Happy Hunting

Theron rose with two hours of night left. He always woke this early in the woods.

Camping was his favorite part of hunting. Despite sleeping on the ground, he always was more refreshed in the waking hours after a night in the fresh air, surrounded by the wind sounds outside the tent, the dim swoosh of the stream downhill. There was no television to watch in the night, no friends to keep him up. Sometimes he might read by light of a lantern, but last night, he had simply put the fire out, crawled in the sleeping bag, zipped the tent up, and had drifted off rapidly and soundly.

“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” he remembered reading in Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac from his youth, and while he didn’t take it on full faith, it nevertheless seemed to be good advice, especially in the wild. And especially in the wilds of Hellrock Wilderness.

He crawled out of the warm embrace of the sleeping bag, got dressed quickly, relishing the delicious prickly cold air on his skin, and left his tent, bringing the camp stove with him. He would heat up some water for a little oatmeal to sustain energy during the hunt this morning.

He had no music. No cell phone service. No alcohol. It was just him and nature.

While the water heated on the camp stove, Theron brought out his small flashlight to check his way down to the stream. He had camped well uphill from the stream, because although rain or snow was not predicted, he wasn’t dumb about the ever-present possibility of rising water, and he picked his way through the rocks and brush, aided by the small circle of illumination.

As he approached the creek, he noticed the split hoof prints of mule deer in the softening ground. Good. He was up here for deer. He came to the edge of the stream and stopped dead.

In the mud just beside the stream was another pair of prints, the big pads unmistakably signaling a large cat. But they were the largest cat prints he had ever seen. They weren’t the pointed marks of a lynx, more like the rounded characteristics of a bobcat, but much too large for a bobcat. It had to be a cougar, but even for a cougar, they were huge.

Theron was carrying a container, what his father called a jerrycan, for water. He would never drink water right out of the stream, because he didn’t want the trip to be ruined by the gastric cramps of a case of Giardia, but he could boil the water later for washing his dishes and filling his canteen. He squatted by the stream, estimating the eye level of a cat, and turned and looked back up toward the camp. He could see the dim glow of the camp stove heating the water for the oatmeal.

Odd, he thought. The tracks were fresh, left there during the night, and that was understandable because cougars were also nocturnal hunters, but they were universally wary of humans. A cougar would give a camp a wide berth. It was decidedly strange for one to have prowled this close to his tent.

Theron submerged the container in the water, the disturbed stream flow shooting off pretty little light reflections from the night lights of the stars. He filled it and carried it back up. The footprints were a curiosity. But what he wanted to do now was forget the cat, track the deer, and find a big buck to shoot.

The oatmeal was nothing special, except it had the special taste that only the outdoors and fresh hunger could bring. And it wasn’t just the taste, but the atavism of the camping experience, the feeling that it was him and nature, getting by on what he needed rather than what his self-indulgence demanded.

It was time to leave. After securing camp, he gathered up his hunting gear, food pouch, canteen, and pack frame, and struck out in the direction of the deer tracks.

There were as many hunting strategies as there were hunters. Some took it to high art, spending thousands of dollars on odor-proof clothing, deer scent, different camouflages, setting up bait and blinds, and other options in a dizzying array of tactics. To his mind, Theron kept it simple. Just him, his food, weapons to kill and slaughter the animal, a rope to hang the remainder of the carcass, and a pack frame to carry back the meat.

Theron was not a sport hunter. What he killed, he butchered and ate or gave to his friends to eat. If his kill was good-looking enough, he had it mounted, but Theron would never go out just to kill an animal or only for the purpose of bringing back a trophy. It was the thrill of the chase, the demands of the shoot, the task of the harvest, which fulfilled the sport of the hunt for him.

He soon lost the deer trail in the dark, but kept hiking a likely course, picking his way through the rocks and the brush, helped occasionally, and every time briefly, by his small flashlight. He reached a ridge, he estimated, about a half a mile from camp. Far enough to start looking for deer moving around. The glow of the morning light was rising from the ragged eastern horizon, and he needed to find an observation point.

Theron chose a spot to nestle at the base of an outcropping of rocks, put his pack frame and gear to one side, and faced upwind. He was warmed up from the hike, and he knew that with inactivity in the morning cold, the heat would soon start draining from his body. He sat down, back against the rocks, knees drawn up, rifle close by. Three hunters over the last five years had disappeared in the vast wide-ranging rocky slopes and trees of Hellrock, and it was no place to take nature lightly.

The slopes were brightening, the glow of the morning sun now shining golden off the tops of peaks of the surrounding ranges, taking night’s edge off the shadowed valleys. A dim movement caught Theron’s eye, and he jerked his head to look. The wind was coming across a rugged valley, and off to a 45-degree angle across the way, a massive bighorn sheep was making his way across the ragged slope.

