|Photo by Mike Searson.|
by Ian Cooper
Penn Newburgh studied the track up close.
He rose carefully to avoid a crick in the knee. The mud was still soft, and the print was still plastic on the thin edges of raised areas.
About half the size of one of his own paws, that was one big cat.
Chickadees and rustling small birds in the underbrush chirped and called.
That was one mighty big track, and all he had with him today was the little instamatic pocket snapshot and video camera.
It would have to do.
The morning was rapidly warming. Penn unscrewed the top of the water-bottle and had a careful swig, the first he had taken. In long pants, boots, sweater and windbreaker, he was already warmed up. There was no way he could blend in with jeans and a light top, but he could at least be quiet.
One single panther track. He was on the right bank of the river, heading downstream. The terrain was undulating, with numerous creeks and watercourses coming in from the right. They drained to the left, but in the bottom of the hollows there would always be more mud.
He sauntered on, keeping his ears cocked and looking around behind him as he went, this being a fairly wise precaution for one alone out here.
There had been a black bear sighting around these parts, two or three years ago.
The poor thing probably hadn’t lasted very long. He reckoned up the hazards, highways and side-roads, all of them 80 kph, farm dogs, men with guns. Traps, wire fences, and limited forest cover. Unless the bear was subsisting on small game, for the area had berries in season, but a bear required a large territory. That’s just what it wouldn’t have around here in farming country.
It would have been all boxed in.
The woodland trail wound through patches of scrubby deciduous trees, interspersed with what were clearly plantations of conifers, the rows distinctly straight and the age of the trees pretty uniform. What looked inviting at first glance, perhaps good shelter from a light rain under there, was a tangle of dead and interlocking dry branches. The sun was out, and there were cotton-ball puffs of cumulus all over the sky. The grass didn’t even grow under the pines, there was no light. The soil was too acidic or something, the ground a red and grey carpet of pine needles and the tiny thin branches that fell off the underside. Dry and sheltered as it was, it seemed to take a long time to rot, but then it was resinous as well…
He wound his way over a small water-course, using rocks and gravel bars. It was too small to be called a creek, but deep enough in places and with crystal-clear water running over dark rocks. Penn took control over his breathing and began the next rise. There were half a dozen hills and valleys along here.
If anything, it seemed hotter out, and it had only just been four or five minutes since the last little incline. It wasn’t even hill country. It was just rivers and creeks eroding a plain. He paused, considered the water bottle, but thought better of it. He pulled out the camera. He turned it on and checked the settings. Under the trees, flash might be good, out in the broad light of day it was unnecessary. It also burned up a lot of juice.
The card could hold two hundred and sixty pictures, more or less. He already had a few shots on there.
He carried on up the slope, with a thin screen of young birches on his right. They were leaning out across the trail and towards the warm spring sun.
Penn had fallen into his habitual bush-walking mode, looking where he was going, checking under his feet all the time and carefully rolling his steps along in the cleanest patches. Looking back, it looked like he’d come fifty or sixty metres from the slowly-draining swamp. Every so often his step would crunch or crackle under him, but for the most part he was pretty silent.
He stood there for while. He listened, enjoying the soft spring air and the sound of wind in the treetops.
It was the sound of serenity.
He took out his pipe, half a plug still in the bottom of it, and relit it with a gas lighter. Penn was shaded by the thick clumps of birch, verdant and green, with grass thick underfoot and tall weeds to his left. There was sweat in his armpits, sure enough. There were some sort of high-bush berries to his left, but he never ate nothing out in the woods.
It was just as well, really.
Further down the trail curved to his right and then dropped over the crest.
Penn moseyed on up the last four or five feet of elevation, pulling his camera out of his pocket again, with the pipe firmly clasped in his mouth. Tongues of blue smoke rolled back down behind him and he figured that was all right.
Things coming up from behind him might be alerted, made wary by it, and things up ahead wouldn’t know he was coming. Going into the wind meant his little noises wouldn’t give him away so easily. He’d learned that as a boy.
