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Authors: Nevada Barr

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #Suspense, #Detective, #Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths, #Fiction - Mystery, #Women Sleuths, #Mystery Fiction, #Detective and mystery stories; American, #Texas, #Pigeon; Anna (Fictitious character), #Women park rangers, #Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Tex.)

Track of the Cat

BOOK: Track of the Cat
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TRACK OF THE CAT

NEVADA BARR

Also by Nevada Barr

BITTERSWEET

G. P. Putnam's Sons Publishers Since 1838 200 Madison Avenue New York, NY

10016

Copyright © 1993 by Nevada Barr

All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

Published simultaneously in Canada

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Barr, Nevada.

Track of the cat / Nevada Barr. p. cm. I. Title.

PS3552.A73184T7 1993 92-29694 CIP

813a'.54-dc20

ISBN 0-399-13824-2

Printed in the United States of America 3456789 10

For my mother and sister

1

THERE hadn't been a god for many years. Not the nightgown-clad patriarch of Sunday school coloring books; not the sensitive young man with the inevitable auburn ringlets Anna had stared through in the stained-glass windows at Mass; not the many-armed and many-faceted deities of the Bhagavad Gita that she'd worshipped alongside hashish and Dustin Hoffman in her college days. Even the short but gratifying parade of earth goddesses that had taken her to their ample bosoms in her early thirties had gone, though she remembered them with more kindness than the rest.

God was dead. Let Him rest in peace. Now, finally, the earth was hers with no taint of Heaven.

Anna sat down on a smooth boulder, the top hollowed into a natural seat.

The red peeling arms of a Texas madrona held a veil of dusty shade over her eyes. This was the third day of this transect. By evening she would reach civilization: people. A contradiction in terms, she thought even as the words trickled through her mind. Electric lights, television, human companionship, held no allure. But she wanted a bath and she wanted a drink. Mostly she wanted a drink.

And maybe Rogelio. Rogelio had a smile that made matrons hide the hand with the wedding ring. A smile women would lie for and men would follow into battle. A smile, Anna thought with habitual cynicism, that the practiced hucksters in Juarez flashed at rich gringos down from Minnesota.

Maybe Rogelio. Maybe not. Rogelio took a lot of energy.

A spiny rock crevice lizard peered out at her with one obsidian eye, its gray-and-black mottled spines creating a near-perfect illusion of dead leaves and twigs fallen haphazardly into a crack in the stone.

"I see you," Anna said as she wriggled out of her pack. It weighed scarcely thirty pounds. She'd eaten and drunk it down from thirty-seven in the past two days. The poetry of it pleased her. It was part of the order of nature: the more one ate the easier life got. Diets struck Anna as one of the sourest notes of a spoiled country.

Letting the pack roll back, she carefully lowered it to the rock surface.

She wasn't careful enough. There was an instant of rustling and the lizard vanished. "Don't leave town on my account," she addressed the seemingly empty crevice. "I'm just passing through."

Anna dug a plastic water jug from the side pocket of her backpack and unscrewed the cap. Yellow pulp bobbed to the top. Next time she would not put lemon slices in; the experiment had failed. After a few days the acid taste grew tiresome. Besides, it gave her a vague feeling of impropriety, as if she were drinking from her finger-bowl.

Smiling inwardly at the thought, Anna drank. Finger-bowls, Manhattan, were miles and years away from her now, Molly and AT&T her only remaining connections.

The water was body temperature. Just the way she liked it. Ice-water jarred her fillings, chilled her insides. "If it's cold, it'd better be beer," she would tell the waitress at Lucy's in Carlsbad. Sometimes she'd get warm water, sometimes a cold Tecate. It depended on who was on shift that day. Either way, Anna drank it. In the high desert of West Texas moisture was quickly sucked from the soft flesh of unprotected humans.

No spines, she thought idly. No waxy green skin. Nothing to keep us from drying up and blowing away. She took another pull at the water and amused herself with the image of tumbling ass over teakettle like a great green and gray stickerweed across the plains to the south.

