The Lion Hunter
Allen Morris Jones
The Lion Hunter
Allen Morris Jones
Ames allowed himself few extravagances in this life. Cigarettes, coffee, the occasional whiskey. And lion hunting. Dogs were pricey to keep; not to mention the time up in the hills. For what? A scrimpy roll of skin, a keepsake skull. Hard to justify and harder still to explain. What was it about lions and the company of the men who chased them? A half-buried mule deer gnawed tail to ribs, the baying of hounds on a bone-cold morning; their frantic, dull-clawed scrabblings against a tree trunk, how they sometimes balanced precariously on the lower limbs. Jake Duprés, who had sold Ames his first dog, a little bluetick bitch named Beehive. Long-legged Ephraim Evanson, who had disdained horses to run afoot behind his dogs. Dan Queene, a sheep rancher who despised the cats for their taste for mutton. Capable men. Strong men. Men who cultivated a quiet scorn for all that which did not cut to the essential quick of the world.
Ames woke to his hounds restless in their kennels. Scratching, pacing, whining, rearing against chain link gates. Even if Ames hadn’t smelled it in the air, he’d have known by his dogs that it had finally snowed.
He gimped to the bureau for yesterday’s long johns. Hands stiff around the trouser buttons, a dribble of urine in the pot, eyes in the mirror rheumy and dim. A hard walnut up his ass where his prostate used to be. Until recently, he’d almost enjoyed old age. Found satisfaction in seeing his life’s work behind him. Lately, however, there’d been this liquid weight in his chest. If he didn’t sleep on his side, he woke to fears of drowning. Between dead and old he’d take old, but resented having to make the choice.
He came into the kitchen trailing bootlaces. His wife at the stove, cracking eggs. She said, “Snowed last night.”
He made a noise, found his place at the table. The kitchen filling now with the smell of bacon, the spit and sputter of eggs.
She said, “Packed your lunches. Over by the door.”
She put his coffee in front of him. Quiet and dark outside, but a web of snow in the windowpane. He sipped coffee, grimaced. “I don’t get no cream this morning?”
He studied her back. “Boy’s not awake yet?”
“Uh uh.” She held her hand flat over her stovetop, feeling the heat.
“Guess you woke up on the wrong side of the bed or what?”
Those blank slabs of cheek; the Métis blood distant but dominant. It was the hunting that made her touchy. Not for deer or elk, not for her freezer food. Only for cats. Even now, all these years later—his logging behind him, his mining days a memory, his cow-calf operation long gone—she didn’t like to see him waste a day.
She gave him his eggs. “Got another letter yesterday. That Valley Beautification Project.”
“If they got something to say they should say it to my face.”
“Guess they’re spooked.”
He cut into his eggs with his fork. “Hell, I ain’t so fierce. Where’d that Tabasco get to?”
Later, he found his grandson awake and dressing in the dark, squinting against the wedge of light from the door. One leg out of its pants, a skinny flank glowing white in the dark. “We got a tracking snow?”
The boy’s younger brother lay curled still asleep on the far side of the bed. Ames held a finger to his lips. “I’ll be out with the horses.”
Eighty-two his next birthday, you’d think he’d have people figured out by now. All these folks fleeing Los Angeles, New York, wherever, then doing their level best to turn Montana into the same sort of mess they’d left behind. All those vapor lights spreading out down below, carpeting the valley. Doctors and lawyers and realtors. Jesus, the traffic. They despised hunting but then let their big dogs run wild, chasing horses, cows, sheep. Ames had to shoot three just this past year. A couple German shepherds and a big Airedale. His wife claimed he was turning into a bitter old man and maybe she had a point. But he’d be damned if he’d put up one of them privacy fences they kept badgering him about. The neighbors down below could look at his place or not, it wasn’t his concern. His father’s rusted-out hay rake and backhoe. The iron-wheeled Massey-Ferguson. Pig lots empty for years and chicken coops rowed like tenements. The horse barn and corrals, loading chute and branding trap. History, for those with the eyes to see it. Pure history.
