The Beaufinn: A protective, indestructible chimera from the future, and the icon of Scott Bowen Creative.
The Legend of the Beaufinn
Back then, we were limited to hunting gene-lab mega-fauna, which people sometimes called “geniis.” That word is now considered derogatory, of course, so you won’t hear it except with old guys talking to other old guys.
Also, back then, anything indigenous and wild was off limits. It was the megas or nothing. Firearms had to be projectile shooters — no actual lasers or anything laser-guided. No smart bullets, either, just jacketed bismuth or tungsten. Scopes were still o.k. People said that laser-arms and smart-ammo gave us too much of an advantage, but that was not true. Those things made shooting much more accurate. The technology that really would have made things easier in terms of locating quarry no one used. All that stuff was illegal, of course, the long-distance motion sensors and camera drones and whatnot, but no one in our outfit ever once had any desire to cheat that badly.
So when we saw this other animal, we saw it with our own eyes. It was real. More than a few people saw it. It was something wild and natural, but not of our time. It was something very old, but still alive. Very alive. Very dangerous, and magnificent, too.
At the time, the ranch covered 1.78 million acres and had an airstrip. A lot of people with money then were restoring Gulfstream 150s and 250s, converting them to burn Purafire instead of jet fuel. The outfit was booked for three years solid. No one got lazy, though. One regulation change and it all could have ended overnight. The ranch owners, the Aguilleras, made a big show of how many indigenous and endangered species thrived on the ranch, and reported to every newspaper the hunt counts of megas and how much money got pumped into the regional and Native school systems from the VATs. So everything usually went smoothly.
We had five main mega fauna on the place: Homotherium, “sword-toothed cats” that were a real bitch. Mastodon americanus, something for the cats to chase. Phororhacos, which might as well have been a damn allosaurus they were so aggressive and too tough to eat. A limited and highly controlled number of Ursus spelaeus, because they killed and ate everything, and because they were the main moneymaker after the mastodons, so you kept them at a premium. Then, a favorite of all, a truly grand creature, Megaloceros giganteus, the giant European deer. They were the most regal. Tasty, too–as good as elk, if anyone remembers what elk tastes like.
Nobody went out the door with anything less than a .338, and every guide carried one of the new Browning .416 side-by-sides. The first time a new guide saw a cat or cave bear up close, he usually bought a bunch of discount ammo and went out to the range — it was caged in, because the sound of shooting brought the bears — and he shot and shot until he got good for a 30-yard save-your-ass shot, having beaten his shoulder to pieces in the process.
The ranch land had never been developed, and none of it had ever been cut in the last hundred years. It was once the westernmost parcel of the Red Lake Indian Reservation. The Aguilleras bought it at a government auction, but as part of the purchase agreement they had to guarantee they’d never develop it. In the deepest places are larches eight and nine stories high, and lots of spruces just as high. The black willows crept northward over the years, and in the bottoms they must be a hundred feet across the breadth of their canopy. Even the various palmettos brought in from South Carolina get enough strong heat in the hot months to thrive, so we had sections that looked like Florida or something prehistoric.
The natural animals had lots and lots of browse. The megas had feeding stations, legal then, and they mostly ate each other, too. The cave bears and cats ate the mastodons and giant deer. It was only those giant birds we had to worry about snacking too much on indigenous fauna, so that’s why the Big Bird Hunt package was the least expensive. In season, we had guys shooting up to twenty “rhacos.”
The outfit’s marketing department really played up the danger of these birds, and one time this determined Frenchman who made a lot of money with a European gourmet food company flew in for a hunt for a deer and a rhaco. The guy had never hunted before, and anyone who has never hunted dangerous game can’t hunt here for anything except the giant deer. Anything else is just too dangerous. But this guy, whose name was Elmo Boulon, was a food supplier for the ranch and long-time friends with the Aguilleras.
Two of the best guides went out with him. But that didn’t help.
Standard procedure at the Aguilleras Ranch for a dangerous hunt was to have one guide per hunter, on solo hunts, or two guides for four hunters, the largest-size hunting party allowed. On top of that, we’d send a “body guard” for each single hunter, or for each pair hunting together. The bodyguard did one thing: covered the rear.
The cave bears and cats had a nasty habit of backtracking and making an attack from behind. Mastodons might charge from the rear if a group crossed fresh human scent and followed it. The big birds, the rhacos, they weren’t that smart–they charged what they could see, and lived and died by that one strategy. Of course, they could still come from the rear.
With this Boulon guy, who must be described accurately as short, thick, tough, serious, and highly capable, despite his inexperience, we sent our No. 2 guide, a guy named Arlo McKean, who was about 50 years old, and his guide-in-training, a 22-year-old named Jim Kaminsky, who was a most cool-headed, ice-blooded guy for his age. He preferred to be called “Juan.” Arlo and Juan carried each a .416, and were both very good with it. Juan also carried a Wilson Combat .50 semi-auto in a holster, though the joke was that when the bear or cat had you, you used the pistol on yourself.
The bodyguard on this hunt was Hickock Solo Bird. He was in his late 30s, and everyone’s favorite guy on the ranch, although he hardly ever spoke more than four or five sentences a day. Liking him had to do with hunting with him.
Hickock carried an ancient Ruger .375 bolt-action rifle, for which he hand-loaded his ammo. His great-great-grandfather had bequeathed him the gun. Hickock had custom-fit a special wooden fore-end on the rifle, and upon close examination, an informed person realized that some kind of launcher fit onto the fore-end. Hickock kept the launcher wrapped in a sling he wore around his chest while hiking or traveling, and didn’t fit it onto the rifle until the hunt was well underway. It fired a computerized RPG round that could be set for a sonar-triggered air burst or impact detonation. No one questioned his having it. He didn’t hunt with it, and that made it legal enough, even though the technology was over a century old and the U.S. Regional Army was selling surplus left and right.
Both Arlo and Hickock could also drive a bush buggy like racers. The bush buggies are about as big as an old Humvee, and run on SoftTyres, but they have robotic legs you can extend to walk through water or heavy mud. The cockpit is enclosed in a titanium-alloy cage. Cave bears can swat that cage with everything they have, and they might make a dent, but they can’t dislodge it. Most of our guides have spent the night in one, by great necessity.
The four of them, Boulon, Arlo, Juan, and Hickock left the ranch on a Thursday morning. They headed north, toward the swamps along the shoreline of the Lake of the Woods. They were going after the rhaco first. The birds usually stalked the last edges of the dry ground, in sight of the muck.
Only Boulon and Hickock came out alive, Boulon half crazed. This is what they told us:
By noon on the first day, the four of them drove in two bush buggies to a camping spot about one kilometer south of the eastern edge of the swamp. Here was a pre-established camp sight — two cabins on an elevated platform, accessible by rope ladders only. Boulon offered to help, because he wasn’t some soft peach. But Arlo wouldn’t let him. The client stays in a safe place if there’s no hunting going on. Hickock sat on top of the cage on the buggy where Boulon waited. More and more mosquitos arrived.
When the gear was stowed, Arlo let Boulon climb up the robe ladder, up through a trap door at the front of the platform, and he handed his client an energy drink. “Drink all of it — you’ll need it,” Arlo said.
