El Puma

El Puma

Cero, the best tracker in the Desert Southwest, possibly the best tracker in the West, was sent for by Sheriff Dunsworthy once the big cat killed Melany Crossfort. It was one thing losing livestock to the cougar’s predatory nature, but when the big cat attacked and killed Melany, something had to be done.

The Yaqui Indian, raised in the harsh desert scrub of Sonora, was taught to track at a young age by his Grandfather, Montero. Cero never forgot his Grandfather’s words, “Look for what is missing. Anyone can see a track in plain sight, but only a tracker can see what is not there.” These words come back to Cero whenever he is puzzled. Look for what is not there.

Cero slides off his horse, drops the reins, and walks into the ramshackle building. The sheriff looks up from his desk and stands to take Cero’s hand.

“It is good of you to come, my friend. It has been a long time.”

“Time is a tiresome enemy,” Cero says, taking Dunsworthy’s hand.

“I guess you know by now why I called for you,” Dunsworthy says. “We’d been getting reports of livestock losses all over the region, and then three days ago, Melany Crossfort was attacked and killed by the big cat. Just below the big mesa. Somethin’ I’ve never seen before.”

Cero hesitates, thinking. “This is not normal. El puma is sending a message. I have known el puma to kill men but never a woman, the bearer of life. El puma respects Mother Earth and would never go against Her nature. This is a message to man.”

“I don’t know what it means, all I know is it is my duty to track and kill this cougar. And it is a cougar, I’m sure. I was there, saw the cat’s tracks, as big as a horse’s hoofprints.”

“It is not our duty to kill. This is wrong. I will track el puma only to discover its message, not to kill it,” Cero says.

“Well, you can leave the killing to me, you just find it,” Dunsworthy says.

Cero leaves with a sickness in his stomach. In the dying sunlight, he takes up the reins of his saddle horse, the packhorse tied behind, and leads them to a secluded area along Rattlesnake Creek. After gathering kindling and firewood, he sits in front of the fire to think and pray, unable to relieve the knot in his stomach. Mother Earth was hurting and sending a message by el puma. His Grandfather always told him to look for what was not there. Mother Earth was saying something now and he must remain absolutely quiet to hear Her message.

All through the night, he stares into the mystery of the fire, thankful for its warmth and generosity. In the cold sunrise, he prays for the humility and stamina to receive and understand Mother Earth’s message.

Cero hears the horses long before they reach his camp. Sheriff Dunsworthy and three other men. Cero rolls up the woven blanket and puts it away in one of the panniers.

“Good morning, Cero,” Dunsworthy says. “Do you need anything?”

Cero turns to face the sun, his back to the four men. “The sun is a good companion. I don’t think I could ask for a more loyal friend.”

Dunsworthy looks over at his companions. They say nothing. Cero turns around and with his rough leather boot kicks the remains of the fire across the wet grass. He looks up at the four men.

“We’re headed over to the Indian Agency at Shiprock. There have been more reports of livestock losses.”

“I don’t believe it is el puma. Were tracks found?”

“We don’t know. Lathe Rollins, sent by the Indian agent in Shiprock, just said that old Sam Joe lost four head of sheep. We’re going over to see for ourselves, just wanted to stop by to see if you needed anything. You’re welcome to join us.”

“No, I don’t need anything and appreciate the offer, but I travel faster alone,” Cero says.

“Sure, I understand. Keep in touch and be careful.”

Cero nods and turns back to his horses. The four men ride off. Cero wonders what drives these men. Dunsworthy talks of duty. This is a strange way to show one’s duty. Duty to what? Certainly not to Mother Earth. He needs to find el puma before they do. It is clear to Cero that these men carry only anger toward Mother Earth.

Once they are out of earshot of Cero’s camp, one of the men says, “He’s a strange one, didn’t even ask where the sheep were killed. How’s he s’posed to track somethin’ if’n he don’t  know where to begin?”

“I don’t know how he does it, but his methods work. I never question his skills or challenge his instincts,” Dunsworthy says.

“He got some kind of magic, like a shaman?” the man asks.

“Nah, nothing like that, just keen instincts.”

