Archive for October, 2009

Jonquil in Spring

October 12, 2009

            His mother, her brain slightly addled by the incessant West Texas wind, was overly fond of flowers. When she first glimpsed the tiny face of her new-born son with its delicate creases, it reminded her of daffodil petals. So she named him “Jonquil.” His father did not object to this sissified name because he did not know what a jonquil was. Besides, he left all such matters up to his wife.

His grandfather was Lt. J. B. Stallings, CSA, aide-de-camp to General John Bell Hood. At the battle for Fredericksburg, his staff around him, Hood was singled out by a Yankee sniper. Lt. Stallings flung himself in front of his general and the ball passed clean through his side. All in attendance declared that it was a supreme act of bravery. Lt. Stallings was granted a medical discharge. He returned to a grateful state of Texas, whose legislature awarded him a huge piece of property. The South was winning the War and could afford to be generous. This parcel was not measured in acres but in square miles; being only slightly shy of the size of Delaware. Lt. Stallings called his ranch “Delaware” and adopted the “Diamond D” brand.

                       *           *           *

             Now, Jonquil Stallings, bachelor, ran 2,000 head of Black Angus with the help of twenty ranch hands. The ramrod was a man named Martin Holyhill, whom everyone called “Mart” to his face and “holy Hell” behind his back. He ran the ranch in 1985 the same way it was done in 1885—riders on horseback were able to traverse the crumpled landscape far easier than mechanized vehicles.

That November, 1985, the weather suddenly turned bitterly cold. The oldest hand was called Sam Rockitt. He had iron-gray hair and a pure white mustache, neither of which had been trimmed in decades. He also had a gravelly deep voice which lent him an air of authority.

“I seen this afore,” he declared, “sometimes when cold weather comes this early it means the rest of the winter will be mild. Kinda like Mother Nature was apologizin’ for trickin’ us thataway.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Breezy Lawnton, “I’ll be lookin’ fo’ard to a mild winter.”

But Sam Rockitt was wrong. The freezing weather persisted deep into December with the temperature hovering around zero degrees. Maybe four above to four below, but then nobody had a thermometer. The constant wind, usually out of the West turned to come out of the Arctic North—a “blue Norther.” Then it began to snow—sideways. It was something of a mystery how snowflakes traveling in a horizontal direction parallel to the ground could accumulate; but they did. At first only two inches or so, but enough to hide the grasses and forbs the cattle ate. When the snow reached six inches with the cows hungry, Jon Stallings summoned Mart Holyhill.

“Time to distribute the Alfalfa grass in Barn No. 2,” was all he said.

Mart assigned the task of hitching the mules to the hay wagon to Sam Rockitt and Breezy Lawnton. The mules had not worked since September and were reluctant to start. They stomped their hooves and kicked up their heels. They clacked their teeth, snorted and brayed. But the two cowboys, only slightly more intelligent than the two jackasses, prevailed. Soon, the mules were in their traces standing before the loaded wagon. Breezy Lawnton threw wide the double doors of the barn. An icy wind from Saskatchewan hit the mules square in the face and froze them. Their eyes became as wide as milk-jug lids; they locked their knees and stiffened their flanks. They wouldn’t budge outside into this weather. Breezy Lawnton pulled on the reins in front; Sam Rockitt had found a flat board and was whacking their rumps from behind.

Cap Hall, admiring the cussing, came into the barn bundled up against the cold. He had a heavy woolen muffler around the lower half of his face. It extended up over his ears and tucked into his hat which was drawn low over his eyes. He wore a dark green blanket coat and fur-lined leather mittens. He was not recognizable as a human being to the mules.

He slowly approached the front of the right side mule, gently grabbed the reins beneath the animal’s chin and exerted slight backward pressure. The bit prodded in the corners of the mule’s mouth; a signal that meant “Stop.” With his other hand, Cap began to stroke the velvety hairs on the beast’s nose, all the while quietly cooing sweet-nothing words. It took a full twenty minutes, but the mule’s laid-back ears came forward, its eyes fluttered and blinked, the muscles relaxed. Cap then pulled forward on the reins meaning “Go.” The mule took several tentative steps forward, its mate, attached by the tree, followed. Soon the entire wagon was outside the barn. In the twenty minutes Cap spent in persuasive distraction the temperature inside the barn had fallen to zero and it was no longer a shock to the mules to be outside. They resigned themselves to resume work.

