Katie and Janie went down first to saddle the horses while Paula showed Tom the things Todd needed.
“We have Candybar, Brownie, and Lennie. Who do you want to ride Katie?”
“I’ll try Candybar. I’m curious as to why she was acting up for Rory. I want to see what she’s all about.”
“Did he complain about her yesterday?”
“No, she’s probably fine now. Maybe she was in heat.”
“Ok, I’ll take Lennie. He needs to calm down. He’s developed some insecurities I want to work on."
Lennie swung around when Janie tried to mount, but she was an experienced rider, and once in the saddle she took control. “God dammit Lennie! Stop it!” Janie whipped him with the end of her rein, pulled it hard to her right, and spun him to a stop. “I'm going to go ahead. We have a little disciplining to do.”
"No worries. I'm waiting on Paula." Katie watched as Janie pushed her obstinate mount into a gallop down the road.
"I need to work this shit out of him; I'll meet you at the glen," Janie yelled over her shoulder as Lennie took off down the road.
Katie nodded and chuckled.
"Where's she going?" Paula asked.
"Making Lennie mind better. Janie said to saddle up and head toward the place Rory and I went last night."
"Through the culvert under the highway. Follow me."
Katie and Paula trotted past the corrals. Katie pushed her horse forward but steered loosely assuming Candybar knew the way. She was one of Rory’s favorites, the type that just went with the flow, kept a level head, and listened for cues.
“Which way Katie?” The road splits. To the left was a scenic uphill; the other was along the road following the creek. “Brownie wants to take me to the left. Do you think we should go this way?”
“No difference, the paths meet up ahead a quarter mile. Just let him go up the hill. I'll follow.”
Katie liked this higher hill route; it allowed glimpses of the ocean to her left, and she could watch Janie run Lennie back and forth along the drive below them.
At the top, they found half of the hill had eroded away into a cliff face. Thirty feet down they could see the stream that had caused the erosion, running next to the road at the bottom of the cliff.
As Paula spurred Brownie, she heard Janie yell to her from below. She stopped at the edge of the hillside. Janie was turned around on the main road thirty feet below. Paula pulled Brownie’s reins and eased him closer to the steep edge.
“We’re up here Janie, no worries,” she yelled. “We’ll meet at the Y near the highway.”
“There’s a man's shirt here and a bicycle helmet on the ground!" Janie yelled. "Can you see anything from up there?”
Paula looked around and didn’t see anything at first. She looked up the road. “Oh, there it is! There's a bike up there a hundred feet in front of you Janie.”
Janie dismounted and was kneeling on the ground holding Lennie’s reins. “What else do you see?” Paula hollered down.
“Blood and drag marks, Paula. They go up the hill.” Janie stood up and could see the bent plants. The broken grasses and shrubs that gave way indicated something had been dragged through. Janie saw the bloody trail wind up the side to where Paula was standing. It sent a horrible chill through her.
“Paula! Look around carefully. You and Brownie are standing at the top of a blood trail; it looks fresh. Walk away slowly… do it now! I’m sure something's watching us.”
From up ahead, Katie heard the urgency in Janie's voice and turned around to listen and watch. But for Brownie and Paula, it was already too late. As Paula eased away from the cliff edge, she saw a flash of movement over her left shoulder. The cougar jumped from a nearby oak branch, moving with such force the air around Paula seemed to shudder. The cat hit some smaller branches, which deflected its full-on frontal assault. He was aiming for Paula, but the deflection made him come in too low. Brownie squealed in terror and pain when the talons dug into him. The snarling cat used his front claws to get a firm hold on the horse’s left side grabbing into horseflesh for purchase to keep from falling. One paw landed in front of the saddle, the other one behind it. Its claws were digging firmly into the muscles underneath the skin.
Brownie screamed in pain. Horses are flight animals, and every instinct told him to run, flee, to get the hell out of there. He jumped forward and shuddered to try to shake the cat loose. With both front paws secured deep into the horse, the cougar lifted his hind feet and used his rear claws to ratchet himself up the brown wall of flesh. At first, the cat stayed on, negotiating itself into a stronger stance from which to strike. When it was almost to the top of the horse’s back the cat aimed for Paula trying to clamp its teeth around her neck. Brownie collapsed to his right side in agonizing pain. Screaming out at the painful shredding stabs he tumbled over the edge of the thirty-foot cliff. Paula and the cat fell with him still tangling atop the horse.