Dedicated to Officer Bob Holder and the men and women of the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
©2007 Brian G. Angevine
This is the second in a series of stories featuring game warden Randy Waters. Trinidad, Colorado is the setting where game poachers kill many animals, take certain body parts, and then leave the carcass to rot. Randy is determined to stop the killing, but his first encounter with the poachers almost leaves him dead. He captures one of the men after a gun battle but the other escapes into the mountains.
Winter blankets the land and the second poacher has disappeared. Some clues lead Randy and a sheriff to a summer mountaintop retreat in which the poacher has been hiding for months. Randy has to chase the suspect across the winter landscape where he is finally brought to justice by a forest creature. Randy witnesses the death of the poacher and has to come to terms with his own feelings about Wilderness Justice.
A big, boar, black bear cautiously entered the small clearing. The smell of honey was strong in his nostrils and he was hungry for honey. A step into the clearing, nose up, weak eyes searching, ears probing. Another step with no warning signs. Throwing caution to the winds he trotted to the rich smell and promising meal of honey, waiting at the center of the tiny meadow.
Braaaap. Braaaap. Bullets sliced into his flesh, searing pain, blood sprayed from many wounds, the bear slept forever.
Two men in camouflage gear from head to foot emerged from the woods. They approached the bear slowly, guns at the ready. The guns were short barreled, silenced, wicked-looking M16A1 carbines with pistol grips, banana clips holding fifteen 5.56 mm bullets, weighing 5.18 grams and propelled at 930 meters per second. Not your ordinary hunting rifle.
Tranh van Vinh knelt down and probed the bear with the barrel of his rifle. “Ông ta là người chết?” he asked in Vietnamese.
“You better believe he’s dead,” laughed his partner. “He ain’t gonna get up from 9 bullets plugged through his worthless hide. Don’t look so tough now, does he?”
They set to work with a knife and a big bone saw and finished quickly. Packing their prizes they left the way they had come, crawled on their 4 wheelers and putted off over the horizon with darkness coming on.
Puffy, white clouds scattered around the sky like marshmallows, waiting to organize into another storm. But right now they were benign and beautiful. It had rained every afternoon for the past week, sometimes very hard rain, but usually just gentle showers for an hour or so. More water flowed in Sarcillo Canyon than usual, which meant the little stream was flowing steadily and spreading out a little over the arroyo floor. Randy Waters chuckled as he thought what a difference a little water made. A year ago some floods had gushed down the canyon washing out parts of the road.
Randy drove along the road where it clung to the steep side of the arroyo and eyed the deep, washed out gashes that plummeted straight down. With all the truck traffic in the canyon those gaps would only get larger and threatened to take more road down into the abyss. But the road crews had plenty to do trying to take care of the third largest county in the United States. Repairing the gaps would just have to wait. Pine trees with their roots plunged deep into the canyon walls hung precariously with more than half their roots exposed completely. Randy thought it was amazing how long they held on and continued to grow despite impending destruction by gravity. Perhaps there was a lesson to be learned there?
Randy drove slowly watching the hillsides for signs of animals. As a wildlife officer he took care of the wildlife in this county, and he enjoyed his job. He looked for his favorite animal, bears. Most people around here wanted the bears moved someplace else, “Not in my backyard.” Another call about a marauding bear prompted this trip. Another trashcan tipped over, another chicken coop devastated. Randy thought the bears got blamed for everything, as if the people didn’t have anything to do with it. He often thought if people would build strong chicken coops and keep their trash picked up and in bear-proof containers they would have a lot less trouble. But most people didn’t want to hear that lecture.
There! He saw some movement in the trees. Randy pulled over to the side of the road and got out slowly, taking his binoculars out of their case. The ten power binocs pulled the bear out of the trees and into Randy’s lap. What had been a slight movement of a black splotch became the comical face of a black bear scratching an itch behind his right ear. Squatted back on his haunches with his eyes twisted up into his head and a satisfied grin on his face, the bear looked almost human. Chuckling, Randy had difficulty keeping the powerful glasses focused while the trees danced around in his vision. The movement made him dizzy so he lowered the glasses and just watched the bear naked eyed.
The Department of Wildlife drill regarding bears that caused too much trouble was to trap them, tag them and release them in the mountains at least thirty miles away. Randy knew that rarely worked with a truly difficult animal. The bear would usually find its way back to where it felt comfortable and start its old ways again. The second complaint for a bear was always fatal. Randy was required to kill the bear if it had already been tagged and moved before. He was not happy with that death sentence since it was mostly the people who left things out to attract a bear that made them so-called “bad bears.” Why should “oso malo” be blamed when it was only doing what seemed natural? Maybe the second time someone didn’t take care of garbage the person should be shot, not the bear. But that was radical thinking that got a person in trouble with the community. When you had a public service job you had to serve the public.