Boulon downed the entire quart. He was excited and sweating already. He exclaimed, “Magnifique,” when he saw the pine forest rolling away to the edge of the huge lake, the water glimmering in the distance. The air was clean and hot, the sun a bright yellow-orange, so bright the spruce needles glistened. In a tree, a large, gleaming raven let out its croaking call.
“He calling his big friends?” Boulon said, motioning at the black bird.
“He’s telling everyone we’re here,” Arlo said.
“How taste, the big birds? Can eat?” Boulon was trying to be funny, in a polite way.
Arlo shook his head. “Like eating hemp rope.”
Boulon laughed. He wanted to get off the platform and get going, and didn’t hide his enthusiasm. The guides and Hickock liked him, though, because they could tell their lectures had gotten through to him. Of course, no one knows what another person will do when big-hot-bloody-death is charging them both. Only two guides ever died on Aguilleras Ranch, one of them accidentally shot by a client who was running from a mastodon and firing backwards as he fled. A cave bear ambushed the other. Various other guides have survived bites and maulings of different degrees.
The four men doused themselves with fresh DEET-on bug repellent, rubbed rings of tick gum around their boot ankles, and put on camouflaged buffs that covered their necks, jaws, and ears. Then they put on goggles, hats, and gloves, and a hydration pack holding two quarts of water and one quart of energy drink. They wore a camouflage pattern that Arlo insisted upon. A friend of his made it, and called it Ground-Fade. It was a simple pattern of dull gray and green on breathable iron-cloth, none of the fancy holographic stuff.
Hickock secured the RPG to his rifle, and he and the two guides and their hunter hiked to an observation blind about five hundred clicks closer to the lake, and climbed up into the camouflaged box. The blind was made out of a pile of blown-down hardwoods secured with ropes. It was a very solid set-up, and even with a bad wind, most of the big animals did not detect humans in there.
All of them glassed for the rest of the day, holding their binoculars to their faces, and saw nothing except the raven. They slept very soundly on the platform that night, falling asleep to the howls of the timber wolves and the drone of the bugs.
Shortly after sunrise, Friday, Arlo and Juan reconnoitered around the platform, and saw no bear sign, or rhaco sign, either. Arlo was tempted to walk the edge of the swamp for a short time, looking for tracks, but decided against it. The day was going to be very hot. He didn’t want to waste any energy.
They took Boulon back to the blind, and they glassed for hours again, sweating and drinking energy drinks and water, and urinating down a tube that went down into the ground. They traded off binoculars to see who had the best pair until they all concluded that Boulon’s brand-new Zeiss-Leupolds were astounding. “I could see the single hairs on a bear’s ass with those,” Arlo said, in a whisper.
“You always looking at the wrong end,” Hickock said, whispering back. It was the way he said it that forced them to stifle their laughs. Arlo kept a nearly silent hunt, communicating usually with hand signals, talking only when close enough to whisper right into a client’s ear.
Then Juan raised a hand, and his hand slowly formed a pointing finger. He pointed straight toward the edge off the swamp. Everyone watched through their glass.
In the shade of the foliage, the dark profile of a tall, square head moved along. The figure stepped through a column of sunlight, and everyone saw the upper body of a big Phororhacos.
Arlo turned to Boulon. “That’s a good bird, and I think we should get after him,” he said very quietly.
Boulon nodded. Rapidly but silently, the four of them left the blind. Juan and Arlo moved ahead first, then Boulon, with Hickock three paces behind Boulon. Arlo and Juan cradled their rifles, and Boulon did the same, in imitation. Hickock, however, kept his at port arms.
After fifteen minutes walking, Arlo stopped the party, and he scanned the swamp ahead with his binoculars. He finally found the rhaco: it was standing completely still next to a dead tree. Arlo gestured everyone down to ground level, and he turned to the group, whispering, “We’re going to try to get ahead of him.” Everyone nodded.
Arlo led the group directly toward the lake, moving quietly but quickly, keeping low. A slight breeze came from the west. Arlo and Hickock were unconvinced that the big birds could scent a hunter, but the wind was favorable.
Not far from the lakeshore, Arlo turned the group at a right angle toward the swamp, and they moved a short distance toward the dense line of brush ahead of them. Boulon caught the strong odor of the swamp, and thought it smelled like a grave. Clouds and clouds of mosquitos swarmed the men, and those bugs that had grown tolerant of the DEET-on tried to squeeze in against the foam edge of the goggles to find flesh.
Arlo looked for a good ambush site. He gestured to Juan to stay put, and he moved ahead a short distance, and found what he wanted: a gap in the laurel, about twenty meters from the edge of the swamp, a space with few trees. Boulon would have a wide shooting lane.
When Arlo turned, he glanced into the dense foliage of the swamp and saw the back of an immense rhaco, and he froze. Had the bird gotten that far ahead? No, it couldn’t have. This was another bird, probably nine feet tall. Arlo could not see its head, just its back and tail feathers; its body was parallel to the ground.
A twig snapped. Arlo couldn’t tell where or why, and couldn’t believe it was Juan.
The rhaco charged from cover, head down, streaking straight for the hunting party.
Everyone started shooting, and everyone missed with their first shot.
Arlo fired as the bird went past his field of vision and he either missed entirely or simply smoked some feathers. The big bird was smart and kept itself so low to the brush that just the very top edge of its body was visible from the side.
It charged dragon-like into the hunting party, all head and beak to their eyes. Juan fired first and put a shot through the feathers at the base of the rhaco’s wing. Hickock shot and tagged its neck and back feathers; he was jogging to get between the bird and Boulon and the motion threw him off balance.
Then Boulon stepped forward and surprised everyone: He fired once and missed and slammed the bolt back and forth, and just as the rhaco was closing the last twenty feet and Juan had the front sight on its chest, and Hickock was about to cut loose with the RPG, Boulon put a shot right into the bird’s upper chest, having aimed directly under its beak. Juan then fired a follow-up and hit the rhaco as it turned, putting a shot through its rump, and he shouted, “Goddamn,” in disgust.
The big bird ran into the swamp. Arlo raised his rifle again, but held off as the bird disappeared. He cursed, too, then ran to the party and grabbed Boulon by the shoulders and looked him up and down. Aside from a slightly crazed expression shining through the lens of his goggles, the Frenchman appeared intact and unbloodied.
“Good shot,” Arlo said. “Damn good.”
Boulon smiled and shrugged. Like any amateur, he had no idea how much danger he had been in and enjoyed the novel thrill of excessive adrenaline.
“Where the hell did that thing come from?” Juan said, reloading his .416.
“A laboratory in Los Angeles,” Arlo said, ejecting the single spent shell casing and putting a live round in its place. He was angry at himself for not seeing the beast at such close quarters, and he didn’t like what had to come next. He looked to Hickock. “What do you think?”
Hickock had not come off point, as he half expected the rhaco to attempt a charge from another direction. “Mr. Boulon hit it,” Hickock said. “Time to earn the paycheck.”
No one ever wanted to go into the swamp. The terrain itself was lethal. A careful crew could navigate it, slowly, and only in daylight. The season of the Frenchman’s hunt was a good deal more dry than usual, so the water level in the swamp was low. The drier, walkable sections were obvious, as were the tracks and blood trail left by the rhaco through the dark mud and tree litter.
