The horses had known all along. Tucker was also proclaiming it loud and clear.
A mountain lion prowled nearby. It had probably seen Riley. For sure it saw Tucker. But surely the cat wouldn’t stalk a man! Normally, the tawny-colored beasts were skittish and kept well away from humans.
Well, it’s here now!
Andi whirled. Her gaze flew to the rifle that lay on the bottom of the wagon bed. She leaped over the seat and landed in the back of the wagon a few inches from the weapon. Her shaking fingers curled around the warm iron barrel, where it had soaked up the sun.
Thank you, God, that Riley never goes anywhere without his rifle!
Clutching the rifle to her chest. Andi scrambled over the wagon side and dropped to the ground with a thunk. She groaned. Then she took a deep breath and staggered to her feet. “Riley!” She yelled, but her words came out as a choked cry.
She heard a low snarl. Tucker wouldn’t stop barking.
Andi’s heart raced. “Riley!” This time it came out as a terrified shriek.
“Tucker, back!” Riley’s voice sounded far away. “Don’t come near!” Riley’s voice sounded far away.
Part of Andi’s numbed mind tried to figure out her husband’s command. Was he yelling at Tucker or her? The other part of her mind screamed, Riley has only a small dog and an ax. An ax against a cougar! I have the rifle!
Fear for Riley’s life made Andi’s feet fly through the woods. Then she stopped. You idiot!
There was no need to shoot the beast. Just firing the rifle would most likely scare it off. It had scared away that other cougar all those years ago when she’d shot a rifle through the window of a shack.
But that had been a dark night. Who knew what a mountain lion might do during the day? A possibly hungry mountain lion.
Crack! Crack! Andi fired two shots into the air. Crack! She fired one more for good measure.
It must be gone. It must! Andi ran as fast as she could. Her breath came in small gasps. “Riley!”
She tore around a clump of dogwood and black oak and came face to face with Riley, Tucker, and the cat. The rifle shots had not frightened the cougar. It stood crouching, snarling at the young man, who was waving an ax back and forth and yelling.
Tucker rushed the cougar, then leaped out of the way at the swipe of the huge cat. He circled the mountain lion, growling, barking, protecting Riley.
Why didn’t the cat run off?
Andi’s drumming heart pounded in her ears. Her stomach heaved.
“Shoot it!” Riley’s voice cracked. His face was white.
Andi wasn’t sure she could hit the cougar. She’d been practicing this fall, but her aim was not consistent. What if she shot Tucker by accident? I have to try! She hefted the heavy weapon and peered down the barrel. Then her finger found the trigger.
The rifle went off. The kickback knocked Andi backward. The cougar stood its ground. She’d missed! Tucker ran toward the cat again.
“Tucker, no!” Riley ordered, but the brave little dog did not obey.
Andi steadied herself for another shot.
Too late. The mountain lion swiped at Tucker than suddenly sprang. Riley screamed and fell under the weight of the large cat.
Tears streamed down Andi’s eyes. Help me shoot straight, God, she prayed. For Riley’s sake!
Desperate, Andi let off two more rounds. The cougar jerked and lay still. Andi dropped the rifle and collapsed to the ground. Her stomach heaved again, and this time she could not stop her breakfast from coming up.
She wiped her face against her coat sleeve and sprang to her feet. “Riley!”
The cat lay sprawled on top of Riley. Tucker’s jaw bit deeply into the hide. He shook his head back and forth and growled.
Andi made sure the cougar was dead before she fell beside it and began hauling the carcass away. It took all of her strength to pull the cougar off her husband. “Get away, Tucker,” she demanded. “It’s dead. Back off.”
Tucker let go, yipped, and sat back on his haunches. He looked as proud as if he had killed the cougar all by himself.
Riley lay still. His shirt was torn to ribbons. Several long, deep scratches raked his body from under his ear, along his neck, and across his chest. Another set of scratches—or was it bite marks—trailed down his torso. Blood flowed freely.
This much damage from one leap? It was horrifying.
Andi yanked Riley’s shirt away from the wounds. She knew if the cat had dug deeply enough, it could rip open a vein. Riley would die soon if that were the case.
Andi examined his wounds. Then she laid her ear next to his chest. His heart was beating slowly but regularly. He’s all right! She sobbed quietly. He’s all right!
Just then, Riley groaned.
Thank you, God!
Riley opened his eyes and tried to sit up. Cringing, he fell back to the ground. “It’s bad, isn’t it?” His words came out a whisper.
“Could be better.” Andi smiled through her tears. “You’re scratched up pretty bad and losing a lot of blood.” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “But I don’t think the cat did anything so bad that can’t be fixed with some bandages and rest.”
Riley sighed. “Thank God. That was close. I thought I was a goner when the cat took that leap. Is Tucker all right?” He shifted his position to look at the dead cougar and yelped in pain.
“Lie still,” Andi ordered. “Just stay put. The cat’s dead. Tucker’s fine. I’m going to bring the wagon and get you back to the ranch.”
Without waiting for Riley’s answer, Andi leaped to her feet. Just as quickly, she sat down—hard. The world spun. Black spots swam before her eyes. No wonder, she mused. We forgot to eat that picnic lunch I packed.
Andi rose a lot slower the second time. She told Tucker to stay with Riley and then carefully made her way to the wagon. Grabbing the horses’ lines, she led them back to where Riley lay unmoving.
The horses clearly smelled the cat. They twitched and shied and tossed their heads, but Andi kept them firmly under control. “The cat’s dead, fellas,” she soft-talked to them. “Everything’s all right. You can trust me.” She stroked their noses and brought the wagon alongside the wounded Riley.
Between Andi’s soft voice and the heap on the ground that didn’t move, Ranger and Buster appeared to accept the fact that the predator they feared could not harm them, in spite of its terrifying scent. They finally calmed down and stood still.
Andi relaxed, but only for a minute. When she hauled the blankets out of the wagon and over to Riley, he looked worse than ever. His wounds needed some kind of binding up, and soon. Tucker hung over his master, whimpering and licking his face.
“Tucker, that’s enough,” Andi said. “Leave him be.”
She poked around for Riley’s knife and soon had one of the lighter-weight blankets hacked into strips. She wrapped his arms tightly and pushed another wool bandage against the bite mark on his shoulder.
Knowing Riley was not injured to the point of death did wonders for Andi’s state of mind. Calmly and steadily, she bound up the rest of his wounds and prayed that no infection would set in before Doc Weaver could look him over.
Riley bore it with clenched teeth and a forced smile. “Love you,” he whispered when Andi was finished. “We’ll get through this. The only sad thing is that I won’t be able to finish cutting down that tree.”
Andi laughed softly and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Don’t worry about the tree. I’ll get you home. And I love you too.” She rose. “I’ll be right back with something to eat and drink. I don’t know about you, but I’m so hungry I feel sick.”
Riley nodded and closed his eyes.
A few minutes later, Andi hauled the two wicker baskets from the wagon and set them on the ground next to the wagon. She opened her mouth to say something cheerful to Riley, but the words froze in her throat.
Tucker was growling at a small animal nosing around Riley’s unconscious body.
READ PART 5
READ PART 5