Treed

Treed / Chapter One: Rogue

In Novel Excerpts by Paul Brooke

Photo-Oct-04-7-36-47-PM-1.jpg
Photo courtesy Paul Brooke

Treed is a novella that features a split narrative that bounces between a jaguar poacher from Brazil (Urbano Vilizea) and a young boy from Iowa (Edward Byrd). Each character is able to control the other’s actions (through a technique called double consciousness). Edward reteaches Urbano how to respect and honor the jaguar, while Urbano provides a male role model due to the absence of Edward’s father. This is a story about how the power of another’s perspective can have a profound impact. For research on this novella, Paul Brooke tracked jaguars in the Amazon and Pantanal of Brazil. To date, he has seen 9 different jaguars, coming as close as 80 feet.

Chapter One: Rogue

Urbano Vileza scratched himself, belched, and blurted out: “I wish all jaguars dead!”

“Then I’d be out of work.” Francisco Esperado de Campos shoved a sleeping cat off a leather chair and sat down in the main house’s great room. The cat skulked away to a safe corner.

“How many?”

“How many what?”

“Onças. Jaguars. How much of them you killed?”

“206.”

“That’s three since I seen you last.”

“Yep, sounds about right.” Francisco shrugged; he was tall for a Brazilian, lean, in his early 50s, hair graying like an aged fencepost, dark skin, matted and soiled cowboy hat, scars running the length of both forearms. He usually wore long-sleeved shirts to cover the evidence. But if he ever wanted to intimidate someone he would roll the sleeves up slightly exposing the massive claw gashes. Francisco was the most infamous jaguar hunter in South America. He prowled the Amazon and the Pantanal, hunting in remote stretches, concealed from the Policia and the Park Rangers. When Francisco killed a jaguar, there was no ceremony, no honor in the kill, no trophy taking of its skin: he just let it lay where it fell, to rot into the earth.

“We’ve got one killing calves. Three past two weeks. How long before you off it?”

“Three days. Maybe less. Got to work the dogs a bit. Clean up. Fix gear. I’ll ride out this afternoon and look at the kill.”

“Bom. Then what?”

“Up to Caburini, they have a jaguar killing porcos e frangos. If it kill a pig, then next it kill a child.”

“Nobre. You is one noble son-of-a-bitch. They paying you?”

“Não.”

“Santo Francisco. Patron Saint de Caburini. Patron Saint of the Amazonias. I fucking hate Amazonas. Not enough pasture. Too much trees.” It took two attempts for Urbano to extract himself from his chair, his gut fat, his legs puny; he wore a pair of rhea-skinned boats, snug blue jeans, and a shirt unbuttoned revealing his flat chest. Since buying the Fazenda Rio Sujo and becoming a ranch owner, Urbano stopped working the cattle and handed the reigns to his ranch manager, Fernando Chiavenal. Now all Urbano needed to do was write the checks, give instructions, and pay the pantaneiros on a regular schedule. He huffed, puffed, then opened a massive hand-carved armoire; inside was a flat screen television and rows and rows of hundreds of movies, mostly Westerns.

“Ready?”

“Hit me with it.” Urbano swaggered, wrinkled his brow, and then imitated John Wayne: “ ‘Well, THERE are SOME things a MAN just CAN’T run AWAY from.’ ”

“Hmmm… Stagecoach?”

“That’s RIGHT, PilGRIM. Tried this one: “ ‘Out HERE, due PROcess IS a BULlet.’ ”

The Shootist or The Green Berets. Sounds like Green Berets.”

“Yup. How about “ ‘Out HERE a MAN settLES his OWN probLEMS.’ ”

Green Berets, again?”

“Nope, dumbass, it’s The Man Who Shoots Liberty Valance. Which one tonight? Grit? Rooster? Red River?

Urbano and Francisco had essentially learned English by watching every John Wayne movie ever made, memorizing dialog. They were both working for an American doctor who owned a fazenda near Santa Helena. When the men drove the cattle to new pasture, they tried to stump each other with their favorite lines. It motivated them to learn. Francisco spent every waking moment for several years consulting a dictionary and writing out his verbs. He was much more adept at English than Urbano.

“Red River. I brought good cerveja in Cuiabá, not the shit you drink. See you later.” Francisco strode into the courtyard of the Fazenda Rio Sujo, the screen door banging shut, mosquitoes quickly thronging him. He swung himself onto his cattle horse, a white and grey cavalo blanketed with a sheepskin and a beat-up old saddle, his rifle slid in a scabbard on the left side. Francisco felt a tad uneasy in the mount; lately, he’d been spending too much time in canoes, slow boats, and fast boats: it was much easier hunting jaguars from rivers that way. He relaxed his muscles and rode out along the Rio Bento, the Holy River, for a little over an hour.

