The Rio Costillo Sting

Lagunitas West        ©Copyright Jonathan Slator

A fictional account of a series of actual events that took place in the late 20th century in the San Luis Valley, which spans the borderlands between New Mexico and Colorado, USA.

THE RIO COSTILLO STING

“I kill where I please”

A NOVEL

Based on a true story

©copyright 2018 Jonathan Slator

A fragment from Hawk Roosting, by Ted Hughes

I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads –

The allotment of death.

1.

They rode the spine of the ridge in the raked light and made camp in the stand of firs where they had camped as boys with their fathers, and theirs before them. They roasted meat and warmed beans and tortillas and once eaten, sent the boy across the scree to a snowmelt to rinse the pans.

Lest he slip the boy kept his good arm free, and tucked the pans under the stump of the other, the remainder of which had perhaps been lost by chance; but back at camp, when he stooped to set the skillets clumsily on the fireside rocks the broad skull, the silver patina of hair, the moon-shaped face and the truncated fingers, jutting like maggots from a carcass, proved the boy to have been ill-wrought in the womb.

The three men stood in the open meadow, in closing shadow. Two were field stripping and cleaning rifles with an efficiency that spoke of practiced professionalism: removing the bolt assembly; punching the barrel with a steel rod to remove the carbon; clearing the rifling with several pulls of a cleaning wad; screwing the bipod legs to the barrel.

The third stood by, sipping from a flask, a second at a duel.

“That snag, yonder?” Esteban Benavides pointed across the valley to a standing dead, its bleached trunk bright in the late light. He leant his M40, the adapted Remington 700, against a fallen ponderosa pine and crouched to rest the Swarovzski spotting scope on the log.

Cisco Gurulé nodded and sprawled, legs splayed, and spread the legs of the bipod on his custom built Springfield M14. “Three fifty?” he hazarded.

“Three hundred and thirty two meters.” Benavides adjusted the parallax ring. “Windage, five mph, across, westerly, half value”

“MOA?” Cisco Gurulé inclined his eye socket to the eight-by Unertl scope.

“Three point four.”

“MOA?” Dr. Mike Howell tilted the flask.

“Minute of angle,” said Benavides.

“Minute of arc,” said Gurulé.

“Ah,” said Howell, none the wiser.

“Hung out since we was old enough to steal a cerveza, went through a couple wars together, still can’t agree on nada.” Benavides mingled the two languages, as was the custom of the men of this country.

Gurulé chuckled, reached for the turret and, knowing his scope needed four clicks per MOA, dialed thirteen. He settled, exhaled and squeezed the trigger. The crack of the shot and the repeated crack of the shot crashed through the alpenglow and shattered the quiet dusk in the high cirques of the Sangre de Cristo range in the border country of New Mexico and Colorado, still stippled with stained snow patches in the late spring. A muster of ravens, heading to roost, mobbed each other and scolded the shooters. A hawk pitched from a fir with a slurred cry; a herald sent to warn them off.

The boy, who had come from the fire, started at the report, squatted behind the men. He kept the heel of his right hand jammed against one ear, while lifting the remnant of the other arm and, by inclining his head, was able to affect a muffle.

Gurulé twisted his shoulders away from the cold ground and stared up at the hawk; Cooper’s, bonito, kinda high for a Cooper’s, he thought.

“What’s with you and them goddamn hawks, Cisco?” Benavides did little to quiet his needling tone. “You know Doc,” he shot a glance at Howell, “every country we been in Cisco here stares at them goddamn hawks. The kites in Kandahar, the falcons in Iraq, and them lambe guys in the mountains above Kabul.”

“Lammergeyers.” Gurulé cranked the bolt action, settled, and shot five more rounds, pausing to deliberate between each.

Benavides peered through the spotting scope and grunted. “Not bad, for a viejo.” He took his M40, lay prone, took aim, and loosed the round. Benavides checked his first shot through the Swarovski, made an adjustment on the riflescope, and fired five more rounds. Gurulé then shot four more, as did Benavides, in a ritual, it seemed, they had oft repeated.

They viewed their work through the spotting scope.

“Wanna check it out, Doc?” Gurulé asked.

Dr Mike Howell approached, wondering, not for the first time, if he’d chosen wisely. Six months ago he had completed his residency at the UCLA School of Medicine and yearning to get as far as possible from a freeway, had accepted a job in the ER room at the Taos hospital. Gurulé had brought his mother in, one day, after the old woman had suffered a mild stroke, at their home, eighty miles North, in the San Ruiz Valley, and the doctor and the former marine sniper had struck an unlikely bond. He was now as far from a freeway as it was possible to be in the lower forty eight, and encamped with two men who could shoot, it would seem, without hyperbole, the eye off a gnat at a hundred paces, and with whom, he was about to commit a felony.