There were tall trees on both sides down below. The impression was of dark forest with the pale boles of the trees sweeping up to dizzying heights above, belying the slenderness of some inner-forest trunks. Maples and some other trees were impressive in that regard—a six-inch tree might be forty feet tall, petering out finally into a thin frond of matchstick-sized twigs.
The pipe went out so he stuck it back in his upper jacket pocket, which already stank from such prior treatment.
Something moved down below.
Still in shadow, Penn squinted. It was just a flash of something dull and yet lighter in the gloomy woods below his position. There was plenty of brush and trees along the trail. He half-bent, and moved forward twenty or thirty metres, keeping low to the wall of tall weeds, two metres tall in some places. It was immediately to his left.
Cautiously raising his head, he saw nothing moving. It was just that one quick glimpse he had.
He stood up all the way. Using mostly his eyes, he swept the forest, bright enough once your eyes adjusted, and open inside in spite of its triple-canopy nature. There was a mature oak down below, which tended to create a brighter clearing under the sweeping wide branches. He couldn’t see a darned thing. Maybe it was just a squirrel or something, in a shaft of sunshine your eyes might play tricks on you.
Squirrels didn’t have that tawny colour, and a deer would have stuck up higher. He also had the impression of a tuft of white—but it was too darned quick to be a deer. They tended to thump through the ground as well, especially when they got excited and bounded away. They could jump ten feet straight up around here, at least that was his opinion.
He’d seen them do it.
Letting out his breath, he relaxed and moved further down to the level flats in the bed of the ravine. There was another seeping mucky place, and jumping from hummock to hummock took skill and luck. He managed it without a soaker, after discovering halfway across that it was bigger than it looked.
Rather than despair, he’d backed off after a couple of humps and looked at it like checkers. There were only so many moves you could make, and only one had any promise.
He was moving along the edge of the morass to pick up the end of the trail again when he saw it.
Another track. Penn pulled reading glasses out of his buttoned shirt pocket and a plastic bag out of his left rear jeans pocket.
Putting the bag down flat on the ground, he carefully knelt on it, and then took a good hard look at the spoor.
He could have sworn it was brand-new—like right now. His head came up and he looked around.
It was definitely going downhill, sort of southwest. It was roughly the same size as the first one…he looked a few feet further up, remaining where he was though.
There were a couple of indistinct smudges in the soft black earth, but then something must have disturbed the leaves there. He was listening intently, a big cat was a heavy animal after all. If it didn’t see him first, it would have no idea of his presence…
The forest floor was littered with twigs, branches, leaves, and sucking wet mud, but still. What were the odds?
He straightened up, stayed on his knees and did a thorough three-sixty sweep of the immediate area, twisting carefully to take it all in. The crickets were still there, something buzzed and droned in a shrub nearby, and the birds still seemed cheerful and busy. Fifty metres off to the southwest, a blue jay creaked. He’d always thought it sounded like a clothesline pulley, badly in need of oil. His mom used to hang out the laundry, but no one ever did that anymore.
There was nothing there—hopefully. Big cats were notoriously hard to spot, even close in.
With all senses on high alert, Penn lowered his face for another look.
He nudged the pointy bit of mud where it had come up between the toes. It was thin, and still a little rubbery.
Two feet in front of his face, something moved. His middle-aged eyes wandered a bit, and so he put on the glasses again. If that wasn’t a bit of cat-fur, a dozen strands waving in the thin eddies of air in the underbrush, well, then he was a monkey’s uncle. The cat must have slid past the prickly milkweed pods and lost some of its no longer welcome winter coat. They’d be shedding about now.
Penn stood up.
The camera, in and out and in and out of his pocket all the time, came out and stayed out. The glasses went in and stayed in. Penn checked the settings again and then zoomed the lens halfway out.
That would have to do for now, but if he did see anything, half a second of time might make all the difference in the world.
Penn stood at the bottom of the next hill and thought about it. He saw a track back there, and now the second set of tracks right here…the animal was following the trail. It was the easiest path. The path of least resistance. Quicker and more maneuverable under the trees, it was crossing at different places than he was, probably farther uphill, but it had to cross the dribs and drabs of mucky creek just as well as Penn.