Theron thrilled to the sight, one of the reasons why he loved his sport so much. Slowly, he raised his rifle to look through the scope. He found the sheep quickly. The ram was majestic and powerful, massive horns curling back off his forehead, a picturesque example of his species at its finest, and filling Theron with a sense of awe. He would have loved to kill it, but it was not the season, and he didn’t have a sheep license.

“Carry on, old man,” Theron whispered. “Make more lambs,” as he envisioned that magnificent head someday mounted on the wall in his front hall. As if in response, the bighorn suddenly took to his heels up the slope, trotting to a sloped ridge, and disappearing beyond it.

Theron put down the rifle and continued his scan of the hill. Hunting was a sport of patience, of eternal waiting, sometimes paying off, often not, until the time when he could drop an unsuspecting animal with a single shot.

Aspen and pine were swaying with the morning breeze, but off to the left, another movement caught Theron’s attention. He narrowed his eyes and brought out his binoculars. It looked like a tail sticking out from rocks. But was it a tail? Nothing he was hunting had a tail like this. It seemed long, thick, and sinuous. Perhaps just an odd pattern of rocks and vegetation, a visual trick. . .

Is that a cougar tail? he thought, and it seemed absurd, because although perspective could be compromised by distance and the clarity of the air at altitude, this was more the size of a big jungle snake than a tail. But as he watched, it twitched again and then moved out of his sight, into the rocks.

If that was from a mountain lion, it’s the biggest damn mountain lion ever seen. Once again, a thrill radiated through him. He didn’t have the license to hunt mountain lion, but if it was close enough and threatening enough, he might not have a choice but to shoot it. If he ever got to this one, he would have mounted, no question. No one would believe that they could grow that big.

Calm down. They stay away from humans. If he’d seen it right — and he was becoming increasingly unsure that his perception had been accurate — it was probably just an oversize tail of a smaller puma.

Three hours later, Theron was cold, cramped, and disgusted. It was now bright daylight, and no deer had appeared within his sight. He had spent time, constantly scanning, both with the naked eye and through binoculars, and every now and then, he would pick up his rifle, look through the scope, and sight in things for an imaginary practice shot, but there was no wildlife, other than birds, squirrels, and chipmunks. Even seeing a pine marten kill a squirrel would have been entertaining by this point. Theron picked up and stowed his gear, strapped on his pack frame, slung his rifle, and started walking into the wind.

Walking into the wind was supremely important. Deer were alerted by movement and by scent. He could move carefully, keep his eyes moving, and try to see them before they saw him, but he couldn’t control his scent except by walking into the wind.

His path took him cross-slope, above the valley. Nothing remarkable. He walked by some deer, sheep, and elk scat, none of it fresh, none of it helpful. He walked up to a little mound of fallen brush, and stopped.

The smell was unmistakable, like walking into his neighbor elderly widow’s house and, right inside the front door, thinking, “Oh, she has cats.” Theron had seen this before, not often, but he’d seen it, where a mountain lion had gathered a little brush and marked it to set out territory. But he had never smelled the musk this strong, this pungent.

It was coming together now, the oversized paw prints by the stream, the anaconda of a tail he’d seen, the intensity of spray on this brush. This was the Sampson of mountain wildcats, the king of the entire range here if it wanted to be, an XXL-sized mutation over its smaller brethren, an environmental success, ready to pass his genes on to succeeding generations of mountain lions that would dominate these slopes for years to come. Theron wanted more than ever to shoot it and have it posed in his house.

Sampson. As good a description as any for this one. “Maybe we’ll meet someday, Sam,” he murmured, and continued on his quest for venison.

The sun was climbing faster when he found a spot where he opted to stop. It was flat and clear, with a commanding view of the nearby countryside. He sat down and pulled out his snack bag. Just like hunting strategies, different philosophies abounded for food in the field. In Theron’s case, he liked to have a mixture of dried fruit, nuts, some M&Ms, all in a sealed bag, mixed in with crumpled-up potato chips.

Theron ate a few fingerfuls and drank from his canteen as he surveyed the open country and pondered what divine intervention was occurring to drive the game away. Sometimes the game was plentiful, sometimes sparse, but rarely devoid, but this seemed to be one of those rare times.

A movement directly across a shallow valley caught Theron’s eye, and he swiveled his view over. Usually, his eyes went right to the movement, but this time, he had problems finding what caused it. He squinted and focused. He finally saw the source, and there it was, a big puma, in full view. Theron had trouble finding it because it was tan, tawny, akin in color to the sandstone rocks that dotted the slopes. The cat squatted, in prowl mode, directly facing him. It looked huge, even at this distance, but the clear air could make depth perception deceptive. Theron slowly lifted the rifle to look through the scope and view the mountain lion in full glory.

