FALLING TREESbyJ. K. LanghamPROLOGUE John and Darlene Carter were biking up a deer trail in Richards’ Park with their two children. They planned to spend the day in a secluded grove they often visited. The children were speeding ahead followed by their father, while Darlene struggled behind with a backpack full of picnic supplies. Then out of nowhere, a speeding truck hit Darlene. It knocked the breath out of her. Darlene struggled to understand what was happening. There are no trucks in these woods. Are there? There are no roads, no trucks, what’s happening? Then, in just that fraction of a second, that nano second between the powerful blow that hit her with the speed of an unchecked train and the horrible thud as she hit the ground, suddenly, in that instant – she knew – the enormous crushing weight of a heavy body on hers, the smell of a rough, musky pelt, the rasping of rough pads and sharp claws tearing at her arms and body as huge paws wrapped around her. She screamed loudly, and kept screaming – “John! Help! It’s a cougar! John!” She heard John yell at the children, “Go get help! We need the sheriff!” She heard his shouting get closer and closer. “I’m coming! Hold on! Roll yourself into a ball and cover your head!” She smelled the cat’s ripe, hot breath as it began to drag her away. John grabbed a large rock, raced up to the huge cat, and began pummeling it’s head and muzzle. “LET GO OF HER YOU BASTARD! LET GO!” The cat’s skin began tearing and blood gushed under John’s powerful blows. The cougar finally released it’s grip and stood over the woman, hissing and growling to protect it’s prize. John backed away. Darlene whimpered, “John, help me. Oh, God, help me!” Then everything went black. - John looked around quickly and found a broken limb. He picked it up and began waving it wildly at the big cat. “GET AWAY FROM HER! GIT!” He mimicked a step toward the snarling predator, “HAAH! - HAAH!” Aeneas woke just as the last fingers of light from the setting sun reached down through the pine canopy. The dying wind was whispering good-bye to the day. She slowly looked over to where her mother lay. Aeneas had been bringing food to her the last few days, encouraging her mother to try to eat something, but the sickness had been painful and long. The rabbit Aeneas had brought her this morning lie uneaten beside her, and now there was no longer anything she could do for her mother. The flies had already found her. Aeneas felt the emptiness of being totally alone for the first time in her life. She could not remember any time when they had not been together. Aeneas went over and gently touched her mother’s shoulder, and cried out loudly. She knew she would have to leave. Gently, she pushed the thick layer of pine needles littering the forest floor over her mother, and sulked away into the darkening forest. Her mother had raised her in the deep forests on the side of a mountain. Her father had left them before she was even born. Aeneas’ mother had been a recluse, and Aeneas had grown up learning to live off the land. She had no siblings; her sister had died at birth. She had grown up loving the stillness of the forest and the freedom of their solitary life. Aeneas found another part of the forest. She lived there for a year or so following her mother’s death. She did well on her own, after all, she and her mother had lived quite well secluded in the forest. The game was plentiful and she was comfortable living alone, she never knew any other kind of life. The forest was her whole world. One morning, a shrill grinding sound broke the silence of her pristine forest. She heard shouting and falling trees. Aeneas had crept carefully through the trees and lay under some bushes to watch the noisemakers. The sound grated on her ears and cut into her eardrums, it was unbearable. She saw at least a dozen men, shouting at each other and clearing a large stand of trees. The shrill cacophony would surely scare away all the game for miles. It frightened her, the noise; and a new sensation welled up from deep inside her, one she had never experienced before. It was ANGER. At first, she couldn’t understand why they were cutting down so many trees, then she realized, they were going to build a home and settle there. It was time to move on. Aeneas moved even deeper into the forest, away from the men and their horrible machines. Aeneas kept moving, but there seemed to be more and more people the further she traveled. The forests were being destroyed little by little, and the game diminished with each passing year. She did not want to have anything to do with them. Just keep moving; keep movingshe thought. She had no idea how far she had traveled since the men first came to the forest she called home. Her pine forest and the mountains were well behind her now. The trees here were different. The woods she followed were sparse and mostly followed streams and rivers. The land she traveled now was full of meadows, pastures and fields that stretched out endlessly. The weather was even different here; the days hot and stifling. She kept moving, taking refuge in blocks of deciduous forests to find whatever she could to eat at night, and tried to sleep during the sweltering days. Aeneas drew in a deep breath, yawned widely, and stretched before she even opened her eyes. The sun was beginning to set outside. A waning light filtered in through the foliage from the opening of the small cave. The