Doing the Right Thing

Mountain lions are apex predators. They eat whatever they want. People generally don’t care much about what the lions want to eat until they want to eat people.

Doing the Right Thing was published in Pilcrow and Dagger in the issue for February/March 2019.

 

Doing The Right Thing

 “Is she one of yours, Parker?” Karen’s face was somber.

Parker knelt down by the dead lion and examined her radio collar. “Yep,” he replied. “This is the collar that stopped working a few months ago. It would’ve been nice to have her location data during this last part of the drought. It might’ve given us some insight to any changes in her hunting.” He ran his hand over the fur of her emaciated form, looking for wounds and parasites. He stood up and pushed his wide-brimmed, sweat-stained hat back on his head. “She looks pretty clean.” He sighed as he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

Karen looked up at the burly guy whose graying walrus mustache matched the color of the hair curling around his shirt collar. “You okay?”

“Allergies,” he muttered.

She nodded and knitted her brow. “Do you think the museum can use her for a diorama? The renovation hasn’t started yet. Maybe we could squeeze one in.”

Parker nodded slowly. “Excellent idea. I hate to see a lion go to waste. You and Seth take the standard measurements and put her in the cold room for now. I’ll call the department head about money for a diorama.”

“We’re on it.” Karen was the chief technician at this research field station on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Range and Parker was its head. Seth was a graduate student conducting his research there.

* * *

Parker stood in the gravel parking lot, his hand on the driver’s door of the field station SUV. Karen was sitting behind the wheel. “Be careful out there,” he reminded her. “The drought’s pushing critters with big teeth down from the mountains, looking for water and easy food. They don’t care if you’re designing the diorama for them.”

“Yeah, I know,” she replied as she started the engine. “As soon as Seth and I get these pictures for the diorama backdrop, we’ll be right back. Don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine.”   She flashed a confident smile.

The cool afternoon air blew through the open windows of the SUV. It tugged on Karen’s baseball cap and ruffled her blond hair, cut in a short, easy-care style, as she drove them along the winding roads. She wore her down vest open. Seth’s unrestrained dark hair flowed over the collar of his worn denim jacket.

They passed both small bungalows and fancy houses, newly built by people wanting to live closer to nature. And then they were at the end of the road, in front of sheer cliffs jutting straight up from a flat floor. The sparse vegetation and meandering gravel and sand paths indicated past water flow. There was a shiny stripe on a distant cliff face with a patch of green below it. They climbed out of the Jeep and Karen got out her notebook and started jotting observations.

Seth held out his arms with the tips of his thumbs touching each other and his index fingers pointing up, framing different views before he got the camera ready. Each view looked different than the last, but they had one thing in common.   “This sure looks like lion country to me,” he muttered. Then his eyes got wide; they darted from side to side; they looked hard at every shadow. He searched the cliffs above him as beads of sweat formed on his forehead. After a moment, he let out his breath and shook his arms to loosen them. He reached for his camera and noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned to look. His heart leaped. A mountain lion was stalking Karen. Seth shouted and broke into a run.

Karen turned as the lion leaped. She ducked. The lion’s jaws missed her neck but grabbed the top of her head. And didn’t let go. She screamed and tried hitting it with her fists, but the lion ignored her flailing efforts. Its claws were shredding her vest. Seth ran up, looking for something to use as a club. Nothing was big enough. He swung the camera from its strap and yelled at the lion. He tried to hit its head, but the lion and Karen were moving erratically. Screaming, Seth bounced the camera off of the lion’s shoulders, back, and head. The lion was trying to break Karen’s neck. Karen was trying to pry herself out of its jaws. After what seemed like an eternity, the lion let go. It paused, calmly studying Seth. Seth stood motionless. Except for Seth’s panting, all was quiet. Then the lion snorted, turned around, and walked away slowly, not bothering to look back.

Blood streamed down Karen’s face and the back of her neck. The sleeves of her shirt and her vest were in shreds, her arms covered in blood. White down was scattered on the ground and sticking to the blood on Karen. She reached back to feel the warm stickiness on her neck. She pulled back a hand with a palm basted in red. She stared at her hand and at her arms. She buckled onto the ground. Seth scooped her up and put her in the SUV, all the while muttering “Oh, jeez. Oh, jeez. Oh, jeez.” He cinched the seat belt over her limp form and drove like a madman down the dirt road, past the field station, and directly to the hospital in town. When they arrived, Karen’s eyes were open but she wasn’t coherent. Seth wasn’t much better. After Karen’s treatment had begun and both of them were calm, Seth put in a call to Parker.

“What? . . . Oh my God! . . . Not life-threatening? I’m glad to hear that . . . And you’re sure you’re okay? . . . Good. I’m sending Wanda over to the hospital to be with you guys. She can help with admin issues or errands or anything else, so stay put until she gets there.” Parker hung up and yelled out his office door, “Wanda!” He gave his secretary the news and her assignment, and she hurried off to the hospital.

