Watchers

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On his thirty-sixth birthday, May 18, Travis Cornell rose at five o'clock in the morning. He dressed in sturdy hiking boots, jeans, and a long-sleeved, blue-plaid cotton shirt. He drove his pickup south from his home in Santa Barbara all the way to rural Santiago Canyon on the eastern edge of Orange County, south of Los Angeles. He took only a package of Oreo cookies, a large canteen full of orange-flavored Kool-Aid, and a fully loaded Smith & Wesson .38 Chiefs Special.

During the two-and-a-half-hour trip, he never switched on the radio. He never hummed, whistled, or sang to himself as men alone frequently do. For part of the drive, the Pacific lay on his right. The morning sea was broodingly dark toward the horizon, as hard and cold as slate, but nearer shore it was brightly spangled with early light the colors of pennies and rose petals. Travis did not once glance appreciatively at the sun-sequined water.

He was a lean, sinewy man with deep-set eyes the same dark brown as his hair. His face was narrow, with a patrician nose, high cheekbones, and a slightly pointed chin. It was an ascetic face that would have suited a monk in some holy order that still believed in self-flagellation, in the purification of the soul through suffering. God knows, he'd had his share of suffering. But it could be a pleasant face, too, warm and open. His smile had once charmed women, though not recently. He had not smiled in a long time.

The Oreos, the canteen, and the revolver were in a small green nylon backpack with black nylon straps, which lay on the seat beside him. Occasionally, he glanced at the pack, and it seemed as if he could see straight through the fabric to the loaded Chiefs Special.

From Santiago Canyon Road in Orange County, he turned onto a much narrower route, then onto a tire-eating dirt lane. At a few minutes past eight-thirty, he parked the red pickup in a lay-by, under the immense bristly boughs of a big-cone spruce.

He slipped the harness of the small backpack over his shoulders and set Out into the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains. From his boyhood, he knew every slope, vale, narrow defile, and ridge. His father had owned a Stone cabin in upper Holy Jim Canyon, perhaps the most remote of all the inhabited canyons, and Travis had spent weeks exploring the wild land for miles around.

He loved these untamed canyons, When he was a boy, black bears had

roamed the woods; they were gone now. Mule deer could still be found, though not in the great numbers he had seen two decades ago. At least the beautiful folds and thrusts of land, the profuse and varied brush, and the trees were still as they had been: for long stretches he walked beneath a canopy of California live oaks and sycamores.

Now and then he passed a lone cabin or a cluster of them. A few canyon dwellers were half-hearted survivalists who believed the end of civilization was approaching, but who did not have the heart to move to a place even more forbidding. Most were ordinary people who were fed up with the hurlyburly of modern life and thrived in spite of having no plumbing or electricity.

Though the canyons seemed remote, they would soon be overwhelmed by encroaching suburbs. Within a hundred-mile radius, nearly ten million people lived in the interconnecting communities of Orange and Los Angeles counties, and growth was not abating.

But now crystalline, revelatory light fell on the untamed land with almost as much substance as rain, and all was clean and wild.

On the treeless spine of a ridge, where the low grass that had grown during the short rainy season had already turned dry and brown, Travis sat upon a broad table of rock and took off his backpack.

A five-foot rattlesnake was sunning on another flat rock fifty feet away. It raised its mean wedge-shaped head and studied him.

As a boy, he had killed scores of rattlers in these hills. He withdrew the gun from the backpack and rose from the rock. He took a couple of steps toward the snake.

The rattler rose farther off the ground and stared intensely.

Travis took another step, another, and assumed a shooter's stance, with both hands on the gun.

The rattler began to coil. Soon it would realize that it could not strike at such a distance, and would attempt to retreat.

Although Travis was certain his shot was clear and easy, he was surprised to discover that he could not squeeze the trigger. He had come to these foothills not merely to attempt to recall a time when he had been glad to be alive, but also to kill snakes if he saw any. Lately, alternately depressed and angered by the loneliness and sheer pointlessness of his life, he had been wound as tight as a crossbow spring. He needed to release that tension through violent action, and the killing of a few snakes-no loss to anyone-seemed the perfect prescription for his distress. However, as he stared at this rattler, he realized that its existence was less pointless than his own: it filled an ecological niche, and it probably took more pleasure in life than he had in a long time. He began to shake, and the gun kept straying from the target, and he could not find the will to fire. He was not a worthy executioner, so he lowered the gun and returned to the rock where he had left his backpack.

