“Ouch!” Charity exclaimed, reacting to the hitchhiker burrs suddenly penetrating the sock over her right ankle. She hopped on one foot across the ruts to a small flat-topped boulder beside the overgrown road and sat down. That’s what I get for not paying attention.
Midway up a Palo Pinto mountain overlooking the Brazos River, the fall foliage was blazing in color beneath the setting sun. As much as she hated exercising, it was a spectacular time to be trudging the old road to the mountain top and back to the ranch house, burning calories. The doctor had said if she didn’t start eating wisely and increasing her activity, her health was going to suffer. She’d rather be riding Midnight wrangling their cattle on Lost Canyon Ranch.
Her cell phone sang; the tune belonged to Wayne.
“Hey, Sweetheart, how’s my hubby?”
“Ticked off. That cat’s killed another calf. Reached the top?”
“Not yet. I’m parked for a moment pulling hitchhiker’s from my sock. Any sign of that predator?”
“Nope. It’s a fresh kill. I’m going to hide nearby and see if it returns. I may be here most of the night, so don’t wait up for me.”
“Oh, great. I can eat unsupervised. I’m thinking chocolate cake.”
“Yeah, right. Hang in there gal, and do what the doc says. I want you warming my bed for many more years.”
Charity sighed. Wayne knew her resolve was firm this time. Twyla, her best friend since first grade, had died last month. Everyone said they were like two peas in a pod. That scared her.
“Charity, it’s getting dark down here. You better head off that mountain. There’s no telling where that rogue cat is. I don’t think it will bother you, but I’d feel better if you were in the house.”
“I won’t be long, Wayne. I’ve got a flashlight and my snake charmer. I’ll be alright.”
“Okay babe. Gimme a ring if something comes up.”
Charity slipped her sock back on feeling a prick or two, but nothing she couldn’t manage. She hitched up her jeans and headed for the ridge a quarter mile away. She was proud of the ten pounds she had lost in two weeks.
She reached the crest huffing nosily. Fifty yards away, in a clearing amongst a stand of old-growth junipers, was a fire pit bordered with limestone rocks. The grandkids loved to roast weenies and marshmallows there. That was her turn around spot. She circled the dead ashes, wiping sweat from her brow with a damp bandana. The trip back down the decline always made her knees ache painfully and she reminded herself that she needed to buy some liniment.
At the crest she looked back, later thinking she must have done so wondering if enough wood was cut for their next fire. A mountain lion, nose to the ground, tail switching slowly, stood in the road sniffing her track. Sunlight reflected off its gaunt body, burnishing the tawny coat in gold.
It was an old cat, and beautiful. But dangerous. It had killed three calves and not eaten them.
The .38 revolver was in Charity’s hand, drawn instinctively from the holster on her hip. She knew how to use it, but hoped she didn’t have to. She didn’t know if it would stop such a big animal.
The cat raised its head, looking intently at her, daring her to break the stare.
“Stay there,” she whispered. “Go away.”
But the beast didn’t. It advanced, stalking slowly toward her.
“Vamoose!” she yelled, fighting panic, steadying the pistol in a two-handed grip.
On crept the cat. Drool frosted its lips, dripping from broken, yellowed teeth. Fifteen feet away it crouched, muscles bunching to launch toward her.
In the instant before it sprang, Charity’s pistol roared twice, nailing the animal in the chest. It slumped over, growling, thrashing its legs.
After Charity’s racing pulse and adrenalin shakes subsided, she got up from the patch of hitchhikers she was kneeling in, momentarily oblivious to their presence. She holstered her firearm and called Wayne.
“Honey, do you recall reading about Samson in the Old Testament? That riddle he posed about a lion: Out of the eater came something to eat, And out of the strong came something sweet?”
“What’s this about?” he whispered. “I need to keep quite over here or I might as well come home.”
“Do that,” she said. “Meet me at the fire pit. I’ve got your bee hive.”
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