“Damn.” The doctor gasped in surprise at the smiling face, which filled the frame of the crystal clear Austrian optics. “That guy has a hell of a grin.”

“Eyes need a little improvement.” Benavides said.

“Yours, or the target’s?” Gurulé grinned.

“Pendejo.” Said Benavides.

“Take a look, Joshua.” Howell called to the boy.

“No.” Josh balked.

“Mira j’ito.” Gurulé called softly to his son. “Come see your papa’s shooting.”

Reluctantly the boy scuttled forward on his knees trying to keep his ears covered. He bent to the eyepiece, looked for a spell and when his head lifted the moon face was creased with a smile as wide as that adorning the face shot into the trunk of the dead Douglas fir, a fifth of a mile hence, across the alpine bowl.

Later they lay against their saddles about the fire, ducking their heads, now and then, from the smoke. Joshua turned and whispered to his father.

“Son, there’s nothing to fear out here. You can go alone.”

“Por favor, papa.” The boy’s face was upturned, beseeching.

“OK!” Gurulé rose, a couple of joints cracking; his jaw awry as he grabbed his rib cage; the broad shoulders and barrel chest heaved briefly in pain; his mouth ovalled a hiss through the umbra of the brown beard. He walked the boy out of sight among the trees.

“Doc,” Benavides spoke, “Cisco’s been hurtin’ bad recently. Wanna tell him to go down to the VA? He won’t heed me.”

“What seems to be the trouble?” Howell cursed the cliché silently.

“He’s been complainin’ about a pain in his side. Sure he’s got the big C.”

“Why would he think that?”

“Depleted uranium. He was on a mission in Helmund Province in ‘99. Had to go into the mountains, take out an Al Qaeda dude. He and the unit got spotted and had to hole up in a burnt out Abrams. The ragheads threw everything they had at him. Their 30 calibers are coated in DU. Our armor is clad with that crap also.”

“I thought the Department of Defense said we don’t use that stuff anymore.”

“Doc. Palease. You believe any of the bullshit the DOD throws your way?” Benavides thumbed a nostril and snorted a curl of phlegm into the flames. “Cisco was washed in that crap for a couple of days till they could chopper the unit out.”

“Jesus.” Howell glanced through the trees towards the man and the boy. “Did he get his man?”

“Damned straight he got his man. One shot. In the chest.” Benavides said. “You know how else DU is reckoned to fuck you up? You bein‘ a doctor ‘n all.”

Benavides slid a tin from his vest pocket, pulled from the tin a slender black cigarillo, placed it deep in his mouth and withdrew it, then turned it lengthwise, and repeated the action, then snapped a match across his thumbnail, lit the match and drew a glow from the cigar tip, and held Howell’s gaze the while.

Howell looked across the fire glow, at the sallow cheeks drawn tight, brown irises exposing black in the darkness, the thick moustache incongruous on the lean face. Taller and leaner than most others of his ethnicity Benavides had been a better than average athlete in school; a shooting guard for varsity since a sophomore and back-up quarterback for a season. But he was too slender for the punishment dished out behind the line, so he switched to wide receiver and caught his share of long balls, and his share of hits and concussions, one of them from Cisco in practice one evening. The stocky freshman had dropped his shoulder into his ribs and his helmet into the side of Benavides’ head.

Next day he’d run down Gurulé in the halls and set upon him expecting to teach the younger a lesson. Cisco’s chubby exterior hid a solid core, and his ready grin disguised a grim determination once the fight was on; in the end it was all Benavides could do to grapple him down, to save face, and the taller boy was thankful when a teacher broke through the cordon of cheering kids, to drag them to the principal’s office.

After some cagey weeks they gradually became firm friends. Benavides graduated first and spent a couple of years at Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico. He found the courses either boring or confusing, dropped out and drove his truck back over the Sangre de Cristos one late fall afternoon. He stopped at the pass when he saw a herd of elk grazing in the meadow, grabbed his rifle and bagged a fine bull. But the tarp he had tied down over the carcass and rack, a five pointer, tore. A state trooper pulled him over. The lack of a tag for the elk landed him in enough trouble; the five Buds he’d swilled on the way over the mountain added to his troubles.

