When Jose and I parked at the end of the little dirt track a tick before midnight, the Thanksgiving moon was high and the sky clear. We grabbed our gear and turned left onto the tracks, walking the ties like a couple of characters out of The Grapes of Wrath, when the poverty of the Dust Bowl forced millions to leave the land for the faint promise of the cities. After about an hour we passed an old water tower, a relic of the days when trains were driven by steam and they carried mostly people, not cattle and cars and coal and grain.
Then the ground began to shake.
Just faintly at first, like the edge of a far-off earthquake. We stopped. The tie under my feet trembled, and the rails started to hum. In the distance was a tiny speck of light. The midnight train, a couple of miles to the south, coming hard.
As we stood there the rails sang, and the ties hammered up and down with microscopic movements. The gravel under them shook, rattled and rolled. The ground tremors grew more pronounced. The distant headlight moved slowly, like the lights of an airplane.
We stepped off the track and leaned against a tarred wooden upright of the water tower for protection. Like the ground under my feet, it shuddered against my body. The rails howled. The train whistle blew a long blast that echoed through the stillness.
The train kept coming towards us, for a long time safely in the distance, then all of a sudden it was right on top of us, a massive beast, ridiculously loud. The ground shook so hard that the old water tower danced a silent jig, and both of us were bounced around like beach balls. The air whipped past, snatching the hat off my head. The locomotive flashed past, followed by the cars juddering in the moonlight. There must have been fifty or more. We clung to the sanctity of the tarred pole, deafened by the squealing metal, our legs numb from the throbbing ground, our faces scoured by the slipstream.
Then, just like that, the train was gone. As the last car vanished in the distance, the noise dropped quickly, the ground only tremored slightly, then stopped as the screeching rails quieted.
Silence came back.
After composing ourselves we continued on, and began the climb 30 minutes later. The bright moon was all the light we needed to navigate through the biting cactus and long barbed arms of the ocotillo, avoiding the endless loose rocks that can send even the strongest and most cautious hiker arse over teakettle.
In another hour we were where we needed to be, a small flat overlooking some of the finest Coues whitetail country in all of Chihuahua. As the eastern sky began to lighten, our glasses picked up little pockets of deer, two here, four over there, three small bucks together, all feeding but all heading up the canyon in our direction.
Six hours later Jose found him, a wide eight with a large body. He was bedded in the shade of the north slope among some yuccas and tall brush. With the thermals rising and the wind steady, Jose guided me with hand signals. With patience so unlike me, I took three hours to get into position, exactly 50 yards above and slightly behind the bed. I could see antler tips, and when I caught my breath and my heartbeat slowed, I got ready and gave Jose the signal.
He was 300 yards away and simply stood up on the skyline, scuffed his boots on the rocks, and whistled. Sensing something, the buck looked up. When he did, I came to full draw. He stood in his bed, and just before his knees locked I cut the shot. He never knew what happened.
By the time we had done the work and noted the position of a sun low in the western sky, we knew it would be a grind getting out. It would be 800 yards up a 60-degree brush and cactus-choked slope covered with loose rocks to the ridge, then at least three hours of careful hiking down to the tracks. Of course we didn’t have a decent backpack with us, so we packed the field-dressed buck out “Mexican style,” his legs tied together with some cotton rope to form a loop that could be slung over a shoulder. We took turns carrying him, of course, and rested often. Once again the moon gave us the light we needed.
When we got back to the old water tower, it was near midnight. We were exhausted, footsore, and a bit dehydrated. Thankfully I had left four bottles of water and four breakfast burritos stashed there. The only sound on that moonlit night was two cazadores greedily gulping agua and pounding burros.
Then the ground began to shake. The midnight train was right on schedule.
As the gravel began dancing, rails keening, and the sound grew exponentially louder, we took cover well off the rail bed, sitting in the dirt so we could see the monster race past. When it as finally gone and the silence had returned, Jose looked at me with his impish grin and said, “Amigo, el tren nos trajo buena suerte.” — My friend, the train is good luck for you.
Other than the fact it had destroyed one of my favorite hats the night before, how could I argue with that?
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