Arlo wondered why the bird made such a straight path into the depths of the swamp, and could only figure that the dry weather invited the birds into sections that were usually under water. He made up his mind that the party would search for the rhaco for two hours, no longer, and then head straight back for the safety of the platform an hour before dark. Hickock said as much later, after the rescue.
Everyone paused to take time to put on more mosquito repellent and reseal the edge of their goggles to their faces with DEET-on paste. Ticks crawled on them despite the repellant smeared around their ankles, and they pulled the parasites off their pants. Arlo told everyone to drink a half-quart of water. Sweat stained the outside of everyone’s shirt, putting extensive human scent in the air, as the warm breeze off the lake carried it through the trees.
Unless Boulon’s shot had hit a vital organ, the bird would survive just fine. They were the most unbelievably tough things, like alligators. The blood trail along the ground was sparse and dark, not a sign of a hard hit.
As the party moved along, Hickock watched their back trail continually, straight back and to the left and right. The shadowy thickets spooked him just a bit, a clear sign of sanity.
After fifteen minutes of slow going, Arlo halted everyone when he saw that the blood trail stopped. The party paused to drink more water and energy booster from their hydration packs. Boulon, out of great curiosity, tried to figure out their location using just a topo map. Arlo was watching the brush up ahead.
“Arlo,” Hickock said quietly, “there’s something behind us.”
“The bird is in front of us,” Arlo said just as quietly, looking back to Hickock and making a gesture with his free hand. Arlo then turned back to peer carefully at a shape of mixed shadow and color that was appearing more and more like the upper body of a bedded-down rhaco about twenty meters away.
Juan reached over to Boulon and grabbed his arm, shaking him into readiness, and the Frenchman brought up his rifle but did not yet take off the safety.
“Something’s trying to flank us,” Hickock said, but his words were drowned by the explosive sound of the rhaco bursting from cover.
Boulon fired quickly, and hit the bird squarely, in the breast, and the dangerous beast stumbled with the force of the shot but continued forward. Arlo fired as Boulon reloaded and then Juan fired, and the rhaco steered around them to their right, and all three of them followed it with their gun sights, its thrashing run sending up a great deal of noise. The bird ran a semi-circle and the hunters shifted, and as the rhaco careened through a clear space, Arlo yelled, “Shoot, Elmo!” and Boulon fired a second time and placed a lethal shot.
The rhaco collapsed in front of them, maybe ten meters away, sending up a pluffing cloud of mud dust and bits of leaf and tree bark, and for just a moment in that dirty fog they could not see the bird. But they all felt pounding footsteps through the soles of their boots, confusing Boulon, who should have been reloading.
“From the front, the front!” Hickock yelled, trying to swing his rifle around the men between him and this new, surprise bird. He pulled down Boulon and sat on him, as Juan stepped in front of both of them, rifle up.
Arlo fired at the dark shape that came through the dust cloud and hit it, and it kept coming, and he dropped his rifle and fired from the hip into the gut of the surprise rhaco that smashed into the party and took Juan in its beak, knocked over Hickock, and then ran past them and into the dense foliage. Hickock could see its legs as it galloped away and he nearly let loose an RPG, but held off, gritting his teeth.
A heavy silence filled in around the men and the bird’s footfalls faded. Arlo was momentarily astonished. Had this second rhaco — probably the first one they saw from the blind — been hunting as a partner to the second, the one they shot? Or had it simply been made curious by the noise of the initial shots?
Arlo’s mind began arranging a series of necessary steps. He quickly looked at the felled bird, sure it was dead, and then he turned to Boulon and Hickock, checking them both for injury. Boulon fought an urge to defecate. Hickock’s goggles were knocked off and he said his neck hurt, but he was not bloodied. A single kick from a rhaco’s talon is a deathblow, and he knew he just became the luckiest man in all of Minnesota, a painful knowledge made more painful as he watched Arlo take out his hand-held Tracker.
Everyone at the ranch, the minute you step on site, is fitted with a Bio-Stat recorder, held on a band around your chest. State of the art. In five minutes you forget it’s there, it’s so small and light. It tracks your vitals and your location, and sends this info to the wireless Tracker your guide carries, and also to the computer system back at the ranch. Everyone knew immediately that Juan was in desperate shape. Alarms went off in the main office.
Arlo needed a moment to force every bad thought and recrimination into a far corner of his head. His mind had slipped into self-examination — You never should have gone into the swamp — and that was useless. He needed to stick to a plan. He looked at Hickock, then glanced at Boulon.
“I stay with you guys,” Boulon said. “I keep my head down. Won’t get in no way.”
Arlo nodded. Splitting up and sending the client back to the elevated platform was a possible response, but one fit for open ground and better terrain. Arlo wanted extra protection for Boulon as they left the swamp, and that meant two bodyguards, not just Hickock.
The flashing dot of red light on the Tracker screen was not far from the three solid dots of green. The bird had carried Juan about seventy meters away and stopped. “Why the hell are these goddamned birds going deeper and deeper into the swamp?” Arlo said aloud.
“It’s dry,” Hickock said. “More places to hunt.”
“You guys stay twenty paces behind me,” Arlo said. “When we get close, you’re going to hunker down and wait. I’ll go in myself. Elmo — keep your gun loaded, and keep the safety on. If we need you to shoot, Hickock will tell you. This isn’t the hunting you signed up for.”
Boulon nodded. He understood. This was a rescue. A man might be in the field of fire when the time came. “Very sorry,” he said. “I must shit.”
Arlo nodded. He and Hickock took the time to check their guns and make sure extra ammo was readily at hand. Boulon stood and buckled up his pants as quickly as he had ducked to the side. Not three minutes after the rhaco had run off with Juan, the three men took after it, for good or ill.
When the Tracker screen showed the three green dots within thirty meters of the flashing red one, Arlo gave his instructions to Hickock: “Come a few paces closer and then find a place to sit where you can see me. Be at the ready.”
Hickock nodded and looked off into the low brush and scrubby cedars. In the distance, he saw taller trees that grew along a main river that flowed through the swamp and emptied into Lake of the Woods. Both his Tracker and Arlo’s were beeping, demanding answers, and he typed in a three-digit coded message, indicating that Boulon was safe. Then he and Arlo muted the devices.
They moved forward, and then Hickock took Boulon off to the side. They remained hunched down in the brush, watching Arlo move head. Strangely, the mosquitos had faded away.
Arlo had his finger resting along the trigger guard of his rifle, the safety off. He could just barely see Juan’s boots on the ground ahead of him. The young guide wasn’t moving.
Hickock saw the rhaco burst out from the left, running straight at Arlo, and he fired a shot that hit the bird at the base of the neck, and it leapt into the air, horrifyingly, and landed on Arlo. Hickock rushed forward, shouting, “Stay,” to Boulon, and fired another round into the bird’s body as it stood on the guide. The rhaco didn’t flinch, and lowered its head and peered at Hickock. He yelled at it, and jogged to the side, trying to draw it away so he could fire an RPG and end this nonsense.
The rhaco came forward, stepping off Arlo and angling toward Hickock, who flicked off the launcher safety and shouldered his rifle.
