The paw prints of the huge cat were clear as day in the soft mud of the pasture. They dotted off toward a stand of juniper trees in the darkening sky. There were drag marks speckled with tufts of white goat hair and blood.
"See that, Eattie?" Pa said, bending to a knee, clutching his rifle in the left hand, feeling the depressions of the great paw with his right. "She dragged ol' Zeke that way." He nodded to the forest over his shoulder. "Most likely, whatever she doesn't finish, we'll find half-buried for her to snack on later."
Ethel was 10. Her brother would have been almost 8 by now. If he hadn't died of pneumonia three years before, he would've been Pa's apprentice at this moment. As it was, little Eattie was the family's best hope to keep the land in the bloodline.
Papa was quite a bit older than her mother. He was strong and able now, at 55, but all it might take was one accident or one winter that was too hard, and then who would be left to tend the manly duties of the ranch?
Eattie's new responsibility began when Pa handed her a shovel to help dig Simon's grave. Her hands blistered on the wooden handle, and the arm she'd broken before the winter was still weak from its time in the cast. She scooped the loose dirt from the hole with erratic control as Pa swung his pick into the clay. She wanted to sit down. Pa wouldn't let her.
"There's a rhythm to things, and you either obey it or you get left behind," he said. "Now's the time to build your strength for when the pace really matters."
She resumed shoveling, her little back aching for mercy that would never come. Her thoughts crawled into a hole very much like the one she was digging, until the cries of her body were muffled, as if buried by the dirt and rocks piling up beside her.
There were muffled cries of fear inside her now, standing next to Pa in the dying light, stalking the cougar that had grazed on their livestock since Christmas. There was a twinge to run for the house. Instead she stood still. The chatter in her head drifted off with the breeze and she was empty again. Removed and indifferent to whatever would happen.
"Are we gonna go after it now, Pa?"
There was another puff of wind in their faces, rolling down from the mountains before he answered.
"The air is in our favor right now, but I don't think it's the best idea to chase after her in the dark so ill prepared," he said. "We'll see if Daniel will help us with his dogs tomorrow. I think we'll get 'er this time."
Ethel had moved very little in the three days since she found the pool of water in the dry canyon. The pool was very full, thanks to the gully washer she weathered her first evening there. At first she'd toyed with the idea of continuing on, knowing there might be more water along the way to sustain her after the storm. The pain of her broken ankle nixed those ambitions, however.
That was probably for the better, since the sun had returned with all its might and dried things out very quickly. Next to the pool, water was no longer a concern. That was one thing off her list for the moment. But she was out of food. Her cigarettes were also gone, except for one that she saved as something to hope for; something she would only allow herself under special circumstances, be they good or bad. In the meantime, her Bic lighter still worked and she had a variety of clothes in her backpack. She longed for the blanket she had left up on the rim, however. It was a hundred paces from her broken-down car, where she had slept her first night with so little care about her future.
She was probably better than most people when it came to ignoring the hunger pangs that hit her like nails in the gut. She had a way of turning off her mind by crawling down into her memories. A human can only do that for so long, though. Eventually thoughts become circular. All this thinking was steering her sharply back to the problem at hand, which was lack of food.
She caught herself fantasizing about all the food she could buy with her lottery winnings: the lobster buffets of Las Vegas casinos she'd heard all about from Hal, whose ashes also sat idly in the car on the rim.
She was so immersed in fantasy that she didn't even register the mountain lion as it lapped water on the other side of the pond.
Wait – what?!? Her mind did a double take. It was only after the cat paused to look at her for a long moment before limping off that she realized what she'd seen.
Even over the barking dogs and the gunshot ringing in her ears, she heard Pa's curse: "Shit! I only wounded her. Shit. Dang it all to hell."
They tracked the cat for a while after, but lost her in the thick brush and rock outcroppings where the dogs couldn't go any farther. They found her den, though. Two kittens just less than a year old were mewing for their mamma.
"They're cute!" Eattie cried, lunging toward the den.
"Stand back!" Pa said, catching her in the chest with his arm. His right hand was already leveling the barrel of his pistol. Eattie turned away as two more thunder cracks split her ears.
"That explains why she needed such a steady supply of food," Pa said. "If she doesn't die from the wound, we'll see more of her than ever. She won't be able to hunt as well." His words heaved between breaths. "She'll need the easy prey of our livestock."
They never saw the cat again. For several days, Pa stayed up late and got up before dawn, hoping to finish the job. He walked the perimeter of the pastures, scanning for fresh signs. He finally concluded the lion must be dead.
The cat and its kittens lived in Eattie's dreams, though. She often felt a shiver down her spine when she walked through the trees to the top of the ridge to watch a sunset. There was a nagging feeling that she was being stalked. Nothing ever came of it, but there were times when she heard an unexpected SNAP in the brush and her nerves jumped like frogs in a pond. It bothered her that they never found the lion or the remains of Zeke the goat. Part of her wanted to meet the lion, and that's what scared her most.
In the twilight of the evening, Ethel was suddenly a little girl alone in the woods all over again. She was tempted to reach for her last cigarette. Her hand settled around the green lighter. She pulled it out of her pocket and gripped it in her hand like a talisman, resisting the urge to pluck out the final cigarette as well. She pulled her knees up to her chin, pressing her rounded back against the rocky alcove. She craved fire.
Of course! Fire. Her cigarettes had filled that desire well enough until now. Why hadn't she thought of this before? There was plenty of dry fuel around. If only she didn't have to leave her little stone shelter. Just the thought of exposing her back to the darkness had her reaching for her jacket. With at least a slightly better illusion of armor, she crawled into night where a giant cat lurked god only knew where. She pulled tufts of brittle grass out of the rock dust and snapped thorny, dead branches off whatever bushes she could without straying more than a hundred feet from her dwelling. Every so often, she looked over her shoulder, being careful to stay away from places where a predator could pounce. That was pretty much everywhere in the little canyon, though. She collected the tinder much like sweeping a floor. She made little piles of tinder as she went along, then gathered it up in consolidated trips to the shallow fire pit she dug by the alcove.