Randy jotted some notes about the bear he had been watching including where he had seen it and the time of day. This was not the bear that had caused trouble since it was over five miles from Rancho LaGarita. Plenty of bear made this neighborhood home and it took only one to cause trouble. Climbing back into his pickup he slammed the door shut to see if the bear would run. It did attract his attention, but he just stared at the vehicle with no fear. That troubled Randy because when wild animals become comfortable with people they get in trouble.
Shifting into drive Randy drove on around the curve and on up the canyon toward Rancho LaGarita. He hoped he would not find a tagged bear in his trap; he didn’t feel like killing today. The truck’s tires chattered a little as he ascended the steep hill from the Sarcillo Canyon Road onto county road 30.0. People tended to accelerate too much up this hill causing the road to washboard much more than normal. But the nature of too many people was to do what they wished and not worry too much about the consequences. Evidence of that was everywhere as plastic water bottles, beer cans and soda cans discarded along the side of the road. Randy shook his head wondering what people had in their minds when they did that. Was someone else supposed to pick up all that trash? Just who was it that was paid to do that job? Nobody! It would have been so much easier to just haul out what you brought in, like wilderness backpackers do, most of them anyway. After all the bottle or can is lighter when empty than when full, so why not just drop it on the floor of the vehicle and put it in the trash later? Those bottles and cans might be around for a hundred years or more. Aluminum probably would never disappear; it might be there for eternity.
Getting his mind back on his business Randy scanned the woods again for bear sign. He turned off of Aspen Lane onto Deer Path Circle, and then left up the hill of Deer Path Circle toward where the bear had been sighted. He had left his trap in the trees a hundred yards off the road at the intersection of Deer Path Circle and Black Bear Road. Stopping at the crest of the hill he turned his pickup sideways to enjoy one of his favorite views, the Sangre deCristo range in the west and Spanish Peaks to the north. A little snow highlighted the north face of Culebra Peak standing a lofty 14,047 feet above sea level. Randy envied some of the people who lived out here. Too bad he had to live in Trinidad, mostly because his kids had to be close to schools. His children’s education was too important to be subjugated to his wishes to live in the country. After all, he was out in the woods almost every day anyway.
Parking the pickup he walked the hundred yards or so toward the bear trap. He could see the large piece of culvert now and that the drop gate covered with stout bars had been triggered. As he got closer he could see the trap rocking back and forth and knew that he had a big bear inside. Taking a wide angle toward the front of the trap Randy cautiously peered around a tree to make sure the bear was fully inside the trap and not able to come after him. The door was secure so Randy stepped forward to see what he had. As the bear sensed him it started gnashing its teeth with a popping noise, usually a prelude to an attack. Bears generally do not roar or snarl when perturbed--just pop the teeth and charge. Randy saw no sign of a bright yellow tag of a previously trapped bear. Records were kept of the numbered ear tags and hunters had to report a kill of a tagged bear, including where and when it was taken. Likewise any tagged bear found dead by other means would be reported. Relieved, Randy made his way back to his pickup and called in the recovery team with their flatbed truck and tranquilizer gun. The bear would be tranquilized, the trap loaded onto the truck and driven to the mountains. There the team would tag the bear, weigh and measure it, then release it. The men often encouraged the bear to take off into the wilds with a charge of rubber bullets to the rear. The bang of the shotgun and the sting of the pellets made the bear less likely to return.
While he waited Randy drove up to the house where the complaint was lodged. He knocked on the door and waited until the crusty old codger came to the door. This guy had killed bears on his property before for the offense of killing a chicken. Somehow that didn’t seem right to Randy and he had issued several warnings, asking the guy to call next time.
“We got a big boar in the trap,” Randy said. “We’ll be moving him fifty miles up into the mountains today. That should take care of your problems for now.”
“Wal’, he’s just lucky you cotched him and not me! He’d be pushin’ up daisies already!”
“Yeah, I know exactly how you feel. Thanks for calling me this time. And I have to remind you to build a stronger chicken coop. Those birds running around are just an open invitation to dine.”
“Maybe you ought to use some of that state money and build me one yerself! I have a right to let my chickens forage on the ground. It keeps some of the bugs off the pine trees, y’know.”
“Yes, I know. Will you please sign here to indicate that we took care of a bear problem for you?”
“I ain’t signin’ nothin’. For all I know you got the wrong bear. If he comes back again tonight he’ll be a dead bear.”
Randy sighed and held out the form. “I have to remind you, sir, that it is against the law to kill bears out of season and without a license. Now please just initial this form so I can do my job.”
“I have a right to protect my propity!” the old man snarled. “Law or no law if a bear comes up here lookin’ for trouble, he’s a-gonna get it!”
“I know,” Randy agreed. “You have rights. But the animals have been here a long time and they get hungry too.”