Parker stood up and paced back and forth in his small office. He didn’t like any of his people getting injured, and he especially didn’t like mountain lions attacking people. He hated the state’s lethal response, but he had to report the incident. He mumbled, “Dammit all, anyway,” and reported the incident to his old acquaintance, Dennis, head of the state agency that dealt with mountain lions.

It was the next day when Parker got a call back from Dennis. “The paperwork is all signed off to euthanize the lion you called in. I’ve gone down our list of licensed hunters, and there’s a small problem. They’re all tied up on other projects or otherwise obligated right now. No one is available.” He paused. “Parker, I hate to ask you this because I know you have a fraternal attitude toward the big cats, but this is a special case, and you do have a permit.” Dennis paused again. “Do you want to take this on? If not, we’ll have to wait a few days before someone on the list becomes available. The trail may be pretty cold by then. What do you think?”

Parker pursed his lips. “Everyone else is tied up?”

“Yep.”

“Tracking one of these cats could take a few days. Let me check on my obligations for the next week or so and see if I can get out of them.   I’ll call you back in an hour.” They both signed off and hung up.

Parker slammed his fist on his desk so hard the phone handset bounced in its cradle. “Damn!” he yelled at the phone. The phone didn’t respond. “That permit’s in case there’s an accident when I hit ’em with a tranquilizer dart. It keeps my ass covered if one of ’em dies. I didn’t get it so I could kill lions.” He glared at the phone. “Damn!” he roared. And he hit his desk again.

Parker took a deep breath and let it out. He looked down at his appointment calendar. He flipped the page to the next week, grabbed his coffee mug, and headed out his door. He flung the dregs from his cup as walked across the gravel patch of a parking lot.

He muttered to himself, “I’ve been studying these cats for over three decades trying to keep ’em from disappearing. I’m doin’ the right thing, dammit. Killing them is not. Shit.” He kicked some gravel.

Parker yanked open the screen door to the cafeteria and slammed it shut behind him as he headed to the coffee pot. “Shit,” he repeated.

Marilee looked up from the menus and budget sheets covering her desk. She had been at this station longer than anyone else. Over the years faculty, staff, and students had come and gone, but Marilee was still here, running the cafeteria and keeping everyone fed. And everyone treated her as the de facto mother of the research station. She squinted through her oversized black-framed glasses at Parker. “You workin’ on havin’ a tough day, Parker?” She pushed back from her desk and walked over to him.

“Yeah. But it doesn’t take much work on my part.” He filled his cup.

In her best consoling voice she said, “Try steppin’ back for a minute. It might not be as tough as it looks up close.”

He turned to look at her. “It doesn’t matter where I’m standing. The state wants me to shoot one of my brothers.”

“What? You don’t have any bro … Oh. A lion. That is tough.” Marilee pursed her lips. She didn’t say anything as she watched Parker pour artificial sweetener into his coffee. Marilee nodded, a sympathetic expression on her face. “But why does this lion need shootin’?” Before Parker could answer, “Is this the lion that attacked Karen?”

He nodded.

Marilee’s eyes got big like she’d just been slapped with a wet fish. “What’s tough about that? What are you waitin’ for? What if the next person that lion attacks doesn’t have someone around like Seth who can fight it off with his bare hands? What happens if it’s some little kid from one of those new homes up there? Don’t make a mother cry ’cuz a lion ate her baby, Parker. Don’t make a mother cry just ’cuz you’re havin’ a tough day. That lion’s too dangerous. You don’t want it for a brother. You got to get rid of it.” She stuck out her chin and looked him straight in the eye. “And you know it.”

Parker suddenly looked tired. He took a deep breath and let it out. “I’ve been tracking lions for over thirty years and I’ve never had to kill one. Now, with a bullet instead of a tranquilizer dart in my rifle, I’m not sure I can pull the trigger when I’ve got him in my sights.”

“Can’t anyone else do this?”

“Nope. Everyone else with a license is tied up for a few days.”

“Oh.” Marilee paused. “You know, Parker, this isn’t about you. It’s about mothers and babies and other people. Right now you just have to do what you have to do. It’s the right thing.”

Parker looked back at Marilee and sighed. He nodded and said, “You’re right, Marilee. You’re right. I was standing too close.” He took a sip of coffee. “That lion is too dangerous,” he said softly. “No mother should cry for her baby because I’m having a bad day. I’ll do what I have to do.” Marilee watched Parker head toward the cafeteria door. Without turning around, he called out, “But I don’t have to like it.”

Before he settled down to track this lion, Parker wanted to get as many clues as possible about it, especially its footprints. Seth was back and agreed to show Parker the site of the attack. Parker loaded his pickup with his binoculars and his field pack with its notebook, measuring tape, camera, and other paraphernalia. He took his rifle with a scope in case he got lucky and saw the lion.