little cave had been a good find after wandering through this latest patch of hot, dry forest. She shifted her body where she’d slept that day and her stomach growled loudly. A deep sense of hunger consumed her. She’d had nothing to eat for days, and not much the weeks before. It seemed she no longer had any control of her life, and the growing scarcity of food was slowly driving her mad with hunger. Maybe today she would find something, anything, to ease the gnawing emptiness. Anything. She slowly left the cool, safe cover of the cave, relieved herself, and wandered down the hill to a drying stream below. The water was beginning to stagnate, there had been no rain here for a long time. The stream’s flow had ended in shallow pockets of water here and there between the narrow banks. A hard rain would have turned the stream into a gushing torrent, leaving fish trapped in the deeper pools as the water level receded. But it had been too long without rain. The lingering pools of algae in the deeper pockets of the creek were all that was left of the little stream. The odor was unpleasant, but Aeneas pushed away some of the floating mess and drank quickly before it closed back over the surface. The tepid water left a rancid taste in her mouth, but she needed water. It did nothing to ease her growing hunger. She followed the creek bank hoping to find something to eat. Her mind wandered as she followed the streambed. Aeneas remembered when she was young; playing in a forest meadow, hunting with her mother in the pine forest. They always had plenty to eat. Her mother taught her how to hunt and find water in the driest parts of the forest. She taught her to stay away from others and the places they lived. Aeneas was well prepared when she struck out on her own. Like her mother she loved living on her own, she enjoyed her solitary life. She missed the mountains and pine forests, but they were far behind her now. Suddenly, a slight movement ahead brought her back to the present. She spotted a doe and fawn drinking from a shallow pool in the creek bed ahead. She stopped and slowly lowered her body to the ground. Aeneas watched them for a few minutes, her body tensing. Ever so slowly, she crept closer. The doe lifted it’s head and sniffed the air. Aeneas stopped; she was downwind. The doe again dipped it’s muzzle to the water. It had not seen her. She crept forward and stopped again. Saliva tore from her jaw in painful spasms. She dropped her jaw to ease the pain, never taking her eyes off the deer. Aeneas was getting close. She thought she could grab the fawn. Her movements were so slow they were almost imperceptible. She could almost taste the tender flesh of the fawn. She imagined a mouthful of the tender, fresh, meat. It had been so long since she had deer meat. As she remembered the taste, another sharp pain seared through her jaws. Her stomach growled loudly at the thought. The doe jerked it’s head up and just as quickly bounded away, the fawn close by her side. Aeneas sprang forward, but as swift as she was, there was no way to catch them now; she hadn’t been close enough. She stopped and flopped down on the mud caked bank. The sun was coming up – no use trying to track them now. It would be too dangerous in the daytime. As she plodded along the stream looking for a place to spend the day, she spotted some boulders ahead. They were on the hillside just above the deer trail that followed the stream. It looked like a good place to sleep, and to watch. There might be other deer in this stretch of woods. Aeneas lay on the top of the largest boulder, it was flat and cool but she slept uneasily. The gnawing in her empty belly woke her off and on with it’s constant aching. Late the next morning, a distant shouting sound woke her. It was getting closer. A family was coming up the trail. There were two little ones in front, and further back, the father. Aeneas rolled onto her stomach and watched them as they passed on the trail below. They were shouting back and forth to each other. A distance behind was the mother, lagging behind. She was getting closer, and was about to pass under Aeneas’ stone perch. Aeneas muscles tensed as she lowered her body flat against the top of the boulder. She remembered what her mother had taught her about humans; they were forbidden and should be avoided at all costs. There had been no explanation why, but humans had always been acknowledged with an innate sense of great danger. Saliva began streaming from her mouth as if it were going to pull her empty belly out with it. The hunger was too strong in the starving cougar. She leapt down onto the woman; but the female’s neck was covered by something that kept Aeneas from wrapping her jaws around it. No matter, she thought, her huge paws were wrapped around the furless body and it was hers. Aeneas bit down through the strange covering, trying to reach the thin neck beneath. The woman stopped screaming and went limp, so Aeneas began dragging the motionless form into the brush off the trail. She didn’t understand this thing that kept her from making the kill, but it was firmly attached to the woman and easy to pull. She heard the man yell at the little ones back on the trail, then, before she could drag her prize away safely, she heard his shouting getting closer and closer. The man picked up a large rock, raced to her, and began pummeling her with it. She felt the painful blows on her head and