Boulon stood, a mistake, shouldering his rifle, too, thinking both he and Hickock would take the bird in a crossfire. He pulled the trigger and it didn’t move. He couldn’t find the safety with his shaky finger, and had to look at the rifle. He looked up and the rhaco was stepping, heron-like, toward him. He panicked, and ran.
Spilling blood the panting rhaco began jogging after the scrambling man. Hickock fired an RPG and hit the bird squarely, and the heavy round smacked into the bird’s side and bounced off, landing on the ground. Hickock’s tongue blazed with garbled profanity as he ran.
Boulon ran toward the lake, and hearing the bird galloping behind him he made a hard, sprinting turn to the left. He ran with his rifle in his hands, and decided he had to get just far enough to stop, turn, and shoot. The rhaco was fast, however, and despite its gasping and spilling blood, a lung filling with blood, it charged on, with every intention of killing, eating, and surviving.
Hickock barely kept sight of the bird as he ran through the brush, limbs slapping him, the mud sucking at his boots. He was genuinely scared, because he was sure Boulon was as good as dead. As he leapt a mucky gap, Hickock slipped and crashed onto his side.
“Shitfuckshitgoddamnohshitfuck.” He knew the whole situation was completely out of hand. Everyone might die.
Boulon was not tiring but he was in full panic, seeing the rhaco every time he glanced back. The bird was closing. The Frenchman ran for his life, angling in another direction, aiming for a gap in the trees, the lakeshore just in sight. He plunged into the space, tripping on the roots and crashing into the silty, rocky place in a wreck of man, backpack, and rifle, shouting in pain. His life and family began flashing through his mind. He wished he had not divorced his first wife.
He reached up to a rock, and pulled himself up, and gasped like a man having a heart attack upon seeing what he saw.
The creature above him was large, as big as two rhacos. It sat atop the rocks in an almost stately way, its great forearms spread outward, ending in terrible panther paws. It had the great chest and head of a red stag, its fur dark brown, and wore a high, rising crown of antlers. Boulon gazed at the rest of its body: a thick, seal-like form that tapered into the tail of a pike; a body that was glossy like snakeskin, colored a strong animal green, with pale leopard spots over its sides.
The great beast let out a loud, bugling rush of air, its gaze aimed at the rhaco as the bird stumbled between the trees. The bird quickly backed away from the unknown beast, clumsily turning, acquiescent. It trotted down the silty lakeshore, stepping between the rocks, until it had lost too much blood to breathe and it keeled over, one great leg up in the air.
Boulon looked up at the dazzling animal on the rocks. He shook, and began to cry. He tasted blood in his mouth. He thought the animal was going to take him, and that it wasn’t an animal, but a monster of god, and it was going to reach town with a great panther paw and claim him. Boulon cried and prayed. He closed his eyes. Nothing happened. He heard a great splash.
Hickock called out to Boulon when he saw him lying on the shore. The Frenchman didn’t move. He ran to the client, bent down, and removed the man’s goggles. The Frenchman’s face was wet, and stark white, his eyes shut, blood on his lips. Hickock shouted, “Mr. Boulon, look at me!”
Boulon opened his eyes, and tried to speak, blood coating his tongue. He could not feel his body.
Hickock looked around and saw the rhaco a distance down the shoreline. He watched it. It was either dead or soon dead. He collected Boulon’s rifle and slung it over his shoulder, and then he pulled Boulon to his feet, putting the man’s arm over his shoulders, and he helped Boulon stagger back into the swamp.
In recollection, Hickock said the next half hour was dreamlike. He gathered the bodies of Juan and Arlo under a tall cedar, and gave Boulon tiny sips of water because the man begged for water. The afternoon seemed to peel away, as a front of weather came in, and low, dark clouds slid over the tops of the trees. A wind sent down cascades of leaves and small limbs, and blew the scent of human blood a great distance.
The rescue team was two hours away, and gaining speed. The Tracker beeped with indicators of their progress. The lights on the screen that indicated Juan and Arlo had turned bright white, unblinking. Boulon’s was flashing red. A broken rib had punctured his right lung, and the air sac filled with blood in the same way that had killed the rhaco.
Hickock had set a motion sensor on a tripod and aimed it forward, and as the afternoon darkened under the weather front, the sensor made slight clicks. Hickock looked at the screen and saw two moving blobs, and knew from their shape that they were cats. He had his grenades set on impact detonation, and prayed that those he had were not so old they dudded out like his first shot, which had infuriated him beyond measure. Cheapness kills.
Boulon roused. He had a vision of the beast — it was swimming through the river in the swamp, its magnificent antlered head rising above the water. It then rose from the water and glided into the swamp, where the cats sensed it, and screamed.
Hickock heard the sword-tooths screaming, a defensive roar, and he thought the worst of it. The cats would only scream like that at a cave bear. He looked down at his rife, and thought to himself, I need every measure of your strength now, granddad, because a bear is coming. I will die fighting.
The cats screamed some more, then fell silent. On the screen of the motion-sensor, their globs of whiteness, amid the green background, bobbed away, off-screen. Hickock gripped the Ruger tightly, looking at the screen and then looking into the swamp, but nothing moved. Then the screen washed out and went blank.
Boulon raised an arm. He pointed, in agony. “God’s beast,” he said. “Here.”
Hickock stared at the delirious man. There was no point in sending another emergency message. He had sent a top-priority code with the exact coordinates of his sorry position, and received confirmation. A five-man rescue crew and doctor were coming in a hovercraft.
Rebooting did not bring back the motion-sensor. Hickock muttered and punched buttons, but the device refused to work. He sighed and looked up at the sweeping, slate-colored sky. He prickled with a feeling he got as a boy when tornado weather arrived. Under clouds, the swamp darkened in a half night.
Something in the direction of the river caught his attention. At first he thought a gap in the trees let in a shaft of weird cloud-light, but the light was the wrong color. It was a silvery-gold color, like that of a winter sun. Deep-set instincts stirred him. He wondered if he somehow received the energy put forth by the massive presence of the bear destined to kill him.
Hickock stood with his rifle and walked forward several steps, looking through the brush and tree limbs, trying to see into the spaces between the trees along the river. The glowing place appeared to shift, and come forward. Hickock’s heart pounded. He let his finger rest on the trigger guard. What new terror was this?
In the glowing circle of light, he saw a great black, rising form: shoulders, neck, and long, animal head adorned with a kingly rack of antlers, the eyes of the beast glowing, glimmering with changing colors. The figure seemed to glide slowly forward.
The cats screamed in the distance, and the wind swirled beneath the smoke of clouds.
Hickock Solo Bird sat back down next to his dead friends and took Boulon’s outstretched hand, resting with dignity in the overwhelming realization of powerlessness.
The investigation into the hunt took an entire year. Lawyers and officers came to the ranch from everywhere: the Minnesota Environmental Reclamation & Restoration Agency, the state attorney general’s office, and the feds — the Department of Wildlife, the EPA’s Office of Genetic Technology, and the U.S. Regional Army Ordinance Task Force. Because deaths were involved on the ranch property, none of these entities needed warrant. They just showed up.
