He carried the carbine at the ready. He hadn't jerked a shell into the chamber, but the pressed-steel magazine was locked in place and held a dozen .22 longs.
We were on rocky ground when we crossed into Los Padres National Forest at our fenceline. Then we moved up a steep pitch of about half a mile which led to a fairly level bench crowded with lupine, wild onion and ryegrass. We were heading for an abandoned homestead that sustains a large variety of wildlife with its two blue-clay springs. The ruins of the lonely split-board cabin molder in a stand of redwoods near a large grove of ancient live oaks.
Ground squirrels were chattering in the oak grove as we approached the homestead. In the fall there would be tons of acorns falling and the wild boar, jays and squirrels would work together in the harvest. Just to the south of the fallen-down cabin there is a rich old shell mound, an Indian midden. The Indians brought shellfish up here to their camp when they too harvested the acorns from this same grove a thousand years ago. I have often tried to imagine how it must have been in those days before the robed padres arrived ringing their little bells. To lie in the tawny shade, observing all the nuances I'll never see, smelling with a sense sharper than I was born with, souled with a spirit so ineffably natural that it passed gently through time like the breeze of this morning.
When I saw pig tracks on the path, Babe was ahead, listening to the squirrels. I touched his arm. He paused, poised and silent. We studied the sign. Three pigs, one big enough to be considered good-sized.
Fresh pig urine stank like spilled battery acid. The boars were close, and I had not brought a big rifle. We were out of the trees, moving across an open hillside. A sailing red-tailed hawk screamed his hunting cry. Babe made a slight sign at a shadow in the apple orchard below us.
It was a mature, 200-pound black boar sprawled on his belly. He could be sleeping or he could be crouched for immediate takeoff. Beside him were two smaller pigs. One was nosing through the old apple compost and the other was scratching his ear with a hind leg. We were downwind, but we did not blend with the bare hillside behind us.
Babe looked at me and hefted the carbine suggestively. If he could put a bullet in that huge animal's eye, we'd have bacon. I shrugged my shoulders, leaving the decision up to him.
The boar's long head snapped up a fraction after he heard the click of the bolt. He couldn't make us out. We had not moved a hair until Babe very slowly eased the little piece up to his shoulder and sighted carefully. The boar was black in a black shadow. Babe waited another long moment, hoping the boar might lift his head into better light to show the glint of eye or shine of tusk. Another second and the boar would blast off and be gone. The other two pigs were already warily backing off. The boar was slowly coming to his feet, taking a bead on us.
Babe squeezed the trigger and the tiny splat of the bullet was hardly louder than a bluejay squawk.
The boar erupted out of his cool shadows, screaming with rage and pain as the bullet grazed his nose. He barreled up the hill toward us.