a short story
Gary Baker, January 2014
(my first-written story of the new year)
“So,” lead inspector, Chiff Mason mumbled through lips pursed around a basic ballpoint pen, “judging by the spray,” he traced the gore with imaginary lines that led either way along the mountain trail, “we can safely say this was no ordinary attack…
The growl came from behind him with the snap of a twig and Barson spun around to find himself face to face with a massive wild cat. It’s eyes gleamed in the moonlight, it’s hide wet with the recent rainfall that had collected upon the shrubs, and it’s bared fangs shone like silver daggers in the night.
“There was no escaping this,” Mason declared, “he knew that much from the start.”
Suddenly the beast shot forward with intense speed, leaving Barson just enough time to stumble to the side and escape instant death with a long tear across his left shoulder, his backpack torn open in the same blow. He rolled through the trailside grass and came to his feet even as the beast came at him again, this time with a vengeance.
Again Barson moved out of the way, but was again hindered by his pack.
“So he dropped the remaining strap from his right shoulder,” the inspector continued, following the boot prints and the now-dry, blood-soaked mud. The suited man stopped beside the shredded external frame laying on it’s side in the trail as though left by a careless child at play. “But it was here,” he nodded at a sudden change in the direction of the bootprints, “that Mr. Barson chose to fight back.”
The pack crackled as the porcelain of his camping bowl shattered within and yet Barson couldn’t think anything of it. He had no time. Nevertheless the hunting knife was in his hand in the blink of an eye, the sheath discarded into the dark, and the golden glow of the mountain lion’s eyes was reflecting off the blade like firelight.
When the cat leapt again, Barson was ready. Claws met his biceps as the young man clenched his fist and swung hard. Up and across in an arc that bisected the leap. Warmth seeped into his cheeks from fresh blood and he watched as the beast landed with a howl.
The man stumbled when the pain hit him, finding his walking stick as he toppled forward, and quickly struggled to use it to stand. He stood there with the darkness enveloping him like a blanket for the longest time, the wounds of his arms dripping down his outheld elbows and into the mud while he searched frantically for the assailing cat. In his left hand, Barson held himself up with the staff of worn, de-barked oak, and in his right, he held the blade like a lifeline, like a compass trying to find the lion out of impossible magnetism.
Inspector Mason scowled as he knelt beside the fallen knife, feline blood congealed across much of the glossy-yet-muddied chrome blade. “It was here, I am led to believe,” he looked to the police reporter taking notes in a handheld notebook, “that the cat came upon him again.”
Barson was slammed into the mud as the lion landed on his back from behind and pushed him deep into the rocky post-rain slush; but the beast’s momentum carried it further still and gave the young man that blessed second to regain himself.
Instantly he pushed himself from the ground as though having gained super strength when least expected and thus overshot it and landed on his feet with too much backwards inertia. He tripped over his own heels and almost fell again, had he not still been holding the staff. When he realized the knife had been lost he went white with fear.
This was it. This was how he would die.
Again the lion came at him, charging like a mad rhinoceros from out of the dark. He only noticed at the last second due to the splashing sound of mud, and absently swung the staff around and forward. The jaws gleamed and his reflexes kicked in. His body became a vehicle for the many years of limitless knightly dreams, of wishing he were some heroic armor-bearing knight for the king, and the walking stick became a weapon to be reckoned with. In a flash of hallucination enabled by blood loss and fear, the oak turned to Excalibur and the mountain lion a bloodthirsty dragon.
“Right here,” he indicated with a pointed gesture toward a place where pawprints had meshed with pools of gore, “is where the cat received a major blow, ultimately turning the tide.”
He set his jaw and felt the thin end of the staff pierce the forward crest of the lion’s chest, and subsequently slip upon the cat’s upper ribs. He fell as the beast sailed passed, regained his determination, and swung with all his might as a warrior to carry the extension of the legendary blade into the dragon’s side. He felt something within crumple, and the blade shattered back into a heft of arm-length oak with a wicked crackle.
The cat bellowed out in pain and it’s eyes lost color for a split second…
“...but then the lion reciprocated despite the shrapnel protruding from it’s side…”
...and then it turned back toward the backpacker with sudden animistic, feral fire burning deep within the confines of it’s will.
Barson watched in growing fear as the cat came again, slower now but still much too ferocious to be avoided. He barely brought the heft of oak up in time to land it square into the lion’s underarm as a stray paw swiped at his neck.
The cat landed hard, the staff piece still lodged deep in the soft spot where it’s front right paw connected with it’s chest, turned viciously sideways by the landing, and stumbled a few paces before it turned back toward Barson again. Their eyes held for a brief moment as the man felt his shirt grow warmer and his arms grow numb, when the beast huffed one last breath into the cold night and fell to the trailside grass.
Inspector Chiff Mason bit the end of his pen again and frowned at the corpse of the mountain lion laying halfway out of the trail. The beast was massive. Bigger than most other cats around these parts in the national park lands. The forest ranger, who had first arrived at the scene after he’d received the distressed call of a local hiker going for a morning run, had said the cat was affected by some tumor lodged in the lobes of it’s brain that controlled hunger.
He’d said that was the only plausible possibility for the attack.
“What I don’t understand,” Mason mumbled, “is why the boy did what came next…”
Barson leaned on his knees and panted hard air and fought to stay standing. He’d been sliced too deeply just above the collar, that much was obvious by now, and there was no way he was going to make it back alive. Even worse: there was no cell service to call for help… or to hear the voice of his fiance one last time.
He huffed through a blood-filled mouth and lost his dinner onto his feet. God it hurt so much. The whiteness of the numbing sensation was fleeting through his body like a phantom mist, thicker in some areas and thinner in others, but these places never stayed constant. He would lose full feeling of his left shoulder one second and the next he could feel every nerve crying out in a searing explosion of throbbing hellfire.
Before he knew it, the ground met his face with a thunderous echo…
…and there in front of him, inches from his nose and looking into his own, were the bloodshot eyes of the dying mountain lion as it fought to breathe it’s very last breath.
Barson felt the tears begin to flow, the sadness of it all summing up in that one glance as the beast and he recognized each other as equals, and that neither would survive to remember the sacrifice of the other as nature took it’s toll. He lifted a heavy, brick-laden right hand and placed it upon the cheek of the lion, meshing his fingers with the fur and a soft grin appeared across his cheeks.
“We’ve had a good run,” Barson whispered reassuringly as though to himself, “I’m just glad to have made it this far. Thank you.”
“Thank you?!” Mason interjected, catching the reporter off-guard. “Private Fennison, really? You think he thanked the beast?”
“Well, yeah,” the small man winced under the inspector’s glare, “the guy was a romanticist. It’s clear in the way he wrote all those books of poems that he thought himself a reincarnation of an age-old hero.”
“And you just assume that means he was thankful for such an attack?”
Fennison found himself looking at the way the young man had lain in death, with one arm held over the lion that had killed him, resting his palm on the soft spot of it’s cheek where one might cup the face of a pet or a lover. He gazed upon the way the two had bled out together from their numerous wounds, and how content the man was despite the circumstances. “Judging by the way Barson commonly ends his books of poetry, how the bad commonly becomes subjugated by the wonderful, I cannot help but think he died with a sense of loss at the creature’s life that was just as strong as that for his own.”
Mason pushed his lips forward in denial, “well don’t think that’s going into the report, Private: there is nothing to say why he chose to lay like that.” He stood taller and beamed, “in fact, I might rather believe the man was saying something more akin to ‘take that, asshole’ than some cheesy thank you.”