Fewer people live in Nebraska these days than on Mars. In an electrified compound, the last ranchers on the Great Plains fight to stave off predators—lions, cheetahs, hyenas—imported by the wealthy.
We're in the midst of a great extinction crisis, in case you hadn't heard. So how to cope with the fact that earth's species are disappearing about as fast as if a meteor struck? Maybe a burned-out America can help. -The Eds.
Alvin knew it had been a bad night in the pasture. He'd lain awake till dawn listening to the snarls, the roars, the wet screams, the horrible clamor of animals killing and being killed. He'd had half a mind to go protect his flock, had even pulled on his boots, but Sadie grabbed his elbow and pulled him back inside. "You know what's out there, dad," she pleaded.
"Electric fence must've shorted out," he muttered, staring into the cacophonous dark. He scratched anxiously at his beard. "It's gonna be a massacre."
"Those poor sheep," Sadie sobbed.
When the orange fingers of dawn reached over the Nebraska horizon, Alvin decided it was safe. Downstairs, Sadie had made coffee. Two .577 Nitro Express elephant guns—antiques, but potent as ever—leaned against the door.
"Ready to ride?" he asked.
Sadie tucked her long straw hair into a ballcap. "Ready," she said.
The sun sat serene on the rim of the whitening sky, the only sound the fuzzy drone of grasshoppers. They took the electric Jeep so the predators wouldn't hear them coming. Sadie drove, her calloused hands drumming nervously on the wheel. Alvin sat in the swiveling bucket seat, the muzzle of the gun resting on the roll bar. His finger twitched on the trigger.
The carnage was worse than he'd feared, worse than he'd seen in six decades of living on ranches. He lifted his pith helmet. Half the flock had been lost. Dismembered limbs and mangled viscera littered the ground; carcasses lay piled in red-stained drifts. The traumatized survivors huddled in one corner of the fenced-in meadow, bleating miserably. Alvin pressed the back of his hand to his mouth.
"Looks like lions," Sadie said, pointing to jumbled tracks. She crouched. "Cheetahs, too. Maybe a damn leopard."
"Satan's menagerie," Alvin said.
The sheep cried a warning and he hoisted the gun. He heard scurrying paws—there, 50 yards out, a skulking figure, hackles raised in the pink light, trying to squeeze its bloated body through a tunnel dug beneath the electric fence. That's how the bastards got in, Alvin thought.
The gun kicked against his shoulder and the hyena sprawled dead in the fine Midwestern dirt.
The rewilding had begun a decade ago, just a year after Alvin's wife had followed the masses to Oregon during the Northwest Migration, leaving him and Sadie in Nebraska to fend for themselves. Back when clawing a living out of the grass merely broke your back and not your spirit. Back when the sharpest teeth on the prairie belonged to the coyotes.
The Angels had started, benignly enough, by releasing the smaller ungulates—the wildebeest, the kudus, the impalas. Alvin didn't mind those animals; in fact, he found them beautiful. He loved the way their endless herds wheeled like giant starlings against the horizon, the way the gazelles' sweeping horns seemed to reach skyward to gather thunderheads on summer afternoons. They belonged there, on the infinite prairie.
But they ate his sheep's grass, so Alvin fenced in his pasture.
Next came the megafauna, the elephants, rhinos, and giraffes, which were even more spectacular. On clear mornings, he and Sadie would sit up on the roof and watch the mighty beasts drift across Nebraska like stately ships. But they proved pestilential. The elephants reached their leathery trunks over the fence to pull up tufts of fescue. The giraffes stuck their necks into the yard and ate sour cherries off his trees.
Alvin built another fence, this one thirty feet tall. Now they lived in a compound.
Finally, to much fanfare, the Angels let loose the carnivores: the lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas. Alvin despised the predators from the moment they arrived. They prowled his fences at sundown, searching for weaknesses, green eyes glowing hungrily in the dark. He hooked up the fence to his solar panels—the grid had been shut off for years—and electrified the compound.
Still the hunters came, cleverly planning their attacks for rainy days, when the panels ran out of juice. Several times Alvin had gone out in the morning to find sheep eviscerated and jagged holes gnawed in the fence. The copper tang of blood ripe on the hot wind.
