by Tim Poland
First, a young woman and then a young man come into view. They appear where a hiking trail empties onto the bend in a gravel fire road on the far side of a short steel bridge. The final portion of the trail rises out of the ravine to the fire road on a steep incline. The young man and woman, winded from the climb, pause for a few moments, breathing deeply, before the man reaches into the pocket of his hiking shorts and retrieves a cell phone. The man is tall, moderately stocky, and the steel slats of the bridge rattle and clank under his hiking boots as he takes a few steps onto the bridge and holds his cell phone up. Amplified by the sheets of steel spanning the stream, the sound of the water cascading through fissures in the rock face and around boulders upstream grows louder as it passes under the bridge. The man projects his voice with some force when he calls out to the woman still standing at the mouth of the trail. “No signal.” The woman shrugs off the straps of the small daypack she carries and sets it at her feet on the gravel. She unzips a compartment on the pack flap, pokes around in the compartment with her fingers, and removes a cigarette and a disposable lighter. Leaving the daypack at her feet, she lights the cigarette, inhales a long, deep draught, and returns the lighter to the compartment. “I just don’t get you,” says the man. He paces slowly around the bridge, his cell phone still held up, moving it in a slow arc in front of his face as he walks. “All this hiking, out in nature stuff, and you still got to smoke those damn things.” The woman takes another long pull on her cigarette and exhales slowly, her gaze aimed directly at the man searching for a cell signal. “No, you don’t get me, do you, Mark?” she says. With the cigarette dangling from her lips, she rakes her fingers through her hair and shakes it out. “I’m just saying,” the man says, still pacing the bridge, his cell phone still held up before his eyes. “I mean, really, Evie. Doesn’t make any sense. Not to me.” The woman takes another pull on her cigarette, then drops her arm to her side, the cigarette notched in her fingers. Her lips move after she exhales, as if she is speaking, but no sound is audible. Taking the cigarette again in her lips, she lifts the small pack from the ground, props it against her thigh, removes a plastic water bottle from a pouch on the side, then slips her arms back into the pack straps. Water bottle in one hand, cigarette in the other, she walks onto the steel bridge towards the man. She drinks from the water bottle, then hands it to him. “Here,” she says, taking another draw on her cigarette. The man fans the air around him with his free hand, swatting at the strands of cigarette smoke, before taking the water bottle from the woman, drinking, and returning it to her. She retreats a few steps from him, stuffs the water bottle back into the pouch on the pack, and continues smoking. After a last puff, she mashes the spent cigarette under her boot, squats to retrieve the butt, and slips it into her pocket. As she stands, a small bird swoops near them, and the woman’s eyes follow it as it turns in an upward arc and alights on a branch extending over the fire road a few yards away. The bird is a brilliant red color with black wings. “Tanager,” she says. “Hunh?” The man’s eyes remain on the phone raised before him. “Scarlet tanager.” The man turns partially toward her but doesn’t lower his phone. “There,” she says, pointing to the bird. “Gorgeous.” His eyes follow to where she points, scanning the tree for a few seconds before he locates the bird. “Oh, yeah. Really red,” he says and turns back to his phone. The woman looks at the man, then back at the tanager, and her shoulders slump slightly. Her hand cups the back of her neck and rubs at it as she turns back toward the man. “Look, this just isn’t working, Mark,” she says. “Say what?” he says. He lowers the phone, taps the screen twice, then raises it again. The woman sighs, hitches her day pack further up on her shoulders and walks slowly past the man, across the bridge, and back onto the gravel of the fire road. “Let’s head back,” she says. “Should be able to get your signal once we get back up to the parkway.” “How far?” the man asks, following the woman. “About a mile,” she says. There is a slight rustling in the ferns and other low vegetation under the trees ahead of them to the left, and a mountain lion emerges onto the edge of the fire road. It’s close, perhaps ten or twelve yards away. “What the…?” The man’s boots skid on the sparse gravel when he lurches backwards. “Oh shit.” The mountain lion’s eyes are fixed on the man and woman. It lowers its front haunches and slightly extends one front paw into a partial crouch, its gaze still locked on the man and woman. “Keep still,” the woman says. “…the fuck. Is that a …?” The man’s voice catches in his throat. “Mountain lion. Just keep still.” The lion’s fur is tawny, slightly lighter in color on the chest than the rest of the body. Its belly fur is damp and matted. On its shoulder, a jagged white stripe—an old scar on which the fur has not grown back. Ribs and hip bones, outlined under its hide. Its tail, thick and long. “Try to make yourself look bigger,” the woman says, “but slowly. No sudden motion.” “Hunh?” The man’s eyes dart between the woman and the cat. The woman looks directly at the mountain lion. “Like this.” The woman stands straight, squares her