Cougar Tales, Part 2



Deadly Animals: Savage Encounters Between Man and Beast is now on sale in the United Kingdom. As with earlier editions, I'm celebrating by showing off expanded versions of tales from the book--specifically, a couple of stories about cougars, also known as mountain lions or pumas. 


(This story originally appeared in a different form in Discover; it was reprinted in The Best American Science and Nature Writing.)

I and a dozen others were staying at a ranch house, where we were guests at a wedding.  Some of us went out for a ride.  Our horses’ shoes clapped against the steep granite as we worked our way around the mountain’s shoulder.  Then we were into a stretch of open field.  My horse, a big, unruly bay, trudged through a clattering pile of bones.  I reined him in and asked Virgil, the wrangler, about the carcass.  We dismounted.

Virgil handed me the skull.  It was about as long as my hand, equipped with broad molars for chewing vegetation.  The front of the mouth lacked teeth.

“Pronghorn antelope,” Virgil said.  “They don’t have front teeth.  They use their lips to pull in grass and leaves.”

The horns themselves were gone.  We looked the bones over to see if we could figure out what had killed the pronghorn.  We found plenty of marks, any of which could have conveyed information to somebody who knew about such things, but neither of us had spent much time learning to read bones.

“These look like something chewed them,” I said, holding up a femur and an uncertain fragment.

“Could be,” Virgil said.  “We’ve got coyotes and mountain lions.  Of course, it could have dropped dead of a disease and then anything could chew on it.  God knows how long it’s been here.”

The skull still had some soft gristle and a flap of hide attached.  It had the heft of something not yet empty.  I didn’t think it was too old.  I tied it to my saddle to take back to the ranch house.  A pair of sluggish gray bullets emerged from an eye socket and crawled down opposite sides of the nose: carrion beetles.

*


At the ranch house I scrounged a five-gallon bucket and filled it with water.  When I immersed the skull, dozens of carrion beetles came struggling out from the eye sockets and the infinite papery complications of the nasal cavity.

A three-year-old boy watched me unblinkingly.  He turned to whisper something to his uncle.  I had seen them earlier hiking a little way into the hills.  They had stood over the leg bones of a deer and talked a long while.  The uncle had reported the conversation to me: the boy asking how the bones “fell out” of the animal, the uncle trying to explain death as “going back to the earth.”  Now they huddled again, apparently discussing the pronghorn skull and its colonizers.

I went to work cleaning the skull and forgot about the little boy.  When I looked up I found him standing on the porch above me, staring.  I had just plunged the skull into a fresh bucketful of water, and a new set of carrion beetles came out in a panic, as if they had slept through the first dowsing.  They crawled over each other to stay above water.  The boy stared at the water troubled by the struggling gray beetles, the slender skull gazing back from the bottom of the bucket.

“The bugs help him go back to the earth,” the boy pronounced, and aimed his toy six-shooter at my heart.

*


The ranch served us bacon and eggs every morning.  As we walked to the bunkhouse, led by the smell of bacon, we had to pass the pig pen.  The next morning I stopped to lean on the rails of the pen and look the pigs over.  There were five, all patched with brown and white except for one plump pink hog.  I wondered what pigs think of the smell of bacon.

Virgil came up and leaned on the rail next to me.  I declined the bent Marlboro he offered.  I kicked idly at the fence where a fresh piece of lumber stood out among the weather-beaten planks and posts.

“I put that on last week,” Virgil said.  “A mountain lion tore the old board off.”

The story that emerged was this: Virgil had waked to the screams of the pink hog.  The mountain lion had it by the hind leg and was trying to drag it through the break in the fence.  Virgil fired a shotgun in the air to scare the cat off.  I could see a deep, black seam of healing wound on the hog’s leg.  I asked whether the cat had been back since.

“Not up here close to the house,” he said.  He had gone fishing at a stock pond two days earlier.  When his horse started acting “spooky,” he packed his gear and headed for the ranch house.  He returned to the pond later that afternoon.  The mountain lion’s tracks led down to the fallen log at the water’s edge where he had sat fishing.

Near dusk Virgil asked me to help him drive a few head of cattle into their evening pasture.  The cattle knew the drill; all we had to do was keep them moving.  We did it on foot.

We were walking a dirt road, the cattle hustling a few yards ahead of us.  On our left was a fenced pasture; on our right was heavy brush.  The road changed abruptly from hard-packed dirt to a patch where frequent run-off from a hill had left soft, smooth undulations of dirt.  That’s where I spotted the pug-marks of the mountain lion.  They dappled the road in a straight line for several yards, obscured in two places where the cattle had crossed them.  A good rain had fallen about two hours earlier, and we thought the tracks must have been made since then.  We argued briefly about whether mountain lions would be prowling at that hour.

Soon we had the cattle in their pasture.  Virgil wrestled the gate shut; it was broken, so the process took him a few minutes.  Suddenly we both looked toward the brush, then at each other, then back at the brush.  I scanned the bank of bushes and ditch-grass and tangled trees.

Virgil whispered a long string of profanities.  He told me later he had heard something at that moment, a subtle click that might have been the breaking of a twig.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear anything.  I just suddenly got a cold feeling in my scalp, and I knew I was being watched.  Virgil and I started toward the ranch house, he cursing steadily.  We both walked slowly.  I puffed myself up to look large.  Virgil was smaller than I and would make a more inviting target, I reflected.  I noticed he kept me between himself and the brush.  “Wish I had my damn shotgun,” he said.

We stopped simultaneously.  No signal passed between us, but we must have been thinking the same thing.  A thick clump of brush jutted into the road ahead of us, and neither of us wanted to go near it.  I stomped on a branch that lay in the road, breaking off a manageable truncheon.  Virgil picked up a chunk of sandstone.  We walked past the bush, and suddenly we were talking about the weather in loud, angry voices, agreeing that it was nice but a little damp in tones that suggested we were planning to kill each other. 

We could see the ranch house up the road.  Soon we could see our friends lounging on the veranda.  We walked slowly, taking turns proclaiming the damn niceness of the weather over our shoulders.  I suppose we thought the presence in the brush might fear our loud voices.

A conversation about politics drifted down from the veranda; someone quipped and several laughed.  Why couldn’t they shout down the road to us?  Or decide to meet us halfway?  Finally we were in the yard and away from the brush.

There is no exciting finish to the story.  We were safe.  Our friends told us we were the victims of imagination.  The next day I followed our tracks along the road to the evening pasture.  A fresh set of pugmarks led toward the house.  They ran between Virgil’s prints and mine, and occasionally turned a circle before rejoining our path.  One pugmark fell neatly within the spade-shaped impression of my left boot, four blunt toes and a trapezoidal foot pad deepening the dent of my print.

I took the pronghorn skull home when I left the ranch.  A fizzing denture cleaner hardly changed its dirty exterior.  I had to throw it out after a couple of days, when it began to smell like bad chicken broth.  It was a poor souvenir.  There was too much life left in it.


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