Sight. Exhale. Hold and squeeze.
Sound comes first, and then the scented smell of black powder. Twins each. Acting in destruction. Birthed with the firing of her weapon. The ancient rifle doing only as it was asked.
The plain-faced woman had been patiently lying on her stomach. Atop the high arid butte, staying still, four hours long. Doing her best to give credence to her instincts, allowing them to lead. She was surrounded on three sides by juniper trees and sage. The trees had at least fifty years of growth, not that you could easily tell. They didn’t get the water like the western part of the state. So their stretch to the sky was ever stunted. The limbs however still offered blessed shade from the sun’s burning. And for that, she was thankful. High desert summers were not the kindest of environments.
On the fourth side was an open view to the valley below. Which was where she was facing, still bedded, holding her weapon. She looks through the scope and takes stock of the damage dealt. The lens brings her close, and she can clearly see the remainder of the scrawny pack scattering. Leaving the carcass that had attracted them. She glimpses the Alpha briefly, as he falters and then falls. Dust and sand rising in granular tan wisps from the collapse. After a moment, when all is still, she pulls her eye away.
Shuffling her rifle to one side. She pushes herself up onto her knees. Rubbing her chest and bosom. Hoping to increase the blood flow back into the parts that have gone without. She then reaches up and pulls off her netted sun-scarred cap. Wiping her forehead with the back of a tanned hand. Hot wind from the south begins to blow the loose wisps of her hair about her face. This causes a wilted sigh to escape her lips. Moving towards the backpack at her side. She removes a tattered blue starred handkerchief, a bruised metal canteen, and an old radio. Clicking the radio on, she uses her thumb to depress the talk button while saying
“Gerty to base, Gerty to base”
The crackle and hiss of white noise was her only response, washing away her voice. After a minute, she says again.
“Gerty to base, respond”
She waits several moments, when finally the smacking of lips and the chewing of words can be heard saying.
“Gerty, this is base, what’s your status?”
Chewing continues before the click of communications ceases. Her stomach growls at the sound of food being consumed.
“Rifle fired, potential kill, headed down to confirm, over”
“Roger that-” the sound of tongue juggling the food stops the speaker for a moment, then he finishes “-stay safe”
“Copy base, Gerty out” and she clicks the radio off and sets it inside her backpack.
Unscrewing the canteen’s stiff cap, Gerty places the handkerchief to the open top and allows the water to seep and dampen it. Adequately wet by her judgment, she pulls the fabric to her forehead, neck, and head. A sigh of relief escapes her lips, as she sops the heat that is radiating from her body. Bringing the can to her mouth, she takes several long, hard pulls. It travels over and down her chapped lips and parched throat. Feeling the cool crisp flood eventually fill her stomach.
Dropping the container from her face, Gerty squints through heat waves and sun blur. From this distance, she can barely make out the area where the animal should lay. Normally a feeling of pride or accomplishment would root. But her mind meets only the oily sense of lingering disgust. As it wanders through thoughts on how she came to arrive here.
“Gerty!” Denton had yelled to her from his office.
“Get yer ass in here, would’ja?”
She had been using their GIS system to map last known locations of some of the local wildlife. It was important that the animals appear accurately as they track them throughout the year. Being right in the thick of it, she hated to stop. So with some reluctance, Gerty had risen from her desk and walked over to her supervisors’ office.
Rounding the corner and entering the door, she found Denton Jeffries, a lanky man of about fifty, hunched over a freshly printed map. Holding a small stained paper with coordinates in one hand, the other had been using a sharpie to mark the locations. Sensing she was there, he didn’t stop, just kept on placing points on his map.
“Come and take a look” he ordered
Gerty walked over to the table and looked down. Already displayed, were pre-printed deer and elk icons indicating the whereabouts of the herds. She also noticed other images representing different wildlife. Wolf, cougar, bear, were just a few that stuck out. Denton’s red markings were the only visual representation that felt awkward. And after studying the data for a couple of minutes, Gerty finally asked.
“So what exactly are we lookin’ at?”
“Domestics” came the one word response.
Shock acting as a lasso, encircled her lungs. Causing her to shudder while sucking the air swiftly between cheek and gum.
“Yuuuuuup.” Denton’s bottom lip popped as he said it. Still placing strokes on the map.
“Local reporting?” she asked hopefully.
“Nah, it is verified. I sent Lawson and McAdam out on Monday and this-” waving his index finger about the page in indication. “-well, this is what they came up with.”
Rising from his stoop, Denton capped the pen and turned to her continuing. “The fellas counted over nine-teen different packs with approximately twelve to fourteen animals in each”
Gerty whistled a long, low, note. Astonished.
“Dent, I know I ain’t been here that long. But this don’t seem all that regular.” she said.
“It’s not. This is the worst I’ve seen.” Which was quite a statement. At least coming from a man who had lived through so much. Denton’s time with the Bureau of Land Management was the stuff others only dreamt they would experience in their career.
“Gerty, I hate to ask this, but they are starting to compete with the local game. We need you to head out and-” He looked down at his feet, emotion stalling his request as his words seemed to catch. For coming across like an old hard-ass, Denton had more heart than people knew, and hated the thought of killing. Always saying he didn’t have the stomach and that he was meant to ‘organize and appreciate’. It was interesting to see someone this weathered, acting in such a way.
“Oh, I getcha.” Her voice spilled in soft acknowledgement. Sparing Denton from having to further his request.
“I’d do it myself, but I’m headed to Portland for our-“
“How long should I pack for?” She interrupted. Not allowing him to finish his explanation.
With obvious relief, he answered. “Bout two weeks I reckon. Full gear.”
The conversation, she recalled, had wrapped itself around details from that point forward. But she remembered wondering if she would be able to do it. Now, twelve days and thirty-two animals later, she was keenly aware of the fact she could.