammon set. A handful of papers were snatched up and strewn across the sendero in a brisk southeasterly breeze. The afternoon heat was oppressive as I quickly chased them down. It surprised me to see that in addition to gasoline sales receipts, two of the papers were traffic citations.

The first name of the individual cited was Dan. He had originally been from Portland, Oregon, but had been cited twice for reckless driving in Portsmouth, Virginia. This, within a span of eighteen minutes. The series of events had begun on June 8, and gasoline receipts had traced his progress from Virginia to Shreveport, Louisiana, by June 11th.

How had his possessions come here, to a remote, brush-covered rock hill on a ranch in the middle of nowhere? Who and where was this man, Dan? Was this a crime that had gone wrong? Was it still unfolding? Had there been a kidnapping or even worse, a murder? Were drugs involved? Had he parachuted in to this spot? I felt the hair rise on the nape of my neck as I tossed the bag and its contents into the bed of my truck before crawling back into the cab.

I started the engine, shoved a sweat stained felt hat back on my head and jerked the truck into gear. I pulled slowly forward toward the crest of the hill and another sendero that bisected it, running east and west. As I rolled onto this set of ruts, I noted that some 350 yards distant, down and away to the east, at the base of the hill rested what remained of another pickup truck. Its hood was up and both doors were swinging open. I pulled a set of binoculars into focus and realized that flames had consumed the vehicle entirely. Who or what lay below me in that charred wreckage?

Thinking the better of driving directly to the site, I decided that it might prove an advantage to keep myself between what lay below and the only gate allowing access to the ranch. I circled back around and approached the ruined truck from the opposite direction, hoping there was not a body and knowing that the sheriff's department would need the numbers off the license plates to identify the vehicle.

My truck eased to a stop some fifty yards from the ruins. The flames had been so intense that the windshield had melted out of its frame. There appeared to be no license plates on the vehicle. A variety of tools had been scattered in and around the truck. It seemed to be resting on its frame. Well defined footprints of varying sizes dotted the muddy creekbed.

Having secured a pistol, I slowly approached the burned out truck with knuckles bordering on becoming white knots of tension . . . (to be continued)