A mass of water hyacinths clogged the narrowest bend. Along the margins, spikerush flourished. Francisco could see where an anta—a 250 kilo pig-horse-rhino concoction—stepped, its splayed tracks clearly visible in the mud. It fed in a zigzag pattern; this guaranteed fresh pickings when it returned. It was tough prey for a jaguar to pursue and kill because it ran headlong into the river and dove to the bottom, usually driving the jaguar to release and breathe; the anta was low on the jaguar’s feeding list behind cattle, caiman, and capivara. Francisco admired the anta’s determination and never killed them.

Water straw grass and sprangletop sent up great seed heads. Bits of date palm shuck floated in the stillness. The river was overflowing and the trails were submerging; water even rose close to the acuri and grugru palms growing on highest ground. Francisco stopped his horse. In the tops of the palms, the hyacinth macaws clattered and scolded, feeding greedily on green fruits, dehusking with super sharp beaks. As a boy, Francisco had climbed great heights and captured scarlet macaw nestlings and sold them for pets. But those days were over. Below the macaws at the base of one of the grugrus, a carcass of a calf was covered with dead leaves and brush. Francisco dismounted.

He knew the jaguar was close. It caused him to pause, remembering the thirteen times he’d been charged at close range, mostly at recent kills. Francisco quietly unsheathed his rifle, tied his horse loosely, and slowly picked his way through the flooded trail, avoiding hidden roots and vines, watching for larger caimans caught unaware. The macaws spotted him and they exploded into the air. Their feathers burned electric blue in the sun. Francisco stooped, touched the bark of an acuri, and held a finger to his nose: the female jaguar had scentmarked and her odor lingered, pungent, estrus-rich, necessary. With his knife, he cut a palm frond that she had sprayed with urine. It was like a signpost saying STAY OUT. Her pugmarks were clear and distinctive: four toes and one large pad. He could see where she carried the calf, turned, and dropped it into a wedge of trunks. Only one way in. Only one way out. A scavenger trap. If a crab-eating raccoon or an ocelot tried to eat on the kill, she might corner them and get an easy meal. Sneaky Bitch.

He crawled forward through thinset vines and shrubs. With the butt end of his rifle, he cleared away some of the debris hiding the calf. The jaguar had eaten about a third of the animal, mostly from the chest. Francisco touched the hide, pressing on it; coupled with the dryness of her tracks, he estimated that she had killed the calf eight or nine hours earlier, that morning. The skull had been crushed. Pulverized. Bone in bits. It wasn’t hard to imagine the jaguar blending into the high dry grass between two bare chico magra trees. Stalking the calf as it frolicked in the field. The jaguar’s body pressed close. Waiting for the calf to pass. Tawny spots. Black blots like charcoal. Patience. Patience. The great rush. A single lunge. The calf’s moaning groan. Snap of bone. Quiet. The mother upset and trying to fend the jaguar off, but unable.

His plan was to let the jaguar feed tomorrow morning and then let the jaguar dogs loose. She would be near the kill and almost 20 kilos heavier after gorging; this hunt would be easier than most. The high water could pose problems for the dogs, but he knew it wouldn’t. She would panic to escape the relentless hounds and climb the nearest tree, probably one with low limbs. Once she was treed, it was only a matter of finding a good line of sight and pulling the trigger. She would drop like a sack of manioc. And then there would be one less jaguar, one less predator to kill cattle or attack innocents like his father. Francisco would ask Urbano to join him since it wouldn’t even take three hours to dispatch the jaguar. Of course Urbano would say yes. He was pathetically bored.

Late that afternoon, Francisco prepared for the small war. He ran the dogs a bit, keeping them on leashes to control them. These chasing hounds came from the Carolinas and Francisco bought six full-grown dogs thirty years ago from a rancher near Porto Jofre, a man with six fingers and a wife with a stubbly beard. Francisco had raised generations of jaguar dogs all from pups. They were the fiercest jaguar dogs in all of South America. His master dog, Furioso, had treed and killed more jaguars than any dog alive. Lanky and lean with a face like a plotthound, Furioso had chestnut-colored fur with a handful of scars at different angles, some from stick, some from claw. Francisco checked and rechecked the dogs’ gaits, their feet, their teeth, and their sides, making sure there was nothing wrong with them whatsoever. He decided he was only going to run five dogs tomorrow. Let Fur lead. Let Marca and Cru follow. Then Grito and Lamb. Let Urbano bring up the back. Simplicity wins.

In the bunkhouse, Francisco cleaned his rifle, laying it out on the old plank table, double-checked his ammo, and oiled his saddle. This had been his life since he left Caburini: look like he worked as a ranch hand but really be the only fully employed jaguar hunter in the Pantanal. In the early days, it was word of mouth. “There’s a rogue jaguar at Fazenda Santa Anna…there’s a calf killer at Fazenda Santa Adriana.” And off he’d go. He would hunt for a week or two, then return. The ranches sometimes paid him in cattle, a calf or two, but usually cash. He had plenty of money now.

