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Enchanted Rock Blue(s)

September 11, 2012

ERB Cover

Maurice Neunhoffer stood alone on the top of the knob shown as a scenic view point on the folded map of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in his left shirt pocket.  Above the pocket was the badge of a Texas Parks and Wildlife Park Police Officer.  He faced the western horizon, where a cumulonimbus cloud spat out lightning and rain a few miles away.  Over his shoulder an AR-15 rifle hung from a strap.  A hundred yards behind him on the Loop Trail a John Deere Gator stood empty.  The towering storm cloud blocked the late afternoon sun.  High above a lone vulture circled, canvassing the terrain below for a meal.  Maurice held binoculars to his eyes, moving them slowly to the right as he examined the terrain between his position and the western boundary fence.  He continued turning to the right until several minutes had elapsed and he had turned a full 360 degrees.  The remains of a picnic were scattered around at his feet.  He bent over and collected the scraps of food, an empty green bottle lying on its side by the stain of spilled wine, a daypack, and a picnic blanket, and walked back to the Gator.

The trip back around the Loop Trail to Park Headquarters would be half an hour on foot, but in the Gator it was only ten minutes.  When he arrived he saw the green pickup truck of a Texas Parks and Wildlife Game Warden in the parking lot.  In the distance he could hear the blades of an approaching helicopter beating the air in a frenzy of ‘whop-whop-whop.’  Maurice slipped through the door beside the entrance drive where Becky stood ready to collect user fees.

“Any luck?”

“Nah.” Maurice continued towards the back office.  In the office the Game Warden sat in a chair beside the desk, the Park Superintendent behind the desk.  Maurice smiled when he saw who had come in the green pickup outside.  “Wie gehts?”

“Sehr gut.”

Maurice shook the Game Warden’s hand, nodded to the Superintendent, then took off his cap and sat down in the other office chair.  “Nothing.  Nada.  How’s the victim?”

The Superintendent shifted in his chair.  “Not too bad.  Had some stitches at the ER in Fredericksburg.”

“Sounds like you’re going to be on TV tonight.”

The Superintendent shook his head glumly as the helicopter with the logo of an Austin TV station on the side slowly settled onto the grass behind the building.  “What are we going to do about it?”

Max, the game warden, spoke up.  “They’ve got a pretty big range.  He could be watching the campground from one of those rocks behind us or he could be miles away and never coming back.”

“All the same, I think we should close the Loop Trail.”

Maurice sat up straight in his chair.  “And the Walnut Springs and Moss Lake Campgrounds too?  There’s a bunch of campers out there.  Where we going to put all those people?”

“Got to do something.  If that cat attacks someone else, there’ll be hell to pay.  Max, what do you think?”

“Attacks by mountain lions are rare.  We’ve got some public information handouts on mountain lions.  Tells you how to prevent an attack, what to do, that kind of stuff.  They’re on our website.  We can pass them around and warn people to be on the lookout.”

“How about you guys spending the night out there?  Aren’t they nocturnal?  Maybe you’d see it then.”

Max looked at Maurice.  “Hell, I don’t know.  I suppose that would be OK.  Maurice, you up for a camp-out?”

“You know me; I’d live in a tent if Angela would let me.  She’s in Houston with her parents for a few days.  How ‘bout you get your camping stuff and some grub and meet me out by Walnut Springs?”

“I suppose so.  You’re going to have to tell me where that is.  It’ll take me a couple of hours.  What happened to that storm?”

Maurice got up and looked out the window.  “Looks like it’s moving off to the north.  Bring a couple of those big spotlights with you.  I’ll get my stuff together and get some brochures passed out.”  They could hear the TV reporter in the lobby.  He turned to the Superintendent.  “Looks like you got your work cut out for you.  I’d face down a mountain lion rather than those cameras any day.  I’ll get some of those brochures, and then I’m outta here.”  He stuck his head out of the office door; Gwen was only a couple of feet away at a station registering guests. “Are there any campers in Buzzard’s Roost Campground?”

“Two.”

“I’ll get out to the campgrounds and pass the info out ASAP.”  He took the folded park map out of his shirt pocket and made an X in the Walnut Springs Primitive Camping Area, then handed it to Max.  “Here’s where I’ll be.  Bring some decent food, eh?”

While Gwen printed two hundred of the Mountain Lions In Texas brochures from the TPWD website, Maurice slipped out the back door with the AR-15 over his shoulder and drove the Gator to his living quarters at the north end of the park along the highway.  He got his sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and tent, filled a big jug with water, grabbed his field jacket, and drove back to the Headquarters.  The TV camera was set up on the back deck, and the Superintendent was being interviewed by a reporter with long, curly, brown hair.  Maurice quietly went in through the side door.  Gwen handed him a couple of manila envelopes filled with the two page brochures.

“That reporter asked about you. “She said she was hoping to get you on film for the evening news.”  Maurice grimaced.  “I told her you were out chasing the big cat.”

“Thanks.”  Maurice smiled, tipped his hat to her, and then slipped back out the side door.

Maurice started by driving out the highway to the entrance for the Buzzard’s Roost Primitive Camping Area.  He only found two campers there, gave them each a brochure, and then drove back to the main camping area as quickly as he could.  He began by duct-taping a brochure to each of the doors of the campground bathroom.  Then he walked around the campground talking to people and passing out brochures.  By the time he was finished the sun was approaching the horizon, and several more thunderstorms were visible in the western sky.  He got in the Gator and drove the Loop Trail clockwise, first to the Moss Lake Primitive Camping Area.  He expected that spreading the information around these backcountry camping areas would be easier than it sounded, as they were occupied primarily by Boy Scouts.

