A WILDER WEST
— by Ted R. Blasingame
The range of low granite mountains baked in the prairie’s summer sun, heat waves shimmering into water mirages wherever there were flat places. A ghostly dust devil stirred up dirt in a dancing pirouette while heat-loving cicadas chirred across the plain, filling the air with their rolling song of mating.
The lone rider sitting atop a paint mare was oblivious to it all.
A dusty Stetson pulled down low on his brow shielded his eyes from the afternoon sun, but he wasn’t seeing much anyway. Allowing the mare to pick her own way through the foothills, his thoughts turned inward to the day’s events and to the memories of the son he had buried that morning.
Although the youthful cattle hand had been a full twenty-one years of age, the father could see only the face of a young boy, unwilling to remember the estranged son who had stopped talking to him two years earlier following the death of the wife of one and the mother of the other. Being thrown from a horse spooked by a diamond-backed rattlesnake was a senseless way to die, but few men get to choose the way they depart this world.
The mare snorted nervously and the rider looked up. The narrow pass she had taken them into was bordered on both sides by lichen-covered granite boulders festooned with scrub oak, prickly pear cactus and the small red and yellow petals of summer flowers.
Indian blanket, the rider remembered idly. His wife had always loved the small wildflowers and he had often brought her a handful whenever his travels led him back to their home. He reached out and plucked one from the canyon wall just as the horse snorted again.
Mindful of snakes like the one that had spooked his son’s stallion, the rider watched the boulders for signs of the deadly reptiles basking on the sun-warmed rocks; his ears were tuned to the warning sound of their tail castanets. The snakes were well camouflaged and could easily strike out at man or animal, but the only sound the rider heard was the buzzing of insects and the occasional cry of a hawk.
The mare whinnied nervously and the man patted her reassuringly on the neck. “Easy girl,” he said in a soothing tone. “I don’t hear any—”
A loud shriek sent chills down his spine despite the summer heat and he whipped his chin up, eyes suddenly wide. He had been so wrapped up in his memories and looking low for snakes that he had completely forgotten the terrain above.
He peered up into the angry face of a mountain lion that was so close that he could have easily tapped her on the nose with a well-aimed stone. At her feet were three kittens, cowering low against the rocks, and the rider knew he had unwittingly wandered too close to her den.
Man and feline locked eyes for a moment, but the shriek had panicked the horse and she tried to bolt away through the boulders before the rider could draw his pistol. Unwilling to let the intruder escape, the maddened cat leapt for them and landed heavy upon the man’s back, knocking him from the horse.
He landed hard in the dust as the horse ran away, but the cougar didn’t give him time to catch his breath. She clawed him, bit him hard, and probably would have mauled him to death, but another form jumped into the fray in a blur of claws, tawny fur and black spots. The mountain lion was bowled over in surprise but rolled away only to jump back up to her feet.
Standing over the injured man and facing her was a feline unlike any she had ever seen in her short life. It was covered in spots and was just as large as she was herself. The cougar screamed at the intruder in fury and prepared to launch herself at the newcomer, but the strange cat jumped first, clawing the air at her in a belligerent but decided un-catlike manner.
If she had been alone, the mountain lion would not have backed down from this new threat, but with the safety of her kittens at stake she quickly decided she was outnumbered and ran away to circumvent the rider and the spotted cat to get to her crying kits.
The intruder watched the mother cougar rush off with each of her kittens in turn, but the newcomer made no move to pursue her or to grab what could have been an easy meal each time she was off with another.
Once away to some distance, the cougar screamed out her fury, the shriek echoing off the granite canyon walls.
The injured man on the ground groaned in pain and forced his eyes open, vaguely wondering why he was still alive. He had been taken by surprise and he’d had no chance to draw knife or gun to defend himself. He coughed into the dirt and put a bitten hand up to the back of his neck, feeling blood soaking into his shirt. He was lucky to be alive, but feared he wouldn’t be for long. He was miles from Tin City, the small town where he had buried his son, and his horse had run off; his outlook wasn’t promising.
He managed to roll over onto his back, and it was then he saw a large spotted cat with round golden eyes peering down at him. His movements froze, and although he didn’t recognize what kind of feline it was that stood over him, he knew he would be unable to defend himself against another large predator. Whether it was fear or an act of preservation against the knowledge that he was about to be eaten he might never know, but for the first time in his life the man fainted dead away.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.