He managed to avoid jail and hung on, barely, to his driving license. By the time he’d paid off the fines by working at the Molycorp mine, Gurulé had already joined the marines. Benavides was left with the choice of continuing to work underground in his home village, a dusty and demoralizing existence, or a life of adventure serving his country. Encouraged by Gurulé he chose the latter and after a few years of service, the two school buddies managed to wangle a posting to the same unit.

Seeing Howell stumped over the DU question, Benavides chopped at his bicep with his beer bottle.

“Oh my God, of course. Birth defects. He thinks that’s why Josh….” Howell’s voice tailed off.

“Man’s sure of it.”

“You were with him in the military. You were a team right? Sniper and spotter.”

“Two tours together. Always fightin’. The enemy, each other. Never apart.”

“Does one always spot and the other always shoot?”

“No way. Both shoot, both spot.”

“But one must be a better shot than the other.”

“Yeah. Cisco always made a tighter group.” Benavides head sank a little at the confession. “Some say he was as good as Hathcock.”

“Hathcock?”

“Carlos Hathcock had ninety three confirmed kills in Nam.” Gurulé’s voice startled the doctor; father and son came into the light. “But you have to have a third party confirm each kill so he maybe had three times that.”

“Chuck Mawhinney had one hundred and three, official.” Benavides stirred the coals and laid on lengths of pine.

“Mawhinney is recognized as the best then?” Howell glanced between the men.

“It’s him or Hathcock for the Americans in Nam. Hathcock is said to have nailed a guy through his scope and clear through his eye. Like the guy was zeroed in on him.” Gurulé’s beard tilted as he drank from a cola bottle of mescal, and passed it to Howell.

“How many did you guys….?” Howell quit the question when he saw the cold stares from the men. “But there were good Europeans? And Russians? During the second world war.” The young doctor drank, twitched as the coarse liquor hit his throat, capped the bottle with the corn-cob, and pitched it over the fire to Benavides.

“Who was the Ruskie at Stalingrad?” Said Benavides

“Zaitsev. But the guy with most confirmed kills of all time is the Finnish guy, Haha or some such name.” Gurulé’s tone lightened. “They say he had over five hundred. In the Winter War, 39-40, against the Russians.”

“And all with iron sites.”

“No scope?” Howell whistled.

“Wanted to keep his head down.” Gurulé and Benavides laughed at the worn joke. Howell looked bemused; Joshua smiled and shifted against his father. They stared at the fire. A chill wind slipped off the snow-mantled slopes above them, and rattled the crowns of the pines. The men tugged blankets about their shoulders.

“Better get set to turn in.” Benavides said. “If we’re gonna bag us that elk tomorrow.”

“Poach the elk, you mean.” An uneasy silence followed Howell’s statement. He pressed on, aware of the tension. “Not that I have a problem with it. But strictly speaking it’s poaching.”

Again a pregnant pause.

“Not if you’re from the Pueblo.” Gurulé spat the words. “Them fellers can hunt any damn time.”

“But they’ve got their own laws, they’re a sovereign nation.” Howell spoke quietly.

“The Indians have been here a spell, no doubt.” Benavides’ voice was strained. “But then so have la gente.”

“The ancianos learned from the Indians to live off the land. Mud for bricks, trees for vigas, game for food.” Gurulé stared at Howell. “They took care of their families from these mountains. They didn’t need no permit to go hunt or cut wood.”

“Bis-abuelo asked you to get him some elk steaks, right papa?” Josh spoke up in defense of his father.

“Bis-abuelo?” Howell frowned.

“His great-grandpa, Apolinar, who brought me up here when I was his age.” Gurule nodded at his son.

“He’s still alive.” Howell asked.

“Sure is. Ninety-two and pretty fuerte. But sick and tired of that tinned crap they provide the old folk these days. Said he’d love a grilled elk steak, like we used to have up here, before he passes on.” Josh’s warped face grimaced at the thought and Gurule reached a comforting arm across the boy’s shoulder.

“If the ski resort hadn’t shut down we’d be working there.” Benavides broke the silence. “Or at the molybdenum mine if they hadn’t cut the work force. Wouldn’t need no elk or mulies. In or out of season.”

“We risked our asses over there for Uncle Sam. Now we’re back home there’s little work, less thanks, and a shit load of orders and regs.” Gurulé did little to hide his bitterness. “Wonder we didn’t stay in ‘Ghanistan, eh vato.” The look this time to Benavides. “We’re livin’ like them peasants out there anyways.”