They bombarded us with questions: Why weren’t the Bio-Stat recorders synced to the guides’ and hunter’s embedded biochips? (Because it’s not required by law, and it’s just easier that way, because the programs aren’t compatible.) Was Hickock licensed to possess and use RPGs? (No, and the Army shouldn’t have sold old ordinance to civilians either.) Why didn’t we have a heli-jet for rescues? (Because they’re too expensive and difficult to land in rough terrain.) Why didn’t we put tracking devices on our mega-fauna? (Because we’d have our license revoked if we did.) Did we ask our supplier, SiVent Technology, to select for extra-aggressive Phororhacos? (No, and that’s not technically possible anyway.)
Hickock had to take a brunt of the questions, because he was the only intact and conscious witness. Some hotshot from the Minnesota attorney general’s office read the coroner’s report and asked Hickock, “Would you say that Mr. McKean’s injuries were consistent with a description of ‘death by blunt-force trauma’ and Mr. Kaminsky’s injuries were consistent with ‘death by multiple internal injuries?’” Poor Hickock nodded and agreed to these clinical descriptions of his friends’ deaths. The rhaco had crushed Arlo’s chest with a single swift stomp, and the exact cause of death was internal hemorrhage. The first bird had shaken Juan so badly it had broken his neck.
The Emergency MediVac had flown Boulon to the hospital in Grand Rapids, and then, for reasons no one has yet fully learned, a private hospital service transported him to Montreal. Someone said his wife wanted him in a French-speaking hospital, as if no one spoke any French in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
Boulon, for his part, began talking nonstop about the creature as soon as he regained consciousness, although he could barely breathe in the hospital in St. Cloud after the surgeons fixed his collapsed lung and purged the blood clots that could have killed him. His babbling in French and limited English, while waiting for transport to Quebec, and speaking to anyone who would listen is the source of the word for the beast.
Perhaps Boulon used the word dauphin to describe the creature’s body. The next day, the Minneapolis-Global new broadcasts ran stories about an undiscovered creature called the “Beaufinn,” capitalizing it as if it were an actual name, and the story was picked up on every American digital beam, and then it went to France and the EU when the Quebec French-language news beams sent it over the ocean, after Boulon talked even more in Montreal. As if the world needed some new fantasy, something both beastly and spiritual, millions of people became obsessed with a story that up to that point was nothing more than a story.
Calls and contact beams flooded the ranch. The Aguilleras shut down the digital site for the ranch and ignored the chirping beam receivers and computers. Of course, as we were taking bookings for next year, we had to answer the phone. Every call was from the media.
Boulon, when he recovered, didn’t help things, really. Hickock did say that he thought the Frenchman was very game and a good guy, despite his one significant but understandable error in the field, but everyone else just wished Boulon would shut up. He referred to the beast as monstre de Dieu, but by the time he was back in France, the word Beaufinn had spread around the word, and he ended up using it, too. Artists renditions popped up on every digital broadcast and beam you could possibly receive, some that Boulon, in his many interviews in the EU, claimed to be very accurate, and others that looked like some kind of fat Chinese dragon.
In those crazy days, Hickock never claimed to have seen any sort of actual animal. He said that he was so worried and stressed by everything that had happened, and seeing the bodies of his friends, that he believed his mind projected the image of something that would protect him.
“You did hear the cats, though, right?” the Aguilleras’ attorney asked him.
“I’m sure I heard the cats, but they never approached,” Hickock said.
The main ranch computer had been connected to Hickock’s motion-sensor, and it did, indeed, record the thermal- and sonar-located images of the cats moving in and then running off. The computer also recorded the complete malfunction of the sensor, something that can occur inside a strong magnetic field. Hickock did not remember much else of what he saw, except that he thought his hallucination looked something like one of the giant deer.
Three of us, however, saw very clearly the tracks of the beast. We were Guillermo Aguilleras, a ranch owner; Tom Landros, the ranch attorney; and myself. We went back to the spot the morning after the rescue, and we saw where Boulon’s monstre de Dieu had come up the river bank, leaving deep gouges in the mud with its massive paws, and the churned and smoothed mud where it had surged with its body.
We had all heard stories about something called “the spirit of the lake,” but this had been described as not much more than some kind of will-o’-the-wisp. A handful of stories over the past century about strange animals were chalked up to people mistaking bears or moose for something in the mist.
Centuries ago, the Cree claimed that the lake was magical, having been created by a spirit as kind of maze of land and water. The voyageurs and hommes du nord of the 1800s might have found danger in the Prairie Sioux, but not with monsters.
The tracks that we saw, however, were as real as anything any known animal could have made. They were not the imprints of a cave bear or mastodon, or a rhaco. The paw prints were almost 14 inches wide, and the breadth of its main body appeared to be close to five feet. These signs of the movements of this beast were astonishing to the mind, so much that that our minds searched for some other possible cause or reason for the marks that we saw, and tried to prevent our actually believing in the Beaufinn.
We used tree branches to rub out the tracks and made a professional commitment to tell no one what we had found. Each of us, however, had to tell himself some other explanation.
Excitement and accusations began to build, in the public media and in many personal statements. In a time when nearly all animal laws were protective, after so many global extinctions, and more and more restrictions on genetic recreation and cloning came about, the Beaufinn, whatever it was, became a focal point of protest, pleasure, and mystery.
News media reporters, once they knew the digital broadcast coordinates of the ranch, beamed in their own holographs that could override our system, and demanded interviews on the spot, accusing the Aguilleras of ordering up genetic monsters for hunting purposes. Jamming those beams was difficult, especially when we had had to turn our system back on to stay in business.
Production companies called, asking if they could come film recreations of the hunt and the sighting of the Beaufinn. A scientific conference in London, called “The Third International Congress on Genetic Chimeras,” attempted to determine scientifically how any such creature could either be human-created or occur naturally. The Central European Animist Church asked if they could pray at the location of Boulon’s sighting. The Aguilleras refused any request that had nothing to do with hunting.
Local interest was much more polite yet colorful. All those folks who stayed on after the big American land reformations of the late 2000s, they all got along, living life in their tree houses, underground yurts, and rotating geodesic domes along what used to be the intersection of Route 11 and Route 89, to the west of the ranch. They went out on the lake in canoes and kayaks, looking for the beast. They had Beaufinn dances, and Beaufinn roasts, and Beaufinn beauty contests. Out-of-towners, who managed to find their way northward from Lower Red Lake, hoping to find what was left of the town of Roseau, found themselves in one of two local bars listening to stories that they recorded on their PDAs and went back to Chicago and called “Neo-folklore.”
Everyone at the ranch hoped the whole thing would blow over, especially during an election year. But when the winter-holiday shopping season began in October, a toy company approached us and asked if we’d like to endorse a Beaufinn toy. The company even sent a copy to us – a heavy vinyl figurine, exactly like a quality dinosaur toy, but this one in the shape of this chimera, the monstre de Dieu, the spirit of the lake.
Amid all that insanity in the late summer of 2129, we had to bury Arlo and Juan, who had both asked in their living wills to be interred naturally on the ranch. Arlo had asked to be buried near the one spring-fed creek because, he said, he wanted to become part of the rare wild trout there. Juan asked to be buried in one of the few groves of mature aspen, not far from the main lodge. He meant for the white of the bark and the gold of the leaves in autumn to draw energy and color from his remains. When his stepfather, a man named Juan Alvirez, called from Colorado, we finally found out why this young man had preferred to be called Juan: his stepfather had raised him since the age of 10, but insisted that the boy keep his real father’s surname.