“Hey, there.  How are you?”

A bedraggled Boy Scout with a dirty face looked up at him from the Loop Trail.  “Freakin’ tired.  We had to climb up that rock all day long.”

“I’ve always wanted to say this:  take me to your leader.”  He laughed.  The boy looked at him, not comprehending.  “Climb in, let’s go find your scoutmaster.”

The boy got in beside him and they drove into the camping area until they found a dozen tents in a semicircle and two men sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree.  The boy identified the men as his scoutmasters.  Maurice explained the situation to them and gave them several of the brochures.  Then he drove the Gator back to the Walnut Springs area and found the Scoutmaster there.  He had already heard about the mountain lion attack.

“Do you think it’s safe to be out here?”

“Attacks like that are rare.  I’m going to be out here all night with the game warden.  We’ll be camped another few yards down the trail.  Pass these around to your boys.”  He handed the scoutmaster a stack of brochures.   “If you see a mountain lion come look us up.”

A couple of hundred feet past the Scouts’ camp, Maurice turned the Gator left off the trail into a small clearing.  Behind him was a drainage which occasionally held water; in front of him, a campsite shaded by a large tree.  A storm rumbled and flashed to the southwest.  Maurice set up his tent and put his sleeping bag inside.  Daylight was fading fast.  He could see headlights approaching through the campground, so he walked back into the campground area until he found Max, then drove with him back to the campsite.

Max put up his tent while Maurice set up the Coleman propane stove on the tailgate of the pickup.  The stove had a grill on the right and a burner on the left.  He pulled the ice chest in the bed of the truck towards him and opened it.  In the ice were six plastic bottles of tea and a couple of packages wrapped in white butcher paper.  He held the larger package up towards Max with a questioning look.

“T-bones from Dutchman’s.”

Maurice grinned.  “I owe you, man.  This is living.”

“There’s some jalapeno poppers in there, too.  They had just made a batch so I picked up a couple dozen.  Why don’t you get those going first?”

“Damn.  I hope your wife doesn’t mind you coming out here tonight.”

“Nah.  She’s going out to dinner with our small group from the church.”

“I’m sorry I made you miss it.”

“Are you kidding?  This is the part of my job I love.  The rest of it gets old.  What happened to your buddy John?”

“Gone to New York.   His book just got published.  He’s doing promotional stuff.  He’s supposed to be on the Today show.   They say it’s going to hit the New York Times Best Sellers list.  Back in a week.”

“He’s coming back to work as the custodian?”

“Says he has too much fun here to give it up.”

“I know what you mean.”

“You think we have any chance of finding this cougar?”

“Nope.”  Max got a couple of folding chairs out of the back of the pickup and set them up by the tailgate, opened a bottle of iced tea, and sat down.  “I’ve been here twelve years, been pretty much everywhere at day and at night, and I’ve never seen one.  I’ve investigated several sightings or killings, but never laid eyes on a live one.”

“Me neither.”

“I say we eat supper, then take the spotlights and just wander around for a while.  It’ll sound good in my report.  From the looks of things there might be a storm coming, then we can give it up and get some sleep.”

“You’ve seen a dead one?”

“Saw one up in Llano County last year.  Don’t know what happened to it, but from the wear on his teeth he was at least ten years old.  Beautiful animal.  About 150 pounds.  I’d like to catch a glimpse of one sometime.  They’re just damned hard to find.”

Maurice put the now-cooked, bacon-wrapped, cream cheese stuffed jalapenos on a paper plate and set the steaks on the grill.  “What do you suppose we’ll have to do if this cat attacks someone else?”

“We can set up a trap.  That might work.  If that doesn’t get him we may have to bring in a professional hunter with lion dogs.  I sure as hell hope it doesn’t come to that.  Maybe get the DPS to bring a helicopter over.  Shooting wild animals from a helicopter just ain’t right, but that might be the only way to get him.  You’d have to close the park while we were hunting him.  Problem is, if this cat’s decided people’s easier prey than deer, he might try it again.”

“Yeah, look at it from his point of view.  He just lays around in the shade by the trail and big soft meaty things come walking by.  Good thing his victim was in pretty good shape.  The girl with him said her boyfriend fought like hell until the cat left.  Someone out here by themselves might not be so lucky.”

Maurice turned the steaks over.  “How about tracks?  Cougars leave any sign?”

“Lots.  Parks and Wildlife has a good field guide on mountain lions.  I’ve got it in the cab.  In the morning we can go look for tracks.”

“That storm looks like its heading for us.”  Maurice nodded his head towards a towering cloud to the west.  Lightning flashed inside the cloud all the way to its top, and thunder reverberated off the three large granite domes a half mile east of their camp.  “Might just stay in camp tonight.”

“Probably a wasted effort anyway.  It’ll be a lot easier finding fresh tracks if it does rain.  He’ll hole up in a storm.”

Maurice got the steaks and poppers off the grill and put them on the plates.  Maurice asked him about silverware.

Max shrugged.  “Forgot silverware.  Gonna have to make do.”

Maurice cut a piece steak with his pocket knife, then stuck the knife in it and put the bite in his mouth.  “Damn, that’s good.  I suppose this is why I went to college.”

Max grinned, using a Leatherman to cut up and eat his T-bone.

The rain came not long after they had finished eating.  They decided to turn in and get up at first light.  Maurice lay in his sleeping bag listening to the rain.  He thought about Angela and the child developing in her womb.  He fell asleep, and dreamed of children travelling up and down the Enchanted Rock in a never ending line.

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