muzzle. Blood began running from her battered flesh. She released her grip and stood over the woman, hissing and growling to protect her prize, but the man didn’t back away. Instead, he picked up a broken tree limb and began waving it wildly and shouting at her. Finally, she turned and ran. Aeneas looked back once to see the man leaning over his mate, then slithered silently into the thick brush. She padded back along the creek bed, past where she’d seen the doe and fawn, all the way back to the little cave she had slept in two days ago. It’s cool darkness soothed her. She curled into the depression on the cave floor and finally slept, exhausted. Aeneas dreamt restlessly of the fresh human blood mingling with her own, of the doe and fawn, of loud grinding and falling trees. She slept the rest of the day and through the night. Early the next morning she awoke to humans shouting, there were many voices calling back and forth. They were close. She edged her head slowly out of the little cave to see how close. Bursting out of her cover, she raced away in great bounds. No longer silently with stealth, she needed distance. She needed to be far away.Then she heard dogs barking. The barking got closer and closer. Aeneas tried running in different directions through the brush, but the dogs kept coming, and coming. There was no place to go. She jumped onto a low-lying limb and climbed as high as she could, but the dogs found her. They gathered around the base of the tree and challenged her. She was trapped and she knew it. She growled and hissed threateningly, but that only increased the ferocity of their bloodlust. Then the humans came, a half dozen of them. They tethered up the dogs and took the dogs places around the tree. They shouted to one another and pointed at her. They shouted like the dogs had. Aeneas understood the dogs barking, but there was something intimately more frightening about the men’s shouting; and they carried long sticks. One of them pointed his stick at her and there was a loud crack. Something hit the tree by her front paw. She pulled back her lips to show her long yellowing canines, and hissed at the man. Aeneas let out a long haunting cry that reverberated through the trees in the still, hot, air. It was not so much a threatening cry, but one which embodied her helplessness, her maddening hunger, her longing to be back in the deep pine forest, to be alone and away from the relentless onslaught of humans, the shouting, and the shrill noises of grinding and falling trees. The call was long and mournful. Then the shouting stopped. Another man pointed his stick at her and there was a loud pop. She felt a sharp pain in her shoulder, then another, and another. Each pop from the sticks brought another excruciating pain. Suddenly she felt weak. Aeneas lost her grip and fell to the ground in a painful thump. She was unable to move. The men closed in around her and she watched, as one of them pointed his stick at her head.“Ya got ‘er John! Won’t be botherin’ nobody else no more!” a man said. The men gathered closer, taking turns kicking the dead carcass, as if to prove to themselves that the big cat was really dead. One of them reached down and picked up a massive paw. He pushed the toe pads to extend the long, useless claws.“Damn, George, look at the size of her! Never saw a she-cat get that big before!”“Yeah, but look how skinny she is. You can see most of her bones clear through her pelt!” No wonder she attacked Darlene. She must not a et anything for a long time.” The men gathered around the big cat and held her head up to pose for a photo, then dragged their trophy unceremoniously to the back of the sheriff’s pick-up to take it into town.The next day, the 3,450 people who took the Grainville Gazette opened their newspapers to the photo and story on the front page: COUGAR KILLED – LOCAL WOMAN RECOVERING IN HOSPITAL Sheriff John Brenner announced last night, that the mountain lion that attacked John Carter’s wife last Sunday has been killed. The day after the attack, Sheriff Brenner and deputies, tracked the mountain lionwith the help of Joe Morris and his dogs. They were able to tree the animal in Richards’ Park where they shot and killed it. Mrs. Carter had been biking with her family on a deer trail in the park when she was viciously attacked by a mountain lion. She suffered deep claw marks on her arms and torso. It is believed that the backpack she was wearing and the quick actions of her husband John, saved her life.. Mrs. Carter is still recovering from the wounds at St. Francis Hospital, but is expected to fully recover from the ordeal. County Game Warden Charley Arter had this to say: “The cat was obviously a rogue that probably wandered down alone from the north. We believe this to be a totally isolated incident, there should be no cause for further alarm. There haven’t been any sightings of mountain lions this far south since the late 1800’s. The sixty-acre woods that make up Richards’ Park where the cougar was found, would not be big enough to sustain this type of cat. I repeat, this is an unfortunate iso-lated incident, and there should be no cause for further alarm.” The cougar’s body has been taken to the University in Oklahoma City for testing, to determine where it might have originated.*****Back in the woods of Richards’ Park, a he-cat sniffed the opening of the little cave.
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