The snake was evidently in a peaceable mood, for its head lowered sinuously to the stone once more, and it lay still.

After a while, Travis tore open the package of Oreos, which had been his favorite treat when he was young. He had not eaten one in fifteen years.

They were almost as good as he remembered them. He drank Kool-Aid from the canteen, but it wasn't as satisfying as the cookies. To his adult palate, the stuff was far too sweet.

The innocence, enthusiasms, joys, and voracities of youth can be recalled but perhaps never fully regained, he thought.

Leaving the rattlesnake in communion with the sun, shouldering his backpack once more, he went down the southern slope of the ridge into the shadows of the trees at the head of the canyon, where the air was freshened by the fragrant spring growth of the evergreens. On the west-sloping floor of the canyon, in deep gloom, he turned west and followed a deer trail.

A few minutes later, passing between a pair of large California sycamores that bent together to form an archway, he came to a place where sunlight poured into a break in the forest. At the far side of the clearing, the deer trail led into another section of woods in which spruces, laurels and sycamores grew closer together than elsewhere. Ahead, the land dropped steeply as the canyon sought bottom. When he stood at the edge of the sunfall with the toes of his boots in shadow, looking down that sloped path, he could see only fifteen yards before a surprisingly seamless darkness fell across the trail.

As Travis was about to step out of the sun and continue, a dog burst from the dry brush on his right and ran straight to him, panting and chuffing. It was a golden retriever, pure of breed by the look of it. A male. He figured it was little more than a year old, for though it had attained the better part of its full growth, it retained some of the sprightliness of a puppy. Its thick coat was damp, dirty, tangled, snarled, full of burrs and broken bits of weeds and leaves. It stopped in front of him, sat, cocked its head, and looked up at him with an undeniably friendly expression.

Filthy as it was, the animal was nonetheless appealing. Travis stooped, patted its head, and scratched behind its ears.

He half-expected an owner, gasping and perhaps angry at this runaway, to follow the retriever out of the brush. Nobody came. When he thought to check for a collar and license, he found none.

“Surely you're not a wild dog-are you boy?”

The retriever chuffed.

“No, too friendly for a wild one. Not lost, are you?”

It nuzzled his hand.

He noticed that, in addition to its dirty and tangled coat, it had dried blood on its right ear. Fresher blood was visible on its front paws, as if it had been running so long and so hard over rugged terrain that the pads of its feet had begun to crack.

“Looks like you've had a difficult journey, boy.”

The dog whined softly, as if agreeing with what Travis had said.

He continued to stroke its back and scratch its ears, but after a minute or two he realized he was seeking something from the dog that it could not Provide: meaning, purpose, relief from despair.

On your way now." He gave the retriever a light slap on its side, rose, and stretched

The dog remained in front of him.

He stepped past it, heading for the narrow path that descended into darkness.

The dog bolted around him and blocked the deer trail.

“Move along, boy.”

The retriever bared its teeth and growled low in its throat.

Travis frowned. “Move along. That's a good dog.”

When he tried to step past it, the retriever snarled. It snapped at his legs.

Travis danced back two steps. “Hey, what's gotten into you?”

The dog stopped growling and just panted.

He advanced again, but the dog lunged at him more ferociously than before, still not barking but growling even deeper and snapping repeatedly at his legs, driving him backward across the clearing. He took eight or ten clumsy steps on a slippery carpet of dead spruce and pine needles, stumbled over his own feet, and fell on his butt.

The moment Travis was down, the dog turned away from him. It padded across the clearing to the brink of the sloping path and peered into the gloom below. Its floppy ears had pricked up as much as a retriever's ears can.

“Damn dog,” Travis said.

It ignored him.

“What the hell's the matter with you, mutt?”

Standing in the forest's shadow, it continued to stare down the deer trail, into the blackness at the bottom of the wooded canyon slope. Its tail was down, almost tucked between its legs.

Travis gathered half a dozen small stones from the ground around him, got up, and threw one of the missiles at the retriever. Struck on the backside hard enough to be stung, the dog did not yelp but whipped around in surprise.

Now I've done it, Travis thought. He'll go for my throat.

But the dog only looked at him accusingly-and continued to block the entrance to the deer trail.