Sam Rockitt climbed onto the seat and Cap Hall and Breezy Lawnton swung into the bed. Sam drove out five miles and then turned left. This was the prompt for Cap and Breezy to begin hurling armfuls of hay out either side of the wagon. By the time the wagon was empty, they had laid down a double swath of hay in a semicircle. The following day they completed the circle. The next day Sam drove out from Barn No. 2 ten miles before turning. It took four days to complete this circle. But now there were two concentric circles of hay. The farthest ring extended a full twenty miles wide in every direction; enough to encompass almost the entire ranch. Any cows beyond could easily walk to the hay circle.

Coming back to Barn No. 2 on the last day, Sam Rockitt noticed a heifer lying on her side. He jumped down to investigate. Breezy Lawnton did not like sick cows; they kicked and bit cowboys who were only trying to help.

“Careful thar, Sam,” he warned, “she mighta been bit by a coyote and has the rabies.”

But Sam Rockitt knew the cow was not rabid. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth; her eyes rolled erratically. She was having difficulty breathing. When he lifted her head, she let go a colossal hiccup. The air was drenched with the odor of sour whiskey. Sam Rockitt stood up, arms akimbo.

“Damn me,” he swore, “this cow is drunk!”

But Sam Rockitt was wrong. The cow was not drunk and in two hours she was dead. The next day Sam rode out to check on the heifer. He found her frozen solid.

When Sam Rockitt returned to the bunkhouse he learned he was not the first to report a dead steer. Several cowboys were standing around Mart Holyhill detailing their sightings of carcasses. But Sam was the only one who had seen a cow sick.

“She were drunk,” Sam Rockitt declared. “I seen this afore. Seen Injuns get drunk, stumble in the snow and lay down to go to sleep then wake up dead. The elerments gits to ‘em. The cold seeps in and freezes their innards. Kills them. As long as them bossies are standing on their stony hooves the elerments caint touch ‘em. But loaded and tired. . .well. . . ”

“Drunk?” Mart Holyhill broke in, “How’s a cow get drunk?”

“Fermented hay, I reckon,” Sam Rockitt reasoned, authoritatively. “It seems to be just after we put down the hay that the dyin’ started.”

“Takes wet hay to ferment,” said Mart. “We better check the store, don’t want no rotten hay.”

But Sam Rockitt was wrong. Fermentation is indeed a phase of the process of decomposition the boys called “rot.” But this process requires bacterial activity and bacteria require warmth. The temperature inside Barn No.2 was not zero but was below freezing and too low for bacterial growth even if the hay were sodden. The boozy breath Sam detected on the dead heifer came from gastric gases. In her stomach was warmth and moisture and the bacteria present were helping her digest the hay plant fibers, converting them to alcohol along the way.

Mart Holyhill enlisted the help of three more cowboys and the five men spent the better part of two hours sifting through the hay stored in Barn No.2. They could find no moisture. When they sniffed it, the hay smelled fresh and sweet, appealing to a cow. There was no musty smell of decomposition and certainly no odor of alcohol.

“Better let the boss know,” said Mart Holyhill.

He was in the Big House standing before the door to Jon Stallings’s office ready to knock when he figured he’d better brush off his coat. Jon Stallings opened the door just at that moment, on his way to the privy, and was greeted by a cloud of hay dust in his face.

“Er, sorry there, boss,” Mart said, meekly.

“’At’s all right, Holyhill, what’s up?”

“Bad news, cap’n, the cattle is dying right quick.”

Jon Stallings blanched. A certain amount of death in a cold winter could be expected but he saw by Holyhill’s demeanor that this was out of the ordinary. At $200 a head his herd was worth $400,000, a small fortune. The loss of one or two here or there, was bearable but. . .