The Pantanal, with its ample supply of large, available prey, produced uncommonly large jaguars. Of all the jaguars Francisco treed and killed, they averaged 110 kilos. Ten years ago, Francisco shot a male weighing over 160 kilos. A jaguar that size could take down a full-grown horse easily. There was fear and then there was supreme fear. The first time Francisco hunted small jaguars near his village on foot he felt fear, the double-time heartbeating, the palms slicking with sweat, the acute hearing of a twig bending. In the Amazon, the jaguars were conditioned to run the other direction. They were afraid, but when he squared off with that 160 kilo male in the Pantanal, that jaguar was not afraid. It was old, cantankerous, and defiant. Wanted to tear Francisco into bit-sized pieces. He, for the first time in his life, felt supreme fear, a fear so intense that every muscle fiber in his body told him to run, run. Flee. Hands tremoring. Knees tremoring. Rifle barrel tremoring. Apex to apex. One lives. One dies.

Francisco and Urbano set out around 9 a.m. from the ranch the next morning. The ranch hands nodded to Francisco, tipping their straw cowboy hats: they feared and respected him. Back long ago, many of their grandfathers and even fathers had killed jaguars with spears to prove themselves as young men. The jaguar dogs lunged and strained at the leather leashes and chains: they wanted to give pursuit. The horses whickered nervously. As Francisco and Urbano rode, they spooked some capivara and the capis alarm-coughed and plunged into the river, disappearing under the water for a minute and then popping up 70 meters away.

Urbano laughed. “Them are the dumbest son-of-a-bitches alive. Last night I almost kick one when I walk out in the porch.”

“Meat on the hoof.” Francisco had watched, seven years ago on the Rio Cuiabá, as a jaguar chased a capivara into the river, grabbing it by the throat as it tried to escape underwater, then emerging with it. He stood up in the boat and the jaguar tore the hide off the capivara in strips using its canines like awls. Francisco couldn’t shoot the jaguar because there were tucunare fishermen everywhere, but it was proof of their hunting prowess and their fearlessness in and around water.

After 55 minutes, Francisco dismounted and disconnected the ropes from his saddle. Urbano held the dogs by shorter chains and Francisco pulled a long strip out of his pocket and extracted it from a small plastic bag. He held out the frond from the calf kill and Furioso sniffed it excitedly. Dropped his nose to the ground and strained at the chain even more. Urbano’s face flushed as he fought to hold the hounds back. Francisco thought he looked like a red-faced uakari monkey. He laughed.

“Release Furioso, Urbano.” This was always the way; the master hound went first scenting the jaguar, leading the way.

“Release the others before you have a heart attack, partner.”

A cacophony of barking erupted. Francisco and Urbano quickly mounted their horses, trying to keep pace.

They raced along the Holy River, weaving through solitary trumpet trees, ducking between reddish stands of wax palms, passing a large herd of Zebu cattle that panicked and ran into an open field. Storm clouds raged on the horizon and the taste of rain was in the air. Francisco kept losing sight of the dogs. It unsettled him. The yawping intensified. He knew the dogs were closing in on the jaguar. He pressed his horse faster.

By now, the jaguar was persecuted by the chasing hounds; she turned twice to defend herself, swiping at them with one paw, baring her teeth, growling with an unnerving ferocity. But the dogs were relentless and kept at her from all sides. Rushing and retreating. Rushing and retreating. This went on for ten minutes. She was outnumbered and agitated and ran headlong through the scrub and climbed a huge strangler fig with some difficulty, her belly overfull and the dogs flanking her.

The dogs were baying: she was treed.

Francisco could make out the rough outlines of the dogs through the brush, the jaguar on the horizontal limb.

“Tie up your horse.” Francisco slid down off his cavalo, palmed his gun, and Urbano followed cautiously. He struggled in the boot-sucking mud.

“I always forgot…” Urbano whispered. “How goddamn exciting this is.”

They rushed through the swamp and Francisco searched for an opening where he was far enough away to shoot, but not close enough to get jumped. Urbano followed behind him breathing hard, sometimes fumbling for his balance. Finally, after much searching, Francisco found a place, an open patch, where he could see her plainly. She was eight meters high and 20 meters away.

Francisco unclicked his safety and raised his rifle.

About the Author

Paul Brooke

Website

Paul Brooke’s poetry has been in such journals as the North American Review, The Antioch Review, Flyway, International Poetry Review, Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing, and the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature and the Environment.

He is the author of three full-length poetry collections: Light and Matter: Photographs and Poems of Iowa (2008), Meditations on Egrets: Photographs and Poems of Sanibel (2010), and Sirens and Seriemas: Photographs and Poems of the Amazon and Pantanal (2015).

Dr. Brooke is a Professor of English Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, where he teaches Advanced Creative Writing, Introduction to Creative Writing, Environmental Literature and Literary Theory. He was trained as an undergraduate as an ornithologist and later completed his Bachelors and Masters at Iowa State University and his Ph.D. in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.