Something in the tattered beast's demeanor-in the wide-set dark eyes or in the tilt of its big squarish head-made Travis feel guilty for having stoned it. The sorry damn dog looked disappointed in him, and he was ashamed.

“Hey, listen,” he said, “you started it, you know.”

The dog just stared at him.

Travis dropped the other stones.

The dog glanced at the relinquished missiles, then raised its eyes once more, and Travis swore he saw approval in that canine face.

Travis could have turned back. Or he could have found another way down the canyon. But he was seized by an irrational determination to forge ahead, to go where he wanted to go, by God. This day of all days, he was not going to be deterred or even delayed by something as trivial as an obstructive dog.

He got up, shrugged his shoulders to resettle the backpack, took a deep breath of the piny air, and walked boldly across the clearing.

The retriever began to growl again, softly but menacingly. Its lips skinned back from its teeth.

Step by step, Travis's courage faded, and when he was within a few feet of the dog, he opted for a different approach. He stopped and shook his head and gently berated the animal: “Bad dog. You're being a very bad dog. You know that? What's gotten into you? Hmmmm? You don't look as if you were born bad. You look like a good dog.”

As he continued to sweet-talk the retriever, it ceased growling. Its bushy tail wagged once, twice, tentatively.

“That's a good boy,” he said slyly, coaxingly. “That's better. You and I can be friends, huh?”

The dog issued a conciliatory whine, that familiar and appealing sound all dogs make to express their natural desire to be loved.

“Now, we're getting somewhere,” Travis said, taking another step toward the retriever with the intention of stooping and petting it.

Immediately, the dog leaped at him, snarling, and drove him back across the clearing. It got its teeth in one leg of his jeans, shook its head furiously. He kicked at it, missed. As Travis staggered out of balance from the misplaced kick, the dog snatched the other leg of his pants and ran a circle around him, pulling him with it. He hopped desperately to keep up with his adversary but toppled and slammed to the ground again.

“Shit!” he said, feeling immeasurably foolish.

Whining again, having reverted to a friendly mood, the dog licked one of his hands.

“You're schizophrenic,” Travis said.

The dog returned to the other end of the clearing. It stood with its back to him, staring down the deer trail that descended through the cool shadows of the trees. Abruptly, it lowered its head, hunched its shoulders. The muscles in its back and haunches visibly tensed as if it were preparing to move fast.

“What're you looking at?” Travis was suddenly aware that the dog was not fascinated by the trail itself but, perhaps, by something on the trail. “Mountain lion?” he wondered aloud as he got to his feet. In his youth, mountain lions-specifically, cougars-had prowled these woods, and he supposed some still hung on.

The retriever grumbled, not at Travis this time but at whatever had drawn its attention. The sound was low,, barely audible, and to Travis it seemed as if the dog was both angry and afraid.

Coyotes? Plenty of them roamed the foothills. A pack of hungry coyotes might alarm even a sturdy animal like this golden retriever.

With a startled yelp, the dog executed a leaping-scrambling turn away from the shadowed deer trail. It dashed toward him, past him, to the other arm of the woods, and he thought it was going to disappear into the forest. But at the archway formed by two sycamores, through which Travis had come Only minutes ago, the dog stopped and looked back expectantly. With an air of frustration and anxiety, it hurried in his direction again, swiftly circled him, grabbed at his pants leg, and wriggled backward, trying to drag him with it.

“Wait, wait, okay,” he said. “Okay.”

The retriever let go. It issued one woof, more a forceful exhalation than a bark.

Obviously-and astonishingly-the dog had purposefully prevented him from proceeding along the gloomy stretch of the deer trail because something was down there. Something dangerous. Now the dog wanted him to flee because that dangerous creature was drawing nearer.

Something was coming. But what?

Travis was not worried, just curious. Whatever was approaching might frighten a dog, but nothing in these woods, not even a coyote or a cougar, would attack a grown man.

Whining impatiently, the retriever tried to grab one leg of Travis's jeans again.

Its behavior was extraordinary. If it was frightened, why didn't it run off, forget him? He was not its master; it owed him nothing, neither affection nor protection. Stray dogs do not possess a sense of duty to strangers, do not have a moral perspective, a conscience. What did this animal think it was, anyway-a freelance Lassie?

“All right, all right,” Travis said, shaking the retriever loose and accompanying it to the sycamore arch.

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