Capping the water she looked down at the reason she had stopped: the neatly laid pile of scat between her feet. It was her best hope yet and she'd been scrambling over rocks and through cactus since dawn. Every spring and fall rangers in the Guadalupe Mountains followed paths through the high country chosen by wildlife biologists. These transects-carefully selected trails cutting across the park's wilderness- were searched for mountain lion sign. Any that was found was measured, photographed, and recorded so the Resource Management team could keep track of the cougars in the park: where were they? Was the population healthy?

Squatting down, Anna examined her find. The scat was by no means fresh but it was full of hair and the ends twisted promisingly. Whatever had excreted it had been dining on small furry creatures. She took calipers out of the kit that contained all her transect tools: camera, five-by-seven cards with places for time, date, location, and weather conditions under which the sign was found, data sheet to record the size of the specimen, and type of film used for the photograph.

The center segment of this SUS-Standard Unit of Sign- was twenty-five millimeters in diameter, almost big enough for an adult cat. Still, it wasn't lion scat. This was Anna's second mountain lion transect in two weeks without so much as one lion sign: no tracks, no scrapes, no scat.

Twenty of the beautiful cats had been radio-collared and, in less than three years, all but two had left the park or slipped their collars-disappeared from the radio scanner's range somehow.

Ranchers around the Guadalupes swore the park was a breeding ground for the "varmints" and that cattle were being slaughtered by the cats, but Anna had never so much as glimpsed a mountain lion in the two years she'd been a Law Enforcement ranger at Guadalupe. And she spent more than half her time wandering the high country, sitting under the ponderosa pines, walking the white limestone trails, lying under the limitless Texas sky.

Never had she seen a cougar and, if wishing and waiting and watching could've made it so, prides of the great padding beasts would've crossed her path.

This, between her feet, was probably coyote scat.

Because she hated to go home empty-handed, Anna dutifully measured, recorded, and photographed the little heap of dung. She wished all wild creatures were as adaptable as the coyote. "Trickster" the Indians called him. Indeed he must be to thrive so close to man.

Piled next to the coyote's mark was the unmistakable reddish berry-filled scat of the ring-tailed cat. "MY ravine," it declared. "MY canyon. I was here second!"

Anna laughed. "Your canyon," she agreed aloud. "I'm for home."

Stretching tired muscles, she craned her neck in a backward arc.

Overhead, just to the east, vultures turned tight circles, corkscrewing up from the creekbed between the narrow walls of Middle McKittrick Canyon where she hiked.

Eleven of the big birds spun in a lazy whirlwind of beaks and feathers.

Whatever they hovered over was hidden from view by the steep cliffs of the Permian Reef. A scrap of rotting carrion the size of a goose egg drew vultures. But eleven? Eleven was too many.

"Damn," Anna whispered. A deer had probably broken a leg and coyotes had gotten it. Probably.

A twelfth winged form joined the hungry, waiting dance. "Damn."

Anna pulled up her pack and shrugged into it. "You can have your rock back," she addressed the apparently empty crevice, and started down the canyon.

While she'd been sitting, the glaring white of the stones that formed the floor of Middle McKittrick Canyon had been softened to pale gold. Shadows were growing long. Lizards crept to the top of the rocks to catch the last good sun of the day. A tarantula the size of a woman's hand, the most horrifying of gentle creatures, wandered slowly across Anna's path.

"As a Park Ranger I will protect and serve you." She talked to the creature from a safe three yards away. "But we'll never be friends. Is that going to be a problem?"

The tarantula stopped, its front pair of legs feeling the air. Then it turned and walked slowly toward her, each of its legs appearing to move independently of the other seven.

"Yes. I see that it is." Glad there were no visitors to witness her absurdity, Anna stepped aside and gave the magnificent bug a wider berth than science or good sense would've deemed necessary.

Half a mile further down the canyon the walls began to narrow around boulders the size of Volkswagens. Anna scrambled and jumped from one to the next. Middle McKittrick was an excellent place to break an ankle or a neck; join the buzzards' buffet.

