Chapter Sixteen

When Arty didn’t return that night, John wasn’t too concerned as he had intended to take advantage of the full moon and sit over the kill all night if need be.

Two adrenalin junkies + the ultimate no-go zone and a black cougar that wasn’t meant to exist =?

I won’t insult your intelligence by answering the question. Six days later Arty and John were enjoying a few days beside the Sea of Cortez before heading inland to make their assault on the Yuma Proving Ground. They were broke, excited, and full of purpose.

They spent their days adjusting to the heat and nights pouring over maps as they planned their trip. John used his connections in the Army to get a hunting permit that gave them access to large tracts of land in the military zone but it didn’t to the restricted area where they believed the cougar was. For most of us this would be a negative, but not in the case of Arty and John.

After a week they’d had enough of the coast and hitched to the base. From the compound, it was a 4 day to hike to the border of the restricted zone where the cougar had been sighted. According to their permit, they were hunting doves, it was checked twice while they were hiking, yet no-one questioned their lack of firearms.

The power and might of the US military were on open display, and Arty was impressed. But it was old hat to John, who was oblivious to anything but the hunt.

They set up camp by a water seepage about two miles from the boundary of the restricted zone. The water was brackish, but it would do. Their food consisted of a few pounds of rice, some dried beans and a few chocolate bars that had melted into the bottom of Arty’s pack. It still tasted ok, but they were constantly spitting out deer hair and bits of grit as they ate their chocolate ration.

John had done some discrete intelligence gathering while on base. They had ten days before the restricted zone went live and training exercises started. With technology the way that it is, not even a wiley old poacher and an ex-vet would escape detection so they would need to be gone by then.

Their biggest risk was from the air, military jets and helicopters crisscrossed the sky night and day, forcing them to be constantly on the alert as they hunted. They loved it.  Arty, because it added to the excitement of the hunt and John because it distracted his mind from the horror he had experienced in combat.

The first six days went quickly and without incident. They found some old cougar sign, but you can’t tell the color of an animal by its scat and footprints. On the seventh day, John came down with a severe case of vomiting and diarrhea. It left him too weak to hunt or hike out. Arty offered to stay at camp with him, but John insisted he kept hunting.

On day nine John was gaining strength and Arty found the remains of a fresh kill. It was time to leave, but they both decided to risk it and have one last crack. Arty went to sit over the kill, hoping the cougar returned for seconds. They had no idea if it were black, but Arty was that excited it didn’t really matter.

When Arty didn’t return that night, John wasn’t too concerned as he had intended to take advantage of the full moon and sit over the kill all night if need be.

By ten o’Clock the next morning he began to worry, they had agreed to be well out of the restricted area by daybreak. Jets had already made several flyovers, and he could hear heavy machinery on the ground. The sound of small arms fire and artillery cranked up just after midday and aircraft started bombing runs. He prayed Arty was tucked away somewhere safe.

That evening the sounds of warfare began to fade as the exercise moved away from their hunting area. John waited expectantly for Arty to waltz into camp with that big grin of his. But he didn’t.

He started his search on daybreak the following morning, he was weak and sleep deprived, but nothing was going to stop him looking for his friend. By the time he located the remains of the kill he was exhausted. He found dried blood on the sand and tracked it and Arty’s footprints for a hundred yards to the edge of a steep bluff. He could see where Arty had climbed down the side of the cliff as he tracked the wounded cougar. In his weakened state, there was little point in following them down the side of the bluff  instead he resumed his search where Arty’s boot marks reemerged.

He followed his friend through the desert for nearly a mile as his progress zigzagged from one patch of scrub to another. The tracks were leading away from their camp which puzzled John until he found fresh vehicle marks in the sand. Arty had been doing his best to avoid them. The footprints led John to the edge of a basin, which had no cover, yet he could clearly see Arty’s boot marks lead right into its center. This made no sense as it exposed Arty to aerial and ground surveillance. John grabbed his bino’s and scanned the basin, trying to work out why. When he spotted the scattered and charred remains of an old truck, his heart sank. John put his binoculars down and buried his head in his hands, he’d hoped his capacity for grief had been exhausted long ago, but it wasn’t. It took him nearly an hour to muster up the resolve to complete his search and cover the 300 yards to the remains of the truck. It would have been perfect cover anywhere except in a proving ground, here it was not an abandoned vehicle, it was a target. The pilot had been on form and would have been pleased with his accuracy. John found Arty’s remains partially buried in the sand, he still had his pack on. A piece of shrapnel had torn a gaping hole in its side, revealing its contents.

John managed a smile. The wiley old poacher had died with his boots on. Inside was the silky black skin of a cougar.

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Comments

  • Andy 17/02/2019 10:30am (8 months ago)

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    What a ripper story!

  • Howard Egan 03/07/2017 5:50pm (2 years ago)

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    Well I don't know where those couple of hours went. Poor cougar. Great story. Thank you.

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