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.
As they fell toward the road, the cougar zeroed in on Paula. Feeling needle sharp teeth ripping the back of her neck she realized the cougar was mauling her as they dropped through the air.
When a cougar attacks it jumps onto the back of its prey trying to topple the animal. It makes its kill by attacking the throat, crushing the larynx to suffocate the victim, severing the carotid arteries going to the brain. These vessels run up both sides of the neck and when torn death comes fast.
At first, the only sounds were the startled scream of the horse and the growling of a cougar on a killing mission. Time stood still for everyone. Janie from below and Katie from above watched the toppling mass of flesh trying to devour itself on its way to its death. As the snarling mass hit the bottom of the ravine, they heard a thump, killing Brownie instantly. The force of the fall mercifully snapped his neck. There was a twanging sound from the barbed wire, which partly decapitated the horse when it fell on top of the razor sharp fencing. But Paula and the cougar were still alive. The cougar tumbled and rolled off the dying horse but Paula couldn’t. Her right leg was pinned under the dead weight. Her foot was caught in the stirrup, and her leg was smashed between the leather saddle and the ground. The cat recovered from its tumble and was instantly on all four feet prowling a death circle around the victim.
The shock of the sudden attack and the plummet down the cliff made Paula dumb for a moment. Now her screams filled the air. The big cat jumped onto her and opened his mouth wide clamping down firmly on her neck tugging at her head attempting to pull her out from under the horse. Steady and with determination he continued pulling at her gently enough to keep the head on but powerful enough to drag her. Paula screamed in terror and pain as the cat released and readjusted for a deeper stronger bite.
When her foot and leg came free, the beast pulled Paula to its killing site ready to finish the flailing mess off. Paula struggled to scream as the cat overpowered her dragging her by her neck away from the horse. Moving her slowly to the collection point he continued to release his grip and re-grab around her neck. Paula could feel his bites moving from the back of her neck to the front of her face.
Next the unthinkable happened. The cougar bit down on her left ear, pulled backward, and tore the ear from her skull. He gripped down again on the left side of her face, and she could feel the skin of her face tear away.
Screaming, kicking, flailing on the ground, there was a brief moment when Paula wondered if she wanted to live any longer. She knew she would never look normal again. But she remembered her son, and she knew she must fight to the death. Her renewed strength made the cougar pause. And at that moment Janie overcame her shock, raced in and grabbed Paula’s foot to slow the cat’s progress, hoping to gain enough time for help to arrive. She refused to stand there and watch her friend be eaten.
Lunging further forward Janie grabbed Paula's calf and started a tug of war with Paula in the middle. As the lion pulled Paula toward the ravine on the other side of the fence, Janie pulled back digging both heels into the ground to slow his progress.
The cougar changed tactics and moved from the left side of Paula’s face to the front of her throat. He closed down his grip, and within a matter of seconds, things went black for Paula. The cat blocked Paula’s airway. If she couldn't breathe, she would die.
When the tug of war started, Katie knew she must do something. Panicked and scared to death she jumped off Candybar and scrambled down the slippery cliff side, half falling, half-rolling to the bottom. Looking around for some weapon she picked up three hardball-sized rocks and threw them at the cougar as hard as she could. The first one hit him in the rear flank, the second one hit his shoulder, and the third one hit him square in the head. Startled he released his grip and looked at his two adversaries. Katie threw another rock at him, and he gave up, running up the hillside disappearing over the edge they had fallen from.
Janie started screaming hysterically. “David! David! Get here now!”
Katie knelt over Paula trying to help her friend, who was moaning and sliding in and out of consciousness. Fresh red, warm blood flowed from beneath the large flap of moving skin that was most of Paula’s face and ear. Katie knew the moaning was good. It meant the airway wasn't crushed; Paula could still breath.
Katie picked up a piece of yellow cloth from the ground, the torn shirt from the bicyclist. Ripping the lower portion apart she fashioned a makeshift bonnet, to keep the face and scalp pieces in place.
Janie jumped on Lennie and raced down the road past the barns yelling to Rory and David. They were outside cleaning the BBQ setup.
“Take your truck to the front road! Paula’s hurt! Get her to the hospital.”
She continued up the hill to the house to tell Tom the news. He came out holding the baby.
“Paula’s hurt; she’s down on the front road. Take your car; I’ll watch Todd. Get down there now Tom!”
David and Rory arrived in David's truck, and Rory jumped out and knelt down next to Katie.
“We need to get to the hospital Rory,” she said quietly. “Let’s see if we can get her up.”
Rory and David lifted her while Katie steadied the bandage on her head. They were carrying her to the truck when Tom drove up.
“Oh good. The car is much better. Help us put Paula in your back seat, Tom. Rory will show you the way to the hospital.” Katie slipped into the back-bench seat and cradled Paula while Rory directed Tom. Rory jumped out when Tom pulled into the emergency area. He returned with a gurney and three hospital aides. They lowered Paula to the cart and brought her in followed by Tom and Katie.
Rory held back and watched them disappear through the emergency room doors. Tom left the keys in the car, so Rory moved it away from the entrance and parked it. He felt oddly at ease and then it hit him. Katie’s eyes told him Paula would be okay; her calm made it possible to focus on Paula. That was it. When he went into the hospital to find them, he hung back in the shadows and watched her work her magic on her friend. Katie saw him back there, caught his gaze, and nodded. She was in charge, and all would be well. Rory could see the hózhǫ́ she exuded. Suddenly the power of this unseen force was evident to him. She looked down, squeezed Paula’s hand, and came to talk with him.
Audiobook coming soon