Joshua stirred in his sleep. “How’s my boy here goin’ to feed his family? Tough enough job with two arms?” His voice wavered as he looked down at the boy. “An’ a bunch of ricos movin’ in, buying up the land, closing off roads.” He shot a glance pointedly at the doctor. He hawked and spat. The bile hissed briefly in the bright heart of the blaze.

“It’s not just here, Cisco.” Howell responded. “You should see the development in California, my home state. Rampant construction into all the open space. At least until the property crash hit.”

“Property crash don’t seem to have affected these rich assholes out here none.” Cisco snapped. “Something needs to be done to slow these people down.”

“How you going to do it?” The doctor asked, “Legally that is?”

“Legal ways been tried.” Gurulé stared into the fire.

“You gonna make a stand, vato?” Benavides asked.

“Quien sabe?” Gurulé cast a glance at his friend and then to the doctor. “Who knows, who the fuck knows?”

Silence, the men absorbing the thought. Gurulé carefully lowered his son away, swaddled him in the blanket, and stood. “Cold still, up here, this time of year. I sleep good in the cold.” He walked away to where the horses were picketed.

There was a long silence between the men at the fire before Benavides spoke. “Cisco believes in sticking with the old ways. Takin’ an elk up here ain’t what he calls poachin’. More like keepin’ tradition. You need a house, go get the fixin’s. Your family needs meat, go in the mountains and shoot some damn thing. He don’t hold with this here permitting deal.”

“I can understand that.” Howell nodded.

“Course Doc, ain’t no-one a’holdin’ a gun to your head. You don’t feel comfortable,” Benavides rolled the word around his tongue, “you can surely ride on down first thing.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Howell’s tanned, surfer’s features and frank, naive expression darkened at Benavides’ sneer. He replied, more heartily that he had intended. “I want to see this through. That was some impressive marksmanship you guys showed this evening. I want to see you in action.”

“Barely call shootin’ elk action, Doc, compared to what Cisco and I seen on deployment.” He rose, trod into the dark for relief. Howell heard him stumble on account of both the uneven ground, and, no doubt, from the drink, and reflected again on the wisdom of his decision to join these two sour, old marines and one crippled child on an illegal hunt in the Southern Rockies in the late spring of two thousand and eleven.

2.

They arose before the light and squatted over a twig fire. They brewed coffee, and stared silently into the flames. Each palmed his mug and blew across the rim and the steam rose palling their faces back and forth from obscurity as if their very existence in that bitter morning on that gaunt mountain was in doubt.

They fed and hobbled the horses, cut them loose from the picket line, doused the fire and set out on foot to poach the elk.

They climbed in silence, chilled and stiff limbed, but glad to be astir. Orion the hunter measured his length across the jagged horizon, his loins lit from beneath by the metallic tint of dawn. Frosted vegetation crackled under foot; nostrils burned in the sharp air; breath billowed before their faces.

They, and the sun, crested the range together. They doffed jackets, and glassed the canyons to either side. Once rested Gurulé lead them off with yet not a word. Sidelit, the mountains were painted in a chiaroscuro blend of bright slopes and blackened depths, and to the west the huge plain of the San Ruiz Valley dimpled with long expired volcanoes took shape; and farther yet the bulk of the Tusas and the San Juans rose into the early light.

They held the high ground, heading north, well into the forenoon. Gurulé strode ahead, swept along, as he always was, both by an appreciation he was at a loss to voice of the atavistic solidity of these hills and the easily expressed glory of the day: the cobalt sky, the snow caped caps, the scent of high timber, the path of the game trail through a carpet of bracken and flowers. He harked back, as he always did in this place, as he had always promised he would, to the savage uncertainties of Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

A movement on the northern skyline caught his eye; he swung the binoculars up and watched the flock of big horned sheep cantering along the sawtooth ridge and wondered what had caused them to run in such a place. By the time he’d filled the frame of the Swarovski spotting scope with the sheep he had his answer. Two black winged forms, large as the sheep themselves, flashed repeatedly through his field of vision.

“Josh, aqui, mira. Goldens trying to spook the big horns.”

His son gasped as he watched the ewes and lambs skittering along the arête while the huge raptors dove among them, trying to panic one into the void. But the sheep reached a broad saddle and the eagles spiraled away in the morning thermals.

“They all made it, even the cabritos.” The boy grinned at his dad. Cisco patted the boy and wondered if his son would share his fascination with birds of prey. Since he was Josh’s age, when his dad had returned from Vietnam in a flag-draped casket, he had been distracted from the inconsolable desperation of his loss by the observation of birds. A curve billed thrasher building its nest in a cholla cactus; a mob of magpies strafing the local cats; a ladder-backed woodpecker rattling the branch of a dead cottonwood. He had found solace from his loss in the world of birds, but naturally had kept such a lambe’s pursuit to himself, fearful of the ridicule from the boys of the valley.