The cougar appeared in the magnified circle. “Gotcha, Sam,” Theron whispered, and as he did, he saw the cat’s face crinkle, the mouth open up in a snarl, the eyes looking directly into Theron’s from hundreds of yards away, fangs prominent, before it disappeared, darting off, out of the view of the scope. Theron tried to follow, but the panther was very quick, already behind the surrounding rocks.

Theron lowered the rifle. It was hard to tell, but the cougar certainly seemed oversized, filling up the scope view more than what he would have expected. A really big cat might weigh 200 pounds, and that seemed small for the animal that had been in Theron’s sights.

“Another time,” Theron muttered to himself. He was disquieted. The cougar had seemed to be looking straight at him, eye-to-eye, but through the scope. Cougars, he knew, had excellent vision, but what he witnessed seemed preternatural. And Sam’s reaction to coming into the scope’s view. It almost seemed that the cat was sensing it was in the rifle’s sights and was pissed about it.

Theron pondered it for a moment and then set the thoughts aside. He was here to find and shoot deer, not a mountain lion. Another season, maybe he could pull a permit to bag a tom. But this wasn’t that time.

Theron put the rifle back down, took another pinch of trail food, had a few more pulls at the canteen, and strategized his next move. The day was half gone, and he hadn’t even seen a deer, much less been able to track one. If he found one, tracking would take time. He was getting farther away from camp. Once he found and shot a deer, he would have gut it, cool it, cut off the hindquarters, secure them to the pack frame, hoist the rest of the carcass remains above the ground, and still hike back to camp. It would all take time. He didn’t mind walking back to the camp in the dark, because he’d done it plenty of times before, but.

I don’t want to walk back at night with Sam around. More than the glory of the morning, the steadfastness of the hunt, this thought hit him with a certitude that was undeniable.

He secured his food, slid the pack frame back on, and shouldered the rifle. He had to get moving. The deer weren’t going to come up to him, asking to be taken.

Theron walked into the wind again, picking through yucca, cactus, rocks, thorny brush, and an uneven slope, swiveling his head left and right, alert for any movement out of the ordinary.

As he walked, he thought about deer. It was unusual not to have seen one, even at an unreachable distance. No moose. No elk. Just the one sheep so far. Hellrock lived up to its name, with a reputation for being tough and unfriendly, which was the main reason that Theron was drawn to it. He wouldn’t have much competition with others. It was wild, distant, and uninviting to casual, recreational hunters.

I wonder if Sam is the reason I’m not seeing any prey animals, came the thought, unbidden, and it was silly, but he wondered nonetheless. On impulse, he stopped, turned, and scanned behind him, facing downwind to anything that might be following him. He looked sharp and then froze.

“Hello, Sam,” he said softly. The cougar was behind him and closer now. Theron estimated it was about a hundred yards away. It was crouched, unmoving, in forward-walking posture, right next to an outcropping of rock. Theron couldn’t make out the cat’s eyes from this distance.

But he can see me just fine. Mountain lions had wonderfully acute vision. Theron considered unslinging his rifle but had second thoughts.

When I looked at him through the scope, he freaked. Leave the scope alone. Keeping his right hand on the rifle sling, Theron reached down for the binoculars with his left hand and brought them up. The puma stayed in place. Theron brought the glasses to his eyes and awkwardly focused with them with one hand.

It was there in the unsteady view, magnificent, huge, unmoving, eyes in sharp focus, the gaze seeming to pierce right through the glasses of the binoculars.

“What do you want with me?” Theron murmured. Cougars were not trackers. They were ambush predators. Perhaps it was following Theron, waiting to see if a deer got shot, waiting to feast on the remains when Theron left. But cougars weren’t carrion eaters, unless they were on the verge of starving, and the cat that Theron was looking at was thick, muscular, and obviously well-fed.

Is he stalking me? Trying to make this a sport for him? He murmured, “Sorry, Sam. I’m the one at the top of the food chain.”

Theron returned the binoculars to their pouch, and turned his back on Sam to walk back into the wind. Then, on impulse, he turned back around quickly, to see if the cat might be creeping forward.

Sam was gone, apparently darting behind or leaping up the rocks to his side. Mountain lions were very quick and incredibly good jumpers.

Theron was on a descent path now and took a 90-degree turn and trudged uphill. The wind would be coming from the side, but he wanted to traverse the slope and keep closer to camp. He would just keep an eye out to the valley off his right side and the opposing slopes.

But the terrain didn’t cooperate with his plan. He wasn’t able to walk directly across the mountainside to circle back to his camp, and he was meandering now, following where the slopes and brush let him walk, and starting to lose his bearings. That was all right. He could simply turn around and retrace his steps back, but that would take a long time going that way, and he didn’t want to take that long,

because Sam is stalking me.

