Today I am taking part in the blog tour and sharing an extract from Trail of the Jaguar by Jonathan Hanson. This was released on the 1st of March 2021, published by Hanson Creatives.
Biologist and wildlife photographer Clayton Porter witnesses what appears to be a routine drug-smuggling flight across the Arizona-Mexico border.
Instead, he uncovers a sophisticated operation involving a secret lodge high in the Sierra Madre, canned hunts for endangered jaguars, a ring of opioid-dealing doctors in the U.S., and a string of cartel victims partially consumed by a large predator.
After he unwittingly throws a wrench into the works, Porter becomes a target of revenge, and resorts to skills from his military service to save himself and those close to him.
The passage below is the opening scene in Trail of the Jaguar. It introduces the protagonist, Clayton T. Porter, the scenery in southern Arizona where much of the story takes place, and a few of the denizens of that dry but diverse desert landscape. Throughout the book I have incorporated much factual biological and geographical information to go along with the decidedly fictional adventure.
The diamondback rattlesnake inched down the slope, its four-foot-long body molding to the contours of the rocks and detritus that littered the desert hillside. It was just before dawn on a late July day that promised 110 degrees in the shade by noon, but the temperature in the murky half-light was a tepid 85—perfect for the metabolic needs of the snake. It had been coiled next to a faint rodent trail all night, head resting on the outer circle of its body, ready to snap forward in less than a tenth of a second had a pocket mouse or pack rat come within its twenty-inch strike range. But nothing had passed, and now it needed to reach the shelter of a familiar rock crevice to avoid the rising ground heat. Its failure to capture anything on this particular night was inconsequential to an animal that could survive months without food, so it continued on its patient reptilian way, knowing—as much as rattlesnakes are aware of such things—that the next night, or perhaps the next, a meal would wander within reach. And there was always a chance of successfully ambushing something even while on the move.
There. The snake stopped as an infrared source somewhere ahead tickled the heat-sensitive orifices between its eyes and nostrils, which give members of the subfamily Crotalinae their nickname: pit vipers. It remained motionless for a time, sampling the air with its forked tongue. There was nothing recognizable, so it began to ease forward to home in on the heat source.
But no—this emission was too big to be prey. Synapses in the snake’s primitive brain clicked over from food to danger, and it stopped, tested the air again, then began to sidle sideways to avoid the hazard.
The lateral movement caught my peripheral vision, and I turned my head to the right to see the snake, alerted by my own movement, withdraw its head into a defensive S-shape and emit a short warning rattle from the loosely jointed appendage on its black-and-white striped tail: cht cht—like that. I was sitting in a sling chair in a depression in the hillside. The snake was about four feet uphill from me—out of striking range, but the slope was steep and loose, and any sudden movement could well send it sliding into my lap. Rattlesnakes can be surprisingly clumsy.
I nodded and said, “Well, good morning.”
The nod elicited another cht cht.
“My, you’re a bit grumpy. No luck last night?” I pursed my lips and squeaked what I thought was a creditable impression of a frightened Perognathus baileyi. Talent wasted—rattlesnakes have no external ears.
The snake regarded me warily, in a pose I knew it might hold for the next ten minutes. I also knew it would avoid me now, so I turned my attention (cht cht) back to the task at hand, which was looking through a tripod-mounted pair of Swarovski 15×56 SLC binoculars at an overhanging rock formation across a steep ravine. Under the formation was a seep—a minuscule trickle of water brought up through the rocks by some quirk of geology. The pool fed by the seep never exceeded twenty gallons or so before it was sucked off by the fierce heat or the local wildlife. In the million-plus acres of southern Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding public lands, it was one of perhaps three reliable natural sources of water. What made this one unique was that, as far as I knew, I was the only human aware of it.
Water had been an issue here—for wildlife and humans—for thousands of years. The Sonoran Desert, which stretches across 100,000 square miles of Arizona and northwestern Mexico, rarely receives more than ten inches of rain each year, so reliable surface water is precious. Early Native Americans knew where to find it, and when their ancient trails were co-opted during the westward European expansion, the main east-to-west route became littered with graves of those who didn’t. This track, meandering between Caborca and the flowing oasis of the Colorado River at Yuma, became known as El Camino del Diablo—the Road of the Devil. In places crude crosses and stone mounds stood ten to the mile.
Once the railroad reached Yuma in 1870, the need to risk the crossing on foot or horseback diminished, and the region was largely abandoned except for a few hardy prospectors digging exploratory mine tunnels and shafts, looking for copper or more rare minerals. Finally, in 1985, the Cabeza Prieta gained formal protection as a wildlife refuge.
Wildlife refuge? Don’t let the lack of rainfall fool you—the Sonoran Desert is an astonishingly diverse ecosystem. The Cabeza Prieta boasts almost 400 plant species and 275 animal species, from desert bighorn sheep and coyotes down to my friend the rattlesnake, to kangaroo rats so adapted to the conditions that they can metabolize their own water from the dry seeds they eat.
That diversity was what brought me here.
If you enjoyed this extract and want to read more, Trail of the Jaguar can be purchased from the link as follows (please note that this is not an affiliated link)
Trail of the Jaguar Blog Tour
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Let’s Get to Know Jonathan Hanson
Jonathan Hanson grew up northeast of Tucson, Arizona, with Sabino and Bear Canyons as his backyard, providing him with years of desert expeditions, hunting like the Apaches and building wickiups (which failed spectacularly).
He has since written for a score of outdoor and adventure magazines including Outside, National Geographic Adventure, Nature Conservancy, and Global Adventure, and has authored a dozen books on subjects including natural history, sea kayaking, wildlife tracking, and expedition travel.
Jonathan’s exploration experience encompasses land- and sea-scapes on six continents, from the Atacama Desert to the Beaufort Sea, from the Rift Valley to the Australian Outback, and modes of transportation from sea kayaks to sailboats to bicycles to Land Cruisers.
He has traveled among and worked with cultures as diverse as the Seri Indians and the Himba, the Inuit and the Maasai. Jonathan has taught tracking, natural history writing, four-wheel-driving techniques, and other subjects for many conservation and government organizations.
He is an elected fellow of the Explorers Club and the Royal Geographical Society, and a charter member of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and lives in Southern Arizona with his wife of 37 years, Roseann Beggy Hanson.
You can follow Jonathan’s Overland Tech and Travel blog and order signed books at ExploringOverland.com.
Blog Tour Organiser
Thanks to Rachel from Rachel’s Random Resources for my spot on Trail of the Jaguar blog tour and for the promotional materials.