CHAPTER Six: WATER PIRATES


   On Monday morning, Greg told Chuck about the tire tracks he had seen at their far boundary gate. Chuck was interested. “We don’t get much traffic on that road this early in the year. You didn’t see signs of any kind of activity?”

   “Nothing obvious, but I wasn’t looking for anything like that. I wouldn’t have even seen the tracks if there hadn’t been a little snow left in the road ruts.”

   “I’m curious. What say we go out there and look around? Whether or not we see anything worth following up, I can show you where that road goes, and introduce you to our neighbors.”

   “Fine with me.”

   “Okay, I’ll tell Alice we might be gone several hours. We won’t take a lunch. If we decide to do the loop, there’s a little diner out by the main highway where we can get a bite.”

   They drove straight to the far gate, and got out. The snow was gone, and the ground was already pretty hard. No tire tracks or other signs of disturbance were evident. One of their water control structures was not far from them, and Chuck walked over to check the level on the boards. It was about where he wanted it, but it gave him an idea.

   “Let’s walk around this pond a ways. I think I know what might be going on.” They pushed through the sagebrush for some distance, and finally found what Chuck thought they might. Someone had recently dug a deep slot connecting the pool with what appeared to be an old drainage ditch, but could have been a natural runoff area. Water was flowing in the slot, but not much.

   “I think one of our neighbors is enhancing his water supply at our expense. It doesn’t look like we’re losing much, but it will continue to run and divert our water. It will add up.”

   “Seven and a half cents,” muttered Greg.

    “Pardon?”

    “The other day I was thinking about a play called ‘Seven and a Half Cents.’ In it, factory workers are striking, hoping to force a 7 ½ cents per hour increase in their pay. As one of the strikers explains its importance, he acknowledges that it isn’t much of a raise. But, he says, give it to him  every hour, forty hours every week, and that’s enough for him to be living like a king.”

   Chuck laughed. “Yeah, I see your comparison. Give our neighbor this much free water every day, and after a while, he’ll have a lot. Actually, he’ll have a lot more before long, because we’ll be putting more boards in our controls in the next week or so, raising our pond level, which will result in more overflow here. Clever fellow!

   “Well, let’s leave this as it is for awhile, and drive the loop. I’ll introduce you to our two principal neighbors, but we won’t mention our find. We’ll just say I’m showing you around, and we just stopped by to say hello. As we’re leaving, we can casually ask if they have seen anybody traveling out our way recently, because we saw tracks in the snow. No concern; just wondering.

   “After talking to both neighbors, we’ll see what, if anything, we got out of either of them.”

   Beyond the refuge boundary, the road continued straight on to the east.  There were a few wet swales along the way, but no real ponds or marshes beyond the refuge. Greg has been thinking about neighbors stealing water, and asked Chuck if that was a real possibility.

   “Sure they would; not a lot, but if they felt their cattle or crops needed it – and they thought they could get away with it – they would.  Ranchers here have mixed feelings about us. We’re fine as acquaintances, and we mostly cooperate well together. But they have almost a genetic dislike for ‘the Government,’ and few can bring themselves to think of ducks as important as cattle.”

   The first ranch buildings were maybe a mile east of the refuge. “This is Jake Bowen’s place,” explained Chuck. “He’s an old-timer around here -  beef cattle, not a big operation, but keeps him busy. No crops, except a big garden to feed the family.”

   They pulled into the driveway, and Greg started to climb out. “Hold on a bit,” said Chuck. “I like to do it the Indian way – sit a spell, until somebody acknowledges you. Gives them a little time to finish up whatever they’ve been doing, and decide how much they want to talk to you.”

   A big man emerged from the barn. “That’s Jake. We can get out, now.” They met, and Jake and Chuck shook hands. “Chuck, not sure I’m seen you since last fall.”

   “That might be so. Once the ponds freeze up, I’d like to hibernate like a big old bear for a few months. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam seems to always find plenty of paperwork to keep me awake all winter.  Say, Jake,” he said, turning to Greg, “This is my new assistant, Greg Cleveland. He’s only been here a couple of weeks, so I’m showing him around.”

   Jake and Greg shook hands. “Good to meet you, Greg. I’m betting Chuck was getting kinda lonely in that office by himself since the Holstroms moved away.”

   “I was,” said Chuck, “Especially because she was a big help with all that Government-required paperwork. Luckily, Greg here can type, so his arrival is kind of a double bonus.

   “So, how’d you weather, Jake? Everything okay with the family, and the livestock?”

   “Can’t complain – well, I could, but it wouldn’t do any good. I don’t like how dry this past winter was – could be hard on us ranchers and farmers – but I think we’ll do well enough to keep us out of the Poor House.”

   They chatted for a few more minutes. “Well,” said Chuck, “We better not keep you any longer from pursuing your dream.” He started to walk away, but turned back. “Say, I was going to mention that we saw some fresh tire tracks out by our gate the other day. I wouldn’t have noticed except there was still a little snow on the ground. Have you seen anybody headed out our way?”