The thought was silly but had an impact, and Theron looked quickly to the left, upslope and downwind from himself, and caught some movement. He wasn’t sure, but it looked to be a tawny rump and long tail, disappearing behind a projection of sandstone. Theron estimated the distance away. About 75 yards.

Stop it. Stop thinking like this. Circle back around to camp and look for deer upwind as you walk. Keep your sidearm handy, and if some curious cougar gets too close, fire off a round or two to scare him off.

Theron came to a level spot by a wall of rock, the mountainside sloping away. Usually, it would be a perfect spot. But today, he was looking at a rock wall that went straight up for 20 feet, and the prospects were entirely disquieting. Anything might be up there, above where he’d be sitting. He looked further along his path, and just beyond that spot was a place where the rocks jutted out, creating an overhang. He went there instead, unburdened himself from his gear, pulled out his binoculars, and sat down. If anything came off the rocks, it would have to plop down five feet in front of him rather than straight down on top.

Theron pulled out the snack bag, had a few more nibbles, sipped more water, and surveyed the surrounding terrain. He had a commanding view, and he determined he would stay here, looking for prey that now seemed unlikely to show up, until it was time to give up and go back to camp. It looked like the only thing he would kill today was time.

As seems to happen so often, resignation was soon met with a measure of reward. Theron was looking over the valley to the opposite slope, and his eyes caught a movement up on the ridge, far away. He lifted his binoculars. Sure enough, a buck and three does were coming over the opposite ridge, languid and grazing.

Theron rejoiced. This is it. But just not yet. He couldn’t very well get up from his spot and start moving, clearly visible, while the deer were coming to him, and they were too far away for him to chance a shot at the buck. He just had to watch them and see where they went.

But the deer were not on Theron’s time. They stopped for a while, poked around in the brush, ate, moved on a few feet, stopped again. Theron, so well imbued with the patience needed here, began to get angry. The frustration of the hunt, the suspense of what the mountain lion might be doing, was bringing him out of his normal, careful, concentrated state.

The deer were coming down the slope now, ever closer. Slowly, Theron reached down and picked up the rifle, held it up, and gazed through the scope. The buck’s harem were unremarkable, average sized and pretty like all deer. The buck himself, though. This was the Bambi Theron had joked with his friends about going to shoot. Stately, muscled, majestic. Maybe a ten-pointer. A lovely example of the best Nature had to offer. Theron imagined the head on his wall at home.

Theron sighted and estimated the distance, calculating the round’s fall from the rifle. The distance was still too great to be certain. He didn’t want to shoot anything but a kill shot, and the terrain between him and the deer was rugged, ragged, and questionable, with jagged rocks and tangled brush at the bottom of the valley that separated him from the deer. The shot would have to come when the deer was closer, and soon, in order for him to have time to traverse the valley, do what he needed to do with the kill, and still get back to camp,

before it gets dark.

The deer band moved a little more deliberately now, looking for lusher brush. Their browsing brought them down the slope, closer to Theron, still in full sight. They were looking back and forth, but not across the valley, because that presented no threat, which was good for Theron and his chances for a clean shot. He watched Bambi amble closer. Another 25 yards, and Theron would be willing to take the shot.

Off in the distance, a banshee shriek ripped through the air. It was a movie woman’s scream, shattering and shocking in the otherwise quiet mountain afternoon. The deer looked up, looking off to Theron’s right, turned tail, and started running back up to the mountain, to the ridge where they’d first appeared.

What the hell was that? But Theron knew. Cougars didn’t roar. They might purr, they might hiss like an oversized house cat, and snarl ferociously, but they didn’t roar. Their big vocalization was a scream. Unless Faye Wray had been resurrected in this hunt, the sound had to have come from a mountain lion.

But pumas screamed for mating or competition between males. Nothing here indicated that was happening. Theron’s anger and frustration with the disappearance of the deer was masked with the thought,

Is Sam chasing the deer off?

But that was absurd. That was giving the cat far too much credit, like being a cat god or something. Cougars didn’t scream like that to scare off prey.

And they don’t come in a 250-pound size and try to stalk people in a place where. . .

Where what?

. . . where three hunters have disappeared in the last five years.

Theron shook the thought off. It was making too much out of pretty much nothing. Theron had been interested in hunting in Hellrock for a long time, so he noticed the rare times when the area made the news. While it was true the hunters had not been found, a number of theories were in place, and none of them involved mountain lions. A man simply electing to disappear, which was the prevailing thought about the second missing man. Or perhaps one or more of them had fallen down a cliff and not yet been found. Or just dying from simple exposure, again not being found in this trackless expanse of mountains and alpine forest. Even perhaps a grizzly bear. No, it was wild land, people could be awkward and stupid about getting themselves in trouble, and sometimes mysteries didn’t get solved.

