My final edit of this chapter.
|Singularly rising from the flat patchwork of the farmland of the upper Sacramento Valley, the Sutter Buttes sit in seemingly quiet repose. Once an active volcano, the five peaks now rest silently on the valley floor; unimposing mounds of volcanic residue of lava, ash and earth. Renowned as the world’s smallest mountain range, their highest peak a mere 2130 ft., they have sat quietly over the years unencumbered by civilization. Various indigenous tribes have passed through them, living peacefully, respecting the natural order in nature.
Secreted within a hollow of adjoining peaks is a cavern revered by one of these tribes. Members of the tribe secretly gather for a ceremony to pay homage to the spirits of the rocks. An ancient fire pit sits in the middle of a circle of stone seats where those who enter pledge to protect the balance of nature from the outreach of mankind while giving thanks and praise to Earth Mother for the crops and game provided for food and shelter. Gifts of food are left to appease those spirits who wander the cavern, awaiting their release from their earthly bondage. The walls of the cave are covered with Hieroglyphic’s dating back over centuries. Their images are still faintly visible along the interior of the cavern wall that is home of the sacred circle. Time has eroded memory and belief in the stories and cautions passed down from the elders. As the decades pass, the importance of those warnings fade with the primitive writings. Today few remain who know of, or pay heed to the warning messages history has provided.
Mathew Holcomb stood silently in the shadow of an outcropping as he watched his grandfather inspect the rotting carcass of the cow. He had chosen the spot because it was upwind of the vile smell permeating from the swollen, rotting flesh. He wondered how his grandfather could stand there so close holding only a handkerchief to protect his nostrils from the odor. The old man motioned for Matt to join him with a wave of his hand, never looking away from the carnage at his feet.
Reluctantly Matt moved down the slope to stand behind the now kneeling form of his grandfather. Bile surged burning the back of his throat as he fought the urge to vomit. “Pops, its dead, let the coyotes have it.” He knew it was useless to suggest leaving, but he couldn’t stop the pleading in his voice.
“Something is very wrong here.” Jeep removed his hat and raised his face to watch the circling buzzards in the cloudless sky.
Matt raised his face to match that of his grandfather’s keeping his breathing shallow, “What did this one die from?”
“I don’t know, maybe a cat …” Jeep looked at the ground and walked a few feet away from the remains, “It’s been here for a while, coyote’s and buzzards have ruined any evidence…. “He sniffed, looking up again to the sky, “You smell that?”
Matt couldn’t smell anything but the foul stench surrounding the dead cow. “The cow? Yeah, it stinks.”
Jeep shook his head, “No, there’s something else.” He looked around, “Do you feel that? It’s almost like we are being watched.”
Matt felt it too, a sense that someone or something was watching them. “It’s creepy here, let’s just go.”
Jeep stayed quiet for a few minutes letting his eyes scan the surrounding terrain. Rock outcroppings and stands of wild oaks were scattered about the rock strewn area providing plenty of places for someone to hide. He looked to Matt, “Something just isn’t right with all these deaths.” He turned his attention back to the carcass and surrounding area giving one last glance to the wall of rocks along the cliff face; “Let’s find Henry he needs to see this and the others.” He turned from the cow, replaced his hat and began the trek back to their truck parked just over the rise.
Matt gave one last look to the rotting flesh, and let his eyes scan the hillside, then followed in great relief, easily catching up to the elderly man as they made the climb to the pickup. “I saw Henry’s truck parked in front of the diner on our way out, maybe he’s still there.” He understood his grandfather’s concern; they had been finding a bunch of dead stock over the past few days. This was the fifth one, and they still had no idea what was killing them. He hurried ahead and waited to offer a hand to help pull his grandfather up the few remaining feet of the hillside.
The old pickup sputtered in protest before finally coughing to life. Jeep urged it along pressing down hard on the gas pedal causing dirt devils to swirl in their wake as the pickup bucked and swerved its way over and around rocks and deep ruts in the cow trail they used for a road. Matt fought to keep from hitting his head on the roof of the cab as he was bounced around on a seat that had lost its springs long ago. He finally yelled in frustration, “Pop’s slow down.”
His grandfather spat a wad of phlegm out his window into the swirling cloud of dust, “Just sit there quiet like, I know what I am doing.”
Matt gave a snort, “You’re going to knock the bottom right out from under us if you don’t slow down and try avoiding some of those holes.”
Jeep glanced over at him, “Boy I’ve been driving this way since before your daddy was born. I ain’t never wrecked… didn’t then, and sure as hell ain’t going to now.” He wheezed another wad of phlegm from his throat and spat. He pointed out the windshield as the word “DINER” in blue neon appeared to float on the horizon, “you sure you saw Henry’s rig at the diner?”