His hounds started tonguing again as soon as he flicked on the yard light. He worked his way down the row, scooping dog food from a bucket, snow up past the third buckle of his overshoes. “Hey Blue, hey Rain, hey Henry. Micky, Gabe, hey Tabby.” Their lonesome belling would do him fine for the last sounds he ever heard on earth. “Settle down now, settle down.” He moved to the barn and cut open a bale of hay, whistling, watching his horses materialize from the snow-fog, plodding like steamers. By the time the boy arrived at the barn, Ames had his two favorites saddled and haltered, licking oats. The boy carried their rifles in the crook of one arm. “We’re taking old Pepper?”
Ames was warming the bridle bits in his fists. “He’s steady. Ain’t scared of lion-smell. You get our lunches?”
The boy’s face fell, crumpling with small tragedy writ large. Despite himself (boys need sternness, severity), Ames squeezed the small shoulder. Maybe Ames was too old, too soft, to raise kids. “I got to make my goodbyes anyway. You get the chill off these bits, keep these horses company.”
He found his wife finishing her own breakfast. Gray-muzzled old Sheriff lay under the table, head in her lap. Deaf and gimpy, he’d been a good hunter in his youth: a tireless, tree-scraping firebrand. Now he was a lapdog. It was only when his hounds became worthless that his wife took an interest in them, insisting that they sleep next to the stove, that they eat from the table. He allowed it because he loved his dogs, but he resented it, too. The stasis of mothering. He saw it in the way she hovered over these boys. Fear and hesitation as opposed to ambition. Women fretted over what might happen to the child; men worried over what the child might make happen.
She said, “Don’t be too hard on him.”
He bent to pick up their lunches. “I ain’t too hard.”
“All he’s been through, last thing he needs is you yelling orders up and down the place.”
“Little ordering around never hurt nobody.”
“He wants you proud of him.”
“I am proud of him.”
“Let him have that first shot, if you can.”
“Jesus, woman. You about through?”
She smoothed hair across the dog’s muzzle. “I just don’t want to see you running him off like you did Franklin.”
“I didn’t run nobody off.”
She nodded. “Thought I’d go into town today. Do some Christmas shopping.”
He had stepped out on the porch. “Shopping sounds about right for a day like today.” Leave it to a woman to hang such a load of guilt over an otherwise fine morning.
They rode west, up the old Excellence Mine wagon trace, his bad mood dissipating with distance. “When I was your age, this weren’t no more than a couple ruts through the boulders. Kidney buster and a leg breaker start to finish. Now it’s a goddamned highway.” The horses blew and shook, chugging out jets of steam. The dogs ran ahead, plowing furrows in the snow, circling to investigate rabbit sign, deer tracks. Tongues unrolled, icicles on their chins. He said, “Later on, we’ll fire up the snowmobiles. But I do appreciate my horses. First day up and all.”
“I appreciate them too.” The boy rode rounded under layers of wool and down. Scarf around his mouth and Scotchman’s cap over his ears. A small child to be riding such a big horse, the stirrups laced high.
Ames worried sometimes that the things he’d come to like about his grandson—the boy’s desire to please, his endless questions about hydraulic lifts and engine sizes, horse breeds and antler scores—were reflections of circumstance rather than genuine interest, the jitters from being sheltered by people he’d previously seen only once a year.
Clouds lingered over the mountains. Snow fell. Ames smoked a cigarette. Half a mile from the trailhead, he reined off the road and down into Dry Creek, hupping his horse up the other side and onto one of those old Lazy-T logging roads. “This’ll be an easy enough ride.” A good switchbacking trail grown over now with pine saplings thick as a man’s wrist. He’d hired onto the Lazy-T … what was it? Fifteen years ago now? Running a skidder. Anyway, his last work as a logger. He pulled a boot from the stirrup and flexed his leg. That scabbard pushed out his knee, stressed the tendons. He said, “Your gun don’t have one in the chamber does it?”
The boy shook his head.
Last week, the boy had shot a doe from his haystack. “Just hold your breath now,” Ames had said, “let that finger curl into it. Act like the trigger ain’t even there.” She’d bucked and kicked, then crumpled. “Nice! Nice shot.” He’d shaken the boy’s hand (as his own father had once shaken his), then shown the boy how to empty the guts and lungs and heart; how to hang the carcass in the barn and skin it fetlock to chin, impressing upon him always the dangers of what they were about. The inherent threat of a loaded gun, a folded knife. Every weapon carried within it, like a coiled spring pressed flat, the potential energy for violence. “My uncle Seth, he’d been splitting a brisket…” Ames straddled the carcass, “just like this. And that knife went and slipped into that big vein inside the leg. My cousin found him the next day. And Ned Patterson? Mining buddy of mine from down around Butte. Elk hunting. Tripped and fell and shot himself in his own shoulder.” The boy had nodded, wide-eyed, taking it all in.
