A long hiss escaped the jowls of the cat as she hunkered down amongst the rocks and thick shrubbery. Low chirps echoed across the fog-laden ground, and even the human inside the beast could not call back the frightened sounds.
She panted, her breath forming puffs in the frigid morning air. The burst of speed she’d needed to escape her pursuers had drained her. She lacked the energy to go much further, but it was imperative that she find safety.
Her gaze focused on a ponderosa pine several yards away. Cheetahs were ill-equipped to climb trees, but there were enough low-lying branches that she could scramble toward the top and hide in the dense foliage.
She sprang from her hiding spot and ran for the tree on stealthy paws. Fatigue burned every muscle, but she couldn’t succumb to the need for rest. Not yet. They were coming for her and they would kill her.
With sagging energy, she jumped to the lowest branch. Her claws dug into the bark as she fought for balance. Her ears twitched and shot upward as a sound in the distance caught her attention. Higher she climbed, desperation bleeding over into her movements.
When she’d gained enough height to not be easily seen from ground level, she stretched over the limb and flattened her lithe body as much as possible.
Even as she swallowed against the involuntary chirps of fear, she felt the change radiating over her body. Pain, welcome pain, locked into her bones, seized her muscles, and shot like fire through her limbs.
She clung to the branch, desperate not to plummet to the ground. Paws became human fingers. The spotted fur rippled away and was replaced by pale, na**d skin. The soft tuft of hair at her nape became long strands of honey gold hair.
For the first time in months, she was human again.
She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around the rugged tree branch. Time was something she didn’t have, but she needed the rejuvenation her human form would bring, if only for a few minutes. The cheetah was spent.
Perhaps she slept. She had no clear idea of how much time passed, but she was alerted by a rustling in the distance. Voices. Familiar voices.
They were coming for her.
Fear swelled in her throat, blocking out her breath. Panic raced in her veins and prickled like razors over her skin. They wouldn’t take her prisoner this time. They would kill her.
Pulling every thread of strength within her, she concentrated on becoming the cheetah. She would run once more.
Her human side cried out in protest, but she gave free rein to the beast, allowed it control as her body conformed to the parameters set by her mind.
She blinked to adjust to the difference in visual acuity. The landscape sharpened, and she focused on the most expedient route away from danger.
Slowly she inched further out onto the branch, her intention to leap to the neighboring tree. She slid on her stomach, her claws gripping the wood as she prepared to spring.
A light sound riled her instincts, and she shot forward. Pain seared through her hip, and she was left gripping the air. Seconds later, she hit the ground with a resounding thump.
“Fuck! She jumped the string. I didn’t get a good shot.”
The voice was too close. Agony wracked her body. She lifted her head and glanced down her body to see an arrow protruding from her haunch. She panted heavily, trying to squeeze oxygen back into the lungs that had been severely jarred by her fall.
If she hadn’t jumped, the arrow would have sliced through her heart and lungs. She’d be lying on the ground bleeding out.
She struggled to right herself, to heave her aching body from the hard terrain. Then she looked up to see the hunter standing just thirty yards away. Notching another arrow. Terror lent her adrenaline, and she rocketed away, the hunter’s curses ringing in her ears.
Duncan Kennedy hoisted his rifle over his shoulder then shifted his backpack into place. He stepped away from his truck and surveyed the wooded area he was about to venture into.
With a shake of his head, he tucked his chin down, buttoned his jacket, then headed out. He felt ridiculous, but his job as sheriff was to check out sources of possible threat, and he’d had three reports from locals of strange, wild animals roaming the area outside his small Colorado town.
The first he’d ignored because old man Hildebrandt had been known to spin a yarn or two. But then Silas Maynard had reported seeing an animal that he swore looked just like a tiger. A day later, Mrs. Humphreys had called to tell him she’d seen an honest to goodness lion, not a mountain lion, and then she’d heard shots.
Hunting season didn’t start for several more weeks, but Duncan knew that didn’t hinder overzealous hunters. He’d get out, do a little tracking, look around, and hopefully quiet any fears of strange beasties running around the mountains.