As the pickup cleared the last rise of the hill, a white stucco building sitting beneath the neon sign came into view. Matt pointed to where the Game Warden’s rig sat in front. “Looks like he’s still there.”
Jeep parked alongside the green truck with the Fish and Game logo barely visible beneath layers of caked and drying mud. Matt looked at the mud covering the body of the Game Warden’s truck and picked off a piece rubbing it between his hands, “looks like Henry’s been out, maybe he’s got some idea of what’s going on.”
Jeep nodded as he headed for the entrance, “Come on, only one way to find out.”
Red checked café curtains billowed from a breeze furnished by an over worked air conditioner mounted into a far wall. Its hum blended in chorus with the rattles and thrums coming from the air ducts of the fifties style diner. Stepping into the diner was like taking a step back in time, framed black and white prints of Marilyn, Elvis, Brando and James Dean covered the walls. Old vinyl 45’s and album covers hung on the walls over a juke box that sat in a corner flashing neon colored lights. Chrome and yellow Formica topped tables and chairs sat around the outside walls. The counter and stools echoed the same detail, while worn red tiles covered the floor. Matt stopped just inside the door and took a deep breath, relishing the aroma of fry grease and donuts.
Henry sat at a far corner table with a plate of half eaten bacon and eggs in front of him. He watched as the duo entered the diner, “Jeep, Matt… what are you two up to this early in the day?” He motioned to the chairs on the opposite side of his table, “Jeep you look like you could use some coffee; take a chair.”
Jeep removed his hat and waved a hello to the waitress. “Morning Debi, coffee sounds good, get the boy whatever he wants.” He moved to join the Game Warden at his table.
Matt stepped over to the small counter where the waitress stood. She was pretty, her brown hair pulled back into a tight pony tail emphasized her high cheek bones. Dressed in a white tee shirt and jeans, she wore a black bibbed apron that clung tightly to her ample breasts. A sudden bout of shyness overtook him. He pointed to the case holding the morning’s supply of fresh donuts. “A couple of those maple bars?” He kept his eyes focused upon the wall clock just above her right shoulder.
Matt flinched as Jeep’s gravelly voice called from across the room, “Quit ogling that pretty girl and get over here. Make mine chocolate.”
Matt wanted nothing more than to make a quick escape from the embarrassing moment. His eyes continued to focus upon the second hand as it made its sweep across the face of the clock. “Okay, make mine chocolate.”
A small tremor began to worm its way through his intestines as Debi leaned over the counter, her fingers lightly touching his chin turning his face so their eyes met. He struggled against the temptation to look at her exposed cleavage. She had large moist brown eyes that glistened when she smiled. “I’ll bring them right over, is that all you want cute boy?”
Her face only inches away from his own, he stood unable to speak or move, his knees weak and trembling. A jumble of thoughts torpedoed in his fourteen-year-old head. She had the reddest lips he had ever seen, and she smelled of powder and flowers. Her hands were soft, with long slim fingers tapered at the ends, the nails painted blue with a little diamond stuck to each one.
He didn’t know when she had let go, but he jumped when she snapped her fingers inches from his face. “Earth to Matt. You okay kid?” She was standing with one hand upon her hip as she looked at him. Her red lips now held a smirk as one eye brow raised independent of the other in question.
He could feel the heat begin to rise up his neck and spread across his face. He stumbled back a step embarrassed. Kid? If he was a few years older it would be different, but the ten years that separated them in age might as well be eighty
She gave a soft laugh. “You were off in another realm kid.” Her red lips slid smoothly revealing a gaped tooth smile. “You are an odd one, but oh so cute.” She winked then turned away and opened a cabinet to plate the donuts. “You want anything to drink?”
He managed to find his voice, “coffee and cream would be great.” As he stepped away to join the Game Wardens table he heard her giggle. Shame and indignation scoured the thrill of a few seconds ago turning it into anger. He stopped and turned looking directly at her, his own eyes dark and intense. “Thanks.”
Debi flinched realizing she had crossed an unspoken line, she called out softly to his retreating back, “Hey, Matt…Mattie.”
He kept walking toward the corner table refusing to acknowledge that he had heard her. He had enough embarrassment for one day.
She delivered the coffee and donuts, lingering a moment longer trying to make eye contact with him.
When he deliberately refused to look at her she gave an audible sigh and left.
Matt’s moodiness didn’t go unnoticed as he joined the men at the table. A few moments of awkward silence enveloped them. He was grateful when he felt his grandfather’s hand pat him on the back and speak soft and low. “Shake it off son. This isn’t the first nor the last time you will be disappointed. You got to deal with the pains of life along with the good stuff.”