Ames said now, “I remember the first time I ever took out your old dad. Your daddy, lion hunting.”
“Did he like it?”
“Lion hunting? Well, I guess he did. Duck to water. Just like you. He was a little tender hearted over most hunting, elk and deer and whatnot, but lions brought something out in him.”
The dogs were working their way through the scrub pines off the road, cutting for sign. He called out encouragement. Heyho Blueblueblue, heyrainrain huntemupnow Mickymickmick. He looked at the boy and saw half-an-inch of snow stacked on the brim of his hat. “Maybe we should take a breather. Give these horses a rest.”
Just then, fifty yards ahead, Ames saw Mick go tense and stiff, tiptoeing into a stand of juniper. Then he bayed out hard. Lazy old Mick, but he had the best nose. The other dogs converged around him, tonguing. They glanced back at Ames, looking for permission to run.
Ames dismounted and handed his reins to the boy. The slick wet cheeks, those wet wool trousers. “You ain’t cold are you?”
The boy shook his head. “Cat, you think?”
“Big one?” The boy stood in the stirrups, stretching to get a better look.
“Hard to say, but it’s fresh. Brand new, I’d say. You stay here.”
Ames found his hounds digging at pine needles for the scent, trembling with the cold and coming chase. Blue left the others to put his nose in Ames’s hand, asking to be a pet rather than a hunter. Ames pushed him away. “Ain’t you ashamed.” Ames bent low, sorting through the confused galaxy of dog tracks. A few minutes later, he grabbed Henry and Mick, the leaders, and drug them by their collars back to the horses, the dogs struggling and whining, twisting in his hands. “Bobcat,” he said to the boy, whacking the dogs flat with his hat. They lay panting and pleading, looking up.
“We don’t chase bobcat?” The boy stared at the dogs.
Ames swung into the saddle, wincing at the arthritis in his hips. “Maybe. We don’t find something else.” He slapped the horse’s shoulder. “You ain’t cold are you?”
“I’m fine, Grandpa.”
“You get cold, we’ll just get off and walk, lead the horses. I’d hate to have to explain to your gram about how she’s got a popsicle for a grandchild.”
“Shit.” The boy smiled uncertainly.
Ames grinned. Just two good old boys feeling each other out, getting to know one another. Ames hupped at his horse. “Bobcats always hunt the same routes. Travel the same trails. We’ll find this one up here again.”
He’d spent enough time in the mountains to believe in fate. He could give a tin shit about religion, but sooner or later you had to start thinking about guiding hands. Unmoved movers and whatnot. Glancing up just when a falcon snatches a flying grouse from mid-air. The buck that passes through a gap in the trees at precisely the right moment. He was surprised (but not astonished) when, not five minutes past where they’d cut the bobcat, his hounds caught another scent. Caught it so hot they forgot their training. Were already off running, baying hard.
“Goddamnit.” Ames tore off his hat. “Goddamn! Get your asses back here!” His voice fell flat through the falling snow.
“Grandpa?” The boy, cowed by his anger.
“Oh hell.” Ames slapped his leg. “It’s okay. Probably. We’ll have to see.” Already the dogs sounded miles away. He hupped his horse forward, not even dismounting before spotting the cat’s bed: a bare brown oval in the snow. He rode closer. The pine needles were still warm enough to melt falling flakes. The dogs had headed straight up the clearcut, through the humped slash-piles and half-grown seedlings. “We bumped him out of his bed.” Ames bent low over his saddle. “Hard to tell size in deep snow like this. But that stride...”
“Is it big?”
“Looks like it.”
Ames found a cigarette, taking his time. He spread out his hand. “About like this.”
The boy had the tip of one gloved finger in his mouth, chewing it like a fingernail. “Is that good?”
“I should say.”
“What are we gonna do?” The boy avoided his eyes. Something reluctant in his voice.
