One reader’s reaction to Death of an Eagle
How can anyone write such a good story? There is a bear attack from a huge grizzly bear right away, and the main character fights that bear heroically. It was so much like I was fighting it. You can’t believe the depth of these characters and how close you get to them. You don’t want to let them go.
Bring back more of these people, Kirby Jonas!
Bless you, for writing a book I can read to my eight-year-old or loan to my mom. We’ve needed a good clean western writer since Louis L’Amour died, and now I’ve found one better!”
Death Of An Eagle was my flagship Top selling Western Book in 1999
Enjoy Chapter One
Crushed to the earth beneath the giant, grizzled paw, the green April grass shoots quickly sprang back. But the brittle blades from last autumn lay fragmented and lifeless, dwarfed in the fresh ten-inch-long depression–the track of a boar grizzly.
The Bear River Range above Bailey Creek was a remote kingdom, still capped with snow on its peaks and in its timbered shadows. And the eight hundred pound silver-back grizzly was its crowned ruler. He lumbered across the gentle, forested slope, over fallen Douglas fir and between the live ones whose tips pricked the lightly clouded sky. A chipmunk raced across the dampened trail, its tiny, striped body a flurry. The bear scarcely noticed it as he passed. His little reddish eyes concentrated on a grassy, sunlit patch in a saddle a hundred yards ahead.
Soon the bruin entered the sunny clearing. Standing with a soft, chill breeze off the snow banks playing in his matted fur, he tested the air. His nose was greeted only by the scent of Douglas fir, crushed grass, and molding duff, disturbed by his careless paws.
On the other side of the saddle, just before the shadows of the fir woods, a large log lay rotting, its belly embedded in a carpet of grass and fir needles. The bear’s eyes were feeble, as bears’ eyes are, but his nose was incredibly keen. He smelled the decaying wood, identified the gray shape as a log, and moved forward purposefully.
On top, the log was pitted and sprinkled with moss. The bear rooted into it with his nose, and it broke apart easily. Settling himself back on his hind feet, he sank the long claws of his right forefoot into the wood, and grunting, he heaved to the side. With a soft crackle, the wood came apart, and large chunks rolled down the slope and came to rest among the new grass and fallen fir cones.
With a satisfied grunt, the bear made a quick survey of the black wood ant colony and large white eggs he had uncovered. Then his long, mottled tongue went to work, picking up ants and eggs and pulling them into his black-lipped mouth. He made swift work of the meal, then reared back his great head to search for survivors. There were two ants fleeing along the side of the log toward safety, and he lowered his mouth to take them in.
Suddenly, the breeze shifted. He was poised to devour the ants when his keen nose caught something new. He whipped his head up, and his ears shot forward. He swung his shaggy head this way and that, searching the trees downslope, from where the breeze now came.
With a thrust of his forelegs, the bear came erect, his huge body standing nearly seven feet high. He watched the trees below, listened, whiffed the air currents. And then the breeze changed again, from the southwest once more. But the big bear needed only that few seconds confirmation. Turning from the rotted log without a backward glance, he started down the slope, stepping easily over the downed timber and saplings in his path.
Young Jose Olano stretched lazily and let his dark eyes cruise the surrounding land. It was spring along Bailey Creek. Days grew longer, and songbirds were returning from their retreat to the south. Meadowlarks serenaded each other from the tops of sage, and sparrows flitted about the branches and bright new leaves of quaking aspen and serviceberry. A bluebird flew past, its wingbeats carrying it along with the motion of a wave. Up, then down it sailed until it seemed it would brush the sage, then up once more. In the valley, the tiny, scattered buildings of Soda Springs dotted the sagebrush flats. There, too, spring green painted the land, and the colors of April softened the hard lines of farms and ranches that dotted the hills around the town. Jose watched these sights with the sun warming his shoulders and a gentle breeze playing in his wavy black hair.
Jose Olano’s Basque blood made his skin dark, and his eyes black like deep wells, with jet brows hanging over them. Fierceness gleamed in those eyes, yet softness surrounded them. His sharp nose overhung a proud mouth, his hair hung just past his collar, flowing loosely, like streams of hot molasses.