“How many do you mean?”

“’Bout fifty or sixty or so,” Mart responded, indefinitely. “Sam Rockitt thinks the cows were drunk from fermented hay.”

“You mean to tell me you put away wet hay, Holyhill?”

Stallings wagged a finger just under Mart’s chin. It was hard for Jon Stallings not to call him “holy Hell.” His pallor had turned to choleric red. It felt natural to blame someone else for his trouble and Holyhill was conveniently handy.

“No, sir, a’course not. We was just checkin’ the hay and its dusty dry as you saw. I reckon the moisture mighta come from snowmelt.”

“Snowmelt?” Jon Stallings roared. “In this weather? Not likely. I want an accurate count of the dead ones. Send out all the boys and tell ‘em to count exact. Have ‘em write down the number right there on a slip of paper. I don’t want no relyin’ on memory.”

In two days, Jon Stallings had a six-inch high stack of fluttering toilet tissue squares; it being the only paper the boys were familiar with. It took him a slap hour to total up the numbers. He calculated and re-calculated until he was sure he had a reliable figure: 438. A disaster! He suddenly became aware of one of the most violently severe headaches he had ever known. Too much dust, worry and arithmetickin’, he thought. Spring can’t come soon enough.

Spring did come, in the usual West Texas way. Overnight the temperature rose thirty degrees. When the sun came out it rose another thirty. The wind shifted around back toward the East and blew the stench of rotting cows into the settlement. County Sheriff Prescott Eagan was summoned to investigate. He simply followed his nose to the Diamond D Ranch.

There he was astonished to find hundreds of dead cattle strewn across the prairie. He stopped at one cluster of a dozen and kicked the corpses. Some were firm while others were squishy inside from internal decomposition. He reasoned the firm ones were recently dead and the squishy, old and rotting. He had it backwards, though. The firm flesh had been dead the longest. Frozen solid, it took a long time for 1800 pounds of beef to defrost. That warmth the bacteria responsible for decomposition demanded was not yet available. On the other hand recently dead cows provided body heat and the Spring sun did the rest.

Sheriff Eagan remounted and took out a large bandana, scented with his wife’s perfume, which he had brought along specifically for this purpose. He wrapped it around his nose and mouth and rode off like a bandit toward the Big House. He had to recalculate his earlier count. There were not hundreds of dead cows but thousands!

He tied his horse to the porch railing and knocked long and hard at the front door. No answer. The door was unlocked. Prescott Eagan had never been in the Stallings mansion. A series of closed doors led off the foyer. Some hid rooms that had not been used in years.

Eventually, he opened the door to Jon Stallings’s office. There he found the owner slumped over his desk, his head resting on folded arms. Prescott Eagan instinctively reached out to prod the man awake when he saw by the ghostly gray of his face that Jon Stallings was dead.

Prescott Eagan bolted out of the house leaving the front door open. He ran past his horse; sprinted the two hundred yards past Barn No.2 to the bunkhouse. There he found the twenty cowboys all deceased. Some in their bunks, others slumped in chairs and many lying on the floor. He did not kick these corpses. Sam Rockitt was reclined on the dining table; face up, his hands gently clasped across his waist, clad only in red longjohns.

Back at his office Prescott Eagan did his best to write up a report:

“This morning, I uncovered the inhabitants of the Diamond D Ranch both four-legged and two, succumbed to the terrible cold weather we have been having this past winter.”

It only briefly crossed his mind how odd it was that twenty-one fully clothed men in separate heated buildings had been killed by the cold. But strange weather phenomena were typical in West Texas. Perhaps the temperature had dropped suddenly to, say, one hundred degrees below zero, just in a pocket of air above the Diamond D Ranch. He hadn’t a better explanation.