The barks were faint now, distant enough to be imagined. Then he was imagining them. There was only the wind. Ames said, “What do you mean?”
The boy bent to his horse’s neck. “Getting kind of cold.”
“So what, think we should leave my dogs up here?” Ames made an effort to keep his voice mild. “Chasing around up in here without nobody behind to bring em home?”
“No. No, Grandpa. I didn’t…I didn’t say that.”
“Okay.” Ames breathed deep, judging the hills, the wind. “Tell you what.” He dismounted and led his horse over to the fir tree where the lion had bedded. “Okay, okay.” The trunk, the lower branches shielded from the storm. “Okay. We’ll give them dogs a chance to tree, chance for that cat to get comfortable. Meantime, we’ll cook up some coffee and think about it. Talk some philosophy, and whatnot.”
The boy stabbed a stick into the fire. “You ever get lost up here?”
“Once or twice.” Ames spat. “Tell you what, the whole trick to being lost is not to get scared. Worse comes to worse, follow a crick down. These days, every little stream’s got a house down at the mouth.”
“You ever think about dogs?”
“What about dogs.”
“What it’d be like to be one, I guess? Being able to smell like that?”
Ames swirled muddy coffee grounds. “There was a day, I wasn’t much older’n you, I’d take my dogs and come back up in here for a week and more. By the time I was done, I was talking to them dogs like they was girlfriends. Joke was, all the cats was down low with the deer. But I figured. Well, you know how you always think the biggest fish are where nobody else fishes? I thought the big cats’d be up high. Busted my ass getting up there and then near starved to death for my troubles. Wasn’t nothing but rabbits and blue grouse.”
“Sounds like fun, though.”
“I was just too young and ignorant to realize my misery.”
“Getting away from everybody, though.”
“Well, maybe you can do it some too. Here in a year or two, sneak away some night without your gram knowing.”
"You’d let me do that?"
“Hell no I wouldn’t let you do that. But I wouldn’t chase you, neither. Just come back with a story, that’s all I want.”
The boy smiled. “Deal.”
“You dad was a deep thinker too.”
“That’s what Mom used to say too. She...” The boy looked away.
“Okay then. All right.” Ames stubbed out his cigarette and grabbed a branch, pulling himself to his feet. “Them dogs probably got the bugger treed by now.” He brushed snow off his trousers. “We get up on Deadman, we’ll be able to hear em. All right?”
“Tracks ain’t necessarily no guarantee of size, but I got a feeling about this one. Looks like a dinner plate don’t it?” They were working their horses through the trees, weaving around fallen timbers, losing the track, finding it again. Even tired, even cold, Ames kept expecting to see some measure of excitement surface in the boy. The thrill and alarm of the chase. He was prodding after it. But the boy stayed distant, chewing on the fingertips of a glove. When they broke out onto Deadman, the bare windswept ridge, Ames said, “We could hear your gram slam a car door from up here.” They sat their horses. “See now. Hear that?” Ames held an exaggerated hand to his ear. The low lonesome confusion of dogs. “This cat’s smart. See how he crossed over? Probably run through the rocks awhile before he treed.”
“Yeah, I hear em.”
“So now we go down after em, okay?”
They tied their horses in the trees just off the ridge. “This don’t happen too often, leaving em up high like this, just so you know.” Ames pulled his rifle from its scabbard and gestured for the boy to do the same. “This here’s where it gets good. You stay close now.” The face of the ridge was steep, and their first few steps sent them sliding twenty feet or more, half-buried in cascades of snow and dirt. They held their rifles high, scrabbling for balance. “You’re doing good, you’re doing good.”
“We’re almost there.”
When he judged they were on a level with the dogs, Ames set out sidehilling. Rough going, and the boy soon fell behind. Ames stood waiting. “We ain’t got all day.” The boy breathed hard, snow past his knees and one side of his coat dusted white, face slick with sweat. He bent over his scope, scraping ice from the lens.
Ames said, “Just over this little shoulder, it all spreads out bare. Big shale slide with a few trees here and there. I showed you how the cat already come out of that little spruce? He’s a jumper. So what I want you to do, I want you to put a shell in. Okay go ahead, that’s right. Then we’ll go up to him one side and the other, you downhill and me up. He jumps out again, whichever way he decides to go, one of us might get a shot.”
