Ciaran Doran

© Copyright 2021 by Ciaran Doran

Photo of a crouching cougar.

The 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.)

A 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?

Mountain 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.

Never 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 anyway.

By 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.

Everythingís magnified times a hundred.

If 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 screams.

Theoretically, 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.
Right 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.
The 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.
There 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.
Ever 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?
I 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.
I 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.

I 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 eating me.
Those 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 immediately.
He 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.
At 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.
I 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 taste it.

When 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 ladyís distress.

A 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 scared.

I learned a valuable lesson myself.

Whenever 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.

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