He walked a straight line behind Mrs. Humphreys’s house, his gaze darting along the ground for any fresh sign. He wondered if the shots had been people merely target practicing and if the animals were just mountain lions or even a large bobcat.
Not that he really thought he’d find the answers, but he would do his job and reassure the people of his town. Even with their quirks, he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. His parents had died when he was young, just in high school, and the townspeople had stepped in, taken care of him, and later made sure he could go to college. He owed them more than he could ever repay, and returning here to act as sheriff after gaining a degree in law enforcement seemed the least he could do. These were his mountains. His home. These people were his family.
The terrain had begun to slope more sharply upward, and his breath came a little harder as he climbed in elevation. He stopped and dug a bottle of water from his backpack and rested for a moment as he sipped.
He reckoned he was about a mile from Mrs. Humphreys’s now. He’d go another at the most. She’d said the shots sounded distant, not close. He capped the bottle of water, tossed it back into his pack, and resumed his hike.
When he topped a slight rise, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. A group of men, one holding a compound bow, the others carrying rifles, moved stealthily through the craggy underbrush.
Duncan crouched and took out his binoculars so he could zoom in on the group.
They appeared to be tracking, their heads down as if following a blood trail. Anger tightened his muscles. Friggin’ poachers.
He noted their appearance, took mental notes of their characteristics. No way he’d approach them blind. He was outnumbered, and more than one wildlife officer had been killed when crossing an illegal hunter.
Instead, he pulled his rifle around and uncapped the scope. He brought the gun up and stared through the crosshairs until he found his target.
He re-sighted a good twenty yards in front of the men and squeezed off a warning shot. They jumped back and sprawled on the ground, guns and bows flying everywhere. Duncan grinned. City slickers.
After a few seconds, they warily rose then scrambled for their guns. They took off in the opposite direction, and Duncan could hear their thrashing all the way to where he hunkered down.
Duncan waited. He pulled out a snack and ate it in silence. Half an hour later, the poachers hadn’t returned, so Duncan made his way down to the area they’d been scouring.
After a few minutes of searching the area dotted with their boot prints, he found the first sign of blood. Son of a bitch. They had been tracking a kill.
He shook his head in disgust and began following the sign. There wasn’t a lot of blood, which told him the shot hadn’t been clean. He grimaced at the idea of having to put down the animal. If he was even able to find it.
It wasn’t an easy trail to follow. Several times he had to backtrack to the last spot he’d seen blood and circle out to pick up the trail again.
The sun rose higher overhead, breaking through the canopy of trees and whisking away the damp coldness that morning had brought. Duncan unbuttoned his jacket as he walked on.
He followed the spots of blood to an area where brush was thick and bushes huddled, their leaves and limbs twining together. He glanced ahead, hoping to find the animal rather than wade through the thick growth. A warning hiss stopped his foot in mid-air.
He stood there a moment, paralyzed by what he’d almost done. Feral eyes stared up at him, glazed with pain and warning.
Holy mother of God.
He scrambled back, putting at least ten feet between him and the…what exactly was this animal?
The cat lay panting, an arrow protruding from the left haunch. Light chirping sounds ripped from the cat’s mouth, intermixed with hisses and growls.
His mind raced to absorb the scene. A tawny cat with black spots. It wasn’t a bobcat. The tail was too long. Was it some bizarre mountain lion hybrid? No, the body structure was all wrong. God, if he didn’t know better, he’d swear it was a cheetah.
What the f**k was a cheetah doing in the Rockies? Had someone’s exotic pet escaped? Suddenly the reports of a tiger and a lion didn’t sound quite so far-fetched.
He frowned as a possible solution occurred to him, one that fit the scene he’d interrupted just a while earlier. Could the animals have been illegally imported for the specific purpose of hunting? Or could someone merely have spotted the escaped cheetah and decided to hunt it down?
There had been no reports of any missing animals from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo or the zoo in Denver, and he wasn’t sure either housed any cheetahs.
