Tears for Lucifer
by Wes Blalock
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Birdie led them through the woods and felt the fear creep back out of her brain and into her feet. With the sun running toward the treeline behind them, the shadows stretched out ahead, into the grass where Benjamin had met his demise.
“Wait,” Birdie told them when they reached the field where parts of Benjamin still lay in the sunlight. She listened so hard for the tinkling sound that she strained her eyes, willing herself to hear it. But there was nothing.
“Okay,” she said, “I guess we go in.”
Mark put his hand on Birdie’s shoulder and gave a soft squeeze to reassure her before they broke out evidence kits. Birdie took photographs and documented with sketches, while Mark followed her and gently collected the remaining parts of Benjamin, placing them into a black plastic body bag. While she examined a track in the soft dirt, Maureen slipped up beside Birdie and looked over her shoulder. Birdie pointed out the pressed-down grasses and the darker pieces of gravel that had been disturbed by the animal’s foot. The pattern of four circles around a central pad articulating “cat” in a way that no other track could.
“Looks like a mountain lion to me,” Maureen told them.
Shaw caught Birdie’s eye roll and smirked in her direction. Standing outside their “crime scene,” Shaw watched the forest around them, listening intently for the metallic bell sound that Birdie had described, rifle slung around his neck and resting against his chest, hand on the pistol grip.
“It’s not a mountain lion,” Birdie said, firmly. “I don’t know what it is, but I have never seen a mountain lion this big.”
“Well, what else could it be?” Maureen asked with certainty. “Are you sure you’re not just misreading the tracks? I mean, wind and other animals and, I don’t know, just perception issues, it could be anything.”
“Nope, it’s definitely a cat print, but cats don’t kill like this,” Birdie said, shaking her head. “Cats are clean and tidy when they kill; fastidious. This is sloppy, like a bear or pack of feral dogs.”
“Are there any missing lions or tigers?” Mark asked Maureen.
“No. That’s definitely something that would have been reported to us,” she answered.
“Could it be a hoax?” Mark asked Birdie.
“I don’t think so. There are too many details in the tracks to be faked,” she told them.
“How about Bigfoot?” Shaw asked. The other two ignored him while Birdie choked back a giggle.
“Or how about a jaguar?” Shaw added. “They used to be native here, right? Could a jaguar have come up from Mexico, maybe reclaim his territory?”
Birdie re-examined the tracks. “I don’t know enough about jaguar tracks. It seems they had big feet when I saw one in a zoo.”
“So there are no loose lions or tigers about,” Mark thought out loud. “Can’t be a bear or feral dogs, because the tracks aren’t right. Can’t be people. Might be a jaguar, lost on his way home to Mexico.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I guess we’ll have to believe that until we believe something else.”
Birdie stood up from a crouch and looked around. “Whatever it is, we’d better get moving before it gets too far.”
“The helicopter should be back any minute to pick up our evidence,” Mark told her. “Once that’s all secured, we can hunt down our killer.”
Birdie stood by Shaw, and the two of them watched while Mark cataloged the evidence and Maureen walked in cautious circles in the grass, looking at tracks.
“I still say it’s Bigfoot.” Shaw whispered, sidling up to Birdie. “So, is ‘Birdie’ short for something?”
“Not really,” Birdie explained. “My real name is ‘Huittsuu.’ It means ‘Little Bird’ in Paiute. My mother’s side of the family. My dad just called me ‘Birdie’ and it stuck. Especially in school, when the teachers tried to call my name at roll. Then they would give me that look that you have now.”
He laughed. “Growing up ‘Lonnie’ made for some difficult days in school for me, so I understand.”
She turned to look up at him. “So, how did you end up assigned to this?”
“I was just getting out of court, and the Sergeant used to hunt with me. So here I am. On overtime, ’cause I have bills to pay,” he told her.
“Military training?” she asked.
He nodded. “Marines, two tours in Iraq.”
“My grandfather was a Marine.” She pointed at Lonnie’s rifle. “Does the Sheriff’s Office issue .308s now?”
“Oh, no. This one’s mine.” He held it up. “I haven’t shot a man-eating cougar before, so I thought I would bring something a little heavier; I don’t want to get any closer than I have to.”
“What do you normally hunt?” she asked.
“Wild boar, elk, antelope; animals I can eat. My family... we were all subsistence hunters. How about you?”
“My dad and my grandfather used to hunt together. After my mom and dad passed, my grandfather seemed to have lost interest,” she told him. “He taught me how, but he’s not enthusiastic about it anymore.”
“I understand that,” he responded. “Things change your perspective. I don’t actually hunt anymore.”
Birdie saw his face slacken just a bit, his lips losing the slight upward curve at the sides, and even though his eyes were covered by the dark glasses, she could feel them lost in the distance. Suddenly he was back with a smile, bright white teeth in contrast to his dark complexion. “But I hear that you’re a people hunter.”
Birdie scrunched up her face in confusion. “How?”
“I know about you. The Orchard City armored car robbery, the cop killers,” he leaned closer to her and she could smell his aftershave, sandalwood, “and you, hunting them down.”
Birdie blushed and rolled her eyes. “All I did was track them. The FBI did all the capturing.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he responded, laughing. “Everyone who worked at the Sheriff’s Office before that scandal talks about the Paiute Warrior Woman.”