We hauled big pieces of granite to each gravesite and put them in place so nothing tried to dig up either man. One of the ranch hands, a stone-cutter in the off-season, brought his tools and polished a face into each stone and engraved their names and dates into the stones:
Arlo Winfield McKean, 2079-2129. Father, husband, hunter.
James Juan Kaminsky. 2107-2129. Son of Colorado.
The Aguilleras offered Arlo’s widow, Junetta, one of the cabins on the property, to have for her own, to live there as long as she wanted. Her daughter, however, had gone off to school in California, and she decided to join her there.
Hickock Solo Bird left the ranch for a while. We had all done our best to make sure he understood that no one blamed him for anything that had gone wrong. He had more than done his job.
Just before the end of the season, as the snow started to fly, Hickock came back to the ranch. He said he wanted to spend the winter. He said he had gone to stay with his family for a while, back in Montana, but said that he wanted to do more with the ranch. The Aguilleras welcomed him. Everyone did.
On Christmas Eve, he told a group of us what he really thought:
“I have to say it was real, the creature that I saw, because it gave off so much energy. It protected me on purpose. I think it is some kind of very old animal, something that because of the way nature made it, it can survive for many hundreds of years. It must have a mate, and they are the only two in the world.”
We told him about the tracks we had found, and Hickock nodded. “I knew it must have left tracks,” he said, “and I knew you must have found them.”
Even these days, a Minnesota winter can halt just about everything. January and February are intense encapsulations of cold and snow, as if all of winter must happen in eight weeks. Blizzards will bump front-end to back.
The season-ending wave of hoopla and global speculation kept the Beaufinn lingering at the edges of our minds as the snow drifted. We felt keenly the loss of Arlo and Juan, and resented the subtle and blatant suggestions that they had been killed by a monster that the ranch had developed secretly in a lab on purpose. Boulon, on this count, was a big help, as he continued to appear on talk shows in England, France, Germany, Norway, and Russia — his behavior jaunty but his manner of speaking serious — and told the story of the fateful hunt with great accuracy. Having learned what Hickock told the investigators, Boulon, too, claimed that the Beaufinn had saved him and his bodyguard from sure death, although whether the beast did this intentionally, and if entirely out of territoriality, no one could ever know.
Everyone on the ranch, however, was afraid that come spring, a new wave of investigators would show up and demand to see every damn genii — every big beast spawned by science, and also demand to see all our evidence supporting our federal grants for native-species support. Someone claiming to be from the Northern Mid-West Ornithological Police called the main office demanding to be allowed onto the property in spring to perform an American goldfinch count. Someone else who said she operated a business called Genetic Freedom Farm, in Vermont, called to say she was going to sue to take possession of all our mega-fauna.
Winter kept these people at bay, at least in physical form. Calls, electronic messages, media beam, and holographic beams popped up continually, although the heavy snow pretty much fuzzed out the holographs.
Business, however, hit a boom. The Aguilleras has lots of friends who loved to hunt, and the minute they thought we might be in trouble, they booked. Their friends called to book, too. People who had never hunted genetic big game before called to book a hunt.
The second we had 50-percent movement of at least two mega-fauna species, the spring season would begin. The morning of St. Patrick’s Day, 2130, the read-out for a trail camera in the deepest part of the forest showed the wide face of a cave bear staring right into the lens. The mastodons stay active in winter, and then they begin moving all around looking for new browse, realigning their of territories.
The new chief guide, Maxwell Gibbs, rewrote the rules for various hunts, and recruited two new guides early in the New Year. He drilled everyone, even the Aguilleras, on his review of Boulon’s rhaco hunt of the year before, and created new tactics for the birds and the cats. Gibbs’ main rule was simple: No hunting in the swamp, ever.
The new season began very well, even though SiVent Technology could not supply any new animals, as they had come under federal investigation, and the feds had suspended SiVent’s genetic production lines. Cops on highways in Nevada and Idaho halted trucks headed east, loaded with tranquilized bears, mastodons, and giant deer. At the ranch we figured we had enough of a population of birds and beasts that even if every hunter was successful in that new season we had enough mega-fauna for two seasons. None of us suspected that the shutdown of all genetic production would come so soon, especially when the President’s daughters hunted the property that year and both took a giant deer and a cat.
That hunt, which happened Memorial Day weekend, was like a grand safari from way, way back. Those two gals, Melinda and Corrina, with their husbands and their kids and their friends, almost took over the place. The woods were crawling with Secret Service guys in the most incredible camo suits you ever couldn’t see. They flew over in heli-jets, scanning everything with micro-sonar, which they say can record the swirls in the skin on the tips of your fingers from 20,000 feet. The hunt, however, was pure fair chase — neither woman had any device on her person save her rifle and a knife.
We sent out our own water patrol on Lake of the Woods for that hunt, one of our new guides, Kenny Grantz, driving a jet boat and out-numbered by Secret Service wave-runners. Kenny stayed out on the lake past dusk, on the last day of the hunt. We knew he was looking for wolves. So many people had been in the forest for several days that indigenous fauna tended to pull back. Now that every living thing knew that all was clear, the whitetails and black bear and timber wolves came creeping out — and these were the toughest, wiliest deer, bears, and wolves in ten thousand miles, because they still competed among themselves and stayed two steps ahead of the rhacos and sword-toothed cats.
Kenny finally showed up at the campfire after the huge party had left. The night was one of those cool, very dark late spring nights, and everyone was exhausted and lying on blankets on the ground around the fire. So much great food and wine was left behind after the First Daughters departed that no one knew what to eat or drink first.
Somebody finally noticed Kenny, and said, “We thought they’d taken you back to D.C. as a boy toy.” Kenny, young and handsome, already had a following of lady hunters from the first ranch where he had worked in New Mexico. He would eventually marry money.
Kenny didn’t say anything, and didn’t look at anyone. “We’re kidding, Kenny,” we said. “Eat something.”
He slowly noticed us, his eyes dazzled in the firelight. “You can’t find fault with me when I tell you that I did not reach for my rifle,” he said.
Gibbs studied his new hire, and said, “Say something more detailed, please.”
“No one’s lying about that thing, the Beaufinn. It’s out there,” Kenny said.
Hickock sat up against a gravity of red wine. He looked at Kenny. Nobody spoke for a moment.
Kenny began nodding, and an odd, crooked smile spread across his face, boyish but crazed. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “I couldn’t tell you what it is, but it is what it is, whatever it is. I do not think it came from any lab, I’ll say that.”
“What happened?” Gibbs said.
Kenny looked around, taking note of who was present, making sure any clients were long gone. He wiped his face with a bandanna. “I was at the far border of the property, and I had driven the boat up to the shoreline. I wanted to see if I heard any of the wolves. That’s where we heard them calling last, up that end at the border.
“I was just drifting,” he continued, “sitting behind the wheel. It was dark but not so dark you couldn’t make out shapes, you know? I was looking up at the stars, listening, when I heard something exhale, giving a big grunt like livestock of some kind. I thought maybe a moose had come down to the water. I didn’t move or jump, but I started watching the shoreline.