The cat continued to stare at him just as he stared at it. It looked to be a female. Her stare eased and her eyes lost some of the wildness. Her lids relaxed, though she continued to observe him cautiously.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said soothingly and then felt like a dumbass for cooing at a wild animal. One that could outrun his damn truck. She could chase him down and have him for lunch in ten seconds flat. If that long.
He reached for his rifle. The stock cradled in his hand gave him a measure of confidence.
But she didn’t move. A low sound emanated from her, and after a moment he realized she was purring. The vibrating rumble grew louder as he stared at her in amazement.
He had no idea what to do with the cat. She didn’t seem threatening, but then, only a moron would assume a wild animal could be reasonable.
If he left her to go back and get help, he risked the hunters coming back and finding her. If he could get her to a vet, he knew she could be saved. She hadn’t lost an enormous amount of blood, and the wound wasn’t mortal.
What he needed was a tranquilizer dart, and gee, it just so happened that wasn’t standard issue for a sheriff to be carting around in his backpack. Water, bandages, flares, basic survival gear? Yes. A buttload of kitty valium? No.
He circled around the cat who still hadn’t moved so much as a muscle. Maybe she was conserving her strength to attack him. Not a very comforting thought and one that had him backing away even further.
Then she moved. He froze, not wanting to excite her. She struggled to her feet, collapsed back to the ground then pushed herself up again.
He gripped his gun tighter as she limped very slowly in his direction. His thumb flicked over the safety, and the click echoed loudly in the stillness. The cheetah stopped and stared at him, her big golden eyes dripping with sadness. And fear.
His eyes narrowed as she started forward again, her steps measured as if not to startle him. Yep, he was losing his mind. He was standing in the middle of nowhere having telepathic communion with a cheetah.
She bumped her head against his leg and rubbed the side of her jowls over his jeans. She circled around him, rubbing up against him just like a domestic cat begging to be petted. She kept the arrow pointed outward, but she circled him three times.
Still keeping the rifle gripped tightly in his left hand, he reached down with his right, tense and prepared to fight for his life. His fingers touched the top of her head, and her fur, coarse and downy, spread over his skin.
She stilled and arched into his hand. He relaxed just a bit as her purrs filled the air. She twisted her head and licked his palm then scrubbed her face against his hand once more.
Was she tame? Had she been someone’s pet? It seemed the only reasonable explanation.
Her back leg buckled, and she sank with a thump onto the ground. His chest tightened with compassion. Such a beautiful, regal animal.
“I need to get you back to my truck,” he murmured.” Any bright ideas on how to do that?”
She continued to stare at him, her throat rumbling with her soft purrs. It was an intoxicating sound. But deceptive. It made her seem less wild, and Duncan couldn’t afford to underestimate the cat.
He shrugged out of his coat, careful to keep his movements measured and non-threatening. Maybe if he spread the jacket on the ground beside her, she’d crawl onto it and maybe he could drag it back to the truck. Or maybe he was losing his mind.
Still, he crept forward and gingerly arranged the coat on the ground next to the cat, who still regarded him with half-closed eyes.
“Go on then,” he muttered. “Get on the coat.” He could grab the sleeve and still position his body as far away from any teeth or claws as possible.
To his surprise, the cat heaved herself up and padded onto the jacket. She made a tight circle before settling down.
Well, that had been easy.
The cat watched him with uncanny intelligence as he gathered one sleeve in his free hand. The other grasped his rifle, but he knew dragging the heavy cat off the mountain was going to take more effort. He was going to need both hands.
He stood there for a long moment, judging the cat’s mood. She seemed complacent enough, but what would she do when he started pulling on the jacket?
The cheetah extended her front paws then laid her head down on the tops and closed her eyes. There was trust in that gesture. Even as the absurd thought crossed his mind, he couldn’t discount it.
He took the strap of his rifle and pulled it over his shoulder. He reached behind him to touch the stock, positioning it so he could reach it quickly if needed. His pack would have to stay.