They moved more carefully now, Ames whispering as they went. “Most cats, nine times out of ten, they’ll stay treed come hell or high water. They see you coming, they might climb up a few more branches is all. But take an old timer like this one, old guy been around the block a time or two, he’ll run until he gets tired then climb a tree for a breather. Maybe scratch a dog or two on the way down.”
The boy held his rifle close, cradling it.
Ames whispered, “You see the dogs?”
The boy nodded. Blue and gray and tan shapes swirling around the tree. Henry was the only one still baying. Good ol’ Henry. Hoarse and furious, forefeet planted against the trunk. The others were chiming in now and again, but it was Henry who kept the cat treed.
The boy lifted his rifle to look through the scope. “Where’s the cat?”
“Sssshhh. He’s up in there somewhere.” Hidden behind the screen of spruce limbs, the bowed and humped pillows of snow. “Okay, start working your way down, slow and easy. I’ll be up on the other side. Careful you don’t see an old man and think he’s a cat now.”
The boy nodded. Nervous and maybe a little awed by what he was about. The responsibility of a gun, a shot. Ames watched him work his way across the shale, feeling for the rocks beneath the snow, slipping and balancing and moving on. A few minutes later, Ames followed behind, high enough to have a good view of the tree, the boy. He could see it all as it happened. The flash of tan among the branches, a cascade of snow. His dogs jumped away, flushing like birds then converging again, barking hard and frantic. The cat was out of the tree, moving with a feline’s smooth grace. He came out on the downhill side, gliding toward the boy. The boy had his gun to his shoulder. The cat hesitated, and everything stood still. Ames listened to his own pulse. The shot didn’t come, and it still didn’t come, then the cat had turned—one quick boneless dodge to the side, one fluid step—and was gone, the dogs a few yards behind.
Ames found the boy grinning, cradling his rifle, fidgeting foot to foot. Ames said, “What happened?”
“Safety was on.” The boy looked momentarily abashed, but then he was grinning again. “Did you see him? He was right there. I could have touched him. He was big. I could have almost touched him, Grandpa. I didn’t know they got so big.”
“Sssh. I saw him. I saw him.”
“He was big, wasn’t he? Wasn’t he a big one?”
“Yeah, he was big.” Ames returned the grin, his own blood quickening with the boy’s. This heat that rose so sporadically now, diluted and dimmed. “Big as I’ve seen in years.”
“I just couldn’t believe I forgot that safety. Shit.”
“Ssssh. Happens to the best of us. We’ll get you another chance.”
“Let’s just listen to these dogs for a while.”
Ames stood smoking, calming himself, noticing how the boy was awake now, and warm. After only a moment or two, Ames flicked away his cigarette. “There. Hear that? How the barking’s changed? How they’re not moving anymore? He’s treed again already.”
“Let’s go get him, Grandpa.”
“Let’s go get him.”
The adrenaline drained away, leaving him bone-tired. All this hiking had drilled two hot spikes of arthritis into his hips. He couldn’t even limp good. The boy waited ahead, impatient. “Com’on, Grandpa.” The day Ames couldn’t get out with his dogs would be his last. The boy straddled a snow-covered log, holding his rifle high. Slid easily across, then looked back.
“He ain’t going nowhere. Take your time. Take your time.” Ames backed into the log, bringing his first leg over then helping the other with his hands. “When’d you go and get all fired up?”
“You see how big he was?”
“I seen it.” Ames coughed and held a hand to his chest. He slipped, fell hard on one elbow. His feet weren’t coming down where we wanted them to. He should have gone back for the horses.
“We’re getting close, right?”
Ames pulled himself to his feet, catching his breath. “Yeah. Just over that. Next little bump.”
“Is it shale again?”
“Heavy timber. But that’s good. Give us a chance. To sneak. Up on him.”
The boy was nearly running now, fatigue forgotten, his rifle a light stick in his hand. Here it was. The half-wild kernel Ames had known was somewhere in the boy. Even exhausted, threaded through with pain, Ames could feel the triumph of it. How you find yourself by leaving yourself behind. The Christians had it wrong but almost right. Too bad Jesus never went lion hunting. Too goddamned bad.