At last she settled in for the night, glad to be done with her adventuring for the night. She held the lighter up to a handful of grass and stuck it under the pile of twigs in the sand. Soon a smoky blaze cast a bubble of orange light around her. The darkness piled up like a wall of snow settling around the thin wall of a tent. She was now as good as blind to anything that might be lurking more than fifteen feet away, but she had a rock over her head, with fire and water guarding her flanks.
It was a lot of work to keep the tiny blaze going with such small kindling. The flames had to be fed early and often or else they receded into a pile of smoke and ash. It was good, though, as it kept her occupied in addition to the hypnotizing effect of the hot, dancing tongues that flickered from the wood. Whenever she watched fire, the flames beckoned thoughts of snakes – the way the forked tongue of a serpent darted in and out of its mouth, sensing the air.
Besides the coyotes and the cats that prowled around the ranch, Ethel had grown up in the company of snakes as well. She was used to the bull snakes and the garter snakes that loved the barn and gardens. Not even a rattlesnake bothered her much. They were like the black widows she was used to watching out for whenever she rummaged in the tool shed; a creature to respect but not to fear as long as you were smart about them. She never got the shivers about a snake in the way she did with the thought of a lion stalking her.
"I dare you to catch it!" Hal said. He sat comfortably in his saddle above the ground, gripping the reigns of his skittish horse. Eattie had been walking along beside him, checking for repairs that were needed along the fence line, when the snake surprised them. It was coiled with its tail buzzing ten feet in front of her. Hal's horse had already pulled back a few paces before he brought it back under control. At 14 years old, he was two years older than she was, but she was more grown up in many respects. Hal sensed this, and like any insecure teenage boy, he sought opportunities to make up for it. The ploy often came in the form of a dare. Nearly as often, Eattie indulged the younger girl in her desire to win the approval of an older boy. In general, she beat Hal in his own games by calling his bluff.
She stood there a moment, studying the situation as the rattler continued its angry buzz. The flickering tongue followed her as she sidestepped to the right, closing the gap between them by a foot to pick up a hefty stick.
"You're not actually going for it, are you?" Hal said, getting nervous.
"I'll show you how you catch a snake, Hallie boy."
The twisted old juniper limb was about five feet long and two inches thick. It was bleached white by the sun and forked at the end. One end was longer than its twin. Eattie broke it off so that the fork was more even, forming a shallow V. When this was done, she turned back to the snake.
Her calloused hands gripped the rough wood in front of her chest like a spear. She took a couple steps closer. The rattling intensified. She sidestepped some more until she was on the opposite side of the snake from Hal, who was still on horseback. Her hands tightened.
"Step toward it, Hal."
"Step toward the snake. Distract it."
"You don't have to do this!"
He clicked his heel into the horse. A hoof clomped forward in the dust and the snake sprang at Ethel with gaping fangs. She jumped back without meaning to. Just as quickly, the snake recoiled and turned its attention to the horse. Ethel licked her lips, took two soft steps, and lunged, spiking the stick into the ground.
The snake's body writhed violently, but the head didn't move. Couldn't move. It was pinned under the fork.
"This is how you catch a rattler!" Eattie taunted, bending down to grip the snake with her thumb over the back of its head. She tossed the juniper branch aside and held the writhing serpent in the air toward Hal. The horse reared its head and moved away. Hal reined it back under control.
"See? Do you see?"
"Yes! I see! Get it away already."
Eattie threw the diamondback like a Frisbee over the fence without a worry. It would be a suicidal snake to come back and attack them when it could just as easily slither away. Hal stared into the bushes where the menace had landed. His face was pale. Eattie laughed. It was always satisfying to put the well-to-do town boy in his place.
They'd been competing like that as long as she could remember. Their dads were longtime friends. Hal's pop owned the local hardware store and was more of a merchant than a rancher, but he and Hal would help Eattie's family with some occasional farm work. To admit that she liked the boy would be like kissing her brother, if he were still alive.
Ethel smiled to herself, forgetting where she was. She was lost in the fire. The blessing of old age is making sense of the times that were impossible to understand as they were happening, she thought. She smiled to think how she never imagined she would marry the goofball. Only after Hal returned from Korea in his army uniform did she realize she could never imagine being with anyone else.
"If only you were here to help me now," she murmured. She didn't notice she said it out loud. Her eyes were glazed and she was too close to falling asleep. There was not a care when a breath of wind snuffed the last of the fire.
In the morning, she stretched and surveyed the area. She'd had the best sleep in days, but this morning was the toughest yet. Her stomach felt like it was starting to digest itself. She splashed pond water on her face and guzzled what water she could to fill her guts with some kind of nourishment. That didn't do anything for the tobacco craving. In one sense, it gave her a new pain to focus on besides her broken ankle, which seemed dull by comparison except for the occasional wrong step. Then, in other moments, the craving just compounded what she was feeling. She was hobbling around more than usual, though. She was looking for something and hoping she wouldn't find it.
But there they were, plain as day – cougar tracks on the slope above her alcove. It appeared the cat had come back around during the night.
She sat down, feeling faint. The last cigarette went into her mouth without a thought. She brought the lighter to her face, sucked in a drag of sanity, and gazed around her. The rugged terrain seemed to pile on top of her like the mound of clay next to Simon's grave. And somewhere out there was a predator who would be sharing her watering hole.
What am I going to do? Her mind pleaded for an answer that seemed to drift away with the curling smoke.