  “Nope, haven’t noticed anybody. ‘There a problem?”

  “No, no; just unusual for people to be out that way this early in the year. See you later!”

   As they drove away, Chuck processed what they’d heard. “Nothing definite there, but I’m inclined to think Jake is not our thief. He doesn’t have much to gain. It looks like it’s going to be a dry year, but he can move his stock around, and find what forage there is to find.

   “Now, Ross McHenry, who we’ll visit next, may be a more likely culprit. He’s trying to grow alfalfa, so needs a more dependable water supply.”

   Ross greeted them cordially enough, and they had a conversation similar to what they had with Jake. Ross expressed a little concern for his alfalfa, but acknowledged that, when you try to grow crops in the desert, you’re going to have your ups and downs. And no, he hadn’t noticed anyone passing his place but Jake’s crew.

   Just beyond the McHenry place, they intersected a blacktop road, that led them to the highway back to town. They passed some of the McHenry alfalfa, but it was too early in the season to pass any judgment on its condition. At the intersection with the highway, there was a small gas station-diner. Chuck obviously knew the middle-aged owners well.

   “Hey Cora, hey Jackson,” he called out. “Can you make us up two of the finest hamburgers to be found in this county?”

   They sat at a table, and Cora came over with glasses of water. “I don’t know as we can speak for the whole county, but I can guarantee you won’t find any burgers like these within a half-mile or so, Still want ‘em?”

   “I suppose it would be rude to get up and walk out, so bring ‘em on. Say, how’s business?” he called after Cora, as she walked back behind the counter. She spread her arms in a gesture that took in the whole establishment, now vacant except for the four of them. “Luckily, you missed the noon rush. The line of people waiting for tables went outside and all the way around to the restrooms.” She paused. “ Or maybe I got that wrong: maybe it was just a couple folks waiting for the rest rooms to be vacated.”

   Jackson poked his head out of the kitchen. “What she’s saying is ‘business as usual.’ I think we eat more of our hamburgers than do the paying customers,” He brought the cooked patties out to the counter, where Cora put the fixings on them. “But, you know, we do all right. And we like it here.”

   Both came over to their table with the food, and Greg was introduced. “Greg, these are old friends, Cora and Jackson Wentzel. Cora and Jackson, this is Greg Cleveland, my new assistant. We’re just taking a joy ride around today, getting him familiar with the country. We stopped and chatted with Jake and Ross. They seem to have done okay over the winter.”

   Jackson sat down with them. “I think Jake did; I don’t know about Ross. He’s been in here a couple times, grousing about his alfalfa and the dearth of water. You drove by some of it; how does it look?”

   “Hard for me to tell this early, but looked tolerable.”

   Cora sat down, too. “It sure is pretty when it’s all greened up; quite a change over our gray sagebrush. And the antelope surely love it. We drive up there some evenings just to see them. We never had many before the alfalfa.”

   “I guess that’s true, all right,” said Chuck. “They say that down closer to the river, where there’s getting to be pretty fair acreages of irrigated land, the antelope are everywhere. I guess the farmers don’t mind them being there, either. I guess they must not damage the crops much.”

   There was a little lull in the conversation, then Cora spoke to Greg. “We had a sad meeting with Chuck here at this very table a couple years ago. Chuck had just come in – I think maybe you were up at the duck hunting area, Chuck? – well, never mind. Like now, there wasn’t anybody else in the place but us, so we were sitting here drinking coffee and chatting away. The radio was going kinda quiet in the background, but suddenly it blares out that there’s been a shooting in Dallas. President Kennedy is dead! I don’t think any of us believed we heard it right, but it was true. We surely won’t forget that day!”

   They left for home shortly after that. Chuck was pretty quiet. “Yeah, that’s one cup of coffee I’ll never forget: November 22, 1963. We really were in a kind of shock. I drove back to the refuge must faster than I should have, but I just thought of Alice there alone, hearing that news. Nobody should be alone at a time like that!”

   After that, Greg left Chuck alone with his thoughts for awhile. Then, he remembered something  Cora had said. “Say, Chuck, Cora mentioned the duck hunting area. Is that the refuge hunt you mentioned the other day?”

   “Yeah, that’s it. I should have mentioned it when we were there, but I was too interested in the water situation. Right at that gate is where State Fish and Game  sets up their check station. Hunters park outside the refuge, and walk in. About a third of the refuge is open, Hunting season’s about the only time that road gets much use, and even then it isn’t a lot. There are other places to hunt ducks in this part of Idaho, places where they can shoot pheasants, quail or Huns, as well. We only allow waterfowl hunting.”

   “I thought I had a quick glance at some Hungarian partridge last time I was headed to town, but I wasn’t sure. Are they common enough here to hunt?”