Henry sighed as he took a sip of coffee, “Hate to recount all the times I fell flat on my face over a girl.” He gave a wry grin and nodded toward the center of the table. “They’re out of maple bars huh?”
The three pairs of eyes looked at the plate Debi had dropped off. Three chocolate covered donuts sat on a white doily. Henry picked one up and peered through the donut hole at Matt. “You know son, one of the things you need to learn is how to get along with women. Never ever argue with one, she is always right.” He smiled as he took a bite, “And never piss one off.”
Jeep followed the Game Wardens lead and looked at his grandson as he chose a donut and took a bite. “Yeah son the rules of life, never ever piss off a cop, a bartender or a waitress.”
Henry nodded somberly in agreement, “Oh yeah, that’s a really bad idea.”
Matt looked at Henry deadpan as he reached and grabbed the last donut, stuffing it into his mouth whole. Dark chocolate crumbs fell down his chin as he struggled not to choke on the doughy sugar mess.
“What in sins tarnation are you doing boy?” Jeep laughed a wheezing sound.
“Ething a donat,” was the best he could get out around the sugary obstruction in his mouth. Feeling the chocolate drool slide down the corners of his mouth, he broke into a wide grin, his mouth still full of the chocolate mess, and the table erupted in laughter.
Henry sobered as he poured a refill from the carafe of coffee Debi had left at the table. “So Jeep was telling me you found another cow?”
Matt nodded as he reached for his own cup of coffee. After taking a couple of swallows he was able to answer, “Yeah up by Pearce Ridge, critters had gotten to it. Hard to say with what was left what killed it.”
Henry nodded and sat quietly in thought. He looked to Jeep, “You want me to go take a look?”
“That would be appreciated.” Jeep leaned closer and lowered his voice, “Listen be careful, something is going on, I can feel it in the air out there.”
Henry frowned, “I respect you and your knowledge of the range. What are you thinking?”
Jeep just shook his head, “I don’t know what to think. I just feel that something is going on in those hills that isn’t right.”
Henry reached for his hat. “I’ll go take a look, Pearce Ridge you say?”
Matt nodded and offered, “You want me to go with you?”
Henry smiled. “Sure if Jeep can do without you for a while. Maybe you could show me where the others were found?”
Jeep stood with them, “you got room in the rig for both of us? I’d like to come too.”
“Come on then, let’s go for a ride.” Henry waved a goodbye to Debi as they left the café, “moneys on the table.”
Debi watched out the diner’s window as the three got into the Game Wardens truck and pulled out. Not once did Matt look her way, she shrugged and moved to clean off the table. “Didn’t mean him any harm, I was just teasing.”
She saw Jack standing in the doorway that led to the kitchen. The old man stood quietly watching her as he slowly shook his head. Debi found herself stammering in her defense. ”I was just teasing him…”
Jack turned and walked back into the kitchen without saying a word.
She felt suddenly ashamed and called out to his retreating back. “I didn’t mean nothing by it.” She stood looking out the window at the empty parking lot. “God I hate it here.”
As Henry pulled onto the paved road Jeep asked, “noticed the mud on your rig, you been out there this morning?”
Henry nodded as he drove. “Yeah, over on Ludlow’s place. Looks like a cat tried to take down that old mare of his.”
Jeep raised his eyebrows as he looked at Matt. “A cat you say?”
Henry nodded. “The drought is taking its toll everywhere. Not just the farmers are suffering; the wild life up here is forced to come down in search of water and a food source. Makes it a bad situation for everyone.”
Jeep nodded. “You heard from anyone else around here with problems with lost stock?”
Henry looked away from the stretch of road to Jeep. “Now that you mention it, Clayburn’s said their hound has been gone for a couple of days.” He looked back to the road as the truck lurched over a bump.
Jeep sat quietly in thought as Matt directed the Game Warden off the paved main road onto the dirt track that would take them into the mountain range and their land.
Before them the landscape changed dramatically from the flat farmland of the valley floor. Up here the land has remained in its pristine wild state, with little intervention from mankind. A low stacked rock wall barrier wound its way up and disappeared into a cloud hovering over the mountain. The Buttes had several rock walls, built years ago by the first settlers, some were Jeep and Matt's ancestors. The majority of the land is free range with a few fences to delineate property lines. Most of the mountain range is privately owned, so outsiders are prohibited access. Occasionally some land owners will allow guided hikes to a few of the popular peaks with panoramic views of the valley beyond.
“Turn in there.” Matt pointed to a track between two stands of trees that lead up the mountain side.
