Jack EwingNature and Local History Stories

CHEPE – Becoming One with Nature

El TigreFiction by Jack Ewing

At the edge of the trail a single paw print was outlined clearly in a small patch of moist earth. “El Tigre,” uttered Gómez. His burly hand wouldn’t cover the track, even with outstretched fingers.

“I told you before, it isn’t a tigre, it’s a jaguar. If you want to be a Costa Rican Park Ranger, you can’t talk like a country hick.” Ramírez turned away.

Gómez started to answer, thought better and closed his mouth.

“Let’s go. Old Chepe went this way. See the scuff mark from his walking stick.” Ramírez moved out.

At midmorning the two stopped for a breather. Ramírez sat on a fallen log, removed his sweat-soaked head band and wiped his face. Gómez settled his chunky frame onto the forest floor and looked up at his boss.

“Why do you think old Chepe came in here, all crippled up with rheumatism like he is. He gone crazy or something?”

Ramírez pondered momentarily. “No, not crazy, but Chepe hasn’t been right since Doña Marta died last rainy season. His kids are all gone except for Rosa. Maybe he just had a hankering to go back to the jungle. It’s where he lived most of his life.”

“Maybe so boss, but Chepe can’t hardly git around even with his stick. We been following them scuffs marks for goin on two hours. How long did it take him to git this far?”

“That López kid said he saw Chepe walking into the reserve late yesterday. He’s got a big head start, and we’ve rested long enough. Let’s get going.”
Hacienda Baru

It was early afternoon when they found Chepe’s hat and shirt lying right in the middle of the trail. The two rangers scoured the area for signs of the old man.

“Hey, Gómez,” called the head ranger. “Have a look at this.” Ramírez pointed to a moist depression in the ground filled with cloven hoofed tracks.

“Smells like pigs,” Gómez wrinkled his nose. “I found another big cat track over there. I guess he’s fixin to kill a pig for dinner.”

“Damn it anyhow Gómez. How many times do I have to tell you? They aren’t pigs. Call them by their right name, ‘peccary’. Jeez!”

They continued their search until the late afternoon shadows had painted dark blotches on the forest floor. The two rangers still hadn’t found any sign of Chepe. “Hey, Gómez, let’s go,” called Ramírez. “There isn’t much more we can do here. It’ll be dark before you know it, and we don’t have a flashlight.”

Back at the ranger station, Ramírez wrote up the report. “No sign of Chepe Espinoza”, it read. “Fresh jaguar and white-lipped peccary sign were apparent near the location where his shirt and hat were found, but there is no evidence to indicate that he fell victim to these animals.”

Closing the log book, the head ranger looked over at Gómez. “Put Chepe’s stuff in a plastic bag. I’m gonna take it to Rosa.”

Gómez quickly slipped a black plastic object into his day pack.

“Hey, what’s that in your hand?”

“It ain’t nuthin boss, just somethin I found.”

“What do you mean it ‘ain’t nuthin’. I want to see it. Hand it over.”

Hesitating, Gómez looked at the floor. Ramírez waited. Gómez shrugged and retrieved a small digital tape recorder from his green canvas pack. He handed it to the head ranger.

“Where’d you get this?” demanded Ramírez.

“Like I said, I found it. It’s mine now.”

“Found it where? You didn’t have it when we left this morning. You haven’t been anywhere except with me in the jungle looking for Chepe. Where?” Ramírez waited.

Gómez sighed. “I found it a little ways off the trail when we was beatin the bushes lookin for Chepe. But it ain’t Chepe’s. What would a poor old peasant like him be doing with a thing like that?”

Ramírez pursed his lips and looked at the young ranger. “I’ll tell you what Gómez. I’m going to do you a favor. I’m not going to report you for withholding evidence.” He put the recorder in his pocket, grabbed the plastic bag with Chepe’s belongings and left.

Rosa Espinoza taught at the local school. She lived with her father in a humble dwelling, not far from the ranger station.  When ranger Ramírez arrived, she greeted him with wistful eyes, searching his face for some sign of hope.

“I’m sorry Rosa. We didn’t find your father.” He went on to tell her about their investigation.

“So what does it all mean? Is there any chance that Papa is still alive?”