“Still, seems ‘spicious to me,” the man says.

Cero waits for the men to get far ahead and then follows. These men are reckless and their recklessness makes them dangerous. His concern now is for el puma. If he doesn’t intervene, el puma will suffer a tragic end at the hands of these men. It isn’t their fault, they only follow what they think to be true. Men all too often react out of fear. El puma is no threat to them, he is a messenger.

Tracking these men, careless in their movement, allows his mind the chance to wander. While Cero seems to disappear into the natural beauty, the slightest rustle of brush, Dunsworthy, on the other hand, is a rage against nature, stirring up dust and fury. Cero tries but struggles to understand how someone could conflict with nature in such a furious way. These men have no right to stalk el puma, no understanding of what they are up against. El puma is a silent presence in their world. They chase the idea of the animal, not the animal itself.

Shiprock looms ahead, the great mountain, the great rock with wings that carried the ancestral Navajos from the far north. There the People lived for generations, descending to plant and water their fields, but during a storm, lightning destroyed the trail, stranding them on the mountain above the sheer cliffs. The ghosts of the dead still haunt the mountain. And this is where el puma lives.

The men ride to the agency below the mesa and Cero waits inside the shadows of the great mountain. After the sun dies, he will follow their tracks to Sam Joe’s. This is not his home, these are not his people. He sits close to the fire to pray for forgiveness by the chindi. His quiet chant asks that they understand he comes with an open heart and humility. Sparks light up the dark mask of night.

In the darkest hour of night, the fire dwindles to embers, and Cero knows it is time to follow the tracks that will lead him to Sam Joe’s. A short whistle brings the horses to him and within minutes both horses are saddled and he is leading them down the slope away from the ghosts of the great mountain.

He listens to the rhythm of his heartbeat when he crouches to feel the ground. The tracks are deep and the warmth of his horse’s breath over his shoulder brings him comfort. He throws his leg over the back of his horse and, leading the packhorse, trots toward the black outline of the mesa.

When he is close to the Indian agency, he slides down from his horse and walks toward the small cabin and corral. Dunsworthy’s horses are not there. He and his men are most likely camped below the mesa, but the commotion in the dirt tells Cero that they were here. Without disturbing the ghosts, he creeps back to his horses and, once again, is moving through the moonless night.

El puma is out there in the darkness, watching, stalking the intruders. This lies heavy on Cero’s heart. Men walk heavy across the land. He can only step in his own footprints, he can’t set tracks for another man.

Still in darkness, Cero senses the impending sunrise. He desires to inspect Sam Joe’s before sunup. Before Dunsworthy’s camp comes into view, he hears the rustle of the picketed horses. But there is something else. He crawls to the camp, a lone tent set up a short distance from Sam Joe’s hogan. In the dim light, Cero can make out the corrals behind the hogan, tucked in close to the steep wall of sandstone. There is no scent of sheep in the compound. They are grazing somewhere under the steep wall of the mesa.

Something is wrong though. Even in the quiet time of sunrise, it is too quiet. The tent is empty, which puzzles him since the horses are nearby. He feels for boot tracks. From yesterday, nothing from this morning. He sniffs the air. Blood?

He moves with caution toward Sam Joe’s hogan. Empty. Sam Joe’s tracks lead east along the steep wall of the mesa. Sam Joe, like other men, feels the need to protect his livestock.

Not wanting to startle Sam Joe, Cero scuffs the dirt as he approaches. Sam Joe sits on a rock in the warmth of the sun reflected off the red wall of the mesa.

“Good morning, my friend,” Sam Joe says. “I have been waiting for you.”

“Hola, amigo. Como estas?” Cero says.

“Warm and thankful,” Sam Joe says. “You search for el puma?”

“Yes. And Dunsworthy? Something has happened, yes?”

“Yes, he and his men were here – yesterday. I brought them here, where el puma attacked the sheep. In all my time here, never have I been bothered.” Sam Joe looks back to his sheep. “It is a mystery.”

“This is no ordinary puma,” Cero says. “He carries a message. And Dunsworthy?”