***

Parker’s dog Duke, a blond hound with a black muzzle, was a key member of Parker’s lion-hunting team. Duke tracked lions silently and confronted them with loud barking. He had brought Parker to a lion more than once. As on other hunts, Duke rode in the bed of Parker’s pickup as they headed to the site of Karen’s attack.

As they drew closer Seth tapped his foot and drummed his fingers on his legs. His eyes darted from bush to bush, scrutinizing the shadows of each one. He slapped away the dust accumulating on his jacket, but the dust stuck on Karen’s bloodstains did not slap away.

When they arrived at the scene, they remained in the cab of the truck while Parker gazed around. He explained to Seth, “This is a box canyon–only one way in and out.” He pointed. “A lion has to watch just that one entrance for animals that come to use the watering hole,” he pointed at the green patch, “or leave afterwards. It’s easy pickin’s for a mountain lion.” They got out, and Parker climbed up into the bed of the truck, binoculars in hand.

Parker spent a long while looking all around, examining each bush, boulder, and shadow, while Duke paced around him in the bed of the truck. Like Duke, Seth also paced, but his path was around the truck, and he continued to scrutinize the near-by bushes and boulders. He kept rubbing the palms of his hands on his pants legs, and drumming his fingers on the truck during pauses in his pacing.

“If he’s out there, he’s doing a good job of hiding.” Parker climbed down from the bed and grabbed his field pack. “I want to give the ground a close look before Duke runs over all the tracks. We’ll keep him in the cab while we look around.” Parker put Duke in the cab, and grabbed his field pack and rifle. With his back still to Seth, he paused, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. When he turned back around he had set his jaw and was all business. “While we’re hunting that lion, he’s probably hunting us. Keep your eyes open.” Seth nodded and swallowed hard.

Seth found where he and Karen had walked and pointed out where the attack took place. They found Karen’s baseball cap and the lens cover for the camera.

Parker closely examined the lion’s tracks, took some close-up pictures, and measured between steps. He was looking for signs indicating a limp or some oddity about the paws, and measuring to determine the size of the lion. These could be useful to positively identify the attack lion as being the one he eventually will have to kill. Every few moments he raised his eyes and looked around, scrutinizing the shadows, looking for the slightest movement. The bushes and boulders were perfect cover for a stalking lion, but Parker’s experienced eyes saw none.

Parker propped his rifle against the skeleton of a small tree and knelt over a footprint. He was studying it closely when the hair on the back of his neck stood up. A chill slid down his spine. His heartbeat quickened. He had never had a feeling this strong that he was being watched. He reached for his rifle before he heard Seth yell and before he saw the lion almost on him.

Crunching impact. Hot breath. Weight pressing him to the ground.

THUMP as Seth executed the best full-back body block he had ever done right to the lion’s ribs. Seth and the lion tumbled onto the gravel in a splash of dust. Seth rolled to his feet just as the lion launched at his throat.

BLAM! BLAM!

The gunshots echoed and then everything was still. Even the dust in the air seemed to stop moving. Then Seth called, “Get this thing off of me.”

*   *   *

After Parker got his coffee he plopped down in the chair by Marilee’s desk and gently blew across the top of his steaming mug. “Mornin’, Marilee,” he said.

Marilee gave him a good morning smile. “Well, Parker, Seth said you guys had a real adventure yesterday, lots of action, drama, and another lion for the diorama. How’re you feeling?”

Parker raised his left arm a bit, looked at the bandages wrapped around his forearm and hand, and said, “Well, the pain’s not too bad. I just took a couple of …”

“I don’t mean your arm. I mean how are you feeling?” She pointed to the middle of his chest.

A pensive expression descended onto his face as he stared into his coffee. “Well, I don’t feel happy.” He paused. “I think I just feel numb. Y’know, if the situation had been just a little different … like the lion was by himself and I had him in my sights … I still don’t know if I could have shot him.” He looked over at her.

“You’re right. You don’t know and you never will know because that situation didn’t happen and you’re different now than you were then.” She paused, watching Parker nod in agreement. “You did the right thing, Parker. There’s no doubt about that. Don’t even begin to think otherwise.”

“At least no mother’s crying for her baby because of me.” Parker slurped his coffee.

Marilee’s voice softened. “You know, after something like this it’s pretty normal to go through a period that’s like grieving. So don’t be surprised if you feel down or out of sorts for a while.”

“I feel fine.” He slurped more of his coffee. “I feel fine … fine.” He smiled at her, but not with his eyes. Parker stood up slowly, as if he had a sore back. “I’ve got to get back to the office. There’s always paperwork.”

Marilee watched him walk out of the cafeteria, his shoulders a little more stooped than usual.