“Ronald?” Sam inquired.
“Yeah, good evening. You two Sam and Danny? Come in, come in.” Ronald ushered us in with a smile on his face. He was just a bit taller than me. His grey hair appeared cleanly trimmed and spiked, as if styled. Blue eyes looked out from his distinguished face, aged from years in the sun. What looked like possible melanoma spotted the end of his rounded nose. His ears sagged a little from each side of his tanned face. A white t-shirt pulled tightly around his stomach was tucked into denim jeans. White socks covered his feet.
“Yes, it’s us.” Sam replied as I stepped up to the porch.
“Hello.” I said as we we entered his dimly lit house.
A bottle of table wine stood half full on the coffee table. A foot away an empty jar perched on a coaster, leggy red streaks down its sides. Ronald went to turn off the TV, but muted the sound instead.
“So, you’re gonna survey for Willow Flycatchers tomorrow? That’s just great. I love those little birds.” He ambled back to his seat on the couch.
“That’s the plan. We’re gonna survey the habitat that runs along the north end of the ranch. We plan to start around 5 AM.” Sam yawned.
“If you find any, it’d be great for getting more funding for habitat restoration projects here at the ranch.” Ronald belied his appearance as someone who may know very little of wildlife. In fact, he was quite the natural historian. “We have lots of good birds out here. White-winged doves, Ash-throated Flycatchers, Verdins, Phainopepla, Tri-Colored Blackbirds.” He began to pour another glass of wine. “I am hoping to begin more projects this summer, if we can get the funding.”
“Do you want to join us in the morning?” I inquired as Sam hinted at the door with tired eyes.
“Maybe, I have some things to do around here. I’ll be around all morning though, you can come and find me.”
“You two want to stay in the bunkhouse?” Ronald offered.
“That would be great.” we replied together, “We were thinking of sleeping out on the ground, but it is pretty windy outside.” Sam yawned.
“Well, it’s just behind the house here, toward the river. You’ll need the key. Let me go and find it.” Ronald shuffled off into the back of the house, and returned a minute later.
“Ah hell, I dunno where the key is. One of the groundskeepers probably misplaced it. Let me keep looking… You may just want to go see if the door is already unlocked.” He wandered into the back of the house again.
The front door was locked; Sam started around the house to find another entry, mumbling about needing sleep. I inspected the windows surrounding the front door. The rambler style house was in a state of deterioration that, had it been in a properly regulated 20th century city, it would have most definitely been condemned. A torn screen covered one of the windows; I pulled up on the base of the window. A night lizard scurried along the base of the wall and into a crack in the concrete. I kept pulling on the window as it inched up slowly until I was able to climb through. Halfway in and working my hips through, I heard foot steps through the back of the house.
“Sam, is that you.” I was still hanging halfway through the window.
“Hey. I found an open door in the back.” Sam’s headlamp began illuminating the front room I was attempting to enter.
“Sweet.” I squirmed my way back out of the window.
The inside of the house was hot and musty. Faded papers on a bulletin board in the hallway warned of hauntavirus. Toward the back of the house, I found a dusty old television in a room filled with leather furniture, tables, desks, and piles of old National Geographic magazines. Everything with a healthy coating of grime. I flicked on the TV just to see what happened. An eerie red glow radiated from the screen, reflecting off dust floating in the stagnant air of the room.
I looked inside one of the bedrooms. What looked like paisley printed quilts sagged over mattresses. I checked for comfort. With my weight, a plume of moth wings lifted into the stale air and floated gently to the floor. I stepped back outside.
“I guess I will sleep out here tonight after all. Pretty stuffy feeling in there.” I found Sam already rolling out his bed on the front porch.
“Yeah, the wind has calmed some. It shouldn’t be too bad on the porch here tonight.” Sam was crawling into his bed.
“I found a dead mouse decomposing in the kitchen garbage. I’ll just boil coffee water on my stove here on the porch.” I found my camp chair and cooler.
“I saw a dead lizard on the back porch earlier. You gonna use the restroom?” Sam redirected.
“Maybe. If I need to take a shit.” I sat down and opened a beer. I hadn’t eaten much and wasn’t hungry. But a beer sounded about right so I leaned back and sipped from the frosty can of ale.
I couldn’t see the sky from under the porch so I moved my seat out into the open and resumed my nightcap under the twinkling summer stars. A small satellite slowly tracked across the sky as I enjoyed the darkness of the sky. Another swig of beer from the can, its coldness welcomed as it washed down my throat. I admired the brightness of the Milky Way. Bright, at least, until it sank into the west and was washed out by the glowing bubble of L.A. As I tipped the last bit of beer into my mouth, I started to wonder if Ronald ever found the key. Light was still coming from the front room of his little house. I thought I should go tell him we were settled.
Gravel and sand crunched under my feet as I crossed the property back to his house. The low rumbling still emanated from behind the house. I stepped up to the front door. It was open.
“Ronald.” I shouted into the house. “We got in the house.” I didn’t hear a reply.
I stepped into the front room. The TV was still on. Commercials. The walls had framed photos of birds and other wildlife. Above a small desk along the opposite hung a picture of a man kneeling on the ground above a dead elk. Its tongue hanging limply out of its mouth.
“Weird sport…Kinda morbid really. Hell, I eat meat, though. I don’t hunt, but I eat meat. I guess… I don’t think hunting is bad. It’s just weird we glorify it. If this guy killed a human, he’d be sent to prison or killed. But here he squats triumphantly over another earthly being he just killed and smiles. It just seems a little irreverent.” I was thinking all this through and staring at the wall.
“Hey, enjoying the photos?” Ronald had come back into the front room.
I smiled back.
“Yeah, the department owns this house. They’ve decorated it all up.” Apathetically, he threw his arms up as he settled back to his seat.
“Hey, ehrr.” We got into the house. No need for the key.”
“Oh, great.” I never could find the damn thing. The other caretaker comes here and always misplaces things around the house. I’ll have to talk to him and figure out where the key went. ” He glanced over at me. “Is it going to work for you? You need anything?”
“Yeah, it’s fine,” I lied. “I am going to go back and get some sleep.”
“Great, plenty of people stay there off and on, so you should have everything you need.”
I turned toward the door. “We will come find you in the morning, after we finish the survey.”
Bullfrogs still croaked as I navigated the darkness back to the bunkhouse. I made my bed on the front porch and faded to sleep.
The first thing I heard was the dawn song of a Western Kingbird. As I sat up in my sleeping bag blinking my eyes, I put on my glasses and looked around – all of the night’s secrets lay exposed. From the little concrete floor of the porch, I saw across the gravel parking area an irrigated corn field – preparations for the coming dove season. Further back, beyond the field, sunflowers standing tall waved gently in the morning sunlight.
By now I was on my feet and performing my morning routine. After I finished my last stretch I walked across the parking area toward the cornfield. The low rumble still heard, I realized its source. The pump house, standing fifty feet high stood like a sentinel over the property. A splintered wooden ladder ascended its side to a flat top. Grinding away, its motor pulled fresh water from the ground below. I walked to the edge of the wetted cornfield and paused. At my feet, a single Datura plant displayed its luminous white flowers in the morning sun.