He dressed in the manner of the humble: a faded, gray wool shirt, baggy black pants, patched in several places, and battered leather shoes, their laces spliced repeatedly. Dirt smudged his face and hands, soiled his shirt. But out here there was no one to care about such things. Jose was sixteen years old that April–sixteen for one month now.
Over the grassy hill to his left, he could hear the tinkling of a brass bell and the occasional bleating of sheep. His sheep. Well, in a way. At least he was their guardian, for this, his first year as a watcher of the flocks. The sheep actually belonged to Ben Trombell, who lived in Soda Springs. Trombell was a wealthy man–at least as wealthy as any Jose knew. He owned sheep in Nevada, and, since one month past, in Soda Springs. He prided himself on being the first man to bring “woollies” into the area.
Ever so slightly, the wind changed, and the new grass bent about Jose’s feet. He walked over to a smooth-topped boulder and sat down, pulling a stalk of grass from between his teeth and tossing it carelessly to the earth. Reaching over the edge of the boulder, he grasped the neck of a battered guitar and lifted it onto his lap. He hadn’t checked his flock for a couple of hours, for a feeling of laziness had overcome him. But the sheep sounded content, and he wanted to hear the music. Even his own music. As pathetic as it might sound, only he and the sheep would hear. And the birds. As for them, “Sing along with me!” Jose invited exuberantly. If they didn’t wish to, they could leave.
He strummed a few discordant bars. He started to turn the ivory-colored keys to change the pitch, but then he shrugged. Who was he to say how a guitar should sound? If he didn’t like it he would just sing louder and drown it out. After all, the voice was what he wanted. Any human voice, even just his own.
He began to sing the fine songs of the old country, Euskal Herria–the Basque homeland. He thought of his mother and father, both long dead now. By this time their graves would grow tall with grass and rose bushes. What would they think if they knew where he was now, in the land of dreams? America. The Territory of Idaho. A faraway land so different from his own, yet a place with beauty at every turn. From the fir-covered mountains above him and far across the valley to the sprawling sage- and grass-covered vista and sparkling Bear River below. And last, to the rocky perch where he sat, surrounded by grass, trees, and the nodding heads of bluebells and yellow fritillary. What land. What a dream!
The vibrant chords stopped as Jose’s hands and voice stilled, and tears filled his eyes. Tears for many reasons. Tears of sadness and of joy. He missed his home in San Sebastian. He missed his parents, his sisters, his brother. But he was happy, very happy, to be here in the employ of Ben Trombell, sheep baron. To be in the middle of a world bigger than life, where opportunity waited around each turn.
But Jose’s life lacked one element that would make it perfect. He ached to learn the ways of the wild lands. Sure, he lived his life outdoors. But he didn’t want to just live there–he wanted to feel at home. He wanted to become competent as a hunter, a woodsman. Back in Guipuzcoa, his home province in Spain, there had been an old hermit who lived up in the hills, keeping to himself. Ixidro Ibarra was his name, and Jose had always wanted to meet him, to learn his ways. He had no desire to totally forsake civilization, but he wanted to have the choice. To go to the mountains when he wanted to or to stay in town with equal comfort.
There was one big problem with remembering his homeland. He couldn’t think of home without remembering the bear. He could never get past that. The bear. That huge bear with its great, humped back, and the huge white patch on its chest. It seemed to Jose like that bear was larger than a horse. And it was, to a boy of five.
He remembered finding the dead cow. He remembered standing in awe at the mass of maggots that writhed in its ribcage, making a strange rushing sound, filling the air with a gagging stench. And he remembered his first look at the bear.
The bear saw him at a distance. It had probably smelled the dead cow a lot farther away. But when it saw movement, it came toward him at a lope. And Jose, only a child, nearly froze in his tracks. But he knew he had to run. He ran and hid in the hollow log where he had hidden from Alfredo before. He hid and waited to die.
After a while, he heard footsteps nearby, then heard the bear breathing outside the log. It pushed the log around for a while, enough to scare the poor little boy nearly to death, but no more. And then all was silent. It was hours before Jose decided the bear had returned to the cow.
Jose had nightmares for years after that. And even when the nightmares faded, he still saw that bear when he thought of home. If only he could become a mountain man, he would fear no bear. He would fear nothing.