“Yesterday, just before sunset, the horses returned, but no men,” Sam Joe begins. “I had little time before darkness fell. I unsaddled the horses, gave them hay, and led them back to the sheriff’s camp. I decided to wait until first light before I came to see what happened.”

“Did you find the sheriff?” Cero asks.

Sam Joe stands up and motions Cero to follow him. They make their way through the grazing sheep until they come to a deep wash half a mile away. Sam Joe squats at the edge of the wash. Cero smells death and peers into the shadows. The men are covered in the rubble of sand in the bottom of the wash twenty feet below. He looks over at Sam Joe sitting on his haunches.

“They were drug there – after they were attacked and killed. Their necks are broken,” Sam Joe says, shaking his head.

Cero walks along the edge of the wash until he finds a narrow gap. Squeezing through and sliding to the floor of the wash, he makes his way back to Dunsworthy and the other men. Kneeling next to Dunsworthy’s body, Cero sees that this is no ordinary puma. This is a fierce killer of incredible strength and power whose message is yet to be discovered.

Their bodies will rest here. Cero stands and follows el puma’s tracks up the wash to its precipitous beginning below the mesa wall. Here the tracks perform an impossible feat as if el puma contrived wings and Cero is unable to follow. He retraces his footsteps back past the bodies of the four men to the narrow passage and scrabbles out of the deep wash to rejoin Sam Joe. Sam Joe follows Cero’s gaze toward the great mountain to the west.

When they are back with the sheep, Sam Joe sighs and tells Cero that the loss of sheep is nothing. “I am a visitor here,” Sam Joe says. “It is a simple offering.”

“Yes, I agree, my friend, we are all visitors here,” Cero says. “El puma, on the other hand, breathes with the same heartbeat as Mother Earth.”

Sam Joe glances toward the sheep and then back at Cero, gazing toward the great mountain that rises on the western horizon. “You are going there?” he asks Cero, but already knows the answer. “My spirit will be with you on your solitary journey.”

“Thank you,” Cero says. “It is only in el puma’s eyes that I will discover his message.”

“I am an old man and have seen much, but I have never gazed into the soul of Mother Earth. I often wonder what that would be like. We get busy on the face of the earth and walk without seeing. There is a great beauty that pours over everything, yet in our hearts there is darkness,” Sam Joe says.

“Mother Earth has a message for all of us,” Cero says. “I can only hope that it will be revealed to me.”

Cero shakes Sam Joe’s hand and walks back to retrieve his horses. The great mountain awaits in the distance. He feels exposed in the harsh desert and questions his strength and asks himself if he is up to the challenge. If death is the outcome, so be it. Something has brought him here, he must summon up the courage to face it.

Looking up into the harsh sunlight as he rides back toward the great mountain, Cero knows that he must wait until dark to ascend its steep wall. As he approaches, the wall appears unscalable.

It is a part of the journey, he tells himself. In the shadows, he sits quietly, waiting, and the sun moves slowly. He thinks about his journey, what has brought him to this point in his life. Is he a pawn slid across the board by a grandmaster intent on deceiving and then trapping his opponent? Or is he merely a pawn trapped by his foolish notions and miscalculations?

On a narrow crag above, el puma blinks against the harsh sunlight. Languishing in the warmth of midday, el puma waits, too. He is a creature of the dark.

Cero tries to sleep but his restlessness fights against sleep. He scavenges enough sagebrush and pinyon to start a fire. The flame’s magic soon holds him in a hypnotic trance. Hours pass like minutes, Cero lost in the illusion of time, while above el puma waits.

When darkness descends on the great mountain and a sliver of moon smiles down on Cero, he begins. One step at a time he makes his way up the scree of the great mountain until he reaches the vertical wall. Staring up into twilight, he calls forth the courage to ascend. His ancestors faced similar challenges in their desire to know what lies beyond. With this same desire, he stretches for a wrinkle in the rock and pulls himself upward, fighting for a foothold. When he finds a balance, he stretches again, farther up the hard face of rock. In the dim light, he is guided by instinct alone, finding small scars in the face of the great mountain, pulling himself upward.