He glanced at his watch and took another small sip of water, still thinking of the terrain ahead.
Where would that animal be going, or an even better question, if it stayed on its present course…where would it come out? Where might it end up?
Because the main river, off to his left and down below, switched back in a long series of foaming rapids, and when he thought about it, it was just on the other side of yonder hill. The cat was following the river valley, darting up the occasional gulley and ravine in search of prey.
There were all kinds of deer tracks along over there, Penn recalled. Probably some wild turkeys, possum, rabbit, squirrels, and all of that sort of thing.
If he was a big cat, then it would definitely be a part of his established routine…he might go along pretty regular. Just as Penn, who’d taken some good pictures in this valley, and who also came along…pretty darned regular.
Maybe the odds weren’t so bad after all.
The hill was a couple of hundred feet, not exactly straight up. There was a gently rounded crest, with low green grass, and it was fully treed with oaks and maples. Just on the other side came a small ledge of limestone, what passed for a cliff around here, and then it was downhill all the way again.
The roar of the cataracts grew louder.
He’d done it. He was almost sure he had done it, although he had made some noise.
He watched, frozen in time and with his heart beating hard. It took a moment or two to get his breath down again. Finally he sort of relaxed. Or tried to. It took some doing.
Flat on his belly on a small bluff of clay, looking down along the bank of a sizable creek that came out of the hills and dropped through several small but scenic waterfalls, Penn saw something unmistakably move.
There were dappled patches of sunlight this time of year, even in the darkest depths of the small gorge up there, and something had just moved through one.
Penn zoomed the camera all the way in. Looking at a screen on the back wasn’t the same as a telescopic lens, not by a long shot, and in fact he couldn’t even find that particular place on the screen. It was one little patch of gold in a scene that was olive coloured, bright yellow patches, and otherwise mostly grey and black.
He kept on eye on it, and one on the clearest part. It was not exactly a trail but not exactly not a trail either…there it was again. It was hard to watch two things at once.
Penn controlled his breathing, and lowered himself in total relaxation for thirty seconds.
The thing would get here on its own time…he had no choice but to look up as they could cover a lot of ground in a hurry sometimes.
He didn’t’ want to miss anything.
There was the cougar.
It was walking in shadow, and while the shape of the ears and the tail flicking back and forth, the feet moving were clear enough, it was still indistinct. There were all kinds of low weeds, thistles, the ubiquitous milkweeds screening it badly.
It was too far off. It was headed this way. The trail went right past him on the right. In a pinch, he would drop off the bluff and run into the river…oh, God.
Light and shadow played over the animal as it sauntered along, looking right and left, mouth open most of the time and tongue up high, in the middle of its mouth. It wasn’t hunting, it was going somewhere, he thought. If a rabbit ran out right about now, he’d be off like a shot, though.
It was still too far away.
He exhaled carefully. He might only get one chance, and he had little doubt the thing would bolt. That thing had to be two or three hundred pounds.
He knew he wouldn’t be completely silent, it was impossible.
Penn brought in his left elbow and carefully planted it…now the right.
He counted to three.
His torso came up, the screen of thin grass a foot high dropped away, and through a group of stalks, creepers and thin saplings, he saw the animal moving, still coming along the trail. Penn lifted very slowly, praying for his joints not to crack. He was crouching hunched-over, on his knees and shins and feet, legs splayed out a bit, just praying for one good shot.
Penn looked at the set-up. A few more steps and the cat would be at a relatively clear space where he could get a better look.
There. He pushed the button.
The camera did its thing and he watched with pounding pulse.
The lithe power of the creature astounded him. It had been years since he’d seen one in a zoo, and this was a first for Penn.
He hadn’t been this scared in a long time.
He waited, watching it go by and then hit the button again when it came to a patch of light in a spot with a clear view.
He must have let out a small grunt or something. The animal whirled and it was coming.
“Ah!” The great gasp was torn out of him.
It had no hesitation. It moved like liquid grace, and it was unbelievably fast…shouldering aside the measly saplings and fretwork of brush with power and intention written all over it. The cat had seen the mouse.