The boy had stopped, and now he was kneeling, one of Ames’s hounds hiding its head between his knees. From a distance, with the boy’s snow-spackled coat blending into the brush, they seemed like a single creature.
"He’s hurt, Grandpa.”
“Let me see him now.”
He reached for the collar, feeling the slick hair, the trembling muscles. The dog whined, and pressed close. “Hey Blue, hey Blue, all right, it’s all right.” The dog shook his ears, speckling them both with blood. “It don’t look too bad.” One long gash behind the ear.
“We’re gonna get him, aren’t we Grandpa? Get the sonofabitch?”
Ames ran his hands down Blue’s back, his legs. The dog whined, twisted to lick his nose. “Yeah, we’ll get him.”
“He’s right there.” Ames stood and scratched absently at Blue’s hips. Judging the distance. The hounds’ muted barking. “Same drill as before, okay? You go low, I go high.”
“We’ll get him.”
“Okay now, go ahead. I’ll be up high.”
Ames did not hang back this time. The boy was on the verge of something—maybe manhood wasn’t too big a word—and the last thing he needed was patronization, condescension. They’d hunt as equals. Plus, it was one hell of a lion. Goddamned Shetland pony was what it was. Ames might make it into a rug for the boy. Something to put across his bed.
The day was passing, the light through the trees thin and gray. Blue crowded close, tangling in Ames’s legs. They were almost upon the tree before Ames caught a glimpse of his dogs, tilted back around the trunk, barking up at the branches.
Even through the hubbub, Ames could hear the cat scrabbling claws against bark. Then the dogs were scattering again, running and recovering, crouching low. The cat was on the ground. Ames could see it gathering itself for another sprint. The placid and wise face, the quivering lattice of muscle in the shoulder.
With an instinct born of seventy years in the woods (the slow hunter is a poor hunter), Ames pulled up to shoot. The tumblers slowly (oh god, so slowly) turned. Even as his finger tightened and the bullet was out of the barrel and he saw the flash in the dimming light, Ames prayed: no. No no no. He heard the bullet thump into flesh. A dull smack under the percussion of the shot. Bang, thwack. Ames was wrong, he is wrong. And despite the tangle of brush between them (despite the brief consideration of cat-colored jacket, a white-spackled smear of face), he nearly convinced himself. Stepping through the brush, slipping and recovering and struggling on again, he was anxious to see this enormous cat, this lion of a lifetime. He called the boy’s name. Then again. And again.
And oh god, oh he knew it. Didn’t he know it? The boy lay crumpled and flat: rifle trapped under him, blood fresh on one cheek. The little boy who not last week had told Ames he loved him. Twelve years before, the first baby Ames had ever held in his arms to a feeling of satisfaction rather than obligation. Bleeding now through a hole in his jacket, off center in his chest. Petals of blood opened into the snow. And the boy himself. Oh God. The boy’s unfurred cheeks, always pale but now so much paler. And the mouth working against nothing and the lips red-rimmed and pale. The breath whistling faint but loud through the holes in his chest. The boy stared at Ames. The improbably blue eyes jerked and clicked and fixed. Ames expected accusation, condemnation. Would have welcomed them. But there was only puzzlement, a single question. The skin between the eyes furrowed deep. Then smoothed into nothing at all.
Ames took the small body in his arms, warming himself with the passing heat, gathering the boy to him, struggling against the weight in his chest. Snow collected in the boy’s hair, settled in the open eyes: blue to white. The dogs came back to Ames one by one, limping, nudging their noses at the boy, licking at the blood, whining, finally to lie in a loose circle around them, nose to tail. Ames could feel it, could sense with some dim animal instinct the shape of his few remaining years. There was silence gathering even now in his house. If he made it off this mountain at all, he’d have the bitterness of uncreamed coffee, the helpless, endless wandering room to room. He’d sell his horses, his dogs, finally just to stare at the lights growing below. An old man condemned to four walls and a stove, shackled to one endlessly repeating thought. Like those who had come before—the sod breakers and wood choppers, the hunters and fishermen and farmers, the miners and loggers—Ames had participated in the destruction of everything he’d ever loved.
Allen Morris Jones is the editor of Big Sky Journal, publisher of Bangtail Press, and author of several books, including, most recently, the novel A Bloom of Bones.