The sun slipped lower and the canyon filled with shadow. In the sudden cooling a breeze sprang up, carrying with it a new smell. Not the expected sickly-sweet odor of rotting flesh, but the fresh smell of water, unmistakable in the desert, always startling. One never grew accustomed to miracles. Energized, Anna walked on.

The walls became steeper, towering more than sixty feet above the creek.

A rugged hillside of catclaw and agave showed dark above the pale cliffs.

The boulders that littered upper McKittrick were no longer in evidence.

In the canyon's heart, Anna walked on smooth limestone. Over the ages water had scoured a deep trough, then travertine, percolating out of the solution, lined it with a natural cement.

Not a good place to be caught during the Texas monsoons in July and August. Each time she walked this transect in search of cougar sign, Anna had that same thought. And each time she had the same perverse stab of excitement: hoping one day to see the power and the glory that could roll half a mountain aside as it thundered through.

The smell of water grew stronger and, mixed with the sighing and sawing of the wind, she could hear its delicate music. Potholes began pitting the streambed-signs of recent flooding. Recent in geological time. Far too long to wait for a drink. Some of the scoured pits were thirty feet across and twenty feet deep. A litter of leaves and bones lay at the bottom of the one Anna skirted. An animal-a fawn by the look of one of the intact leg bones-had fallen in and been unable to climb out again.

This was a section of the canyon that Anna hated to hike, though its austere beauty lured her back time and again. The high walls, with their steep sloping shoulders sliding down to slick-sided pits, put a clutch in her stomach. Further down the white basins would be filled with crystal waters, darting yellow sunfish: life. But here the river had deserted the canyon for a world underground and left only these oddly sculpted death traps. Anna entertained no false hopes that her radio signal would reach up over the cliffs and mountains to summon help if she were to lose her footing.

She crawled the distance on hands and knees.

Even heralded by perfume and music, the water took her by surprise.

Sudden in the bleak bone-white canyon came an emerald pool filled by a fall of purest water. The plop of fleeing frogs welcomed her and she stopped a moment just to marvel.

Aware of the ache across her shoulders, Anna loosed the straps and let her pack fall heavily to the limestone. At the abrupt sound there was an answering rattle; a rushing sound that brought her heart to her throat.

With a crackling of black-feathered wings and a chatter of startled cries, a cloud of vultures fought up out of the saw grass that grew along the bench on the south side of the pool.

They didn't fly far, but settled in soot-colored heaps along the ledges, looking jealously back at their abandoned feast.

Anna looked to where they fixed their sulky eyes.

Saw grass, three-sided and sharp, grew nearly shoulder-high along the ledge beyond the pool. From a distance the dark green blades, edged with a paler shade, looked soft, lush, but Anna knew from experience anything edible in this stark land had ways of protecting itself. Each blade of saw grass was edged with fine teeth, like the serrated edge of a metal-cutting saw.

The sand-colored stone above it was dark with seeps of water weeping from the cliffs face. Ferns, an anomaly in the desert, hung in a green haze from the rocks, and violets the size of Anna's thumbnail sparked the stone with purple.

In the grasses then, protected by their razor-sides, was the carrion supper she had stumbled upon. Not anxious to wade through the defending vegetation, Anna reached to roll down her sleeves to protect the skin of her arms. Fingers touched only flesh and she remembered with irritation that, though, come sunset, West Texas still hovered in the cool grip of spring, the National Park Service had declared summer had arrived. Long-sleeved uniform shirts had been banned on May first.

Balancing easily on the sloping stone now that the drop was softened with a shimmer of water, Anna walked to the edge of the pool and entered the saw grass. She held her hands above her head like a teenager on a roller coaster.

The sharp grasses snagged at her trouser legs, plucked her shirt tight against her body. It matted underfoot and, in places, grew taller than the top of her head. Her boots sank to the laces in the mire. Water seeped in, soaked through her socks.

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