The last bit of road through cutaway embankments and manzanita, a section I never remembered. And when we emerged, we could see Goat Mountain before us. We entered along the southern flank, a ridge rising to our right past the upper glades and on to steep slides of rock we never hunted. Below this, thick forest, and somewhere in there was our camp and spring and meadow, and below it, the reservoir and bear wallow and lower glades and switchbacks and the burn where a fire had swept through and every other place that had been written into us.
We always stopped here to look, to see who we were. Six hundred and forty acres shared with two partners from the Central Valley. Far away from anything. Divided up in several chunks along the entire side of a mountain, reaching down almost to the edges of the long thin valley below and Cache Creek.
No one spoke. And we could have stayed there looking for any amount of time. But the pickup rolled slowly forward again, the pull of setting up camp, and the track angled down into trees where all views were lost and leaves fallen already from the live oak, smooth dry plates rimmed by spines. Red and green of manzanita. A scrub jay with its harsh call and then an explosion of quail from right beside the road, lumpy brown bodies throwing themselves on low flight paths, wobbling and indecisive, into other brush and trees beyond. I was trained to raise a shotgun and fire, aching now to sight in on those dark topknots as the birds flared their wings for landing. Each of them pausing for an instant, my eye freezing the moment when I would aim and pull the trigger, a moment of perfection, but I was never allowed to kill birds here. No gunfire to spook the deer. And so the quail vanished again into brush and the pickup swept forward and I felt a dull regret. Some part in me just wanted to kill, constantly and without end.
The air cooler now, the road fully shaded, patterns of shadow in the steep slope that fell away to the left. And finally we arrived. The gate ahead thick steel painted the color of dried blood. Heavy pipe construction that no truck could bend, both sides anchored six feet deep in concrete, and a lockbox too thick to shoot. Even a rifle slug would only smear and ricochet. An evolution of gates over the years, and this the final one, put in by my father, a gate that could never be destroyed by any poacher, a gate that would never have to be replaced.
I jumped down and followed my father, who lay in the dirt under the lockbox and reached upward with both hands through a narrow steel chute. This prevented anyone from getting at the lock with bolt cutters or a gun. But there was hardly room for a key, either, working blind and cramped. My father grimacing, his shoulders rising up from the ground. Goddamn poachers, he said. I can't quite turn the key. Get down on the ground behind me.
So I lay facedown in the dirt and gravel and leaves and my father braced against me, raised up, and I heard the lock spring open.
Finally, he said, and he worked a bit more to fish the lock out.
I stood up and brushed off the dirt and leaves as my father swung the gate wide. Tom and my grandfather were standing here now, looking up along the ridge. We got a poacher, Tom said.
I went over next to them and looked up and saw, far away, on an outcrop of rock, an orange hunting vest.
How'd he get up there without coming through this gate? Tom asked.
Must be coming in on dirt bikes, my father said. Too heavy to lift over this gate, but if they follow the main road, there must be some trails now that cut over.
I don't know of any trails, my grandfather said.
Opening weekend, Tom said. Shooting and spooking everything on opening weekend. And why does it matter to them when they hunt? They're breaking the law anyway, so they might as well shoot one in June.
Excerpted from Goat Mountain by David Vann. Copyright © 2013 by David Vann. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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