   “Yeah. I don’t think they get a lot of action – pheasants are the popular upland game bird in this area – but there are quite a few. Like most state game departments, Idaho tried almost everything at various times. The pheasants came earliest – I think right around the turn of the century – then Huns a little later. Actually, now that I think about it, the earliest Huns in Idaho came from birds dispersing from Oregon. Idaho didn’t do their own planting until maybe 1920 or so.

   “I like to hunt them all – deer and elk, too, when I get the chance. Unfortunately, hunting seasons are pretty busy for wildlife workers, and I’m usually watching the other hunters when I’d like to be out there, myself. Do you hunt?”

   “No, I never have, probably because I’ve been a real city kid most of my life. You know me, binoculars and dicky birds are my things.”

 

   Back in the office, Chuck had some ideas about how to follow up on the water theft. “Now, we’ve baited a hook, of sorts – of course, assuming that we talked to the thief, or that the word would spread – but only the thief would know that there was a hook to bait. We didn’t give any indication that we’d found a problem – didn’t say anything except we’d seen tire tracks. It’s possible that someone might think they have time to go out there and undo what they’ve done, so we’d never even know there had been any mischief.

   “That being said, maybe you could make your bird count out that way tomorrow, maybe catch somebody there, or see signs that somebody has been there since we were. Take the camera, and get some photos of the site. We might be able to use them later on.”

   “What do I do if I catch somebody?”

   “Good question. I think you just have to play this one by ear. We don’t want it to escalate; we just want to stop it.”

   “I’ll give it my best shot.”

***

   Greg started right after breakfast, and was near the gate before 8 o’clock. He parked a ways back, so as not to disturb any new signs of activity, then walked up. Nothing seemed to have changed since the previous day. He walked around to the illegal diversion, took a few pictures, then walked back to the truck. He thought he’d swing by one more time, after his census.

   The duck situation was about the same as last trip: almost all the ducks paired, but no “waiting drakes.” There were a number of pairs of Canada geese, also, with a few singles that might be “waiting.” It seemed to him that the geese should be a little farther along in their nesting activity than the ducks.

   There were still many eared grebes present, and the Western grebes were showing off their courtship “dance steps” even more than last week. Red-winged blackbirds had arrived, and the males were busy singing and flaunting  their red epaulets for prospective mates to admire. Ah Spring, when a young males fancy...

    In a side pond with a thick growth of bullrush, he found a little colony of yellow-headed blackbirds establishing itself. The magnificent males perched on the highest tule stalks, singing their hearts out. Well, singing maybe wasn’t the right word. When people were asked to describe the call, almost everybody said “rusty gate hinge.” Greg couldn’t think of a better term, but it still wasn’t creaky enough – grating enough. When – like now – a whole bunch of males got going at one time, the sound was amazing. He loved it!

   On the uplands, he noticed bunches of lark sparrows and chipping sparrows. He hadn’t seen them last week. Also, he scared up a badger working on a hole beside the road – his first, in the wild. It lumbered off into the sagebrush, but at its own speed – apparently not particularly impressed with the human,

   He looped back around to the east gate. There was still no sign of marauders (for which he found himself thankful), so turned back toward home. He changed his mind when he spotted the Johnsons working on the fence line, and thought he might have a little fun.

   “Can I help you guys?” he called as he exited the truck.

   Both Johnsons laughed. “Thanks,” said Tim, “but I think we’ll work much faster without your brand of help.”

   “Maybe. Maybe not. I see you’re getting pretty far ahead of your supplies. You want me to bring the Fordson along, and back the trailer up close to you?”

   The brothers looked at each other, speculatively. “Sure, why not?” replied Tim. “Don’t break it,” added Rusty.

   Greg walked down the road; climbed on the Fordson; started it effortlessly; drove up near the Johnsons; and with only a couple of minor mistakes, backed the trailer right up to them. He climbed off the tractor, walked down to his rig, and opened his door.

   “Glad I could help,” he called to them, as he drove off.

***

   Greg reported his findings (or, lack thereof) to Chuck. “Not surprising,” said the latter, “but I thought we needed to give it a try. We might have shaken somebody. In any event, I’ve been working on our next step. Look at this letter to the editor:

 

   “Here on the wildlife refuge, we have had what appears to be an attempt to divert our water illegally. It wasn’t a very skillful attempt, and it didn’t do us a lot of harm, but it was still a crime.

   “Our problem appears to be solved now, and it likely was a one-shot attempt. But this upcoming summer looks like one in which we’ll all need our full shares of whatever is available. There could be other attempts. We recommend everybody keep alert for suspicious activities.”

 

   “What do you think? Our local newspaper comes out on Friday, so we have time to get it in this week. I think this will bring our concerns to an end. We haven’t caught the thief, but I don’t think he’ll be back. Next week, we can go out, and close off the diversion.”

   “You don’t want to catch the thief?”

   “No. I think we know who’s responsible; nobody else would benefit like him. No sense stirring up the community over a closed case.”

   “Okay. I’m put my typing skills to work.”

 

 

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