Jose began to strum the guitar again, absently. The wheels of his mind churned, and he thought of South America, where he had first traveled at the age of eleven, after leaving his homeland. There he joined his brother, Alfredo, and they thought they had found a home. But Alfredo was a wandering spirit, and the American West beckoned and beckoned. One November day found them on a ship bound for Texas. Then Texas led to Nevada, where the gracious Ben Trombell took them under his wing.
Alfredo and Jose knew nothing about sheep. The Basques who lived along the Bay of Biscay, like Jose’s family, were either merchants or fishermen or something that supported the two professions. But Alfredo and Jose couldn’t speak English well enough to get any other work, so with the flocks they stayed. Alfredo did, anyway.
Jose was the fortunate one. Trombell had felt him too young to stay out with the herders, and he took him to his Nevada home as a maid, of sorts. Sometimes a cook. An errand boy. The advantage was that from the age of eleven on Jose was forced to speak English. Few of his kind had yet come to America, and for a while, Jose felt very alone. But after a year of trying to communicate with Trombell, he could hold his own in the English tongue. After two years, he felt comfortable. He even learned to read in English, through diligent hours of work, and one day Ben Trombell told him he spoke English better than many Americans he knew. That pleased Jose immensely.
As Jose lived with Trombell, his employer constantly taught him about sheep. When they bred, when they lambed. How to castrate the young rams. What price their wool brought. The difference between a Suffolk, the black-faced Irish breed, and a Rambouillet, the big white one known for its fine wool. Jose had never seen a Suffolk. Trombell swore the Rambouillet was the only breed worth having.
Suddenly, Jose laughed as his mind went back to a time three years past. He was barely thirteen. Ben Trombell had taken him to visit Alfredo and the other herders with the flocks. Trombell had told Jose how to catch a sheep. All you must do, he said, was run after one for several minutes. Soon it would give itself up and fall to its knees to be devoured or disposed of however its captor saw fit. Jose thought of himself as a smart boy, for a thirteen-year-old. He thought Trombell was playing a joke on him, but the man acted so seriously he didn’t tell him he thought so. Still, he knew dogs that were much smaller than sheep, and he couldn’t catch them. Why would sheep be any different? After all, they had four legs, too. But he would give it a try, just to please Ben.
They got a sheep away from the flock, and Jose set out after it. The sheep dodged this way and that, trying to lose him, leading him through the brush. Suddenly, to his surprise, the sheep, now ten yards ahead of him, fell to its knees. It was so abrupt Jose didn’t have time to stop or evade it. He ran right into and over the sheep, falling onto his face in the dirt, and the sheep flipped over and landed on its side. When the sheep realized what happened, it started to struggle to its feet. But Jose jumped up and tackled it. Holding its trembling body beneath him, he gasped for air.
Jose looked up to the sound of laughter. Ben Trombell, Alfredo, and the other herders were practically doubled over at the sheep wagon, laughing hysterically. Jose’s face flushed hotly. For a moment, he felt embarrassed, as if the brunt of some big joke. But when he thought of how he must have looked, running after that sheep and then sprawling over it, a smile broke over his face. Then he, too, began to laugh until tears ran down his cheeks.
Somehow, Jose had thought those carefree days would last forever. He had lived with Ben Trombell in Nevada for nearly four years. But he was soon to find he had learned far too much of the English language and about the sheep business to remain an errand boy for long.
One day, after supper, Ben Trombell stopped Jose abruptly when he tried to rise and clear the dishes. “I’ve bought a ranch up north, son. In a place called The Soda Springs, in Idaho Territory. It’s cattle country and mining country, but I want to be the first to experiment with sheep up there. I need a man I can trust, a man who knows sheep, a man who knows English. But it’ll be a small flock for now. I need only one tender, and Alfredo would have to stay here. I’d like you to go there with me. But I’m asking, not telling. You’re old enough to join the herders here if you’d like. But if you go with me, we’ll send for Alfredo, too, when the flock grows.”
That was the essence of what Trombell said, and Jose hung his head. Ben was like a father to him, so he couldn’t refuse. The next thing he knew, on March 31, 1883, he was seated beside Trombell on a train bound for Idaho Territory.