If Theron wanted a deer today, his next step would be to cross the valley, hike up the opposing slope, and start tracking the deer he’d seen. That was the most fun he had in his hunting experience, finding fresh marks, tracking, and closing in on the prey. But now he was feeling a little defeated. He looked down the bottom of the valley, trying to pick out an easier way through the ragged terrain there, and saw none.

Besides, Sam’s over there somewhere.

New plan, but not one that excited him. He would call it a day, put this valley behind him, and start heading back to camp. If a deer happened to come into view begging for a bullet, he might take the time to stop and take a shot, but otherwise, he’d just relax for the night, maybe do a little reading in the tent by the lantern’s light before striking out again in the morning, maybe in the opposite direction.

Or maybe just go home.

He stood, gathered up his gear, and before walking off, suddenly swiveled, almost expecting to see a long, tan form prowling up toward him.

Nothing. Theron turned and walked in a line that he hoped would bring him around the slopes, back to his campsite. He estimated he was at a higher elevation now than his camp, and that was good. It would be an easier walk getting back.

His eyes continued their scan of the surroundings as the hike carried him into denser brush, the rock outcroppings now more scattered but still plentiful. An odd shape upslope caught his attention. It was brush, sure, but a dead pile of it, not fallen naturally, but gathered together.

Just keep walking. But curiosity got of better of him, and he turned and trudged uphill to the pile. It looked like a mountain lion kill pile, but bigger than usual, which by now he had to attribute to Sampson’s MO. A cougar would make a kill, bolt down the first meal, taking out the internal organs first with their energy- and vitamin-rich contents, and cover the rest of the kill with brush to return to it. It was unusual behavior for cats in general but worked well for cougars.

Theron reached the brush pile. It looked to have been a larger pile at some point, used for covering a large carcass, but it was scattered and depleted some now, the prey under it long consumed. Theron unslung his rifle and poked idly around the brush with the muzzle. Maybe in here he’d see a deer up close after all, or what was left of one. Maybe a skull. He pushed aside one section of branches and froze.

Cleaned off by persistent scavengers, and bleached out some by sun and rain, were the stark bony remains of a human hand and part of a forearm.

The sudden shock and accompanying fear closed Theron’s throat momentarily. He stepped back and the brush fell back into place, covering up the hand. Theron glanced around wildly. Nothing else was around.

Calm down. His heart was hammering in his chest, breath quick, his skin pebbled up in goosebumps. He brought his rifle up, at the ready. Think. He had to get back to camp, pack it up, and get back out to town and alert Forest Service or the police or somebody about this. Yes, that was it. The hunt was over. He had to do his civic duty. At least they’d know now what happened to one of the hunters.

Theron turned away from the pile and continued on what he thought was the way back to camp. Without thinking about it, he was at a trot now, fear urging him on, panting under the weight of his gear.

Stop. Calm down, damnit. If a mountain lion was around, it wouldn’t help to run and trigger the predator chase instinct. He slowed to a brisk walk, now better able to spin around as he traveled and keep his surroundings in view.

The alpine and brush gave way to stacked and short stubby rock spires again. Theron stopped, unnerved. He’d have to shoulder his rifle and use his hands to pick through the jumble. There were far too many places for Sam to lie in wait, in ambush mode. Was there an easier way around? The formation stretched up and down the slope.

Just turn around and go back the way you came. But the thought of walking past the brush pile again, the human remains, and the long hike that he’d just made, but this time terror-stricken and constantly looking out for an attack, was utterly defeating. No, he’d keep his rifle in his hands and just look for the easiest way possible through these rocks.

Theron walked and stepped his way into the rocks, grunting softly with exertion. Sometimes he had to hold the rifle in one hand, but he was making it through. He’d put this behind him and have an easier hike on the other side. Maybe the roughness of this formation would helped. Maybe a cougar would have as much trouble with this tough ground as it was troubling for Theron to clamber up and over.

He was walking slowly and carefully, steadying himself against a rock face with his left hand, holding his rifle in his right, when the attack came. A big impact from behind, like an unsuspecting quarterback being sacked by a behemoth lineman. Theron was pitched forward by the hurtling mass, throwing him off his feet into a shallow fall, off the rocks and onto a flat patch of ground just below. The rifle flew out of his hand, and he was pinned down by a tremendous weight. The air flew out of his body, and he took some back in with great panicked gulps.