After an hour on the vertical wall, his arms and legs trembling with the struggle, he reaches a narrow crag on which to rest. High up on this narrow ledge, there is a spring that seeps from the hard rock and a small pool of moss. Cero bends to the small pool and drinks and leans back against the wall. Darkness surrounds him but he is unafraid. His life has little meaning if he can’t look into the face of fear. His people came before and will follow long after and the great mountain will remain. Mysteries have existed forever and forever will his people look fear in the face.

Sitting here, el puma waiting above, Cero understands that death asks little of him, a simple misstep or miscalculation. The answer to the puzzle lies in knowing one’s opponent. And who might that be? Cero laughs at the absurdity. Inside, it’s always inside, this opponent. As is one’s life, one’s death is a simple matter, both amounting to little.

El puma’s thoughts are quiet. There are no questions of death. He is driven only by the growl of his stomach. And the threats from vengeful men.

Cero clears his head and stands up, reaching for the next handhold. He pulls himself up and finds a slight crack for his scuffed leather boot, pulling himself tight against the rock wall. Listening to the rhythm of his heart, he reaches to find another crevice and pulls himself upward, a spider on the wall. If el puma is there, by what route did he ascend? A four-legged creature would be at a severe disadvantage on the vertical rock wall. Yet it must be el puma that compels him upward. If not el puma, then what?

After hours of strenuous labor and careful calculation, Cero reaches a ledge. With the last of his strength, pulling himself up with trembling arms, Cero is able to throw his leg over and drag himself onto the flat shelf below the pinnacle of the great mountain. Exhausted, he rolls over onto his back to stare into the endless night of stars. After a brief rest, he stands up, thankful to have enough ground underneath him to walk around.

Out of the corner of his eye, Cero catches a glimmer of light. Eyes. Glowing with fire. He crouches feeling for the edge. He knows his descent will be slow and dangerous. But he has no thoughts of descending, not without first finding what he came for. There is a rustle, the gleam is gone, but the creature isn’t. El puma is still there but has shifted. And Cero realizes that he is totally at its mercy.

After what seems like hours, Cero hears a murmur. And the eyes are back, fire orange, closer than before. Cero smells terror but remains steadfast. If death has come for him, he is prepared. It will come sooner or later.

“I am sorry,” Cero says. “I must apologize for my intrusion, but something has asked me to come.”

Cero waits. Does he expect a response? Even if he could speak el puma’s language, what does he have in common with the great cat? What could they say to one another? Cero thinks back to the first meeting with the sheriff in his office, how awkward it was. He and the sheriff, even though they speak the same language, struggled to say anything to each other because their words come from different places in their hearts. He had an easier time talking to Sam Joe because Sam Joe’s heart was simple and pure.

A sudden sorrow for Melany Crossfort overcomes him. Could the mystery of her death be the reason behind his presence here? What has her death have to say to him?

Taking a chance, Cero blurts out, “I am here because you called for me.” Had el puma sent for him? “I was unsure before, but now it has become clear to me. Is it about the girl?”

There is a low grumbling and the eyes disappear. Cero peers into the darkness. Suddenly the eyes open right in front of him, close enough that Cero can feel the warmth of el puma’s breath.

“I do not understand,” Cero says. “Why was the girl killed?”

Do not listen with your head, listen with your heart. Always with your heart. It is there that you will know the truth.

Startled, Cero looks around but stares only into the darkness. He reaches out slowly and feels the hot breath of the big cat on his hand. When death is so close that you can feel its hot breath, you need only to release to its will. Cero realizes that his whole life has led to this. Life’s journey is to discover death.

El puma’s silence arouses his curiosity.

“Does death hold the answer?” Cero asks.

No answer comes and Cero knows that death has nothing to reveal, rather it simply quiets curiosity. The final answer is silence. In death, there is no further need for questions.

Through the long, cold night on top of the great mountain, Cero stares into the fire orange eyes of el puma. Sometime during the dark hours, Cero falls asleep and time loses all meaning. When sunlight begins to fill the vast valley below, Cero awakens. He is sitting across from Sam Joe in front of Sam Joe’s hogan, a small fire burning between them. Cero rubs the sleep from his eyes.

