It was wicked cold, extra dark under the overcast night sky, my shoulder was telling me I needed to grow a brain instead of a set of raging hormones, the stocky roan I’d been issued had a jarring gait even at a walk, and I had to pee but couldn’t have found my equipment in the snow-crackling temperature even if Tommy Gunderson had been willing to call a halt so the little boy in the posse could go wee-wee.
Other than that, things were hunky dory.
Gunderson knew the trail to Weeping Widow Waterfall better than anyone else, having guided hunters in the area more than once, so it made sense that he was riding point. Behind him rode the desirable Julia, but it was all I could do to glimpse a bit of the white on her Appaloosa mare’s rump in the stygian night under the trees…and I wasn’t that into horses, thank you very much. Behind me, towering Jake Sedlacek rode his deadly stud, and I only hoped that oversized equine wasn’t getting any ideas about me. Having the Trader covering my back, riding tail end Charlie, did make me feel relatively safe for the moment, but that only allowed me mental space enough to bitch like a shrew of a wife chewing out a henpecked husband.
In my head. I certainly wasn’t going to whimper like a little girl in this company of stalwart warriors. I’d die first. Which unfortunately might actually happen.
Off to the side as usual, ranging who knew where, the giant wardog Slash patrolled according to his own whim. “Scout,” Grunt had told him when we first set out, about two hours after sunset, and we hadn’t seen him since. The horses sensed him every now and then, though; you could tell he made them all nervous, except of course for Jake’s tall pinto, Buck. Those two, Slash and Buck, had been best buds for years, and for that matter the roan under me was about as edgy around the stud as he was around the dog. It was pretty clear Buck didn’t much like being relegated to the back of the column, and Outlaw knew full well he was right there behind us. Jake had informed me my horse was named after a song lyric from an ancient tune titled The Strawberry Roan, but he wouldn’t tell me any more than that. I had a hunch the horse in the song probably wasn’t any fun to ride, either.
Riding Outlaw to catch a bunch of outlaws. Figured. And naturally the kid in the posse had to lead the pack horse. The rest of them sure weren’t going to do it. If–no, when–we got into a fight, I was going to have a fun time figuring out how to handle two horses and still unlimber the heavy Before revolver from its saddle holster or even one of my beloved Sedlacek Special spears. I could have been sleeping nice and warm and snug right now, I moaned inwardly.
For how long this feeling sorry for myself went on, I had no idea, but the sound jerked me out of my pity party in a hurry. Slash, close off to our right, a touch ahead of me, roughly parallel to Juilia’s position. A low growl, touch of snarl in there, a message for the Universe. Slash, in guard position as we moved, the horses suddenly edgy but not really knowing why except that the wardog was singing his death song, not loudly, not complaining, not the slightest bit of fear. Just acceptance. There was an enemy out there he could not defeat, but he would go down trying.
How I knew this I did not question. It was fact.
“Slash! To me!” Jake’s roar thundered into the night, commanding, imperious.
And Slash ignored it.
Stupid hero complex, I thought, not the least certain whether I was referring to the giant animal or myself. As dark as it was, the snow provided the tiniest bit of visibility, shapes moving dimly across it, trees tall and stark on either side of the trail. Without hesitation, the pack horse’s lead rope was tied off hard and fast to my mount’s saddle horn and I was on the ground, the reins lashed to a sapling as I stepped forward and away from the horses, into the trees, toward the snarling dog. There was no room to pass my horses now, but Grunt was already ahead of me, still atop his big stud, the horse’s shoulder nearly knocking me down as he passed. Julia’s “What the–?” added to the mix; both she and her brother were for that moment startled into hesitation.
Hesitation for which we had no time. The tiger shot downslope through the timber before we could react, its huge body dwarfing the wardog as the pair rolled in lethal embrace. Neither Grunt nor I had a shot, but we fired anyway, the crack of my revolver overwhelmed by the thunder of his big bore carbine, a shiny Before weapon he called a stainless steel Marlin .45-70, fired one-handed from the hip as easily as I handled my six-shooter. Apparently, size does matter. We were at that instant one in our awareness that the monster cat had to be stopped, and if we’d hit Slash, it could be a no more vicious way to die than beneath the fangs and claws of dog’s greatest enemy.
Neither animal quit fighting, but we hadn’t entirely missed, just gotten the tiger’s attention. Time ceased to exist; there was only the Now, the pistol back in my sheath after it clicked empty and the short Sedlacek Special spear in my two hands, my shoulder injury forgotten in the heat of battle. Big Jake Sedlacek had his long knife in his hand, spears still in their saddle scabbard and the rifle temporarily abandoned as the cat attack became a dogpile. Julia was there now, too, though her presence barely registered, an avenging angel with a hand and a half sword stabbing whenever a patch of striped hide presented an opportunity, getting one clean two-handed swing that took off the great cat’s foreleg. One injury at a time we wore it down, ripped it to pieces like a school of piranha shredding a capybara in the murky waters of the fabled Amazon until it could fight no more. How many bullet wounds, how many spear and sword and knife cuts had it taken? I knew not, but that was one tough cat. We were covered in the dying animal’s blood, me more than any other but none of us unmarked, and I knew none of it.
Then it was over, and I collapsed to my hands and knees in the trampled, bloody snow, my retching counterpoint to the rest of our posse’s ragged breathing and Slash’s victorious growls as he worried the once magnificent hide. It should have mortified me, vomiting in front of my dream woman like that, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. Heck, I didn’t even know why the aftermath had so affected me this time.
