Copyright 2021 by Ciaran Doran
animal insisted on attacking despite best efforts to deflect it.
Please donít be offended if you find the fact that it had to be
shot unsuitable. Cougar attacks are real and the public should be
aware that they are an ambush predator (and therefore not to go in
their territory without safety in numbers, etc.)
rainy Sunday we headed into the woods after elk. The leaves were down
for the year, creating a rustling red and gold carpet so anything
within half a mile could hear us coming. Predators would pick us up
too if they got downwind. Coyotes are sensitive. A lot of people say
there are no wolves left in Missouri but Iíve seen plenty. They
might not roam in packs but nomads do cross the state border pretty
often. Whatís a line on a map to a wolf?
lions are the rarest of all in the Ozarks. Thereíve only been
sixty sightings in the past twenty years. That amounts to a mere
handful at any time. Since deer are plentiful the cougars donít
go hungry. Itís illegal to kill them though unless theyíre
directly attacking livestock or a person. Conservation Officers say
theyíre only dangerous if you surprise them or get too close to
their cubs. If you see a fresh kill though itís definitely
advisable to leave the area. Cougars will store their meat for later
and they wonít want you near it. Those cats are just about the
best hunters you can imagine. They can take a wolf down if they have
to and make mincemeat of any dog.
bring a dog along on a hunt. Theyíre likely to give chase and
get themselves killed and maybe you too. People get heroic about
saving their dogs but if youíre not armed and there isnít
even a rock to grab you gotta let them go, as sad as it is. Wild
animals are smart and theyíve got heightened senses.
Domesticated dogs are loyal but theyíre dumbed down. Their food
gets served right to them. They donít need to hunt or to flee.
Deer flee but theyíre good at hiding too and theyíll see
you coming from a long way off. Compared to a deerís vision,
humans might as well be under water. Thatís why Rick and me
were camouflaged to the hilt. It made no difference though. We had a
very poor day. Maybe because it was so damp everything just lay low.
The constant drizzle and the lack of action sure dampened our spirits
late afternoon we decided to call it quits. Sundown was less than an
hour away and without night-vision we werenít prepared to stay
out in the dark. Things change in the woods at night. They come
alive. It comes alive. A bug crawling on a leaf
sounds like a
snake. A bobcat sounds like someone possessed by a demon. Guys think
theyíre big men until they get lost in the woods at night. If
you ever do itíll be the longest night in the long story of
your life. Ghost stories didnít come from nowhere. People talk
about eyes that follow them. Fear gets so bad that folks hallucinate.
magnified times a hundred.
I had to stay out though, Iíd want my cousin Rick with me. Heís
my Dadís cousin really but heís only five years older
than me. Rick can handle himself. Iíve seen him break a guyís
arm in a bar fight. It wasnít his fault because the jerk
corporal came at him with a bottle. Rick just did what he had to do
to end it. Animals arenít the only thing you gotta be scared of
in the woods though. These days there are distillers high on crystal
meth too. They wander round their shacks and I heard one of them bit
into a guyís neck just like an animal. Steer clear. Meth makes
them go out of their minds. People arenít even human when
theyíre high. Our luck was out that day so we turned home in a
muted mood. We had barely gone ten meters when we heard a sound like
a woman screaming. I mean really screaming. It sounded like she was
getting murdered. Then it stopped and echoed eerily. Rick and I
looked at each other. We waited but nothing else broke the silence.
It was unnerving to say the least. There had been words in those
a lone woman could be that deep in the woods but considering the
weather it was highly unlikely. It was a hard call to make. If it was
a woman she had been taken down by something and was probably
fighting for her life. Even though it could just have been an animal
and it was getting dark we were obliged to find out the truth. Now,
everyone knows that mountain lions arenít stupid. They
sometimes imitate distress calls to lure adult animals in. Animals
will always protect their young even if it means putting their own
life at risk. If it was a cougar, it had either killed a human female
or was witness to her death. Thatís the only way it could learn
a sound like that. The thought chilled my blood even more than the
sound and Iíll tell you, when youíre standing there with
only a bow in your hand you feel mighty small.
around that area the karst rocks run weird. It makes it hard to
pinpoint noises or tell how far off they are. Stupidly, we agreed to
split up and rendezvous back where we started ten minutes later. If
it had been anyone else I might have argued but it was hard to say no
to Rick. It was our first great mistake. I saw his bow hanging by his
side as he moved off toward a ridge. I went in the opposite
direction, sticking to the most open areas I could find. If there was
trouble I wanted a clear shot and time to take it.
screams echoed in my mind and my stomach clenched. I tried to subdue
my breathing so I could hear all around me but the trees closed in
and the light got real dim. I also started thinking we were already
too late to help whoever it was, if it was a person. Five minutes
felt like forever but I checked my watch and knew I had to make a
U-turn. I was about a hundred yards from where I hoped to see Rick
waiting when something caught my eye off to the left. It was just a
tiny flicker of movement but I stopped to get a better look. It was
most fortunate I did because I saw a patch of a tawny coat drop down
noiselessly from a height.
is only one animal that can move like that in these parts and it
wasnít far away. I stood there in the gathering murk and
strained my eyes to follow it. I canít tell you how important
it was that I did. Cougars are ambush predators and if you donít
see them coming you never will. Finally I caught it lying low on a
fallen tree between two pines. My heart fell so fast. That cat was
watching me with steady interest. It was locked-on, targeting,
wondering if I was worth the effort. For a long time we watched each
other but I donít know if it knew I could see it. Probably
didnít matter. From what I could make out it was a big cat, 200
pounds at least. I weigh 175. It was about 20 meters away. Thatís
two bounds for a cougar.
seen an Olympic long jumper? They canít match a big cat, even
with the run-up. A cougar can go further from a crouched position.
