November 7, 2008: 5:24 AM
Breaking the stillness of the night, a pack of coyotes began a yapping, howling chorus. The noise yanked Greg out of sleep, but Catherine slept through it. Until he began roughly shaking her and repeatedly saying her name.
Sleepily she muttered, “What, Greg?”
The chorus raised a few octaves as new voices joined in. Greg scrambled around for the backpack, pulled it open, and yanked out a flashlight.
He switched on the light and the beam shook with his shaking hand. He aimed the light beam at her face.
She shielded her eyes, asking irritably, “What are you doing?”
“The coyotes are right outside. What do we do?”
She was too tired for this crap. Catherine lay for a minute and then hauled herself onto her feet. She walked to the missing wall, drew her sidearm from the holster, and fired two rounds in the direction of the coyotes. They instantly stopped making noise. She walked back to Greg and handed him the gun. Catherine laid back down on the pile and started to fall asleep.
“Wake me if they decide to eat you,” Catherine mumbled.
She had just fallen asleep when Greg began shaking her again.
“Greg, they are just coyotes! Stop freaking out!”
He grabbed her arm, pulling on it. “Get up, Catherine. Get up now. NOW!”
She started to pull away when she heard the low growl of a very large feline somewhere nearby rumbled out of the darkness. She lifted her head in time to see the rear and tail of a cougar disappear from Greg’s flashlight. She climbed onto her feet and fished a second flashlight from the backpack. She searched in the direction the animal had disappeared.
Both heard weeds crunch and in unison turned their lights toward it. That direction was a wall. They heard another noise and aimed their flashlights in that direction. Catherine noticed a ladder leading to the hayloft. The loft had suffered heavy fire damage and half of it was missing, but it was well out of reach of a hungry cougar.
“Let’s go up there.”
Greg shined his light at the loft, and then on her. “Are you nuts!? That’s a death trap!”
The cougar growled behind them and both turned in time to see the cougar lunged out of the darkness. Greg and Catherine both fell back, clearing a path for the animal to disappear back into the darkness.
Greg lost his grip on the gun and it spun across the floor, disappearing under the hay pile. Greg leapt to his feet and scrambled up the ladder. Catherine was right behind him.
At the top, Greg knelt and leaned over the edge of the loft to offer Catherine a hand. His eyes widened as his flashlight danced past Catherine. “Not a dumb animal! Not a dumb animal!”
Catherine looked down and for a moment her whole body went cold.
The cougar was one of the more intelligent of its species and had observed its pray climbing the ladder. Now it was climbing it as they had.
Catherine scrambled up the ladder and knelt on the loft floor with Greg. She grabbed the top end of the ladder and gave it a push, discovering someone had nailed it to the loft.
“Help me! We have to get that thing off and pull the ladder up.”
Greg grabbed the other side, trying to work it free with her.
“I thought they didn’t bother people,” Greg said.
“I guess they do.”
“I thought they were afraid of people!”
“I’m not a cougar expert, Greg! Push!”
The ladder came free suddenly and the two almost fall out of the loft.
“Shake it off. We have to pull the ladder up.”
They rocked the ladder back and forth until the cougar jumped off. The two quickly pulled it up and sat it between them. Greg followed the cougar with his flashlight as it paced and yowled at them.
“I am going to kill Capri!” Greg snarled.
Cather sat back. In the dim light of their flashlights, she looked him in the eye. “Not if I get to her first.”
November 7, 2008: 2:22 PM
Catherine and Greg sat at the edge of the loft, watching the cougar. Rivers of sweat ran down their bodies, darkened by the soot of the loft. Their sunburns showed more now and they moved slowly to keep the burnt skin from stretching too much. Even though they were sitting, they swayed and slowly panted.
Below them, the cougar has laid down on the pile of hay and stared back at them. This has become a waiting game, and the creature appeared to be willing to wait for as long as it took.
The barn itself seemed to be bored. They kept hearing soft pops, low groans, and creaking boards whenever they or the cougar shifted their weight.
Catherine muttered, “I am going to kill Capri.”
Greg just blinked.
“I’m going to rip her hair out by the roots and strangle her with it.”
Greg almost fell over the ledge. He caught himself and pulled back.
“Knock her ass out…”
“Give it a rest, Catherine.”
“You’re going to defend her?”
“She’s not here. You’ve been going on about her for hours. I’m tired of listening to it. Stop. Just stop.”
Catherine didn’t argue. Greg swayed again, almost falling off. He laid back on the charred floor, closing his eyes.
“So tired.” Catherine let her eyes droop almost shut.
The two didn’t respond to a low creaking and popping noises that began on the far side of the loft floor. Slowly the noise became constant as it moved across the loft toward Greg. He felt something bump under his back and opened his eyes. He lifted his head as Catherine turned to look at him.
The boards under Greg disintegrate.
She grabbed for him too late.
Greg landed hard on a broken beam, knocking the wind out of him. The noise startled the cougar out of the barn, but not far from his meal. Greg rolled off the beam, clutching his side. He tried to get a full breath of air but each one coursed pain through his side and chest.
Overhead Catherine rattled around. The ladder slid off the edge of the loft and slammed down on the floor. She scrambled down, jumping off the last few feet. She stopped when she heard the cougar growling. Although the feline was trying to slink up unnoticed, she could see its eyes sparkling in the weeds.
Between attempts to get a breath Greg whimpered, “Cat… Catherine… I can’t… I can’t… Get… My ribs… Broke my… ribs.”
Catherine didn’t respond to him. She dropped to her knees and sifted through the hay in a frantic search for her sidearm. She felt something solid and pulled it out. It was a piece of charred wood. She threw it at the cougar. The animal stopped moving and snarled. She started patting again, getting more frantic the closer the creature came to the edge of the weeds. Then it was slinking across the floor toward injured Greg.
Catherine’s hand found the gun at the same moment the feline lunged. She spun and shot. She missed, but it startled the cougar, making it landed two feet short of Greg. It crouched to pounce on him as she shot at the floor right in front of the animal. It howled at her as it lunged back. She shot at the floor again and it ran into the weeds.
Catherine ran over to him and pulled Greg onto his feet, ignoring his whimpers of pain. She pushed the gun into his hand and searched the backpack for her phone. She slid it in her pocket and the two headed for a wall opposite the one the cougar disappeared.