It was that quick.
That big face was three feet away from Penn’s face.
His hand convulsively clicked off one more shot, even as his heart stopped dead.
“Please don’t eat me.”
The shoulders came up, the chin went down. The eyes watched him. There was a long growl.
Penn was shaking uncontrollably, still holding that danged camera up in front of him like a shield, when the cougar raised one paw, the right, and slapped at it, luckily for Penn with claws retracted, and the thing was knocked out of his hand.
Penn backed up convulsively, falling backwards out over the gravelly shoreline and the last thing he saw was the cat going the other way, out the other side of his low cover.
He was right on the edge of the stream, which was hopeless anyway as it was only six or eight inches deep along here…he crouched there, staring upwards.
It was a few minutes before he could scrape up the nerve to go looking for the camera.
The first shot was the best, although it was pretty far away. When he zoomed in on the image, it was a bit indistinct; however it was his best shot. In the indifferent lighting, in his excitement, the pictures were shaky and a little bit dark.
The last one was the face, right up close and that one was blurry as all hell. It was enough to prove the story though—the pictures, all of them, were essentially unusable.
Three shots. Unusable.
Penn was fifty metres from the car park, walking along and reviewing his experience in marvellous detail. He became aware of another person.
“Hello.” She was a nice blonde lady, with a good camera and a really long lens hanging on a stout black strap around her neck. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
“Hi. Ah, yes, it’s wonderful.” He stopped as she approached, silhouetted to some extent by the bright end of the tunnel where the woods ended and civilization began again.
He supposed he’d better mention it.
“I think I should tell you something.”
Puffing a little from the initial part of her walk, the lady looked at him inquiringly through hazel eyes that were clear and intelligent looking.
“There’s a cougar in the vicinity.” Her eyes widened and Penn blushed for some reason.
She clutched his arm, looking all serious and impressed with this information.
“Really? I had no idea.”
“Oh, yeah, I just saw the thing. Really, it’s not a good idea to go in there alone. Probably not today, anyway.”
She wasn’t stupid, he could see that. He was just sort of scratching his head, figuratively speaking, trying to think of what else to say.
“I got a couple of pictures. Three pictures. My camera’s not very good.” Penn whipped it out and turned it on.
He hit the appropriate control and showed her the first image.
“Oh, my.” She grabbed his arm again, this time with both hands as she gasped and marveled.
She stood close at his side, which he didn’t mind at all. She wasn’t hard to look at.
“Not really. I thought I might crap myself there for a moment—” Where that one came from Penn would never know, but she covered her mouth with a hand for a moment and then laughed out loud.
He inclined his head and took another look.
He didn’t quite know what to say to that one.
She was still holding his arm.
“So, uh, really…”
“Ha! No, ah, no. I really don’t want to meet that thing. I like cats, but I don’t want to meet that one.”
She gave him a serious look.
“You know what I was thinking?” She turned, changing over to a grip on his right hand and leading him off towards the parking area.
“Ah, no. Mary-Beth. What are you thinking?”
“I was thinking if you really like taking pictures of cougars all that much…well. Well…”
The breeze was gone under the thickest of the forest, and it seemed that all the world awaited with bated breath. That included Penn himself.
“Well, you could come over to my place and have a couple of beers and maybe tell me more about your adventures sometime…”
His jaw dropped and he stopped. She turned to look at him, not letting go.
He stared at her for a second, having been unable, so far, to ignore the fact that she had pretty darned nice legs sticking out the bottom of her khaki bush shorts, and she wasn’t overly heavy in the posterior either.
If you like taking pictures of cougars so much you can come on over to my house and have a couple of beers…tell me about your adventures…
That’s what the lady said, Penn.
“So it’s a date then?”
He grinned, licking his lips as they were a bit parched right about now, and desperately tried to think of some kind of reasonable comeback.
“Buy me a six-pack and I’ll follow you anywhere, Mary-Beth.”
Her smile was worth the toil, that was about the one thing old Penn could say for sure.
This woman was going to eat him alive.
Worse things could happen, eh.