“What?” Birdie looked stricken. “That’s a nickname I don’t need.” She sighed. “That was years ago. I was just so angry,” she said, shaking her head.
“Yeah,” and the faraway look took over his face again. “I understand. When you’re so angry that you can barely see straight.” He caught his breath. “But enough about that. Once the helicopter gets here, what’s next?”
“Well,” Birdie told him, “I start tracking, and then you and Calamity Jane there shoot it, whatever it is.”
“That doesn’t sound very animal-friendly; shoot it, whatever it is.” Shaw laughed.
“Hey, I’d be happy to just close the park and let the animals run the place, but it’s funded for people, so people get to visit. Don’t you know how to hunt a mountain lion?” Birdie asked.
“Sure, you hire a guy with a bunch of dogs to run the lion down and tree it. Then you walk up and at a safe distance shoot it out of the tree with a rifle.” Shaw shrugged.
“Well, we don’t have any dogs,” Birdie said.
“Then you track it and we shoot it when you get us close enough,” Shaw explained.
“Aren’t they nocturnal?” Maureen entered the discussion.
Birdie turned to her. “Mountain lions are mostly active at dawn and dusk, so if we’re going to catch it, we’re going to have to track it now.” She began digging through her backpack until she produced a head lamp. “I can track at night with this, but it’s not going to last all night. And tracking a dangerous animal in the dark can be a real gamble.”
“This is going to be a race against time,” Mark told them. “It’s impossible to close the park effectively, and we have to keep anyone else from being attacked. We need to find our cat.”
They watched the helicopter appear above the treeline and descended near the sheer granite face of the western ridge, thup, thup, thupping its way toward them. Mark waved until it dropped into the field, the day threatening to slip into darkness and long shadows stretching across the landscape. Mark loaded bagged evidence first, and then Shaw helped him carry Benjamin into the helicopter. Once the helicopter was loaded, they stepped away and watched it lift off and float away.
Mark returned to the group with a new bag in his hands which he stuffed into his backpack. “I ordered us some dinner.”
“Well, we’re burning daylight,” Birdie told the others. “Let’s get started.”
“I’m right behind you,” Mark told Birdie, patting her shoulder.
She pulled on her backpack and slung her hunting rifle, then stooped down and examined the tracks that led away from the clearing, following them through the brush. The grasses were waist-high to Birdie, and the path was fairly clear; the animal had pushed through recently, and the vegetation hadn’t recovered. Walking single file through the foliage toward the treeline, they watched the shadows getting thicker and darker.
Within an hour, Birdie was using her headlamp but still finding the wide, heavy tracks in the earth. She began seeing individual markings in each print and even saw that the animal favored the right front foot, which had a wide, vicious scar across the pad. She found periodic deposits of urine and scat and pointed them out, even though the odor was unusually strong and noxious. Finally, they reached the edge of the Eggle River, running cold and fast through the forest, carrying snow melt to the valley. The tracks ran directly into the river, without hesitation.
“What kind of cat just walks into the water?” she asked the group, collectively. She turned to Maureen. “Jaguars and water?”
Maureen just shrugged. Shaw made a face and mouthed: “Bigfoot.”
“Maybe it’s something we haven’t thought of yet,” Mark answered. “Either way, it’s on the other side of the river, so why don’t we take a couple minutes to choke down some sandwiches?”
When the sun set, Mark handed out deli sandwiches and produced a lamp that he set up on a stump. They stood around the lamp and Birdie glanced at the sandwiches disappointedly.
“Don’t worry, I got something for you,” Mark said, producing a stuffed pita and muttering the word “vegetarian” like a slur.
“Hey, falafel,” Birdie unwrapped the pita sandwich and took a bite, realizing that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
“So you’re the famous Birdie McLaren,” Maureen said through a mouthful of turkey.
“I wouldn’t say ‘famous,’ so much as ‘had her 15 minutes’,” Birdie responded, uncomfortable with the attention and glancing around uneasily.
“Not famous?” Maureen laughed. “You’re practically Annie Oakley in my neck of the woods. Don’t sell yourself short. We need good role models for the youngsters. Not too many women in the wildlife officer business, and I’m sure the same can be said for the rangering business.”
“There’s a lot of women in the Park Service,” Birdie said.
“Not enough in the Law Enforcement side, though,” Mark told her. “And they certainly aren’t treated as well as they should be.”
The three of them debated women in law enforcement, telling stories of the good and bad that they lived or witnessed, but Birdie noticed that Shaw remained silent.
“No opinion from you, deputy?” she asked.
“I’m perfectly happy just listening,” he said with a smile. “I haven’t gone camping like this in years.” He shook his head. “Iraq never felt like camping.”
“This is camping?” Maureen asked.
“Well, there’s no campfire, but we are sitting around a light, in the woods of a National Park, telling stories and laughing. The only thing missing is s’mores.”
“Can’t cook s’mores over a battery-operated lamp.” Birdie laughed.
“And it’s too bad there are park rangers around, or we could go ahead and light an illegal campfire.” Maureen said, laughing.
“Yeah, damn rangers.” Mark added, winking at Birdie.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Wes Blalock