Alvin left Sadie to care for the wounded sheep and set to tracking the killers. He started out following the lions, but soon lost their trail in a creek, so he doubled back and found the cheetahs' pawprints, their four toes dotted with pinpoint claws. A male and a female wandering south. Every fifty feet a splash of blood glistened in the dirt, and Alvin surmised that the female was carrying meat in her jaws. She was making off with his flock.
At noon he crested a hill and parked. He crunched fried grasshoppers from a greasy paper bag and washed them down with water. Then he took out his binoculars and glassed the open prairie. He could see for centuries across this hinterland, this inland sea drained by New York bankers and Oklahoma frackers and the glyphosate-resistant weeds that had swallowed Iowa. He figured his ranch was the only human settlement for 300 miles. He'd read that fewer people lived in Nebraska these days than on Mars.
A mile away, in the shade of a scraggly cottonwood, lay the cheetahs, sleeping off their meal. He stowed his binocs and restarted the Jeep.
Alvin stopped a hundred yards out and traded the elephant gun for the .300 Win Mag sniper—military surplus. He'd bought it decades ago from a veteran of the Ecuador Wars. He kept downwind of the cats; they couldn't smell him any more than they could hear the electric Jeep. He slid the rifle's scope along the male's lithe, muscled flank, its fur the color of summer corn, its spots a thousand eyes. The female was curled nearby, her tail flicking as she dreamed. They were gorgeous in repose, lanky and powerful, like the ballet dancers Alvin's mother had once taken him to see in Omaha on Christmas Day.
He shot them both through the lungs.
For most ranchers, selling out to the Angels had been a no-brainer. Synthetics had rendered wool obsolete, and PetriMeat had replaced mutton. Sheep? They might as well have been peddling VCRs.
Alvin's former neighbors called him from the Bahamas and Thailand and urged him to cash out, to let the rewilding run its course. "They're coming for you," Bob Wright told him from the roof of a floating Miami Beach skyscraper, Latin bass thumping in the background. "You could be down here sipping mojitos."
A week later, the Angels had touched down on his lawn in three hovercopters. They were shockingly young and casual: black stretch pants, hemp shirts, slippers. Never before had so much wealth congregated on Alvin's ranch. He thought they should have worn suits.
The Angels offered Alvin ten times what his ranch was worth. He rejected their offer and refused to negotiate.
"No man is an island," the Angels warned him as they climbed aboard their hovercopters, already rising into the blue afternoon.
Alvin said, "Watch me."
When he was sure the cheetahs were dead, he cruised up and nudged them with the toe of his boot. Their tongues lolled from black gums. Red flowers bloomed beneath their chests. Their once-lustrous fur already looked dull. A leg of lamb, ragged at the hip, lay half-masticated between them. Alvin felt suddenly petty and criminal. He coughed down a spasm of grief. He considered throwing the corpses in the Jeep but decided to leave them for the hyenas.
As he turned to go, a faint, high-pitched bawling stopped him. A baby's cry. The noise Sadie had made when she'd gone too long without milk. A speckled fuzzball of a kitten, barely bigger than a baseball mitt, pawed at its parents' unresponsive bodies. A pink tongue flickered at a mother's cold belly. The mewling grew in pitch and volume.
"For chrissakes," Alvin sighed. He turned, again, toward the Jeep, and halted. A huge buzzard had settled atop the roll bar, its eyes glittering triumphantly from within that red hood of skin. Alvin shouted and the bird flapped into the air, settled on the ground ten feet away, staking out its prize.
Alvin swept his gaze over the vacant plains. Exhaustion settled in his bones. They were the last defenders of a culture, he and Sadie, a museum's lonesome curators. But cultures evolved, landscapes shifted. He was overwhelmed by the brevity of his own existence, the brutishly short reign of his species. The rights he clutched to his chest were no more substantial than smoke. Hadn't his own race stolen this land that he called his? Hadn't this continent's first humans wiped out the tapirs, the giant armadillos, the mastodons? They were all just impostors on the turf of time.
"All right, you runt," Alvin said, and he peeled off his windbreaker and wrapped it around the kitten. He felt the cheetah's warm trembling through his shirt, against his heart, as he carried it to the car.