Monday, April 22, 2013
I came up dry again this week, so here's a bit from Rick and Bari's story. They've just discovered they're not the only folks -- or the most dangerous -- hiding out on Rick's mountain.
# # #
Nilambari slipped her tiger’s body noiselessly through the underbrush. After weeks in Rick’s company, she was finally getting the hang of maneuvering through this strange woodland environment. The high altitude and chilly temperatures had taken some getting used to, but she found she liked it more than her native jungle. For one thing, there were no other tigers. That alone won it high marks.
Up ahead, Rick had come to a sudden stop and was cautiously testing the air. Instantly Nilambari dropped her belly to the ground and tried to blend into the brush. One drawback to Montana: its pine tree greens and tawny grasses hadn’t been designed to hide a tiger. She wouldn’t have seen Rick at all if he hadn't stuck his muzzle into the breeze.
Was it Ravi again? Would he never stop hunting her? She snarled irritably. Let him find another bride, so she could finally stop looking over her shoulder.
She crept to Rick’s side, with a single low whuff to warn him. He rumbled acknowledgement without looking back at her. His attention was fixed on something in the valley below, near the deep creek they’d been heading for. Rick had promised to teach her how to fish. Nilambari loved the water, like all tigers. Had Ravi’s minions set a trap?
Easing her nose just above the tall grass, Nilambari took a long sniff. No taste of tiger in the air. Instead she smelled a rough, earthy scent, mingled with the reek of carrion and blood. She’d known similar scents, and they weren’t a tiger’s.
Rick had fixed his stare to a huge brownish lump some yards from the water. She sighed her relief. Was that all? She started down the slope.
“Whoa!” Nilambari jumped in surprise, both from his voice and his hand in the fur on her shoulder. Rick had shifted to human form, but remained crouched low to the ground. “Where are you going?”
She also shifted for speech. “It’s only a bear.”
He shook his head. “There’s no ‘only’ about a grizzly, sugar-stripes. Even the Yakuza don’t mess with them. Especially that one.” He lifted his head above the grass for a careful, lengthy stare. “Yep, that’s old Vesuvius. The coyotes nicknamed him that because he’s liable to erupt without warning.”
Nilambari studied the motionless lump. “He appears to be sleeping.” She sniffed again. That blood scent made her uneasy. “Perhaps he’s recently fed. I hope he didn’t eat all the fish.”
“He wouldn’t doze off right in the open like that,” Rick muttered. “He’s too canny for that. Something’s effed up here. Stay put.”
Rick shifted back to mountain lion and threaded his way down the slope in a wide spiral, edging ever closer to the bear. Nilambari snorted. Stay put, while he faced a bear on his own? Her tiger form outweighed his mountain lion. In America she-cats faced danger at the sides of their mates. Mrs. McMahon had told her that. She’d married a carnivore, so she must know what she was talking about.
With a shiver of skin and muscle Nilambari became a tiger again. She stalked her way down the slope toward the bear, in a more direct line than Rick’s circuitous route.
Nevertheless he reached the bear before she did. It made no move or sound at his approach, and Nilambari quickly realized why. As she drew nearer the ugly gashes in the animal’s neck and flank became apparent. Vesuvius had vented his last eruption.
Rick had already turned human. Nilambari rose up on two legs and walked upright the rest of the way. “It’s dead?”
“Yeah.” His mouth was hard, his eyes thin and troubled. He swept his stare around the immediate area, the crushed grass, the torn-up earth, the scattered blood and hair. “Looks like he ran into something ornerier than he was.”
Her throat had gone dry. Up close, the bear was larger than those she’d known in India. The beast was huge. So were its paws, and the vicious claws that tipped them. Even a tiger would be hard-pressed to defend itself against so much well-armed muscle.
She swallowed hard. “Tigers?”
“I can’t tell for sure. The scent’s disguised. Whatever it was, it was singular. He was headed for the water, coming from the north. Looks like Vesuvius charged him.” Rick poked gingerly at a particularly nasty gash in the bear’s neck. “I don’t think he was looking for a fight, but he sure gave a helluva—wait a minute. This shouldn’t be like … holy scat.”
The tone of his voice set her hackled on edge. “What is it?”
“I don’t believe this. Look at how his head’s lying here. It could be a tiger—there’s plenty of claw marks, but that isn’t what killed him. Whatever tussled with this old boy turned human and got a chokehold on him. This bear’s neck was snapped.”
He backed away from the bear. His eyes scanned the slopes, the trees. “How many tigers do you know are tough enough to take on a quarter-ton of rampaging grizzly bare-handed? No pun intended.”
“None,” she said shakily. She wasn’t laughing, and neither was Rick. The Yakuza were trained fighters, but this—Yakuza training didn’t prepare one for battling bears in the wild. This had been accomplished by a force of nature.
There had been whispered tales back home of those in Shere’s Khan entourage. A personal killer, a monster of a tiger, white and cold as Siberian snows. It was said he was relentless, and that he never failed.
Surely Ravi had given up. Surely he would not have gone so far …
In a panic she looked at Rick, so strong and supple and wise in the ways of his mountain, but so much smaller than a tiger. “We need to go. Now. Quickly.”
“Yeah.” With a final study of the story told in the twisted earth, Rick shifted to cat and bounded off through the grass. The tigress followed, silent and afraid.
# # #
Far above, concealed by the drooping boughs of firs, Sergei watched the cats approach the bear and read the signs of the fight. As he watched, he checked the scrapes on his shoulder and the bandaged rent on his thigh. Both had stopped bleeding, but it wouldn’t hurt to change the dressings again before he moved on.
He’d had no quarrel with the bear. He thought he’d given it a wide enough berth, but the beast had attacked him anyway, leaving him no choice. In the end the fight had proven fortunate. In death the bear had made excellent bait. And look what it had drawn in.
“So you’ve found a protector,” he murmured, his icy blue eyes following the tigress. He shot his glance ahead of her, to the mountain lion. The native cat would be small as a cub beside his Siberian tiger form. Not much protection there.
They’d come from high up on the northwestern slope. The lion must have a den up there. Time to start digging.
Sergei rose leisurely, ignoring the twinge of his wounds. “You fought well,” he addressed the bear. “I thank you.” Seconds later a white tiger sauntered into the brush, instantly lost among the shadows.