“Sam Joe?” he says.

Sam Joe nods, “Good morning, my friend. You have spent a long night there on the great mountain. The morning promises much warmth and light. Night holds a mystery that is released into the morning sunlight.”

“I don’t understand,” Cero says.

“Ahh, I can see you are confused. Even the morning sunlight clings to its shroud,” Sam Joe says.

“But how did I get here?”

“There are many ways to get to any destination. Some walk, some fly, some simply appear.”

“But is it possible?” Cero asks.

“Possible? You speak of what may be true when in fact truth is an illusion. You can’t look at things as real or imaginary when they are the same thing. I cannot see what is real to you, I can only imagine it. In the same way, you cannot see what is real to me, you can only imagine it. Some things go beyond what we can imagine. These are the mysteries – and the truths we all seek.”

“El puma?”

“El puma exists in the night. And he carries with him night fears. But you see, in the daylight, he is only a fantasy. We see what we want to see, believe what we want to believe. This is why there is no truth. Only belief. To you, el puma is one thing, to me something entirely different. El puma is what you want it to be. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“And what about the girl?” Cero asks. “I have thought of her often and the questions I have surrounding her death have brought me here. Who killed her? And why? For she is clearly dead. Even though I did not see her myself, there is evidence that points to her death.”

“It is true, both that you didn’t witness her death and that there is evidence that she is dead. What does your instinct tell you?” Sam Joe asks.

“Nothing, I have no feeling one way or another. I am in the dark.”

“Then both cases are most likely true,” Sam Joe says. “The evidence supports the fact of her death and you believe the evidence. This is sufficient to satisfy your curiosity.”

“To the contrary, it does not satisfy my curiosity. It remains a mystery for there is no reason behind her death. If el puma is merely a fantasy, a product of my imagination, something else was behind her death, and this puzzles me.”

“You must know when to let go,” Sam Joe says.

“But when it is something that tears at your insides, how do you let go?”

“This is when it is most important. Like letting go of dead sheep. Things are mere apparitions, nothing more, nothing less. They are synapses across a billion brain cells, then, poof, like a whisper of wind are gone.”

“What do you know about synapses?” Cero asks.


“The same for me. Yet I can’t help believe that there was a time when this girl lived and breathed. But no more. And this brings with it a deep sadness.”

“Sadness is a result of living too long,” Sam Joe says. “With me, I have seen too much sadness, been a part of too much sadness. And this says to me that I have lived too long. When sadness outweighs happiness, it is time for me to leave. Life has become too great a burden.”

“I’m afraid that I, too, have outlived my happiness,” Cero says. “But my curiosity keeps me alive and motivated to see another day. My Grandfather foretold of this day. When I was young, I was happy and free, and the end of happiness was an impossibility. Each day held eternity. Now eternity feels like a great weight I carry on my back. I am tired and eternity has lost its luster. Look for what is missing, this is what he told me. Look for what is not there. He was speaking of signs, of broken stems, scuff marks in the dirt, or so I thought at the time. Now I see that he was speaking of much more. To hold on to the desire to live, it is necessary to look for what is not there. Once everything becomes obvious, life is over. For me to go on, I must give up this notion that things need to be explained. The death of the girl is a mystery, but when I think hard about it it becomes clear to me that el puma was not behind her death. Man always looks for the obvious, simply because he is unable to face what cannot be explained.”

“I have not only grown weary of body but sad in my soul,” Sam Joe says. “I am glad you have come, my friend. The death of the girl is unfortunate. Death is always a misfortune but necessary. And sometimes there is no reason for it. For me now, the thought of carrying the burden of life around for an eternity weighs heavily on my soul. My burden is lifted by thoughts of my departure. Any regrets from living too long are lifted as well. Death is a much easier thing than life. Good luck to you. I will see you again, there on the great mountain.”

Cero watches as Sam Joe stands and walks back along the steep wall of the mesa in the direction of his small band of sheep. He does not think about what Sam Joe’s death will look like. He does wonder if el puma is waiting for him there by the deep ravine. Or, maybe not. Maybe el puma is nowhere at all. Death is a solitary thing. And in this lies comfort.





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