A strange sound suddenly reached Jose’s ears, wrenching him from his reverie. The sheep bleated loudly–bleated frantically, the way they did when coyotes ran in their midst. With an oath, Jose dropped the guitar and reached alongside the boulder again, this time to bring up an 1866 Winchester rifle. The brass frame was tarnished and the screws a little loose. The wood was scratched and a bit warped by the weather, and the butt plate was missing, but to Jose, who knew next to nothing about firearms, any gun was as good as the next.
He ran across the hill as fast as he could through the scattered sage. As he neared the far side of the hill, the bleating of the sheep grew louder, a sound of terror. Breathing in gasps, he reached the downslope of the hill, and below him saw sheep running in all directions. Several flew past, almost running into him, oblivious to his presence. Two lambs struggled to rise, knocked down in the stampede.
His head pounding with excitement, Jose scanned the open swale and the brushy forest edge where aspen grew thickly before giving way to fir. Suddenly, he saw the brown blur, heard the deep-throated roar in the trees below, one hundred yards away. Cold fear gripped his heart, and his face went nearly as white as the stampeding sheep. He had never heard such a horrible noise. And only once, long ago, had he seen an animal of such awesome size that moved so swiftly. Terror nearly overcame him.
The bear cleared the trees, running almost straight at him, hot on the tail of a ewe. A huge right paw slashed out, and the sheep hurled through the air like a down pillow to land crying at the base of a lone fir tree. The bear closed the distance in a bound, and its eight hundred pounds smashed full force on top of the sheep as its teeth sank into its skull. All Jose could see under that bear was a five-year-old boy.
The bear lay on top of the sheep only for a moment. Then it stood again, poised like a spring on all fours, and swung its head back and forth, looking for other game. It whirled half about, its gaze terrifyingly intense. Blood dripped from its lips and from its matted neck.
Jose suddenly realized the Winchester’s crescent butt was pressed against his shoulder. The rifle was aimed, cocked. Sweat trickled into his eyes and off his chin. His finger twitched. The rifle’s barrel belched flame and jumped in his hands. He didn’t hear the shot. For a second, he wasn’t even sure he had pulled the trigger.
But the huge beast whirled, facing him sixty yards away. He could hear its heaving breaths. Foam and blood dripped from its mouth. It stared at him, and he stared back, frozen. His mouth was so dry he couldn’t swallow–the only dry place on his entire body. He jerked the trigger, but nothing happened. He cursed and jacked out the empty shell casing. Again he brought the rifle up. He fired.
The rimfire .44’s two hundred grains of lead had no visible effect on the bear. Had it scored? The bear took a step forward. Jose jacked in another round, fired again. This time the bear jerked and snapped at the front of its shoulder as if stung by a bee. It roared horribly and shook its head, showering the grass with pink foam and sheep’s blood. With fierce eyes staring, the bear charged across the swale toward the trembling Basque boy, its ears laid back flat against its head. Four bounds, then it stopped. Only forty yards away now. Its eyes staring fiercely, the bear emitted the most terrifying roar Jose could imagine. In horror, he stared at the bloodshot eyes, nearly dropping the rifle.
He chambered the fourth round–fired. A fifth–fired. With another roar, the bear turned and raced downhill. Jose kept jacking the Winchester’s lever and firing, no longer aiming but unaware of that fact. His mind had ceased to operate when his frantic heart took over.
The bear ran down the coulee, bits of mud and sod flying up behind it as its claws tore into the ground. At the bottom of the slope, it turned left to keep from running into a tangled patch of fir overgrown with maple and serviceberry. Jose ran after it, and as he came to the place where the bear turned, he saw it standing two hundred yards away, licking the front of its chest vigorously. At that moment, it looked over its shoulder for his pursuit.
On the left lifted a steep, sage-covered slope leading to the flat where Jose had sat earlier. On the right loomed a dark wooded area that revealed nothing past its secretive veil. Emitting one last snarl, the bear disappeared with a crash into the black timber and tangled brush. Jose’s heart plummeted. Three hours till sundown, and a wounded grizzly stalked free, in heavy cover. He knew little about bears, but someone had told him of their vindictive tendency. They said one would creep back around in the dark on an assailant to take its revenge. That left no option to poor Jose, and his hands began to shake uncontrollably with the thought of what lay ahead.
Like a fly on the trail of the black widow, he must go into those treacherous woods after the wounded, grizzled beast–alone . . .