The gradual discovery of the birds of prey then pitched his interest to an altogether keener level; here were winged creatures on a higher plane in every sense. Perched at the top of the food chain they seemed to live above the other species and required some advantage in height to be observed: to the steep timbered ravines to see the Cooper’s hawk; to the canyon rim to look down on the red tail’s nest; to the high passes to spot eagles; to the cliffs on the shoulders of Cumbres Peak to watch peregrines stoop. And ever since those adolescent years of loneliness and grief his head had turned to the sky when a dark shape grabbed his attention.

During his high school years he had read some ornithology, hoping perhaps to secure a place at college on the strength of his knowledge and his interest; the colleges always needed to fill their quotas with some Hispanic kids; if he kept his grades up, got some financial aid… But his mom’s health had faded and the military had beckoned; and he followed the family tradition, and that of half the families of the San Ruiz Valley.

His spirits buoyed by the encounter with golden eagles, and with the pains of his body, not forgotten, but at least, subdued by the place, the day, the hunt, Cisco Gurulé strode ahead of his poaching party, as free from care as any man of that country that gorgeous spring morning.

He froze, then slowly sank to the rocks, one hand held out, splay fingered, palm backward. With a similar gesture Benavides stayed the doctor and the boy, then moved forward in a stoop. The men studied the herd as it grazed the tree line and they smiled, each to the other, content to see the animals in the valley to the west; thus the return with the packhorse to fetch the carcass would be a day’s less work than had they found the herd in the opposite drainage

Gurulé set the Swarovzski scope and gestured the boy and Howell forward. All took turns watching the great beasts browse the slopes. Some of the cows were as tall as a man at the withers, and there were many calves, strong and nimble already, those that had run the gauntlet of birth and storm at these heights.

Joshua noticed the lame animal first. “Papa. This one’s hurting.”

Gurulé lowered his binoculars and peered through the scope, shifting the focus ring from his son’s perfect vision to his own. The yearling cow dragged a hind limb, stumbling across the steep ground. She looked healthy, well muscled and fit, save the injury. Gurulé noted the caked blood on the cannon and reckoned the leg to have been snapped within a day.

“Good eyes, jito.” He clenched his son’s shoulder.

“Are we going to shoot her, Papa?” A frown cut the boy’s forehead.

“She won’t live long anyways, Josh. A cougar’ll get her. Or she’ll just lay down, played out.”

“How many do you think in the herd?” Howell whispered.

“Maybe a thousand.” Benavides said. “We’ve checked this bunch out over many years. Never see ‘em all at once there’s so many.”

“Will you take her from here?” Asked Howell. “A good test for you guys.”

“This ain’t Hickock’s Wild West Show, man.” Gurulé shot back. “We’re here to put meat in the freezer. Do it clean. No suffering, no mess.” And without a further word he led the group to the far side of the ridge where they crept forward for a few hundred yards to an outcropping of rock.

“We’re downwind good.” Gurulé held his hand to the breeze rising from the west as the land warmed. The first of the herd were now directly beneath them. Benavides set the scope and made the calculations. “Two eighty to that cow and calf.” He pointed down the slope.

“Yonder comes our lame one.” Gurulé set the M14 on its legs and braced himself. He twirled the focus ring on the Unertl and the injured elk sprang into crispness.

“Forgive me pobrecita.” He held the cross hairs on her chest for a moment, at the classic hunter’s target, the organs, the heart in particular, set behind the juncture of foreleg and ribcage; then he crept the bead up her neck to the brain stem, exhaled, and curled his index finger. The elk was dead before she hit the turf. The remainder of the herd froze for an instant at the offense of the explosion before the leading cows turned and dashed across the slope, gathering the body of the herd alongside them towards a tangle of avalanche debris.

Two black fir trunks lay side by side where the force of the sliding snow had flung them, some winter past. As if it were a single organism flowing across the mountainside the herd leapt the logs, each beast’s spring triggered, not by the sight of the obstacle for they had none, but by the action of the animal ahead.

The men and the boy stared in wonder from their vantage, as the last of the gang of elk cleared the trees, like spring run-off over a rock, and all charged away to the far side of the cirque where they slowed, milled about in distress awhile, before resuming a nervous grazing, some scouts on watch, noses aloft.

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