“I couldn’t make out anything at first. Just dark blotches, but I was really looking right at this thing. I looked and looked, and I thought I saw the shape of something. I clicked on the front spotlight, the red one.”
Kenny shook his head. “Up on the shore, sitting there, was the Beaufinn. It was like a sea lion, and a giant deer, and something else, all rolled into one. I know it was there because its eyes reflected the spotlight, and I could even see the parts of its eyes in the reflection. I was only maybe twenty meters away.”
Hickock said, “Did it give off any glow, or light?”
“Not at first,” Kenny said. “It made that whooshing sound again, louder, and it made a kind of call, and then it heaved off the shore and went straight into the lake. I saw its antlers cut right into the water. A high, wide rack like the biggest stag you ever saw.”
“Did it have arms, too?” Gibbs said.
“Yes. Very big arms. I don’t think I saw hind legs. It had a big tail, a fish’s tail, not a porpoise’s tail, you know, horizontal. Its tail was vertical.”
“What did it do?” Gibbs said.
“It swam right under the boat,” Kenny said, astonished.
For a while, we sat and listened to the crackle of the fire, and the calls of the pickerel frogs. Those of us who continued to try to eat paused again and again, stuffed with Kenny’s words.
Kenny finally lay back on the grass, his head resting in his wide-brimmed hat. He still smiled.
Gibbs appeared less amused. He said nothing. He had refused to comment on talk of the “monster” since he had arisen to the post of chief guide. He had too many responsibilities to have to consider something so anomalous.
“Do you think this thing is dangerous?” Kenny said to Hickock.
Hickock rocked his head from side to side. “Yeah, it could be, like anything you shouldn’t mess with,” he said, his voice tired. He had been body guarding and guiding for five days straight. “Did it make any light?”
Kenny nodded, still on his back. “When it passed under the boat, the water glowed around it, kinda of a dull golden color. My eyes were messed up by the red spotlight, so I didn’t see the right shade, but that’s close. I could see the glow move away across the surface of the lake. I guess this animal is electric, or can do that thing like striped marlin do, when they light up, huh?”
Hickock nodded. “It’s probably some long evolutionary adaptation so one animal can locate another.”
“You think there’s more than one?” Kenny said, rolling onto his elbow.
“No,” Gibbs said, “let’s just figure there’s the one, and leave it at that.”
The intended interpretation of Gibbs’ words was also clear: Let’s not discuss this openly, either.
The ranch lawyer, Tom, however did say to me several days later, “Are we missing a marketing opportunity here?”
He said that to the Aguilleras, too, but they didn’t take him up on that. Enigma is more powerful than a gift shop full of vinyl figurines.
Those few people who, over the next twenty-some years, did come forward to say they saw the Beaufinn faced the believers and the detractors. They maybe just wanted to add their version to the body of tales that collected around Lake of the Woods. You could always tell, though, who was making it up, and who had really seen what they had seen, because the truth-tellers spoke of details that only a real animal could show.
* * *
Requests continually came in to the ranch main office. Hollywood producers wanted to film monster movies on the ranch, and offered some serious cash that the Aguilleras turned down. Religious requests were another matter. An anti-Satanic Catholic group from Montreal asked to perform an exorcism of the lake itself, using the ranch land for access. We told them they could do whatever they wanted in the Crown Land on the Canadian side.
Then a Native group, representing a collection of Ojibwa and Chippewa, Sioux, and Cree descendants, asked if they could hold a ceremony in Muskeg Bay near where Boulon had first seen the Beaufinn. The Lake of the Woods was public water, but the group needed to launch from the ranch land. According to the deed the Aguilleras held from the government, any Native American request to enter the ranch land for a lawful purpose had to be granted, but everyone in the state knew the Aguilleras would open the gate for anybody with ancestry back to the days before the Mayflower.
A crew from the ranch watched from a boat as the group, named the People of the Spirit of the Lake, hauled a floating platform to the mouth of the river that flowed through the swamp. The river had formed over the past hundred years from a creek, and had no name, so we simply named it the Willow River when the People of the Spirit of the Lake asked us.
The people anchored the platform, and then their entire party gathered around in kayaks, long lake canoes, and rowboats, under a bright September evening sun, and a shaman, dressed in what appeared in our binoculars to be mostly Ojibwa ceremonial garb, began an incantation as he sat in the middle of the floating platform. The ceremony went on for hours, into the dark, and included offerings of seeds, grains, coins, tobacco, fish, and wine. In the night, the people lit candles and lanterns, and put these on the seats and hulls of their watercraft so they made constellations of yellow dots on the night-dark brown color of the lake. Their singing went on for a long, long time.
Busy as we were that year, we didn’t think about the Beaufinn much ourselves, but when we did, we wondered, mainly, “What did it eat?” and “How dangerous was it?” The fact that a few people had come close to it without any trouble possibly answered the second question, at least incidentally. Any big animal is dangerous because of its sheer size and weight — ask a herdsman who has been bumped by a frightened dairy cow.
The answer to the first question came late in the fall the season that Kenny saw the beast on the lakeshore. A local woman from Warroad, the remnant of that old town right on the lake, came to one of our party nights, and she told us that while she had been kayaking along the northwest edge of the Lake, she had seen a cow moose swimming from an island at Buffalo Point toward the mainland when the poor moose gave out a loud cry and then disappeared beneath the surface. This woman was well known to us. She ran a small vegetable farm and supplied the ranch. Her asparagus had won awards. So we believed her.
Before the close of that season, however, we saw for ourselves what the Beaufinn was made of. Paleontologists tell us that even the great theropods were scavengers. The Beaufinn, too, was not above stealing a big meal from the competition.
Gibbs, Hickock, a client named Hassan al Gazar, and myself found the remains of a carcass of one of the biggest mastodons we had on the property. The mostly denuded skeleton and great folds of pelt lay on the bank of the swamp river, just south of the border of the swamp. Twenty meters away lay the body of a cave bear, swarmed with flies but intact, and obviously brutalized.
The tracks in the mud spelled out a loose story: Something had killed the mastodon, probably a pair of sword-tooths, as we saw their tracks everywhere. A cave bear heard the commotion of the kill, or, more likely, smelled the blood, and took over the kill, shoving aside the cats. The sword-tooths waited in the trees while the bear took what he wanted.
Then the Beaufinn showed up — it must have come rising straight out of the river. We saw where its body had moved along the riverbank, and where its great paws had dug in. It battled the bear for the mastodon carcass, and it won, a feat that momentarily struck us dumb.
Gibbs carefully looked over the body of the bear, a good nine-footer, and shook his head as he swatted away the green flies. “Look at that,” he said, pointing.
The cave bear had a long, bloody bite mark across the base of its skull, and a torn, blackened patch on either shoulders. “Those are burn marks,” Hickock said.
“Yes, they are. The bear’s neck is broken, too,” Gibbs said.
We didn’t linger. al Gazar was a good but demanding client, and we had just ten hours left to find him a giant deer before the season officially closed. When we finally did, however, and then went back to the lodge for a meal of fresh giant-deer brisket, Gibbs gave specific instructions to two of his guides: “Go get hair samples off that dead bear, and bring back the femur of that mastodon. I don’t care if it’s dark — go, before some other animals mess up those carcasses.”