The hissing of the angry cat and the tearing of the claws came next. Theron screamed, feeling the claws dig into his arms, then hearing the thrashing of teeth against the pack frame, and his head and shoulders were shaken back and forth. With vision blurred, out of breath, entirely disoriented, he reached down desperately to his side, grabbed the hilt of his knife, yanked it out of the sheath, and swung it up wildly, awkwardly, desperately behind him, trying to find the cat with it.

The weight was suddenly gone, and Theron braced for another attack, sobbing in shock and fear, not wanting to raise his head to look up and get a faceful of lion teeth. He waved his knife blindly in front of him, when he heard a drag-rattle some feet away.

He looked up and blinked, seeing, not yet believing, still recovering his wind in great gasps. The cougar had the rifle sling in his mouth, striding away with the rifle, battered and clattering, being dragged along.

Do something. Theron was prone, facing the retreating cat, perfect posture for a shot, if he only had a firearm. But he did. He reached down to his side, unsnapped the holster of his sidearm, brought it out, clicked off the safety, and aimed at the puma, his hands shaking from the terror, the adrenalin, and from trying to recover his breath. But there was no round in the chamber. He reached up, clicked the action back and forth, with the comforting click of the bullet seating, as his target disappeared around a rock corner. The rattling sounds of the dragged rifle diminished, then quieted completely for a moment, before picking up again, but now sounding far away, and only very briefly.

Theron got to his feet slowly, mouth open and chest heaving, looking around wildly, keeping his arms straight and steady as possible, the handgun pointed, ready to fire. He leaned back against a boulder, catching his breath, then suddenly stepping away and aiming up to the top of the rock, terror-stricken with the possibility of the cougar coming back.

Little by little, his breath returned and his fear started to recede. He had to move. He couldn’t just stay there for the rest of his life, however short that may be now, fearful of another attack. He let go of the automatic with one hand long enough to sheath his knife and adjust his pack frame. When he had it on his back, the length of it went over his neck, halfway up his head. He remembered the sound of the cougar’s teeth on the frame itself. They liked to catch prey by the throat or nose and suffocate them. Maybe the neck and sever the spinal cord. The frame had likely saved his life, and it was going to stay on.

With the adrenalin rush diminishing, Theron’s arms were starting to sting. He looked down one arm and then the next, saw rips in the fabric of the jacket and shirt. Blood seeped through, and it hurt, but he considered himself lucky. Had he been wearing just a shirt, his arms would have been laid open and maimed. Theron didn’t know much about a mountain lion’s claws and wondered if they were as toxic as a house cat’s. He’d be sure to check in at a hospital when he drove out.

Heart in his throat, he sidled over to the spot where the demon beast Sam had disappeared. His steps were punctuated by neck craning, body spinning in jerky movements, expecting a new snarling assault every second.

Around the corner where Sam had disappeared, the ground smoothed out a little, a wide ledge between the rock wall and the drop-off of an apparent cliff. Theron sidled as close as he dared to the edge, eyes darting back and forth from the surrounding rocks to the ground below. At the bottom of the drop, he saw what he was looking for.

His rifle was down at the bottom, probably retrievable, but Theron had no heart for it. The stock was broken and splintered. The scope was bent away from the frame, with little reflective shards of the scope glass scattered around the surrounding rocks.

Fear was subsumed briefly by sudden rage. That damn cat just cost me two thousand dollars! But the thought was replaced with a fearful wonder.

Sam, by now the fully acknowledged king of Hellrock, knew to take the rifle away and drop it off the cliff.

What kind of beast am I fighting here?

Theron continued around the rock formation, picking his way down, making his way to an open field below. His mind was racing. He’d stay in the open field as long as possible, with a clear field of vision, and keep at it the whole way back to camp. What else could be done? He just had the one clip in the sidearm that could carry 15 rounds, but Theron always loaded it with 13 to keep from weakening the magazine spring.   He couldn’t waste ammo. He would have to keep the high ground as much as possible as he walked. He briefly entertained the thought of setting a fire downwind from himself and burning out or distracting Sam away, and alerting the forest rangers who would come and rescue him. But all the fire-starting gear was back at the camp.

No. He had to move with purpose. He walked across the field, relaxing a little, looking forward, left, right, behind. There were no rocks overhead for an ambush point for the cougar. Theron was coming up to the forest edge now, mostly lodgepole pine, and that was comforting as well. He was pretty sure that Sam couldn’t sneak up undetected, winding around the skinny trees. Theron would have to watch out, though, for any rock outcroppings where cat might hide.

Just short of the tree line, Theron froze again. There, off to his left, in clear view, maybe a hundred and fifty yards away, next to a jut of sandstone, Sam sat, this time on his haunches, almost seeming to watch Theron casually, curiously.