shoulders, breathes deeply to inflate her chest, and rises slightly on her toes. Her leg muscles are taut and defined. The man’s motions imitate the woman’s, but his breathing is more rapid. His chest heaves from his quick, shallow breaths. His phone is clutched tightly in his hand. Up on his toes, he is a full head taller than the woman. “Now what?” he asks. “Shhhh,” she says. The mountain lion remains locked in position, eyeing the man and woman for a few seconds, then backs out of its crouch, turns and retreats into the low vegetation. “Holy shit,” the man says. “Let’s go.” The woman lowers back onto her heels and exhales. “Don’t run. Walk. It’s still in there somewhere.” “I thought there weren’t any mountain lions this far east.” The man’s stride is long and deliberate as they start walking up the fire road. “I guess that one didn’t get the memo.” The woman’s stride is steady, rhythmic. “Shit.” The man raises the hand holding his phone and shakes it. “Should’ve gotten a video.” “Keep walking,” says the woman. Again, the mountain lion emerges onto the fire road, now several yards behind the man and woman. It follows for a few paces, slowly, its shoulders lowered, stalking them. It pauses its approach when the man looks back over his shoulder and sees it. “Son of a bitch, it’s back.” When the man spins around to face the cat, the woman turns to see it, too. The mountain lion remains frozen in its stance, the tip of its long tail switching slightly from side to side. The man raises his phone, taps the screen, and begins filming. “Nice kitty,” he says. “Don’t.” The woman slowly reaches out to the man’s arm and begins to lower it when the mountain lion displays its fangs, emits a low hiss, rises out of its crouch and charges. As the man turns to flee, his free hand shoots out and grabs the strap of the woman’s day pack. Attempting to pull her along with him, his effort only throws her off balance. She tumbles face forward on the gravel road. Before she can regain her footing, the cat is on her.
The sun is now behind the ridge, and the afternoon light in the ravine has dimmed. Thirty or forty feet down the embankment from the fire road, the mountain lion is stretched along a fallen tree trunk, cleaning itself. It licks at the blood drying on its jowls and paws. Its flanks expand and contract with its breathing—steady, rhythmic. The tail is black-tipped and flips slowly back and forth over the top of the tree trunk. The dead tree trunk on which the cat rests lies across rocks and other snags, leaving a gap between the thick trunk and the forest floor. In that gap beneath its perch the cat has cached the young woman. A ring of raw, raked, dark earth encircles the tangled heap of leaves, twigs and loam covering the woman’s body. One hand and the arm up to the elbow are exposed at the edge of the cache. The arm and hand show dark claw marks. Smears of leaf and dark soil adhere to the tracks of dried blood. There is a watch on the wrist. A few inches away, a thick shank of sandy brown hair is visible, matted, tangled, and streaked dark red. The mountain lion licks a front paw and runs it over its face. As it wipes the paw a second time over its face, the cat stops abruptly, alert, its eyes and ears turned up to the sound of a vehicle approaching rapidly on the fire road. A green and white SUV skids to a stop, spraying gravel from under the tires. The side of the vehicle is emblazoned with an insignia and the words “Park Police.” Three people exit the vehicle. From the front, a man and a woman. Both are park officers, wearing gray and green uniforms, badges on their shirts and sidearms on their belts. Out of the rear seat comes the young man. His t-shirt is torn, his left arm and leg bloodied, and he is limping noticeably. “Evie,” he calls out, leaning on his open door. The officers stand beside each other at the front of the vehicle, looking down. A day pack lies at the edge of the road, one strap torn loose. The gravel and dirt of the fire road have been kicked up and scattered at one spot, and gobbets of blood lead from that spot off the road to the embankment down into the ravine. Their eyes follow down the embankment in the direction of the blood, and they immediately spot the mountain lion. It has risen on the tree trunk, and its fangs are bared. “Oh, sweet Jesus,” says the male officer. “It really is a cougar.” “I told you,” says the young man, stepping up behind the officers before calling out again. “Evie.” “Hush,” says the female officer. She has already stepped to the rear of the vehicle, opened the tailgate and removed a rifle. She clicks off the safety and checks the magazine before returning to the side of the other officer. The male officer removes his sidearm from its holster, turns to the young man, and holds his hand palm out toward him. “Don’t move. Stay right there,” he says.The two officers step from the road and begin slowly to inch their way down the embankment. The cat slinks down from its perch and steps onto the cached body. Under the weight of the mountain lion, the exposed hand jerks slightly, then falls still again. The cat growls, again showing its fangs. The officers stop. The man steps to the side, and the woman takes one step forward, plants her feet, and raises the rifle to her shoulder.Behind them, the young man limps to the edge of the fire road. He fishes his phone from his pocket, raises it before his face, taps the screen, and begins filming.