“I don’t know Rosa, but it doesn’t look good.” He paused a minute and then pulled out the recorder. “Rosa, have you ever seen this?”

“Did you find this with his other things?” Her reaction was immediate. “It belonged to Papa. My sister Núria gave it to him. She married a Gringo and moved to California. Papa can’t read, but Núria emails him recordings. He listens to her, then records his own voice. I handle the email between Nuría and Papa.”

Ramírez handed her the recorder. “You feel up to listening?”

Rosa nodded solemnly. The batteries were dead, so she changed them, navigated to the beginning of the recording and pushed the “play” button. After some clicking and shuffling sounds, the muffled but audible voice of Rosa’s father emanated from the speaker. “I’m José  Espinoza. They call me ‘Chepe.’ If you find this recorder give it to Rosa, my daughter. Uh…it’s okay…Rosa and uh….everyone…I’m okay. This is what I want. I’ve thought about it a lot……I mean…..It’s cuz I’m an old man, not much use any more. I watched my father die. Really bad….months of suffering…helpless. No dignity at all. That ain’t no way to die.”

There was a pause and some clicks as if the recorder had been shut off. Then Chepe’s voice returned. “To go with dignity; that’s what I want. Every step hurts, but it takes me deeper into the jungle, where I need to be. I can’t wait no more…..gotta do it now while I can still walk. El Tigre is waiting. I told him I’m coming.”

The tape went nearly silent for a few minutes. Tears welled up in Rosa’s eyes.

“I’m ready for El Tigre. I hear him. He ain’t far off. Oh God….please….give me courage.”

The narration was broken by a big cat’s snarl.

“There…..ooogawd……you’re there!” Chepe’s voice trembled. “So big…..so beautiful in the…..moonlight…all that raw power. Soon I’ll be part of you….part of the jungle.  Wait…just a minute….gotta git ready.”

There was a long pause with only Chepe’s breathing audible.

“There….I took my shirt off. See…..bare flesh. You’re lookin at me. Uh oh….is it time? I know that look….ooh gawd…your tail is waggin…… Tigre. Hurry..please..I….don’t wanna hurt. Oh my gawd, no, no.”

Chepe’s voice was interrupted by a dull blow, possibly from the recorder hitting the ground. Snarls and scuffling were audible in the background.

“Oh God!” sobbed Rosa. She shut off the recorder. “Doesn’t a jaguar wag its tail just before attacking?”

Ramírez couldn’t meet her eyes, but nodded his head. He reached over and patted her arm. “It’s okay Rosa. If you like, I can take the recorder and listen to the rest. You don’t have to suffer through this.”

She considered momentarily, then handed it to him and turned her head away, Kleenex to her face.

Ramírez stopped at an isolated bench on the way back to the ranger station. He switched the recorder to “play” again. More scuffling came from the speaker, then Chepe’s voice.

“What’s that smell? No, no tigre….don’t go. Oh God no, not the pigs. No please don’t go after the pigs, not the damn pigs, you can have me.” His voice trailed off into the distance. The recording continued for twenty minutes with nocturnal jungle sounds. At the end, it shut off automatically.

Early the next morning, Ramírez returned alone to the place where they had found Chepe’s things. This time he followed the peccary sign away from the main trail and into the jungle. Before long he came to a steep sided ravine where the peccaries had veered sharply to the right. Continuing on their trail he found a place where the ground was a mess of jaguar and peccary prints. The foliage had been spattered with blood and coarse peccary hair. Back tracking, he discovered one of Chepe’s rubber boots wedged between two roots at the very edge of the ravine. Ramérez held tightly to a tree, leaned out and peered into the gorge. He couldn’t see the bottom, but part way down Chepe’s walking stick was tangled in some roots. A pair of large black and white king vultures circled, gliding on the thermals, bouncing in the turbulence, each pass taking them deeper into the chasm. A cold shiver of realization fluttered down his spine.

Ramírez deleted the last part of the recording and returned it, along with the recorder, to Rosa. “Your father got his wish,” he said sadly. “He’s become part of the jungle.”

Author’s Note: Nature works in strange ways, and we never now for sure what the future will bring. But one thing is certain, sooner or later every living thing becomes food for other living things.