Theron’s heart quickened its pace as fear gripped him. The mountain lion was, for the first time, obviously not in attack or stalk mode. But still, this was the bundle of homicidal ferocity that had nearly killed him earlier. Theron calculated the distance. It would be impossible to get an accurate shot off with his sidearm at this range, but even a lucky bullet might deter, perhaps wound, perhaps even kill. But it would be a lob shot at this range.

Theron turned and faced Sam, slowly lifted the weapon with his right hand, steadying it with his left, his focus switching from the sights to the target and back again. As the muzzle raised, he saw in the distance the puma rise from his position, snarl, and bound away, behind the light brown pile of boulders beside him.

Theron lowered the gun. Just as well. Probably would be a waste of ammunition, trying to hit him at this range. But still, as before, Sam’s actions were unnerving. The cat was calm, but recognized the threat of the gun, and had apparently situated himself next to the cover of rocks, just in case.

Was he relaxed because he won and chased me out? But now he’s pissed again because I tried to shoot him? Theron didn’t want to think of that. He briefly considered approaching the rock pile where his adversary was, gun at the ready, and just taking the cat on in a do-or-die struggle. But Theron’s idea of the sport of hunting didn’t include a one-on-one match with his own life at stake.

Theron walked into the alpine forest, keeping his eye on the sandstone pile as long as he could see it through the trees. Sam didn’t emerge, and Theron was well on his way by the time the rocks were out of sight, but he wasn’t comforted. He knew a puma could run very fast, and it would take very little time for Sam make up the distance. Theron stayed his course walking, keeping a look out in the general direction of where he’d seen the cat. Several times, he thought he caught a streak of movement at a distance through the trees, and each time he turned to look, but failed to spot anything.

His nerves were getting to him, he knew. The minutes of walking stretched out. He tried to think of how long it might take to get back to camp. He was now dreading every step, anticipating a flash of a tawny coat attacking any second, hearing the sound of the animal with every moment of the wind blowing through the pines, the rustling of aspen leaves, sensing imagined movement more and more with every swaying of brush, and he could no longer trust his own senses.

Up ahead, just off the line of his path, a granite pile rose, with a flat side facing Theron. It looked like a possible ambush point, and as he studied it, he saw an indistinct bundle at the base of the rock wall.

Let it go. But again, he was consumed by curiosity. The bundle looked like it could be some piece of clothing, and maybe it was something that had belonged to one of the missing hunters, maybe the owner of the hand back there, or perhaps it was someone else hiking in these woods that he could join with to find their way out.

Theron approached the bundle slowly, sidearm held out stiffly in front of him, safety off, round chambered, ready to fire. He sighted along the top of the rocks, every crevice that might be an opening for his stalker. Now and then, he whirled around, checking his surroundings, making sure that Sam wasn’t sneaking up from behind.

Nothing.

As Theron drew closer, he saw it was indeed an article of clothing, a camouflage jacket, looking as though it had been left there casually in a heap. He got down on one knee next to it, once again surveying the surroundings outcroppings, muzzle-first. Nothing. No movement. No sound.

Theron held up his handgun, still cocked, still at the ready, and lifted the jacket. He was looking at the front of it, and it looked unremarkable, just surprisingly clean. He turned the jacket over and gasped.

On the back of the jacket were clear claw rip marks, and dried blood spread out from the neckline and down the back.

How long has this been here? He thought. If this was from one of the missing hunters, it had to be at least a year old, and should be much more worn and faded, battered by the unkind elements. Unless,

Oh, dear God. I think I’ve just been baited. And then he heard the hiss behind him, loud, close, furious, unmistakable.

Theron’s heart raced, his breath stopped, but the mind came to a bright shining clearness, a brightness he’d never experienced before, not even in the most peaceful outdoor moments. It was the clarity that came with the knowledge that death was imminent.

If I move fast, it’ll jump me. If I try to run away, it’ll have me before I get two steps.

But if it wanted to jump and kill me, it would’ve done so by now.

Theron rose to his feet deliberately, holding his arms out, but not dropping his handgun. Very slowly, he turned his head to look back, waiting for the rush of the cat at any moment, hoping he was projecting calmness. He didn’t see anything at first, and he had to twist his body a little bit more.

Sam came into his view. The cat was on a rounded rock about ten feet away, easy distance for an animal that could bound 30 or 40 feet along the ground. The body was coiled to spring. The eyes were fixed on Theron, but Theron saw no anger in them.

No, in Theron’s mind, the mountain lion’s eyes projected hate, just pure hate.

Keeping his voice low and even, Theron spoke, hoping that the first sound of his voice wouldn’t incite Sam to spring. “You are one gorgeous animal,” he said, feeling foolish. “But I wasn’t going to shoot when I saw you. I was just trying to get a look. I’m not a threat to you.”