“This rig going to be able to get through that?” Henry stopped the truck as he looked to the rock studded switch back in front of him.
“Drive over it all the time, you should be alright getting through.” Matt smiled as Henry shifted into four wheel drive.
“If you say so kid.” Henry gunned the engine and took the first rise of rocks. He couldn’t help but smile as the rig tipped left then right as they traversed the obstacles of nature.
After ten minutes of the slow bumpy climb up the track that switched back and forth over itself, Henry asked, “How much more of this?”
Jeep pointed up ahead. “Almost there, see that rock shelf and that stand of Oaks? Park right below it. There is enough space where you can turn around to head back down same way we came up.”
Henry sighed, “I was afraid you were going to say that.”
Jeep lifted his hat and ran his fingers through his gray flecked hair as he stepped out of the truck, “You could try to go down the other side, but I don’t think you’d want to take this rig that way.”
Henry stepped out and shut his door, “Is it shorter?”
Jeep had moved over to the rock shelf and stood looking out, “Oh yeah shorter and faster.” He wheezed a laugh as Henry stopped beside him and saw the sheer drop to the rocks several hundred feet below.
Henry laughed, as he patted Jeep’s shoulder, “Yeah, we’ll go back the way we came up.” He took a moment to take in the panoramic view of the interior of the range. Before them laid the hidden beauty of the Buttes few had the privilege to see. Reminders that the range was once an active volcano lay everywhere. Oaks grew wild alongside scrub brush and wild berries. Below them a small trickle made its way down the mountain side to form a pool in the grassy area. “You guys are blessed to call this land yours.” He looked to Jeep, “I’m glad you are wise enough to keep the developers out of this.”
Jeep shook his head, “Not in my life time, or anyone else’s. I got it all down on paper with the government, all legal like. This is protected land and may never be developed upon, for any reason.”
Henry smiled, “And what little land the government owns is also protected, so these mountains will remain the same for another few hundred years.” He looked back at Matt who was leaning against the front fender of the truck. “So what did you want to show me here?”
“Down there,” Matt moved with the ease of youth, following a well-worn path. “Watch your step along here, grounds uneven and loose rock in spots.”
Henry watched Matt disappear around a ledge then heaving a loud sigh, followed. “Son, in these hills there is no such thing as even ground. Although I would be happy if you could prove me wrong right now.” He could hear Jeep chuckle from somewhere behind him.
It was a short distance when Henry found the boy stopped and waiting. “The cow was here.”
Henry saw pieces of a skeleton strewn along the path. “Any idea what happened?” He knelt looking at the earth that was covered in scat and the footprints of feral animals no doubt feasting on the downed cow.
“Nah, she was pretty chewed up by the time I came across her. All of them pretty much looked the same.” Matt frowned, “Except for the cow and calf, they were different.”
Henry looked up at Matt, “How so?”
The boy paused and looked at Jeep who had followed them down the path.
Jeep nodded, “Go ahead tell him.”
“I couldn’t see anything wrong with them, they just died.” He looked uncomfortable as he continued. “I was scared they had disease, so I burned them.”
Jeep looked at Henry and shrugged, “The kid thought he was doing the right thing. By the time I heard about it, it was too late.” Jeep squeezed his grandson’s shoulder, “I gave Fredericks a call and let him know what had happened. He came out and checked the herd. He couldn’t find anything wrong.”
Henry slowly nodded in understanding as he voiced the obvious, “The kid had erred by not calling the vet to check out the cause of death before disposing of the bodies.” He lifted his hat from his head and stood watching a flock of birds circling overhead. Crumbling the hat in his hands he nodded as though in silent agreement to a thought he turned and looked to Matt and smiled. “Well its good Fredericks checked the herd, that eliminates disease for now.”
Matt relaxed with relief and joined his grandfather to watch as Henry continued to inspect the area.
Henry shook his head as he walked scrutinizing the ground. “Damn ground is torn up pretty good.” He kicked at a pile of scat, “Looks like wild boar.”
Jeep nodded. “Yup, berry bushes down yonder, pigs gorge on them when they are in season.” He looked at Henry, “They been known to eat carrion if they’re hungry… suppose they had their fair share of that carcass.”
Henry stopped and looked up at the sky, the sun was at its midpoint. “Getting close to noon. So Matt, where are the other two?”
“Pearce Ridge”, he pointed towards one of the adjoining mountains, “over there.”
Henry gave a grunt, “Let’s get down off this mound of rocks and head over.” He scoffed as he started the truck, “Don’t suppose the road over there is any better?”
Jeep and Matt answered in unison, “Nope.”
Henry threw the truck in gear and began their slow descent. “Swell.”