The old man took the pen and smeared an “X” at the bottom of the page, turned, and stomped back into the house. Randy strode off muttering to himself. “Honestly, I don’t know if I can take much more of that old turd. But I guess if I want to keep my job I have to put up with him and those like him. Lord knows there are plenty of them up here!”
Well-known around Las Animas County, Randy Waters had a bit of fame because of a recent murder investigation he had helped solve. A couple of murders had been blamed on a grizzly bear, but Randy and his detective friend from Colorado Springs proved that a man, not a bear had killed the women. He still took a lot of good-natured ribbing from his friends about being a famous lawman bringing in the killer. But things were beginning to settle back into a routine now of filing reports, counting game, ticketing offenders and trying to keep the public from killing his animals out of season. Randy always thought of them as “his animals.” He admired and almost loved them all, even the unlovable skunk and porcupine. But game animals and fish were his primary concerns, not rodents and so-called vermin. People were not among his favorite animals. They had habits that couldn’t be easily explained away. For instance, lake fishermen would use moldable dough bait in spite of the clearly posted regulations against using bait of any kind. Then when their fancy casting reel loaded with twenty-pound line would backlash they would just cut off the offending snarl of line and throw it on the ground. Evidently they thought they were going to catch some monster fish to be using such heavy line. Four pound test was plenty heavy enough up here. Then by leaving the line all over the place they were almost surely sentencing some animal or fish to a slow, painful death.
Randy had seen fish caught in the plastic retainer rings used to keep six-packs together. As the fish grew it would be cut in half by the restraining plastic. Likewise birds could get tangled up in monofilament line to the point that a foot might be amputated or the line would strangle them to death. It was so simple to just pick up the stuff and put it in your pocket! Fishing line companies had even joined the effort by offering incentives to recycle line. The fisherman simply picked up the line and sent it in to get his reward. But it was awfully hard to change human behavior.
Clear mountain streams were Randy’s favorite places to fish. In the Bosque del Oso Wildlife Area public fishing was welcome between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but all fish had to be returned to the water immediately. That kept most of the meat fishermen away and left the stream to the very few who were willing to walk and catch and release. The worst problem right now was the afternoon rains. The storms had kept the streams unusually high and muddy, just like spring conditions, and the fishing was terrible. The normally clear water looked like chocolate milk. Not helping the situation any was the fact that hundreds of heavy trucks rumbled up and down the dirt road every day drilling more and more gas wells. The dust spewed up under their wheels and the construction of new well pads and culverts along the streambed kept the water constantly dirtier than it used to be. The third thing that caused so much pollution was the fire that had burned a large portion of land in the wild area three years ago. The ash and heat from that fire had killed almost all the fish and the larvae of bugs the fish ate. It took a year for the stream to recover a little bit then last year heavy floods had completely altered the streambed for miles causing more problems for the fish.
Randy could do a little bit about the damage from the forest fire. A new tax on hunting and fishing licenses this year would go to habitat improvement. If the money was spent wisely and not on administrative costs, some repairs might actually be done to prevent the silting and flooding that always followed a devastating forest fire. There was always hope that the right thing would be done.
Today Randy was on a different kind of investigation. Hunting season was nearing and many hunters were already out scouting game for a likely place to hunt. Spanish Peaks State Wildlife Area was in two large parcels, one up Sarcillo Canyon, the other Wet Canyon, and public hunting was allowed in both parcels. No motorized vehicles were allowed and, of course, no firearms out of season. Scouting was okay as long as it was done in a way that didn’t harm the flora or fauna.
Randy parked his black, State issued pickup in the lot at the Sarkariason tract, pulled out his small backpack and stuffed his binoculars, a sandwich and a large bottle of water inside. Holstering his pistol he hunched the pack over his shoulders and placed his wide-brimmed uniform hat on his bald head. The hat got in the way sometimes and was a nuisance when hiking through dense timber, but it helped keep the sun off his head and neck and was required when he was on official duty. The sun was intense today and could dry a man out in a hurry. Those who didn’t take sufficient water or rest breaks could be in for big trouble.
Stout legs carried his two hundred twenty pounds easily up the hillside and into the patchwork of wind and water molded rocks. Some of the rocks were simply spectacular. Many were mushroom shaped where the softer rock below a harder layer had worn away leaving a stem for the cap above. Others held shallow cisterns to catch water, sometimes very important for animals during dry periods. There was a hole worn clear through one of the many volcanic dikes radiating out from Spanish Peaks where Randy loved to sit and watch the clouds roll by behind the wall as if on an old, round television screen. Here was one he called Iguana Rock—shaped very much like a big lizard.
Checking his compass and GPS receiver he kept track of his exact whereabouts. He was not worried about getting lost since he had wandered this area many times before. But if he had to report an incident he wanted to know exactly where it happened. That was easy now with the GPS device. Before he had to estimate the distance and direction from a certain landmark. And there were far more “incidences” than he cared to think about.
Topping a ridge he surveyed the area with his binoculars. Seepx">
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