There were wounds among us, though none fatal, the big dog having taken the worst of it, a claw slash across the face that ended up requiring seventeen stitches and a furrow across his right hip that had to be a friendly fire injury, though whether from his owner’s weapon or mine, none could tell, his .45-70 rifle and my .45 long Colt missiles both being big bore bullets. I’d been firing a short gun with which I was barely, but Jake had shot from the back of a charging horse. Either one of us could have done it, but I was glad we couldn’t be sure, and maybe Jake was, too.
How had the dog avoided the tiger’s jaws? I wondered. Could he really be that fast?
The trust level between Sedlacek and his canine was unbelievable; when we made camp for the night in a small clearing no more than a mile from the tiger’s cooling carcass, Slash took the whiskey disinfectant and needle puncture stitching like a trooper. The wardog who could and would kill an enemy without hesitation was as gentle as a lamb under his owner’s ministrations.
“He won’t bite me,” Jake said, reading my mind when he caught me looking. “Ever.” Camp was set up, the horses hobbled and fed a bit of grain from the packs, Julia had built the fire and Tommy was frying steaks, though the one for Slash would be simply thawed.
There was a story there, the extreme trust between Jake and Slash, but I had something else on my mind. Not about the humans so much, though we’d all acquitted ourselves well enough–if I hadn’t gotten in the way of Tommy getting a clear shot once, which I was pretty sure I had. Neither Gunderson had been hurt, though Tommy had come close enough to get a claw rip along the side of his left boot. Jake’s buckskins were slashed just above the right knee, requiring a splash of whiskey in the flesh wound but stitches only in the leather. The left side of my jaw hurt some, which I finally decided must have happened when a paw-swipe from the tiger bounced my spear haft right back against my face. Those were all important details, clear evidence that everybody had gotten into the fight–even Buck, Jake’s big pinto, would have fought if his rider hadn’t bailed off and told him to stay out of it–but my thoughts at the moment were for the tiger.
“The one I wounded, you think?”
No one had to ask for an explanation; the tale of my tangle with the tiger on our Sentinel field trip had spread throughout the valley like lightning-inspired wildfire in mid-August.
“Impossible to be sure,” Jake said finally. “Female for sure; I checked. And I think there was evidence of an older wound, but with as much damage as we all did to her, trying to figure that out in the middle of the night wasn’t worth the effort. If it was her, though, she traveled all the way from up the mountain to down here in the last couple of days. Not much for a traveling tiger, but injured like you’d done her?”
Tommy Gunderson rubbed his sizeable chin thoughtfully. “I vote for yes. Dawg, you wounded her deep, didn’t you? On the mountain, I mean.”
“You’d have thought so. Spear head buried all the way to the haft. I suppose I could have missed anything vital, but I don’t see how.”
“Me neither. But see, a wounded critter will most always travel downhill, and where she hit us is almost one hundred percent downhill from up near Sentinel Peak outpost, especially if you follow the path of least resistance all the way.” He sprinkled a pinch of salt on the steaks, considering. “She could have gotten there without once setting paw in the open valley, except maybe for a few spots, just at the edges. And maybe she got lucky when she tangled with you that first time. I once seen an eight point buck deer, big blacktail, musky as they come, take a crossbow bolt clean through one flank and out the other. He got away and healed up clean; it wasn’t till the next year that one of our customers downed him for good. I knew it was the same deer ’cause his antlers always growed freaky different, about half palmate like a moose before separating out to normal looking tines.”
That was good enough for me; I would go to my grave believing it was the same cat. “That old buck, was he edible?”
Gunderson snorted; his sister’s eyes twinkled in amusement. “Not hardly. Told that fool tenderfoot to leave him alone, we’d find him some better meat than that. But he had this thing about collecting the antlers. That monster buck was so heavy in rut, his neck so swelled up and him so overall full of musk, even the man’s dogs turned up their noses. And them dogs of his will eat skunks!”
We all chuckled at the image. Slash was fixed up, the steaks were ready, and we all fell to eating. According to Tommy, Weeping Widow Waterfall was only another mile up the trail, just far enough off and hidden from where we were that having a fire and shooting the breeze a bit was no danger even if Upward’s gang hadn’t left the area. We’d dragged in enough deadfall wood to keep some of the chill off; in our canvas wrapped blankets, feet to the fire like old Indian war parties and our weapons sharing our rolls, we ought to be able to get at least three good hours of sleep before rolling out at first light. Eating now would save time in the morning, too, no breakfast and lunch whenever Jake decided. He’d be leading the party after Weeping Widow; Tommy Gunderson freely agreed that the old Trader would serve as leader of our little party for the long haul.
It wasn’t until I was drifting off, clutching the cleaned and reloaded revolver as my security blanket, that I realized why I was feeling so content. The tiger attack had forced us to bond in a way little else could have done–and in a way which the same cat’s attack higher up on the mountain had not done. On the Sentinel field trip, we’d been a welter of confused students, one fellow (me) rushing in where angels feared to tread, one white-faced near-victim (Marcus), and of course the disciplined Sentinels. All different approaches, different roles. But not tonight. Aside from the two Gundersons having that brief startled moment, all five of us (Slash the wardog very much counting as one of the five) had reacted the same way: Take the fight to the tiger, consequences be damned. And we’d conquered. Become a team, or a tribe, or a clan. Something. And come through without losing anybody.
Sleep claimed me as I was thinking two things: Were I in Rodney Upward boots, I’d be quaking some, knowing the Fearsome Foursome dogged his trail, and I felt sorry for the tigress, not to mention the missing cub. Not that I’d be sharing that last part with anybody, now or ever.
Oh, yeah, there was a third thing: That Julia Gunderson was something else. Cut the tiger’s leg off with a sword! Heh!