        *           *           *

            In 1993, a Native American residing at Zuñi Pueblo in northwestern New Mexico died suddenly and mysteriously. His name was Porfirio Ketasikibatiwa. The Medical Examiner in Gallup performed an autopsy expecting to find cirrhosis of the liver or coronary infarction. Instead he found the Indian’s lungs had turned to mush. He scooped up a sample and sent it to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He reasoned that Indians were wards of the Federal Government, somehow, and maybe Walter Reed would send back the pathology report for free, saving the county $27. The victim’s name was too long to fit in the block marked “Name” on the vial label, so the M. E.’s secretary left it blank.

The pathologist assigned to the sample was able to isolate from it a new and strange virus which belonged to the family of Hantaviruses. Searching for a name for this new bug, he noticed the empty entry under victim’s name. So, rather facetiously, he called the new virus “Sin Nombre,” literally “without name.” Assuming also that New Mexicans must all speak Spanish.

When laboratory rats were exposed to the new virus they universally died! This was one nasty pathogen; second only to the Ebola virus of Africa. Later that year it was determined that the transmission vector for Sin Nombre was dried mouse droppings, inhaled by the victims as dust.

       *           *           *

             This revelation came too late for “the inhabitants of the Diamond D Ranch both four-legged and two.” Barn No.2 at the spread was infested with mice which had come from all over to get in out of the cold and feast on the Alfalfa seeds.

Six months after Sheriff Prescott Eagan had “uncovered” the grisly tragedy at the Diamond D, a stone marker was erected at the Brewster County Cemetery. It read simply,

“Here Lies

Jonquil Stallings

born Oct 3, 1924,

found dead April 18, 1986


            The incessant West Texas wind swirled a handful of red dust past the gray granite.  It was too late then for anybody to be interested in reading the unusual name on the inscription. Besides, nobody in West Texas knew what a jonquil was.





Jonquil in Spring©


Encounters of the Javelina

October 1, 2009

Encounters of the Javelina

In the desert southwest, there is a burly quadruped called a collared peccary. While it looks like a pig, it does not belong in the swine family.  Most natives in the area call it (no, not “peckered collery’) javelina from the Portuguese, javali, (Spanish, jabali),  for “spear” or “javelin;” a reference to its speed across open country and the large cuspid tusks.

Javelina travel in small groups led by a dominant male, who has the only reproductive privileges. This group was led by a large male, named Javier; his mate, Serafina and their offspring: Jake, Rosario and Elise. There were three lesser males that trailed along after them. It was always a question whether Javier was the real father of any of the juveniles, as javelina females are notoriously promiscuous. Serafina’s pheromones were particularly strong. This made her incredibly attractive to other males. She had a squinty-eyed face with a twisted and yellow lower left tusk, which didn’t make her attractive in the usual sense. But boars mounted her from the rear, and never noticed her appearance, only that enticing fragrance from her anal glands.

Her youngest daughter, Elise, had inherited her mother’s glandular superiority and had already, precociously, attracted the attention of Ludwig, one of the young males. Ludwig realized he need not challenge the alpha male, Javier, for Elise’s favors.

Ludwig’s family had traveled all the way across Mexico from Guatemala. When they reached the US-Mexico border they were confronted by a large security fence. The javelinas simply dug a deep pit, wallowed in the cool soil for several hours, then proceeded to tunnel under the fence and onto US land. This set off several motion-detector alarms in Border Patrol vehicles. The javelinas were not arrested, nor returned to Mexican soil, but neither was the tunnel filled in, and several hundred illegal immigrants used the javelina-built tunnel for entry into the US. Some even dressed as peccaries.

The javelina did not like humans, called them gella-bana, which is javelina for “non-peccary.” Serafina’s aunt, Josefina Javelina, had an encounter with some humans. Her son, Jose, only six inches tall, charged toward the men, and gored one on the ankle.

“How’d he taste?” asked Josefina.

“Terrible! Like dirty socks!”

It was decided, then, to scratch gella-bana off the list of eligible prey. No matter, the list of other edible things remained long.

The band, of which Javier was head, preferred to dwell in a dry wash, in south-east Arizona, near the Aravaipa Creek, a reliable source of water year-round. In summer, in the daytime, they lolled in the shade beneath some mesquite trees and foraged for food by moonlight.