The damn thing just had to begin creeping forward then. I knew I was
in real trouble. It reached the end of the trunk and I swear it
licked its lips. I couldnít afford the distance to close so I
backed off slowly and began shouting to establish myself as a threat.
The cougar didnít give a ratís ass. It showed no fear
whatsoever. Itís eyes haunted me. I felt I was seeing the
reflection of my own ghost in them. They were scarily beautiful and I
had to force myself break their hypnotic effect. I called out for
Rick. I couldnít figure out why he hadnít arrived back.
Where the hell was he?
used my peripheral vision to look for rocks but there werenít
any to hand. I desperately wanted to fire a warning shot but I
couldnít waste the arrow. If it didnít scare the cat off
I might never get time to reload. I wasnít taking a chance on a
kill shot at that distance either. I wasnít even sure an arrow
would stop it at all. I call it a cat because thatís what a
cougar is but itís more than that. Itís also called a
mountain lion for a reason. When youíre up close to a big one
you sense the deadly power within them. They are a lion. They are a
monster. You feel like they wonít go down easily. Even if I hit
the heart or throat it might still manage to tear me up. All I could
do was back away slowly. My whispered prayers were all about not
stumbling. A moment off guard is all it would take. Never look away.
It triggers their prey response. You gotta stare a cougar down.
Thatís the thing to remember. If you look a bear in the eye
heíll go for you but you gotta make a cougar feel like you
could do him some damage.
was trying but I felt as thin as gossamer. I passed a tree and then I
had to back down a slope. I couldnít think of anything worse
but I had no choice. That cougar was across the clearing in the blink
of an eye but he didnít charge. He just looked down the slope
and crouched real low. He wasnít right above me but he was
still on higher ground. For an animal that pounces he couldnít
have had a better vantage point. I was shouting GOWAY and GETOUT
without end but the fear was creeping into my voice as it tired and I
knew the cougar could hear it. He could probably smell it too.
came to a big rock and stopped right there. I leaned up against it to
get more stability for a shot. I didnít even want to shoot
though. I just wanted that cat to go the hell away. I thought of my
family. I wondered what had happened to Rick. Thoughts flashed up and
disappeared in the cougarís stare. I felt like it was burning
into my soul. Then I noticed a small red patch on its chest. Was it
wounded? It didnít seem wounded. It didnít seem to be in
any pain whatsoever. I hoped if it got me my pain wouldnít last
long. I didnít want to be paralyzed while it took its time
eyes, pale-green and baleful descended as he lay down and put his
head on his paws. For a second or two he looked just like anybodyís
cute and cuddly kitten. I knew it was a trick though. He wasnít
playing with me, yet. He just wanted me to forget about him, to turn
away, even for a split second. Better still, he wanted me to take the
opportunity to get out of there, to flee. If I had turned my back
though, it would be the last thing I ever did. I kept shouting, as
weak as it seemed. Just for a moment my voice cracked and came out
kind of high-pitched. It sounded like a baby deer and it set him off
bombed down that slope and in that fraction of a second I knew it was
then or never. If he pounced the force of gravity would add an extra
50 lbs to his weight. I wouldíve been knocked flat and for sure
he would bite through my face. The shot went off silently, almost
meekly but it stuck in his chest and he leapt straight-up vertical,
looking like heíd been stung by a bee. He turned to run up the
slope but he never made it to the top. His legs just gave out and he
rolled about halfway down, just five meters from where I stood.
first, I couldnít believe it was all over. Shock wouldnít
let me relax. I kept thinking there must be another cougar somewhere,
waiting to get me. I couldnít really understand how I had
survived. The way the cougar had rolled left the arrowís tail
pointing towards me but I just left it in him. I climbed up to the
clearing to search for Rick. I called out for him a couple more times
but it was deathly silent in there. An impulse made me retrace the
cougarís steps, along the fallen tree and up onto a ledge. It
led me over a grassy mound and there I found Rick, lying with his
back to me.
knew instantly his injuries were made by the cougar but his hand was
twitching so I knew there was hope. What actually saved his life was
the metal-studded leather collar heíd bought at a rock concert.
He never took it off and it was the one thing I could ever tease him
about. Without it his neck would be broken. As it was, there was
blood aplenty, running onto a nest of pine needles. The red patch on
the cougarís chest had been Rickís alright. It sounded
like he was trying to talk but couldnít get his actions
together. I left him and got to the nearest house. They must have
known by my face that I was serious. They phoned the emergency
services and gave me a mug of coffee. It was hot but I couldnít
the sirens came and I knew help was on the way my adrenaline simmered
down and I suddenly felt so tired it was like everything happened
through a pane of glass. A Conservation Officer arrived on the scene
too. He said we were both pretty lucky to be alive. A young English
teacher had gone missing a couple of months before. It had been kept
quiet because they didnít want to hurt the growing tourism in
the area. Her friends said she wandered off to go pee and when the
screams started they had been too frightened to help. Her remains
were never recovered. There was no way of proving it was the same
cougar but I was in no doubt. He lured us boys in by mimicking that
lot of guys think theyíre tough and we live so close to the
woods that they might seem normal but the woods arenít normal.
Theyíre not a place to relax and let your guard down. The
things in the woods are hungry and donít care that youíre
learned a valuable lesson myself.
Iím bow hunting now I carry a sidearm.
I was never a writer until the Covid restrictions started and
then I was looking at the four walls. I have never made a penny from
my stories though one of them was in the semi-final for the Brooklyn
Arts Prize. Didnít win. I used to teach English to Asian
students but at the moment I do a little editing. I currently live in Northern Ireland.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher