Nature Short Story #3: Forest Cat – Part 2

(Please see the entry for Friday, March 20 for the First Part of this fiction short story)

“I better get going.” I grabbed one of the forest trail topo maps from the counter display.

Erick made a move to grab his jacket, but then checked himself. I knew he shouldn’t leave his post, and I didn’t want him to. I didn’t need help or companionship. I wanted to find the cougar, and in the process, find Bess, the Witch of the Forest.

I’m not saying that I ever believed Bess Milton was really a witch. But time can distort things, and when you’re an impressionable child, images imprint on your brain. Did she really look as crazy as I remembered with old, mismatched clothes? And was there really something mystical and scary about the expression on her face? I expected to feel entirely different when I saw her again.

I glanced up at the sky as I left Ranger Station P. Several good hours of daylight remained. I knew from experience that dark fell fast in the forest on the mountain. The drooping branches of the trees sucked in whatever light made it through them and left the forest floor in shadow most of the day.

After studying the topo map, I headed away from the Station and up the forest road that should take me nearest the point where the cougar had been shot. After that, I would be on foot. I parked my SUV as far off the road as I could, gathered my gear and the map, and headed out. Using GPS coordinates, I soon found the place Erick had identified. A hunter’s blind and a nearby tree stand convinced me that I was in the right place. I would track the blood trail as far as I could, and then use my compass and the map to find Bess’ cabin.

After some careful study of the area around the tree stand, I finally stumbled on the blood trail, then followed it – and the cougar’s tracks – through a low, muddy area and up into a rock fall. There, I lost it.

I checked my compass once again, and then began a circular search of the ground for traces of blood. After fifteen minutes, I was about to give up, when I found a small drop of blood at the base of a tree.  Once again, I began a circular search and came up empty.  I went back to the tree, and looked up. Although there was no sign of the animal, I thought I could see a few more traces of blood on leaves a few yards up into the tree. Most likely, she had waited there, assessed her injury, regained some strength before moving on. But where had she gone?

I unhooked my back pack, hung my mini binoculars around my neck, and climbed the tree.

From my vantage point, about twenty feet up, the forest spread out and gave me the lay of the land. A rocky stream rippled down the mountain a hundred yards a way with a steep bluff on the opposite side. A dark area on the side of the bluff could be a cave. I continued my 360 degree scan of the area, and then went around again, slower. This time, I found something else.

A surprisingly large amount of deadfall had accumulated at the base of a large rock fall about fifty yards away. Although it had a natural appearance, there was something about it that sparked my interest. It had all the makings of a carefully constructed brush shelter, no more than four feet tall. I eased back down the tree and moved quietly toward it. I swung the gun around, and loaded one of the tranquilizer darts.
Ten steps away from the shelter, I stopped and listened. The woods were quiet. And that very silence betrayed my presence. If there was something in the shelter, it was listening, too. It’s muscles were bunched, ready to pounce into action. Was I ready for the cat to come charging out at me? An even more pressing question, was I ready to go in after it?

The answer to the second question was definitely no. I would be at a disadvantage, crouched down, looking into the dark. It would be immensely better if I could draw the animal out, or at least evoke some response from it so that I knew what I was dealing with.

I picked up a stick and threw it onto the shelter. It thudded into the branches, but nothing happened. I pitched another, with the same result. And then I grabbed a rock about the size of my fist. It crashed into the branches, breaking a few of them, and thudded down inside the shelter.

“Stop. Go away.”  The voice was weak.

“Bess? Is that you? Are you hurt?” I stepped closer, and heard a deep sigh. “I’m coming in. I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Go away.”

“I’m Shea Maroney, from town. There’s a wounded cougar in the forest, and I’m trying to find her, to help her. Have you seen her?”

Leaves rustled inside the shelter and then a few branches moved, revealing an opening. A hand reached through. I grabbed the hand and pulled gently. The woman, small and dressed in dark denims and a dark jacket, easily moved through the opening, and then collapsed on the ground just outside the brush shelter.

She stared at my face with the same blank expression I remembered from years ago. Her eyes shifted to the forest behind me. “Help me get to my cabin. It’s not far, but my leg —“

Blood had soaked her left pantleg, and a tear gaped open revealing a bloody wound.

For a moment, I was back in elementary school. Here was the witch of the forest with a leg wound, and a hunter had reported wounding a cougar in the leg. 
“What happened?” I ignored the shiver that ran up my spine. Bess was very much a woman, not a cougar.

“Help me to my cabin.”

I prompted her for more information; she shook her head. I shrugged.  “Which way?”

She tilted her head to the east. Together we moved through the trees, around rocks, across streams. Several times, we stopped to rest. What little light there was, dimmed.

We climbed a mountainside, stopping every few feet. She leaned into me until most of her weight rested against me. I panted with the exertion of pulling her forward, even though she was a small woman, much smaller than I remembered.

On a rocky slope, she dropped to her knees. I bent beside her. Her eyes searched my face. Around us, night fell. The first evening star twinkled in the sky above the trees. I pulled in deep breaths and cleared my head. Looked like I would be in the forest for the night.  How much farther to her cabin?

Her look shifted to a spot behind me and slightly lower on the hillside. “There.”

(Part 3 of “Forest Cat” will publish on Friday, Feb 3.)

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