Gibbs convinced the Aguilleras to spend the money to ship that big femur bone, and the bear hairs, to a laboratory in Iowa City. We didn’t get the results of the lab tests until nearly the end of the year, but they were very interesting. Three different animals had chewed on the mastodon’s femur: the cats, the bear, and something with “sharp-pointed teeth similar to but larger than those of a hyena, with distinct, sizable upper and lower canines,” or so said the report. As for the cave bear’s fur, it had been burned with a charge of roughly 1,200 volts, or so said the researchers who were paid a good deal of money.
“We don’t need a shaman, we need a zoologist,” Gibbs said, reading the report.
A few actual scientists did visit the ranch over the next few years, one from the Field Museum, in Chicago, and another from the University of Scotland. The poked around in the swamp, and took detailed sonar readings of the Lake, but they didn’t find anything. We had photographs of the Beaufinn’s tracks, but we didn’t mention that we did.
The Beaufinn festivals continued all around northern Minnesota. Sculptures of the creature were made in ice, marble, and bronze. Even after all hunting came to a complete end on the ranch, when genetic production of extinct species was outlawed nationally, sightings continued here and there, as the Aguilleras swiftly converted from a hunting concern to a nature-tour and camping preserve in 2035.
By then, Roberto Aquillera Jr. was nearly 90. He had started the ranch with his father when he was 21, and was tired. His son, George, and George’s wife, Danielle Aguilleras, stood to inherit everything. They had learned a great deal about running the place, and knew that even if hunting could have continued, the insurance costs would slowly destroy what profit margins were left. A conversion to a non-shooting operation — hunting to look and photograph only — was the obvious move. George and Danielle had three children, and the youngest, Carter, who was 30 then, would become manager.
Some of the guides stayed for work of another kind — for kayaking, camping, bird- and animal-watching, and the outdoors-adventure school. Some others went overseas to work mega-fauna preserves in countries where genetic recreation of such beasts is still legal. In 2027, Uzbekistan began stocking woolly mammoths made in China. Various northern Norwegian towns built entire economies around hunting seasons for dire wolves created from skeletons found in New Mexico. Polish bluebloods hunt aurochs.
It was a sad autumn, however, when we had to track down and shoot what was left of the mega-fauna stock on the ranch, the last of the great genii in the Midwest. That was when I saw the Beaufinn.
We had found and shot all the mastodons and giant deer by late October, so the bears and cats were riled and hunting hard for things to eat. We then located and shot a lot of the predators. We had to tag them with a transmitter that sent a signal to a federal regulatory body in Chicago that recorded the death of each animal. By law, we had to leave them where they fell.
Hickock Solo Bird and I took a jet boat up the swamp river, going slow through the little lakes and thick marshes, trying to spy tracks on the shore, or see a rhaco or cave bear. We had grown sick of the work. Hunting was hunting. This verged on slaughter. We had two weeks left to record the deaths of every individual mega fauna on the ranch manifest, or else we would be fined heavily, every day, per animal.
Hickock had grown sullen. So had I. We were both going to leave the ranch. Better things awaited us, but we did not know that then.
The flat-bottomed jet boats moved with hardly any sound, using those little hyper-electric engines. Hickock and I glided through groves of cedar and laurel, the sky overcast, but bright with cloud light. We drifted into an area of huge old trees, from years before, that had died in the too-wet soil as the swamp had expanded. Laurel had filled in all around them.
The day was darkening. I expected we would drift within sight of the lake by full dark, and then motor around to the launch point and Gibbs or someone would pick us up in a buggy. I thought I should, in fact, radio my plans to Gibbs, when I heard Hickock tense up, sucking his breath.
I looked around expecting to see a bear, but I didn’t see anything moving. We were drifting past the mouth of a large slough, just to our left, and when I looked into the space there I saw a great form tucked in amid the dead trees, not one hundred feet away.
Hickock muttered, “Don’t do anything.”
At the time I could do nothing but stare at the animal. What arrested me so were the Beaufinn’s large eyes that were each a dark but translucent orb that pulled in all light. I was then amazed and frightened to recognize a thick stag head and neck of short, dark fur atop a wide, muscled panther chest, the beast’s massive forelimbs stretched outward. The high crown of antlers, much like that of a red stag, were a rich chestnut with lighter tips of the tines.
I was not able to see all of the Beaufinn because of the brush, but I did see that its main body was seal-like, with mottled, faint o-shaped spots on skin that was lighter brown than its chest. Behind it rose the upper section of a great, pike-like caudal fin.
Its stare delivered a sensation like static electricity on the chest and neck. I saw its head move slightly as it watched us go past, as we drifted on the slow current. It sat regally, silently, a huge force in repose.
Hickock had sat down on his backside, holding his old rifle across himself. After we had drifted out of sight of the creature, I asked him if he was all right.
“I get the feeling it recognized me,” he said.
“Maybe,” I said.
“I felt it was asking me, How many times are you going to see me?”
“You’re making that up.”
“No I’m not. You felt its energy, too, didn’t you?”
I had to admit to myself that I had.
When we reached the river mouth at the lake, and evening was doused more and more heavily in autumn night, Hickock and I looked back into the swamp. We saw a light in there, something like a dim bulb of gold. We saw it move, and waited to see if it came close. It seemed to come closer, but then Hickock and I both agreed we were in the Beaufinn’s territory and should not linger, mostly out of respect, slightly out of fear.
I throttled up the jet boat, and we shot over the water toward the rendezvous point. For a moment, I felt like running the boat clear across to the Canadian side and hide out on Big Island, and staying there until all the shooting was done on the ranch.
Back at the lodge that night, Hickock had said to me, “So, now you know for sure? What do you think it is?”
I don’t remember what I told him. In the years since, however, I have thought about it a lot.
Surely, there had to be more than one. How many Beaufinn inhabited the Lake of the Woods, who knew? Why did we start seeing them when we did, no one could say. Maybe climate changes drove them from some other place, making the species move north, or south. Maybe they had been dormant, or even embryonic, for millennia before something awakened them.
Whatever the species, it is very old. Somehow, nature brought together a variety of traits into one animal, maybe at a time when evolution was jumping ahead in small but rapid motions. A species adapted and changed radically in a short time, and became something that above all had the abilities to survive for a long time in a variety of circumstances and habitat. The Beaufinn lived in the water, and it lived on land. It was a predator, and it scavenged. It was electric, and knowingly used its electric power. Hickock might have been right that Beaufinn used their electricity to communicate with each other, or, as the first one had with the cats, to create a shield of invisible protection.
Maybe at one time many of them had lived in the waters and woods of the lake, from a time when no stories survived, only the beast did. Even now, so many years later after Arlo McKean and Juan Kaminsky died, and years after Elmo Boulon died, people talk about that first sighting. When the thought occurs to me, I check the news to see if anyone else camping or kayaking has seen the Beaufinn.
I wrote to Hickock, down at his place in the San Juan Mountains, where he had retired after years working in urban reclamation and renewal projects. He wrote me back, saying:
“What I saw has grown mystical in my mind, now that I’m old, so that sometimes the beast seems to be something of stories from very far in the past, when people made monsters in their heads only. It is real, though, and its kind will out-live you and me.”