And the thought came, so strange, so odd, that it almost seemed like someone else talking, And deer aren’t a threat to you.

Theron continued to look out of the corner of his eye. The cougar was indeed a creature of near-mystical stature. He was huge, outweighing his biggest brethren by a good 40 or 50 pounds. The front feet were perched on the rock, the back legs braced to spring, the rump up, tail switching. Theron suddenly wondered why it hadn’t jumped yet, why it had issued a hissing challenge rather than just pouncing on Theron when it had the opportunity.

The absurd but chilling thought came: He’s giving me a sporting chance.

Even in his rising panic, he abandoned that idea. The puma was simply enjoying his victim’s increasing fear. But still, this was a moment of time that could be used.

Theron’s throat was suddenly dry, and the sounds of the world muted to silence as he thought through this. Maybe he could just keep turning, the gun in his hand, until he was aiming at the cat, and shoot.

He spoke up again in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “Look, I just came out here to hunt, just like you,” and as he looked back to Sam’s face, started turning his body, gun hand first, to the back.

The puma snarled now, nearly a scream, and Theron saw the rump go up, and Theron stopped his turning. “Sorry, sorry,” he said, as if trying to tell a parent he’d just made a mistake, and again feeling foolish to be saying anything at all to the animal.

Sam wasn’t going to let Theron move, and he could pounce any second. Theron couldn’t see any way out. He would have to turn fast, very fast, and take a shot, probably while Sam was in midair. Did he have the quickness to do it in time? Did he have the presence of mind to be on-target in the split second he’d have to shoot? Or would Sam, so quick, so powerful, be on him, clamping down on his face, before he could get a shot off, or with Theron having missed on his one chance?

Despite his terror, an intensity of thrill shot through Theron. This was true sport. This was a real contest. Just him and the cat, and just one chance for each of them.

Theron felt wisps of wind lifting the short hair just under his cap and on his hands. He could smell the surrounding pine, the faint musk of the puma, even his own blood on his arms, the little sting of the cuts with the dried blood, could hear the rustle of the wind through the trees, the faint chirpings of birds in the trees, the chatter of a squirrel some ways away, and he knew with renewed clarity that he could never feel more alive than he did at this very moment.

“However this turns out, thank you Sam,” he said, closed his eyes, steeling himself, thinking quickly through his next move that he’d better make fast before Sam decided to take things on himself, tightened his grip on his handgun, decided to yell as he turned just in a wild hope that it would distract the cat for a split second. He took in a breath, and…

Theron turned and screamed, swinging the gun out in front of him as the cougar, powerful and sleek in a way that dreams might conjure, launched himself through the air, venting his own uncanny shriek.

The chirping of the birds, the chattering of the squirrels, all stopped for a moment to the sound of the man’s yell, the cat’s screech, and the sound of a gunshot, all coming together nearly simultaneously.

——

Jonah came into the ranger station. Bev, sitting at the desk, waved a hi.

“Welcome back,” Bev called out. “Just got a call. The Secretary has made Hellrock off limits to hunting.”

Jonah plopped down in the chair next to Bev’s desk. “Not surprising.”

“No, but the fun just begins. We have to have signage on all the access trails, all the easement roads. But we’re not budgeted for it. So it takes a special appropriation. So we’re supposed to start ordering signs without paying for them.”

“Sure, that’ll go over well,” Jonah replied.

Bev tapped at her keyboard as Jonah slumped, took off his smokie, and rubbed his eyes. “The hunter story was the tipping point, I take it,” he said.

Bev nodded. “I take it too.”

Jonah leaned back. “Any search groups? Did anyone find anything?”
Bev stopped tapping a moment and turned to him. “Nothing unusual. The County volunteers are stretched thin, but they said they’d do what they could. We don’t have the money or manpower to go through the woods. Fish and Wildlife might help, but it’s not lighting up their radar.”

“Same old story,” Jonah said. He shook his head. “Now it’s four hunters missing in, what, the last five or six years? You can’t tell me it’s coincidence.”

“Five years, and it’s not coincidence,” came Bev’s rejoinder. “It’s humans and it’s nature. There’s about a million things that could go south for someone in Hellrock.”

“Sure,” Jonah said, and offered, “We’re not going to know until one day, one year, some hiker at the base of a cliff finds human remains, freaks out, and calls it in.”

“Yup,” Bev said. She looked up from the keyboard. “But it won’t be me. I’m not going through that patch of ground alone and just for the fun of it.”

“I understand,” Jonah said. “It’d be more work than fun. But you know, I just might sometime, maybe next summer, when it’s warmer and drier. It’d be nice to find out what happened to any of those guys so the families could know.”

“Happy hunting,” Bev replied, and returned to her keyboard.

 

— Grandpa

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