They were munching on some prickly pear pads one evening when they smelled the awful stench of gella-bana. It was difficult to tell if the gella-bana were male or female as they hid their bodies beneath cloth. Some of the larger ones, presumably male, sprouted black bristles from their nose. They were fond of carrying things: bags of other cloths; bags of white powder; short, black sticks that seemingly had no purpose.

“Keep away from them,” said Javier. “They can be very dangerous if aroused. And above all do not feed them.”

“What would we feed them anyhow, Papa?” asked Rosario.

“They like prickly pear pads,” said Javier, his mouth half-full of prickly pear pads. “Call them nopales, and they dig those tubers out of the ground and eat them.”

“They have that shimmering, orange light that shines in the night. They put their food in there to make it warm,” said Jake.

“Just stay away from them,” said Javier again, his mouth still full of a nopal. “If they get too close, turn and kick dirt at them with your hind feet. All the while grunting as loud and ferociously as possible. If that doesn’t scare them off, charge at them, squealing, and showing your spear teeth.”

“Don’t let your father frighten you, children,” said Serafina. “They are basically stupid. They have good eyesight, but a poor sense of smell. They wouldn’t dare try to eat us, as we are too big for their puny mouths. Keep your distance, and there will be nothing to worry about.”

Serafina, intentionally, did not tell the children about the long sticks the gella-bana sometimes carried. These had fire at the tips and somehow killed javelina, which the men carried away for some unknown purpose.

In the Aravaipa Canyon there lived a mountain lion, named Keith.   Puma could kill a javelina if given the chance, but Keith conserved his energy wisely. He knew that the group would attack him with their razor-sharp canines if he jumped on a juvenile’s back. He looked for sick or crippled individuals, who had wandered or lagged far from the troop.  This was a rare occurrence, and so there existed a certain truce between the two species. Keith’s odor preceded him so there was no chance for surprise.

There also existed a bobcat named Rolbeto, who could take a very young javelina. It wasn’t worth tangling with an angry javelina mother to try. Rolbeto never spoke to Keith, but if Keith killed a deer, Rolbeto would be glad to feast on the leavings.

On the summer day, when Javier was lecturing his children on the dangers of gella-bana, Keith came into the dry-wash from the east, while Rolbeto came in from the north.

“Hello, Javier,” said Keith.

“Hello, Keith,” said Javier.

Javier, who always kept his head down and his nostrils in the dust, lifted his snout as far as he could. This allowed him to keep a weak eye on the predator.

“I was just wondering if you had seen any deer or. . .”

Just then, Rolbeto appeared from beneath the mesquite brush. On seeing Keith, he arched his back and made the hairs along his spine stand straight up. The two felines eyed each other from this near distance. They probably had seen each other from canyon rim to canyon floor, but never this close. Rolbeto’s scent was lost in the prevailing wind blowing northward up the arroyo. The bobcat tucked his tail and scuttled off through the underbrush.

“Well, that was strange,” said Keith. “I can’t stand that guy, usually.”

“Competition, eh?” said Javier.

“It’s not that so much. . .” Keith trailed off.

“Have you seen the gella-bana camped over on the flat?” Javier asked.

Gella-bana?” asked Keith. He did not know this word of javelina.

“The two-legged ones who wear clothes.”

“I smelled them,” said Keith. “Smelled their fire and their excrement. They can be dangerous. And, there are so many of them. I don’t like them, either”

This remark made Keith seem grumpy and bad-tempered. He was really only solitary, and preferred his own company to that of others. When he came upon another species he usually killed it. He never conversed with the jack-rabbits or desert big-horn sheep he ate, such a thing would be rude and appetite-stifling. There was a certain mutual respect between Keith and Javier.  Keith’s presence and scent made the young javelina produce large amounts of adrenaline in their blood

“I wish we could do something to scare the gella-bana away,” said Javier.

“I could roar very loudly,” offered Keith. “But, I’ve tried that before, and they had these noisemakers that contained bees in them, and I was more scared than they were.”

“Noisemakers with bees?” asked Javier, totally confused by Keith’s explanation. Only Serafina had any experience with the sticks that bloomed fire and spat whizzing bees.

“Maybe we should move away from this canyon,” Javier continued.

“And abandon the water in this creek?” said Keith. The water attracted all sorts of game from birds to mule deer. Javier only understood the water for drinking.

“Besides, I think they are only here temporarily. Men usually build stone dens when they intend to stay.”

Javier had never paid that much attention to the animals Keith called “men.” It made more sense that they traveled in bands like javelina did. He had not noticed that the stone structures Keith called “dens,” were the living quarters of gella-bana.

“Let’s go over and take a look at them,” offered Keith.

“Now? In the sun? I. . .I couldn’t,” said Javier.

Javier had no sweat glands to cool him in the middle of the day. Additionally, he could not leave his band unprotected.

“Go ahead, sweetie,” said Serafina, reading his mind. “After all, you will be with our most dreaded predator.”

“What about Rolbeto?” proffered Javier.

“He’s probably miles away by now. The young boars and I can take care of him, anyway.”

Serafina was thinking of how she and the young boars could take care of other things as well. So confident was Javier of his reproductive competence, that infidelity never entered his paltry mind.

If a biologist could have observed the pair, she would have been astonished at the sight of a male mountain lion accompanying a male collared peccary through the cottonwoods along the bottomlands of Aravaipa Creek. They came up out of the canyon well downwind of the human campground and stayed hidden among the scrub pines. This was a mistake, for the humans had a poor sense of smell and would not have detected them upwind. Instead, the animals’ sensitive olfactory sense had to endure the overwhelming smell of the humans.

The Mexican illegal-immigrants numbered in the eighties. They had spread blankets on the ground for warmth and sleeping. There were discarded food wrappers and plastic water bottles strewn about. Each family group had its own latrine area, with little privacy. They were awaiting a “coyote” to escort them to a safe pickup locality where they would be transported to metropolitan areas for work opportunities.

Unexpectedly, instead of the white fifteen-passenger vans of the coyote, a series of green-and-white SUVs and pick-up trucks appeared. Some Mexicans went toward the vehicles thinking it was their transport. The majority, though, scattered. A large number fled toward the pine-scrub where Keith and Javier were hiding.

The animals emerged forward into the sunlight. Keith growling and screaming; Javier grunting and baring his lethal tusks. The immigrants skidded to a halt, then turned on their heels and ran back into the waiting arms of the Border Patrol Agents.

A reporter, who had been embedded with the agents, had a camera and took a quick photograph of the animals at the height of their fury. The picture made the front page of Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star, along with the story. The photograph became so popular; the newspaper inaugurated a contest to name the animals. The winning entries were: “Keith” for the puma, and “Javier” for the peccary.

After the melee was over, a peace settled over the filthy encampment. It was too hot for Javier, but he smelled the food leavings and came out of the shade to wander amongst the ruins. He had never before tasted cooked chicken, and the hot chiles burned his tongue. Keith disdained scavenging. If his prey didn’t move and he hadn’t killed it himself, it was not appetizing. They didn’t stay long, but on leaving Keith lifted his hind leg and urinated on a blanket. Javier defecated on some paper debris.

Without a word they turned in unison and descended the bank into the canyon. At the stream, they bade good-bye, and departed in different directions. In ten minutes, Keith was well up the valley. He stumbled upon some feathers and bird bones. Rolbeto had caught a Gambel’s quail in midflight, and devoured it here. It was not a chance discovery. Keith had followed Rolbeto’s scent. When he was content that his cousin, the bobcat, was satiated, and no longer a rival, he moved on deep into the wilderness.

Javier returned to the dry wash. There he found his band sprawled on the soft dirt in various positions of repose. There was no indication of the copulation that had occurred an hour before. Ludwig had taken Elise’s virginity and one of the stronger boars had taken Serafina.

The sun cascaded the last of its rays through the pine trees on the lip of the canyon. Then it disappeared beyond the rim, and the arroyo was drenched with darkness. The javelina rose up together, and ambled off in search of succulent prickly pears.